“My poor afflicted Sister”: Lady Chatham’s first mental illness, 1807-8

In May 1808 John, 2nd Earl of Chatham braced himself to write to his mother’s old companion, Catherine Stapleton. Mrs Stapleton (the “Mrs” was a courtesy title only, since she never married) had lived more or less permanently with the Dowager Countess of Chatham from 1782 until Lady Chatham’s death in 1803. She thus had a strong claim on John’s remembrances, although I have a feeling she never forgave him for selling Burton Pynsent in 1805.

By 1808, though, Mrs Stapleton was low on funds. I can only imagine sheer desperation drove her to request assistance from John, whom she must have known was not in a position to offer much assistance. He wrote back after a week or so with a draft of money for £150, the best he could do given his bank account was “strictly appropriated, in order to get rid gradually of some incumbrances, which ye misfortunes of late years have brought, to press very heavily upon me.”

Most of these “misfortunes” were clear enough. Many of them were self-inflicted, and for more see my post on the subject of John’s finances generally. I suspect, although I have not yet been able to substantiate this, that John had been sued over the sale of Burton Pynsent by the purchaser of the estate, John Pinney, and the fallout of this was no doubt one minor “misfortune” . The more significant ones were, most obviously, the death of John’s brother William Pitt in January 1806 and the subsequent break-up of his ministry, during which John Chatham lost the salary he had received as a Cabinet member in continuous service since July 1788. In May 1808 he was back in office, but presumably his credit had not yet recovered from eighteen months without a salary.

But there was one other misfortune of note, and John touched on it towards the end of his letter. “Lady Chatham is I hope essentially better, but far from well yet,” he wrote. “This has been a year of sad distress, and confinement to me, but upon the whole I am well” .[1] In November 1808, after another lengthy spate of correspondence (again on financial difficulties), John closed a letter to his banker Thomas Coutts by revealing his wife was still extremely unwell: “I have not seen Lady Chatham for some time, but form her letters I hope she is rather better than she was, tho’ her amendment, I am sorry to say, has been very slow.”[2]

Mary, Countess of Chatham

Mary, Countess of Chatham

Readers of this blog may recall my discovery, in April last year, that John’s wife Mary suffered from a severe mental illness towards the end of her life. Whether her illness was caused by schizophrenia or something metabolic I am not qualified to say, but it turns out her troubles from 1818 onwards were not unique. Mrs Tomline’s lengthy, somewhat voyeuristic letter to Sir Henry Halford describing Mary’s 1819 condition made a passing reference to a previous attack: “[I] reminded her [Lady Chatham] she had recovered from a former illness … and expressed perfect confidence that she would again recover.”[3] Sir Henry Halford himself recorded, in his diary kept during the period of his attendance on mad King George III, the King early on expressing confidence in Halford’s skill, for he had “saved Lady Chatham from being delivered over to the Mad Doctors.”[4]

Sir Henry Halford (Wikimedia Commons)

Sir Henry Halford (Wikimedia Commons)

A little digging revealed that Mary Chatham had, in fact, been ill for over a year by the time John wrote to Mrs Stapleton. She may in fact not have recovered from the “delirious Fever” that nearly prevented John attending his own brother’s funeral in February 1806, and which marks the beginning of the mental troubles that would plague her on and off for the rest of her life.[5] Certainly she was not well in April 1807, as is made clear in a letter, almost certainly written by her sister Georgiana, in the Leicester and Rutland Record Office Halford MSS.[6]

Georgiana Townshend was Mary’s only older sibling, born in 1761. She was unmarried, and seems to have spent much time as a live-in nurse to Mary during her lengthy periods of ill health, starting with Mary’s rheumatic episode in 1784. Her anonymous letter to Halford (then plain Henry Vaughan) of 14 April 1807 is especially interesting because it corroborates so many of the symptoms Mary suffered from during her relapse ten years later: this was clearly an attack of the same illness, whatever it was.

The letter, obviously written in distress by a woman at the end of her tether, makes difficult reading. As happened in 1818, Mary seems to have struck out, often literally, at those who were closest to her. Georgiana recorded Mary’s use of “violence” towards her sister and mother, as well as her use of “horrid language”, to the extent that the Dowager Lady Sydney had “really become quite afraid” of her own daughter. Georgiana did not, however, think her mother fully understood the severity of the situation. Lady Sydney kept waiting for Mary to snap out of it: “If she (my poor Sister is a little chearfull) her real illness is forgot, & ‘she can be well when she pleases’. Will any body of common Sense think she would not then always be so?”

Mary was clearly all too aware of her own condition, and that Georgiana was reporting everything to Halford. “I hope you never talk of my mind,” Georgiana quoted to Halford from Mary’s latest letter, adding, “that last word was hardly intelligible” . Mary knew she was caught up in a spiral of depression, but could see no way back out to the light, trapped as she was on a circular, claustrophobic path: “[She] has no better opinion of herself … saying she still lived too shut up a life feeling unfit for every thing & making herself more unfit by doing so” . Mary’s inability to break away from the blackness made her moods worse. Georgiana quoted another letter that was little more than a desperate cry for a help Mary knew did not exist:

My cold is better but I am shocking horrible in mind & spirits &c. Oh why, why write to write this so, keep it to yourself … or rather burn it, tell me I may be suddenly different. Nonsense my head can not go on so. God bless you.

She displayed suicidal tendencies, as she was to do ten years later, although Georgiana seemed to think there was no real danger. Georgiana reported her muttering “she could not live in this way (that you perceive is the old Story) [and] she must put an end to it” .

Mary was of course a married woman, and in every marriage there are two people. John had promised to support his wife in sickness and in health, but he cannot have known when he did so just how much sickness there would be in Mary’s life. He and Mary had always been a close couple. Her illness, and its nature, appears to have knocked him completely sideways. He dealt with it in much the same way as he dealt with most of the major problems in his life: by pretending it did not exist. Georgiana  referred to John’s wrapping himself up in his armour of denial:

She will not think he thinks her well, tho’ she tells my mother nobody thinks her well, but him. … She has regretted to me that poor L[or]d C[hatham] thought her getting better when she was as ill as ever, & alas! there is I fear too much truth in that.

johnprint

John’s stiff-upper-lip attitude may have helped him get by on the surface, but unfortunately it was exactly the worst thing possible for Mary. Inevitably their close marriage, subjected to almost unbearable pressure, began to crack. Georgiana’s letter gives an interesting, poignant vignette into the impact of Mary’s illness on her domestic arrangements. Either by medical advice, or because John, too, was not immune from Mary’s violent fits, they were living in different apartments for the first time in their marriage. “I am certain their being on separate floors must keep up the irritation,” Georgiana noted, “but that no-one can help, but she never can have confidence in his thinking her better, while she does not live as usual.”

If only John could wake up, smell the coffee and see what impact his attitude had, but Georgiana suspected it was impossible. The self-replicating nature of the issue distressed her: “She [Mary] cannot get back to where she was with him, & a most unhappy being she certainly is.”

Mary’s sense of entrapment must have been massively increased by her status as a cabinet minister’s wife. John had joined the Duke of Portland’s cabinet as Master General of the Ordnance and, as such, required to attend Court functions, hold dinners, and appear in public on a regular basis. It is clear from Georgiana’s letters that he expected Mary to appear with him, if only to keep up appearances of normality: the scandal, if news of her condition leaked out, would be great. “I dread her making her case more known,” Georgiana fretted to Halford. “… All her servants see it, & I live in dread of a scene.”

The attempts to keep Mary propped up and looking normal are horrifying to read. Georgiana described the hell in which Mary existed, as a public figure required to perform a social role. She quoted a letter from Mary’s maid:

I leave you to judge in what state she [Mary] must have been, before she would attempt to Strike me, which her L[ad]yship actually did on Tuesday at dressing time, fear made me shrink from her, & she immediately became conscious of what she had done, & kept on mumbling to herself … She was very bad in the afternoon, but much worse at dressing time, she never struck me before, but has many times gone off in a very violent way. I asked her L[ad]yship to take some Cordial, which she did[,] afterwards finished dressing, & went out very quietly with my L[or]d. … Since Tuesday her L[ad]yship has been upon the whole tolerably quiet, she complains of being very much tired in the Morning. Her L[ad]yship does not go to bed till after two in ye Morn[in]g.

As Georgiana noted, “She will be relieved by there being no Drawing Room Thursday.” Mary’s existence, drifting in a drug-induced fog from function to function, must have been unimaginable.

Nor was it enough to prevent gossip. By the end of the year Mary’s state was, unfortunately, the stuff of opposition tittle-tattle. “Lady Chatham is at Frognall … under some symptoms of a mental derangement,” Lord Auckland reported to Lord Grenville in November 1807, and in January 1808 Thomas Grenville wrote that Mary was “much disordered in her senses.”[7] These were family connections — the Grenvilles were John’s first cousins — but they were not friendly either to John or the ministry he represented. I find it hard to believe that Mary’s condition was not more widely known.

Mary’s 1807-8 illness may have had a long-term significance. I suspect very much it was a strong reason for Chatham pulling himself out of the running as a potential First Lord of the Treasury following the collapse of the Ministry of All the Talents and the Duke of Portland’s growing ill health. I suspect, too, it was one of the primary reasons why Chatham declined the command of the British Army in the Peninsula. Mary Chatham’s mental problems cast a long shadow. On the one hand they ensured that Arthur Wellesley was appointed in the Peninsula, a major step on the road to victory over Napoleon; but on the other they set John Chatham on his path to Walcheren, and disgrace.

______________

References

[1] Lord Chatham to Mrs Stapleton, 11 May 1808, National Army Museum Stapleton Cotton (Combermere) MSS 9506-61-3

[2] Lord Chatham to Thomas Coutts, 23 November 1808, Kent RO Pitt MSS U1590/S5/C42. I am grateful to Stephenie Woolterton for alerting me to this letter, and transcribing it for me.

[3] Elizabeth Tomline to Sir Henry Halford, undated but September 1819, Ipswich RO Pretyman MSS HA 119/562/716

[4] Sir Henry Halford’s diary [1831-2], Leicester and Rutland RO Halford MSS DG24/941 f 56

[5] Bishop of Lincoln to his wife, 31 January 1806, Ipswich RO Pretyman MSS HA 119/T99/26

[6] All quotations over the next few paragraphs come from [Georgiana Townshend] to Henry Vaughan [later Sir Henry Halford], 14 April 1807, Leicester and Rutland RO DG24/819/1; and [Georgiana Townshend] to Henry Vaughan [later Sir Henry Halford], 14 April 1807, Leicester and Rutland RO DG24/819/2

[7] Lord Auckland to Lord Grenville, 6 November 1807; Thomas Grenville to Lord Grenville, 9 January 1808, Manuscripts of J.B. Fortescue IX, 142, 171

Mary, Countess of Chatham’s “Rheumatick complaint”

[Mary] has not I think been quite well lately. Some how or other she has got a Lameness in her Hip. It is better now and perhaps nothing of any Consequence but I think it makes her look Languid and pale.”[1]

So wrote Lady Harriot Pitt to her mother of Mary Elizabeth Townshend, soon to be engaged to Harriot’s brother Lord Chatham. Mary’s lameness passed, and no further mention is made of it in Harriot’s correspondence. Three weeks later John Chatham proposed to Mary Townshend; within two months they were married. Nobody anticipated that Mary would spend nearly the whole of the first three years of married life an invalid.

The “lameness” Harriot noticed in May 1783 may have been due to a number of things. It may have been a congenital issue, such as hip displasia, that was not picked up until later in life. It may have been early onset arthritis; it may have been some sort of deeper-seated metabolic illness like fibromyalgia. It may have been something entirely different. Whatever the cause, and whatever brought on the attack (a miscarriage perhaps?), by April 1784 Mary had taken to her bed.

The first record I have seen of her illness is Frederick Robinson writing to his brother, Lord Grantham, on 1 April 1784. “Ly. Chatham suffers cruelly when she moves but is rather better,” he wrote, suggesting Mary had already been ill for some time.[2] Three weeks later there was little improvement. On 20 April 1784, in the midst of a general election, William Pitt the Younger wrote to his mother that “Lady Chatham mends a little”. On the same day Mary’s sister Georgiana, devotedly nursing her younger sister, also wrote to Mary’s mother-in-law:

My Sister had a very good night last night, and I hope is better to day. Dr Warren has put off her getting up till tomorrow, on account of her being still a little fatigued with the Physic she took yesterday. Indeed I flatter myself that she is certainly gaining ground, & I hope when the weather is quite fine, that her amendment will be much quicker. It is really quite horrid to think how much she has suffered. … Getting up has hitherto always thrown her back, owing to the fatigue from the great pain she has always suffered, which naturally gives her a great dread of it. … She feels [the pain] more in her knee & leg than she did. What would I give to see her walk again.”[3]

But Mary did not walk again for a very long time. In November 1784, Anne Robinson (Lord Grantham’s sister) reported that “Lady Chatham … now talks of Standing which she has not done for above eight months”.[4] Two months later Mary was still ill, although by this time she seems to have been improving. Lord Grantham noted he had heard she was now able to use a “Merlin’s Chair”, a sort of wheelchair invented by John Joseph Merlin, a Swiss inventor.

A "Merlin chair" from Kenwood House (photo Ashley Wilde)

A “Merlin chair” from Kenwood House (photo Ashley Wilde)

The chair enabled Mary at last to navigate around her house and her spirits rose accordingly: her “health is now very good”, Lord Grantham reported. “She has Strength sufficient to get in and out of her Chair.” By the middle of January she was finally walking across her room for the first time since at least the previous March.[5]

A Merlin chair from 1811 (Wellcome Library)

A Merlin chair from 1811 (Wellcome Library)

A year after taking to her bed Mary was finally getting out and about, although mostly in search of further medical assistance. “I have been taking a long airing with Mary today,” Georgiana reported to the Dowager Lady Chatham on 3 March 1785. “… Going out certainly does her a great deal of good … She has been twice at Mr Partingdons [sic] … & finds great benefit from being Electrified with his large Machine.”[6]

Various medical electrical machines, ca 1770

Various medical electrical machines, ca 1770

“Mr Partingdon” was in fact Miles Partington, a fashionable surgeon whose speciality was to use the power of static electricity to treat rheumatic and nervous complaints in his patients. Mary would have come to his house on Great Russell Street, and would have sat in a comfortable chair propped up on glass blocks while a servant turned the handle of Partington’s machine. A large wheel rubbed against a cushion stuffed with horsehair, while metal rods channelled the resulting static electricity into a Leyden jar. Once fully charged, Partington would have put on a pair of gloves, taken hold of two metal rods insulated with glass handles, and channelled the electricity onto specific points on Mary’s leg and hip. I can’t believe it worked very well, but Mary by this time must have been desperate to believe in anything.

An electrical machine of the sort Miles Partington might have used on Mary

An electrical machine of the sort Miles Partington might have used on Mary

At this time Lord Chatham’s childhood tutor, Edward Wilson, “had the pleasure” of reporting to the Dowager Countess of Chatham that her daughter-in-law was “actually in a state of recovery which I had considered as a hopeless event.”[7]  But Mary’s improvement was much slower than anticipated, and she possibly suffered another relapse shortly afterwards. At any rate, Lord Chatham cancelled plans to travel to Ireland to visit his friend, Lord Lieutenant the Duke of Rutland, and took Mary to the fashionable spa of Buxton instead.[8] The Peak District waters did not do their job: “Lady Chatham has not received so much benefit from Buxton as she expected, but is told it will appear when she has left the place a little time,” Anne Robinson wrote to her brother Frederick.[9] By December, however, she was well enough to go on a hunting trip with her husband near Grantham.[10]

It must have been a temporary rally, however, for in 1786 Mary’s health was still uncertain. By the summer John was happy enough to leave her with Georgiana at Weymouth and at last make his long-delayed trip to Dublin, but it is clear from her father’s letters to her eldest brother John Townshend that she was not as well as her family would have liked. “Lady Chatham is better,” Lord Sydney wrote in August 1786, “but, I am sorry to say, has left Weymouth for Burton [Pynsent, in Somerset, to visit her mother-in-law]. I hope in God, that she will return [to Weymouth], & not trifle with so serious a business. Her recovery may depend entirely upon her use of the warm bathing this year.”[11]

By the end of the year, though, Mary’s health was much better established, so much so that she became pregnant (possibly for the second time). “We have been seasonably chear’d with a piece of news that was communicated to me last Sunday, from the very highest Authority [probably Lord Chatham himself], respecting Lady Chatham on which we most cordially congratulate your Ladyship,” Reverend Wilson wrote to the Dowager Countess of Chatham on 5 November 1786. “Besides the welcome prospect of increase we hope it will be a means of restoring her Ladyships health”.[12] Alas Mary’s pregnancy ended in a miscarriage before the end of the year, but she does not seem to have been especially unwell during 1787. By 1788 was at last able to engage in some political work, canvassing for Lord Hood during the 1788 Westminster by-election and, in 1789, acting as a patroness for the White’s Ball in honour of the King’s recovery from insanity.

It was not, however, the last word, and her “rheumatism” left her permanently lame on one side. In 1795 she seems again to have had a serious rheumatic attack. “Lady Chatham has got the Rheumatism in a very disagreeable Way”, the Dowager Countess wrote to Pitt, “… but … she is otherwise well and grows Fat”.[13] In February 1796, however, she was still ill:

Lady Chatham is I am afraid going to have some return of her old Rheumatick complaint. She has been for some time much more lame than usual: and I called a few days ago when she could not well move out of her Chair. This she attributed to having been electrified too much; but I am afraid she does not get better.[14]

All Lord Chatham’s friends would have remembered, all too well, what long-term effects Lady Chatham’s “rheumatick complaint” might have. On this occasion nothing seems to have come of it, but its spectre must always have hung over their marriage. Unfortunately for the Chathams, Mary’s health was not destined ever to be robust, and in later life she succumbed to mental instability on at least two prolonged occasions. Whether that mental instability was a progression of her earlier rheumatic problems I cannot say, but one thing is for sure: Mary Chatham was never an especially healthy woman.


References

[1] Lady Harriot Pitt to the Countess of Chatham, 19 May 1783, John Rylands Library Manchester University Eng MS 1272 f 38

[2] Frederick Robinson to Lord Grantham, 1 April 1784, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/205

[3] Georgiana Townshend to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 20 April 1784, National Archives PRO 30/8/64 f 167

[4] Anne Robinson to Lord Grantham, 5 November 1784, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/50/56

[5] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 3 January 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/238; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 14 January 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/246; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 17 January 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/249

[6] Georgiana Townshend to Lady Chatham, PRO 30/8/64 f 170

[7] Edward Wilson to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 12 March 1785, PRO 30/8/67 f 103

[8] Edward Wilson to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 7 October 1785, PRO 30/8/67 f 113

[9] Anne Robinson to Frederick Robinson, 28 August 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/50/65

[10] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 19 December 1785, Bedford Archives Wrest Park (Lucas) Mss L30/15/54/296

[11] Lord Sydney to John Thomas Townshend, August 1786, Nottingham University Archives Hildyard MSS THF/X/3/5 f 2

[12] Edward Wilson to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 5 November 1786, PRO 30/8/67 f 134

[13] The Dowager Countess of Chatham to William Pitt, 14 October 1795, PRO 30/8/10 f 31

[14] Lord Bathurst to Lord Camden, 27 February 1796, Kent RO CKS-U840/C95/2

“From Day to Day”

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Contents of HA 119/562/688: letters from Lord Chatham to George Pretyman-Tomline, 1816-25 (Ipswich Record Office)

On 17 March 1818 John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham folded a sheet of foolscap, dipped his pen in ink, and began to write a difficult letter. His correspondent was George Pretyman-Tomline, Bishop of Lincoln. Tomline was an old family friend: he and John had been joint executors of John’s brother’s will and had become close over the years. Since 1816 John had been renting Abington Hall near Cambridge, which was very close to Tomline’s palace as Bishop of Lincoln in Buckden.

 

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Abington Hall, Cambridge

In writing his letter John was breaking a long silence. This was not unusual for John, who was not a particularly efficient correspondent at the best of times. As his letter made clear, however, this was not the best of times.

 

“I have been meditating a letter to you, for the purpose of saying, that whenever you move towards London, Abington is but a few miles out of ye road … But unfortunately I have from day to day been obliged to put off writing to you, from a cause, which I know you will be concerned to hear. Lady Chatham has now been for above three weeks extremely unwell, and still continues so. She had at first a severe bilious attack, attended with a good deal of fever, and which is not yet entirely removed, tho she is better, but it has so much reduced her, as to leave her in a very uncomfortably low and nervous state.”[1]

 

Six weeks later he wrote to Tomline to report the “low and nervous state” had not improved: “I had deferred writing to you … in the hope from day to day, that I shou’d have been able to have sent you a more favourable account of Lady Chatham … But I am sorry to say, that … Lady Chatham has … continued without gaining any ground”.[2]

 

John had no way of knowing, but he would continue to live “from day to day”, waiting for his wife to recover and return to normal, for more than two years. Mental illness is treated much more sympathetically today than it was in the eighteenth century, when it was labelled as “insanity” and treated horrifically. Rank was not proof against this: witness the treatment of George III– bled, purged, gagged, straitjacketed– in the desperate attempts to restore him to health. Ironically John’s own father, Pitt the Elder, was almost certainly bipolar, and John must have watched his wife sink into depression with a cataclysmic sense of deja vu.

 

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Mary, Countess of Chatham, in earlier years

John was a taciturn and deeply private correspondent; he generally kept his letters brief, factual and to the point, with perhaps a short discussion of the weather towards the end but little of a personal nature. After half a year, however, he could not keep his distress from showing, and words like “harassed” and “distressed” began to appear in his letters.[3]

 

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Sir Henry Halford

In September 1818 John persuaded Mary to see Sir Henry Halford, the King’s personal physician. Halford was optimistic: a change of air was required, so John took Mary to the fashionable spa at Leamington in Warwickshire. Unable to make any plans whatsoever– still drifting “from day to day”– this was the first time John had left Abington since spring. Understandably he needed a break, but Mary was having none of it. When John suggested she stay with her brother Lord Sydney at Frognall in Kent, she insisted she was getting better. In February, nearly a year after Mary first fell ill, John finally managed to get her to Frognall. Mary’s state can best be gauged from the tone of the letter John sent to Tomline, which he only placed in the post after leaving in case the plans fell through at the last minute: “I have remained here [at Abington] in one continual state of suspense, having fixed generally one or two days every week for removing to Frognall, and having been as constantly disappointed. We now intend going tomorrow … Lady Chatham, is I am sorry to say not the least better, and my situation has been most distressing”.[5]

 

John was finally able to have a rest: “after the confinement I have had, I trust [exercise] will be of use to me”.[6] He certainly needed it, for apart from Mary’s family he had nobody–no children, no remaining siblings– to assist him. Over the next few months he managed to get away from Mary’s sickbed long enough to go on a few hunting parties with friends, where presumably he took out his frustration on anything that had fur or feathers. But always he returned to Mary after a week or two, and the strain of living “from day to day” was taking its toll.

 

By now John was beginning to guess Mary’s illness might never improve. “I fear she is losing ground,” he reported in June. In August, though, there was a glimmer of hope, and John thought she seemed a little more open to the idea of company. He wrote to the Tomlines hesitantly suggesting that “should it be convenient to you to give us the pleasure of your company … we shou’d be most happy to see you”.[7]

 

The Tomlines arrived on Friday 3 September. “Lady C[hatham] received us … in her usual manner,” Mrs Tomline later recorded for Mary’s physician Sir Henry Halford. All, however, was far from well, and Mary was unable to keep up the pretence of normality very long. “On Friday Evening, when Lord C[hatham] rose to ring the bell to remove the Tea tray supposing her [Mary] to have finished her tea, her eyes became frightfully wild”. As soon as she saw she was observed, however, Mary “recovered her composure– gradually became calm”.

 

This ability to impose self-control impressed Mrs Tomline, who noted that, “though rather Agitated, there was nothing in her manner to excite remark … We shoud have left [Abington] on Monday satisfied with this appearance of tranquillity had we judged only from seeing Lady C[hatham] in company.” But “the sad reverse, when alone” was “painful to describe”, and Mrs Tomline particularly dwelled on a disturbing conversation:

 

“She talked to me for some time about her illness in a way that affected me more than I chose to show. …. She was told exertion was necessary, but that she could not control herself when— and after a sudden stop, added in a wild way, ‘I must not talk of myself– but I often think it must end in madness’ – looking with eager eyes for my opinion.”

 

Tragically for Mary, Mrs Tomline did not recognise this as a cry for help from a desperately depressed woman. Her response was, essentially, that Mary should pull herself together:

 

“Of course I placed her feelings to the account of nerves & urged the absolute necessity of controuling her agitation when ever it occurred … and expressed perfect confidence that she would again recover, provided she kept herself calm, for controul in some way or other was absolutely necessary”.

 

Surrounded by unsympathetic listeners, Mary’s self-esteem was low and her frustration was extremely high. “She spoke with great concern of the trouble she gave Lord C[hatham] ‘to whom I am sure (she said) I ought not to give a moment’s pain’”. Having forbidden herself from confiding in her own husband, Mary found an outlet in self-harm. Mrs Tomline reported “her screams are often heard over the whole house” and how her maid had “to prevent the poor Sufferer from striking herself with a dangerous force … she is indeed covered with bruises she has given herself in various ways and with various things often with clenched hands and shut teeth”. Sleep was an issue: Mrs Tomline seemed to think it was not, but John reported her staying in bed most of the day– no doubt seeing her bedroom as a refuge from the need to put on a pretence of normality. She was certainly suicidal: “her threats respecting her own life are most alarming”.[8]

 

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John, Lord Chatham, in 1821, from Sir George Hayter’s “The Trial of Queen Caroline”

Something had to be done. John had never been robust, and his health was poor. “He cannot much longer support such a score of suffering,” in Mrs Tomline’s words. Halford’s response was not encouraging. “The matter appears to me to be coming to a Crisis,” he wrote, “and I can scarcely suppose that many weeks more will pass before the poor Creature is put under restraint.” His recommendation was to straitjacket the patient to save her husband’s health, for “it will be well if ever we see him Himself again”.[9]

 

John was horrified. He had spent eighteen months nursing his wife, and was amazed at Halford’s diagnosis: “I am at a loss to understand to what he coud allude … when he spoke of any Crisis to be expected in a few weeks”. He dreaded the idea of “any change of System, unless it were deemed indispensable”, and naturally feared the effect of such “severity and cruelty” on his wife, particularly, as he saw it, to little purpose. To his credit he never referred to his wife as anything other than just that– no subhuman “poor Creature” such as is found in Halford and Mrs Tomline’s letters– and invariably passed her best compliments to Tomline at the end of his letters. Even when Mary’s state was clearly poor, he always wrote of “we” rather than “I”. But however much he disapproved of Halford’s recommendations, John was desperate. Under pressure from Halford and the Tomlines, and half-staggered under the burden of Mary’s illness, he agreed to appoint a “companion” who had experience with insanity.[10]

 

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27 April 1818, HA 119/562/688

This “companion” was intended to impose “a restraint which the presence of Lord C[hatham] no longer produces”,[11] but it may not have worked. In the new year Mary was “very unwell, so much so, as to render her state, a very anxious one for a couple of days”, and John morosely reported to Tomline that “her state of irritation seems rather encreased”. Had Mary attempted suicide? John’s letter is ambiguous, but perhaps it is significant that they were immediately visited by their niece, Harriot Hester, Lady Pringle, who had lived with them for three years prior to her marriage in 1806. At any rate he managed to get up to Belvoir to hunt with his former ward the Duke of Rutland in February, “for I stand much in need of some recruiting having passed a sad time here”.[12]

 

After that the correspondence breaks off until July 1821, when John reports, on black-edged paper, that he cannot attend George IV’s levee as “there is an Order for no Person, to appear in mourning, which precludes me”.[13] John was in mourning because Mary died on 21 May, aged 58. Her obituary in the paper simply states that she died at five o’clock in the evening “after an indisoposition of nearly two years”.[14]

 

Mary’s physical health had never been good, so it is possible she died of natural causes, but given her history and her age I cannot help wondering if she helped herself along a little. This is obviously speculation, and John never refers to her in his letters again. I’m not sure I will ever find out the answer for certain, but whatever the truth Mary’s last years were neither happy nor healthy.

 

So ends the tragic tale, at least for Mary. John was destined to outlive her fourteen years; his adventures can be read about in a previous blog post of mine in two parts, found here and here. He never complained of loneliness but there is more than an echo of it in his last letters to the Tomlines before leaving England to take up the governorship of Gibraltar in October 1821: “I have been but indifferent, indeed I cou’d not well expect otherwise”. “I can not say much for myself,” he wrote the following year. “I am tolerably well in health, but I do not gain much ground, otherwise … There is a great deal of constant business [as Governor], which occupies my mind, and from this, I think I have found most relief”.[15]

 

Poor Mary, and poor John. It’s no secret that I feel a strong bond with these two; they are, after all, the main characters of my work in progress. But until yesterday I had no idea their story ended so tragically. I cannot tell you how much I wish it had been otherwise.

 

References

 

All manuscripts are from the Pretyman-Tomline MSS, held at Suffolk Record Office (Ipswich).

[1] Chatham to Tomline, 17 March 1818, HA 119/T108/24/7

[2] Chatham to Tomline, 24 April 1818, HA 119/562/688

[3] Chatham to Tomline, 14 October 1818, HA 119/562/688

[4] Chatham to Tomline, 18 December 1818, HA 119/562/688

[5] Chatham to Tomline, 1 February 1819, HA 119/562/688

[6] Chatham to Tomline, 19 February 1919, HA 119/T108/24/8; same to same, same date, HA 119/562/688

[7] Chatham to Tomline, 2 June, 17 August 1819, HA 119/562/688

[8] Mrs Tomline’s letter to Sir Henry Halford is at HA 119/562/716. John’s observations on Mary’s lying later in bed are from HA 119/562/688, 22 and 27 September 1819

[9] Sir Henry Halford to Mrs Pretyman, 10 September 1819, HA 119/562/716

[10] Chatham to Tomline, 22 September 1819, HA 119/562/688; 27 September 1819

[11] Mrs Tomline to Sir Henry Halford, HA 119/562/716

[12] Chatham to Tomline, 19 January 1820, 5 February 1820, HA 119/562/688

[13] Chatham to Tomline, 25 July 1821, HA 119/562/688

[14] The European Magazine and London Review 1821, vols 79-80, 561; The Ezxaminer 1821, 335.

[15] Chatham to Tomline, 6 October 1821, 27 February 1822, HA 119/562/688

 

Picture of Abington Hall from here.

Picture of Sir Henry Halford from here.