29 August 2014

'The most Perfect mind that was ever permitted to animate a Human Frame': Eliot's grief for Lady Harriot

Edward James Eliot by Karl Anton Hickel (1794)

Perhaps the largest single collection of surviving letters written by Edward James Eliot (1758-1797) are those he wrote to Eliza Pretyman, the wife of Pitt's former tutor George Pretyman. Sadly, the vast majority of these letters are melancholy and reflective in nature. This was because in late September 1786, after just a single year of marriage, Eliot's wife - and Pitt's favourite sister - Lady Harriot Eliot died in childbirth. The couple had defied the wishes of Edward's father, and married for love. Eliot had been nicknamed 'Sir Bull' in his youth, but after his marriage he was an incredibly devoted husband. 

After the death of his beloved Harriot, Eliot was left alone with his baby daughter, also christened Harriot, and he was emotionally devastated. The first in the collection of letters dates from January 16, 1787, just over three months after Lady Harriot's death. Eliot was a regular correspondent with their mutual friend, Eliza Pretyman (neĆ© Maltby), who had known Lady Harriot well. Eliot was also a personal friend and correspondent to George Pretyman. It seems that by early 1787 Eliot knew he had no intention of leaving Downing Street. It was at that address that Lady Harriot had given birth and died just five days later, and it seems as though Eliot wanted to keep things as much the same as he possibly could. The only other location apart from Downing Street where Eliot preferred to spend most of his time was at his mother in-law's Somerset estate, Burton Pynsent. It was from there that he wrote to George Pretyman to apprise him of his intentions to remain at Pitt's house: “…If you see Pitt [in London], Pray tell Him [Pitt] that I Intend writing to Him Tomorrow or next Day, and that my Heart Begins to fail me about leaving his House [Downing St], as yet, if Ever.” [1]

Eliot suffered with depression after his wife's death, and it lingered. On January 10, 1788, he wrote to Mrs. Pretyman concerning his mental state. He was a firm believer in Christ, and the Christian faith, and this belief informed his worldly conduct: “For myself - Being by God’s help freed from much of the Depression & Dispondence [sic] which has hung upon me, I feel more at Liberty to dwell upon the Passages of that Time in which only I have Lived or can Live here, and to be Thankful for having been permitted to Contribute to the satisfaction, however shortly, of the most Perfect mind that was ever permitted to animate a Human Frame [his late wife Lady Harriot].” [2] 

In most of his letters, Eliot mentioned his Harriot. On September 26, 1789, just over three years after Harriot's death, Eliot wrote from Burton Pynsent to Mrs. Pretyman, admitting to her that despite the passage of time, “…I know I can not, I feel upon that Subject [the loss of Harriot], a sort of Independence, a Species of Superiority, which, tho' it seldom ends without the tribute of some tears to the occasion of it, I am the better & the stronger for…” [3] 

In his letters, Eliot mentions his sweet little daughter, Harriot Hester, and he gives little anecdotes about her early childhood spent primarily in the country with her grandmama at Burton Pynsent. Eliot was also there on December 22, 1789, when he imparted an adorable story to Mrs. Pretyman about how much his three year old child was like her mother:

“…I must mention one [instance] which I think the most remarkable & which was her saying very earnestly to Lady Chatham two days ago, who was Commending Her for something done like a good young Lady, that she did not like to be call’d Lady, but Love. I hardly know whether I can think how much in the spirit & almost words of my Beloved & which I was almost Certain could not have been suggested to Her by any one. She is, Thank God!, in the highest health & spirits possible.” [4]

Edward wrote faithfully to Mrs. Pretyman each year on September 25th - the anniversary of Harriot's death - and they both shared a mutual grief that did not lessen with the passage of time. On September 25, 1790, Eliot wrote from Burton Pynsent to Mrs. Pretyman to mark the somber occasion:

“…You have now witnessed how much Likeness She [Eliot's daughter Harriot] has, and may have to her Beloved Mother, of whom I Cherish & adore the Memory…It [the memory of his deceased wife, Lady Harriot] will Every Resemblance & opportunity of Recollection be ever the first & Dearest object of affection to me. If it pleases God to continue our Child to be in the sweet & amiable Temper & Disposition she now gives signs of, the World will no Doubt be something of a less Sterile Promatory [?]. I shall have to finish my Journey something Less dear than I might have had, I Trust however No Ideas of that sort will Ever induce me to forget, tho' for an hour, the way I have to Go, or the Country I have to Endeavour to arrive at, with hopes in the infinite Goodness of God of Receiving that Society for Ever which has been here broken & imperfect. Nor do I say this Looking only to Eternity. I can not tell you the Comfort it has been & is to me to Consider my Enjoyments of Life as Broken off and Finish’d, or how many better Reflections ye want of Participation in them, I am Certain it has saved & saves me: at all Events I have the Consolation of Thinking that Calamity has not been thrown away on me, that I have not been afflicted in vain. I do not, you know, apologise for writing to you in this manner at this season, & I am the less inclined to do it now from the few opportunities of Communication on this subject [the death of Harriot] I have for some time had ever with you, I will however pursue it no farther Now…” [5]

Eliot's letters to Mrs. Pretyman in particular offer the modern reader a rare glimpse of a 18th century man who was pouring his heart out onto the page. His letters are poignant, and deeply heartfelt. There is not a shred of doubt that Eliot was strong in his faith in God. On September 25, 1791, Eliot writes from Burton Pynsent to Mrs. Pretyman. It had now been five years since the death of Harriot:

“Having put off, My Dearest Madam, for some time unintentionally the Thanking you for your last kind Letter, I have I confess Latterly differed of purpose to This Day, the Telling you that my sweet Child Continues Thank God, well; & Grows, I might say truly, more & more what I wish Her, more & more like my own Harriot. In another year I think I may Intrust [sic] Her with That History [the death of her mother], & make her, I hope, Comprehend how much is required of Her, when call’d by the Name she owns & Inherits for the Grace and unsullied Beauty & Purity of which in her keeping, I feel most anxiously as well as deeply Responsible, more so I much fear that I shall Ever Answer; If I may Judge of the future by the past, I have been five Years with but one Thing to Do, one way to Go, and how slowly & unsteadily have I gone in it? Five years ago I saw Death in my Chamber, at my Right hand nearer & more unexpectedly than I think it can ever come again, all my Desires & wishes for this world with supposed Enjoyments broke off at once, & could I have believed I should be now no more prepared, no better fitted, for the Other: that is my first Duty: as it is my great wish, at this moment I hardly Dare say Hope, were that object to any Degree attain’d, I verily think I might cease to Regret all that Has pass’d. I should think undoubtedly I had Lost to me all the whole world; But saved what was more Valuable & Changed, I might hope a short interrupted, for an Everlasting [oe]  but that I am yet far from - perhaps indeed it is a thing which we should not expect, which is reserved for Him [God] in whom Knowledge stands over eternal Life. But no more of this; tho' I may, on the occasion which I am now as it were commemorating, open the feelings of my heart at the moment to you, I need not dwell upon them; I will therefore conclude by saying that go on acting my common part, something less unwillingly with my more satisfaction to myself, I hope with somewhat more to others. Begging to be always kindly Remembered to the Bishop I remain my Dear Mrs. Pretyman with all good wishes to you & yours, Your very Faithful & Affectionate Friend & Servant, Ed. J. Eliot.” [6]

In this case, we have Mrs. Pretyman's reply to Eliot's letter of late September 1791: 

“I thank you my dear Sir, for your truly interesting Letter, and I thank you with more self-satisfaction than I can express, for my heart assures me that its cherished affection for my dear departed friend, makes me, so far, deserving of the confidence with which  you so kindly honour me. With this consciousness, and under the impression of many Conversations with “your own Harriot” which will ever live in my Memory, I feel bold enough to blame you for that depressed state of mind which, if indulged, must destroy that joy & peace in believing which our Religion is surely designed to produce - but knowing as I do, from the best authority, that Humility was ever one of your characteristic virtues I the less wonder that it should now a little exceed its bounds, and lessen the comforts which properly belong to Faith in the Goodness of God, and the Atonement of Christ…her to whom I doubt not you will be reunited…” [7]

The first mention of Eliot considering a his own house after the death of his wife comes in a letter he wrote to Mrs. Pretyman from his family seat at Port Eliot, Cornwall, on November 20, 1791. He had recently spent time at Chevening, the seat of the Stanhope family, and Lady Mahon (Louisa Stanhope) had begun making enquiries about potential houses for him:

“…I am here a little longer than I expected to have been in consequence of my Father’s having been for this last fortnight or more very much indisposed, with a sort of Gouty attack, which seems to have ended in a nasty slow Fever, which I am afraid will still be a Tedious Complaint, tho' certainly much lessened in the course of the last three or four Days. I had last week a Letter from Lady Stanhope [Louisa] who has been so very good as to have been making inquiries about a House for me in the Neighbourhood of Hampstead or Highgate & says she has heard of one that she thinks will do. It seem’d to me that I had never seen either Her or Lady Hester [Stanhope] Looking so well as when I was at Chevening for a Couple of Days last month [October 1791]…” [8]

It appears that nothing forthcoming came of the properties in Hampstead or Highgate, as the following year, on September 5, 1792, Eliot was writing from Burton Pynsent to Mrs. Pretyman about a house in Clapham:

“…The Plan of my Clapham House has been Changed two or three times since my last letter to you, which I have not at present time to explain farther than to say that it seems to be now pretty well settled, & with Rooms (I think I may say considerably) Larger than the original Design.” [9]

From a surviving bill, now at Pembroke College, Cambridge, we now know that Eliot had been working with the architect John Soane in the design of these plans. 

A bill from the executors of the late Edward J. Eliot to John Soane

From the breakdown of the final bill, it appears that Eliot had asked Soane to conduct a survey and valuation of a 'Captain Lewis's house at Clapham Common,' in March 1791, and in the same year he also requested 'paid advertising for a Villa in Kent,' and a 'Clerk's time & expenses to Sydenham, Chislehurst & Roehampton to look at Houses & making Plans of three Houses.' [10] Lastly, on August 23, 1792, Soane had been 'Making two Designs for Houses' for Eliot. [11] This is corroborated in several letters Eliot wrote to Mrs. Pretyman in September 1792. 

A bill from The Ex.[ecutors] of the late Hon. E.J. Eliot to John Soane, Lincolns Inn Fields

On September 25, 1792, the sixth anniversary of his wife's passing, Eliot wrote to Mrs. Pretyman. He enclosed the plan for his Clapham house, and he explains why he did not want a house of his own before that time:

“The Inclosed Plan, my Dearest Madam, tho' not exactly the one upon which the House at Clapham is to be built, will however serve to give you some Idea, both of the Rooms, & the Disposition of them. Having no House, having lost the Society & Comforts of a House, it was as you know for some time a sort of satisfaction to me, to have no House either; But it is become now fit for me to get, is at best to have something of the kind in prospect; and upon the whole I think this the most suited to my Situation, possibly, to the Course of Life which I incline to think allotted me since the Event alluded to, a sort of Cycle a week as it were of years has pass’d, & after some experience, & I may say, much consideration, I can say the sentiments I then Received of it are in kind, unaltered. I felt it as a Trial and visitation, the habitual scene & constant Remembrance of which was a Duty and would be in time or other like all others…Experience indeed of the weakness of mine, at least, if not of human Nature, has taught me to Hope only always to be going the same Road, without the confidence of expecting to be always able to Go the same Pace. You will Believe how concern’d I was to hear from the Bishop you had been so unwell of late, I Trust however you will very soon Get over it: I will not Trouble you to answer this, but will beg to have a single Line some time from Him, with some account of you, as well as Himself & Wm. Ed. & George. I Remain Ever Most Truly your Faithful & very Affectionate Friend & Servt., Ed. J. Eliot” [12] 

The first direct reference Eliot makes to Broomfield - also referred to by Eliot as 'Clapham Lodge,' is in a letter to Mrs. Pretyman on May 15, 1795. He was, however, still spending a significant amount of time at Downing Street as he was still writing from that address throughout 1795 and 1796. 

There has been some debate over whether Eliot owned or leased the property at Clapham. It seems his landlord was, in fact, his friend Henry Thornton, as he directly names him. On February 19, 1796, Eliot writes from Downing Street to Mrs. Pretyman, informing her of Thornton's upcoming marriage: “…I don’t know whether you have heard that Mr. Henry Thornton (mine & Mr. Wilberforce’s Landlord) is on the point of marrying Miss Sykes, with whom I understand He has been long acquainted. It is not a Thing that I for one should have imagined probable.” [13] 

Surprisingly, the only letter amongst the collection that was penned from Broomfield, was composed on July 8, 1796. He tells Mrs. Pretyman: “…On Tuesday I went with Pitt to Hampstead, & endeavoured to possess him as far as my memory went, with your Sentiments & what had pass’d with Milner about Trinity Col.[lege]. In the mean while however he seem’d to have understood from a Letter of yours that you had in your own mind given up the scheme proposed originally, but had another fit & ready to be adopted; at least such was his recollection of what he had read from you. I said I was very sure my Commission did not go so far in either respect, & that I rather thought your letter could not go to the whole length he mention’d; but that I wd. write to you, when you might perhaps be able to explain what had been misunderstood. He appear’d still very much impress’d with the necessity of doing something, & determined at all events to make some effort to put Things upon a better footing. He [Pitt] looks in very good Health, & very much recover’d since I saw Him before. I am to take Harriot to Holwood to Him this afternoon, a short visit, and about Tuesday or Wednesday we shall, I believe, go off for Burton…” [14]

After this time, Eliot's letters are all written from either Downing Street or Bath, where he went during his last illness in the summer of 1797. The last letter from Eliot to Pretyman was composed at Bath in June 1797. Following this missive, there were copies of several anxious letters written by Mrs. Pretyman to Eliot in August 1797 enquiring why she did not hear from him. Eliot was already very unwell from a lingering stomach complaint, and he died at his family seat at Port Eliot in Cornwall on September 17, 1797. He was finally reunited with his adored wife. Eliot's little girl, then just under eleven years of age (her birthday was three days later), was also there with him at Port Eliot when he died. George Pretyman, the Bishop of Lincoln, was one of Eliot's executors.

The marriage register of Harriot Hester Eliot to William Henry Pringle, May 1806
Pretyman was one of two surviving guardians of Eliot's daughter, along with her uncle John, the 2nd Lord Chatham. Her other maternal uncle William Pitt had died earlier in 1806. 


1. Edward James Eliot to George Pretyman. January 16, 1787. The Kent History and Library Centre, Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/C35/1.

2. Edward James Eliot to Mrs. Pretyman. January 10, 1788. The Kent History and Library Centre, Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/C35/1.

3. Edward James Eliot to Mrs. Pretyman. September 26, 1789. The Kent History and Library Centre, Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/C35/1.

4. Edward James Eliot to Mrs. Pretyman. December 22, 1789. The Kent History and Library Centre, Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/C35/1.

5. Edward James Eliot to Mrs. Pretyman. September 25, 1790. The Kent History and Library Centre, Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/C35/1.

6. Edward James Eliot to Mrs. Pretyman. September 25, 1791. The Kent History and Library Centre, Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/C35/1.

7. Mrs. Pretyman to Edward James Eliot. September 1791. The Kent History and Library Centre, Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/C35/1.

8. Edward James Eliot to Mrs. Pretyman. November 20, 1791. The Kent History and Library Centre, Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/C35/1.

9. Edward James Eliot to Mrs. Pretyman. September 5, 1792. The Kent History and Library Centre, Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/C35/1.

10. A bill from the Executors of the Honourable Edward James Eliot to John Soane. Pitt Papers, Rare Books Room, Pembroke College, Cambridge.

11.  Ibid.

12. Edward James Eliot to Mrs. Pretyman. September 25, 1792. The Kent History and Library Centre, Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/C35/1.

13. Edward James Eliot to Mrs. Pretyman. February 19, 1796. The Kent History and Library Centre, Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/C35/2.

14. Edward James Eliot to Mrs. Pretyman. July 8, 1796. The Kent History and Library Centre, Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/C35/2.


  1. Thanks for sharing these rich letters, Stephenie.

    1. It's a pleasure, Cheryl! Edward Eliot's voice should be heard through the pages of history. :)

  2. Just catching up with your blog - I suspect Mrs P would have read Eliot's letters with a great deal of morbid relish! Regarding Broomfield, the following info comes from the book Jacqui lent me (Wilberforce, Family and Friends by Anne Stott.) In 1792 Henry Thornton bought Battersea Rise House on Clapham Common. It had large grounds which he immediately decided to divide into three: on one of those parcels of land, Broomfield was built, and on the other, a house called Glenelg which was lived in by another Claphamite called Charles Grant. There were no separating walls or fences dividing the gardens. I get the impression (though it's not made clear in the book) that Thornton retained ownership of the land, but that Eliot (and perhaps Grant) owned a leasehold on the house. If that were the case, then I imagine Eliot would pay Thornton some kind of ground rent, and would regard him as his landlord, as it says in the letter. (Thornton was also Wilberforce's "landlord" at the time because they lived together at Battersea Rise until Thornton got married.) The author states that when Eliot died, Wilberforce bought the house from his executors, though she doesn't cite a source for that. This could mean that WW took over the leasehold - I'm wholly not sure of the legalities, but I think it would have been part of Eliot's estate and not have reverted to Thornton on Eliot's death, which would explain why WW didn't buy it from Thornton. He moved out in 1808, though whether he sold it at that point I don't know.