Sir Home Popham and the 2nd Viscount Melville: BL Loan MS 57/108

It’s no secret that Sir Home Popham much owed almost his entire career to Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville. As Secretary of State for War and then First Lord of the Admiralty, Melville gave Popham nearly all his early employment (official AND unofficial) and helped him into politics. As useful as Popham undoubtedly was, however, I wonder if Melville occasionally wilted under the weight of the masses of correspondence involved in being Popham’s patron.

Raeburn, Henry; The 1st Viscount Melville; Tate;

This was a hereditary attachment, as is clear from Popham’s correspondence (BL Loan MS 57/108) with Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville, also First Lord of the Admiralty. Like his father, Melville Mark 2 clearly knew the versatile naval captain could be of use. Also like his father, Melville must have grown to hate the sight of Popham’s handwriting on the vast number of (probably very, very fat) letters that came in, sometimes on a thrice-daily basis.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Most of BL Loan MS 57/108 dates from 1812, when Popham was off the north coast of Spain, tasked with liaising with the local guerrillas and trying to tie down as many French troops as possible to take the heat off Lord Wellington and his British army. It was all business, of course, but that never stopped Popham being Popham. Some of the correspondence, indeed, is absolutely tip-top Peak Popham. I summarise it here.

No. 17: 17 May

Popham: HelloooooOOOOOOooooo.

Melville: Hi.

Popham: Thank you SO much for this appointment to the north coast of Spain, after nearly a year of kicking my heels. I promise I will NOT disappoint you.

Melville: You’re welcome. My father said you were a useful man.

Popham: May I take this occasion to report that the flour used by the Mediterranean fleet is REALLY bad? I have some ideas for how to improve your supply from Tangiers, based on an idea I had while in South America. I’ve worked it up into a slim pamphlet for you. Here it is. [loud WHOOMP] [the walls shake]

Melville: ….. ah yes. My father also said you were a man of … ideas.

Popham [proudly]: Damn straight.

No. 20: 22 June, North Coast of Spain

Popham: We’re here!

Melville: Excellent news.

Popham: We could do with two or three cutters for dispatches.

Melville: Righto.

Popham: We could also do with some troop frigates. The Diadem‘s kind of heavy.

Melville: Erm. We don’t have —

Popham: Here’s a brief diary of my movements to date, which I have also sent to Mr Croker and Lord Keith. [loud WHOOMP] [the walls shake]

No. 21: 30 June, North Coast of Spain

Popham: I’ve opened communication with the brigands.

Melville: [chokes] The what?

Popham: I’ve worked out there are about 3,000 French troops in the area. The brigands can muster about 1,000.

Melville: These brigands are the guerrillas, yes? The allies you’re meant to be working with?

Popham: We need a brigade of regulars. Maybe a couple of companies of rriflemen, too. And a couple of engineers. Are you sending that troopship I asked for?

Melville: I really don’t —

Popham: Sorry, French are attacking. Laters.

No. 23: 14 July, off Castro

Popham: I’m sending you volume 2 of my diary.

Melville: Thanks.

Popham: … and also volumes 3, 4, and 5.

Melville: I —

Popham: Is my troopship here yet?

Melville: You see, here’s the thing —

Popham: We’d like two troopships now.

Melville: *wilts*

Popham: Oh, and a bomb vessel. And some Congreve rockets, shrapnel shells, hand grenades, 20,000 muskets, a gun brig (a big one — actually, MAKE IT SIX BIG ONES), some brass mortars, and some 24 pounders. You can send them in the three cutters I asked for. Oh, and — Hang on a tick. Enemy spotted. BRB.

No. 24: Same day, a little later

Popham: Sorry about that. Where were we? Oh yes. We also need $2,000 Spanish dollars, a commissary, and lots of gunpowder.


No. 26: 15 July

Popham: … and some light field pieces (6 and 4 pounders), yet ANOTHER troopship, and a pony.

Melville: We can probably manage the pony.

Popham: I was just joking. I don’t actually want a pony. Hahahaha.

No. 27: 15 July

Popham: Those marines you sent us instead of the riflemen.

Melville: Oh, I’m so glad they arrived safely.

Popham: They bloody SUCK. I’ve tried drilling them, but all the drilling on Earth will never do for Major Graham is quite an imbecile and Major Williams has no great a share either of energy or enterprise.

Melville: You really don’t play well with others, do you?

No. 29: 19 July, Castro

Popham: I’m HURT.

Melville: What happened? Are you OK?

Popham: Your Secretary of the Admiralty has given me a public dressing down.

Melville: … Ah. Is this about moving the arms depot from Corunna to Machechico?

Popham: I can assure you that when I was arrested to be tried by court martial on going to South America, I did not feel half so much as I did when I read Mr Croker’s letter. We really need weapons and Machechico is closer than Corunna.

Melville: But Popham, Lord Wellington needs arms too, and Corunna is —

Popham: I feel so BETRAYED. No squadron ever exerted itself more to obtain the approbation of its country than mine. *sobs*

Melville: … there, there…

No. 36: 16 August

Popham: I’ve just got back from Bilbao, which we re-took from the enemy.

Melville: Brilliant.

Popham: I think the severe lecture which I gave the Spanish generals on the subject of military precaution will have a very good effect.

Melville: ….. you didn’t call them brigands, did you?

Popham [proudly]: YES

No. 42: 25 August, off Bilbao

Popham: I’ll make sure the Belle Poule is at Corunna to carry Lord March to England with dispatches.

Melville: Thank you.

Popham: ……… Although if he had come to Santander he would have been in England long ago.

Melville: NO, Popham. We are NOT moving the depot from Corunna.

No. 48: 1 September, Santander


Melville: Maybe because you keep calling them brigands?

No. 50: 15 September, Santander

Popham: I sent Lieutenant MacFarlane to Lord Wellington with dispatches. I hope you realise a messenger from Corunna took 12 days longer than he did, even though he is just a sea officer on horseback.

Melville: Popham. Can we talk about this? Again?

No. 59: 6 October, Santander

Popham: I’ve decided I need to take Santona.

Melville: OK, fine.

Popham: But the French will probably resist us strongly.

Melville: Bear it in mind.

Popham: It is wonderfully strong, too.

Melville: I get it.

Popham: And will require a great deal of battering.

Melville: Do you want to attack Santona or not?!

No. 64: 15 October, Santander

Popham: OMG OMG OMG did you see what Lord Wellington said about me?! ‘If you were not known to be on the coast, the enemy and the Spaniards will be convinced nothing is intended to be done and I shall have upon my hands more of the enemy than I can well manage. O M actual G *SQUEEEEEEEEEE*

Melville: Yes, well done.


Melville: Good boy, Popham.


Melville [to secretary]: He’s going to be insufferable now, isn’t he?

No. 65: Later, same day

Popham: ………….. so can I have several thousand greatcoats and pairs of shoes and 10,000 muskets?

Melville: No.

No. 67: 18 October, Santander

Popham: Since I’m so indispensable now, Wellington’s right-hand man and all that, could you make me a commodore? I mean, officially like? With, you know … the salary?

Melville: No.



Popham: Also, Lieutenant MacFarlane says that Corunna is much too diff —

Melville: DROP IT.

No. 68: Later, same day

Popham: Did I mention Lord Wellington thinks my presence is VITAL TO THE WAR EFFORT?

Melville [glumly]: Not recently.

No. 71: 19 October, Santander

Popham: You know Lord Wellington said —

Melville: I KNOW

No. 72: 21 October, Santander

Popham: I wanted to apologise for the fact the Diadem has been delayed by the weather. Since she’s carrying several hundred letters I wrote since [checks notes] the day before yesterday, this will occasion Your Lordship a trial of patience to get through them all.

Melville: I’m glad you have finally realised it.

Popham: But I feel I have to acquaint you with every occurrence here.

Melville: You really don’t.

Popham: ANYWAY. Have I got news for you.

Melville [runs hand down face]: What now.

Popham: I had an idea.

Melville: An idea.

Popham: You know Lord Wellington said he could take the fortress of Burgos if only he had more guns, but it was impossible to get them to him in time?

Melville: You … haven’t mucked about with the depot again, have you?

Popham: Oh no. I should be sorry to repeat the errors of my early service on this coast by invading the forms of office in asking in an irregular manner for that which I consider necessary.

Melville: [collapses in silent relief]


Melville: ………… and what did Lord Wellington say about this, erm … unusual course of action?

Popham: Oh, I didn’t ask him. But I did send him a letter.

Melville [tensely, through gritted teeth]: …. and what did you say?

Popham: ‘Dear Lord Wellington, you know you told me it was impossible to get my ship’s guns to you? Well, Tah-dah!!! Surprise!!!! IT’S NOT!!! Honestly, I had nothing better to do. If you want more, I can send you ten. No, forty. In THIRTY-SIX HOURS. Beat that, messengers from Corunna. Yours, Popham the Indispensable’

No. 73: 23 October

Melville: OK. So, assuming Lord Wellington doesn’t actually kill you, have you decided to attack Santona yet?

Popham: I think I probably will. [short pause] Or maybe I won’t.

Melville: So you haven’t decided, in fact.

Popham: No, not in so many words.

Melville: I have only to repeat my confidence in your judgement and exertions, and my full persuasion that you will not heedlessly hazard the squadron and marines, right? In other words, you won’t do anything rash?

Popham: Rash? Me?! I WOULD NEVER

Melville: Of course not.


Off the record

Melville: Dad? I know you can’t hear me, being dead and all. But I want to have a word about this Popham chap. I know we didn’t always get on. But honestly, WHAT THE HECK DID I DO TO YOU FOR YOU TO FOIST HIM ON ME?!


A “Not-So-Grand” Tour: Lord Chatham in Spain and France, March – May 1779

Madrid in the 18th century (from

Madrid in the 18th century (from


At the beginning of March 1779, the 2nd Earl of Chatham was serving as aide-de-camp to Colonel Robert Boyd in Gibraltar. Aware, no doubt, that hostilities were brewing between Britain and Spain, he received permission to return home, touring round Spain and France on his way. The inveterate gossip Sir Nathaniel Wraxall later recalled Chatham telling him “that he rode post the whole way from [Gibraltar] to Madrid”, a distance of  over 400 miles– although it appears he journeyed to Cadiz first.[1] Chatham spent a fortnight in Madrid, then travelled to Paris via Bordeaux. He arrived back in England at the beginning of May 1779, two months after leaving his garrison.

On 6 March 1779 Thomas Townshend wrote to Chatham’s mother that Lord Grantham, the British ambassador to Madrid, was in “daily expectation of seeing L[or]d Chatham. He says, that he knows L[or]d Chatham to be on the Road with one of L[or]d Hertford’s Sons & another Officer”.[2] Chatham was travelling with Hugh Conway (later Seymour-Conway, eventually known as Lord Hugh Seymour), a captain in the navy and later a notorious rake and close friend of the Prince of Wales. The third member of the group was Adam Colt, a captain in the 73rd Highlanders.[3] I haven’t yet managed to find much about him, but he was very much the junior member of the group in terms of rank and importance, and seems to have been treated as little more than a glorified servant.

Lord Hugh Seymour, by J. Hoppner (1799) (from

Lord Hugh Seymour, by J. Hoppner (1799) (from

Grantham did not have a definite arrival date for the three travellers in Madrid, but began preparing the ground diplomatically for their arrival around the first week of March. “I desired Floridablanca [the Spanish Prime Minister] to drop in Conversation … that I expected Lord Chatham &c in order that new faces & high names might create no Surprize”.[4] Grantham himself was curious about his forthcoming visitors: he had not yet met Chatham, but obviously remembered Chatham’s father and wondered, naturally enough, what the 2nd Earl of the name would be like.

They finally arrived on Thursday 25 March. “I walked out this Afternoon,” Grantham wrote to his brother Frederick Robinson, and “met three Gentlemen riding posts[.] [T]heir hats seemed to touch each other, & to make a Line across the Calle. I could not doubt their being my English & stopped them”. The young men’s enormous hats would make several reappearances in Grantham’s correspondence over the next fortnight, but for now Grantham was mainly concerned with acquainting himself at last with Conway, Colt (“young & Scottish”) and of course Chatham, whom he was surprised to find was not, in fact, Pitt the Elder in the flesh: “tall & thin, like his father but has not his Countenance”.[5]

The three young men (Chatham was twenty-one, Conway nineteen, and Colt probably about the same age as Conway) were not staying with Grantham, but the ambassador took on the responsibility of entertaining them. I’m not too sure he realised what he was letting himself in for, and certainly the youngsters do not seem to have spared much thought for Grantham’s official duties. The very first day they were “an hour and a half” late for breakfast, and Grantham soon discovered that if he wanted to get anything done he had to get up early and reserve “two hours in the Evenings to myself”.[6] His chaplain, Robert Waddilove, took the young men on a tour of some of the principal sites in Madrid, while Grantham set down his more considered impressions of his guests:

Lord Chatham is certainly handsome, like his father, but very gentle & modest. He has an exceeding good look of Carlito Pignatelli [presumably a member of the Spanish-Italian Pignatelli dynasty]; is very well behaved & seems as far as I can judge to think & speak very right. Conway has much more vivacity, has a remarkably open Appearance … [and] is exceeding tall & stout. … Cap[tai]n Colt, is a very Cream coloured Foal as ever I saw, a mere Recruit.

Grantham clearly enjoyed punning about the young Scotsman, whom he called “the Colt”: he “has never been out of the field, & is as rough as you can conceive”. Chatham seems to have been slow to open up. Grantham thought he was “rather prim”, although he “opens more than at first”, and was both “engaging & altogether interesting”. He and Conway had “inclinations to Virtue”, something Conway clearly outgrew later in his career, and both “wish to see & to learn”.[7]

Grantham felt Chatham’s reticence was largely due to his background: he “had a very private Education, & has some Timidity in Consequence of it”. He was clearly struck by Chatham’s generous nature, and related a story to his sister Anne:

He [Chatham] has donr at Gibraltar one of the handsomest & most generous Things a Man can do, he forgave a Man, who made rude Use of his Name, he paid his Debts to save him from Perdition, & took the most feeling part possible in a very delicate Situation.[8]

Chatham’s shyness (“he is reserved”) was a bit of a handicap, and Grantham was not surprised to find that he was not universally liked in the army. “It is singular what Accounts reach us from Gibraltar of L[or]d Ch[atham],” Grantham wrote cryptically to his brother.  At least one source suggested Chatham was “intemperate”, although, as Grantham observed, “he has disguised it if it so, as I have seen no marks whatever of such a Disposition … If he has been intemperate at Gibraltar, I will venture to say it was from not knowing how to resist ye. Tyranny of a Toastmaster”. By this time, Grantham had spent nearly two weeks in Chatham’s company and completely warmed to him: “I confess I am very partial to him”. He had no doubt most of the rumours were “formed upon some narrow principle of Regimental Party”: after all, Gibraltar “is divided into Parties, & … [Chatham’s] singular Education does not decently qualify him for a Garrison Life”.[9]

All in all Grantham seems to have found Conway the best company, Chatham the quietest and most mysterious, and Colt, well, “young and Scottish”.

Grantham presented the higher ranking two at the Spanish court (Colt, unfortunately, being only gentry, did not make the grade). Everywhere they went the young men attracted attention, partly, as Grantham noted, because of their “enormous hats”, but also because of who they were: “Ye. notice of Lord Chatham’s arrival, has everywhere excited much Curiosity”.[10] The noblemen received invitations to music parties, balls and dinners (incuding one of “one hundred &  three people”), and Grantham was rushed off his feet taking them here and there, plying them with “Cold Meat & liquor” in his carriage between engagements. The boys kept him on his toes, and on one occasion he nearly “lost” Colt, who left a party early and got snarled up in Madrid’s streets.[11] Despite this, Grantham seems to have managed to keep them largely out of trouble.

During the day Waddilove showed them the Escorial, the “Cabinet of Natural History”, and “the Academy”. The young men spent the Easter weekend in Madrid, and were therefore able to see the Maundy Thursday ritual of washing the feet of the poor.[12] Grantham took them to a concert given by a singer named “Madame Dos”: “Colt fancies himself in Love with her, Conway is in Raptures, & Lord Chatham capable of the most sentimental Admiration”. The three young men finally left on 7 April, leaving an exhausted Grantham suffering from a terrible cold but still mourning his guests, “as they have been exceeding good Company”.[13]

Conway and Colt went their own way, both returning eventually to service in Gibraltar. Chatham, however, went northwards, carrying despatches from Grantham detailing the collapse of diplomatic relations with Spain. Chatham passed through Bordeaux, where he arrived on 18 April and made contact with Grantham’s wine merchant, John Black. He left with £100 worth of wine on credit (……….. whether he actually ever paid for it seems unlikely, so poor John Black) and went on to Paris, which Black assumed he would have reached by the 25th.[14]

Chatham landed back in England at the beginning of May and reached London late in the evening of Friday the 7th. The next day he went to visit his mother, whom he had not seen for a year, but not before delivering his despatches to Grantham’s brother Frederick Robinson, who was very curious to meet him after all he had heard:  “From the little I could see of him in a short & first visit he seems to answer your  descriptions of him[.] I think in his person he is a very good likeness of Camerena’s Nephews in the Spanish Guards[.] He is darker than any of his family which I have seen.”[15] This comparison of John to dark Spaniards will surprise no-one who has seen J.S. Copley’s “Death of Lord Chatham” at the National Gallery: Copley has gone so far as to give John Chatham a noticeable five o’clock shadow.

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)

This was the end of Chatham’s immediate adventures, at least for a while. There was, however, a sequel. In January 1780 Chatham, who had transferred to the 86th Foot, was sent with his regiment to the West Indies. Grantham was desperate to make contact before he left because Chatham still owed him £150 from his visit to Madrid. It seems Chatham did leave without paying, but when Grantham wrote “to wish him a good Journey & to desire his Directions about the Money” (a not-so-subtle hint) Chatham did, eventually, order his banker Coutts to pay up.[16]


Clearly Chatham was fond of Grantham, and grateful for his Spanish hospitality, because Chatham did not very often pay his debts!




[1] Wraxall, Posthumous Memoirs of my Own Time (London, 1836) III, 129; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 19 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/125

[2] Thomas Townshend to Lady Chatham, 6 March 1779, National Archives PRO 30/8/60 f 176

[3] Army List for 1780, WO 65/30

[4] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 11 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/124

[5] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 25 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/126

[6] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 27 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/127

[7] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 27 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/127

[8] Lord Grantham to  Anne Robinson, 2 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/17/4/245a

[9] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 5 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/131; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 6 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/132

[10] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 27 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/127

[11] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 5 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/131

[12] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 31 March 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/129

[13] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 5 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/131

[14] John Black to Lord Grantham, 28 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/14/36/25

[15] Frederick Robinson to Lord Grantham, 11 May 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/14/333/207

[16] Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 17 January 1780, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/162; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 19 January 1780, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/163; Lord Grantham to Frederick Robinson, 9 February 1780, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/15/54/170