More on Pitt the Younger’s health

In September 1802 Pitt, while out of office, suffered one of his worst attacks of illness ever. It appears he almost died, and to judge from the following letter written by George Rose to the Bishop of Lincoln he gave his doctor, Sir Walter Farquhar, a good fright:

“What an Escape we have had! … Sir Walter Farquhar had the kind attention to write to me from Walmer the 17th Friday; you have probably heard the Particulars of the Attack, but take the Baronet’s own Words, ‘The bilious attack was violent at first, & on Tuesday at his own Request (a very uncommon Circumstance) I arriv’d at Walmer at Eleven o’Clock at night: that Night & Wednesday Matters went on very well; but Yesterday Morning the Symptoms were very unpleasant, & towards Night became much more so: I cannot express to you what I felt, but having a firm Mind to deal with I went on with the Remedies most likely to relieve, and at last by the Help of the warm Bath &c &c the alarming Ills gave way at Two o’Clock this Morning: at Eleven last night I sent an Express to Ramsgate for Doctor Reynolds, who was good enough to be here at Six to-day, & we have arranged future plans. I feel so satisfied that I go off for London at Four, & shall return to the Castle on Sunday, and the Day after I hope to be able to join my Family at Ramsgate … It is not easy to express what one feels on such an occasion … I hope I may never be in the same Situation again.’ You can judge my Dear Lord from this Account what the Danger must have been; when I left Mr Pitt a few weeks ago he was certainly better than I had seen him for some Years.”

After his September 1802 attack Pitt went to Bath, and actually listened to his doctor’s attempts to curb his drinking ……………………………. for a while anyway: Rose to Pretyman, 21 November 1802:

“Mr Pitt’s Health mends every Day; it is really better than it has been ever since I knew him: I am quite sure this Place agrees with him entirely; he eats a small Duck & a half for Breakfast, & more at Dinner than I ever saw him at 1/2 past 4, no Luncheon; two very small Glasses of Madeira at Dinner, & less than a Pint of Port after Dinner; at Night nothing but a Bason of Arrow Root; he is positively in the best possible Train of Management for his Health: But in his way here, at Wilderness, he drank very nearly three Bottles of Port to his own Share at Dinner & Supper; so Lord Camden told me.”

Whoops. 😉

(Ipswich RO Pretyman MSS HA 119/T108/44)


On Pitt the Younger’s health

I am going through all my MSS notes and trying to track down certain references. At the same time I have been finding all sorts of fun and interesting stuff. The following, for example, consists of snippets and summaries from the correspondence of George Rose, one of Pitt’s Secretaries to the Treasury and a close political associate, to George Pretyman, Bishop of Lincoln.

The subject of the correspondence was the death of Pitt’s brother-in-law Edward James Eliot at the age of 39. Eliot had married Pitt’s sister Harriot in 1785, but she died in childbirth in 1786. Eliot had known Pitt since they had been at Pembroke College together and was one of his oldest and closest friends. His death knocked Pitt for six at a time when he was already feeling the strain of the war with France: 1797 was not a good year for the British war effort.

Rose was with Pitt when he first heard the news of Eliot’s unexpected death. He detailed Pitt’s reaction in a letter to Pretyman, dated 20 September 1797:

“The Effect produced by the Event on him is not to be described; the suddenness of the Blow aggravated the Misfortune, he received the Account by the common Post in a Letter from Lord Eliot [Eliot’s father] not knowing the writing; no Circumstances whatever mention’d, but the Event must have been sudden as Mr Pitt told me last Night the latest Accounts were extremely favourable, & Mr Carthew [Pitt’s secretary] who returned to Town last night says our poor Friend had been remarkably well latterly.

I found Mr Pitt last Monday at Holwood with Lord & Lady Chatham, complaining of a Head Ach which had tormented him for a Fortnight, some Degree of Cold, & a Loss of Appetite; I therefore prevailed with him to see Sir Walter Farquhar [his physician] which I hope he will do this Evening. I suppress’d my own Feelings all I could to avoid working his, to say that I am griev’d to my Heart for the Loss we have sustain’d is an Expression far, very far, short of the real Impression made on me by it. I pity Mr Pitt with my whole soul & I lament most unaffectedly the loss of one of the very best Men I have met with in my Intercourse with Mankind”.

The next letter, 22 September 1797, continued to describe the effect of Eliot’s death on Pitt’s health:

“I was in so much real Agitation of Mind yesterday that I do not know whether I mentioned to you my having prevail’d with Mr Pitt the Day before to allow me to send for Sir Walter Farquhar in consequence of which I had appointed him to come last Night. Towards the Evening he grew Sick & reached [retched] violently, after which he was better; Sir Walter came to him about 9, he says he is quite clear about the Case & is sure he can do his Patient effectual Good, that there is much Gout in it [….sorry, but this is a typical Sir Walter diagnosis]. Mr Pitt could not of course go to St James’s yesterday & will therefore stay for the Levee on Wednesday next, after which I trust he will immediately go to Walmer … He feels anxious about the Removal of the little Girl [his niece, Eliot’s daughter Harriot Hester] to Burton, & yet the State of his Mother’s Health makes her being there at Present a Matter of Anxiety. … I did not leave Mr Pitt yesterday, & while I can afford him any Sort of Consolation I shall not think of going anywhere else. He is much better to-day.”

By 26 September Pitt was feeling much better, but was under a fair amount of anxiety over what to do with his orphaned niece Harriot Hester. According to Rose it looked like Eliot had not left a will, although this did turn up later. Pitt, as usual, turned to his usual method of burying pain:

“Mr Pitt continues much better than when I found him here a week ago; his Mind has been diverted from the melancholy Subject by an almost unremitting Attention to the imortant Business of providing the Means of carrying on the War”.

I do find it quite amazing that so many of his friends found it normal to see him dealing with grief and ill health by immersing himself in overwork. I suppose they were used to it by then and it represented a sign that Pitt had returned to normality. Also … probably better than drowning his sorrows in port. :-/

All quotations from Ipswich RO Pretyman Papers HA 119/T108/44

Country vs Pies vs ??? – Pitt the Younger’s last words

A nice happy topic for a sunny Wednesday afternoon ;-). Possibly I ought to do this another day (because as usual, I should actually be writing the novel right now) but I feel the need to talk about this.

I had the good fortune to be invited to the dinner held at Pembroke College, Cambridge on 23 January 2006 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Pitt the Younger’s death. (Nothing particularly special about this, as all history graduate students working on the period were invited.) This was the menu:

Commemorative Pitt dinner at Pembroke 2006 : programme page 3. Yes, yes, I know,  veal pie for the main course? I was halfway through before I realised what they'd done there. Ha ha.

I was halfway through the main course, which was rather nice, when I suddenly realised why veal pie was on the menu. Strangely nobody else seemed to have worked it out, or if they did nobody said anything.

The veal pie referenced, of course, Benjamin Disraeli’s story about Pitt the Younger’s last words. Disraeli’s story is recorded by Lord Rosebery in his “Pitt” (1891, p. 258), although had Rosebery known quite what he was starting he might have held back:

“Mr. Disraeli, in the more genial and less majestic days before 174, used to tell a saturnine story of this time [Pitt’s death]. When he first entered Parliament, he used often to dine at the House of Commons, where he was generally served by a grim old waiter of prehistoric reputation, who was supposed to possess a secret treasure of political tradition. The young member sought by every gracious art to win his confidence and partake of these stores.

One day the venerable domestic relented. ‘You hear many lies told as history, sir,’ he said; ‘do you know what Mr. Pitt’s last words were?’

‘Of course,’ said Mr. Disraeli, ‘they are well known … “O my country! How I love my country!”’ for that was then the authorised version.

‘Nonsense,’ said the old man. ‘I’ll tell you how it was. Late one night I was called out of bed by a messenger in a postchaise, shouting to me outside the window. “What is it?” I said. “You’re to get up and dress and bring some of your meat pies down to Mr. Pitt at Putney.” So I went; and as we drove along he told me that Mr. Pitt had not been able to take any food, but had suddenly said, “I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s mutton pies.” And so I was sent for post-haste. When we arrived Mr. Pitt was dead. Them was his last words: “I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s meat pies.”’ (Mr. Disraeli mentioned the meat—veal or pork, I think, but I have forgotten.)”

Amazingly enough, this story of Pitt’s last words—relayed, fourth-hand, by Rosebery, from Disraeli, who had it from Bellamy’s waiter, who had it from the messenger from Putney—is believed by some to be actually true. Amusing as it may be (insofar as it can ever be considered amusing to joke about someone’s dying words) I have no doubt Disraeli either made it up, or misremembered his source. I’m not saying Pitt did not ask for one of Bellamy’s pies at some stage of his final illness, but if he did it wasn’t right at the end. The last record of him eating anything much is I think on the 18th January when he was given a choice of egg or broth. I can’t see how his doctors would have considered feeding him a whole veal pie to be a good idea, even if they would have been happy to hear him asking for one.

If veal pie did not form part of Pitt’s last words, then what did he say? Disraeli above quotes Stanhope’s original (1861) version, printed in his biography of Pitt: “Oh my country, how I love my country!” (vol IV, 382). He later altered it to “how I leave my country” upon rereading his source, and this is now accepted as standard.

Stanhope took this from the notes written on 24 January 1806 by James Stanhope, Pitt’s “nephew” (… that is to say, the son of Pitt’s brother-in-law by his second marriage). James Stanhope was in Pitt’s room for the whole night before Pitt died and was, as far as I can gather, virtually the only person present. Ehrman in The Consuming Struggle (829, n. 2) claims Sir Walter Farquhar (Pitt’s doctor) and George Tomline, Bishop of Lincoln were in the room as well, but according to James Stanhope’s account Farquhar at least was not present (Stanhope IV, 381). George Rose, Pitt’s friend and political facilitator, recorded Pitt’s last words as “My country, oh, my country”. His authority was Pitt’s servant Pursler, who was definitely present. Farquhar, apparently, told Lord Malmesbury that Pitt’s last words were “Oh what times! Oh my country!” (Diaries of Lord Malmesbury, IV, 346). Pretty much the only person who disagreed with this version was George Canning, who decided (purely on the basis that he thought it more likely) that Pitt said “I am sorry to leave the country in such a situation”. According to Ehrman this was on Tomline’s authority, although going back to the source (Granville Leveson Gower’s Private Papers, II, 169) Canning is not reporting this as Pitt’s last words but simply as something Pitt said to Tomline before he died.

Basically, however, all sources who were present, or near, agree: Pitt’s last words, or very nearly last words, revolved around the situation of the country (and what else would he have been thinking of, I suppose? Ulm and Austerlitz had destroyed the Third Coalition, Britain was once again without allies on the continent, and Napoleon was thoroughly unchallenged). It seems clear that Pitt did say something of the sort on his deathbed.

Why, then, am I rather sceptical?

I think it is probably due to James Stanhope’s account. Apart from Tomline’s daily (and sometimes twice or even thrice-daily) letters to his wife from Putney, kept at Ipswich Record Office (HA119/T99/26 for those who are interested — although they were in the process of recataloguing when I visited so heaven knows what call number they are using now), Stanhope’s account is the only on the spot account worth going by regarding Pitt’s death. Farquhar wrote an account many years afterwards, and numerous interested parties wrote down their recollections of the stories they were told later (Rose, for example, and Pitt’s secretary William Dacre Adams), but only Tomline and Stanhope were writing on the spot at the time. Stanhope’s account thus has to be taken at face value, and its simple, factual tone lends both poignancy and credibility. But this is what Stanhope has to say about Pitt’s last words:

“At about half-past two Mr. Pitt ceased moaning, and did not speak or make the slightest sound for some time … I feared he was dying; but shortly afterwards, with a much clearer voice than he spoke in before, and in a tone I never shall forget, he exclaimed, ‘Oh, my country! How I leave my country!’ From that time he never spoke or moved” (Stanhope IV, 382)

So according to Stanhope, Pitt had spent the night moaning and muttering incoherently, then suddenly mustered up the strength to “exclaim” his last words, before subsiding into silence. Hmmm. Is that likely to happen? Could it happen? It sounds like Pitt was lapsing into a coma, woke up conveniently to speak his last words clearly and commandingly, then returned to his coma. Could this happen? I don’t know. I have precisely zero experience of death beds (… and quite happy for it to remain that way actually).

It’s definitely credible that Pitt would have spoken about his country on his deathbed— and yet how convenient that he came out with such a quotable line! I cannot possibly be the only person who thinks it almost sounds as though the parties present got together to work out a safe, “canon” version of the last words for posterity to chew on. Although I find it hard to believe James Stanhope would have colluded with Tomline and Farquhar on this, especially as Lady Hester Stanhope, James’s sister, was always quite happy to cry humbug at Rose/Tomline et al’s attempts to sanctify Pitt’s memory.

All in all, I have nothing but a hunch to suggest that Pitt’s last words may not, in fact, have been his last words. That he said those words, or something like them, seems likely, especially as everyone who was around Putney at the time agreed on a similar version. But did he say anything afterwards? Were they spoken much earlier? Who knows? The only thing I can say for sure is this — Pitt did NOT ask for one of Bellamy’s veal pies.

Oh my heart, my heart, how he broke my heart: Pitt’s last days

Just taking five minutes from my writing day (it’s Thuuuuuuuuuuuuuursdaaaaaaaaaaay!) to blog something that’s been tugging at my mind since yesterday.

Last night, quite by accident, I discovered that Earl Stanhope’s “Miscellanies” (London, 1863) are on Google Books. (You can find the whole thing here). Reading through, I found a few letters that passed between Pitt the Younger and his physician, Sir Walter Farquhar, at the start of January 1806.

First, to put them into context and explain why they affected me so much, a little background. Pitt returned to office in May 1804, beset by parliamentary divisions. He managed to cobble together the Third Coalition against France with Austria and Russia in 1805, only to see it shattered by Napoleon on the battlefields of Ulm (October 1805) and Austerlitz (December 1805). Pitt’s health was by this time seriously failing and he had gone to Bath in mid December 1805 to take the waters. Pitt, a natural optimist, was initially confident Bath would benefit him: a letter he wrote on 21 December to Lord Harrowby, also printed in the “Miscellanies” (pp 28-9), ends with the line “I have been here for ten days, and have already felt the effect of the waters in a pretty smart fit of the gout, from which I am just recovering, and of which I expect soon to perceive the benefit.”

Eleven days later and Pitt’s tone had completely changed. Parliament was due to meet on 21 January 1806 after the recess and Pitt knew very well the opposition— at this point led in the House of Commons by Fox, and in the House of Lords by Pitt’s own cousin Lord Grenville— would strongly censure the failure of his foreign policy. He knew he had to get well enough to defend himself, and he knew he was running out of time. On 1 January 1806 he wrote the following letter to Sir Walter Farquhar, his physician. He was obviously still trying to strike his usual upbeat note, but clearly failing miserably. I’ll quote it in its entirety here:

“My dear Sir,

I have been rather gaining ground since I wrote to you last; but it has been so slowly that I cannot feel comfortable at finding myself within less than three weeks of the meeting of Parliament without being more advanced. My strength is as yet very little improved, and my appetite not at all. It is indeed only for these last five days that I have begun again on the waters, and at first so sparingly that they would scarce produce any effect. For these last two days I have taken two middle-sized glasses, which certainly seem to agree very well, though I have not felt any positive benefit, except in my sleep being better than it has been. I do not know whether I am to place to their account some gouty sensations in the bottom of the left foot, which, without being yet anything very decided, are sufficient to make me rather lame. Mr Crook [his apothecary in Bath] seems apprehensive of more gout; but if it is in the habit, I cannot but think the sooner it is brought out the better. On the whole, if I had six weeks to spare, I should have no doubt of returning to town stout enough; but, as it is, I am afraid that, unless exactly the best use is made of the short interval to the 21st, I shall hardly be equal to the labours which are then to begin; and I have therefore thought it best to trouble you with these particulars, for your further directions.

Yours very sincerely,

W. Pitt.”

(pp. 33-4)

In other words, “HELP!”

Stanhope then goes on to quote a letter from Farquhar urging Pitt to take “paregoric elixir”, which apparently he could take as often as necessary without ill effects (oh, Farquhar, Farquhar, Farquhar: it was an opiate!), and offering to come down to Bath. Pitt’s reply ends thus:

“I cannot deny that it will be a great satisfaction to me to see you, if you can come without too much inconvenience to yourself, and without creating an alarm among my friends.” (p. 35)

So doom and gloom for Pitt in the last three weeks of his life. For some reason this has knocked me for six. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that, from the time these letters were exchanged, Pitt began a steep and swift decline to his death.

I’m still upset about it today. That’s it: next time I am writing about fictional characters and not real people.

*weeps gently over keyboard*