15 August 2014

James Charles Pitt: The youngest, forgotten son of William Pitt the Elder

Fig 1: One of the only likenesses of James Pitt, from the sketch of Copley's Death of the Earl of Chatham (centre)

In my time researching the private life of William Pitt the Younger, I've been fortunate to meet many like-minded and generous fellow historians as well as those simply curious to know more about this elusive British politician. 

I have been equally blessed to meet other "Pittites" - those of us who openly claim to be obsessed with Mr. Pitt for his political and private virtues. One dear friend in particular is especially enamoured with Pitt's older brother John, the 2nd Earl of Chatham. Oftentimes, people will jokingly say to us, "It's a good thing there were only two Pitt brothers, or else you might fight over them!" At this point, my friend and I collectively cringe, as there were actually three Pitt brothers. Of course, many people can't be expected to know that unless they're well-versed in the lives of the Pitt family. Sadly, James Charles Pitt, the youngest son and fifth child of William Pitt the Elder and his wife Hester, the Countess of Chatham, had his life cut short before he barely reached adulthood. 

He was born on April 24, 1761, and by the time he was five years old, his father had become a peer of the realm. Pitt the Elder went from being hailed as the celebrated "Great Commoner" to the title of the Earl of Chatham in 1766. We have but a few passing glimpses of James's childhood. On October 23, 1765, James's maternal uncle, James Grenville, wrote to William Pitt the Elder, wryly commenting, "you must have been very merry upon your return, for every body heard a vast singing all along the road quite to Burton from Butleigh [where James Grenville resided]. Some people say it was William's voice, some say it was James's. It gave great scandal to sober travellers, who impute such loudness to the effects of too much liquour." [1] James was only four years old at the time of this anecdote, and his brother William was only six, so it's left to imagination just how loudly they were singing on the way back to Burton from a visit to their uncle. 

Another brief insight comes in May 1772 when James was 11. William wrote to his mother one day before his thirteenth birthday, apologising profusely for some misdemeanour him and James got up to whilst their parents were not with them. William lamented that "as I cannot rest satisfied without making the best apology in my power for what has pass'd and not being able to have the pleasure of offering my excuses in Person, I trust you will allow me by letter to express how truly I am sorry for my having done improperly and how sincerely I beg your pardon...P.S. James begs his Duty to you and desires to express that he feels exceedingly sorry for what he has done and hopes you will have the goodness to pardon him." [2] The following year, when Lord Chatham wrote to his wife from Lyme Regis on June 11, 1773, he affectionately asked her to "embrace the dear girls and little tar for me." [3] Little tar was the nickname for James. It seems James was always destined for the navy, and the nickname of "little tar" was proof of that planned career path. 

James joined the navy in his early teens, and he gradually rose to the rank of Post-Captain. [4] His naval career began in 1775, and he was taken under the wing of Captain Alexander Hood and his wife, a cousin of the Countess of Chatham, Maria aka 'Molly' Hood. The Hoods  had a house on Harley Street in London, and it was from there that Captain Hood took him to Deptford. [5] The Hoods had lent money to the Chatham family on more than one occasion, and they were instrumental in getting James Charles's naval career up and running. 

It is difficult to know whether James was present at his father's last, famous speech in the House of Lords on April 7, 1778. One early 20th century source claims that "young James Pitt was particularly active in assisting his father" after Chatham's collapse during the debate. [6] Although it is possible that James was in attendance, I have not been able to corroborate his presence there in any contemporary sources.

Sadly, the friendship between the Hoods and the Pitt family was severely strained in early 1779 when William and his mother decided to remove James from Captain Hood's ship Robust after his evidence given at Admiral Keppel's court martial. William uneasily wrote to his mother on February 11, 1779 that "...the Clamour against our Friend [Captain Hood] is I fear very general and the Affair is not yet fully explained. Till the Thing is more clear'd his [Hood's] Friends have I think nothing to do but to avoid Pariculars, and rest on the general Conviction of his Honor and integrity."  [7] However, a month later, William followed his mother's advice, and removed James from Hood's ship, Robust

William wrote to his mother that "the Measure which seems to us absolutely requisite is that of removing my Brother [James] immediately from the Robust: and tho it seems at first a disagreeable step to take, I am fully persuaded that when you have considered every Circumstance, you will not see one possible objection....as the Matter now stands I am firmly convinc'd after consulting all the Opinions I cou'd, and viewing it in all its Lights, that there is actually no Choice left, without involving ourselves and James in endless difficulties...the Grounds on which I rest my opinion are various; the first is a point in which we shall agree...the Necessity of putting Final Stop to James's Indiscretions in Conversation and Behaviour. [James had given evidence at the Keppel court martial, admitting that Hood had altered the logbook before appearing at court]. On this it occurs [to me], that it will be very difficult to remove his [James's] prejudices and to make him continue in a proper Disposition, while he remains in a Ship which (whatever it professes) must always be hostile to Admiral Keppel." [8] 

Consequently, James was removed from the Robust, and the friendship between the Hoods and the Chathams became estranged. James was placed on the ship, Greyhound, at Spithead, later in 1779. On board this ship, he sailed for the West Indies. His surviving correspondence to his mother depicts a highly ambitious young man who is very focused on naval promotion and building a reputation for himself. From these letters, it is apparent that his temperament was very different to both of his elder brothers, and he did not quibble to state plainly to his mother on one occasion that "the reason of my not writing to you till the later part of my stay in London was that I had nothing particular to communicate to you." [9] There was, however, a genial aspect to James's character, and he was also friends with his older brother Williams' college companion, Edward James Eliot. In a letter written on November 20, 1779 - about the time when the Greyhound sailed from England, Eliot wrote to William to say, "you did not use me handsomely in the long letter which you seemed so proud of in saying nothing about My Friend James. Is he still in the Greyhound or is he shifted [?] I doubt I mayn't say promoted to another ship." [10] It seems Eliot knew of James's earnest desires for promotion. As he called him a friend, it appears that they were at least relatively close. 

When on leave from Portsmouth in 1779, James also found time to enjoy the pursuits of a London life. He liked dancing, and evenings at the Pantheon, when he had the opportunity for leisure. William wrote to his mother from Nerot's Hotel that year, telling her "James is gone with my sisters to a ball as a professed dancer, which stands in the place of an invitation; a character which I do not assume, and have therefore stayed away." [11] In comparison to William, James was practically a party animal. 

Fig. 2: James Charles Pitt, in naval uniform, from the final painting of The Death of the Earl of Chatham
The last time James Charles Pitt saw English shores was at the end of 1779. Throughout 1780, he wrote to his mother from places like St. Lucia and St. Kitts, and he ended up at English Harbour, Antigua, on board the sloop Hornet, of which he was put in command [12]. His last letter was written from Antigua on November 1, 1780, and within a fortnight (two weeks), on November 13, 1780 he succumbed to a virulent fever. I have not been able to definitively find out whether it was yellow fever or not, but it would not be surprising, given the location of his ship, if it was that disease. He was not yet twenty years of age, and his death came as a tragic blow to his family. I have written about James's untimely death in this previous post. Given the distance and lengthy travel time, the news of James's passing did not reach England until early February of the following year (1781). James's remains were interred at St. Paul's church in Falmouth, Antigua [13]. 

In 1891, over 120 years after James's death, the Right Honourable Sir Edward H. Seymour, an Admiral of the Fleet, saw James's grave, and he later recorded his impressions:

"On 12th January 1891, as I was driving through the Island of Antigua to English Harbour, and passing the churchyard of St. Paul's parish, I stopped and went in to look at the graves, and found one with its stone slab covering fallen off, but on it was engraved: 'Here lie the remains of Honble James Charles Pitt - Son of the Earl of Chatham - Commander of H.M.S. Hornet, who died in English Harbour 13th November 1780, aged 20 years [he was actually still 19]. His early virtues and dawning promise bespoke a meridian splendour worthy the name of Pitt.' One brother was buried in Westminster Abbey [actually, two brothers, and a sister were buried at Westminster Abbey] and the other at St. Paul's - Antigua. I was able to communicate with relatives, who restored the grave." [14] I wonder which relatives those might have been? James, and both of his brothers, never had any children. Perhaps it was the Stanhopes at Chevening who were instrumental in restoring James's grave marker?

Another naval Vice Admiral, H.L. Fleet, also visited James's grave, and remarked "...there is a little church, at Falmouth, and in the churchyard repose the bodies of many of our countrymen. On one of the monuments I found the name of a Commander, the Hon. James Charles Pitt (a son of the great Earl of Chatham), who, as the inscription informed us, 'Was cut off before attaining the meridian of a fame that his early deeds bid fair to promise.' He was only twenty [sic] years of age, and commanded the Dolphin [actually it was the Hornet], a sloop. Promotion was rapid then!" [15] 

This visit must have been after 1891, as the inscription was different to the original noted by Sir Seymour. Of course, it wasn't just the passage of time and lack of care that damaged the original grave stone. The original St. Paul's church was destroyed by a great earthquake in 1843, then struck by lightening in 1880, and then a hurricane in 1950 completely destroyed it once again [16]. Alas, it's no small wonder that James's resting place is now unknown. There are two unmarked graves in St. Paul's churchyard that could potentially be James's grave. Both are in very poor condition. 

Sarah (http://littlekumquat.weebly.com) has kindly sent me images of each of the two unmarked graves. One of them is bound to be James Charles Pitt's final resting place. They are reproduced below.

Which grave seems most likely to you, dear Reader? 

It is a real shame that James Charles Pitt's life was cut off when he had barely reached manhood. What more could he have achieved? He showed early promise in the navy. How would history have been different had he survived? Would he have been a thorn in his Prime Minister brother's side? Would they have been close, or would they have had their disagreements? His temperament and character was certainly quite different to the other Pitt children. He never got to go back home to England. Like so many military men who die abroad, his remains will ever remain in the place where he lost his life. 


1. Birdwood, V. (1994) So dearly loved, So much admired: Letters to Hester Pitt, Lady Chatham from her relations and friends, 1744-1801. London: HMSO, p. 45.

2. Ibid, p. 313.

3.  Stanhope Taylor, W. & Pringle, John Henry. (eds.) (1840) Correspondence of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, Vol. 4. London: John Murray, p. 270.

4. Coleridge, E.H. (1920) The Life of Thomas Coutts, Banker. Volume 1. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, p. 100.

5. Birdwood, V. (1994) So dearly loved, So much admired: Letters to Hester Pitt, Lady Chatham from her relations and friends, 1744-1801. London: HMSO, p. 117.

6. von Ruville, A. (1907) William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, Volume 3. London: William Heinemann, p. 343. 

7. Birdwood, V. (1994) So dearly loved, So much admired: Letters to Hester Pitt, Lady Chatham from her relations and friends, 1744-1801. London: HMSO, p. 325.

8. Ibid, p. 325.

9. Ibid, p. 327.

10. Edward J. Eliot to William Pitt. Ipswich Record Office, Pretyman MSS: HA 119/T99/85/5.

11. Hague, W. (2004) William Pitt the Younger. London: Harper Press, pp. 44-45.

12. Birdwood, V. (1994) So dearly loved, So much admired: Letters to Hester Pitt, Lady Chatham from her relations and friends, 1744-1801. London: HMSO, p. 327.

14. Seymour, E.H. (1911) My Naval Career and Travels. London: Smith, Elder, and Co., p. 283.

15. Fleet, Vice-Admiral H. L. (1922) My life, and a few Yarns. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., p. 248.

Image Credits:

Figure 1: James Charles Pitt, from the sketch of John Singleton Copley's Death of the Earl of Chatham. He must have sat for it at some point in 1779, when he was on leave in London. Image Source

Figure 2: The final version of Copley's Death of the Earl of Chatham, with James represented in his naval uniform. Image Source


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