22 April 2014

'The transcendent character you are appointed to guard': Separating Pitt's Private & Public Papers

The day after Pitt's death, 24 January 1806, Elizabeth Pretyman-Tomline wrote to her husband reflecting on Pitt's life:  “…I think of his [Pitt’s] kindness, of his character, public and private, of your “close and uninterrupted friendship” from his childhood to the latest moment of his inestimable life. Inscrutable indeed are the ways of Providence.” [1] Her husband had been appointed to be one of Pitt's executors, the other person being Pitt's only surviving family member, his eldest brother the 2nd Lord Chatham. Then on 26 Jan 1806 Mrs Tomline wrote to her husband at Deanery House, St. Paul’s, to urge him to think of Pitt's character as he sifted through the mass of papers. She was exceptionally keen that the Bishop should separate all the public from the private papers, most likely with a view to destroying some of those papers that didn't fit the image they wanted to portray:

“I hope my dearest Love that as soon as you have separated Public from Private papers it will not be necessary for you to remain in Downing Street, but that you will look them over at your own house (as you did Mr Eliot’s papers with the consent of Mr Pitt and Lord Chatham) at more leisure than you can have just now. Cannot you being some of them here? If you do not, and still desire me not to come up to you, I know it must be long indeed before we meet. I am sure my Love you will not fail to think of future times in this last duty; and will carefully preserve all papers that can throw any light upon the transcendent character you are appointed to guard from misrepresentations - You ought not to think of Lord Chatham in such a case - but no false delicacy interrupt the performance of a high duty. Remember what my dear friend Lady H. Eliot said about your keeping her Father’s and her Mother’s letters. Remember too what Mr. Eliot said upon your care of his own and of Mr Pitt’s papers “if anything should happen to him it will indeed be important they should fall into such hands” with a view to his memory - and above all, remember that when either you or I asked Mr Pitt one day that he dined at the Deanery what he wished to have done with the papers sent thither when he went out of office, after a moment’s consideration he said with his own smile of confidence and affection, 'They had better remain with you, if you please - I mean, if they are no inconvenience.' Once too, at Buckden, while making breakfast for him only, I spoke of the importance of papers, and the number that he must have - we were speaking of the difficulty of writing an accurate history of these eventful times. Mr Pitt said “I have fewer papers than you would imagine. I now wish I had more. Lord Grenville has I believe preserved some papers that will be very valuable. I regret now that I have not preserved more. -such documents form the most valuable part of history. - indeed the rest - must be mere supposition.” I think I hear his voice at this moment, and see him throw back his head when he said “mere supposition.” Alas! Never again shall I hear - but I will stop my pen. - I am grateful for the past be assured. I beseech you my Love to consider the subject of papers as it deserves.” [2]

Then on the following day, 27 January 1806, Mrs Tomline again writes to her husband about Pitt's private character, and the nature of his financial impecuniousness:

“…I am persuaded he did not (unhappily) consider private prodigality in its true light either as to its nature or its effects. It was not Gaming - it was not Vice of any kind (God be thanked) that brought on those debts. What was it? The Imperfection of his great mind - He despised Riches, but he valued their uses. Looking at their end, he overlooked the means to obtain them; while usually, men, busied with the means, forget the end." [3] She reflected that Pitt “…was led by the force of example and the want of precept” [4] with regard to his financial affairs.

Interestingly, from the perspective of Pitt's private character, Mrs. Tomline believed that “…Perfection was always the point to which Mr Pitt’s mind looked - in every thing - whether “for the best possible house” or the payment of the National Debt, perfection was the object in view. - The improvements at Holwood were owing in part to this habitual feeling of his mind, as well as to the greatness with which all the plans of such a mind must naturally be formed. I could say much more upon this most interesting subject - I feel it as a sort of duty to defend as far as truth will permit the most vulnerable part of his yet unequalled character - a character “so great (as Mr Marsh once said) that few have the power of understanding him." [5]
Additionally, in an undated letter from the same period, which is clear from internal evidence throughout the letter, Mrs. Tomline tells her husband that three of Pitt’s servants are to be provided for; however, she neglects to mention their names. [6] Presumably, at least one of them was Pitt's valet, who also received Pitt's gold fob watch. Mrs. Tomline also enquires as to where Pitt's papers are to be stored. In yet another undated letter from just after Pitt's death, she asks her husband the direct question, and then proceeds to provide the answer for him: "Where are Mr. Pitt's papers to be deposited? Where better than at the Deanery [of St. Pauls] in Chests in the room through the Eating room - Lord Chatham's [Pitt's elder brother, and his fellow executor] change of situation and habitation must prevent them going with him." [7]

Does this seem a little contrived to you?


1. Elizabeth Pretyman-Tomline to her husband, the Bishop of Lincoln. 24 January 1806. Ipswich Record Office, Pretyman MSS. HA 119: T99/27.

2. Ibid.

3. Elizabeth Pretyman-Tomline to her husband, the Bishop of Lincoln. undated but around late January 1806. Ipswich Record Office, Pretyman MSS. HA 119: T99/26.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Elizabeth Pretyman-Tomline to her husband, the Bishop of Lincoln. undated but around late January 1806. Ipswich Record Office, Pretyman MSS. HA 119: 562/491.


  1. Fascinating letters. She was absolutely desperate to get her hands on those papers, wasn't she? Interesting how she seems to be trying to exclude John, too. But good grief, did Pretyman take charge of the entire family's documents?!

    1. Agree to the exclusion of John. (Who was at this time rather embroiled in other things so pretty much let Tomline get on with it anyway.) I do get the impression though that he was aware of what Tomline was doing and certainly didn't try to stop him. Who knows?

  2. I definitely got the distinct impression that she/they were excluding John.

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