Thursday 23 January 2014

A Salon Guest... Re-thinking the death of William Pitt the Younger: His Legacy

We've got the best china out today to welcome Stephenie Woolterton with a guest post on William Pitt the Younger, a subject on which she is the toast of the town!


William Pitt the Younger by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1781

At half-past four on the morning of Thursday, January 23, 1806 - 208 years ago today - William Pitt the younger took his final long sigh. He was only 46 years old. In an ironic twist of fate, the date of Pitt’s death fell on the 25th anniversary of his first entering Parliament as the youthful MP for Appleby. His friends and remaining family were devastated, and his demise sparked dramatic convolutions in the British political world. It was a dreadful calamity, coming soon after the defeat at Austerlitz in December 1805, and the fall of Pitt’s much-desired Third Coalition formed to beat the military dictator Napoleon. Opposition in Parliament was mounting against Pitt, and many of his intimate friends felt it was time he permanently resigned from office. The incessant pressure and arduous work involved was taking a mortal toll on Pitt’s health, and he himself was aware that he had not been well for many years. Indeed, upon resuming office for the second time in 1804, Lord Eldon recalled Pitt prophesizing that his health was so delicate that doing so may cost him his life [1]. 

Whatever the immediate causes were of Pitt’s death, his friends and medical attendants variously ascribed it at the time to anxiety [2], overwork, and a constitution which from “the early habit of the too free use of Wine operated unquestionably to weaken the Powers of the Stomach” [3]. Pitt had also suffered numerous attacks of gout, at least partially as a result of stress and worry, and he was especially prone to recurring stomach complaints involving loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, severe abdominal cramps, retching, inability to eat, and weight loss. His physician Sir Walter Farquhar, who later wrote an account of Mr. Pitt’s health, justified his course of medical advice by asserting that he repeatedly urged Pitt to retire from politics. “But Mr. Pitt’s memorable reply was that his country needed his services, and he would rather prefer to die at his post than desert it” [4]. 

Throughout his time in politics, Pitt’s devotion to duty was considered remarkable; he possessed an unwavering love of honour, truth, and, above all, his country. It may be said, in fact, that he sacrificed his life in the service of it. Pitt’s close friend William Wilberforce recorded in his diary entry of 23rd January 1806 that “Pitt [was] killed by the enemy as much as Nelson,” and later wrote to a friend that he believed Pitt died of “a broken heart” [5]. As sentimental as it may come across to a modern reader, the point may truly be made. The perpetual setbacks of the war rarely allowed Pitt to obtain a gleam of victory, although he always affected a sanguine, and at times overly optimistic, disposition. Although he presented a fa├žade to the world at large of an aloof, cold, and haughty man, this was a mere mask to hide his inherently shy nature [6]. For those who knew the ‘real Mr. Pitt,’ as it were, he was an incredibly generous, and selfless man. One of the best descriptions of Pitt is presented thus: 

"...of the amiableness of his [Pitt’s] private character no one can form a just idea who had not the happiness of enjoying his acquaintance and society. He had a peculiar sweetness and benevolence of disposition, a kindness of heart, an unaffected ease, frankness, and simplicity, and a natural flow of spirits which made his extraordinary intellectual powers as pleasant and fascinating in the common intercourse of life as they were commanding in the [House of Commons]” [7]. This was the Mr. Pitt who won the love and undying affection of those who knew him best. His death left a gaping hole for those he left behind; it was a sense of pain and grief keenly endured by his political associate, right-hand man, and long-term confidante Henry Dundas, Lord Melville. 

On January 28, 1806, Lord Melville wrote to William Huskisson of Pitt’s loss, confiding “I am certainly very miserable, and as there is not an hour of my life for these twenty four years past that does not at this moment and for ever continue to bring his image to my Mind, I cannot summon up or suggest to myself any Recourse from which I can collect a Ray of consolation…I must wait for that Species of Apathy which buries every thing past in one indiscriminate Oblivion” [8].

Others, even those not privately acquainted with Pitt, were equally struck by his loss. On January 25, 1806, two days after Pitt’s death, Colonel Ralph Creyke of Marton wrote to Wilberforce. In contemplating Pitt’s premature demise, he lamented “what a sudden and awful change! It really is a noonday eclipse. But when will that former light be re-lumined?...When we lose those whom we value and esteem, our memory dwells with pleasure upon every, even melancholy, circumstance which accompanies the close of their life…I shall ever revere his [Pitt’s] memory for standing between the dead and the living, and staying the plague which, in the French Revolution, had infected the Continent, [and] might have spread and desolated this island…” [9].  In life, Pitt was viewed as the ‘Saviour of Europe,’ [10] and in 1802, Canning composed verses commemorating Pitt as ‘The Pilot That Weathered the Storm’ [11]. 

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and what is Pitt’s legacy? In this sense, one does not refer to his political legacy, for that has been a contested argument amongst historians from the time of his death. To debate Pitt’s political legacy is not my purpose. What interests me most is what Pitt the man has left behind. In other words, what has survived the passage of time? It has been rumoured that Pitt’s tutor and one of his executors, the Bishop of Lincoln (George Pretyman Tomline), and probably others, destroyed most of Pitt’s private papers. Consequently, whilst there are still numerous archives throughout the world containing Pitt’s letters, most of these reflect Pitt’s political life rather than anything of a personal nature. In the absence of more knowledge, it can only be speculated that something regarding Pitt’s domestic life may have been destroyed in order to suppress or conceal information from the eyes of the public. In reflecting on his life, and particularly upon the man he was in his daily life, it may be useful for the social historian to gather together information regarding Pitt’s items that are still in existence. I have chosen to include Mr Pitt’s watch, which is preserved at The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and Mr Pitt’s waistcoat, which is in the safe keeping of his former alma mater at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Pitt’s connection to Cambridge started when he entered as a Fellow Commoner in 1773, and continued for the rest of his life. He was one of the Members of Parliament for Cambridge University from 1784 until his death. His strong connection to Cambridge can still be felt today in name of The Pitt Building, at the Senate House which showcases a life-size tribute to Pitt, and in his unmistakable seated statue on the grounds of Pembroke College. Pembroke still elects a William Pitt Fellow, and interested visitors may still take a peek inside the Thomas Gray Room that was once occupied by Pitt. 

Throughout my time spent in researching William Pitt the younger’s life, I have been led to search for various items that are reputed to have once belonged to him. One of these objects is Mr Pitt’s watch. After some research, I discovered that Pitt’s watch is still held at The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It was bequeathed from the Right Hon. R.A. Christopher on 16th November 1852. It’s an English gold fob watch, with a gold case, and was made by John Holmes in 1782. On the back of the watch there is an image of a stork holding an anchor which features as part of the Pitt family crest, and underneath it is engraved ‘William Pitt 1782.’ Pitt kept the watch, presumably from 1782 until his death when it passed to his servant (I’m unsure which one - his valet John Pursler, perhaps?), who handed it over to Mr. Dundas, M.P. more than twenty years later. That watch, a mourning ring, and a box containing Pitt’s hair were bequeathed to the Rt. Hon. R.N. Hamilton [12]. It must have passed from there to the Rt. Hon. R.A. Christopher, and who then bequeathed it to The Fitzwilliam Museum. Below are several images of the watch.

Needless to say, it was exciting to receive photographs of Pitt’s watch! The watch remains, by kind permission, the copyright of The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (accession number M. 1&A-1852).

Lastly, on a recent visit to Pembroke College Archives and Manuscript Reading Room, I was enabled to view and take personal photographs of Pitt’s waistcoat that they have in their possession. I was received with a very warm welcome, and was allowed to peruse some rare and beautiful Pitt artifacts and letters. According to the provenance note on the waistcoat, it belonged to Lady Hester Stanhope, Pitt’s niece, and was given by her to her physician, Dr Charles Lewis Meryon. He in turn gave the waistcoat to his nephew, Lewis Meryon who presented it to Pembroke in 1910 (Pembroke College Archives, Gifts and Bequests L. Meryon). Below is a photograph of William Pitt’s waistcoat I took on the day of my visit to Pembroke. It remains the property, by kind permission, of the Master and Fellows of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

After enquiring the measurements of the waistcoat in order to determine Mr Pitt’s physique, the honorary archivist at Pembroke informed me that the length down the back (visible from the front) is 64 cm, the length straight down from the front centre to the tip below the last button is 48 cm, the measurement of the circumference at the armpit is 88 cm (including packing), and the waist is 82 cm. In looking upon the waistcoat in person, it becomes immediately apparent that Pitt was a very tall, slim man. As it was originally in the possession of Lady Hester Stanhope following Pitt’s death, it can be surmised that Pitt owned the garment in his last years of life. Lady Hester Stanhope only came to live with Pitt after her grandmother’s death in 1803. I would date to the item to between 1803 and 1805. There are many other items associated with William Pitt the younger that are still in existence, either in a private collection or in a public archive around the world. These are only two of many objects I have researched. If you’re interested in researching the life of William Pitt, or have more information about him, I’m happy to converse with you. In conclusion, Pitt’s memory deserves more attention and reverence. What more could Pitt have achieved had he not died in January 1806? We shall never know. His memory, accomplishments, and brilliance need a far greater historical presence than it has received in recent years. Much has been written about his political life whereas little is widely known about the man he was in his private hours. Therefore, my focus is to concentrate on Pitt the Man, as opposed to Pitt the Minister. This is my tribute to a most deserving and misunderstood man.


1. Stanhope, Earl Philip Henry (1867) Life of the Right Honourable William Pitt, Vol. IV (3rd Edition). London: John Murray, p. 174.
2. Aberdeen Papers, BL Add Ms 43337, Lord Aberdeen’s note on January 31, 1806.
3. Rosebery (1900) Letters relating to the Love Episode of William Pitt, together with an 4. Account of his Health by his Physician Sir Walter Farquhar, London: John Murray, p. 48.
4. Rosebery (1900) Letters relating to the Love Episode of William Pitt, together with an Account of his Health by his Physician Sir Walter Farquhar, London: John Murray, p. xvi.
5. Wilberforce, R.I. & Wilberforce, S. (1843) The Life of William Wilberforce: By his Sons. London: Seeley, Burnside & Seeley, p. 330.
6. Reilly, R. (1978) Pitt the Younger. London: Cassell, p. 135.
7. The Monthly Review, Vol 12 (1903), pg. 29.
8. Melville to Huskisson. 28 January 1806. Huskisson Papers, British Library, Add Ms 38759.
9. Wilberforce, W. (1840) The Correspondence of William Wilberforce, Volume 2. London: Albemarle Street, pp. 63-64.
10.  Rosebery (1918) Pitt. London: Macmillan, p. 255.
11.  Hinde, W. (1973) George Canning.  London: Collins, pp. 94-109.
12. Timbs, J. (1864) A century of anecdote from 1760-1860, pp. 182-3.

Biography of the Author

Stephenie Woolterton has an MSc in Social Research, and a background in Psychology. She is currently researching and writing her first book on the private life of William Pitt the Younger. She is also working on a historical novel about Pitt’s ‘one love story’ with Eleanor Eden. 
She blogs at:, and can be contacted via Twitter at:

Written content of this post copyright © Stephenie Woolterton, 2014.


Mary Seymour said...

And he was most sensitively and memorably depicted by Benedict Cumberbach in the film about Wilberforce, "Amazing Grace".

Catherine Curzon said...

I haven't yet seen that film but it strikes me as good casting!

Unknown said...

Fascinating - thanks Stephenie for this excellent insight into a character who ought to be so remembered this long after his death.