Walcheren 1809: the mystery of the missing memorandum

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The Walcheren Expedition of 1809, which Lord Chatham infamously commanded, was unquestionably a disaster. Although the British managed to take the islands of Walcheren and South Beveland, they failed to get to Antwerp, the ultimate objective, to destroy the fortifications there and the French and Dutch fleet.

Most seriously of all, the army was rendered completely useless by a violent illness known as “Walcheren Fever”, thought to be a combination of malaria, typhoid, typhus and dysentery. Of the 39,219 men sent to the Scheldt River basin, 11,296 were on the sick lists by the time the inquiry was underway. 3,960 were dead. The British Army suffered from the recurring effects of “Walcheren fever” until the end of the war.

Not long after the last soldier had been landed back in Britain in January 1810, the House of Commons formed itself into committee to inquire into whose bright idea it had been to send nearly 40,000 of Britain’s best (i.e., only) troops to a pestilential swamp at the height of the unhealthy season.

Careers were at stake, and nobody wanted to own up. Chatham, the military commander, was nevertheless pretty sure he knew who was most to blame for what had happened. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t him. Contrary to what nearly every historian of the campaign has tried to argue, however, it wasn’t his naval counterpart, Sir Richard Strachan, either.

Chatham wasn’t very successful at fighting accusations of his sloth and incompetence, and he eventually ended up with most of the blame for the campaign’s failure, even if the Walcheren inquiry technically cleared him of wrongdoing. In my opinion, however, one aspect of Chatham’s evidence has been overlooked: his indictment of the Board of Admiralty, under the First Lord, Earl Mulgrave.

Henry Lord Mulgrave

Lord Mulgrave

After the inquiry was over, Chatham wrote a series of memoranda defending his conduct on Walcheren and during the parliamentary proceedings that followed. These memoranda reveal Chatham’s conviction that Mulgrave had been trying to cover up the Admiralty’s role in planning the expedition for months.

By April 1810, when he probably wrote these memoranda, Chatham was as paranoid as it is possible for a man to be. Nor was he the least bit impartial in the matter. And yet there is some evidence that the Admiralty – a highly organised political body, and one with which Chatham (a former First Lord himself) was extremely familiar – did indeed try to conceal evidence from the inquiry.

One very important piece of information was only laid before the inquiry at all on 1 March 1810, and only because Chatham’s testimony had drawn public attention to it. This was a memorandum, written on 19 June 1809 at the Admiralty Office, entitled “Respecting the Practicability of effecting a Landing between Sandfleet [Sandvliet] and Fort Lillo”. (Sandfleet, or Sandvliet, being the place where the British Army was meant to land on the continent, nine miles from Antwerp; Lillo being one of the two forts straddling the point at which the Scheldt River narrowed before the dockyards.)

CaptureThe belatedly-published memorandum quoted two naval officers, Sir Home Popham (one of the planners of the expedition) and Captain Robert Plampin, both saying they had both been to Antwerp in the 1790s and thought there would be no problem in landing a large body of men between Lillo and Sandvliet. On that basis, the Opinion made the following statement:

The Board of Admiralty having made inquiry respecting the practicability of effecting a Landing between the point of Sandfleet and Fort Lillo … are prepared … to undertake that the troops shall be conveyed, when the Island of Beveland, including Bathz is in our possession, to the Dyke between Fort Lillo and Sandfleet, and landed, as far as the question of Landing depends on the nature of the place, with relation to the approach to the shore of boats and other vessels capable of receiving troops.[1]

Why was this so mysterious? Because Chatham remembered this memorandum rather differently from the form in which it was published for the inquiry.

According to Chatham, the Cabinet had only approved the expedition in the first place after the Admiralty Board had issued this Opinion as a guarantee that a large fleet could carry twenty thousand men up the West Scheldt and land them at Sandvliet. This was in response to doubts voiced by Chatham himself – doubts formed after discussions with military officers who had been to Sandvliet and told him an army could not be landed there. Since the whole plan hinged on landing at Sandvliet, Chatham rather reasonably told the Cabinet he would not undertake to sanction his own expedition unless the Admiralty could prove the military men wrong: “This last Point I considered as a sine qua non [which] … must be placed beyond all doubt, to warrant the undertaking the enterprize [sic].”[2] Mulgrave’s response was the 19 June memorandum, which circulated through the Cabinet the day after it was drawn up.

Chatham remembered it as being signed by the three professional Lords of the Admiralty. In 1809, these would have been Sir Richard Bickerton, William Domett, and Robert Moorsom.

Chatham’s assertions are to an extent backed up by official correspondence. Following the mid-June cabinet meeting, Castlereagh informed the King of the need to postpone preparing for the expedition until “the practicability of a Landing at Sandfleet [sic] can be assured”. Two days after the circulation of the 19 June Opinion, Castlereagh wrote: “Under the sanction of this opinion … Your Majesty’s confidential servants … feel it their duty humbly to recommend to Your Majesty that the operation should be undertaken”. Castlereagh edited out the line “should the Immediate object be abandon’d”, which suggests that the viability of a Sandvliet landing was indeed the make-or-break feature – to borrow Chatham’s words, the sine qua non – of the expedition going ahead.[3]

All this corroborates Chatham’s account completely, except for one detail. Three copies of the Opinion exist, one in the Castlereagh MSS at PRONI (D3030/3241-3) and two in the National Archives (ADM 3/168). None is signed. The copies of the Opinion that remain are therefore no more than that – an opinion. They were unofficial, and could not be claimed to form the basis of any Cabinet decision to undertake the expedition.

Did Chatham simply misremember the opinion? This is the opinion of Carl Christie, who deals with the 19 June Opinion thoroughly in his excellent thesis on the Walcheren expedition. “The suspicion is that his memory was playing tricks on him”, Christie writes, and concludes that he “misinterpreted the Admiralty opinion”.[4] But Chatham clearly wasn’t the only one who did so, as Castlereagh’s letters to the King show above.

The question, therefore, is whether a signed Opinion ever existed. We only have Chatham’s word for this; but it does seem unlikely that the Cabinet would have made the important decision to proceed with the expedition on the basis of the opinion of two subordinate naval officers. (Popham in particular had a track record of leading British troops into madcap schemes that often went wrong, as the Buenos Aires expedition of 1806 demonstrates).

Castlereagh later played down the importance of the opinion: at the inquiry, when questioned about it, he seemed confused as to which memorandum Chatham had intended to single out, and fudged the issue by saying there was a paper “which I may have seen in circulation, with the names of three [Admiralty] lords attached to it, but I rather imagine that it is the same paper as that which is dated the 9th of June”. But the Admiralty opinion of 9 June 1809 was on a completely different topic, and had also been drawn up prior to the Cabinet meeting to which Chatham referred.[5]

There is, however, one further possibility: that Chatham’s memory was not faulty at all, and that the opinion he saw was different from the printed version. The accusation that the Admiralty later cherry-picked the evidence laid before the Walcheren inquiry to play down its role in the planning, indeed, seems to form the thrust of Chatham’s memorandum. He did not come outright and say so, but he came close when he asserted:

An attempt was made in the course of the Enquiry, to question the existence of this Document, and they [the Admiralty] never would produce it, but they did not venture to call the Sea Lords [to give evidence], and with them the question whether they had not signed such a Paper and delivered to Lord Mulgrave, to be shewn to ye Cabinet.[6]

So where is the signed version of the Opinion the Admiralty failed to produce? Did it ever exist? Castlereagh’s evidence, vague as it was, certainly suggests that it did. Chatham was certainly convinced the Admiralty was covering its back at his expense. Was he right?

We will probably never know.

References

[1] Parliamentary Papers 1810 (89), “Respecting the Practicability of effecting a Landing between Sandfleet and Fort Lillo”

[2] Memorandum by Chatham, PRO 30/8/260 f. 100

[3] Castlereagh to the King, draft, 14 June 1809, PRONI Castlereagh MSS D3030/3137. The 15 June copy that was sent is printed in Aspinall V, 298

[4] Carl A. Christie, “The Walcheren Expedition of 1809” (PhD, University of Dundee, 1975), pp. 126, 131

[5] Testimony of Lord Castlereagh, 13 March 1810, Parliamentary Debates XV, Appendix 5xxii-iv

[6] Memorandum by Chatham, undated, National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/260 f 100

The Diary of Colonel Thomas Carey, 27 February 1810

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Image from here

And now for something (not entirely) completely different… I wrote this short fiction piece as a guest post for another blog a couple of years ago. I had hoped to put it up yesterday (27 February), as the anniversary of the event in question, but it took a little while to find the document.

Those of you who’ve read The Late Lord will know Thomas Carey was Lord Chatham’s military secretary at Walcheren. I’d much like to know more about him.

Oh, and I didn’t make any of this up.

***

Lord Chatham was called up again to appear before the Committee. He had been dreading it very much; certain members of the Committee had previously fastened upon His Lordship’s explanatory narrative of his conduct, which he had delivered to the King without submitting to the Secretary of State for War. This action the opposition to government supposed to be unconstitutional.

I saw His Lordship after breakfast. He had eaten nothing; I suppose he could not. “Will they mention it again, do you suppose?”

I had no doubt they would, but I said only, “I understand from Mr Huskisson the intention is to examine matters of strategy today.”

In the afternoon I accompanied His Lordship to the House. He was called almost immediately to the Bar, where a chair had been set up for him beneath the galleries, as before. The tiny chamber was full to bursting. The Chairman, Sir John Anstruther, settled his spectacles on his thin hooked nose and began.

I watched from the lobby. I could not see Lord Chatham’s face but I could tell from his stiff shoulders he was uncomfortable. Still, the questioning began well enough.

“At the start of the expedition, did Your Lordship believe Antwerp might be taken by a coup-de-main?”

“Might Antwerp have been taken by assault?”

“Did Your Lordship confer with your general officers on the adviseability of advancing on Antwerp?”

His Lordship answered all of them, rather curtly, but sensibly. And then the strange gentleman rose, on the left of the empty Speaker’s chair. He looked like he had slept in his clothes. I am fairly certain, from the slurring of his words, that he was drunk.

“I know Antwerp could have been taken by two men and a blunderbuss. Was Your Lordship not aware?”

A silence. My Lord looked across at the gentleman who had spoken. The Chairman coughed and said, “Are there any more questions?”

“Two men and a blunderbuss,” the man repeated, then added, “playing the penny whistle.”

Someone laughed. Lord Chatham shifted visibly in his chair. He took a sip from the wineglass he kept under his chair to wet his dry mouth during the questioning.

“Next question,” the Chairman said, firmly.

“Maybe three men, if one had a wooden leg.”

“Will you be quiet?” Sir John shouted.

I fear it was a mistake.

“God Damn me, sir,” the drunk man said, rising unsteadily to his feet and waving a finger, “I have as much right to be heard as any man who is paid for filling the place he holds.”

The silence was so deep I could hear my own heartbeat. Every man on the Treasury Bench looked as though they were wondering if they had heard aright. The opposition was blank-faced. One of the men standing next to me leaned forwards and muttered to himself, gleefully, “And I thought this would be dull.”

“I fear that language is unparliamentary,” Sir John Anstruther said at last. “Gentlemen, I think the Committee ought to interrupt its proceedings to allow the Speaker back to the chair. He will, no doubt, wish to name this gentleman.”

As I understand, naming a Member of Parliament involves entering their name into the Journals for to record poor behaviour. This gentleman, however, remained ufazed. “You need not be diffident, Sir. My name is Jack Fuller.”

Open laughter now. But when the Speaker returned and ordered the man to withdraw, he refused. The Serjeant at Arms came forward with two assistants to remove him; and then Jack Fuller threw a punch, missed his target, and struck the Member for Wool Downs in the back of the head, knocking him off the bench with a cry.

“Take this man into your custody, Serjeant,” the Speaker called.

Eventually Mr Fuller was carried from the chamber, calling back over his shoulder, “Two men I say! Did you hear me, my lord? Two!”

“Any further questions?” Sir John Anstruther said loudly, when the Speaker had retreated once more.

I hoped the questions would be kind, for I knew Lord Chatham’s nerves were under considerable strain as it was, but unfortunately the first person to stand was Mr Whitbread, from the opposition bench. “When you submitted your narrative to His Majesty, my lord, did you enter into any correspondence with him?”

I had hoped the subject would not come up. I closed my eyes. Lord Chatham replied, tensely, “Merely a cover letter. I have no copy.”

“Did you–” Mr Whitbread began, but he was interrupted. Someone pushed past me roughly, reeking of brandy. It was Mr Fuller. He rushed back into the Chamber, shouting, “You have no authority to take me away! Who do you think you are?”

For once Mr Fuller had perfect timing, and I was almost glad for Lord Chatham’s sake that the course of the questioning had been stalled. He stood and swayed, jabbing his finger at the empty Speaker’s chair. “Where is he? Where is that insignificant little fellow in the silly wig?”

“Serjeant!” Anstruther bellowed.

Before the Serjeant could appear Fuller put his head down and rushed at Sir John. Unfortunately Lord Chatham’s chair was in Fuller’s path. His Lordship had to dive out of the way in alarm; I would wager he would much rather have been fighting the French on Walcheren than facing this mad beast.

The Serjeant-at-Arms ran in with his assistants, and started to chase Jack Fuller round the chamber. Four Messengers followed. Mr Fuller picked up Lord Chatham’s vacant chair and waved it at them.

I do not know how long it took them to catch the man; he was surprisingly nimble for a man in his cups. With the assistance of several gentlemen of the House they eventually managed to draw him out. I could hear him shouting as they dragged him down the stairs to the Serjeant’s chamber: “I only wanted to ask a question!”

“Lord Chatham may withdraw,” Sir John Anstruther said, wiping his brow with a handkerchief. “The Committee will now adjourn.”

His Lordship found me in the Lobby. His face was white and I think, had he not had that glass of wine to support him, his legs may well have collapsed beneath him.

“I think that went well,” I said, aiming to encourage him.

He merely looked at me, and did not reply.

Time to say goodbye…

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I first wrote this post a year ago, when I had just sent off the final MS of The Late Lord to Pen & Sword. I still had months ahead of me of editing and proofs, although I didn’t know that yet. It was all too raw to post, so I didn’t put it up.

Now the book is published and I am genuinely knuckling down to The Next Project, I feel I have a little more distance, even if I still feel very much the same. (I’ve updated the post slightly to reflect the fact I am now post-publication, but it has changed very little.)

So here it is — the moment I realised I had to break up with my book boyfriend.

*

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When I was fifteen years old, I went to see The Madness of King George at the cinema. I loved it. I got sucked into reading more about the politics behind the film, and fate led me to Pitt the Younger. As I struggled through Robin Reilly’s biography of Pitt, something in my head went zing. I had found “the Spark”, that mysterious attraction that grabs me by the lapels and doesn’t let me go.

Twenty years, three history degrees, and countless essays and aborted novels later, I have just published a biography of Pitt’s brother Lord Chatham. If you’d told me even five years ago that I’d be writing Chatham’s biography, I’d have laughed in your face. But the Spark ambushed me again, and this time I’ve got it bad.

I’ve probably been researching Chatham exclusively for half a decade now. Intensively for the past three years, certainly. It’s got to the point where I thrill at the sight of his handwriting, where the mere mention of his name in a book makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I’ve followed him to Gibraltar and Holland. I’ve been inside his houses; I’ve held things that have belonged to him; heck, I’ve even eaten with his cutlery.

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Old selfie with Lord C

He is alive to me. I’d even say he has become a part of me. That, I suppose, is inevitable, given the degree of immersion it takes to write a biography.

I’ve spent years building his life-story from the tiniest flakes, watching it slowly gather into snowballs. I’ve discovered things about him nobody knew before (possibly not even his own mother). I’ve experienced the full range of emotions: amusement (many LOLs in the archive); frustration (the perils of researching a man who, essentially, failed); shock and grief (yes, I have shed tears). My children grew up thinking he lived in the house. They would greet his portrait when they sat down to breakfast in the mornings.

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“Good morning, John!”

Now I have to say goodbye.

How can I possibly move on? I’m Chatham’s biographer, so he belongs to me in a way. I’m giving him a voice. But now I’ve given him that voice, he will fade and leave me for good, because I can only write his biography once. I have to let him go, and I don’t want to. But I must.

Goodbye, John. I hope others will read my words and be inspired in their turn to explore more about the period, the family, the man. I hope readers approve of what I have written. Above all, I hope you are happy with everything I have done for you.

It’s been fun. Thank you, and, in the words of the 4th Duke of Rutland, “God bless you and love you as much as I do.”

Hooray!

The Late Lord rolled off the press, yawned, and sauntered off into the wild on 11 January 2017, nineteen days early.

For those of you who would argue that Lord Chatham would never be nineteen days early for anything, I will remind you that he was originally supposed to appear on 30 September 2016. Three months late is probably a record, even for the man who turned up an hour late for the surrender of Flushing, the city his own army bombarded into submission; even for the man who turned up to a royal event three and a half hours after it had begun.

If you would like to read more about the above examples of lateness — and others! — and find out why I think Lord Chatham was a pretty fascinating guy despite them, trot along over to Pen & Sword Books (or Amazon, if you prefer).

Lord Chatham returns to Gibraltar!

And he’s not entirely happy about it (although I reckon he looks quite resigned to his fate!).

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As I explain in The Late Lord, Chatham wasn’t hugely fond of Gibraltar. He was Governor from 1820 till his death, but served there in person between 1821 and 1825, and couldn’t wait to leave the place. See pp. 186-7:

The much-vaunted beauties of Gibraltar could not outweigh his conviction that he was ‘chained to ye Rock, instead … of being among my friends.’ … Chatham never forgot he was the master of a godforsaken rock half-sunk into the sea, about five square miles in size. His private letters home reeked of claustrophobia and intense homesickness, coloured with the depression he had not managed to shake off since his wife’s death.

Suit yourself, Lord C… I loved Gibraltar when I went there on my research trip.

Photo by a friend of mine, who is actually on the spot (lucky thing).

Hands up who REALLY wants an inquiry?

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about Robert Waithman’s City of London Address to the King calling for an inquiry into the failure of the Walcheren Expedition. At the end of the post, I quoted Richard Ryder’s letter to his brother Lord Harrowby explaining that the City Address marked the moment when Walcheren’s military commander, Lord Chatham, realised an inquiry of some sort into his conduct was more or less guaranteed.[1]

Chatham knew many people thought his inactivity and incompetence were mostly to blame for the failure of the expedition. He also suspected there was a conspiracy among his cabinet colleagues — he was still Master-General of the Ordnance — to make sure he ended up carrying the can for everyone. He wanted to make it entirely clear he had nothing to hide. The result, two days after the City of London presented their Address to the Throne, was the following defiant and completely unsolicited letter to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Liverpool:

22 December 1809

My Lord,

Having perused the Address of the City of London, presented to His Majesty on Wednesday last, together with the answer which His Majesty was advised to return thereto, I feel it my duty to represent to Your Lordship, as One of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, in order to its being laid before His Majesty, that I am as perfectly ready to submit every part of my Conduct to any Military Investigation which His Majesty may be pleased to order, as I am, and ever have professed myself to be, most earnestly and anxiously desirous, that, whenever Parliament shall assemble, … the whole of my Conduct and of the Expedition to ye Scheld [sic], shou’d undergo the fullest and strictest enquiry, being perfectly conscious of having discharged with zeal and fidelity, the trust which His Majesty was graciously pleased to confide to me, and feeling that all that is necessary to vindicate my conduct from ye secret Attacks which have been with so much industry made upon it, is that it shou’d be fully known and fairly understood. I have the honor to be, etc etc.

Chatham.[2]

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Lord Liverpool

Liverpool duly passed the letter on to the King on the 23rd, as Chatham had requested, and on the 24th received the King’s permission to lay Chatham’s letter before the rest of the cabinet.[3] It was at this point that someone actually read Chatham’s letter, whereupon the proverbial excrement hit the proverbial fan.

Possibly what happened was this:

Liverpool: And here’s the letter Lord Chatham wrote to me expressing his willingness to lay his conduct before an inquiry, which I forwarded on to the King.

Perceval:

Liverpool: What?

Perceval: Have you even read this?

Liverpool: Yes, why?

Perceval: The answer His Majesty was advised to return? “Secret attacks” on his conduct? HE’S EARNESTLY AND ANXIOUSLY DESIROUS FOR AN INQUIRY?

Liverpool: ….. Ah.

Obviously this letter, whether submitted to the King or not, could not possibly be allowed to go down in the record as Chatham’s official sentiments. Not only did he imply his distrust in his own colleagues and their motives, but he was also expressing pretty openly his desire for an inquiry, something the King had just informed the City of London would be a matter for Parliament to decide.

Chatham was well within his rights expressing his wish for an inquiry, and he was right that putting that wish down in an official document was the only thing to do at this stage of the game. But prime minister Perceval couldn’t let this document into the public eye, or there would be some very uncomfortable questions to answer. Liverpool, therefore, was sent away with strict instructions to get more information out of Chatham.

On 30 December, Liverpool wrote, somewhat circuitously:

My Lord,

According to Your Lordship’s Desire, I have laid your Letter of the 22d Inst before the King, and I have since communicated it with His Majesty’s Permission, to those of HM’s Confidential Servants, who were in Town.

After having made this Communication, I am desirous, in answering your Letter, to say, that if Your Lordship means, that in the Event of an Enquiry either Military, or Parliamentary, being judged expedient, respecting the Expedition to the Scheldt, on Publick Grounds, you were anxious that no Consideration of a Nature, Personal to yourself, should enduce His Majesty’s Govt to resist it, but that in such case you were ready to submit your Conduct, to the fullest, and strictest Investigation, It is nothing more than what we have always understood to be Your Lordship’s Feelings, and indeed what We might be assured, must, under all the Circumstances, have been that feeling.

But if Your Lordship’s Meaning is, (whether on Publick or Private Considerations) that it would be the Duty of His Majesty’s Government to assent to any Motion, which may be made in Parliament for enquiry, or that you would feel it your own Duty, to express by yourself in the House of Lords, or through some Person authorised for that Purpose in the House of Commons, your Desire that such Enquiry should take place, I am confident Your Lordship will see, how important it is, that His Majesty’s Government should not be acting, under any Uncertainty or Misapprehension, of Your Lordship’s views, and Intentions upon this Subject.

… I have the honor to be etc etc

Liverpool.[4]

On receiving this Chatham clearly thought “Eh?” His reply, dated 31 December, can be summarised as “Unless you are replying on the King’s behalf, you can drop off the edge of a cliff”, but in its fullest form it made it quite clear that he felt it his duty to speak up on the subject of an inquiry. He began with an entirely Chatham-typical swipe at Liverpool’s lapse in official form, replying as an individual rather than as Secretary of State for War:

You must excuse me, if I can not admit, any letter from you as an Official answer to mine, unless written by the King’s Command. I certainly did not expect to receive any, unless it shou’d have been His Majesty’s Pleasure, that a Military Investigation shou’d take place into my conduct.

Chatham’s response clearly showed his idea of how an inquiry should be handled differed markedly from the prime minister’s, which was not surprising, as up till now Perceval had been putting off the idea of an inquiry rather than facing it head-on:

You will I think … agree with me, that as the King’s Answer did not confine itself to the Enquiry asked for by ye Address of the City of London, but went further and directly pointed to a Proceeding in Parliament, it was not unnatural, that I shou’d not be wholly silent on that Point. With regard to the line which it may be proper for His Majesty’s Government to take in Parliament on the subject of the Expedition to the Scheld [sic], it must as I conceive, somewhat depend on circumstances, but whenever that question is brought under the consideration of the King’s Servants, I shall be happy to discuss it with my Colleagues at the Cabinet, or individually with any of them who may be so disposed.[5]

Liverpool was aghast. He promptly showed the letter to his cabinet colleagues, who were equally horrified. The meeting of Parliament was only three weeks away: what with the difficulties the government was under already, it was a very bad time for the Master-General of the Ordnance to go off half-cocked. “It seems to me to make it necessary to have a Cabinet soon to take this most important point into consideration, and to learn his real sentiments,” Richard Ryder wrote to Lord Harrowby.[6] Chatham, meanwhile, continued being intractable. When Liverpool wrote to him suggesting a cabinet meeting to discuss the matter further, Chatham bluntly informed him “for the sake of correctness on a point which seems to require it … that when the purport of my letter and the caracter [sic] in which I addressed you are considered, any answer to me … must have been to signify to me, not what you term the determination of Government, but His Majesty’s Pleasure”.[7]

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Spencer Perceval

Perceval now stepped in, conscious that this was about to become really silly. A cabinet was called on 5 January to discuss the matter, but Chatham claimed he was too ill to attend. Guessing that he probably didn’t want to discuss his grievances in full before colleagues whose good opinion he suspected, Perceval and Liverpool agreed to meet him privately. The meeting was inconclusive: Chatham agreed his words had been too strong, but did not agree to write another.[8]

The problem was that Chatham and Perceval both wanted different things. Chatham wanted an inquiry that would clear him: Perceval wanted an inquiry he could control, and had no intention of helping Chatham clear his name until he was sure doing so would not backfire. On 9 January Perceval and Chatham met again, this time one on one. Chatham at last agreed to rewrite his letter, but still clung to the phrase “anxiously desirous”.

Perceval knew he had to be firm and stop Chatham committing the government to a course it did not want to pursue. He wrote back on the 10th, gently but firmly trying to persuade Chatham that he hadn’t actually meant what he had really said:

I enter fully into all your feelings upon this occasion, and it is with great reluctance that I lean against any expression by which you would prefer to convey these feelings.

But I think the expression ‘anxiously desirous’ would compel you & your Friends, in consistency with that Expression to urge & press for Enquiry; not to talk of it as of a proceeding which you were ready to meet, if others on any ground thought it necessary or expedient, but as one which you thought the occasion required, either with a view to the protection of your own Character, or for the satisfaction of the Public. It is because I think that Expression conveys or at least implies such an Opinion on your part that I wish you to avoid it. … There are no words which I should object to, however strong, if they only express your readiness, to meet enquiry, when stirred by others, provided they do not express or imply a desire to stir it yourself, or an opinion, that it should be instituted.[9]

To Perceval’s relief, Chatham caved in. The offensive phrases were all dropped, and the final version printed in the official Papers laid before the Walcheren Inquiry was as follows. The edited bits are in bold:

Having perused the Address of the City of London, presented to His Majesty on Wednesday last, together with His Majesty’s Answer thereto, I feel it my duty to represent to Your Lordship, as One of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, in order to its being laid before His Majesty, that I am most entirely ready to submit every Part of my Conduct to any such Military Investigation as His Majesty may be pleased to direct, and that I shall not be less so, whenever Parliament may assemble, to meet any Enquiry, which in their wisdom they may judge it fit to institute into my Conduct, being perfectly conscious of having discharged with zeal and with fidelity the important trust which HM was graciously pleased to confide to me.[10]

Which was a lot of paper to produce one tiny — but significant — paragraph.

 

References

[1] Ryder to Lord Harrowby, 5 January 1810, quoted in A. Aspinall, The Later Correspondence of George III, vol. 5, p. 480 n. 1

[2] Chatham to Lord Liverpool (draft), 22 December 1809, PRO 30/8/364 f. 30

[3] Liverpool to the King, 23 December 1809; the King to Liverpool, 24 December 1809, quoted in Aspinall V, pp. 477-8

[4] Liverpool to Chatham, 30 December 1809, PRO 30/8/368 f. 7

[5] Chatham to Liverpool (draft), 31 December 1809, PRO 30/8/364 f. 32

[6] Ryder to Lord Harrowby, 1 January 1810, quoted in Aspinall V, pp. 478-9 n. 1

[7] Liverpool to Chatham, 2 January 1810, PRO 30/8/368 f. 9; Chatham to Liverpool (draft), 2 January 1810, PRO 30/8/364 f. 34

[8] This is inferred from letters from Richard Ryder to Lord Harrowby, 4-5 January 1810, quoted in Aspinall V, p. 480 n. 1

[9] Chatham to Perceval, [9 January 1810], Cambridge University Library Add.8713/VII/B/5; Perceval to Chatham, 10 January 1810, PRO 30/8/368 f. 125

[10] A Collection of papers relating to the expedition to the Scheldt, presented to Parliament in 1810 (London, 1811), pp. 126-7

“The shadow of inquiry”: Robert Waithman, the City of London and the Address to the Crown, December 1809

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Right now I’m (painstakingly) working on a paper I will be giving in January at the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference in Oxford. Entitled ‘Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me: the Walcheren Inquiry, Lord Chatham’s Narrative, and the politics of blame’, the paper will investigate just how Chatham’s infamous narrative explaining his conduct during the Walcheren Expedition nearly caused a massive constitutional crisis, threatened the stability of Spencer Perceval’s ministry and led directly to the end of Chatham’s political career. The Walcheren Inquiry is therefore much on my mind, and it ocurred to me that today — 5 December — is the anniversary of a very important factor in the lead-up to the parliamentary investigation.

On 5 December 1809, Alderman Robert Waithman moved an Address to the King in the City of London’s Court of Common Council. Waithman is an interesting figure in his own right.

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He had a trade background (he was a linen draper): rising to become a City of London liveryman, he made his reputation as a supporter of radical political reform and a violent opponent of the war with France. True to his political track record, he had already led the City in petitioning the King for an inquiry into the Convention of Cintra in 1808, which had thrown away the advantages gained in Portugal by Sir Arthur Wellesley’s victory at Vimeiro by allowing the surrendering French to evacuate in British ships with their spoils of war. Now, following the abject failure of the Walcheren expedition, he decided to do the same thing again.

Waithman pulled no punches with his language. “The armament,” he informed the Court, “was, he believed, the greatest ever sent out from this country.” Its failure had been proportionate to its size: “This disgraceful and calamitous expedition had already cost this ill-used country not less than £8 millions of money, and six thousand of our men, without reckoning those who are suffering, or dying of the diseases to which they have been thus improvidently subjected. Could the people of England patiently bear this wasteful and profligate expenditure of their treasure and loss of their blood?”

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The Court of Common Council in Session, from here

Waithman, like the good radical he was, thought the City had a duty to speak up because Parliament would not. Recalling his experience with Cintra, Waithman said “he was sorry indeed that he could not look with hope to Parliament for such an inquiry, for what had he seen … that could lead him to expect such an inquiry from the votes of the majority in Parliament? On all occasions such inquiries were negatived by overwhelming majorities.”[1]

The proposal was controversial, and the Court did not automatically accept Waithman’s suggestion. When the Address was put to the vote, however, it squeaked through by 68 votes to 67. A subsequent vote on the text passed by five votes. On the 13th some pro-government members of the Council tried to have the original text amended on the pretext that many of the members had been absent due to the lateness of the hour at which it was passed, and they managed to get some of the more offensive paragraphs struck out. The end result, nevertheless, struck a disapproving note:

Most Gracious Sovereign

… We have witnessed with deep regret the disastrous failure of the late Expedition, as the magnitude of its equipment had raised the just hopes and expectations of the Country to some permanent benefit.

… Your Majesty’s faithful Citizens, actuated by loyal attachment to your Sacred Person and Illustrious House, and solicitous for the honour of your Majesty’s arms and the dignity and solidity of your Majesty’s Councils, are deeply impressed with the necessity of an early and strict Inquiry into the causes of the failure of the late Expedition, therefore, pray your Majesty will direct Inquiry to be forthwith instituted, in order to ascertain the causes which have occasioned it.[2]

Notably, there was nothing here to suggest the need for a parliamentary inquiry. In fact the form of the inquiry was left pretty much open to the King (and, through him, his ministers) to decide. The official Answer to the Address, however (which was delivered on 20 December 1809), pretty much fixed the parliamentary tone of the inquiry:

The recent Expedition to the Scheldt was directed to several objects of great importance to the interests of my Allies, and to the security of my dominions. I regret, that of these objects a part only has been accomplished. I have not judged it to be necessary to direct any Military Inquiry into the Conduct of my Commanders by Sea or Land in this conjoint Service. It will be for my Parliament, in their wisdom, to ask for such information, or to take such measures upon this subject as they shall judge most conducive to the public good.[3]

Unsurprisingly, this was not what Chatham had hoped to hear. He was too proud to ask “for an enquiry before a Military Tribunal”, which he thought would show he felt his conduct required justification, but he recognised that “some opportunity of my conduct being inquired into” would come sooner or later, probably around the time Parliament was due to convene in January.[4] Nevertheless, “a Court Martial … was what, under all circumstances, I felt wou’d be most advantageous for me,” and given the precedent of the military inquiry into the Conventi0n of Cintra, Chatham had good reason to expect this was the form an inquiry would take.[5]

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The King’s Answer to the Address put that out of the question. Chatham immediately spotted that the King’s Answer had expressly rejected that option and on the contrary “directly pointed to a Proceeding in Parliament”.[6]

This was perhaps the point at which Chatham realised it was actually going to happen. Richard Ryder, the Home Secretary, heard that “he says that he had disregarded former charges till the Address of the City — that then the charge appeared to wear a more serious appearance and to require some recorded testimony on his part of his desire to meet enquiry”.[7]

Chatham’s course of action, indeed the only one he could well take under the circumstances, was to write to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Liverpool, to put his willingness to face an inquiry — any inquiry — down in the official record. There was some toing and froing over the exact wording, particularly Chatham’s original phrase of being “most earnestly and anxiously desirous” for an inquiry, but the end result was as follows:

My Lord,

Having perused the Address of the City of London … together with the answer with His Majesty’s Answer thereto, I see it my duty to represent to Your Lordship, as one of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, in order to its being laid before His Majesty, that I am most entirely ready to submit every Part of my Conduct to such Military Investigation as His Majesty may be pleased to direct, and that I shall not be less so, whenever Parliament may assemble, to meet any Enquiry, which in their Wisdom they may judge it fit to institute into my Conduct, being perfectly conscious of having discharged with zeal and with fidelity, the important trust which His Majesty was graciously pleased to confide to me.[8]

The die was cast. Parliament met on 23 January 1810. Three days later, the oppositionist Lord Porchester moved for the inevitable inquiry. Its final form — a committee of the whole House of Commons — cannot have been foreseen by Chatham (or anyone else) at the time of Waithman’s Common Council motion on 5 December. Had Waithman not tried to seize the Commons’ initiative, however, perhaps Chatham might have got his military tribunal after all.

 

References

[1] Speech by Waithman, recorded in the Times, 6 December 1809

[2] Cobbett’s Political Register, vol. XVI, July-December 1809, cols. 983-4

[3] Ibid.

[4] Chatham to Charles Yorke, 27 October 1809, BL Add MSS 45042 f. 57

[5] Undated memorandum by Chatham, NA PRO 30/8/260 f. 112

[6] Chatham to Lord Liverpool, 31 December 1809, NA PRO 30/8/364 f. 32

[7] Ryder to Lord Harrowby, 5 January 1810, quoted in A. Aspinall, The Later Correspondence of George III, vol. 5, p. 480 n. 1

[8] Chatham to Lord Liverpool, 22 December 1809, A Collection of Papers relating to the Expedition to the Scheldt, presented to Parliament in 1810 (London, 1811), pp. 126-7