“Master Billy’s return from Grocer’s Hall”

image

(“Master Billy’s procession to Grocer’s Hall” by Thomas Rowlandson, from here)

It has just been brought to my attention that I missed an anniversary yesterday (28 February). On 28 February 1784, William Pitt the Younger received the Freedom of the City of London at a banquet held at Grocer’s Hall. This was towards the end of the so-called “constitutional crisis” triggered by George III’s dismissal of the Portland ministry and appointment of 24-year-old Pitt at the head of a minority government. Assisted by a combination of behind-the-scenes bribery, eloquence in Parliament, his reputation for purity, and downright luck, Pitt had been slowly gathering public support and chipping away the opposition’s majority throughout February. The Freedom of the City was a great coup for him, since the City traditionally held itself independent of the monarch and had a great deal of political influence. Pitt’s carriage was drawn from Berkeley Square, where he was living with his brother, to Grocer’s Hall by his supporters.

image

(“Master Billy’s return from Grocer’s Hall”, anonymous, from here)

The way home was, unfortunately, not quite so uneventful. Once again Pitt was drawn through the streets “by a great concourse of people, many of the better sort … as well as by a considerable Mob” (in the words of Pitt’s brother Lord Chatham, who, along with Pitt’s brother-in-law Lord Mahon, later 3rd Earl Stanhope, was also in the carriage). Chatham later set down his recollections of what happened next for Pitt’s biographer, the Bishop of Lincoln, in 1821 (this can be found at Ipswich Record Office, Pretyman MSS HA119/562/688). Chatham wrote:

The Populace insisted on taking off the Horses and drawing the Coach. A Mob is never very discreet, and unfortunately they stopped opposite Carlton House and begun [sic] hissing, and it was with some difficulty we forced them to go on. As we proceeded up St James’s Street, there was a great Cry, and an attempt made to turn the Carriage up St James’s Place to Mr Fox’s house (he then lived at Ld Northingtons) in order to break his windows and force him to light, but which we at last succeeded in preventing their doing.

 

I have often thought this was a trap laid for us, for had we got up, there, into a Cul de Sac, Mr Pitts situation would have been critical indeed. This attempt brought us rather nearer in contact with Brooks, and the moment we got opposite (the Mob calling for lights) a sudden and desperate attack was made upon the Carriage in which, were Mr Pitt, Lord M[ahon] and myself, by a body of Chairmen armed with bludgeons, broken Chair Poles &c (many of the waiters, and several of the Gentlemen among them).

 

They succeeded in making their way to the Carriage, and forced open the door. Several desperate blows were aimed at Mr Pitt, and I recollect endeavouring to cover him, as well as I cou’d, in his getting out of the Carriage. Fortunately however, by the exertions of those who remained with us, and by ye timely assistance of a Party of Chairmen and many Gentlemen from Whites, who saw his danger, we were extricated, from a most unpleasant situation, and with considerable difficulty, got into some of the adjacent houses, without material injury, and from there to Whites. The Coachman, and the Servants were much bruised, and the Carriage nearly demolished.

I do not recollect having particularly seen Genl Fitzpatrick, but I distinguished Mr Hare, and the present Lord Crewe extremely active, and I think Lord Robert Spencer, standing at the Door. I remember when the Streets were a little clear, I walked over, with Mr McDowall to Brooks, and went up into ye Club Room, but the Party were either gone home, or gone to Supper.

 

The next morning I met Lord Ossory in St James’s Street, who attempted to make apologies for what had passed, and to lay it upon ye violence of the Chairmen, some of the Chairs having been broken by the Mob.

 

I never went to Brooks any more, and I was never able to ascertain further what passed or what first led to the Outrage that night.

Fair enough, I guess!

With family like this…

There’s one thing that has bothered me for some time, and now is the time to blog about it because yesterday I made a discovery.

I have always had a strong feeling that Lady Hester Stanhope disliked her older uncle. She certainly didn’t have much time for him at the end of her life (read her Memoirs, as transcribed by Dr Meryon… “he was a man of no merit, but of great luck”: II, 76, to give only a short example). Until yesterday though the only thing I had found her saying about him prior to her leaving England for good was a comment about his nose being long, which at the time made me laugh.

Yesterday, though, I went to the British Library to check out the Dacres Adams papers. These were papers collected by Pitt the Younger’s last secretary, William Dacres Adams, from Walmer Castle after Pitt’s death, and kept in his family until recently. A couple of years ago the papers were sold and they ended up at the BL. It’s a mixed bag and quite a lot of it involves Adams’ correspondence with friends and family. Adams was very friendly with Lady Hester Stanhope and her brothers James and Charles, all of whom pretty much lived with Pitt in his last years.

After Pitt died Lady Hester was left homeless. She had fled her republican father Earl Stanhope and obviously couldn’t go back to him. The obvious person to take her in would have been her remaining uncle, John, Earl of Chatham, and the fact that he did not do so rankled. Only a few days after Pitt’s death, possibly 26 January 1806, Lady Hester wrote to Adams and referred to John’s failure to assist in scathing terms:

“[Charles] together with James [have paid a] visit to Ld C[hatham] which I deem quite improper, as we all despise him, & therefore ought not to toady him, or put any sort of confidence in him. Had his protection been thought advantageous, we s[houl]d have been recommended to his care” (BL Add MS 89036/2/1 f 10)

Wow, “despise”— that’s a strong word! Nor did she forget Chatham’s failure to rise to his duties as uncle. When her brother Charles was killed in action at Coruna in 1809, John wrote his niece a letter of condolence. Her response must have made him wish he hadn’t bothered: “I feel your kind attentions at this unhappy moment as much as I felt your neglect of me under similar affecting circumstances” (quoted in Tresham Lever, The House of Pitt (1947), p. 338). Ooookay.

And clearly Lady Hester was not the only one of the Stanhope brood to feel this way. Perhaps naturally, her brothers too felt John could have done more for their sister. Charles it seems had spent some time in John’s household when he had first joined the army, learning the trade as it were, and I haven’t found any direct evidence of his disliking John, but as for James… In 1807 he made a visit to Burton Pynsent, formerly the Somerset home of William Pitt the Elder and sold by John after his mother’s death in 1803. James wrote an epigram comparing John with his younger brother and sent it to Adams:

“The immortal Chatham ee’r [sic] he died

These gifts he thus assigned

Take then my fortune John, he cried

Thou William hast my mind

This son the Part improved with toil

That ‘twas his country’s weal

The former Burton learnt to spoil

To shuffle, cut, and deal.”

(Add MS 89036/2/4 f 101)

On John’s behalf I say “OUCH”, not only because, well, *ouch* but because James was being rather unfair. I’ve no idea how far John’s gambling debts influenced the decision to get rid of Burton Pynsent (as Basil Williams, biographer of Pitt the Elder, concluded, using as his source this interview with William Beckford printed in the New Monthly Magazine of 1844, vol 71, 302). James certainly seems to believe this had a role. Maybe it did, although if John was a notorious gambler this is all I’ve heard on the subject. What I do know was that Burton Pynsent was mortgaged to the hilt when John inherited it in 1778, and (along with Hayes Place, also remortgaged at least once by Pitt the Elder) never really managed to be anything but a massive drain on Pitt funds. I think it would be uncharitable to conclude that John couldn’t wait to get his hands on the money for it. No denying he was a spendthrift (it was in the genes!), but the “fortune” he inherited from his father was far from being the amazing thing James obviously assumed it was.

And that brings me to a major point in John’s defence. Lady Hester Stanhope clearly never forgave him for his snub after Pitt’s death. Maybe he should have at least asked her to stay with him for a bit. But do you want to know why I think he didn’t? (Apart from the obvious grief at having just lost his brother?) Because John’s wife Mary was very ill. The Bishop of Lincoln wrote to his wife a week after Pitt’s death: “Lady Chatham is seriously ill; she has fretted herself with a delirious Fever; & Vaughan & Farquhar attend her.” (Ipswich Pretyman MSS HA119/T99/26, 31 January 1806) It’s clear from correspondence surrounding the arrangements for Pitt’s funeral that Mary was not considered out of danger until mid-February. Under those circumstances, maybe Hester might have been a bit more understanding…

 

Part 2 of my guest blog post for English Historical Fiction Authors on Pitt

Can be found here:

http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/introducing-that-amazing-man-william.html?spref=fb

 

(Part One, which went live on 24 November, is here: http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/introducing-that-amazing-man-william.html?m=1)

The French Alarm, or Billy Budget’s Terror

W. O’Keefe, ‘The French Alarm or Billy Budgets Terror’ (1797-8)

Oh dear me. 😉 I should possibly look up when this was actually published, but it may well have been either a reference to the 1796 invasion scare in Ireland when the French invading forces were only dispersed by bad weather; the 1797 invasion attempt at Fishguard, which caused a run on the banks and a suspension of cash payments; or the 1798 French invasion of Ireland in the wake of the 1798 rebellion. William O’Keefe was, after all, Irish.

Given the reference to “Bounaparte” I would say it was 1798, though. It may in fact have been less a reference to a specific invasion scare and more a reference to the Defence of the Realm Act of 1798, which first provided for the calling out of volunteer soldiery (at this point mainly but not uniquely limited to the propertied classes) and began the process of inventorying the nation’s manpower and materials that could be called on in an emergency.

O’Keefe clearly believed the government was all of a panic, but the 1797-8 was a bad period for invasion scares and there were several attempts on the British Isles as I detailed above. I wonder what O’Keefe would have made of the 1803 Levy en Masse Act, which effectively legalised mass conscription in the event of an invasion, and the various defence acts that followed it.

Edited to add:

A quick google turned up http://www.rechercheisidore.fr/search/resource/?uri=ark:/12148/btv1b6940564m, which suggests the print was published in January 1797. I’m not entirely convinced of this but it is plausible, in which case the event referred to would be Hoche’s failed invasion of Ireland in 1796.

The dangers of relying on 19th century printed sources

Still going through my MSS notes, and in doing so I found the following letter from Lord Mornington (later Marquis Wellesley, brother of the Duke of Wellington) to Henry Addington, Speaker of the House of Commons. The letter, dated 14 October 1797 (Devon RO Sidmouth MSS, 152M C1797 OZ 38), refers to Pitt’s ill health following the death of his brother-in-law Eliot (for which see more here):

“I trust you are now quite recovered, it was rather too much that you & Pitt should be ill at the same moment. I found him just as you had described him to me, & still more depressed by the death of poor Eliot; he did not disguise to me the state of his health, & I contributed to prevail on him to see Farquhar, I also took care that Farquhar should be apprised (without Pitt’s knowledge) of some leading defects in his system of life; this enabled Farquhar to form a much more accurate judgment of the case. Since Farquhar has seen him & put him upon a course of medicine, he is evidently much better, & has greatly recovered his appetite, & spirits. He went to Walmer quite a different man but he has not yet quite reformed his bad habit of drinking too much at supper.”

I quote the passage in its entirety, not only because it is interesting in itself but also and primarily because it demonstrates a phenomenon I have identified: the habit of 19th century biographers to (for want of a better word) bowdlerise the letters of their subjects.

You will note that in the letter above, Mornington makes no bones about the “leading defects in [Pitt’s] system of life” that he (and Addington, and presumably most of Pitt’s other friends) believed partially responsible for the breakdown in Pitt’s health, namely Pitt’s drinking— “his bad habit of drinking too much at supper”.

Alas this view of Pitt, famous and undeniable though it is, did not sit well with George Pellew, Henry Addington’s Victorian biographer. So … he just decided to leave out the bits of Mornington’s letter he didn’t like. The following is the same passage as the above, only taken from Pellew’s Life of Lord Sidmouth, volume 1, 196:

“I trust you are now quite recovered: it was rather too much that you and Pitt should be ill at the same moment. I found him just as you had described him to me, and still more depressed by the death of poor Eliot. He did not disguise to me the state of his health, and I contributed to prevail on him to see Farquhar, who has put him upon a course of medicine from which he has derived much improvement, and he went to Walmer quite a different man.”

(Spot the difference!)

This trend has ensnared at least one of Pitt’s biographers: Robin Reilly, who cited the Sidmouth Papers in his bibliography but evidently decided Pellew was to be trusted on this occasion. In his biography of Pitt (p. 276) Reilly quotes Pellew’s version of Mornington’s letter. I can’t help feeling that Reilly, whose aim in writing his biography of Pitt was to flesh out “three important influences in his life: his health, his alcoholism and his sexuality” (p. 2), would have kicked himself to know what he was missing by not going back to the source.

Thus ends my cautionary tale for all 18th century historians. 😉

Lord Grenville on parliamentary reporting

In 1818 George Pretyman-Tomline, Bishop of Lincoln, Pitt’s old friend and executor, was putting the finishing touches to the book that would later be published in part as the first official biography of Pitt the Younger. He sent his draft to various of Pitt’s friends and connections to read over. One of them was Lord Grenville, Pitt’s cousin and former Foreign Secretary.

Grenville sent back a lengthy critique of the work. He included some interesting thoughts on the role of parliamentary reporting during Pitt’s time as prime minister. His fear (not entirely unreasonable) was that Tomline’s heavy reliance on official publications such as the Parliamentary Register would affect the public’s view of Pitt’s oratory, and consequently of his opinions. Grenville’s point, essentially, was that parliamentary debates were inaccurately reported. The following is from the Stanhope MSS in Kent RO, U1590/S5/O12.

“I lament to think how much your work will tend to accredit an error already much too prevalent. The practice of reporting the Parliamentary debates from day to day is as you know an innovation of our own times, & one of most extensive consequence both good & evil. At first it was pretty generally understood how very inaccurate such representations are, & must necessarily be. By degrees a contrary impression is taking possession of the public mind, & it is now commonly said, even by those who ought to know better, that these reports though not correctly accurate, are yet, substantially, fair representations of the opinions & arguments which they purport to convey. This opinion is in itself quite erroneous; it is destructive of the truth of history, highly injurious to all public men, &, as it happens, most paticularly so to Mr. Pitt, & those who acted with him in his first administration.

It is impossible that such reports can be even substantially accurate. What justice can a reporter, with the most upright intentions, do to the opinions or reasonings of statesmen on subjects which they have deeply studied, & of which he is often entirely & completely ignorant? What report could you or I make of a pleading in Chancery, a debate in the College of Physicians, or of the deliberations of a Council of War on the attack or defence of a place of which we never even saw a map? Just such are the reports of newspaper reporters, on Plans of Finance, on Measures of Revenue or Commerce, or foreign treaties of trade, alliance, or war, and on legal & constitutional questions of great intricacy, & deep research.

This is true, even if we admit on the part of the Reporter the impartiality of a Judge, & the attention of a sworn Juryman. But you surely must remember that, for reasons too long to be here detailed, there was a considerable period, during which no such impartiality existed towards Mr Pitt & his friends, in the Mass of those who were concerned in these reports. … Justice was rarely, if ever, done to him & to his cause.”

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

Ruminations on Mortality

More happy thoughts for a (sort of) sunny Wednesday afternoon, but yesterday (24 September, that is) was the 178th anniversary of John, 2nd Earl of Chatham’s death. I suspect I was the only one who noticed— that is until I posted about it on Facebook, when roughly 200 of my friends were given the chance to be thoroughly uninterested about it— but I thought it might be an appropriate time to write this post.

John, as I have mentioned before, had no children. The heir to the Chatham title was, therefore, his brother William, who would have been mightily brassed off to be swept away to the House of Lords as Third Earl of Chatham. (Not to mention how annoyed John would have been to have his candle snuffed out well before time… although I suppose he wouldn’t have cared much.) The fate of Pitt the Younger’s government pretty much rode on John’s shoulders, and everyone knew it. Under the circumstances John’s career in the army was rather unfortunate. He didn’t serve abroad much during the wars with France but when he participated in the Helder expedition to Holland in 1799 he was whapped in the shoulder by a spent ball. It was deflected by his epaulette and he survived more or less unscathed (although his coat and waistcoat, reportedly, did not). I don’t suppose he would have been very pleased to  know that his risking his life for his country called forth the typical following encomiums from his cousin the Marquis of Buckingham:

“Lord Chatham’s escape has, I trust, decided you [his brother Lord Grenville] and others to whom the public have a right to look, not to suffer yourselves to forego for his very proper feelings as a soldier the dearest interests of the public; and that, in one word, his further service on the Continent will be negatived; a sacrifice which, I must say, he owes to the public.” (Buckingham to Grenville, 15 October 1799, Dropmore MSS V, 473)

Even a number of Pitt’s earlier biographers had a bit of fun with poor John’s narrow squeak. P.W. Wilson, for example, joked that “Pitt’s career was safeguarded  by the fraternal gold lace” (William Pitt, the Younger (1933), p. 278). Forgive me if I remain straight-faced.

It wasn’t just John’s career that put him at risk, of course. Like all the Pitt children his health was delicate, and any prolonged periods of ill health always got the London newspapers into a state of excitement. Lord Rosebery tells the story of how, “while London was illuminating for the King’s recovery [after the Regency Crisis in 1789], Lord Chatham lay mortally ill. So grave was his malady that the hunters after Providence had fixed on Grenville as the new minister” (Pitt (1891), p. 93). I haven’t found any evidence of this actually happening, but it certainly could have done, although not in the spring or summer of 1789 when John’s movements were thoroughly accounted for. What Rosebery is probably referring to (and somewhat inflating) is the accident that happened to John in the summer of 1788 which I have decided to refer to as the Septic Shoebuckle Incident. From the London Chronicle, 14-16 June 1788:

“The Earl of Chatham has been confined to his room these two months, owing to the kicking of his buckle against his ancle [sic] bone, which, though apparently a trifling accident, has hitherto baffled the efforts of his surgeon to effect a cure.”

So apparently John injured his leg on his shoebuckle (how? ……… no idea: answers on a postcard please). Apart from the fact that the above sounds fairly painful (it almost sounds like the buckle got lodged in his leg, although I think that’s unlikely), the wound obviously went septic and in the absence of antibiotics, kept John under the weather for a good long while. Family and friends were also anxious about it, and apparently with good reason because John’s leg injury kept him unwell for months. “I think my brother is now really at the eve of being able to move again,” William wrote to his mother on 29 August (Stanhope I, 382), three days after the World reported John “nearly recovered” from “a very serious confinement”. By September John was recovering at Henry Dundas’s house in Wimbledon, although it was not until 25 October that the Public Advertiser announced that he was “perfectly recovered from his tedious lameness, occasioned by a wound on the shin from his buckles”. Even that wasn’t the last word: as late as 22 March 1789 the former Pitt family tutor Edward Wilson referred to the injury in a letter to John’s mother (PRO 30/8/67 f 115): “I am truly sorry to hear that anything is the matter with my Lord Chatham’s leg again, but I have rested my hope in your Ladyship’s account of it, as I am now unwilling to trouble his Lordship with enquiries”.

The newspapers were agog. (Had John succumbed, a modern newspaper would almost certainly have run the headline: “Ministry scuppered by a shoebuckle!”) I guess it wasn’t unreasonable to suppose that four to six months was a long time to take to recover from an injury. One can only imagine John’s feelings when he openedthe Morning Herald on 2 October 1788 and discovered that at least one journalist had written him off already:

“If the Earl of Chatham, whose health is much impaired, should die, Mr Pitt will succeed [to the Earldom], and of consequence go up to the House of Peers.”

In 1791 almost exactly the same thing happened (no, not his shoebuckle — that sort of injury surely only happens once in a lifetime). This time, apparently, John fell out of his carriage and broke his leg (according to the Geneve Post on 28 July 1791, anyway). Ouchies for sure, but once again it took months for him to recover, and the length of his recovery possibly owed something to another unspecified underlying illness as Reverend Wilson referred to “the palid [sic] hues that were really alarming” (18 November 1791, PRO 30/8/67 f 53). Either way, the newspapers ran amok again. “The Earl of Chatham was prevented from making his return of the navy, on account of his Lordship’s being confined to his room with a wound in his leg, which he received in stepping to his coach,” reported the London Chronicle on 2 July. Three days later the Star reported him “much recovered”, but on 14 July wrote that he continued “much indisposed at his house in the Admiralty”. On the 19th the Geneve Post announced that he was “so very ill, that is is prevented from leaving his room”. They refrained from printing the running odds on Pitt’s succeeding to the earldom within the month, but someone must have been calculating them by then. On the 21st the Morning Herald dashed the hopes of the gambling men by deeming John “so well recovered … as to be able to resume his Presidency at the Board of Admiralty”, but the account was premature. Pitt wrote to his mother on the same day (PRO 30/8/12 f 436) “My Brother as you probably know, is not yet released from his provoking Confinement; but he certainly mends, tho slowly”. Reverend Wilson also hastened to reassure Lady Chatham: “We receive frequent & undoubted assurances that there is no ground of danger or alarm” (22 July 1791, PRO 30/8/67 f 195).

If Lady Chatham had been following the newspapers she would have needed the reassurance. The Star reopened the odds on the succession of a third Earl of Chatham on 23 July with the news that “The Earl of Chatham continues much indisposed … His Lordship has not attended the Admiralty Board this fortnight”. Not until 12 August did the Evening Mail report that Chatham had gone “out in his carriage, for the first time these six weeks”, and it was not till the end of the month that he resumed his official duties. Probably John’s health was followed so closely because he was a member of the cabinet, but some of it almost certainly had to do with curiosity as to what would happen if he keeled over.

Of course after Pitt died in 1806 nobody cared quite so much whether John lived or died, but as he got older the vultures began to cluster around the various honorary positions and emoluments he held for life in the hopes of inheriting them in due course. In 1831 John’s health collapsed and he thought himself close to death. He wasn’t the only one: the Duke of Wellington received a letter, dated 15 March 1831, from General Sir William Clinton, asking for one of John’s official posts since there was a rumour he had died. The Duke had to write back to tell Clinton he had been misinformed. (University of Southampton Wellington Papers, WP1/1178/26)

Poor John, but it does rather put me in mind of Spamalot’s “Not Dead Yet” song… (…..which probably makes me just as bad as all those sniggering historians to be honest)