In defence of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham by Jacqueline Reiter

Jacquie ReiterToday, I welcome Jacqueline Reiter to the blog. Jacqueline has a PhD in late 18th century political history from Cambridge University. She is very possibly the only world expert on the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, and has written an unpublished novel about his relationship with his brother William Pitt the Younger. She is currently writing Chatham’s biography for Pen & Sword Books. When she finds time she blogs about her research at and she tweets at

I’ll be bold: John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham was a very interesting, and thoroughly underappreciated, gentleman.

I know that’s what you’re thinking. (Unless you’re thinking “Who is the 2nd Earl of Chatham?” in which case don’t be bashful, because you’re not alone in that.) Really? The 2nd earl of Chatham? Why bother with him?

It’s a very good question. Chatham has a terrible historical reputation. His claim to infamy is his unfortunate attempt to command a military expedition. The result was the disastrous Walcheren campaign of 1809, which went as wrong as any expedition can be expected to go. Walcheren aside, he is overshadowed by his famous father, Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham, and his equally famous brother, Pitt the Younger. “Unattractive, vain, pompous, stupid,” thundered the 1940s Pitt family chronicler Tresham Lever: “The most stupid and useless of the Pitts”.[1]

“Stupid and useless”?! I couldn’t disagree more. I stumbled on Chatham by accident while studying his famous brother, and he has never let me go since. It’s rare to find someone so universally deprecated, and, while the stories about him aren’t all unfounded, he has definitely had a bad press. Don’t believe me? To help you make up your mind, I present five facts about John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham – or, as I tend to call him, John.

  1. He wasn’t stupid

Nope, not even a bit of it. Not as clever as his brother William, perhaps, but none of the Pitt siblings was stupid. His education (at home, with a tutor) was considered “singular” by at least one contemporary, but it furnished him with a lifelong love of complex mathematics (he was discussing Euclidian geometry in his letters at 15) and natural history. Like his father and brother, he was an accomplished classicist. When he grew up he was considered a sensible sort, with a reputation in cabinet for giving unostentatious good advice.

  1. ….. But he was vain (and lazy)

John Pitt Lord ChathamMmmm. His nickname of “the late Lord Chatham” was not undeserved. Joseph Farington recalled that, when Chatham was compared with his successor as First Lord of the Admiralty, “it was admitted that Lord Chatham has greater abilities, if an unconquerable indolence, did not prevent their being exerted”.[2] I’ve rarely seen him making appointments earlier than two in the afternoon. I once read about him reviewing the militia at ten a.m. and nearly fell over in shock.

Chatham even kept the King waiting. He once turned up four hours late at a royal function.

And, yes, he was “vain”, maybe even “pompous”. His niece, Lady Hester Stanhope, said that never “did anybody ever contrive to appear as much of a prince as he does: his led horses, his carriages, his dress, his star and garter [KG! KG!], all of which he shows off in his quiet way with wonderful effect”.[3] Chatham’s brother William had a reputation for sloppy dressing, frequently described as wearing muddy boots or greasy leather breeches. Chatham would rather have died.

  1. He wasn’t lucky

“If ever any individual drew a prize in the great lottery of human life, that man was the present Earl of Chatham”, Sir Nathaniel Wraxall wrote, cuttingly.[4] Wraxall was a jealous, poisonous gossip. Chatham’s luck was superficial and I don’t envy his life one bit.

But he inherited one of Britain’s most famous titles

True: but it stopped him leading his own life. His parents forced him to resign from the army in 1776 as a protest at the war with revolutionary America. When he returned in 1778 he was obliged to accept undesirable postings to places like the West Indies to avoid being deployed against the American rebels. Later, he was forbidden from serving on the continent lest he die and propel his heir (his brother William Pitt) into the House of Lords. And though he undoubtedly benefited from being the prime minister’s brother, he was constantly compared to his more famous relatives.

OK, but he inherited pots of money, yes?

Also true, to an extent. Chatham inherited a nominal income (after 1803) of £7000 a year, a £4000 pension settled on the Earldom of Chatham and a £3000 pension acquired by his father for three lives. Whoopee, as they say. But the estates he inherited were so mired down in debt that Chatham had no choice but to sell them (his father actually raised more than £10,000 IN ONE GO on the security of his son’s inheritance, and there were other debts as well).

Chatham unfortunately didn’t learn from his father’s poor example. He spent most of his life taking out massive loans from friends and moneylenders (some respectable, others ……. less respectable) to help keep him and his wife in West End properties, carriages and expensive silverware. But, after working through a number of bonds, contracts and legal proceedings detailing the Chatham family finances, it seems he started off at a distinct disadvantage. He was still trying to fulfil the terms of his father’s will as late as 1809, nearly thirty years after the first Lord Chatham died.

Very well. But he was lucky in love.

Chatham married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Elizabeth Townshend, after an endearingly bashful courtship. (Chatham came over all tongue-tied every time he tried to propose, and kept missing opportunities to speak up. It’s all rather sweet, although I suspect Mary wanted to kick him in the shins by the end of it.)

The couple remained close throughout the thirty-eight years of their marriage. They went everywhere together (except on campaign) and I’ve never been able to substantiate the rumours that he had a mistress. (And anyway he’d never have had time: as I said, he and Mary went EVERYWHERE together.)

But Mary’s life was full of illness. She spent nearly the first year of her marriage unable to walk across the room due to some sort of rheumatic complaint. She celeberated her recovery with a miscarriage, and never did manage to carry a child to term. Worse still, between 1807 and 1809 she developed what may have been a form of schizophrenia. It nearly broke their marriage; remarkably, it did not. But Mary relapsed in 1818, and never really recovered. She died suddenly in 1821 of unidentified causes, and Chatham remained profoundly depressed for over a year.

Not so lucky, then.

  1. He wasn’t as pathetic as people think

Chatham’s public reputation rests on his less-than-stellar performance at Walcheren, and his career as First Lord of the Admiralty and Master-General of the Ordnance. Walcheren didn’t cover him with laurels, and I must say he was not the right person for that task. But his cabinet career did not suck nearly as much as people think.

Everyone who worked closely with Chatham seems to have been fond of him, in a rather protective way. He remained friendly with several members of his Admiralty Board long after he left the Admiralty, and one of his underlings at the Ordnance thought he was the best Master-General in a generation (no, really, I’m not making this up). And his military secretary at Walcheren, Thomas Carey, wrote (AFTER the failure of the campaign): “In understanding few equal him, & in Honor or Integrity He cannot be excelled”.[5]

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But one thing’s for sure: Chatham inspired loyalty.

  1. He’s worthy of your time

As great as his father or brother? Not a chance. An administrative genius, or a great military commander? Hah, don’t make me laugh. But unimportant? Uninteresting? Unworthy? Sorry, can’t agree. He spent more than twenty years at the highest levels of government, holding highly responsible wartime posts; he’s much more than the bunch of unsubstantiated rumours circling about him in the contemporary and secondary literature. (And don’t get me started on THOSE.) He’s not in the first rank of historical personages, but he mattered.

Have I convinced you yet?


[1] Sir Tresham Lever, The House of Pitt (London, 1947), pp. 361-2

[2] Joseph Farington, The Farington Diary I (London, 1922), 64, 170

[3] Duchess of Cleveland, The Life and Letters of Lady Hester Stanhope (London, 1914), p. 52

[4] Sir Nathaniel Wraxall, Posthumous Memoirs of my Own Time (London, 1836) III, 128

[5] Thomas Carey to William Huskisson, 3 May 1810, BL Add MSS 38739 f 26


7 thoughts on “In defence of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham by Jacqueline Reiter

  1. I was convinced by him in the fictional “party” setting, and the more I read your research, the more I like him. He is one of those historical figures with whom I would like to share a beer.

  2. Yes. This was a wonderful post. You made me wonder what it must have been like to walk beside him and see life through his eyes. His brother, William Pitt the Younger, made a fictitious cameo in one of my books, which is why this article caught my eye. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    • Amy, glad to know Pitt’s had his fictional moment in the spotlight too. Pitt was my “way in” to John, and I’ve written a novel about their somewhat complicated relationship: it’s pretty much ready to market, but unfortunately had to be relegated to the back-burner while I work on the biography.

Love hearing from you