Ruminations on Mortality

More happy thoughts for a (sort of) sunny Wednesday afternoon, but yesterday (24 September, that is) was the 178th anniversary of John, 2nd Earl of Chatham’s death. I suspect I was the only one who noticed— that is until I posted about it on Facebook, when roughly 200 of my friends were given the chance to be thoroughly uninterested about it— but I thought it might be an appropriate time to write this post.

John, as I have mentioned before, had no children. The heir to the Chatham title was, therefore, his brother William, who would have been mightily brassed off to be swept away to the House of Lords as Third Earl of Chatham. (Not to mention how annoyed John would have been to have his candle snuffed out well before time… although I suppose he wouldn’t have cared much.) The fate of Pitt the Younger’s government pretty much rode on John’s shoulders, and everyone knew it. Under the circumstances John’s career in the army was rather unfortunate. He didn’t serve abroad much during the wars with France but when he participated in the Helder expedition to Holland in 1799 he was whapped in the shoulder by a spent ball. It was deflected by his epaulette and he survived more or less unscathed (although his coat and waistcoat, reportedly, did not). I don’t suppose he would have been very pleased to  know that his risking his life for his country called forth the typical following encomiums from his cousin the Marquis of Buckingham:

“Lord Chatham’s escape has, I trust, decided you [his brother Lord Grenville] and others to whom the public have a right to look, not to suffer yourselves to forego for his very proper feelings as a soldier the dearest interests of the public; and that, in one word, his further service on the Continent will be negatived; a sacrifice which, I must say, he owes to the public.” (Buckingham to Grenville, 15 October 1799, Dropmore MSS V, 473)

Even a number of Pitt’s earlier biographers had a bit of fun with poor John’s narrow squeak. P.W. Wilson, for example, joked that “Pitt’s career was safeguarded  by the fraternal gold lace” (William Pitt, the Younger (1933), p. 278). Forgive me if I remain straight-faced.

It wasn’t just John’s career that put him at risk, of course. Like all the Pitt children his health was delicate, and any prolonged periods of ill health always got the London newspapers into a state of excitement. Lord Rosebery tells the story of how, “while London was illuminating for the King’s recovery [after the Regency Crisis in 1789], Lord Chatham lay mortally ill. So grave was his malady that the hunters after Providence had fixed on Grenville as the new minister” (Pitt (1891), p. 93). I haven’t found any evidence of this actually happening, but it certainly could have done, although not in the spring or summer of 1789 when John’s movements were thoroughly accounted for. What Rosebery is probably referring to (and somewhat inflating) is the accident that happened to John in the summer of 1788 which I have decided to refer to as the Septic Shoebuckle Incident. From the London Chronicle, 14-16 June 1788:

“The Earl of Chatham has been confined to his room these two months, owing to the kicking of his buckle against his ancle [sic] bone, which, though apparently a trifling accident, has hitherto baffled the efforts of his surgeon to effect a cure.”

So apparently John injured his leg on his shoebuckle (how? ……… no idea: answers on a postcard please). Apart from the fact that the above sounds fairly painful (it almost sounds like the buckle got lodged in his leg, although I think that’s unlikely), the wound obviously went septic and in the absence of antibiotics, kept John under the weather for a good long while. Family and friends were also anxious about it, and apparently with good reason because John’s leg injury kept him unwell for months. “I think my brother is now really at the eve of being able to move again,” William wrote to his mother on 29 August (Stanhope I, 382), three days after the World reported John “nearly recovered” from “a very serious confinement”. By September John was recovering at Henry Dundas’s house in Wimbledon, although it was not until 25 October that the Public Advertiser announced that he was “perfectly recovered from his tedious lameness, occasioned by a wound on the shin from his buckles”. Even that wasn’t the last word: as late as 22 March 1789 the former Pitt family tutor Edward Wilson referred to the injury in a letter to John’s mother (PRO 30/8/67 f 115): “I am truly sorry to hear that anything is the matter with my Lord Chatham’s leg again, but I have rested my hope in your Ladyship’s account of it, as I am now unwilling to trouble his Lordship with enquiries”.

The newspapers were agog. (Had John succumbed, a modern newspaper would almost certainly have run the headline: “Ministry scuppered by a shoebuckle!”) I guess it wasn’t unreasonable to suppose that four to six months was a long time to take to recover from an injury. One can only imagine John’s feelings when he openedthe Morning Herald on 2 October 1788 and discovered that at least one journalist had written him off already:

“If the Earl of Chatham, whose health is much impaired, should die, Mr Pitt will succeed [to the Earldom], and of consequence go up to the House of Peers.”

In 1791 almost exactly the same thing happened (no, not his shoebuckle — that sort of injury surely only happens once in a lifetime). This time, apparently, John fell out of his carriage and broke his leg (according to the Geneve Post on 28 July 1791, anyway). Ouchies for sure, but once again it took months for him to recover, and the length of his recovery possibly owed something to another unspecified underlying illness as Reverend Wilson referred to “the palid [sic] hues that were really alarming” (18 November 1791, PRO 30/8/67 f 53). Either way, the newspapers ran amok again. “The Earl of Chatham was prevented from making his return of the navy, on account of his Lordship’s being confined to his room with a wound in his leg, which he received in stepping to his coach,” reported the London Chronicle on 2 July. Three days later the Star reported him “much recovered”, but on 14 July wrote that he continued “much indisposed at his house in the Admiralty”. On the 19th the Geneve Post announced that he was “so very ill, that is is prevented from leaving his room”. They refrained from printing the running odds on Pitt’s succeeding to the earldom within the month, but someone must have been calculating them by then. On the 21st the Morning Herald dashed the hopes of the gambling men by deeming John “so well recovered … as to be able to resume his Presidency at the Board of Admiralty”, but the account was premature. Pitt wrote to his mother on the same day (PRO 30/8/12 f 436) “My Brother as you probably know, is not yet released from his provoking Confinement; but he certainly mends, tho slowly”. Reverend Wilson also hastened to reassure Lady Chatham: “We receive frequent & undoubted assurances that there is no ground of danger or alarm” (22 July 1791, PRO 30/8/67 f 195).

If Lady Chatham had been following the newspapers she would have needed the reassurance. The Star reopened the odds on the succession of a third Earl of Chatham on 23 July with the news that “The Earl of Chatham continues much indisposed … His Lordship has not attended the Admiralty Board this fortnight”. Not until 12 August did the Evening Mail report that Chatham had gone “out in his carriage, for the first time these six weeks”, and it was not till the end of the month that he resumed his official duties. Probably John’s health was followed so closely because he was a member of the cabinet, but some of it almost certainly had to do with curiosity as to what would happen if he keeled over.

Of course after Pitt died in 1806 nobody cared quite so much whether John lived or died, but as he got older the vultures began to cluster around the various honorary positions and emoluments he held for life in the hopes of inheriting them in due course. In 1831 John’s health collapsed and he thought himself close to death. He wasn’t the only one: the Duke of Wellington received a letter, dated 15 March 1831, from General Sir William Clinton, asking for one of John’s official posts since there was a rumour he had died. The Duke had to write back to tell Clinton he had been misinformed. (University of Southampton Wellington Papers, WP1/1178/26)

Poor John, but it does rather put me in mind of Spamalot’s “Not Dead Yet” song… (…..which probably makes me just as bad as all those sniggering historians to be honest)

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John’s later years, Part 2

So yes, despite my radio silence over the past few days I still have quite a lot of stuff to share that came from my foray into the National Archives last week. Time, then, for my Part 2 of the insight I have gleaned into the later years of the second Earl of Chatham, and it doesn’t make for happy reading.

A cursory Google search will inform you that the Pitt family tree pretty much comes to a . with John’s death in 1835. Pitt the Elder’s late marriage to Lady Hester Grenville was a successful and surprisingly fruitful one, given that both parties were somewhat past their best (Pitt was 46, Hester nearly 34): they had five children in quick succession, Hester in 1755, John in 1756, Harriot in 1758, William in 1759 and James Charles in 1761. Unfortunately five children did not guarantee continuance of the family name. Hester and Harriot both had children (… and died having children), but none of the boys managed to pass on their genes. James died aged 19, William of course died a bachelor, and John’s marriage to Mary Townshend produced no live issue.

The Chatham title was granted in 1766 by letters patent (*I think*— I actually need to check this as I am not 100% sure: mention has been made in papers of “Acts of Parliament” but I think that refers to the pension granted to the title for four lives on Pitt the Elder’s death). It was strictly limited to “issue male of the body of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham”, which meant that Hester and Harriot’s fruitfulness was, from a dynastic point of view, useless. Since John outlived all his siblings he was, automatically, the last Earl of Chatham. In the course of my research I often winced at the entries in the volumes of Burke’s and Debrett’s Peerages when I turned to the section entitled “John, Earl of Chatham” and read the line “Heir Apparent – None”. Until now I had only been able to wonder at what John’s feelings might have been had he, too, read his own entry (which he must have done, on occasion). Now I have an inkling, and bloody hell, poor John.

I mentioned in my previous entry that John came close to death in 1830, aged 73. He seems to have been very ill for a long time, and his thoughts naturally turned to posterity. He had heirs in the grandchildren of his sisters, but he seems to have panicked at the prospect of the title becoming extinct. In the Hoare MSS (a kind of add-on to the Chatham Papers) I found a draft of the following letter (in the Earl of Clarendon’s handwriting) to the Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister (PRO 30/70/4 f. 292):

“Charles St., August [blank] 1830

My dear Duke,

I would have asked the favor of an interview, if I had not thought that I shd give your Grace less trouble in addressing you by letter. I can assure you that it is not without extreme reluctance that I trespass at all upon your valuable time; But I am impelled by motives, for which I trust that no one can be more disposed than yourself to make allowance.

My own infirmities lead me to contemplate the no very distant extinction of my name & family; I may perhaps be allowed to say, considering my Fathers & my Brothers brilliant & important services (without any personal or unworthy feelings) that I do so with regret. Had the fortune of my eldest sister’s son, Mr Taylor [one of the main beneficiaries of his will], been adequate to the honor, I might perhaps have solicited your Grace to forward my respectful request to his Majesty to continue in the family the peerage which was granted to my mother [the Barony of Chatham, conferred on Lady Hester Pitt in lieu of her husband in 1761]; but I must not urge such a request. I confine myself to the object of soliciting some provision for my nephew Major Taylor … He is a most intelligent & pleasing young man, & wd not discredit any employment which you might be good enough to give him …

I will only add how deeply I shall feel any attention which you may have the goodness to shew to this application, & I remain ith the sincerest respect & regard,

My dear Duke,

Most truly & faithfully yours,

C.”

Wellington replied promptly enough, wholeheartedly agreeing to meet with Taylor to size him up for office (PRO 30/70/4 f. 293):

“London August 5th 1830

My dear Lord

I have received your Letter; and I am much concerned to hear of your continued Indisposition.

I am convinced that you will give Credit to the Existence of the anxious desire on my Part to forward any wish of Your’s for the promotion of the Interests of any of your Family.

I beg you to send Major Taylor to me in Downing Street on any day that may be convenient to him; in order that I may converse with him on his Views; and conclude with him the best mode of forwarding them. Believe me My dear Lord with the most sincre respect and Regard Your most faithful Servant

Wellington”

Not a word on the subject of the peerage, something John no doubt spotted because he seems to have dropped the subject for a while.

Interestingly, however, the Earl of Clarendon, who copied out the draft of John’s letter to Wellington, seems to have urged John to try again, this time with the highest authority. At PRO 30/70/4 f 295 d there is a draft of an unsent letter to King William IV in which John embroiders on the theme broached in his letter to Wellington:

“I am the last & almost expiring bearer of a Title, associated with the glory of this country, & of a name, borne by one, whose eminence & whose services, (under most trying circumstances for this country & for all Europe), it does not become me to point out. It is with regret that I feel the honors & the memorial of such services expiring with myself, at the same time that I have, in my niece’s [sic] Son, Mr Taylor, a nephew who wd not discredit any mark of your Majesty’s favor, and whose children will be educated in feelings of loyalty to your Majesty, & in principles worthy of their own descent. I cannot presume to say more. I submit myself to your Majesty’s gracious consideration”.

According to Clarendon (the erstwhile John Charles Villiers, close friend of both Lord Chatham and Pitt the Younger), the idea of petitioning to continue the Barony of Chatham came from him (Clarendon to Taylor, 20 March 1836, PRO 30/70/4 f 295e), although clearly John had already approached Wellington with the suggestion. Clarendon stated that only “Ld Chathams extreme illness” prevented further consideration of the subject. Presumably lack of response to repeated hints also discouraged John enough to let the subject drop. Either way the King does not seem to have become involved. Had he done so, would we still have a Lord Chatham to this day?

In conclusion, poor John, who clearly spent his last years dwelling over his failure to continue the family name, and probably also his failure to live up to the family reputation in general. In his attempt to save the title of Chatham from extinction he failed as well. Poor John indeed.