Short Story: The Arabian

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Grey desert arabian, from  here

The Late Lord was published exactly a year ago today (11 January). To commemorate the occasion, I am putting up a blog post (gasp!) to publish a short story I wrote six months or so before the book was published, for my own enjoyment. The Arabian is based on an episode that occurred during Lord Chatham’s governorship of Gibraltar, in September 1822; it’s mentioned briefly on p. 188, but it’s the sort of thing that I felt needed a longer treatment — hence this short story.

I must apologise for any horse-related errors — a friend read it through and picked me up on several idiocies, which I have corrected, but, while I am very definitely a Chatham person, I am not a horsey person at all.

Enjoy!

***

The Arabian

 

The morning gun woke Stokes just before five. The report shook the glass in the windows of his tiny room, then rolled away into a silence broken only by the crying of seagulls and the sound of the sea. From the nearby Governor’s quarters came three distant words, uttered in clipped, aristocratic annoyance:

‘That bloody gun.’

Silence re-established itself. Stokes knew from experience he would not hear that voice again for at least another six hours. He rolled out of his narrow cot, slipped Sophia’s miniature over his head, then went into the small adjoining room where his batman waited with hot water and a razor.

Stokes was at his desk at seven, the reports from the garrison neatly stacked by the inkstand. Beside them were the latest communications from the Town Major and the Captain of the Port. Laid out on the centre of the table was the leather-bound Orderly Book, already opened to the first crisp, empty page. Stokes consulted the hastily-scribbled notes his clerk had left for him, dipped his pen in ink, and began to write.

Head Quarters, Gibraltar, 2d. September 1822

General Order No. 1. The 26th Regiment will be prepared to evacuate the Cooperage Barrack immediately on the arrival of the 43rd Regiment, when four companies of the 64th will move from their present Quarters into that Barracks…

While Stokes opened letter after letter, copied their contents into the ledger books and composed formulaic responses, the Governor’s Cottage began to wake up around him. Footsteps creaked up and down the stairs, and a hum of voices intruded on Stokes’s awareness. Outside, drums beat the tattoo as the night guard at Europa Point was relieved, and a regimental band launched into a rendition of ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’. A ship coming into the Bay fired its gun to warn the garrison of its approach, followed a few moments later by the deeper reverberation of Europa Point’s battery in acknowledgement.

The door opened, and Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson came for the Governor’s correspondence. Stokes barely looked up from reaching for the pounce pot. ‘Lord Chatham is awake?’

‘Awake, dressed, and ready for his letters.’ The aide-de-camp held his hand out for them; Stokes obliged. Wilson flicked through them swiftly.

‘No dispatches from the Colonial Office,’ Stokes said helpfully. ‘One communication from Tangiers, and I’ve left it at the top.’

‘His Lordship will be grateful for that.’

‘If it will save him the trouble of reading the rest, I daresay,’ Stokes remarked, and immediately regretted the words. Wilson raised an eyebrow and changed the subject.

‘His Lordship wished me to ask if the American horse had been brought ashore yet.’

‘You mean the Arabian.’ Stokes kept his voice neutral. The Arabian had been purchased in Tunis by an American captain, whose ship was re-provisioning in Gibraltar on its way back to New York. Lord Chatham had insisted on having the horse brought ashore to see it race, but then Chatham, in Stokes’s opinion, never gave a thought for the inconvenience of others. ‘Mr Sweetland said he would be landed tomorrow.’

‘His Lordship wishes someone to report back when he is ashore. I believe you are carrying dispatches to the Lieutenant Governor. Will you go?’

‘Of course.’

‘Excellent. Lord Chatham will see you this afternoon as usual.’

The next few hours passed swiftly. The sun rose higher in the cloudless sky. Stokes loosened his stock and opened the window. The Rock shimmered in the heat. Stokes pulled out the locket that hung round his neck and opened it. Sophia’s cream skin and golden hair gazed at him, her mouth curved into the faintest smile as though to say: I am waiting for you. But Sophia was on the other side of the sea, and Stokes was in Gibraltar, chained to five isolated square miles of jagged Rock. He tucked the locket away, stared for a few moments at the tiny British flag hanging limp from the flagpole at O’Hara’s Battery, then returned to his desk to sharpen yet another pen.

At three he stood outside the Governor’s drawing-room, the day’s out-letters in one hand. Despite being perfectly on time, he could tell from the absence of orderlies that His Lordship was not yet returned from his morning ride. Stokes had only been Military Secretary three months, but those three months had been sufficient to see that everything here – the morning and evening guns; the inspections; the parades; the arrival and departure of the packet boats – worked like a military metronome. Everything, that is, save for the Governor. Lord Chatham’s habits had not changed in the twelve years since he had become notorious for commanding the disastrous Walcheren campaign, when his inactivity had contributed to the destruction of his army from disease. He drifted in and out of Gibraltar’s military and civil routine at his own pace, always good-natured but remarkably disengaged.

It was half past the hour before the sound of the guard presenting arms alerted Stokes to Lord Chatham’s return. Stokes stepped away from the map depicting the Great Siege just as Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson and Captain Taylor came upstairs followed by two Spanish servants carrying trays of wine and water. The aides barely gave Stokes more than a nod as they passed. A few minutes later the Governor himself appeared, wiping his hands on a towel. His long face was sheened with sweat and reddened from the sun, but, despite the exercise, His Lordship still gave the impression he would much rather be anywhere but here. Looking at Chatham’s melancholy, rather bored expression, Stokes fought a swell of contempt. He wished he could know, even for a moment, a fragment of the thoughts passing through the Governor’s mind. If he were able to at least respect the man, he suspected his exile from home, and from Sophia, would be less difficult.

‘Stokes,’ Chatham said, in response to the secretary’s bow. ‘What have you for me today?’

‘Nothing out of the ordinary, my lord.’

‘Well then, let us get to work.’ Chatham handed his towel to Captain Taylor, folded his tall frame into the chair by the desk, and passed a hand across his forehead with a groan. ‘Dear God, it’s hot.’

And so it went. The first time Stokes had waited on Lord Chatham he had been so tense he had forgotten to eat breakfast. Now he barely needed to think about what he did, because every day was the same. First came the dispatches for the local consuls, which Chatham read before signing next to Stokes’s pencilled cross. Then came the court martial reports, and the general orders to the various regiments for the day. Chatham worked in silence; Stokes had quickly discovered His Lordship was not over-fond of small talk. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked away, punctuated by the sound of marching and drumbeats from outside. Stokes shifted his feet and wondered whether he would have time for a walk before dinner.

‘A fair few visitors from Morocco,’ Chatham observed. The sound of his deep, cultured voice shook Stokes out of his reverie.

‘They have all been through quarantine.’

‘Good.’ Chatham signed a few more papers and lapsed back into silence. Stokes returned to thinking wistfully of his next meal.

After leaving Lord Chatham, Stokes went for his walk along the cliffs. Behind him the batteries remained a sign of Gibraltar’s military status as the guardian of the Straits, but before him was the broad, glittering expanse of the sea. A faint breeze disturbed the turgid air and brought a salty scent to his nose. The low and stately Atlas mountains of Africa pierced the haze across the Straits. The sight distracted him, and the strange golden hills made him think less of home. Less of Sophia. What was she doing now? Was she thinking of him too?

He came back to the Governor’s Cottage just as the heat began to draw off into the coolness of evening, when the shadows lengthened and the Rock glowed red in the setting sun. Stokes heard his name as he entered his office, bracing himself to receive the evening dispatches and finish work while the light persisted. He turned to face Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson.

‘Mr Stokes,’ Wilson said. ‘His Lordship would like to see yesterday’s return from the Captain of the Port a second time.’

‘Certainly.’ The aide waited while Stokes rooted through the papers until he found the list of vessels that had successfully completed their period of quarantine. He handed it to Wilson. ‘His Lordship is working late.’

‘Does that surprise you?’

In fact it did – Stokes had formed the impression Chatham stopped thinking about his official concerns after dinner – but he said, ‘I am in no hurry for the papers to be returned.’

Wilson was on his way out. At Stokes’s words he turned and closed the door behind him. ‘You do not like His Lordship, do you, Stokes?’

‘He has never been anything but kind to me,’ Stokes stammered. It occurred to him that, though most of the garrison spoke jokingly of His Lordship, he had never seen Chatham’s aides-de-camp behave with anything but respect and even affection. Wilson looked down his nose.

‘Were you at Walcheren?’ the aide said at last. Before Stokes could answer, Wilson corrected himself. ‘No, of course not. You’re far too young for that.’

‘I am a secretary,’ Stokes said, with as much dignity as he could manage. ‘My duties do not take me on active service.’

Wilson’s duties, however, clearly had. Stokes’s eyes lingered on the man’s weather-beaten face and the jagged white scar running from chin to cheek. On parade days Stokes had seen the Waterloo medal on Wilson’s chest. He had never understood how men like Wilson could lower themselves to serve men like Lord Chatham, but even as the thought registered he felt a swell of shame, as though his disrespect for Chatham somehow reflected on Wilson, too.

‘In that case,’ Wilson said in clipped tones, as though he had read Stokes’s mind, ‘I suggest you pay more attention to your duties and less to garrison gossip.’

Stokes’s cheeks flamed. ‘I am sorry. I meant nothing by what I said. I only noticed His Lordship seemed out of sorts today.’

Wilson gave him a strange look. ‘Do you not know the date?’

‘Of course I do.’ Stokes had only written it out several dozen times at the head of all the letters and orders he had drafted on Chatham’s behalf. ‘It is the second of September.’

‘Today would have been Lady Chatham’s sixtieth birthday.’

‘Lady Chatham has been dead for over a year,’ Stokes said, in genuine confusion.

‘Is it any wonder, then, that Lord Chatham should miss her this day more than any other?’

Stokes blinked. The idea that the Governor might be missing his wife had never even occurred to him. He knew Chatham’s coming out to Gibraltar had been delayed by Lady Chatham’s illness and death; he knew His Lordship had still been in full mourning when he had finally arrived. But Stokes had never felt the Governor longed for anything other than to return to England, or to be left alone. Chatham had never once spoken of his wife in the three months Stokes had known him. Stokes, who never stopped thinking about his Sophia, had always found that significant. ‘I see.’

‘I am not certain you do,’ Wilson said, and turned his back before Stokes could respond.

 

*

 

The next day Stokes again stood by the Governor’s desk as Chatham signed the day’s orders, and tried not to stare in too obvious a fashion. Did His Lordship seem more melancholy than usual? Was Lord Chatham thinking about his wife at that very moment, and did it bring him pain? Was that why he remained permanently detached from the garrison, as though he were not fully present – as though a part of him remained at his wife’s graveside in London? Lord Chatham’s heavy-lidded blue eyes flicked up and Stokes hastily looked away.

When business was over Chatham said, ‘I thank you for sending me the Captain of the Port’s account last night. It seems the Arabian is to come ashore today.’

Stokes had almost forgotten about the racehorse. How typical of Chatham to fasten on that, amidst the accounts of plague on the Barbary Coast and political unrest in Spain. ‘Yes, my lord.’

‘You will accompany me with the rest of the staff to the race tomorrow,’ Chatham said. It was not a request. Stokes bowed.

‘Of course.’

Chatham dismissed him with a wave, visibly suppressing a yawn. Stokes felt a burst of irritation. At least it will be a holiday, he thought as he mounted his horse to ride into town.

A heat haze rose off the grey brick fortifications as Stokes crossed the drawbridge and entered the fortress. The guards posted to the southern gate saluted him as he passed. As a civilian he had found this odd the first time he had experienced it, but now he barely registered the sound of hands slapping against wood and metal as the men smoothly presented their arms. Gibraltar’s cobbled streets, lined with colourful houses packed between the looming Rock and the bastions fringing the Bay, were full of people going about their business. Europeans in sober woollen coats rubbed shoulders with Spanish women in bright red cloaks. Stokes had to concentrate to guide his horse through the throng of dark-faced Moroccans, Jews with caps and long curls, and red-coated soldiers marching to their duties. Stokes often wondered what Sophia, who had never been anywhere more alien than Covent Garden Market, would make of it all. The air was heavy with the scent of sea salt and spices, and reverberated with the sound of street cries, drumbeats and all the languages of Babel.

The Convent stood empty, its tiny windows tightly shuttered against the heat, waiting for the cooler weather and the Governor’s return to the garrison. Closer to the waterside, the heat was more bearable. Evening was drawing in by the time Stokes accompanied Lieutenant-Governor Don’s aide-de-camp, Captain Waller, to the New Mole. The Bay bristled with the masts of ships at anchor, enormous warships casting shadows over tiny, patched boats from the Barbary Coast. The first evening gun fired from the signal bastion as Stokes stood on the narrow quay stretching out towards the Spanish lines and watched a flatboat approaching from the American frigate moored a mile or so offshore, away from the treacherous rocks close to the harbour. As the boat approached, Stokes could hear a high-pitched neighing that suggested the approaching horse was not entirely happy with its predicament.

‘Oh dear,’ Captain Waller murmured as the boat approached the Mole.

It took time to bring the Arabian ashore. The horse sidled and ducked as the sailors and grooms in the flatboat tried to fasten him into the sling, and squealed in fright as he was winched back onto solid ground. Stokes had no idea how long the horse must have been cooped up aboard ship, but he was certainly making up for it now, skittering from side to side. Stokes watched as the grooms calmed him down until he quieted and stopped swinging his hindquarters about in an effort to break free.

Even to Stokes’s untrained eye he was a fine horse. He was small, but built almost entirely of lean, trembling muscle, his sinews standing out like cords. Pale grey in colour, he had a handsome dark mane and legs and a proud, offended look in his intelligent eyes as he pawed at the ground, raised his head and pulled half-heartedly at the bridle. The thought popped into Stokes’s mind, unbidden: You don’t want to be here anymore than I do.

‘Where are we to take him?’ one of the grooms asked in a pronounced American drawl. Stokes stopped staring at the horse.

‘His Lordship has made a stall in his own stables available for the Arabian. It is behind the Convent in Secretary Lane.’

‘He’ll be glad of a rest,’ the other groom said, stroking the Arabian’s nose fondly. ‘It’s been a long journey.’

Stokes returned to the Governor’s Cottage just as the last evening gun heralded the curfew. The sun was low on the horizon and a breeze shifted the turgid air from the direction of the sea. As Stokes dismounted he saw Lord Chatham’s junior aide, young Captain Taylor, coming towards him. ‘Mr Stokes. Is the Arabian safely ashore?’

‘You may tell His Lordship it is.’

‘He will be grateful for the news,’ Taylor said. Stokes did not know the man well; he had kept his distance, knowing Taylor to be Lord Chatham’s great-nephew, and indeed there was a faint family resemblance in the shape of the face and the proud set of the nose. The young man added, with naked curiosity, ‘Was it a handsome horse?’

‘Very much so.’

‘His Lordship has chosen a horse to run against him. He is very much looking forward to tomorrow’s race.’

Stokes had no doubt Chatham was looking forward to the leisure time. He felt immediately ashamed of himself at the thought, and the memory of his previous day’s conversation with Wilson rose in his mind. The question formed itself in an instant, and before he could stop himself he had blurted it out. ‘What happened to Lady Chatham? Why does Lord Chatham never speak of her?’ The aide stared in astonishment. Stokes felt himself blush. ‘I am sorry. That was out of order.’

‘No,’ Taylor said, at length. ‘Those of us who work closely with His Lordship have a right to know.’ He went silent, as though picking his words.

‘I know she was ill for many years,’ Stokes prompted.

‘Yes, she was. But…’ Taylor looked Stokes in the eye. ‘Not physically.’

It took a moment for that to sink in. Then Stokes’s eyes widened. ‘Oh.’ Embarrassment vied with curiosity; curiosity won. ‘How did she die? Did … did she…?’

‘No, she did not,’ the aide said curtly. ‘In some ways it was worse. She was recovering; it was a miracle, because nobody had expected her to.’ Taylor paused; he seemed suddenly older than his twenty-three years. ‘Until her maid put too much laudanum in her barley-water.’

‘My God,’ Stokes said, hollowly. He could think of nothing else to say. ‘I am sorry.’

‘We all were,’ Taylor said. ‘We all were.’

 

*

 

The race day dawned with the morning gun. The glowing purple sky heralded a continuation of the same hot, cloudless weather Gibraltar had been enjoying for some time. Stokes worked quickly through his routine tasks, aware he would not have time to devote to them later. At one the Governor’s staff were all ready and assembled on horseback in the courtyard behind the Cottage. Somewhat to Stokes’s surprise, the Governor himself was only a few minutes late, wearing a handsome scarlet dress uniform coat with elaborate gold frogging. His steel grey hair was pulled back into an elegant queue, and the eagerness on his face made him seem younger, and happier, than Stokes had ever seen him. He mounted his horse from the block unaided, with the litheness of a man half his age, and called across to his aides,

‘Let us enjoy the pleasure of the turf, even though we are so far from home.’

After an hour’s riding they arrived at the racetrack in the Neutral Ground, a mile-long gravelled track cut from one side of the narrow peninsula to the other. Stokes had been mildly surprised to find horse-racing was not unknown here, as the terrain seemed so unfavourable to it, but the British had some time ago informally expanded into the flat band of unclaimed land between the Rock and the Spanish lines at La Linea. Here were the temporary wooden huts and shelters occupied by many of the people of the town during the hottest months of the year, when the fear of contagious disease was at its highest. Behind them, the Rock rose up from the plain with silent, monumental grace.

News of the race had travelled. There were English-born merchants in top hats and tails, Spanish gentlemen in embroidered coats, and Gibraltar’s usual mix of Europeans, Jews, and Moors, each easily distinguishable by the clothes they wore. Ladies promenaded on their husbands’ arms, sheltering under parasols or, in the case of the Spanish women, hiding behind lace veils. The regimental bands played jaunty tunes. Stokes picked out ‘British Grenadiers’, ‘Heart of Oak’ and, after a group of local women promenaded past, a spirited version of ‘Spanish Ladies’.

The moment the Governor appeared the band struck up ‘God Save the King’, and all the soldiers on duty lining the track presented arms with perfect precision. Waiting for Lord Chatham at the finishing line were Lieutenant Governor Don and a group of American naval officers. They turned, gold braid glistening in the afternoon sun. Chatham dismounted and the rest of his staff, including Stokes, followed suit. General Don made the introductions. ‘Captain Jacob Jones, your lordship. The Arabian is his.’

Jones, a spare, grizzled man with a weather-beaten face, removed his hat and bowed. ‘Your excellency. I am glad of this opportunity to see my horse run.’

‘As am I,’ Chatham said, removing his own extravagantly-feathered hat. Stokes was accustomed to seeing the Governor going through the motions on parade as though he would rather be elsewhere: he was surprised to see the enthusiasm in the cold, distant blue eyes. ‘My Weathercock has not been out for many years. I am certain your young Arabian will give him a good race, and may the best horse win.’

The horses arrived, walked over at a gentle trot by their grooms. Lord Chatham’s was a large chestnut, his sleek flanks quivering in the afternoon sun. He towered over the Arabian, who was clearly not pleased with the competition. He held his grey head up proudly as though to make himself seem larger, flicked his tail and pulled at his bridle impatiently as though to say: I want to run now. I can win.

‘A magnificent beast,’ Chatham observed to Captain Jones as the horses rode past the cheering spectators. ‘Eighteen months old, you say?’

‘Just so.’

‘He has presence for a colt of his age.’

The horses took some time to arrive at the starting line, about a mile away. Stokes could see them, distantly. He could not so much make out the horses themselves as he could the movements at the end of the track through the shimmering haze: the milling of the crowds, the clouds of dust and the glare of sunlight off metal fastenings. By the edge of the track Stokes saw Chatham call over Taylor. The aide handed the Governor a telescope; Chatham opened it and trained it on the start line.

The sun shone down relentlessly, with not a single cloud to impede it. Heat from above warred against the cool rising from the sea, and the sound of waves beating the shore travelled sluggishly through the heavy, humid air. Sea salt mingled with earthy dust coated the back of Stokes’s throat; he discreetly wiped a thread of sweat off his brow and gladly accepted a glass proffered by one of the Governor’s servants. To his astonishment, the Governor – who regularly complained about the heat, and who often took days to recover from the exhaustion of public parades – looked as sprightly as though he were by the track at Newmarket. Stokes saw him laughing at a comment from one of the American officers. The sight of it made him realise he had never seen the Governor laugh before.

‘His Lordship is in good spirits,’ Stokes remarked to Taylor, as the aide passed by. Taylor shrugged.

‘Of course he is.’

Stokes did not see why it was so obvious, but he had to admit he was fascinated by the transformation in the Governor. The habitually bored expression on Chatham’s face had completely dropped away, and when pistol shot from the other end of the track signalled the start of the race, the glint in Chatham’s eye as he traced his telescope on the start line was full of intensity. The Governor’s enthusiasm was infectious. Even though he had never been fond of racing, Stokes felt his heart pounding as he fixed his gaze on the horses and raised a hand to shield his eyes.

The Governor’s narrow shoulders were rigid, his gloved hands perfectly steady as he held the telescope. His cheeks were red in a way that owed nothing to the heat of the sun.

‘Weathercock in the lead,’ he observed to Captain Jones, who also held a telescope. ‘By at least half a length.’

Stokes could now clearly hear the thunder of hooves. The cheers were getting closer. He could see the shape of the horses, the grooms perched high on their backs. After a few moments Stokes could distinguish one horse from the other: the Arabian’s small, lithe frame moving with sinuous grace, its little legs beating the ground at a tremendous rate, alongside the much larger Weathercock. Chatham gave a cry.

‘He’s catching up.’

‘Look at him run,’ Captain Jones exclaimed. The Arabian, having spent so long aboard ship, had more work to keep up with the bigger horse, but there was something so determined about the way he moved, black tail streaming behind, that Stokes would have been completely won over even if he had not already been championing him. He felt slightly ashamed for not backing the British horse, yet one glance told him the Governor, too, was more interested in the Arabian than in the progress of his own animal.

Chatham lowered his telescope, his face bright. ‘Remarkable,’ he said. ‘Truly remarkable.’

The horses were nearly alongside now, so close to each other their legs were a confused blur of activity. Their hooves shook the ground and the scent of competition filled the air. Around Stokes everyone began to cheer. The Governor pulled off his hat and waved it, huzzaying loudly with no thought for the audience around him. Not that anyone was watching; all eyes were on the two horses, heads stretched out, nostrils flared, long tails flying behind them.

And then it was over. The horses crossed the finishing line, Weathercock a head in the lead. The grooms reined them in as best they could. The Arabian squealed when his groom yanked on the bridle, more out of frustration, Stokes thought, than pain or exhaustion. A hundred or so more yards and the Arabian would have pulled past, Stokes was certain of it.

‘Remarkable!’ Chatham shouted again. He turned to Captain Jones and pumped him by the hand. ‘I have never seen anything like it!’

The horses stood by the edge of the racetrack, quivering flanks streaked with sweat. Soldiers hurried forth carrying buckets of water to wash the horses down. Chatham led Captain Jones over, Stokes following close behind with the rest of the staff. Having expended all its energy in the run, the Arabian’s head hung down with exhaustion, but at their approach he looked up and began to fidget. Weathercock turned his head towards Chatham and gave a soft whinny of welcome. The Governor reached up and stroked his nose fondly; the horse snorted and nuzzled his coat.

‘Congratulations, your excellency,’ Captain Jones said. ‘It appears your English horses are still capable of holding their own against Arabian stock.’

‘Weathercock did well, I admit,’ Chatham observed, rubbing the horse’s forehead. His gaze, however, was on the other animal. ‘But he is six years old, and has not spent the last few months on a ship.’ The Governor turned to the Arabian. The horse was perfectly still, its black eyes on Chatham. When the Governor came closer and reached out a hand the Arabian whinnied loudly and pulled its head away, twitching its ears.

‘Hush,’ Chatham said. ‘Hush.’ The Arabian continued to pull at his reins, but the Governor moved gently closer, whistling through his teeth, pulling off his gloves and edging forwards with exquisite patience. To Stokes’s amazement, the Arabian did not move as Chatham’s hand made contact with his neck.

‘Easy,’ Chatham murmured, running his hand along the horse’s sweat-streaked flanks. The appreciation on his face as he moved around the horse was obvious; he stroked the Arabian’s nose for a moment, then bent over and ran his hands delicately down the horse’s forelegs. Stokes expected the horse to protest, but to his surprise he just stood there. It was as though the Arabian knew Chatham was impressed, and was flattered by the attention.

Stokes glanced across at Wilson and Taylor, but the two aides looked as though they had expected nothing less. This behaviour from the Governor, though entirely new to Stokes, was clearly something they were familiar with, and had seen many times before. He turned back to Chatham with new respect.

‘Splendid forequarters,’ Chatham observed, straightening slowly and whistling again as the Arabian started back in alarm. ‘The shoulder is particularly fine. He will bring you much credit, once he has matured.’

‘Weathercock is no less admirable,’ Captain Jones said. Chatham smiled and turned back to the English horse, which nickered and nibbled at his golden sash as though in protest at having been ignored.

‘My Weathercock is the pride of my stables. He was a gift from Lady Chatham; she chose him for me herself, when he was barely older than your Arabian.’ It was the first time Stokes had ever heard Lord Chatham speak his wife’s name. An expression of sadness came over his face, as though the memories had taken the shine off his enjoyment. ‘How she would have loved to have seen him run today.’

As though he sensed his master’s melancholy, Weathercock nuzzled at his lapel. Chatham lowered his head; his hand on Weathercock’s mane stilled. He said nothing, but for the first time Stokes understood exactly what the Governor was thinking about.

 

*

 

The next afternoon Stokes waited on the Governor as usual with the dispatches. Chatham had just come in from his morning ride and was still mopping his face with a handkerchief. He stopped when Stokes came in and held out a well-manicured hand for the papers.

Stokes watched the Governor as he worked. Chatham wore the same closed, distant expression he always did, but this time Stokes fancied he saw signs of the emotion the impassive mask was meant to hide. Little wonder Chatham felt the need for such a façade, with everything he had experienced over the last few years and the way in which nearly everyone – including Stokes – held him in contempt. He was like the Arabian, forced away from home to perform endless repetitive duties on foreign soil, against his desire and inclinations. No wonder he cultivated a sense of detachment; no wonder his aides were protective of him. Stokes began to feel ashamed of his own preconceptions.

‘Did you see the race, Stokes?’ Chatham asked, after a time.

‘Yes, my lord. It was most diverting.’

‘The Arabian did well,’ Chatham said. ‘I have rarely seen a horse run with so much energy. I was quite captivated.’

‘Your horse performed admirably too, sir,’ Stokes said. Remembering Chatham’s words the previous day, he added, on a whim, ‘I believe Lady Chatham would have been proud of him.’

Chatham’s pen stilled. He glanced up sharply and for a moment Stokes thought he had overstepped the mark. Disappointment welled up and he braced himself for the reprimand, but the muscles in the Governor’s jaw relaxed. ‘I believe you are right.’

He returned to the papers. Stokes decided it was high time he stopped talking. To his surprise the Governor looked up after a handful of documents and peered at Stokes as though trying to remember something. ‘You came out in the spring to relieve Major Marshall, did you not?’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘You are to be married upon your return to England?’

A strange tingle raced up Stokes’s spine, as it always did when Sophia came into his thoughts. ‘I am. To Miss Blake.’

Chatham looked at him for a moment, an unfathomable expression in his eyes. Then he smiled, and Stokes realised how rarely he had seen the Governor bestow genuine smiles on anyone. ‘It cannot be easy coming so far when you have someone waiting at home.’

Sophia’s portrait around Stokes’s neck was warm against his chest. He put his hand to where it lay, resting his fingers lightly against the lapel of his plain civilian coat. Then he saw something he had never noticed before. On the wall behind Chatham’s desk, swallowed up among the many engravings of the Bay, was a miniature of a woman with the powdered hair and enormous hat of the previous generation. She gazed out of the gilded frame with a mysterious smile, her blue eyes bright with youth and love. Stokes did not need to ask who it was; the pang of pity that lanced through him took him by surprise. Like Chatham, he wanted nothing more than to climb aboard the first available ship and leave Gibraltar for good. But he had Sophia eagerly awaiting his return, whereas Chatham would never see his wife again.

There suddenly seemed to be an extra presence in the room, bending over Chatham as he sat at his desk, arms resting lightly on his shoulders. The impression was so strong Stokes could feel the power of Chatham’s loss surging through him like electricity. He saw the pain behind Chatham’s detachment, indelibly etched into the older man’s features, and wondered how he could have missed the fact that Chatham longed for his lost love as much as Stokes did himself.

‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘but serving here brings its own reward.’ And he meant it.

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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).

Reviews, Courts Martial and Guards of Honour (and the occasional murder): the Gibraltar Orderly Books, 1821-25

Some time ago (but long after I finished the draft of The Late Lord… shhh, don’t tell anyone) I went to the National Archives to check out the Gibraltar orderly books from 1821-25 in the War Office papers.

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(Wikimedia Commons)

The reason I hadn’t used them before was mostly that I just didn’t know they existed. I do wish a little I had discovered them earlier, though, as they shed fascinating – if somewhat repetitive – light on what my boy Chatham’s day consisted of during his four years as active Governor of the Rock. Of the underlying political and social tensions there was little sign: but then everything here seems to have been ticking over like a well-oiled military machine.

The entries were always structured in the same manner. They began by assigning various officers to their duties overseeing Gibraltar’s several military districts, then separated the military garrison into details and assigned them to whatever tasks needed doing. Occasionally something out of the ordinary would happen and be recorded, and the Governor’s movements about the peninsula (headquarters followed him, obviously) were meticulously recorded.

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Governor’s Cottage, Europa Point, where Chatham stayed July-November every year (Wikimedia Commons)

From these, I was able to deduce a number of interesting things, none of which will end up in the biography as it’s way too late for that.

  1. Chatham was late arriving in Gibraltar

But of course he was. And I kind of knew this already, as he had been expecting to go out since at least May. But the first reference to his imminent arrival was on 19 October 1821: “The arrival of General The Earl of Chatham, Governor of this Fortress may be daily expected…” (WO 284/24) Arrangements were made for the salute to be fired on his arrival and the Guards of Honour (more on those in due course) which would greet him. Of course Chatham didn’t actually show up until 15 November.

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(Wikimedia Commons)

  1. When Chatham did arrive, nobody recognised him …

I’d guess this was because he swanned around in civvies, but I can’t explain the following order any other way:

“Whenever His Excellency the Governor or the Lieutenant Governor, passes the Guards, whether dressed in uniform or otherwise, the Guards are imediately [sic] to turn out in the usual way” (25 November 1821, WO 284/24)

  1. …. and Chatham was a stickler for ceremony

I knew this too, but again, the following order speaks volumes (presumably General Don, his lieutenant-governor and deputy, had allowed ceremonies to slip):

“On the termination of the Troop [for the guard mounting] the Senior Field Officer will arm A General Salute, with presented arms, Band playing ‘God Save the King’ if the Governor or Lieutenant Governor shall be on the Ground.” (30 November 1821, WO 284/24)

  1. Chatham really, really, really liked his Guards of Honour

Yes, he was the King’s representative in Gibraltar (hence the band playing “God save the King” whenever he turned up… see No. 3), but still, whenever he did anything public, orders go out for a Guard of Honour: always consisting of one captain, three subalterns, four sergeants and four corporals, and 100 privates, usually from one of the four regiments in the garrison, along with two ensigns to carry the colours and a full band and drums.

Except, apparently, when it rained. (11 January 1825, WO 284/27)

  1. Chatham liked his parades

Big shock here. Don continued to review the troops bi-annually, although Chatham also reviewed each regiment separately. But the troops turned out to celebrate the King’s official birthday (George IV, 23 April) every year, with the manoeuvres and review order meticulously planned out each time, and Chatham always attended those.

Except when he was ill, as he was in April 1822. (22 April 1822, WO 284/24)

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19th century military review (Wikimedia Commons)

  1. Courts martials were held regularly and recorded in the garrison order books

I was especially struck by the variety of the punishments, often for the same offence: I guess we don’t really know exactly what the details were, as the records are pretty po-faced, but still.

A lot of them seem to have been designed to make a point. The first court martial under Chatham’s watch, in January 1822, involved three acting corporals in the 75th Regiment refusing to undertake their duties and disobedience of orders. They were found guilty and the sentence was pretty harsh: five hundred lashes each in the presence of 410 soldiers, with a medical officer in attendance. Ouch. (6 January 1822, WO 284/24)

Lots of the courts martial dealt with drunkenness (with punishments ranging from one to two months in solitary confinement and a certain amount of forfeiting of pay), and a lot of soldiers deserted (punishments for this: either death by hanging, or transportation for 7 or 14 years).

Officers, unsurprisingly, came off rather more lightly. Captain B.J. Duhigg of the 27th was found guilty of “conduct subversive of Military Discipline” at a court of inquiry and at a parade, but he got off with a personal rebuke from the Governor on the first charge and an apology for the second. (18 April 1822, WO 284/24) When Ensign Joseph McLeod Tew, also of the 27th, was found guilty of “Scandalous and infamous conduct, such as is unbecoming the character of an Officer and a Gentleman” – he called another ensign “a damned pimping Scoundrel, and I will call my Servant to turn you downstairs” – his accuser, who was found to have perjured himself but was also an Ensign, was kept under “arrest at large” until the King’s pleasure on his conduct arrived. (7-14 July 1823, WO 284/25)

Chatham never attended, but he always signed the sentence and occasionally made comments on them. On one occasion he disagreed with the sentence and intervened, whereupon the court martial sat again and revised their sentence. This occurred on the occasion of the court martial of Lieutenant William Grove White of the 94th for “using grossly insulting and outrageous language to Ensign Coward”. The court had found him guilty, stripped him of his rank and placed him at the bottom of the list of lieutenants. Chatham agreed he was guilty, but found the punishment too lenient:

Approved, as far as the finding of the Court goes, but when I look at the sentence awarded, it appears to me, to be so wholly disproportioned to the serious charge, of which the Prisoner has been found Guilty, so little conducive to the ends of Justice, and the upholding the discipline of the British Army, that I feel it to be my indispensable duty, to order that the Court shall reassemble for the purpose of revising their sentence.

The next day the court duly reassembled and decided to discharge Lieutenant Grove White from military service entirely. They nevertheless recommended Lieutenant Grove White to the King’s clemency. This attempt to mitigate the sentence fell on deaf ears, and the Duke of York passed on the King’s “regret and Surprize” at the inadequacy of the court’s initial ruling, rejecting Lieutenant Grove White’s petition for clemency and confirming his removal. (12 July, 22 November 1824, WO 284/26)

  1. When you find an order like this, something really interesting must have happened…

The Reliefs of all Guards will until further Orders be paraded with their hammer Caps on, which are not to be taken off except the Sentries have occasion to fire.” (6 October 1824, WO 284/26)

What on earth happened here? I’d say it was odd to find an order going out specifically telling the guards not to fire unless they absolutely had to. Obviously someone fired when they weren’t meant to do so, with unfortunate results.

The answer comes a few days later on the occasion of a court martial, held 20 October 1824 (also in WO 284/26). The incident, predictably, had a tragic ending for all parties. A private of the 94th was accused of firing on Corporal Archibald Turner of the same regiment “by Discharging the contents of a loaded Musket at him” outside the barracks.

The private tried to make out his finger had slipped, but his case was not helped by the fact that Corporal Turner had died after lingering a fortnight or so. The court martial found the private guilty, and he was hanged on 22 October at 9am at Landport Glacis. The entire 94th regiment, in the meanwhile, was kept off duty – that’s an interesting touch: would this have been usual?

I wonder what the story was behind this incident…

  1. Chatham’s farewell to his garrison may not have been entirely candid

At the beginning of January 1825 Chatham had had enough of the endless round of reviews, court sessions, military trials, not being saluted properly, etc etc. He asked for a recall on the grounds of his poor health, and this was granted.

On 3 June 1825, four days before his embarkation, Chatham issued the following commendation to the garrison:

His Excellency before he embarks, is anxious to express to the Troops, his entire approbation of the orderly and soldierlike conduct they have evinced in the time they have been under his command.

He begs to offer, to the Officers, NCOs, and Privates composing this Garrison his cordial thanks, as well as particularly to acknowledge the sense he entertains of the unremitting and able exertions, of the Officers commanding the Corps, which have been so eminently led, both in the Field and in Quarters, to establish and maintain that high state of discipline, which reflects so much credit, upon the Regiments serving here, and it is with particular satisfaction, he has witnessed the rapid and efficient progress made by the 94th Regiment under the superintendence of Lt Col Allan. [Apart, obviously, from the occasional murder from within the ranks.]

His Excellency cannot separate himself from this Garrison without considerable regret, but he anticipates great satisfaction in the early occasion it will afford him, of personally representing their exemplary good conduct to HRH the Commander in Chief. (3 June 1825, WO 284/27)

Given Chatham had never made any secret of his homesickness and dislike of the garrison under his command, I don’t suppose this “considerable regret” fooled anyone – especially when he brought his embarkation forward by two hours (he clearly couldn’t wait to leave!). (7 June 1825, WO 284/27)

 

 

References

All quotations from TNA WO 284/24-27, Gibraltar Orderly Books 1821-25

Lord Chatham in Gibraltar — the FIRST time

Still in Gibraltar. This morning I went up the Rock in a cable car (expensive but worth it) and sat on a bench overlooking the bay to write my chapter dealing with the 2nd Earl of Chatham’s active Governorship here, 1821-5. It was bliss, and I was completely untroubled by monkeys, lizards, seagulls, &c &c, which was a small mercy as I was surrounded by all the above. Nope, it was just me, my laptop, and John Chatham for three amazing hours.

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On my way down (clutching my laptop) I spotted an offroad track which was advertised as a walking route. In a moment of utter lunacy, I decided to take it. For a while, it was pretty nice, if narrow and with a deceptively deep drop on my right:

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About half an hour after I took this shot, however, the path took me round private property (steep uphill climb across limestone shards? Why not!) and then back down again (steep downhill across limestone shards? Even better!). At this stage the path just came to a . Thankfully I could see the paved road about ten metres below me, but somehow I had to get down to it. So I climbed. Well, you know, I had no alternative (other than walking back the way I came for 45 minutes … er no, thank you, and yes, I still had my laptop with me).

So there I was sliding down the side of the Rock, totally channelling my inner James Bond (well, I wasn’t sure whether or not I was trespassing on MoD property…) and it occurred to me to wonder whether the 2nd Earl of Chatham ever did anything like this while he was in Gibraltar. But no, of course not. He was in his late 60s.

Which was the inconvenient moment at which it hit me. He was in Gibraltar in the 1770s too. As aide-de-camp to General Robert Boyd, Sir George Elliott’s Lieutenant Governor.

How the heck could I have forgotten that?!

And, while I was clinging to the side of the rockface by my fingernails (OK yes, that’s a slight exaggeration … but not much), I had a flashback of walking past a shelf at the Gibraltar National Archives on Tuesday full of volumes of official Diaries kept by the Governor’s secretary from the early 1770s to about 1810. I’d passed it by thinking “Ooh how nice, too early”, but … what if John was mentioned?

I survived my descent, of course (I did say I exaggerated a bit) and, as it was only three o’clock, repaired as fast as I could to the Archives. I’m not 100% sure what they thought when I turned up all dusty, disshevelled and slightly sunburnt, but within a few minutes I had the 1778 and 1779 diaries open before me on the table.

Within about ten minutes I startled everyone in the room with my cry of triumph.

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Do you see what I see? (This is the entry for 7 July 1778). The entry goes on to list the accompanying convoy for about three pages, in some serious detail. But the relevant bit is this: “Arrived from England His Majesty’s Ship Romulus of 44 guns and 280 men, commanded by Capn. Gayton in 23 days from Spithead. Passengers, Lieut: General Boyd, Colonel Green, Colonel Ross, Lord Chatham and Mr Buckeridge, Lieutenants in the 39th Regt.”

William Buckeridge, incidentally, was Boyd’s other ADC.

I knew Chatham had arrived in Gibraltar early July 1778, but now I had a date — and also a ship, a departure point, and a journey length. 😀 But this is the mysterious bit. 23 days’ journey means the Romulus left Spithead on or about the 15 June 1778. So why did Chatham not attend his father’s funeral on the 8th? He must have had a cast-iron reason, otherwise people would have talked, but why not? I know the convoy was all embarked and ready to leave by mid-May: perhaps the ships were delayed by adverse winds? I find it hard to believe Chatham would have been refused permission to attend the funeral if it had been possible for him to go. And I find it even harder to believe he would not have wanted to go. Pageantry was John’s forté, and he did it very well.

Be that as it may, there was more. All letters sent from the garrison with the official Governor’s packet were recorded, and their recipients. So I know Chatham was writing home on 16 and 20 July, and also on 8 and 12 October:

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On the left: letters listed to Mrs Mary Pitt, Lady Mahon (Chatham’s eldest sister), Thomas Pitt, and the Countess of Chatham; on the right, letters to the Hon. Mr Pitt, Pembroke Hall, the Marquis of Granby (later the 4th Duke of Rutland, Chatham’s best bud), and Lady Harriot Pitt, Chatham’s younger sister.

As you will know from previous posts, Chatham left Gibraltar in early 1779 to go back to Britain. I was a bit unsure about whether he left in February or March, and how much leave he was granted, but now I know the answer: he left on 2 March, and his leave was six months. (Within that period the siege had started, and he transferred to another regiment, so the next time he returned to Gibraltar was as Governor in 1821.)

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Apologies for the quality of the above photo — the 1779 Diary is in pretty darn poor nick — but it reads “Leave of Absence for 6 months granted Earl of Chatham. Travelling Pass E. Chatham, Honble. Captain Conway and Lieutenant Colt to go to Madrid, 3 Months; also Permit for said Gentlemen to pass to Cadiz, to morrow, with 3 Servants and Baggage.” It was issued on 1 March 1779.

I am so, so chuffed by this, you have no idea. It was totally worth nearly falling down the Rock for.

__________

References

All material from the Governor’s Diaries, March – November 1778 and 1778 – 1782, Gibraltar National Archives

190 years ago yesterday: Lord Chatham leaves Gibraltar

I am currently in Gibraltar, having the time of my life visiting the archives and chasing monkeys. I was wandering about the Upper Rock, taking in the Straits and very much enjoying the sun and the sights, when something struck me. It has been almost exactly 190 years since the 2nd Earl of Chatham — the man I am here to research — left Gibraltar.

Streets of Gibraltar

Chatham succeeded the Duke of Kent as Governor of Gibraltar in January 1820. I suspect he at first had very little intention of ever coming out (the Duke of Kent, after all, had been an absentee governor since his disastrous attempt to serve in person resulted in several mutinies) but was only forced into it by the fact the House of Commons started discussing expensive sinecures, and Chatham’s governorship came up. Ministers were all “Oh yes, Chatham has every intention of going out there”, probably all while wrestling Chatham bodily onto the boat.

Chatham was meant to have gone out in May 1821, but was held up by three things: 1) his wife’s death on 21 May; 2) King George IV’s visit to Ireland, which snarled up all available frigates; and 3) his own reluctance. He really did not want to go, and it did not help that he suffered from profound depression for months after his wife’s death. Nevertheless, as soon as all ships had returned from Ireland and he had run out of excuses, Chatham boarded the Active frigate at the end of October 1821 and arrived in Gibraltar on 15 November. I can’t imagine it was a pleasant trip, although, at 19 days, it was relatively short.

Having spent the day perusing the Gibraltar Chronicle with great care, I can now say a little bit more about what Chatham did in Gibraltar, but for the details you’ll have to wait till my book comes out next September. Suffice to say he never warmed to the place, possibly not helped by the fact Lord Maryborough, who had taken over Chatham’s old rented house of Abington, kept writing to tell Chatham about the abundance of game on the estate and what wonderful hunts he was missing. Chatham’s weak health did not get on with the climate, and by early 1825 his health was pretty much shattered.

He wrote for permission to return to England, which was granted. He stayed long enough to lay the foundation stone of the church that would become the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity on 1 June, then high-tailed it with all the speed his weakened frame could muster.

Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Gibraltar

Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Gibraltar

The Gibraltar Chronicle recorded Chatham’s departure in its 8 June edition. Chatham’s last day was a sunny, clear 23 degree day:

“Yesterday, at 12 o’clock, His Excellency General the Earl of Chatham, Governor of this Fortress, embarked on board HM Frigate Tribune, Capt. Guion, returning to England on leave of absence.

The streets from the Convent to Ragged-Staff [Wharf] were lined by the Troops composing the Garrison; and His Excellency, being received at the Convent Gate by a Guard of Honor from the 43rd Light Infantry, proceeded, accompanied by the Lieutenant Governor, General Sir George Don, and the Officers of the Military and Civil Departments. On arriving at Ragged-Staff, His Excellency was received by another Guard of Honor furnished by the 94th Regiment, and, at the moment of stepping into the Barge, was saluted with 19 Guns from the Garrison, which were repeated by the Frigate on His Excellency’s arrival on board.

The Tribune shortly after got under weigh, and sailed into the Straits with a light breeze at East.”[1]

Ragged Staff Gates, Gibraltar (Wikimedia Commons)

Ragged Staff Gates, Gibraltar (Wikimedia Commons)

In fact Chatham’s “leave of absence” was permanent, and he never returned. As late as 1829 there was talk that he might well come back, but, although Chatham recovered to a degree after returning to England, his health had been permanently damaged. He was, after all, nearly 69 in June 1825. He was seriously ill in 1829, and nearly died in 1831. Even so, when the Reform Bill came before Parliament in 1831, Chatham was terrified that he — as an opponent of reform — might be sent off to Gibraltar to prevent him causing trouble in the Lords: “Lord Chatham has the fear before his eyes of being ordered off to reside upon his government”.[2]

Grand Casemates Gate, 1824

Grand Casemates Gate, 1824

So it was that when Chatham died on 24 September 1835, he had been Governor of Gibraltar for fifteen and a half years, but only served there for four. Still, he did rather better than a number of Gibraltar histories imply (one I’ve seen flat out denied he ever went out there) and better than the Duke of Kent. At least there were no mutinies!

References

[1] Gibraltar Chronicle, 8 June 1825

[2] Duke of Buckingham to the Duke of Wellington, 27 September 1831, Southampton University Wellington MSS WP1/1196/18

“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.

Insight into John’s later years (Part 1)

John, Earl of Chatham is fast becoming my Best Research Buddy (BRB for short— and who’m I kidding? Let’s just call him John from here on in for concision’s sake. John, blog readers; blog readers, John. Excellent, now we can move on :-D).

The problem is John is one of the Invisible Men in history, unless, as you may have noticed, he is being laughed at/scorned/denigrated/otherwise-middle-finger-saluted by historians. Students of Pitt the Younger may spot him hanging around in a rather embarrassed fashion on the fringes, making the occasional appearance in correspondence, at cabinet meetings, or in Pitt’s private life. Military historians will remember his record at Walcheren in 1809 (STILL not ready to write that post, so just read this for now and then forget you ever heard of it). But otherwise nobody knows who he is, really, and he almost completely drops off the radar in 1810. This isn’t exactly surprising (I suspect John kept his head down as much as possible after Walcheren) but, given he survived until 1835, that’s 25 years unaccounted for— more than the 22 he spent in public office.

I’ve been trying to work out what happened to John after 1810. Not for my novel, obviously— a book about the relationship between John and his brother William naturally comes to a close somewhere around, ooh, say, 23 January 1806— but just for curiosity’s sake. My research is still very much a work in progress, and I suspect not much will come of it until I’ve finished my novel, but I’ve found a few interesting things so far.

The years 1810-20 are still something of a haze to me, so let’s start in 1820. In January of that year John was appointed Governor of Gibraltar. He didn’t go out for a good long while, though. I can’t be sure why, but it probably has something to do with his wife. Mary, Countess of Chatham was approaching the end of her life at this stage; according to her obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine (1821, p. 565) she “had been indisposed nearly two years” prior to her death, so presumably she was suffering from cancer or some other gradually debilitating disease. At the end of April 1821 the newspapers rumoured that John was about to undertake his official duties at last (Times, 30 April 1821), but by the beginning of May John was still in London and still appearing at public functions (for example the King’s birthday dinner on the third). Mary died on 20 May, and although there were rumours that John was about to go out to Gibraltar he did not actually arrive until November 1821.

What he did there I couldn’t tell you now, although I suspect that, too, will be a research object in the future. He stayed in Gibraltar until July 1825. At the beginning of that month he landed back in England “on leave of absence” (Times, 1 July 1825). By the fourth he was in London and the King wrote to him inviting him to attend a “dress ball” at St James’s Palace that evening (PRO 30/70/6 f 420).

Even if the nearly sixty-nine year old John had managed to recover from his journey in such a short time, I doubt whether he was in any condition to attend that ball. I have a suspicion, in fact, that ill health influenced his decision to leave Gibraltar in the first place. John was treated at home by an apothecary on four occasions from 11 to 14 July for fever (PRO 30/8/370 f. 63). His health doesn’t seem to have recovered for a while, either. A good friend and I recently visited Berry Brothers & Rudd, the wine merchants in St James’s, London, where rich and famous customers came throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to be weighed on the enormous coffee scales there. We discovered that John was weighed there on 29 September 1821, just before setting out for Gibraltar. His weight then was 11st 13.5lb, comfortably within a healthy BMI range for a 65-year-old tallish man. On 3 August 1825 it was 9st 10.5 lb, fully clothed and with boots. He was weighed a further four times over the next six months so clearly seems to have been keeping an eye on his weight. By November he seems to have fully recovered— his weight plateaued at about 10st 13lb, and he was well enough to go shooting with friends (Times, 7 November 1825). At the end of 1829 the Times reported categorically that his ill health would prevent him going out again and, although he was occasionally sighted thereafter transacting official business at the Colonial Office, he did not return to Gibraltar (Times, 18 June 1828, 15 January and 20 August 1829).

After that he really does almost completely disappear from the radar. In August 1830 it seems he came so close to death he started to panic about what would happen to his title and estate (more on this later). He was not yet at the end of his life, but clearly had a shock: he took out at least two life insurance policies (……one of which he may or may not have ever actually paid for…) and set about drawing up his will, naming his great nephews William Stanhope Taylor (grandson of his sister Hester) and John Henry Pringle (grandson of his sister Harriot) as joint beneficiaries and executors. In classic John style he got at least one of the names wrong in the official paperwork, which led to a comparatively lengthy period of legal discussion after his death as his heirs patiently tried to explain to the authorities that “Thomas William Taylor” did not in fact exist (the will is available to download from the National Archives, PROB 11/1852).

Although it looks like his health never did fully recover, he still managed to find time for court duties. The latest I have seen him appear in public was at a function for military gentlemen held in Brighton on 13 January 1835. He died on 24 September 1835 at his house in Charles Street, and was buried towards the end of October. I have no idea how much in debt he was but according to the Times of 10 November “all claims on the estate were paid immediately subsequent to the funeral”. How Messrs Taylor and Pringle managed this minor miracle I could not tell you, but in the National Archives there is a catalogue of an auction selling the late Earl of Chatham’s belongings at Christie’s, 16 May 1836 (PRO 30/8/370 f 147). Everything appears to have been sold, from the contents of Chatham’s cellar to the servants’ bedlinen. The leasehold of the house itself— mortgaged from the Dowager Countess of Suffield— was sold for £3000 (PRO 30/7/370 f 137).

John was, of course, long beyond caring by then. He got an earl’s funeral in the family vault at Westminster Abbey, where he joined his father, mother, brother William, sister Harriot and wife. His father and brother got public funerals, but John’s must have also been quite impressive. He was buried in a “strong elm” coffin lined in white satin, enclosed in soldered lead and an outer coffin, also made of elm, studded with brass nails and “richly gilt and burnished” earl’s coronets and garter stars. The funeral train included all the accoutrements of a medieval earl’s funeral, three mourning coaches, “a caparisoned horse” and a hearse drawn by six horses (PRO 30/8/370 f 152). But with that final burst of glory John subsided into obscurity.

Apologies for the gush fest, but I have a very definite feeling that I am the first person since, ooh, 1835, to have looked at half these documents. I feel kind of privileged. 😉