Short Story: The Arabian

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Grey desert arabian, from  here

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

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

Enjoy!

***

The Arabian

 

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

‘That bloody gun.’

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

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

Head Quarters, Gibraltar, 2d. September 1822

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

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

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

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

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

‘His Lordship will be grateful for that.’

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

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

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

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

‘Of course.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nothing out of the ordinary, my lord.’

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

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

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

‘They have all been through quarantine.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Does that surprise you?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

‘Of course.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You may tell His Lordship it is.’

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

‘Very much so.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Just so.’

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

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

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

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

‘Of course he is.’

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

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

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

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

‘He’s catching up.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, my lord.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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]

 

chathamturner

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.

10 October 1756: birth of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham

YES, 10 October. Yes. YES. No, it’s not a typo. Yes, I realise I am flying in the face of all other published sources, except Wikipedia (and there’s a good reason for that).

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, in John Singleton Copley's "The Death of the Earl of Chatham" (1779)

John, 2nd Earl of Chatham, in John Singleton Copley’s “The Death of the Earl of Chatham” (1779)

Most people, when writing about someone less visible in the historical record, are at least able to say “Well, at least I know when he/she was born/died!” Unfortunately, my biography of the 2nd Earl of Chatham pretty much opens with a page-long footnote explaining why I have plumped for 10 October 1756 as his date of birth, and not the usually-recorded 9 October. (Some sources say 10 September, but, to misquote Monty Python, that’s right out.)

As far as I can see, there is one main reason why the sources focus on 9 October as Chatham’s birthday. It is a letter written by Pitt the Elder to Pitt the Younger on 9 October 1773, which opens with the following lines: “Thursday’s post brought us no letter from the dear traveller [Pitt was on his way to Cambridge]: we trust this day will prove more satisfactory. It is the happy day that gave us your brother…” [Chatham Correspondence IV, 290]

William Pitt the Elder by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder by William Hoare

Well, that’s clear, isn’t it? Pitt the Elder should have known the date of birth of his own son, no?

Except we find Pitt the Elder writing to his brother-in-law, George Grenville, on 10 October 1756: “Dear Grenville, Lady Hester is as well as can be in her situation, after being delivered of a son this morning.” [Grenville Papers I, 173]

And also to his nephew, Thomas Pitt, later Lord Camelford, also on 10 October 1756: “Lady Hester was safely delivered this morning of a son.” [Letters written by Lord Chatham to his nephew Thomas Pitt (1804), p. 97]

Not to mention the fact that Chatham’s baptismal record in the parish register, entered on 7 November 1756, notes his date of birth as 10 October.

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

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

So what happened? Why the discrepancy? I suppose the most likely possibility is that everything went so quickly (and Chatham’s birth was, apparently, very quick) that nobody troubled to take accurate note of his time of birth. Maybe the clocks in the room were fast. Maybe the midwife (or man midwife, as Chatham was delivered by William Hunter) made a mistake.

Clearly the family celebrated Chatham’s birthday on 9 October, although there could have been other reasons for this. In 1773, 10 October fell on a Sunday: possibly the family decided to celebrate a day early for that reason. I personally think this unlikely, however, as Pitt the Elder specifically says “THIS is the happy day that gave us your brother”. He could have misdated his letter, but this is unlikely, particularly as his son William replied a few days later making reference to “the rejoicings on the happy ninth of October”.

It seems most likely, therefore, that the family for some reason changed their minds about Chatham’s birthday and started celebrating it on 9 October. But he would not be the only 18th century figure surrounded with such confusion — the Duke of Wellington’s precise birthdate, for example, is also disputed.

This doesn’t make my task as biographer any easier, but I’ve plumped for 10 October rather than 9 October because Chatham’s baptismal record suggests that date. The entry was added on 7 November, nearly a full month after Chatham’s birth, so it seems most likely to me that any changes of mind occurred some time after his birth. I’ve therefore gone with the on-the-spot account, and shaved a day off the 2nd Lord Chatham’s age.

You may disagree with me, but I’m sticking to my guns.

Lord Chatham in Gibraltar — the FIRST time

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

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

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

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

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

How the heck could I have forgotten that?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

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