“Thank God all is well over”: family reactions to Pitt’s duel, May 1798

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Whitsunday, 27 May 1798. Four men arrive on Putney Heath in hackney carriages. Their meeting is supposed to be secret, but somehow word has got out and a small crowd is already gathering.

The crowds watch as two of the men choose pistols and take their places opposite each other. One of the other gentlemen raises his hand; the other holds the pistol case and chews a thumbnail.

On the first man’s signal the two antagonists fire without effect. After a short deliberation the process is repeated, the taller of the two duellists firing into the air. This time everyone seems satisfied, and the party return to their respective vehicles.

The duellists were none other than the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, and the leader of the parliamentary opposition, George Tierney (Charles James Fox had seceded from Parliament more or less completely in 1797, and would not return until 1800). Pitt had accused Tierney of a deliberate attempt to obstruct the defence of the country during a debate on an emergency bill to secure additional manpower for the Navy; Tierney had demanded an apology, Pitt refused to back down, and the next day Tierney had issued his challenge.

The country was either fascinated or horrified (and possibly a combination of both) at the prospect of the wartime prime minister putting himself deliberately in harm’s way. William Wilberforce, Pitt’s friend, was doubly incensed by the duel’s taking place on a Sunday, and actually gave notice of a motion on duelling in the House of Commons (he later withdrew it on Pitt’s insistence). Wilberforce said “he had felt more solicitude upon it [the duel] than upon almost any other occasion”.[1]

But how did Pitt’s family react to the duel? Pitt’s brother, Lord Chatham, almost certainly disapproved of his brother making a fool of himself, but if he did he kept his opinion to himself. All we know is that Chatham told Henry Addington, the Speaker, that he had been right not to try and stop the duel taking place: “Lord Chatham remarked that I [Addington] could not have taken any step so injurious to his family … my interfering would have looked too much like collusion”.[2]

Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth as Speaker of the House of Commons

Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth as Speaker of the House of Commons

It’s clear from a letter from the King to Pitt, however, that Chatham had (probably quite cheerfully) passed on a stern royal message on the subject of duelling with members of the opposition. “I certainly said nothing to Lord Chatham but what my mind dictated, and I trust what has happened will never be repeated,” the King wrote on 30 May. “… Public characters have no right to weigh alone what they owe to themselves; they must consider also what is due to their country.”[3]

As for Pitt’s elderly mother, aged 77 and not in the best health, I can’t imagine how she must have felt on receiving the following letter from Pitt written on 28 May (Pitt’s 39th birthday):

You will be glad, I know, to hear from myself on a subject in which I know how much you will feel interested, and I am very happy that I have nothing to tell that is not perfectly agreeable. The newspapers of to-day contain a short but correct account of a meeting which I found it necessary to have with Mr Tierney yesterday, on Putney Heath, in consequence of some words which I had used in the House of Commons, and which I did not think it became me to retract or explain. The business terminated without anything unpleasant to either party, and in a way which left me perfectly satisfied both with myself and my antagonist, who behaved with great propriety. You will, I know, hear from my brother on the subject, but I could not be contented without sending these few lines from myself.[4]

In fact Chatham had already written to the Dowager Countess. He did so on Sunday night, so on the 27th, immediately after the duel, so Pitt was a day behind: his letter was old news. Perhaps he had counted on this to an extent, but he must have wondered what his brother said.

Judging from the following letter from Chatham’s wife Mary to the Dowager Countess’s companion, Mrs Stapleton, the Chatham household was all in a flap:

My Dear Mrs S.,

Not knowing that L[ord] C[hatham] had sent to dear L[ad]y C[hatham] by the Mail Sunday night, I would not, for fear by chance, any Letter should have been opened first, say any thing of what had passed. Thank God all is well over, I knew nothing of it till it was so, & the shock it would be to our dearest Dear friend, was my very first thought. I never wrote a more uncomfortable Letter in my life to you than I did yesterday. I did not dare touch upon what was uppermost in my thoughts, & every other subject appeared so trifling. We all say there must be an Embargo laid upon his ever venturing such a thing again. The lower people all say that the King might as well fight as Mr Pitt. Report says that Sheridan is very angry with Tierney on the subject. But what is more important to me is dear Lady Chathams health, send me one line to let me know how she has borne this business. I heard the King tell Lord Chatham from one card table to another last night that Mr Wilson [Dean of Windsor and Pitt and Chatham’s former tutor] who had just come from Burton gave a good account of her, adding how much pleased he was at knowing that she was just now well enough to bear this excitement.[5]

Mary, Countess of Chatham (ca 1800) by Charles Rosenburg of Bath; in the possession of Ron Mills

Mary, Countess of Chatham (ca 1800) by Charles Rosenburg

Oh to be a fly on the wall at that royal card-playing session… Or indeed a fly on the wall when Chatham told Mary about his brother’s duel.

“Good evening, dear. Had a good day?”

“Uhm. Not really. Er. My brother fought a duel with Mr Tierney.”

“Oh dear, that’s — wait. What?”

_________________

References

[1] Express and Evening Chronicle, 31 May 1798

[2] George Pellew, Life of Lord Sidmouth I, 205

[3] Lord Stanhope, Life of Pitt III, appendix XIV

[4] Lord Stanhope, Life of Pitt III, 132

[5] National Army Museum Combermere MSS 8408-114

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“My lot has indeed been a hard one”: Lord Chatham and his money problems, again

A while ago I quoted a short bit from one of John, 2nd Earl of Chatham’s letters to Mrs Stapleton, his mother’s former companion, in which he lamented the impact of his brother’s death and wife’s ill health on his finances. On that occasion John did manage to scrape together a loan of one hundred and fifty pounds; but it was not the first time Mrs Stapleton had cause to ask John for a loan … nor was it the last.

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John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (1821)

I found the May 1808 letter referred to above interesting in that John did a bit of muttering about his financial difficulties, but it was NOTHING compared to the two letters I found today. These are full-on hand-wringing affairs, quite uncharacteristic of John, and I imagine they would have made quite an impact on Mrs Stapleton for that reason. Whether it was the impact John wished to have is … debatable, because even I (and I freely admit I am more indulgent towards John than many people would be) found them a bit on the pathetic side. Still, there’s no doubt he was an unlucky enough chap, and even if he manages to blame everyone but himself for his predicament I have no doubt his woes were real enough.

I will quote the letters in full, because they make for impressive reading.

Letter One: Colchester, 13 December 1807

My Dear Mrs Stapleton,

Your letter of ye 3rd Inst[ant] from Wynnstay has been forward to me here, where I have been fixed for some time, going up occasionally to London for business, and to see Lady Chatham who is at Frognall. I shou’d be happy if I cou’d tell you, she was as much recovered as you so kindly wish her, but tho very much better, she had not regained her strength sufficiently, when I last saw her, to come down here with me, but I hope to find her better when I go up again which will be in a few days. I must now however painfull tell you, that I have delayed writing to you several days, from the reluctance I felt to return you the only answer in my power, which is, that at this time I really can do nothing. It is doubly painful to me to write on this subject, as it is scarcely possible I shou’d do it, without complaining of the past, which no one has ever yet heard me do. You know full well the manner in which my hands are tied up, and in which I was left, without the power of raising one single sixpence. The business of Burton, from the difficulties attending it, is not yet closed;[*] and when it is, the whole life Interest I have in it, is not worth much above half of what My Mother’s debts amount to. How I shall be able to deal with them I know not. I hope, but till I see my way, I can only hope, that I may have it in my power to make some arrangement about them. My own incumbrances, which from unfortunate events have pressed hard upon me, I can only get rid of gradually by devoting a larger Portion of my Income regularly to them, than I can well manage to do. Had my poor Brother lived, who was jointly with me called upon to pay My Mother’s debts it might have been more easily accomplished. He thought with me, that they might have been paid out of ye Money for which Burton sold, with ye consent of my Nieces. But now alas, as their prospect of inheritance is so much meaner, the thing is more difficult, nor have they the same temptation to agree to it. I mean by this the Stanhopes, for dear Mrs Pringle wou’d do any thing. Had the Estate, been mine, as it shou’d have been, in failure of my Brothers, I shou’d have desired the principal satisfaction, from its having put it in my power to have paid my Mother’s debts, and instead of the pain of this letter, to have had the happiness of doing at once what you wished. I can say no more, and will only add

That I am My Dear Mrs Stapleton

Your Very Affect[ionat]e

Humble Servant

Chatham

[*] I presume this is a reference to the fact Chatham was sued by the Pinney family over the terms of the sale of the Burton Pynsent estate.

Mary, Countess of Chatham (ca 1800) by Charles Rosenburg

Mary, Countess of Chatham (ca 1800) by Charles Rosenburg

Letter Two: Colchester, 2 December 1810

Private

My Dear Mrs Stapleton,

I did not venture here till yesterday, and had no opportunity of writing to you till this days Post, and I am quite vexed to find, that owing to some business which has engaged me till late, I shall not be in time. The subject of your letter is indeed, as you say, one mutually painful to us both. You do me but justice in believing that I feel, and most truly and sincerely I can assure you, I do, for your situation. But painful as it is to me to say it, I will not disguise the truth or deceive you by holding out expectations which, without some good fortune or other, I confess I do not see the prospect of being able to realise. Had my poor Brother been spared, I hardly know how, even together, we cou’d have met the heavy embarrassments which my Poor Mother left. Alone, I can have but little hope of bringing them to a satisfactory settlement. I have paid already more than I know how to deal with, & the consequence has been that it has so thrown me back in all my own payments, that I am pressed at this moment to a degree of inconvenience that I do not like to own, except in confidence to you. My lot has indeed been a hard one. Lady Chatham’s long Illness, in itself a source of the bitterest affliction, has been attended with an expence, that has more than counterbalanced all the efforts, which by a strict oeconomy I cou’d make to bring my affairs at all around, and it is on her account alone, that I am induced not to turn my back at once upon London, rather than to go on struggling with the difficulties I have to contend with. In this situation I am grieved to say I can do nothing. I have dwelt upon this unpleasant subject more than I had intended, but I felt anxious you shou’d be impressed, that nothing but utter impossibility shou’d prevent me from offering my assistance at this distressing moment, and doing that which it wou’d afford me the highest gratification to find in my power. I will not add more than that I am

My Dear Mrs Stapleton

Always Very Sincerely & Affect[ionatel]y Yours

Chatham

PS. I have said nothing to Lady Chatham about your letter. It wd too much distress her on your account, and I make every thing appear to the best. C

*   *   *

So there you have it. I’m not too sure what Mrs Stapleton’s reaction can have been to the line “my lot has indeed been a hard one”. Poor John had, indeed, had a bad time of it 1807-10, what with Mary being ill, Walcheren and the aftermath, and the loss of his lucrative salary as Master General of the Ordnance. But he was hardly badly off by any standards: he had a combined annual pension of seven thousand pounds, not to mention his salaries as Commander of the Eastern District, Governor of Jersey, and High Steward of Colchester.

I suppose I would have preferred him to say “Yes! Of course I’ll help, even if I can’t afford it!” But then I suppose learning to say no is, perhaps, one of the only ways to get oneself out of debt. And as we all know, John eventually did get himself out of debt, but not before he had learned his lesson the hard way

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References

Both Chatham letters are in NAM Combermere MSS 8408-114