Lord Chatham in Colchester

I’ve known for a good while that the 2nd Earl of Chatham had close connections with Colchester. He spent a great deal of time there, connected with the military garrison. I believe he was, for a long while, Commander in Chief of the Eastern District, with headquarters in the town.

Colchester Barracks in the mid 19th century, from http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp251-255

Colchester Barracks in the mid 19th century, from http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp251-255

He was, however, in Colchester as early as 1798. John had not left the army since rejoining it in 1778, but between 1788 and 1798 he put politics first. In the summer of 1798, however, he received the rank of Major-General and clearly made a choice to return to his military career, appearing at the King’s birthday levee in his regimentals and moving to the Colchester garrison.[1] On 13 September 1798 Pitt the Younger wrote to his sister-in-law, Mary, Countess of Chatham: “I rejoice that my Brothers Military Life agrees so well with him, and that you like your Quarters, which I shall be very glad if I can visit … I shall direct this to Colchester.”[2]

From 1806 onwards John spent a significant part of the second half of each year in Colchester. Sometimes he seems to have been running away from something else — I suspect he spent so much time in Colchester in 1807 and 1808 because of his wife Mary’s illness, and after 1810 I would guess he had little to keep him in London — and how much his attraction to Colchester had to do with the local hunting scene, I could not say. He was a visible enough public figure, however, and in October 1807 the town Assembly appointed him High Steward of Colchester and gave him the Freedom of the Borough as “a new proof of the popularity of the [Duke of Portland’s] present vigorous Administration”, of which John was a member as Master General of the Ordnance.[3]

Colchester today (Wikimedia Commons)

Colchester today (Wikimedia Commons)

The post of High Steward was largely ceremonial (salaried, of course, although its £10 a year was hardly going to make much of a difference to John’s considerable debts). The post had been established in 1635, with a fairly vague brief “to advise and direct” the mayor, the twelve aldermen, twelve assistants, and eighteen councilmen who made up the Assembly, “to elect officers, make bye-laws, &c”.[4]

I imagine John much enjoyed the ceremonial aspects of the post, although these sometimes entailed more prosaic elements. Goodness knows how often he did this, and presumably this reflected John’s personal religious preferences (of which I have found no other sign so far), but I have tracked John down at a meeting of the Colchester and East Essex Auxiliary Bible Society in Colchester on 7 December 1812. I can only imagine John struggling not to fall asleep while the Reverend W. Dealtry thus concluded a long speech with reflections on the “noble patronage” Chatham brought to the meeting: “It is a patronage, of which, I am well persuaded, your Lordship never can repent; and I will venture to add, that by giving lustre to this society your Lordship will reflect lustre even upon your own illustrious coronet.”[5]

John was High Steward until 1818, when he was succeeded by John Round, a local barrister and MP. By this time Chatham had moved on: he settled at Abington Hall in Cambridgeshire in 1816, and his wife’s ill-health would in any case have kept him away from Colchester. But until 1815 he was frequently in the town, as is clear from all the correspondence dated from Colchester, as well as newspaper snippets following his movements.

But where did John stay in Colchester? It was quite obvious to me he must have had a reasonably permanent residence. For months I have been searching for it. Yesterday, quite by chance, I stumbled across a reference in a local Colchester journal in 1872, reminiscing about when “Lord Chatham lived in Head-Street”.[6] Further investigation revealed the name of his house in Head Street: Headgate House.[7]

Headgate House today (from Google Street View)

Headgate House today (from Google Street View)

Headgate House is now part of a shopping centre (H&M has moved in), but the frontage remains essentially unchanged from the house John Chatham would have known. It was described in an article as “possibly the finest family house in the town”, and the photographs reproduced in the article certainly suggest a house which, while rather less grand than what Chatham would have been used to, was grand enough. (The article is reproduced online here.)

Presumably this was the house where the following (somewhat dubious) anecdote was set:

It was the custom of Lord Chatham, when he commanded at Colchester, to invite every officer belonging to the garrison, in rotation, to his hospitable and elegant table. It happened, one day, that a raw Scotch lad, from some fastness of the Highlands, who had joined his regiment but a day or two previous, was placed opposite Lady Chatham, about midway between the noble host and his aid-de-camp, who sat at the bottom of the table. … A batter pudding was placed before her ladyship, when the sweets were paraded, and, with her usual urbanity, she invited Mr MacNab to partake … MacNab loved batter pudding, and he thought it a fitting occasion, in asking for more, to pay such a compliment to the elegant woman opposite to him as would make ample amends for his silence during the repast; without waiting, therefore, for a servant’s assistance, he pushed the plate across the table in a manner to attract her ladyship’s eye, and, with a countenance lit up by the brilliancy of the compliment he was about to pay, said, ‘Your pudden is sae excellent, my leddy, I needna ask ye wha made it.'[8]

I am still on the lookout for anything to do with Lord Chatham and Colchester: he spent so long there, and seems to have been so closely connected to the town, that I can’t believe he left absolutely no evidence of his being there. If anyone knows of anything, I would be grateful if you would contact me and let me know!



[1] Express and Evening Chronicle, 2 June 1798

[2] William Pitt to Mary, Countess of Chatham, 13 September 1798, National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/101 f 141

[3] Bury and Norwich Post, 7 October 1807; Morning Post, 9 October 1807

[4] The History and Antiquities of the Borough of Colchester, in the County of Essex (Colchester, 1810), p. 74; A History of the County of Essex IX, Victoria County History (London, 1994) 156

[5] The Proceedings of the Colchester and East Essex Auxiliary Bible Society … (Colchester, 1812), unpaginated

[6] The British Flag and Christian Sentinel, 1 February 1872

[7] Philip Crummy, “The House that Ann and Hugh built”, Catalogue: New of Archaeological Excavations in Colchester, 18 (Winter 1985/6), 6-11

[8] Benson Earle Hill, Recollections of an Artillery Officer … I (London, 1836), 276-7


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

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


John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (1821)

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

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

Letter One: Colchester, 13 December 1807

My Dear Mrs Stapleton,

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

That I am My Dear Mrs Stapleton

Your Very Affect[ionat]e

Humble Servant


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

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

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

Letter Two: Colchester, 2 December 1810


My Dear Mrs Stapleton,

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

My Dear Mrs Stapleton

Always Very Sincerely & Affect[ionatel]y Yours


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

*   *   *

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

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



Both Chatham letters are in NAM Combermere MSS 8408-114

John’s later years, Part 3: “the venerable Earl”

Yesterday I thoroughly pillaged the British Library’s excellent 19th Century Newspapers database (… well, *nearly* excellent: I have one or two reservations about the search interface, but that’s another story). I habven’t used it much before, largely because I keep forgetting the 2nd Earl of Chatham clung to life until September 1835, but I found some excellent stuff about John’s later years. Slowly but surely it’s all fleshing out for me, although I still need to find more manuscript sources on the subject.

Beginning, then, with John’s return from Gibraltar in July 1825— because I’m still not quite sure what he actually did while in Gibraltar as governor— I can confirm a few things I already knew, which was that he spent August at Leamington Spa, presumably recovering from whatever illness completely floored him and knocked two and a half stone off his weight (for more see my first post on John’s later years). When in London he stayed at Thomas’s Hotel, 25 Berkeley Square, a fashionable establishment in an area he knew very well indeed.

He then moved on to Brighton, where he rented a house on Marine Parade— from 1830, and possibly earlier than that, it was Number 20 (now a hotel and nightclub— appropriately the kind of place where the patrons probably sleep all day)— and frequented Molineux’s Turkish Baths on East Cliff.


(This photo of New Madeira Hotel is courtesy of TripAdvisor)

He clearly enjoyed Brighton, as he went back every year from September or October until as late as March or April (one year he was there until May). Although his proxy vote was still deployed in the House of Lords, he does not appear to have attended, and seems to have considered himself retired: fair enough I suppose, since he was by this time seventy years old. What his health was like generally I couldn’t say: the newspapers talk about him being in “pretty good health”, for his age at least, and his main activities at Brighton seem to have included riding along Marine Parade and walking on the new pier. By the end of 1832, however, he was described as having a “weakness in his legs” that prevented him walking unaided: he still managed to ride every day though, at least until 1834, when his strength was described as “failing”.


Marine Parade, Brighton, ca 1830, from here

(No idea what might have caused the leg weakness, but you will recall from a previous blog post that John seriously injured his leg on two occasions, in 1788 and 1791: perhaps that had something to do with his later inability to walk?)

Otherwise the information pretty much accords with what I had previously found about John. He was reported as having died in March 1831: the newspapers, red-faced, later had to retract their incorrect statement. In August 1834 he had “a paralytic stroke”, but he completely recovered and spent the winter and spring in Brighton as usual. His death in September 1835 seems to have been sudden: he was reported just under a week before his death as being daily expected at his house in Brighton. I suspect another stroke may well have carried him off, as he had supposedly been in pretty good health before that.

Interestingly he seems to have been well-regarded in the press, described from 1830 onwards without fail as “venerable”. The state of his health was assiduously followed, partly perhaps because of all the pensions and emoluments that would fall vacant when he died but also, it seems, because people cared about the last surviving member of the Pitt family. The journalists’ tone was often respectful, even fond, which I found somewhat surprising given John’s reputation even in his own lifetime. The Standard wrote on 8 November 1833:

“The venerable Earl of Chatham is gone to Brighton for six months. This amiable nobleman, notwithstanding the retired habits of his life, and his extreme taciturnity in general society, was held in the highest esteem by his brother, the Right Hon. William Pitt. It was always understood that Mr. Pitt took the advice of Lord Chatham on all important measures relating to finance.”

Admittedly the first occasion I have seen of anyone suggesting John might have had input into Pitt’s financial measures, and I certainly haven’t seen any evidence to support that assertion, but I’d say there is a flavour of truth in the suggestion that Pitt was in the habit of talking things over with John and in any case it makes a nice change from “he was a complete idiot”. (And a quiet giggle at the “taciturnity” comment…)

So much for John’s very last years. I get the impression he faded away, spending most of his life on the seafront at Brighton, contributing funds to local building efforts (he was a subscriber to the chain pier, for example), occasionally using the Turkish baths and hauling himself on horseback long after he lost full use of his legs. His last years won’t make a novel any time soon: but it’s interesting to read, at least for me. I like to think that, after the horror that must, for him, have been the late 1810s, his wife’s death, and the homesickness and depression he experienced in Gibraltar, John finally found his peace on Brighton seafront.