Saturday, 31 May 2014

Jean Lannes, Duc de Montebello: The Death of an Emperor's Confidante

Jean Lannes, 1st Duc de Montebello (Lectoure, France, 10th April 1769 – Ebersdorf, Austria, 31st May 1809)
Jean Lannes by François Gérard
Jean Lannes by François Gérard

It seems that rarely a week goes by in which we do not have cause to visit France and hear a story from the shores of that particular nation. Today we meet another French character and hear a gruesome story from the battlefields of Aspern-Essling.

Jean Lannes was a man to be reckoned with. From humble origins he rose to the highest levels of military power and became a confidante and favoured commander of Napoleon, who made him Duc de Montebello in recognition of his efforts. The friendship between Lannes and the emperor was enduring and deep and when the end came for the Duc de Montebello, Napoleon was sharrered at his loss.

Lannes was a military commander to be reckoned with. Loyal, brave and a gifted strategist, on 22nd May 1809 he was engaged in the brutal battle of 
Aspern-Essling, with the French facing off against the forces of Austria in an attempt to cross the Danube. Napoleon's forces came under a barrage of heavy fire and he ordered Lannes to retreat back to the Danube island of Lobau in order to minimise the casualties falling victim to the Austrian efforts. 

In fact, as their opponents fell back, the Austrians opened cannon fire on the sheltering forces whilst on Lobau, Lannes was in the company of his mentor, General Pierre-Charles Pouzet. As the two men discussed the battle, a cannonball struck Pouzet in the stomach and killed him instantly. Reeling from the shock at watching his close friend die so violently before his very eyes, the dazed Lannes stumbled to the edge of a ditch and sat down.

As he gathered his thoughts, shrapnel from a second cannonball tore through his legs, smashing the knee of one and badly injuring the other. Although Lannes told witnesses that his injuries were not so bad as they seemed, he was unable to stand 
and was rushed for treatment to our old friend, Dominique Jean Larrey. So terrible were the wounds to the Duke's limbs that Larrey elected to amputate one, whilst dressing the injuries to the other, although he would eventually face the trauma of having that leg amputated too.

The tomb of Lannes
The tomb of Lannes

When news of the Duke's plight reached Napoleon, he rushed to his friend's side in a state of utmost distress. The devastated emperor embraced Lannes and those present noted that he  wept bitterly for his injured friend, perhaps counting the true cost of the disastrous battle. Under Napoleon's instruction Lannes was moved to the comfort of a house in Kaiser-Ebersdorf but there was nothing that could be done to save the injured man. Instead he lingered on for a week and, as dawn broke on 31st May 1809, Jean Lannes died. In death, Napoleon ensured that his confidante was feted and his body was interred at the Pantheon, where he rests to this day. 

Friday, 30 May 2014

A Fatal Roast: The Death of Sir James Mackintosh

​​Sir James Mackintosh (Aldourie, Highland, Scotland, 24th October 1765 - London, England, 30th May 1832)

Sir James Mackintosh by Sir Thomas Lawrence
Sir James Mackintosh by Sir Thomas Lawrence

There is much to be said on a cold day for the benefits of sitting down to a meal of roast chicken. It is a particular favourite of mine on a Sunday and the dish in question plays an important part in our story today.!
Sir James Mackintosh was a politician and historian of no small note. He was a man of many talents, having trained in the law and medicine, and enjoyed a variety of influential and challenging careers that saw him well-respected in society. When his death came it was accidental, drawn out and caused by the most trivial of accidents.

On an April evening at the age of 66, Mackintosh settled down to eat and tucked heartily into a chicken dinner. A small fragment of bone stuck in his throat and though he looked in danger of choking, it was soon dislodged and it seemed that no permanent damage was done.

In fact, that apparently insignificant piece of bone had caused a very minor cut in Mackintosh's trachea. As the days wore on that minor wound grew inflamed and began to open wider yet Mackintosh kept going about his business, defying the pain that plagued and weakened him day by day. As the cause for his declining state baffled both the patient and his physician, Doctor George Darling, Mackintosh sought solace in his faith and friends.

On 22nd May 1832 Sir James Mackintosh took to his bed at home in Langham Place for the final time and by the weekend, was no longer able to speak. However, he retained his calm countenance and died peacefully in his room on 30th May, eventually being laid to rest in Hampstead with his devoted friends and family in attendance.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Scandalous Birth and Eventful Life of Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester

Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester (Mayfair, Middlesex, England, 29th May 1773 - Blackheath, Kent, England, 29th November 1844)

Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1774
Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1774

Today we meet Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester, a most noble lady who had her own ideas about what she wanted from life. The life of this great granddaughter to George II and niece to George III was a long one, which started in scandal.

Sophia was the only surviving daughter born of a secret marriage between William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and brother of George III, and his wife, Maria Walpole. It was not until Maria fell pregnant with the little girl that the illicit union became known and the rift between William and his brother, George, was immediate and long-lasting, though happily not permanent. Feeling betrayed and angry at the deception, the king enforced a ruling that the Duke and his family should not be admitted to the royal household should they attempt to enter.

With the pomp and ceremony of a royal christening therefore denied, the couple arranged a private baptism for their daughter with some family and friends in attendance. Thereafter the family retired to the continent, where they remained for a good many years and where Sophia's beloved brother, William , was eventually born. 

Princess Sophia of Gloucester by John Haslem, 1846
Princess Sophia of Gloucester by John Haslem, 1846

Eventually though the Duke and Duchess and their children returned to England, where the king and his brother were reconciled. As she grew out of childhood, Sophia matured into a young lady of culture, intelligence and charm and she was well-liked by those who knew her. The young princess was very briefly considered as a possible match for the Duke of Clarence but Sophia had no intention of marrying and firmly rejected such proposals.

At the age 40 Sophia was named Ranger of Greenwich Park and became hugely popular with the people of the area. Her philanthropic interests magnified as she grew older and she died well-loved and respected by all who knew her.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

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Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Salon Guest... Happy 255th birthday, William Pitt the Younger: Remembering Hayes Place

It is a pleasure to welcome back the estimable Stephenie Woolterton, with a tale of William Pitt the Younger.


Happy 255th birthday, William Pitt the Younger: Remembering Hayes Place

Figure 1: William Pitt, detail of mezzotint by G. Keating (1794)
Figure 1: William Pitt, detail of mezzotint by G. Keating (1794)

To mark the 255th anniversary of the birth of William Pitt the younger (1759-1806), one of the greatest politicians in British history, today we remember his birthplace – Pitt’s childhood home of Hayes Place in Kent. On 28th May 1759, William Pitt the elder wrote to his sister Ann at Bath to announce the birth of his fourth child: “…Lady Hester [his wife] was safely delivered of a Boy this morning, after a labour rather severe, but she and the Child are, thank God, as well as can be.” [1] Little William was delicate from birth, and it was not until 3rd July 1759 that he was baptised at St. Mary the Virgin Church in Hayes. [2] Young William had a happy childhood, and was privately educated at home with his two sisters and two brothers under the tutelage of the Reverend Edward Wilson. Most of Pitt’s formative years were split between Hayes Place, near Bromley, and Burton Pynsent in Somerset. Wilson was also the family chaplain, and he resided close to Hayes Place at Pickhurst Green. Wilson educated the girls alongside the boys, a rare practice in the 18th century. 

William Pitt the Elder and his passionately devoted wife Lady Hester were very fond of their five children, and they spent many happy moments at Hayes Place. Pitt the Elder enlarged the house at Hayes with extensive building renovations, and he landscaped the area surrounding the mansion. Part of this included buying up land that he thought spoiled his view, and constructing a wall towards the public road (now Hayes Street) that was 13 feet high to maintain his need for privacy [3]. Throughout the long-standing process of remodelling, Lady Hester was involved with the decoration, furnishing, and enlargement of the premises [4]. Indeed, it was mainly Lady Hester who managed the finances behind these endeavours. Unfortunately, Pitt the Elder’s extravagant spending meant that the family became mired in exorbitant debt, necessitating numerous loans from friends and relatives [5]. This led to Hayes Place being much mortgaged, and the Pitt family having to take in at least one of their creditors – Mr. Jouvencal of the Privy Council Office – for over a year between 1771 and 1772 [6].

Figure 2: View of Hayes Place in Kent, the seat of the Earl of Chatham (1784)
Figure 2: View of Hayes Place in Kent, the seat of the Earl of Chatham (1784)

The Pitt family were very private, and largely kept to themselves. Pitt the Elder’s coachmen, a man named John Mumford, was still living at Hayes in 1833, in his 92nd year, and he clearly recalled his memories of the reclusive Pitt the Elder: “He was a tall, gouty man, and generally wore a great coat; he had a particular dislike to be stared at, and when he saw any person approach, would often turn down the first lane or bye-way” [7]. Mumford also recollected Pitt’s young sons – John, William, and James – coming to the stables at Hayes Place to discuss horses with the coachmen [8]. 

William Pitt the Elder was raised to the peerage as the 1st Earl of Chatham in 1766. Despite briefly selling Hayes in the late 1760s, and his accession of the Burton Pynsent estate in Somerset through the will of Sir William Pynsent (a complete stranger), Pitt was so enamoured with Hayes Place that he actually bought it back – at a much higher price – soon after. In spite of Lord Chatham’s frequent bouts of poor mental and physical health, the lives of his children were comparatively happy and comfortable. They remained so until Lord Chatham’s death, at Hayes Place, on 11th May 1778. His widow Lady Hester Chatham, and his eldest son and heir John, the 2nd Earl of Chatham, retained the property until the end of 1784, when it was sold at auction [9]. Over the course of the next 150 years, Hayes Place had many owners who made various changes to the house and its ornamental gardens. The last to own the property was Sir Everard Hambro of banking fame.

Figure 3: The Library at Hayes Place (early 20th century)
Figure 3: The Library at Hayes Place (early 20th century)

Sir Everard Hambro owned Hayes Place from the 1880s until his death in February 1925 [10]. The early 20th century photograph above depicts the interior of the library at Hayes Place during the time of Hambro’s residence. Note the portrait of William Pitt the Younger by (or after) the artist John Hoppner hanging above the mantelpiece. Long after the occupation of the Pitt family, Hayes Place was still known by local residents as ‘Pitt’s House’ in remembrance of the great politicians who once lived there. After the death of Hambro, Hayes Place remained empty as his son Eric disposed of the estate for building [11]. Thus, the property was left to fall into a state of dereliction over the next eight years whilst property developers decided what to do with the estate. 

By the early 1930s, there was talk that ‘Pitt’s House’ was going to be demolished by Henry Boot, the Sheffield building company, in order to create a housing development on the existing land. The National Trust, an organisation that promotes the conservation and protection of historical places, was approached to save Hayes Place. Suggestions were made that it could be utilised as a branch library or a museum in light of its historical associations [12]. Even the MP for Bromley at the time, Mr. Waldron Smithers, wrote to The Times newspaper asking for someone to save Hayes Place for the nation [13]. The building company, Henry Boot, agreed that if anyone came forward to preserve the property, the firm would consider changing their plan. 

Figure 4: Hayes Place in the early 1930s (not long before its demolition)
Figure 4: Hayes Place in the early 1930s (not long before its demolition)
Unfortunately, all efforts to save Hayes Place were to no avail. The National Trust failed to come forward to save the house – despite its historical significance – and no other scheme was forthcoming. In 2014, the property would have probably been preserved for the nation; in the interwar years of the 1930s, with housing shortages, and little money set aside for historic properties, the estate was in jeopardy. With all the resources for preserving the property at an end, demolition began. In January 1932, part of the wall surrounding Hayes Place was demolished for new shops in Hayes Street opposite St. Mary the Virgin parish church [14]. Sadly, in March 1933 Hayes Place itself was pulled down.

Today the only surviving reminders of Hayes Place are in the names of the roads that mark the former location of Pitt’s childhood home, as well as a blue plaque on one of the Hayes Street shop fronts to commemorate the estate. The site of Hayes Place was positioned in the area between the present day Hambro Avenue, Everard Avenue, and Alexander Close. Other roads nearby such as Chatham Avenue and Stanhope Avenue were also named after historical figures associated with the house. For those interested in visiting Hayes, it still retains the quaint, village feel of former times. Knoll Park and Husseywell Park were once part of Lord Chatham’s ornamental grounds, and have been maintained as public open spaces. 

Figure 5: Hayes Place Gates - now at the entrance to Concord Park in Sheffield
Figure 5: Hayes Place Gates - now at the entrance to Concord Park in Sheffield

Lastly, the gates to Hayes Place are now placed at the entrance to Concord Park in Sheffield. As the building company who developed the Hayes Place Estate in the 1930s originated in Sheffield, perhaps this placement was in honour of the former mansion. Eighty years on, it is regrettable that The National Trust did not deem Hayes Place worth saving for the nation. It is a great shame that so many Georgian stately homes met the same fate in the 20th century – mainly to make way for a growing need for suburban housing.

Figure 6: A memorial to father and son inside St. Mary the Virgin church, Hayes
Figure 6: A memorial to father and son inside St. Mary the Virgin church, Hayes
Hayes Place was special in that not one but two British Prime Ministers once called it home. Its memory lives on, not just in the history books, but also in the hearts and minds of local Hayes residents. Walking around Knoll Park and Husseywell Park, and even in the streets of Hayes, it can still truly be said to be ‘Pitt Country.’ May the memory live on. 

  1. Rosebery (1910) Lord Chatham: His early life and connections. New York: Harper & Brothers, p. 102.
  2. Baptism entry of William Pitt the Younger, Bromley Archives: P/180/1/2.
  3. Wilson, J. & Woodman, T. (2012) Hayes: A History of a Kentish Village. Hayes: J. Wilson, Vol. 1, p. 76.
  4. The National Archives. Chatham Papers: Letters of Lady Hester to her husband William Pitt (the Elder). PRO 30/8/8.
  5. The National Archives. Chatham Papers: PRO 30/8/71, ff.101-103.
  6. The National Archives. Chatham Papers: PRO 30/8/41.
  7. Wilson, J. & Woodman, T. (2012) Hayes: A History of a Kentish Village. Hayes: J. Wilson, Vol. 1, p. 77. 
  8. Ibid.
  9. The National Archives. The Dowager Countess of Chatham’s copy of the catalogue of the household furniture, garden, and farming utensils live and dead stock and other effects of the late Earl of Chatham to be sold by auction at Hayes (Nov 1784): PRO 30/70/1/34. 
  10. Wilson, J. & Woodman, T. (2012) Hayes: A History of a Kentish Village. Hayes: J. Wilson, Vol. 2, p. 48. 
  11. Hayes Place, Hayes 1933. Accessed on 20 May 2014 at:
  12. Wilson, J. & Woodman, T. (2012) Hayes: A History of a Kentish Village. Hayes: J. Wilson, Vol. 2, p. 53. 
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.

Image Credits:

Figure 1: William Pitt, detail from mezzotint engraved by George Keating after Simon de Koster (published in 1794).
Figure 2: "View of Hayes Place in Kent,” by an anonymous artist, published in The New and Complete English Traveller (about 1784). Accessed on 18 May 2014 at:
Figure 3: The Library at Hayes Place (early 20th century). Image from p. 245 of Wilson, J. & Woodman, T. (2012) Hayes: A History of a Kentish Village. Hayes: J. Wilson.
Figure 4: Hayes Place (early 1930s) – not long before it was demolished to make way for the Hayes Place housing development. Accessed on 20 May 2014 from:
Figure 5: Hayes Place Gates – now at the entrance to Concord Park in Sheffield. Image from p. 53 of Wilson, J. & Woodman, T. (2012) Hayes: A History of a Kentish Village. Hayes: J. Wilson.
Figure 6: Memorial to William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, and his son William Pitt the Younger, inside St. Mary the Virgin church, Hayes (my photo).

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.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

A Lucky Accident for Joseph von Fraunhofer

Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria (Schwetzingen, Baden, 27th May 1756 - Munich, Bavaria, 13th October 1825)

Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820
Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

Today we make the reacquaintance of Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria, a king who was well-liked by his subjects and court. He was a a monarch who loved to mingle with the citizens of his country and on the anniversary of his birthday, it seems apt to share a story that demonstrates the very personal interest he took in the lives of those over whom he reigned.

On 21st July 1801 the house of glassmaker Philipp Anton Weichelsberger collapsed. Buried beneath the rubble of the building was Weichelsberger's 14 year old apprentice, Joseph von Fraunhofer. Rushing to the scene of the disaster, Maximilian directed the rescue efforts at the scene of the catastrophe and the young lad was pulled from the wreckage, shaken but alive. Also present at the rescue was Joseph von Utzschneider, a prominent figure in the world of glassmaking and between Utzschneider and Maximilian, the young man's life was to be transformed.

Joseph von Fraunhofer
Joseph von Fraunhofer

Maximilian took a personal interest in the future welfare of Fraunhofer and donated money and books in order that he might continue his studies. He prevailed upon Weichelsberger, a stern taskmaster, to allow his apprentice time away from work to study under Utzschneider's care. With Maximilian's financial and moral support, Fraunhofer was eventually able to leave the employ of Weichelsberger and become apprentice to Utzschneider instead. 

It was to prove a fateful decision; the young man who had been rescued from the remains of his master's house went onto become famed for his experiments, inventions and discoveries in the field of optical instrumentation and science. His name lives on today, immortalised in  Fraunhofer Lines, a scientific term still used by scientists to this day.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

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Monday, 26 May 2014

"The whole world seems to smile upon me!": The Death of Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys (London, England, 23rd February 1633 – London, England, 26th May 1703) 

Samuel Pepys by John Closterman
Samuel Pepys by John Closterman
Today marks the anniversary of the death of Samuel Pepys, an icon of the long 18th century. Remembered now for his remarkable diaries, in his lifetime he was celebrated for his work at the Naval Office and though he endured brief imprisonment in his fifties, the reputation of this formidably-connected man remains untarnished.

Following a three month prison sentence in 1689 for suspicions over his Jacobite leanings, Pepys decided that the time had come to retire. Nearing his sixtieth year, he enjoyed a peaceful life in his home in York Buildings, entertaining friends and spending long and happy hours absorbed in his library and his plans to write a history of the Navy. Although that work was never completed he passed an enjoyable few years living life at his own pace.

Gradually though Pepys found his health in decline until it reached the point where he could no longer live alone. At the turn of the century Pepys packed up his York Buildings rooms and took up residence in Clapham, in the home of his good friend and former clerk, Will Hewer.

Here he lived out the final years of his life, cared for by Hewer and Mary Skinner, a cherished and longtime friend of the elderly diarist. It was in his Clapham home that Pepys died, surrounded by those most precious to him. Samuel Pepys was laid to rest in the family vault at St Olave in the City, the church where he had worshipped so many times throughout his remarkable life.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

The Death of Peter III of Portugal

Peter III (Pedro Clemente Francisco José António; Lisbon, Portugal, 5th July 1717 – Lisbon, Portugal, 25th May 1786) 

Peter III of Portugal
Peter III of Portugal

We have previously travelled to Portugal to make the acquaintance of John V and today we meet his son, Peter III, who died on this day in 1786. 

Peter was born to John V and his wife, Dona Maria Anna of Austria, in the Ribeira Palace. As the second son of the King, he was not prepared for monarchy and enjoyed a life spent in leisurely pursuits once his brother, Joseph I, came to the throne.

Peter's destiny was changed though when, at the age of 43, he married his cousin, 26 year old Maria, Princess of Brazil. As the daughter of the king, Maria was the heir presumptive and when his brother died in 1777, Peter and Maria became king and queen of Portugal. Their marriage produced seven children, three of whom survived infancy.

Whilst Maria was a just and well-liked ruler, despite Peter's strong support for the ruling class of Portugal, he had no interest whatsoever in the business of politics. He passed his days in outdoor pursuits or prayer and the couple's marriage was a happy and settled one. The death of her husband in 1786 shook Maria to the core and her already fragile mental health deteriorated further in the years that followed. She lived on for a further three decades, bereft at Peter's death and gradually consumed by insanity.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

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Saturday, 24 May 2014

The Execution of Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker General

Jonathan Wild (Wolverhampton, England, 1682/3 – London, England, 24th May 1725)

Our notorious guest today is a man whom we have met before, a supporting player in the tale I told last year of Joseph "Blueskin" Blake. Today though, on the anniversary of his execution, the stage belongs squarely to Jonathan Wild, the man known throughout England as the unflinching Thief-Taker General.

An arch manipulator and expert schemer, Wild enjoyed a reputation for his unerring commitment to fighting crime in London, known for a talent for retrieving stolen goods and bringing the guilty to justice. In fact this supposed champion of justice was a gang master himself, controlling an enormous network of thieves, fences and informers, moving vast amounts of stolen property across England and into Europe. He raked in a fortune in rewards for supposedly retrieving items that his own gangs had stolen, setting aside a good portion for the purposes of blackmail and bribery should it be needed. 

A ticket to the execution of Jonathan Wild
A ticket to the execution of Jonathan Wild

Even when the authorities became aware that something might be amiss, Wild proved too slippery for them for a good long time but eventually the net began to tighten. As 1724 became 1725, bad things were afoot in the world of the Thief-Taker General. The captain of the sloop used by Wild to ferry stolen goods to Europe was informed on by a crewman over a length of stolen lace after the two argued over money. When Wild bailed out the captain, the affronted crewman informed on the Thief-Taker and his empire began to crumble. The authorities moved in to search his warehouses and found items that appeared to be stolen; though Wild protested his innocence, it would do him no good.

With Wild arrested and taken to Newgate, the outraged public demanded justice against the man they had once thought a hero. He mounted an impassioned defence but with evidence and witnesses mounting up, Jonathan Wild's fate was sealed. He was sentenced to death for his involvement in the matter of the stolen lace.

As the morning of his execution dawned, Wild took a quantity of laudanum with the intention of cheating the hangman. His scheme failed and he was taken in a state of delirium to Tyburn. All along the route the crowd jeered and heckled and pelted the once powerful Thief-Taker with missiles including dead animals and faeces. The cart stopped a number of times to allow Wild alcoholic refreshments at inns along the route but inevitably they eventually came upon Tyburn and the immense crowd gathered to witness the final moments of the once-admired crime fighter.

The skeleton of Jonathan Wild at the Royal College of Surgeons
The skeleton of Jonathan Wild at the Royal College of Surgeons

Joining Wild on the gallows that day were three other convicts and the executioner was Richard Arnet, who had once been a guest at the wedding of the Thief-Taker. With a great noise from the crowd drowning out the last prayers of the condemned men, the nooses were put in place and the cart pulled away. Wild did not die without a struggle, desperately clutching onto the men who were hanging beside him in an effort to give himself leverage but it was a wasted effort and before an audience of thousands, Jonathan Wild died.

According to Wild's wishes his wife, Mary, arranged for his body to be secretly buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, whilst circulating rumours that it had been taken to the Surgeon's Hall. In fact, the efforts proved wasted and within the week the anatomists descended on St Pancras and dug up the Thief-Taker General, spiriting him away to the Royal College of Surgeons, where his remains are still on display.

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Electrifying Death of James Otis Jr

James Otis Jr (Barnstable, Massachusetts, America, 5th February 1725 – Andover, Massachusetts, America, 23rd May 1783) 

James Otis Jr by Henry Blackburn, 1755
James Otis Jr by Henry Blackburn, 1755

The life of James Otis Jr is certainly an interesting one. Lawyer, politician and a significant figure in the American Revolution, Otis died on this day in a most singular way and it is this sad event that caught my attention.

On the afternoon of 23rd May the 58 year old lawyer was visiting family in Andover when a violent electric storm raged overhead. Ready to take his leave once the storm had passed, Otis was happily settled in one of the parlours of the house chatting amiably to its inhabitants when a bolt of lightning struck the chimney. With his shoulder resting against the door frame, Otis was catapulted forward and into the arms of his host, Jacob Osgood, already stone dead.

It would appear that the bolt of lightning whizzed down the chimney, along the rood rafter and straight into the door frame where Otis rested. The frame itself split open with the force of the blast and killed James Otis Jr outright.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Great Fire of Chudleigh

The weather has certainly taken a turn for the better but not so far, one hopes, that we revisit the unhappy events that befell a drought-hit Devonshire on 22nd May 1807. On that memorable day the town of Chudleigh was almost razed to the ground by a fire that started small but grew to enormous proportions.

The people of Chudleigh were, on that fateful day, going about their business just like any other. The streets bustled with life and noise and a hot sun blazed down, as it had for so many days. Within the confines of a Culver Street bakery s spark leapt from the ovens and caught a a small heap of Furze, that began to smoulder. It would appear that the reaction of the bakery staff to this occurrence was somewhat casual and before long the dry conditions and a brisk breeze conspired to fan the flames until there was no hope that they could be extinguished.

An image of Chudleigh

The conflagration spread across the largely-thatched Chudleigh with alarming speed and the townsfolk began to pull down buildings with the hope of slowing its progress and denying it the fuel it needed. Barrels of gunpowder exploded, the fire engine sent to combat the blaze burst into flames and still the fire raged on. It was late afternoon by the time the flames began to die, the ring of demolished buildings created by the townsfolk doing much to quell its ferocity.

As the smoke rose above what was left of Chudleigh, the shocked townsfolk began to count the cost of those few, apparently unimportant, sparks. Over half of the houses were gone and yet, miraculously, it claimed no human lives though a pig and a horse died in the flames. The townsfolk rallied to help those who had lost everything and houses opened their doors to take in the displaced, whilst still others found refuge in the church and in specially-erected tents on local parkland. Food, clothing and help poured into Chudleigh from miles around and slowly yet surely, the town began to rebuild.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A Salon Guest... Mary Elizabeth, Countess of Chatham

It is a pleasure to welcome back the fabulous Jacqui Reiter with the heartbreaking tale of Mary, Countess of Chatham.


 Mary Elizabeth, Countess of Chatham  Mary Elizabeth, Countess of Chatham
Mary Elizabeth, Countess of Chatham

I would like to introduce you to the beautiful, tragic and virtually unknown Mary, Countess of Chatham, who died 193 years ago today. She was the sister-in-law of prime minister William Pitt the Younger and confidante of several royal princesses, yet teasing her life out of the historical record is not easy. She was a shy and deeply private person who lacked the ambitious thrust that made a good political hostess; she also suffered most of her life from chronic ill-health. The more I've found out about her, however, the more I like her, and studying her life has provided its fair share of surprises.

She was born Mary Elizabeth Townshend on 2 September 1762, the second child of Thomas Townshend, later Lord Sydney. She and her six surviving siblings grew up at Frognall, near Chislehurst, Kent. Townshend's political patron was William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham, whose country residence at Hayes was only a few miles from Frognall. The Townshend children were only a little younger than the Pitt children and the two families saw a great deal of each other.[1]

Frognall, Chislehurst, Kent
Frognall, Chislehurst, Kent

By the summer of 1782 Mary had attracted the attention of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham. He was six years Mary's senior and had just come back from military service in the West Indies. It was a love match between childhood sweethearts and when John proposed on 5 June 1783 Lord Sydney was delighted: “We feel at present the full Value of the Vicinity of Hayes & Frognall, which I have indeed long been used to look upon as one of the most fortunate Circumstances of my Life”.[2] The wedding took place on 10 July 1783 at the Sydneys' house on Albemarle Street. Mary brought a dowry of £2000 and £3000 worth of West India stock.[3] The couple settled into Lord Chatham's new house on Berkeley Square, where they were joined by Chatham's brother William.

John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham by Valentine Green, after John Hoppner mezzotint, 1799
John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham by Valentine Green, after John Hoppner mezzotint, 1799

The household was almost immediately plunged into the events surrounding Pitt the Younger's rise to power as prime minister. The house was a major political hub from November 1783 until Pitt moved into 10 Downing Street in April 1784. It should have been an excellent opportunity for the new Countess of Chatham to become the government's hostess, but that role fell to the Duchess of Rutland and Lady Salisbury. Mary's character was not suited to political sparring, and in any case by early 1784 she was severely unwell.

Throughout her life Mary suffered from a mysterious “rheumatic” complaint. In April 1784—at the height of the general election that confirmed Pitt in power—Mary was at her worst. “It is really quite horrid to think how much she has suffered,” Mary's sister Georgiana wrote to the Dowager Countess of Chatham: “... what would I give to see her walk again!”[4] She was not totally well until the end of the year, and relapsed in the summer of 1785.[5] The illness left her permanently lame and drove her to seek help from the fashionable surgeon Miles Partington. His “electrical therapy” sounds highly unpleasant, but Mary found “great benefit from being Electrified” and continued with the therapy as late as 1796.[6] Mary's condition, whatever it was, may have been exacerbated by miscarriages. She never carried a child to term but she was certainly pregnant at least once, in November 1786.[7]

Despite this ill health Mary did have a public role. When her husband was made First Lord of the Admiralty in 1788 she took on the duties of a cabinet member's wife. She was active in the 1788 by-election at Westminster in which the Pittite Lord Hood challenged the Foxite Lord John Townshend for the constituency's second seat. Mary and her sister were out canvassing every day. “We were very successful indeed yesterday, & I hope shall be so today,” Georgiana reported, but Hood eventually lost the election.[8]

Mary's signature on her marriage settlement, July 1783
Mary's signature on her marriage settlement, July 1783

The following year Mary joined the Duchesses of Gordon and Rutland as a Patroness of White's Club's ball at the Pantheon to celebrate the King's recovery from insanity.[9] She showed her ability to keep calm under pressure when she more or less single-handedly organised an unexpected visit by the Royal Family to Greenwich in February 1793, coolly making arrangements for feeding and accommodating the King and Queen for the visit.[10] It was Mary who first publicly announced news of the naval victory of the Glorious First of June at the Opera in 1794; and when her husband returned to his military career, she followed him to all his home-based postings and entertained the Royal Family during several military reviews.[11] She was an object of admiration at Court whenever she appeared: “LADY CHATHAM was very elegantly dressed in white, embroidered with spangles, with two long wreaths of laural leaves across the petticoat”; “LADY CHATHAM: a very rich dress. The body and train white sattin; petticoat the same, covered with crape, superbly embroidered with stones, purple and green foil, and gold spangles”; “white satin petticoat elegantly embroidered with gold vermicelli … the most superb border of purple velvet, beautifully spangled … with rich embroidered tassels”.[12]

Even so, Mary rarely pushed herself forwards. She was neither robust nor adventurous, and she did not wish to be involved in politics: “The Cabinet dine here, and I must get out of their way”.[13] It was evidently her wish to stay in the background as much as possible:

“She from the yielding of her gentle heart,
Still walked fair honor's handmaid, early spurned
The flaunting scenes of Court parade, to act
The humble duties of Domestic life...”[14]

Very few letters of Mary's survive: none to her husband, and only a handful to her brother-in-law, all about patronage and layered in apologies: “Adieu, my dear Mr Pitt, forgive my plaguing you, & believe me, Yours most affectionately ME Chatham”.[15] Some thought Mary and Pitt did not get on, but I'm not convinced.[16]  When Pitt died in January 1806 Mary's devastation was so great she had a nervous breakdown. “Lady Chatham is seriously ill,” the Bishop of Lincoln wrote. “She has fretted herself with a delirious Fever”.[17] She was so ill Chatham doubted he could attend his brother's funeral, but she recovered enough by the middle of February to allow him to go.[18]

Letter from Mary to Pitt, PRO 30/08/122 f 174
Letter from Mary to Pitt, PRO 30/08/122 f 174

Alas it was only the first of several bouts of depression. In 1807 she had a lengthy collapse. She put a brave face on for the world, drugging herself up to attend assemblies and Court drawing-rooms, but she was unable to keep her condition secret. This was around the time that Lord Chatham was being considered as a replacement for the ailing First Lord of the Treasury, the Duke of Portland, and Mary's illness encouraged him to decline: “Lady Chatham is much disordered in her senses, and that circumstance is said to have confirmed Lord Chatham in his determination not to succeed to the Duke of Portland”.[19] Mary's illness may also help explain why Chatham did not serve in the Peninsula.

Mary recovered enough for her husband to agree (disastrously) to command the failed expedition to Walcheren in 1809. She followed Chatham into retirement and, for a while, they seem to have enjoyed being out of the public eye. In March 1818, however, Mary had a serious relapse. In February 1819 her distraught husband managed to persuade her to stay with her brother and sister at Frognall, but the change of scene did not help and by September she was hysterical, self-harming and suicidal.[20] Her physician Sir Henry Halford suggested straitjacketing, which Chatham flatly refused to do. Nothing helped and Mary drifted in and out of depression for the next year.[21]

She recovered enough in 1821 for her husband to announce his determination to take up his post as Governor of Gibraltar, which he had held since January 1820, and for Mary to re-emerge into society.[22] On 12 May she was recorded as one of the patronesses of a ball to be held on the 28th.[23] On the 21st, however, at five o'clock in the evening, Mary died at Lord Chatham's house in Hill Street, London, aged only fifty-eight. The Morning Post described her death as “very sudden”, yet every newspaper that ran her obituary stated Mary “had been indisposed nearly two years”.[24]

[Image 6: 38 Hill Street, now the Naval Club, where Mary died: photograph by Stephenie Woolterton]
Image 6: 38 Hill Street, now the Naval Club, where Mary died: photograph by Stephenie Woolterton

Given her age and the nature of her “indisposition”, not to mention the fact that her death seems to have been unexpected, I cannot help wondering if it was self-inflicted. Perhaps the prospect of Chatham's departure for Gibraltar helped push her over the edge. Of course it is possible her death was entirely natural: she had, after all, never been physically strong.

She was buried on 30 May 1821 in the Pitt family vault at Westminster Abbey. “Her body was deposited in great state,” the Gentleman's Magazine recorded, “... and was followed by 50 carriages of the Nobility, &c”.[25] It was a tragic ending for the young girl who first appeared as Countess of Chatham in July 1783, “dressed in white sattin, richly trimmed with silver fringe &c. Her head-dress was elegant, and she looked very beautiful”.[26]

Jacqui Reiter has a PhD in 18th century British political history. She is currently working on her first novel, which deals with the second Earl of Chatham's troubled relationship with his brother William Pitt the Younger. She blogs at


[1] Andrew Tink, Lord Sydney: the life and times of Tommy Townshend (Melbourne, 2011), p. 152
[2] Lord Sydney to Lady Chatham, 13 July 1783, PRO 30/8/60 f 207
[3] Marriage settlement of the 2nd Earl of Chatham and Mary Elizabeth Townshend, 5 July 1783, Bromley Archives 1080/3/1/1/26
[4] Georgiana Townshend to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 20 April 1784, National Archives PRO 30/8/64 f 167
[5] Rev. Edward Wilson to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, June 1785, PRO 30/8/67 f 110
[6] I am grateful to Lucinda Brant for providing me with information on Miles Partington. He detailed his theory on electrical therapy  in a 1779 treatise for the Royal Society entitled “A cure of a muscular contraction by electricity” (London, 1779). For Mary's treatment in the 1780s, see Georgiana Townshend to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, undated, National Archives PRO 30/8/64 f 170; for 1796, see Lord Bathurst to Earl Camden, 27 February 1796, Kent RO CKS-U840/C95/2. For Mary's lameness see the Dowager Countess of Chatham to William Pitt, 14 October 1795, National Archives PRO 30/8/10 f 31
[7] This is clear from Rev. Edward Wilson's congratulations to the Dowager Countess of Chatham: he notes that he received notice of Mary's pregnancy “from the very highest Authority”, presumably either Mary herself, or Lord Chatham. Wilson to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 5 November 1786, National Archives PRO 30/8/67 f 134
[8] Georgiana Townshend to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, undated, PRO 30/8/64 f 187
[9] London Chronicle, 28 March 1789
[10] Georgiana Townshend to Catherine Stapleton, February 1793,  in Memoirs and Correspondence of Field-Marshal Viscount Combermere... vol 2 (London, 1866), 419-21
[11] For the Glorious First of June see Peter Jupp (ed), The Letter Journal of George Canning, 1793-5 (London, 1991), p. 121; for Mary following Chatham throughout his military career see the Prince of Wales to Lord Chatham, 2 September 1799, National Archives PRO 30/70/4 f 219 and William Pitt to Mary Chatham, 13 September 1798, National Archives PRO 30/8/101 f 141. For the military review see Princess Elizabeth to Mary Chatham, 22 June 1800, National Archives PRO 30/70/6/13/52, and the Whitehall Evening Post for 24 June 1800
[12] Times, 5 June 1793; Times, 19 January 1791; Lady's Magazine, vol XXXIII (1802), 40
[13] Mary Chatham to Catherine Stapleton, undated but after 1792, in Memoirs and Correspondence of Field-Marshal Viscount Combermere... vol 2 (London, 1866), 426
[14] Manuscript poem entitled “The Countess of Chatham”, Bromley Archives 1080/3/6/6/10
[15] Mary Chatham to William Pitt, undated but summer 1800, British Library Add MSS 89036/1/17 f 44
[16] “his Sister-in-Law, Lady Chatham, could not bear him”: in The Jerningham Letters (1780-1843)... vol 1 (London, 1896), 322
[17] George Tomline, Bishop of Lincoln, to Elizabeth Tomline, 31 January 1806, Ipswich RO HA 119/T99/26
[18] Lord Chatham to the Earl of Dartmouth, 6 February 1806, in HMC Manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth, p. 290
[19] Anonymous [possibly Mary's sister Georgiana Townshend] to Dr Henry Vaughan, 14 April 180[7], Leicestershire RO Halford MSS DG 24/819/1 and DG 24/819/2; Manuscripts of J.B. Fortescue preserved at Dropmore... IX (London, 1915), 171, Thomas Grenville to Lord Grenville, 9 January 1808
[20] Mary's 1818-20 illness is documented in some detail in the correspondence between Lord Chatham and George Tomline at Ipswich Record Office, HA 119/562/688. Mary's mental state in September is covered rather luridly in a long letter from Mrs Tomline to Sir Henry Halford, undated but early September 1819, Ipswich RO  HA 119/562/716
[21] Sir Henry Halford to Elizabeth Tomline, 10 September 1819, Ipswich RO HA 119/562/117 for the straitjacketing; and Lord Chatham to George Tomline, 22 September 1819, HA 119/562/688 for Chatham's refusal
[22] The Times, 30 April 1821
[23] Morning Post, 12 May 1821
[24] Morning Post, 23 May 1821. For the obituaries see the Morning Post itself, on 25 May 1821; also the Gentleman's Magazine vol 91 part 1, 565; European Magazine and London Review vols 79-80, 561; The Examiner 1821, 335
[25] Gentleman's Magazine vol 91 part 1, 565
[26] Morning Chronicle, 1 August 1783

Written content of this post copyright © Jacqui Reiter, 2014.