14 May 2014

Hester, Lady Chatham: A self-sacrificing wife

Fig. 1: Hester, Countess of Chatham by William Hoare (c. 1766)

Lady Hester Chatham was a passionately devoted wife to her husband William Pitt (the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham), and a loving mother to their five children. In many respects, however, she did not have a comfortable life. Her and Lord Chatham were always heavily mired in debt, and she alone seemed to bear the brunt of their financial concerns. Whilst Pitt had little or no qualms about spending extravagantly on building 'improvements'  and landscaping their multiple properties, Lady Hester was left to deal with creditors, arrange mortgages on their estates, beg their various friends for loans (the Hoods alone lent over £10,000), and shield her husband with a constant level of maternal care [1]. Nevertheless, her love and admiration for her spouse never wavered. 

During Lord Chatham's mental breakdown in the late 1760s, Lady Hester was his wife, nurse, and constant companion. Her husband's spiralling debts had squandered her marriage settlement, and seriously threatened the financial prospects of their children's futures. When Lord Chatham had to be moved to another property at North End in Hampstead, she had their children sent away as the noise was further upsetting Chatham. Although they both deeply loved their children, during the periodic crises of Lord Chatham's health (mental just as much as physical in nature), the children were kept very much out of sight. Perhaps it was for their own good. Lady Hester shielded her husband from the rest of the world during these periods, even from their own children, in order to care for him both night and day. 

Their Scottish banker, Thomas Coutts, may have once remarked that Lady Hester, the Countess of Chatham was "the cleverest man of her time in politics and business," [2] but she was very much alone in her incessant solicitude for her husband's welfare. Even in Lord Chatham's later years, with his health gradually failing, and requiring constant care, Lady Hester remained his pillar of strength. That is not to say that her health did not suffer in the process. Lady Hester wrote to their relation, Mrs. Pitt of Boconnoc in Cornwall, on August 7, 1775, telling her, "...my poor Lord's continued Illness makes me a very suffering Miserable Person." [3] Whilst Pitt the Elder suffered with terrible pains due to 'Gout' and other illnesses, Lady Hester herself was also repeatedly worn to the point of exhaustion and incapacitating colds. On January 14, 1777, Lady Hester writes again to Mrs. Pitt, saying that she "has been indisposed [unwell] and feels the effects of it, altho' it was an Accidental Illness brought on by being too much worn" whilst looking after her ailing husband [4]. Over the course of January 1777, Lord Chatham's complaint with 'Gouty Matter' [5] worsened, leading to extreme pain for Chatham - and duress for his wife. Lady Hester hastily finishes a letter to Mrs. Pitt during that period by apologising that "...you will forgive an abrupt conclusion, I am sure, in the present circumstances. I have been call'd [by her husband] twenty times in scribbling these few Lines." [6] 

Fig. 2: William Pitt, Lord Chatham by William Hoare

Indeed, the stress was so much that by early February 1777, Lady Harriot - then still living with her parents - had to write Mrs. Pitt on her mother's behalf. Lady Harriot eases Mrs. Pitt's mind on her mother's account, assuring her that "she [Lady Hester] sustains herself, my dear Madam, with all the fortitude possible in the present afflicting circumstance. But at the same time, you will easily imagine how much she must suffer from such a severe trial. She has had a bold Cold lately too, which has opprest her a good deal, and render'd her less able to bear the exertion of her constant attendance on Papa." [7]

Lord Chatham died on May 11, 1778 at their beloved Hayes Place in Kent. Lady Chatham outlived her husband by nearly 25 years, but she lived in debt for the remainder of her life. Her surviving sons, William Pitt and John, the 2nd Lord Chatham, did what they could to help her financially retain her estate at Burton Pynsent. When she died there in early April 1803, she left little to her name but a silver tea urn, her horses, a chaise, and four silver bottle frames "bought by myself." [8] At her request, she was buried next to her venerable husband in the Chatham vault in the North Transept of Westminster Abbey.


1. McLeod, K. (1976) The Wives of Downing Street. London: Collins, pp. 21, 41.

2. Ibid. p. 41

3. Dropmore Papers. Lady Hester Chatham to Mrs. Pitt. Hayes, August 7th, 1775. BL Add Ms 59490, f. 26. 

4. Dropmore Papers. Lady Hester Chatham to Mrs. Pitt. Hayes, August 7th, 1775. BL Add Ms 59490, f. 35.

5. Dropmore Papers. Lady Hester Chatham to Mrs. Pitt. Hayes, August 7th, 1775. BL Add Ms 59490, f. 36. 

6. Ibid.

7.Dropmore Papers. Lady Hester Chatham to Mrs. Pitt. Hayes, August 7th, 1775. BL Add Ms 59490, f. 39.

8. McLeod, K. (1976) The Wives of Downing Street. London: Collins, p. 43.

Image Credits:

Figure 1: Hester, Countess of Chatham by William Hoare, c. 1766. From this source.

Figure 2: William Pitt the Elder, Lord Chatham by William Hoare. From this source.


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