“Your Lordship does not consider me as a Friend”: Lord Chatham and Sir Richard Strachan, January 1810

One of the most infamous aspects of the Walcheren Campaign, apart of course from the spectacular scale of the sickness that swept through the British Army and helped hasten the campaign’s end, was the complete breakdown of working relations between the military and naval commanders. Walcheren had been designed as an amphibious, or “combined”, operation. Close cooperation between Lord Chatham, the military Commander of the Forces, and Sir Richard Strachan, the naval commander, was vital for success. The Secretary of State for War, Castlereagh, had sent Chatham off with the hope “that the utmost Spirit of Concert and Harmony will prevail … between the respective Services”.[1]

 

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Lord Chatham, engraved by Charles Turner (1809)

This harmony was already in jeopardy before the expedition had even sailed, and on 27 July Chatham was already having to “assure” his worried cabinet colleagues “that I have had on all occasions the most unreserved and confidential intercourse with Sir Richard Strachan, who is a man I particularly like, and as far, as I can judge, I should say that we are upon ye most friendly and cordial footing possible”.[2] The troubled course of the campaign, during which military requirements and naval realities clashed repeatedly, did nothing to reconcile the two men. By the time the campaign was suspended on 27 August 1809, Chatham and Strachan were barely speaking.

Strachan and Chatham were polar opposites in terms of character. Much has been made of Strachan’s famed impulsiveness (he was known as “Mad Dick”) and Chatham’s notorious lethargy, and that didn’t help, but a lot of the problems between the two men stemmed to the difficulties they had in communicating. Chatham was tight-lipped and taciturn; he preferred not to put important things down on paper, and was most comfortable in a face-to-face situation. Strachan, to judge from his confused, repetitive letters, was simply incapable of getting his thoughts and ideas across in a coherent manner. The problem was the necessities of the campaign kept the two men separate, and Strachan was often very difficult to track down. Miscommunication gave rise to friction, and this eventually became outright dislike.

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Sir Richard Strachan (detail from “The Grand Duke of Middleburg”, caricature, 1809)

The last straw came on 27 August 1809, the day Chatham decided to suspend the campaign. Strachan wrote a letter to the Admiralty which he claimed should have remained private, but which was published (in extract) in the London Gazette on 3 September. In the letter he appeared to claim that he had urged not to suspend the campaign in the face of Chatham’s stubborn refusal to listen. The letter had an undeniable impact on public opinion in Britain, and from the moment Chatham heard about the existence of this letter, he and Strachan found themselves “in a state of Hostility”.[3]

This is why I was so surprised to find the following letter in the Chatham Papers at the National Archives. It was written by Andrew Snape Hamond, an old colleague and friend from Chatham’s days as First Lord of the Admiralty. On 26 January 1810 the Commons had voted to form a committee of the whole House to inquiry into the planning and conduct of the Walcheren Expedition. Both Chatham and Strachan were likely to come out badly from such an inquiry, and Strachan clearly made one last attempt to patch things up and make common cause, using Hamond as an intermediary.

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Sir Andrew Snape Hamond

Hamond’s letter to Chatham is as follows:

Fitzroy Square, Sunday

28th Jany. 1810

Dear Lord Chatham

I wish very much to see you, to communicate what has passed between Sir Richard Strachan & myself. In short he has an apprehension that your Lordship does not consider him as a Friend, but has authorized me to assure you that he is perfectly so, and that he will most readyly [sic] wait upon you whenever you send to him. He lives at Blakes Hotel Jermyn St.

Any time tomorrow that it might be convenient for your Lordship to see me, I will wait upon you, in the mean time I beg leave to assure that I ever am

Yr Lordship’s most faithful

& sincerely attached

Friend

A.S. Hammond [4]

The letter shows a great deal about Strachan’s character. He was clearly very brave, expressing himself ready to meet face to face with Chatham and make his explanations. He must also have been generous and open-hearted: few people would have made such a move under the same circumstances. But he was also obviously not the brightest spark, or he would have realised that the time for explanations were long past.

At any rate, he had completely misread Chatham’s own character. Chatham was stinging from the buffeting he had received over the last four months from the newspapers. A common theme of these newspaper articles was to compare Chatham’s attitude to the suspension of the Walcheren campaign with that of Strachan’s as put across in the 27 August extract. By the end of January 1810, Chatham was under no illusions: his reputation and career were at stake, and Strachan had been strongly instrumental in undermining him.

Chatham replied to Hamond:

Private: Hill Street, Jan. 28th 1810

My Dear Sir

I shall be extremely happy to see you to morrow, a little after twelve o’clock, if that hour is perfectly convenient to you. I shall be particularly glad to know what may have passed between you and Sir Richard Strachan, as I can not disguise from you, that I have certainly considered him (tho’ utterly at a loss to guess the reason) as very unfriendly to me. His publick letter from Batz [of 27 August 1809], which to this moment remains unexplained, and which, as you know, has been the foundation of all the clamour* raised against me in ye Country, as well as the language he has been reported to me to have held since is return has led me, to form this opinion. As to the latter part he may perhaps have been misrepresented and I shou’d have great pleasure in finding it so. You and I, as old Friends can talk this business over, but what I assure you  I am most anxious about is the apprehension that any difference on the present occasion between myself and the Admiral, may lead to any unpleasant feelings between [the] two Services, to both of which, you well know my sincere attachment.

Believe me

My Dear Sir

Always Most Truly Yours

Chatham [5]

*Chatham initially wrote “abuse”.

Chatham’s response to Hamond could not have been clearer had he written “No, sod off” across the page in three-inch-tall red letters. Chatham certainly never made any attempt to meet with Strachan, and the course of the inquiry — and Chatham’s attempts to defend himself — showed Strachan had been right to suspect the Earl did “not consider him as a Friend”.

References

[1] Lord Castlereagh to Chatham, 16 July 1809, PRONI D3030/3175

[2] Chatham to Lord Camden, 27 July 1809, Kent Heritage Centre U840 C86/5/1

[3] Sir Robert Brownrigg to Colonel J.W. Gordon, 8 September 1809, BL Add MSS 49505 f 69

[4] A.S. Hamond to Chatham, 28 January 1810, TNA PRO 30/8/367 f 1

[5] Chatham to A.S. Hamond, 28 January 1810, TNA PRO 30/8/364 f 16

The Walcheren Expedition: 2016 (Part 3/3)

A few days ago I posted about my trip to Walcheren in the Netherlands, where my other half and I cycle-camped for several days last week. I wanted to do some on-the-spot research for my upcoming biography of the 2nd Earl of Chatham, who commanded the military part of the abortive British expedition to Walcheren in 1809.

For a brief historical overview of the campaign, and an account of my visit to Vlissingen (Flushing) and Middelburg, please see Part 1. See Part 2 for my account of Arnemuiden, Grijpskerke, and Breezand. Otherwise, read on for Part 3 of my Walcheren peregrinations…

Day 5 (1 April): Breezand – Domburg – Zouteland – Vlissingen

This was our most beautiful day yet: about 20ºC and SUNNY. We left Breezand to cycle along the coast back to Vlissingen.

Our intention was to take in the two beaches where the British ought to have landed: Zouteland Bay (abandoned at the end of July at Strachan’s request) and Domburg (abandoned because of the weather).

We did not spend much time at Domburg, but I stopped to climb to the top of the tall seaward dyke to take a photograph of the beach.

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Domburg Beach

We then proceeded with all dispatch to Oostkapelle. Here we stopped for lunch, just outside the 1944 museum. There were a number of WWII museums on Walcheren. Obvious reasons for this, but I did find myself having the following conversation more than once:

Me: I’m here because I’m reasearching the Walcheren expedition.

Dutch person: The 1944 one?

Me: No. No, not that one.

Next stop was Zouteland Bay. By this time the sun was shining enthusiastically, and other half and I were both beginning to look a little pink about the ears. We decided to pause only briefly to take a photo or two of the beaches where the British really ought to have landed, had they not kept changing their landing plans every five seconds. Other half remained with the tandem, while I climbed to the top of the pretty high sandhills.

Minutes later I came down and fetched him, because the view was stunning.

I could see the whole island (OK, peninsula now) from the top of that dyke. On the distant horizon I could see the windmills along the Veere Dam, near Breezand. Further along were the steeples of Domburg and Grijpskerke churches. Veere was just about visible directly across. The Lange Jan at Middelburg could clearly be seen, as could the tall buildings at Vlissingen.

It was a salutary reminder of how small Walcheren actually is (we could have easily cycled round the whole thing in a day, had we not stopped to do the tourist thing). I imagine that when Chatham’s army had landed at Breezand and were marching in four columns through the interior, the various columns would have remained in sight of each other most of the time (barring more greenery on trees, and decreased visibility due to rain and mist, of course).

The beach was pretty, too. But, as my husband observed: “Thank goodness they didn’t land here, because they would have had a hard time fighting up their way up these sandhills.” They were the tallest sandhills we encountered on the whole island. In 1809 they were probably different, but I imagine not that much different, and topped with very prickly gorse. The French would probably have given a much stiffer resistance here, particularly as Zouteland is so much closer to Flushing.

As we discovered, since it took us only half an hour to cycle into Flushing after stopping for these photos. We stopped at De Nolle campsite, chosen by me mainly because it was clearly located somewhere between two of the British batteries erected outside Flushing during the bombardment (the Nolle and Vijgeter batteries).

In the postwar era, this area of Flushing has been completely levelled and rebuilt, so there is no real way of knowing exactly where the British batteries were (and in any case I had to leave all my books at home, since we were travelling light, so had no 1809 maps with me). But it was still pretty thrilling to be camping very close to where the British established their lines in 1809. It was a surprisingly long way from the old town itself, but then we were probably a little further out than the actual Nolle.

Day 6 (2 April): Vlissingen – Breskens – De Haan (Belgium)

The time had come to say goodbye to Walcheren. We packed up our tent and cycled to the Breskens ferry.

This was our last view on Flushing as we crossed over to the mainland:

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We were surprised to see dozens of enormous, heavily-laden cargo vessels sailing through the Flushing roads. Some of them actually crossed the path of our ferry, although I suspect their passage was well-timed to avoid any accidents!

The navigation of the West Scheldt was much better-known to the British than that of the East in 1809, hence the decision to attempt sailing down the West rather than the East Scheldt to reach Antwerp. The river is evidently much deeper here in parts, as the cargo boats showed. However, the navigation is clearly still very tricky. In 1809, during the bombardment of Flushing, Strachan’s flagship and that of one of his subordinates, Lord Gardner, ran aground on sandbanks. Even now every cargo vessel received the aid of a tiny pilot vessel (there were half a dozen of them sheltering in Flushing harbour at all times, zooming constantly in and out):

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Cargo vessel with pilot outside Flushing

By lunchtime we were back on the Cadzand shore. We cycled like the blazes and got across the border into Belgium in no time (uneventful, except for my husband dropping the tandem at one point as we came to a stop… ouch!).

We spent the next two days cycling back to Dunkerque. The return crossing was much less rough and we returned to Oxford at half past ten PM in the evening of Monday 4 April, having covered just over 450 km.

We had so much fun. I’d do it again in a heartbeat — particularly as there is so much we did not see!

The Walcheren Expedition: 2016 (Part 2/3)

A few days ago I posted about my trip to Walcheren in the Netherlands, where my other half and I cycle-camped for several days last week. I wanted to do some on-the-spot research for my upcoming biography of the 2nd Earl of Chatham, who commanded the military part of the abortive British expedition to Walcheren in 1809.

For a brief historical overview of said campaign, and an account of my visit to Vlissingen (Flushing) and Middelburg, please see my previous post. Otherwise, read on for Part 2 of my Walcheren peregrinations…

Night 3 (30 March): Arnemuiden

We spent the night at a beautiful little farmhouse with the world’s most enormous barn, somewhere on the road between Middeburg and Arnemuiden. Thanks to land reclamation, Arnemuiden is no longer just off the Sloe Passage between Walcheren and the island of Suid-Beveland. In fact, as you can see by comparing the two maps at the top of this page, neither Walcheren nor Suid-Beveland is in fact an island any more at all. The Sloe, which caused so much tension between Chatham and Strachan, the naval commander, is no more, and Arnemuiden now looks out across acres of flat farmland studded with modern windmills. The whole 1809 expedition would have been much easier now than in 1809, when there were so many narrow watery bits and so many sandbanks to navigate between Walcheren and the “ultimate objective”, Antwerp. Now Chatham would just have been able to land and march.

In 1809, however, he did not have that luxury.* Arnemuiden was therefore an important place because the troops destined for Antwerp embarked here in the troop transports during the days after the fall of Flushing in August. Between 18 and 21 August, the 8000 reinforcements Chatham had landed on Walcheren to help cope with the increased French manpower in Flushing re-embarked under Generals Graham and Grosvenor. They spent the next four to six days stuck in the Sloe, twiddling their thumbs while the naval bods continually measured the depth of the channel and inched forwards (not helped by contrary wind and general poor weather).

A few days later Suid-Beveland was completely evacuated via Arnemuiden. A large proportion of the returning British were by this time very ill and the medical department, caught on the hop, had no resources to deal with them.


*Don’t even get me started on Strachan’s supposed suggestion of 1 August 1809 that Chatham land the men destined for Antwerp on Suid-Beveland and march them across the island to embark for Sandvliet, instead of sailing them through the Sloe Passage: “With him alone was there an option between a March of 36 hours, and a Voyage of an indefinite length”, etc etc (Strachan’s narrative, 5 March 1810, NA PRO 30/8/260 f 52). For more on that, see my book when it comes out.


walcheren_sick

Evacuation of Suid-Beveland, 30 August 1809 (from here)

One of Sir Eyre Coote’s ADCs reported: “We are not sufficiently supplied with Medical Officers or Medicines … [the sick in Flushing are] laying on the bare boards without Paillasses & many without Blankets. By an unfortunate mistake the Hospital Stores were shipped [from Suid-Beveland] with those of the Quarter Master General’s Department, and the Vessels being off Batz [Bath], no supplies can be received for the Habitants on this island”. The sick who arrived at Arnemuiden were “moved in Waggons” to Flushing, which (having been so recently bombarded) had very little accommodation that was not bomb-damaged in some way. (Journal of the Walcheren Campaign, University of Michigan Coote MSS Box 29/3) Here they continued to lie, two or three in a bed under hastily-erected tarpaulins to keep out the weather, while Chatham waited for instructions to send the rising numbers of sick back to England. These took so long in coming he eventually had to start sending the sick home without orders.

We didn’t spend much time in Arnemuiden, which we entered only to purchase some food to cook, but (fittingly) I was eaten alive by mosquitoes during the night. There were clouds of the blighters everywhere we went on the island, even in late March. I swatted a fair few of them, which did little in the practical sense but made me feel a bit better as a historian.

Day 4 (31 March): Arnemuiden – Veere – Grijpskerke – Breezand

We had had some thoughts about going down to Bath on Suid-Beveland, which was the closest Chatham and his men ever got to Antwerp (about nine miles away), but although we would have had time, we heard there was little to see there: the fort where Chatham stayed was gone, and land reclamation meant the territory had changed beyond recognition. We decided to stay on Walcheren instead, and see more of the “important stuff”.

Next day we were up bright and early and cycled the short distance along the canal to Veere. Veere was one of the more important towns that fell to the British on 1 August 1809: without possession of Veere, which defended the entrance to the Sloe Passage, the British ships could not proceed from the East to the West Scheldt. (The final link in the chain, Fort Rammekens, surrendered on 3 August.)

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Veere, by the canal

The centre of Veere probably hasn’t changed a great deal since 1809, although the town itself has got a lot bigger. The houses along the harbour’s edge are all 16th-17th century types, many probably older, and the place with its cobbled streets and CONSTANT bell-ringing from the Town Hall bell-tower has a lovely old-school feel to it.

Mind you, it probably wasn’t such a nice place to be on 1 August 1809, when General Fraser laid siege to it and bombarded it into submission. He was assisted by Home Popham, who brought several gunboats into play from the sea side. Assaulted by both army and navy, Veere surrendered within the day.

Popham’s unauthorised use of gunboats got him (and Chatham) into trouble. When Sir Richard Strachan found out that his boats were being brought close to the town walls, he gave orders for them to fall back. He immediately Chatham an extremely irritated letter, which must really have started things off between the two commanders on a great footing:

I cannot approve of the manner in which the Naval force has been applied this Morning to the great waste of Ammunition & Stores, without effecting one good purpose. I shall be most happy my Lord at all times to meet your wishes and to forward by every means in my power the operations of the rmy even if I did not feel that I was personally Concern’d in the Success of its operations, but I hope whenever your Lordship wishes to have the navy employ’d in a particular way that you would be pleased to signify your wishes to me. (NA PRO 30/8/369 f 70)

He may have had a point, as several gunboats sank during the bombardment.

Unlike Flushing, which shows no sign whatever of the British assault, a few of Veere’s houses on the canalfront have a few interesting architectural additions:

I’m fairly sure there has been a little “touching up” since 1809, but I am reliably informed these bad boys were launched either by Popham’s gunboats or Fraser’s batteries. There’s no fanfare about it, still less a plaque, but if you keep your eyes open you will see several houses with these interesting talking-points in various places.

Something else I found interesting in Veere was the Scottish connection. It seems one of the Lords of Veere in the 15th century married a daughter of the Scottish King. One of the clauses of the marriage contract was that Scots traders would have exclusive rights to trade from Veere, then a big commercial port (so long as they promised not to interfere with Dutch continental trade). In the 18th century, the Scots were still a big presence in Veere, and even had their own name for the place (“Cam Veere”). I had noticed one or two contemporary sources mentioning the Scots in Veere, but presumed they were talking about the 71st regiment, which I believe participated in besieging the place. It seems the reality was much more complicated.

Veere is no longer an atlantic trading station. It has been overtaken by bigger commercial centres, but the Veere Gat channel between Walcheren and Noord-Beveland has now been closed off by the Veere Dam, creating the Veere Sea. Had Home Popham attempted to sail the British fleet into the Veere Gat now, he’d have run into trouble fairly swiftly.

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On the Veere Dam, looking out towards the Veere Sea (and probaby standing right where Popham sailed the British fleet in 1809…)

We spent some time wandering the streets of Veere, visiting the museum, and being driven half-demented by the tinkling of the bells (I don’t think I have ever heard bells replicate a baroque trill before), before leaving for our accommodation at Breezand.

On our way up we passed through Grijpskerke, which was where Chatham established his second headquarters on Walcheren on the night of 31 July 1809. Chatham had never intended to set foot on Walcheren: according to the original plan (see my first post) he had meant to stay with the main part of the army sailing down the West Scheldt to Sandvliet and Antwerp. Due to the poor weather conditions that drove nearly the whole expedition into the Roompot, however, he ended up on the wrong side of the island, and decided instead to shadow Sir Eyre Coote’s siege of Flushing.

Coote wasn’t best pleased by the arrangement, particularly when Chatham and his staff kept stealing all the best accommodation everywhere they went: “The Commander of the Forces, with all his collateral Staff, arrived at Grypskerke at the same time as we did, and so crouded the place, that it was with difficulty, we could obtain a lodging”. (Journal of the Walcheren Campaign, University of Michigan Coote MSS Box 29/3)

I can see why, as Grijpskerke was, and still is, tiny tiny tiny. But it was very cute, and had a neat little Protestant church in the centre, which begged to be photographed.

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Church at Grijpskerke

We continued cycling to Breezand. I was looking forward to seeing the place where the British actually made their landing in the evening of 30 July 1809. Breezand was not the originally chosen landing place. The first landing place selected for the expedition, in July 1809, was the broad beaches at Zouteland, a couple of miles north of Flushing, but Strachan insisted on landing further away when the French brought their fleet out into the Flushing roads.

The plan was therefore changed in late July to land near Domburg, at the south-western tip of the island, further away from Flushing but still on the right side of the island. Due to the south-westerly gale on 29 July, however, Domburg became unsafe for landing. The only viable place was Breezand, sheltered by the Roompot and by nearby Noord-Beveland, where the French were in any case not expecting the Brits (… and why would they have been? Breezand was at the WRONG BLOODY END OF THE BLOODY ISLAND).

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Breezand, looking towards Veere Dam (formerly the Veere Gat)

The British landed in the evening of 30 July 1809, once the storm had calmed down a little bit. They encountered minimal resistance and swiftly beat back the French through the scrubland along the top of the dunes, taking Fort Den Haak in short order and chasing the fort’s garrison to the gates of Veere (where they were fired on and forced to retreat).

Fort Den Haak no longer stands (destroyed by the British before they left in December 1809), but there is a plaque. This was the only obvious recognition I saw anywhere on the peninsula acknowledging that the 1809 expedition had taken place. Poor Lt-Gen Fraser, though (the highest-ranking casualty of “Walcheren Fever”) gets saddled with responsibility for the whole expedition, just because he happened to command the taking of the fort. Not sure who’d be more annoyed about that, Fraser or Chatham!

Breezand is now a holiday resort, so we were spoiled for choice in terms of campsites. The one we chose had direct access to a private area of beach, only a half kilometre or so from Fort Den Haak. The beach was broad and very clean, fringed with shallow sandhills (they were not hard to climb) and topped with a tangle of prickly gorse and twisted birch.

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Road through the sandhills to Breezand

I visited there about 7pm on a beautiful evening. It was the last day of March, so not the end of July by any means, and of course the British landed after a storm when the sea was still very choppy, so the conditions were in no way alike. Still, I was almost entirely alone, and I felt there was very little but time separating me from the landing two hundred years previously.

I even saw some riders on the beach, and wondered whether it was an echo through the ages of Chatham and his staff riding to Fort Den Haak for the night.

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Horse riders on Breezand

Apparently the night following the landing was wet and cold. Ours was definitely cold, but beautifully clear. I saw a shooting star over Middelburg (which, in daylight, you could just make out on the horizon from the top of the dunes).

Part 3/3 follows shortly, taking us all the way round the island and back to Flushing…

John Hoppner’s portrait of the 2nd Earl of Chatham

The 2nd Earl of Chatham was painted a few times during his long lifetime. Not all of them still exist, of course. He was painted by an unknown silhouettist in Bath in 1777, and goodness knows what has happened to that. Two years later, in 1779, the Duke of Rutland commissioned a full-length portrait of his friend by Reynolds, but this perished in the Belvoir Castle fire of 1816 (and yes, I still cry about it). The silhouettist Charles Rosenberg also painted Chatham in 1800: I have seen a picture of this, but have no idea who now owns it. Apart from these instances, I know of five other extant portraits of Chatham:

  • By John Singleton Copley in “The Death of the Earl of Chatham”, ca 1779-1780
  • By George Romney in 1783
  • By Martin Archer Shee in ca 1794-5 (I call this one “Bad Hair Day John”)
  • By the studio of John Hoppner, ca 1799
  • By George Hayter in “The Trial of Queen Caroline”, ca 1821

I had the good fortune to see the “studio of Hoppner” painting last week. As a former First Lord of the Admiralty, Chatham’s portrait is currently in the possession of the Royal Marines, and hangs in the Commando Forces Officers’ Mess at Stonehouse Barracks in Plymouth. The Marines very kindly invited me down to see it, and to photograph it to appear in my forthcoming biography.

They also very kindly got it down from the wall for me, so I even got to help carry it (a somewhat terrifying experience).

Here it is, in all its glory:

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John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (studio of John Hoppner) (Courtesy of the Royal Marines Commando Forces, Stonehouse Barracks)

This is, of course, the portrait that was engraved by Valentine Green in 1799 and by Charles Turner in 1809.

The “studio of Hoppner” portrait (as it is described in both Ehrman’s “The Younger Pitt: the reluctant transition” and Robin Reilly’s “Pitt the Younger”) is something of a mystery. Nobody quite knows how long it has been in the possession of the Marines, although their records show it being in their collection as early as 1964 and there is a (probably early twentieth century) RM museum label on the back of the frame. But then their records also have it as a painting by Lemuel Abbott, which I’m pretty confident it is not.

Where it came from is also unknown. Online catalogues of Hoppner’s paintings describe the “original” as having been in the possession of Sir William Bellingham, whose descendant, Sir Henry, displayed it in 1902-3 at the Royal Hibernian Academy. Sir William Bellingham was certainly a vey close friend of Chatham’s, so the provenance for that portrait is sound. It is, however, described as:

hoppner_snapshot

Uhm. Star of an order? Sash yes, but no Garter star. However, there *is* the following portrait (from here), which claimed to be the “original” Hoppner exhibited by Sir Henry Bellingham:

johnhoppner_poorcopy

I have no idea of the provenance, but (apart from the fact Chatham is wearing the Garter in this painting) I’d say it’s a poor copy of the one the Marines have. The Marines’ painting may not be the “proper” Hoppner original, but in my opinion it is much more likely to be a Hoppner than the above.

My feeling is that the “original” Hoppner with the Star (belonging to the Bellingham family) is still out there somewhere. Where? I don’t know. But it is worth noting that the copy of the portrait owned by the Marines is subtly different from the black and white (poor quality) photos reproduced in Ehrman and Reilly. Clearly several copies of this portrait were made and handed out to friends and family.

For those who are curious, incidentally, Lord Chatham is wearing a Windsor uniform in this painting (not “naval uniform”, as the Artnet site claims *eyeroll*).

And in my opinion……………. it’s a very fine portrait 😀

_______

References

  • H.P.K. Skipton, John Hoppner (London, 1905)
  • William McKay and W. Roberts, John Hoppner, R.A. (London, 1909)

Many thanks to the Royal Marines Commandos of Stonehouse Barracks, Plymouth, for permission to reproduce the photographs of the portrait of the 2nd Earl of Chatham.

Happy 258th birthday John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham

As those who have followed this blog since its beginning will know, I do not follow the majority view that John, 2nd Earl of Chatham was born on 9 October 1756. As far as I can see the only justification for this is that John’s father wrote a letter to William Pitt (John’s brother) on 9 October 1773 in which he talked of it being “the happy day that gave us your brother”.[1] Possibly it was John’s birthday, as certainly John read Tomline’s draft before the book was published and might have been expected to correct the error, but I tend to think Tomline mistranscribed.

This is why:

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham's baptismal record, Hayes, Kent

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham’s baptismal record, Hayes, Kent[2]

Even given this is a partial record, I think it’s fairly obvious that I have good grounds for commemorating John’s birthday on the 10th and not the 9th.

Anyway, moving on… in celebration of John’s 258th (he always looked younger than his years), today’s post is about his childhood. I’ve been posting a lot about his later years recently, so it seems fitting to go right back to the beginning for once.

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, in John Singleton Copley's "The Death of the Earl of Chatham"

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, aged 21/2, in John Singleton Copley’s “The Death of the Earl of Chatham”

John was, like his younger brother William, born at Hayes Place, his father’s country house in Kent. (The other three children were born in London.) “We are all well here … and intend that our little colony shall, God willing, receive its increase in the pure air of our village,” Pitt the Elder wrote to his brother-in-law George Grenville on 20 August 1756.[3]

In accordance with his later reputation, it seems John arrived a little later than expected, but when he did decide to make his appearance he was in a hurry.[4] It was probably the quickest entrance he made in his entire life. A delighted Pitt the Elder gushed to George Grenville on the morning of 10 October 1756 about John’s health and size:

Lady Hester is as well as can be in her situation, after being delivered of a son this morning, who is also well. She had a sharp time, but not longer than two hours and a half. There was enough notice to have [William] Hunter [the fashionable accoucheur] and all comforts about us. … Mrs Grenville, I am sure, and perhaps you, will excuse my talking nursery: the young man meets with general applause for stature and strength … He is, however, as they flatter me, without appearance of heaviness, notwithstanding his size.[5]

Pitt was evidently delighted to have a son at last. “[Lady Hester] and the child are as well as possible,” he reported to his nephew Thomas Pitt, “and the father in the joy of his heart”.[6]

William Pitt the Elder by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder by William Hoare

Most books focus on the childhood of John’s brother William, but there are occasional glimpses of John in the family correspondence. The impression drawn from history is that Lord and Lady Chatham favoured their second son above all the other children, and there is probably some truth in this, but John, too, was much loved. In 1770 Lord Chatham spent some quality time at Burton Pynsent with John, who was going to travel on with his tutor Mr Wilson to Cornwall, while Lady Chatham remained with the four others at Hayes:

Pray tell all at Athens, professors, and scholars, how truly charmed I am with their performances [ie, as correspondents] … They may all rest satisfied that Pitt [John, whose courtesy title as heir was Viscount Pitt] is every thing that can please: he is a sweet, idle boy; he is a sensible, conversable, discreet man: sense or nonsense, verse or prose, Homer, mouse, taste, all shine alike, and draw perpetual applauses from papa and Mr Wilson.[7]

Along with his four siblings Hester, Harriot, William, and James Charles, John was educated at home by a tutor, Reverend Edward Wilson. There were some thoughts of sending him to Eton, where his father had gone, but apparently these came to nothing.[8] He seems to have been a bright boy: he often bested William in his studies, and their tutor Wilson’s comments on the subject can be followed in the Chatham MSS at the National Archives .[9] “John was distinguish’d first for his Mathematicks, and then for his Latin Lesson,” Lady Chatham wrote to her husband in July 1766. “… Mr Wilson imputed their success [John and Hester’s], to the subject, which he told me they took to, with a Taste and an ardour of Application that was quite fine. The subject, was an account of Aristides, and his great Virtues”.[10]

From W.A. Shuffrey, "Some Craven Worthies" (London, 1903)

Rev. Edward Wilson and his brother Thomas, From W.A. Shuffrey, “Some Craven Worthies” (London, 1903)

In terms of his likes and dislikes, John was pure boy. He was never happier than when out riding or shooting, two pastimes he kept up for the rest of his life. In 1777 his mother apologised to a correspondent for John’s not adding his good wishes to a letter, because he was “following the Fox Hounds, for the first day this season”.[11] It seems, however, that he was proficient at drawing, and his tutor Mr Wilson often referred to the vividness of his imagination.[12] Dancing was also a passion: he and his siblings were under the tutelage of the fashionable dancing master Giovanni Gallini, and there are frequent mentions in the correspondence of John staying out late dancing or accepting invitations to Pantheon balls.[13] On at least one occasion Lord Chatham referred to his eldest son as “the powdered beau”, suggesting an early inclination to dressing fashionably and well which he never entirely outgrew.

John was early destined for a career in the army (… which has always struck me as a little unusual as the destination for an older son, but there you go). His future was already determined before he was 14: Lord Chatham joked he was learning “how to live in a March, or bad quarters” when they made a bad journey from London to Somerset in July 1770.[15] John spent the summer of 1773 applying himself assiduously to his studies, Lord Chatham having procured him an ensigncy in the 47th Foot. John was due to go out with General Guy Carleton to Quebec the following year, but in the meantime the sixteen-year-old spent most of a holiday spent at Lyme in Dorset studying with a local military engineer.

Lord Chatham wrote to his wife referring to his eldest son as “young Vauban” and described how he was kept from joining his father and second brother on a ride because “he was generously occupied in learning to defend the happy land we were enjoying. Indeed, my life, the promise of our dear children does me more good than the purest of pure air”.[16] John’s brother James Charles was slightly less generous  when the travellers returned to Burton Pynsent, expressing astonishment “that Pitt has made so amazing a progress in the military art, in so short a time”– but that’s siblings for you.[17]

When he left England for Canada in June 1774 John, theoretically, stopped being a boy and became a man. He was still only 17, though, and he had spent all his childhood at home with his family. Travelling abroad must have been a big shock for a boy who had, essentially, rarely gone much further north than London. Apart from his brother James, he was by far the most well-travelled of the Pitts, travelling with the army to North America, Gibraltar, and the Leeward Islands, as well as in due course the Netherlands.

He was, also, and less positively, the man responsible for selling the house in which he had been born, Hayes Place, and the house in which he spent much of his childhood, Burton Pynsent. Hayes was sold in 1785, Burton Pynsent in 1805, after his mother’s death, both to settle John’s debts– although he had inherited both of them mortgaged to the hilt. John never had children of his own; nor would he, strictly speaking, fulfil the promise his father clearly felt he showed in his youth. But promise he had, and it is well worth remembering that the man who would, in later life and posthumously, be castigated as an idiot, once bested his brother in mathematics.

 

References

[1] Tomline, Life of Pitt I, 15

[2] Thanks to Stephenie Woolterton for the picture

[3] Grenville Papers I, 171

[4] Letters written by the late Earl of Chatham to his nephew Thomas Pitt… (London, 1804), p. 96

[5] Grenville Papers I, 173-4

[6] Letters of Lord Chatham to Thomas Pitt, p. 97

[7] Lord Chatham to Lady Chatham, 3 August 1770, Chatham Correspondence III, 470

[8] Lady Chatham to Lord Temple, 23 September 1769, Grenville Papers 5, 463

[9] PRO 30/8/67

[10] Lady Chatham to Lord Chatham, 11 July 1766, PRO 30/8/9

[11] Lady Chatham to Mrs Thomas Pitt, 25 October 1777, Dropmore Papers, British Library Add Ms 59490, ff 61-2. Thanks to Stephenie Woolterton for the reference

[12] James Charles Pitt to Lord Chatham, 21 June 1773, PRO 30/8/13; Edward Wilson to Lady Chatham, 23 August 1766, PRO 30/8/67

[13] Vere Birdwood, So dearly loved, so much admired (London, 1994), p. 9; Marie Peters, The Elder Pitt (London, 1998), pp. 211-2

[14] Ghita Stanhope and G.P. Gooch, Life of Charles, 3rd Earl Stanhope (London, 1914), p. 10

[15] Lord Chatham to Lady Chatham, 31 July 1770, PRO 30/8/9

[16] Quoted in Tresham Lever, The House of Pitt (London, 1947), pp. 192-3

[17] James Charles Pitt to Lord Chatham, 21 June 1773, PRO 30/8/13

 

Short story: From Day to Day

This is a bit of a departure for me in this blog, but I recently wrote a short story for the Historical Novel Society conference competition. I didn’t make the shortlist, but I’m quite proud of it, so wanted to share it here.

It’s called From Day to Day, and takes place over the disastrous weekend in September 1819 when the Bishop of Lincoln and his wife Eliza Tomline came to visit Lord and Lady Chatham at Abington Hall. If the title seems familiar, it’s because I wrote a post about the historical background to this story back in April.

Without further ado…


From Day to Day

I stand outside Abington Hall and watch for his return from the hunt. He is late and my anxiety rises when John is not beside me. I feel for the locket he gave me on our wedding day with a lock of his black hair inside. My fingers trace the filigree pattern, smoothed by daily wear and warm from the heat of my skin. I know he wants to send me to my family until I am better. I must show him I already am, for if I lose him I never will get well.

John comes home at dusk. Relief courses through me at the sight of his tall, straight form in the saddle, but the moment he sees me his expression changes. Once his heavy-lidded eyes rarely looked upon me with anything but affection. Now they are full of a suspicion I never saw there before I became ill.

‘What are you doing here?’ His voice is low but firm. He turns me away from the sight of the stable-hands. ‘You should be resting.’

I bite back tears of shame, for I know he does not mean to hurt me. Ever since he commanded that infernal expedition to Antwerp he has suffered humiliation upon humiliation: the “late Lord Chatham”, Mr Pitt’s useless elder brother. Even his valet damns him as “the hero of Walcheren” behind his back. If word spreads that Lady Chatham is insane, he will lose his last shreds of dignity. I love him too much to wish for that.

Once I am safely in my room John relaxes. He rings for Sally to undress me, then holds my hand while I take my laudanum. If I close my eyes I can pretend all is as it was before madness came between us.

‘What time do you expect the Bishop tomorrow?’ I ask.

His hand tightens round mine. He knows I hate the self-serving Bishop of Lincoln and his vapid wife. John tolerates them only because of his poor brother, for the Bishop was Mr Pitt’s intimate friend. ‘Are you certain you are equal to their visit?’

As much as I dislike the Tomlines, I want them to come. Receiving them will be a trial, but it will prove to John that I am well again. I will not let him send me away. ‘I will be happy to receive them. I feel better, my love. I am better.’

He smiles and kisses my forehead. The warmth of his love floods through me. For over a year we have lived from day to day, but now we can look forward to the future again. I know it.

***

I open my eyes. Slowly, the fog of misery descends. My husband is not beside me, and today the Tomlines will come.

A stranger stares at me from the mirror. I was beautiful once, but this disease ravages the face as much as the mind. Sally brushes out my hair. She snags at a stubborn knot and I raise my hand. In the mirror I see her shrink back. With effort I quash the instinct to strike her. If I can get through the Bishop’s visit I will show John that I truly am better, and perhaps then he will keep me by his side, where I belong.

The Tomlines arrive in the afternoon. I receive them in the Jacobean drawing room and try to ignore the openness with which they peer about in contempt. Abington must seem a small house for the son of the great Chatham and brother of Mr Pitt.

‘Our thanks for your hospitality, my lady,’ the Bishop says. ‘I am glad to find you so well.’ He is nearly seventy, fat and balding, with a broad face and tiny eyes like black pebbles. His wife is thin and shrivelled.

I want to recoil from them, but I smile politely. ‘Thank you. My health is much improved.’

I raise my eyes to my husband. He watches me anxiously, but his lips curve in response to my smile. In his relief he looks almost young again.

***

Sunday comes. We cross the bridge and walk to church. Rain falls in the long grass with a sound like a sustained sigh.

The villagers gawp at me and I want to sob into my Book of Common Prayer, but John holds my hand and his touch gives me confidence. He is my strength. With him I might conquer anything.

John takes the Bishop riding towards Cambridge. Mrs Tomline and I are alone. The thought of her revolts me, but the old Mary Chatham would not snub a guest.

Sally fetches my workbox. Mrs Tomline brings out her tambour frame. Rain drums against the window like nails.

‘The men will be soaked through,’ Mrs Tomline observes.

‘Lord Chatham is accustomed to riding in all weather.’ I wonder if he prefers being away from his sick wife, but such doubts belong to my malady and not to me.

‘You must speak more of your illness,’ Mrs Tomline says. I straighten. I do not wish to talk about what is past to anyone, least of all a woman for whom I have no regard. She frowns. ‘Keeping it shut up inside will make you worse. I am a friend. Your confidence will go no further.’

I burst into a bitter laugh. I am sure Mrs Tomline would be all too delighted to linger over every last detail. ‘It is of no interest to anyone but Lord Chatham and myself.’

Mrs Tomline purses her lips. ‘You cannot burden Lord Chatham with your ill health. Has he not suffered enough?’

The needle lies idle in my hand. She is more right than she knows. I am the reason we sit in Abington Hall’s tiny parlour in a Cambridgeshire exile. Had it not been for me and my wretched mind John might still be in government. He need not have accepted the commission to take Antwerp; his disastrous retreat before Walcheren would never have occurred. He would never have been mortified before army, Parliament and nation. A wave of isolation takes me unawares. ‘I know I must not give Lord Chatham a moment’s pain.’

‘I am glad you recognise his goodness towards you, but you do not fully comprehend the difficulty under which you put Lord Chatham when you are in this state. You must control yourself.’ I stare at her. Does she not see how hard I am trying? Does she not realise this is the best I can do? She leans forward and takes my hand. Her skin is as scaly as a lizard’s. ‘I know you can be well if you choose to be so.’

‘You know nothing of it,’ I snap, and whip my hand back.

‘Of course not, but it is not enough to control yourself for us. You must control yourself for the whole world, for Lord Chatham’s sake. Should your state become general knowledge–’

Does she think she is helping? Perhaps she wishes I would act more like a lunatic. Then she might fill her letters with accounts of a Countess raving and foaming at the mouth. Her gaze moves down and I become aware I am scratching at my hands, drawing blood.

‘Oh my dear Lady Chatham,’ she says, and I know if I remain a moment longer I will scream. My sewing falls to the floor and I flee.

I slam the door to the parlour. I clutch my head to stop it spinning.

‘Mary?’ It is my husband. Rain drips from his coat. He leaves the Bishop in the pillared hallway and rushes to my side, spurs clattering across the stone floor. He takes my hand. His fingers rub the bloodied scratchmarks and I see his dismay. No! I whip my hands out of his and bury them in my skirts.

I must not allow Mrs Tomline to discompose me. I must not let John see that she does, for I might lose him and his proximity is all that sustains me.

***

Dinner is served at six. The strain of pretence is beginning to tell. When I make my appearance I see the concern on my husband’s face. I make an effort so strong I can almost feel the earth shift beneath my feet and give him my arm. He looks doubtful but says nothing.

We dine in the largest room of the house, overlooking the lawn. The footmen lay the dishes on the table: roast beef, Cambridgeshire mutton, a venison pie. The Bishop and John talk about the reform meeting in St Peter’s Field and its terrible aftermath. ‘Mr Pitt would not have allowed matters to reach such an extremity,’ the Bishop says and my husband nods. I pick at my food and try not to listen. The Tomlines leave in the morning, and then I can concentrate on getting better.

I hear the Bishop say my name. ‘I fear we are tiring Lady Chatham with our talk.’

John stops chewing. I see wariness on his face, as though I am a loaded fowling piece on full cock.

The Bishop smiles at me. ‘My wife and I understand if you have not the strength to remain at table.’

‘I am quite equal to company,’ I say, but it is as if I have not spoken. Mrs Tomline looks across at her husband.

‘To tell the truth, my love, I wonder if we have imposed upon Lady Chatham by our visit and set back her convalescence.’

I glance desperately at my husband, willing him to leap to my defence. He still watches me with that strange expression.

The Bishop looks uncomfortable. ‘We are of course fully sensible of the honour you have done us in inviting us to Abington, but my wife is right. A little more rest will set you up, Lady Chatham.’

‘I am well now!’ I insist.

‘With God’s grace your ladyship will be so very soon,’ Mrs Tomline says.
John has not taken his eyes off me for a moment. I scratch at my hands. The pain is distracting and strangely comforting.

Mrs Tomline sees what I am doing. She whispers loudly, ‘Remember what I told you, my dear. You must control yourself.’

She reaches out and holds my arm. I do not know what angers me more, her familiarity or the implication that, once again, I have fallen short of expectations. I will not be scolded like a child. I am not an animal to be manhandled. She thinks I am not in control? Well then, I shall show her what happens when I give full rein to my madness.

I feel as though I am watching myself from a distance. I stand, grasp the gravy bowl in both hands, and throw its contents over Mrs Tomline.

She screams. I want to laugh at her for being so foolish– the gravy isn’t even hot. The Bishop leaps to his feet. The footmen stare.

Someone is shouting. ‘Bitch! You cannot understand! I despise you!’ Suddenly I realise the person shouting is me. I shut my mouth so sharply I feel the impact in the pit of my stomach, but it is too late.

My husband’s face is as hard and grey as stone, his mouth thin with dismay. He looks me in the eye and pushes his chair back. He pins my arms to my side and hurries me past the servants gathering outside the dining room, attracted by Mrs Tomline’s cry.

He enters the bedroom, rips back the hangings and throws me onto the bed. My head bounces off the bolster. When I open my eyes I see him leaning heavily against the bedpost. I can see every line on his face, scored deeply into his skin by strain, humiliation and disappointment.

Tears fill my eyes. ‘I am sorry. So sorry.’ I have failed him and I have failed myself. My limbs feel heavy, as though my self-hatred has turned them to lead.

‘Our guests,’ he says. He is too distraught to form a sentence. ‘Our guests. In front of the servants.’

‘I am trying,’ I manage. ‘I am trying so very hard to be well.’

‘I am beginning to doubt you will ever be well again,’ he says. I stare at him over my bent knees. His mouth curves downward and his hand against the bedpost tightens into a fist. ‘I will write to your brother next week. You must go to him at Frognal.’

‘No!’ I leap off the bed. He jumps back and I see, clearly, the fear in his eyes. Like Sally, he thinks I will strike him. I wonder how he can believe he is in the slightest danger from me, then I look down at my clenched fist and realise I am not fully in control of my own body. I want to laugh. How could I ever think I could conquer this malady? It knows me better than I know myself.

‘The change of air will make you better,’ he says.

I throw myself to the floor. He flinches. I grasp his knees and press my face against his fine cotton stockings. ‘Do you not understand, John? I can only get better if I am with you.’

He disengages himself and steps back. There is no response in his face to my plea. He knows he will be better off without me. He will send me away for his sake, not mine.

All my attempts to keep him by me have been useless. I might as well go to Frognal, for I see now that I lost my husband years ago.

The door closes behind him. For a moment I sit on the floor in uncomprehending silence, then panic spreads through me like a poison. My breath chokes in my throat. I claw at my neck and my fingers catch the chain of my locket. It flies through the air and bounces under the bed.

I pick it up with trembling fingers. It falls open in my hands. I see his black hair and our initials written in his hand. JC MEC. The locket slips through my fingers to the floor.

I fall back, put my hands to my face, and weep.

The Earl of Chatham’s weight

johnsweight

A year or so ago, my good friend A Noon-Day Eclipse and I visited Berry Brothers & Rudd in London. BB&R (as I shall henceforth call them) obviously sell wine, but they also have ledger books dating back to the 18th century recording the weights of various patrons who visited over the years. BB&R, then Clarke’s, sold coffee as well as wine, and had an enormous pair of coffee weighing scales. Wealthy patrons frequently came to Clarke’s to be weighed. Pitt the Younger was weighed numerous times in the 1780s. What we wanted to see, however, was the weight of his brother, John, 2nd Lord Chatham.

John was weighed eight times over the course of ten years. I’ve attached a photograph of the relevant ledger at the top of this post, but his weights were as follows:

1816 June 20 – 11st 13lb in boots

1818 July 17 – 11st 1lb in boots

1821 Sept 29 – 11st 13 1/2lb in boots

1825 Aug 3 – 9st 10 1/4lb in boots

1825 Nov 8 – 10st 13 1/2lb in boots and greatcoat

1825 Nov 25 – 10st 12lb in boots and greatcoat

1825 Dec 16 – 10st 12lb in boots and greatcoat

1826 Jan 20 – 11st 3 1/2lb in boots and greatcoat

From this I deduce that John was rather a spare man. I don’t know how tall he was exactly, but he was described physically as “tall”, so I think it’s fair to say he was above average height: maybe 5’11” or so (possibly taller). According to the NHS BMI calculator, in September 1821 John had a BMI of 23.4, comfortably on the upper range of healthy for a man of his age (of course he would have been fully clothed with boots when he was weighed, which I cannot correct for, but it’s an accurate enough guess). At his lowest weight in August 1825, however, he had a BMI of 18.9, which is right on the cusp of underweight.

Why the fluctuation? I can hazard some guesses. John’s “normal” weight was obviously about 11st 13lb or thereabouts. The dates above are suggestive. At the start of the records, in 1816, John was a couple of months shy of his 60th birthday, presumably in good health, happy enough. He had few official responsibilities as he had been out of office for six years, and I’m guessing his military duties were not especially onerous.

Two years later, however, he’s dropped nearly a stone in weight. This is perhaps not surprising: his wife Mary’s mental issues had begun, and John had been nursing her for some months. This was to carry on over the next few years with very little intermission, and from his letters (I’ve blogged about them in the past) it’s clear it took a toll on his health.

Three years later, in September 1821, John was a widower and about to leave for Gibraltar. He had some issues with depression after his wife’s death, but that doesn’t seem to have affected his weight: this is his heaviest ever, just shy of 12 stone.

It’s a different story in August of 1825. John left for Gibraltar in November 1821. He left there in May 1825. I have not yet managed to work out exactly why he left when he did, but there’s a hint in the newspapers of the time:

Morning Post, 20 May 1825

Morning Post, 20 May 1825

The fact that John’s “health [had] suffered materially” is reflected in August’s weight record: 9st 10 1/4lb fully dressed in boots. Clearly he was not a well man even after returning to England. He arrived in London on 1 July 1825. A friend who had not seen him for four years was shocked:

Years have bent him much. Time has made him, who was once a very fine-looking man in face and person, no longer, as to the latter, upright and straight as an arrow, and in countenance it has left him certainly fine remains of what he was, but only remains. (Lord Eldon to his son, 24 July 1825, H. Twiss, Life of Lord Eldon II, 559-60)

John obviously kept an eye on his weight for some time afterwards, and he was weighed four times between November 1825 and January 1826. His weight had clearly recovered to a certain extent, although he never seems to have gone beyond 11st 3lb in full winter greatcoat and boots. Still, I think it’s fair to say he went from “too thin” to “about OK”.

I have a feeling there are a few more John records at BB&R, which we did not find on the day we visited. Perhaps one day I will find them. It would be interesting to see how heavy John was in his younger days, although I suspect (like his brother, who was about 12st in his late 20s) he was never overweight.

Marriage of the 2nd Earl of Chatham and Mary Elizabeth Townshend, 10 July 1783

Mary, Countess of Chatham and John, 2nd Earl of Chatham by Charles Rosenburg (ca 1800)

Mary, Countess of Chatham and John, 2nd Earl of Chatham by Charles Rosenburg (ca 1800)

I know it’s a day early, but I’d like to post in honour of the 231st wedding anniversary of John, 2nd Earl of Chatham and his wife Mary Elizabeth Townshend and I can’t guarantee I’ll manage tomorrow. They are obviously the main characters of my WIP and I have done a lot of research on their lives in the past year. Not all my discoveries have been pleasant, but I have learned a lot about them and I feel much closer to them now than I did this time last year. (You can read last year’s post about their marriage settlement here.)

John and Mary were married by special licence at the house of Mary’s father, Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney, on 10 July 1783. John was twenty-six, Mary twenty. They had known each other since they were children and it was a love match between longtime sweethearts. Despite rumours that John had a mistress I have not been able to substantiate them, and on the contrary all the evidence points to the closeness of their relationship. The marriage was destined to last nearly thirty-eight years, coming to an end when Mary died on 21 May 1821 at the age of fifty-eight.

As husband and wife the pair suffered more than their fair share of trials and tribulations. Mary’s health was always poor. She suffered from some sort of premature-onset arthritis in her hip that left her permanently lame, and never managed to carry a child to term, although she miscarried at least once. She shared in all her husband’s twists and turns of fortune, accompanying him as much as she could on his military postings throughout Britain, and retiring with him into political obscurity after he commanded the disastrous Walcheren expedition in 1809. In 1807 Mary suffered a prolonged mental breakdown, and although she recovered she relapsed more or less permanently in 1818. You can read more about John and Mary in my guest posts for “Madame Gilflurt’s” excellent blog.

I’d like to leave you with a short excerpt from my WIP in which I describe John and Mary’s wedding. Please join me in raising a glass of claret to the happy couple!

 


 

Albemarle Street, July 1783

`My lord Chatham, if you will repeat after me…’

Mary’s heart beat a hectic rhythm in her chest as Dr Courtenay, the parish rector, took the ring off the Bible and slipped it onto her finger. She did not take her eyes off John for a moment. He wore a cream silk suit trimmed with silver to match her gown. His hair was immaculately curled and powdered and his eyes held hers with an intensity that made her heart beat faster. He echoed Courtenay’s words, precisely and with great concentration.

`With this ring I thee wed. With my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.’

`Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder,’ Courtenay said. John put his hand over Mary’s; the sensation of his warm flesh pressing the cold band of the ring into her finger sent a shiver of excitement through her. `I pronounce that they be man and wife together. My lord, you may kiss your bride.’

The wedding guests applauded as John leaned down to bestow a chaste kiss on his wife’s lips. Mary saw his eyes dart towards the chairs arranged before the windows of her parents’ drawing-room. Her father, created Viscount Sydney in one of Lord Shelburne’s parting acts as minister, sat beaming a few feet away. Arrayed beside him were his wife and Mary’s six siblings, from Georgiana to three-year-old Horatio, sucking his thumb on his eldest sister’s lap. Behind were William and Harriot, both grinning broadly.

Mary knew how self-conscious John could be in front of an audience, but she had no intention of letting him get away with that kiss. She wrapped her arms around her husband’s neck and murmured into his ear. `Does Mary, Countess of Chatham not return your kisses so sweetly as Miss Mary Townshend?’

His face cleared instantly. `I do not know. Perhaps we should put it to the test?’

He cupped her chin and kissed her again. In an instant her world narrowed down to the sensation of his lips against hers and Lord Sydney’s elegant drawing-room, with all its inhabitants, was lost to her.

Mary kept her hand in John’s as the guests came over to congratulate them. Her father and mother led the way, enormous smiles on their faces. Lady Sydney kissed John on each cheek. Lord Sydney pumped John’s hand up and down, unable to say anything other than `Well done, Chatham, well done indeed,’ for all the world as though John had just won Mary in single combat.  Last came William and Harriot. Harriot slipped her hand through her new sister-in-law’s arm and William clasped John’s hand with genuine pleasure.

`You look fine, John, very fine,’ William said.

`Marriage suits you,’ Harriot observed. Her eyes were like John’s: they had the same heavy-lidded, almond shape, the same shade of greyish-blue flecked with brown, fringed with the same dark lashes, but Harriot’s were full of a mischief Mary had never seen in her husband’s. `Why, you nearly look handsome.’

`Only nearly?’

`You know Harriot,’ William said. `She never flatters. But as far as I am concerned you look splendid. Lady Chatham too.’ Mary glanced over her shoulder, half-expecting to see that John’s mother had just entered the room, then realised William was talking about her and felt the blood rush to her cheeks. `Congratulations, my lady. Welcome to our family.’

`Too late to change your mind I’m afraid,’ Harriot put in.

`I don’t think I want to,’ Mary said. She could not help slanting a mischievous look up at her husband. John smiled back and dropped a brief kiss on her lips.

`I am glad to hear it!’

He spoke flippantly and Harriot and William laughed, but Mary detected strain in his voice. When he was not paying attention she looked at him more carefully, peeling away the silver-lined coat, the pomaded, curled hair, and the aura of quiet gentility and pride he wore like a cloak. She saw the pallor of his skin and the tightness around his eyes and thought: He is as nervous as I am. She wondered if she was the only one to notice, for even William and Harriot continued to jest at him as though they did not see his jaw tighten further with each joke.

It was as though she could see him better than anyone else in the room, as though her love were a filter stripping away everything but the raw thoughts and emotions that made him John. She took his arm and he turned to her with a smile she was beginning to recognise belonged only to her. The connection between them felt more than physical, as though if Mary withdrew her arm she would still be holding him, even if they were hundreds of miles apart.

Guest post for Madame Guilflurt on Mary, Countess of Chatham

A few days ago I guest blogged again for Madame Gilflurt. The subject of my post was Mary, Countess of Chatham, and the post went up on the 193rd anniversary of her death:

http://www.madamegilflurt.com/2014/05/a-salon-guest-mary-elizabeth-countess.html

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As regular readers know, I am very fond of Mary, the more so given my recent discoveries about her later life. She is a totally underrated and ignored historical figure: you will not find this much about her anywhere else, I guarantee it.

 

“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.