14 October 2014

The complicated nature of Pitt's debts (the 1780s edition)

Fig 1: William Pitt's handwriting, mentioning Goostree's, from a letter to his friend Edward Eliot

As early as the beginning of the 1780s, William Pitt was already on his way to being seriously in debt. He had regularly borrowed money from his mother in the 1770s in order to pay for his tuition fees at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and she (along with her brother, Pitt's uncle Lord Temple) helped William to establish himself at rented accommodation (the attic rooms of number 4, Stone Buildings) during his time at Lincolns Inn. In an insightful account book spanning the 1780s, there is a sampling of Pitt's debts, and a listing of sums made out to various people. 

Throughout this small book, there are many payments made to an anonymous "Bearer" for large and regular sums of money. Below is a listing of payments Pitt made, including the dates, and to whom:

"July 24 1782 - ‘To James Goostree’ - £100 subscription [the owner of Goostree's gentleman's club on Pall Mall, of which Pitt was a member]

1782 - April 16, 1782 - To the Rev. Mr Pretyman [Pitt's friend] £200, and to James Goostree £200

July 12, 1782 - to James Goostree - £200, ditto on 15th July - £20

1784 - May 6 - to George Pretyman - £72, 3s, 8d, 12th May - £60 to the same

June 15 1784 - to Lady Chatham’s Account - £500 [Pitt's mother]

July 20, 1784 - to Dr. Pretyman - £1,550

Nov 13, 1784 - ‘To Lady Harriot Pitt’s order’ - £275, 13s [Pitt's sister]

Dec 24, 1784 - To Mr Goostree £100" [1]

By the end of 1784, just a year after Pitt became First Lord of the Treasury, he was already in debt by £13,292, 10s, 8d! [2] He was then only 25 years old. Sadly, it does not improve from that point onwards, as the following account from the same book demonstrates:

"April 21, 1785 - to Eliz[abeth]. Sparry - £100 [a loyal servant from his childhood, and a lady who continued in his mother's service]

September 23, 1785 - To Lady Harriot Pitt - £268 [money for Lady Harriot's wedding to his friend Edward James Eliot that month. I recorded the September 1785 marriage entry of Lady Harriot Pitt and Edward James Eliot in a previous post.]" [3]

By the end of 1785, Pitt was in debt by £24,391 19s 3d. Augustine Greenland paid him £4,000, and Pitt’s debts were then £20, 787 9s 8d [4]. Pitt and his older brother John, the second Earl of Chatham, were already known to Greenland from about the year 1780. 

At the end of 1786, Pitt's debts had already spiralled to £38,832 14s 7d! [5] It is from about this point in time that the frequent and large sums of money begin to disappear from Pitt's account book, and are made out to an unnamed "Bearer." 

For example, on July 23, 1787, £800 was paid to "the Bearer." [6] These massive sums - exorbitant by late 18th century standards - continue as follows:

"Mar 30, 1787 - £208 2s to Bearer

£359 to Bearer on Sept 25, 1787.

Dec 6, 1787 - To Bearer £190

Jan 1788 - £1,399 11s 6d “To Bearer”

Ditto - Jan 10, 1788 £40

July 23, 1787 - £800 to Bearer

Sept 25, 1787 - £359

Dec 6, 1787 - £190

Dec 31, 1787 - £1,399 11s 6d" [7]

These are vast sums of money, and although Pitt must have had many creditors by this point, it is unclear who exactly was receiving these payments.

The first entry for “To the Bearer” in Pitt's 1780s account book is for £77 15s on Oct 23, 1784; what is intriguing is that these payments were followed in rapid succession on Nov 15, 1784  for £50, then on Nov 16, 1784 for £300, Nov 17th for £100, and then on January 7, 1785 for the payment of £500! [8]

These payments continued unabated, and there were sometimes four or five in a single month, as in the case of June 1788. A single payment on one occasion in 1788 was £1,428 8s 10d! [9]

What does this tell us? The records for this account ledger ceases after 1788. These are very complicated and highly intriguing debts. There is evidence of bonds, interest paid on these bonds, and money given to various friends including George Rose in 1785. Most of these people, including bankers, are directly named - as is Pitt's mother Lady Chatham, and his sister, Lady Harriot - so “The Bearer” is someone not directly named. In all likelihood, we may never know the full extent of what caused William Pitt to become so deeply embroiled in debt by his mid-twenties.


1. The National Archives. Chatham Papers: PRO 30/8/219, Part 1. 

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

Image Credits:

Figure 1: William Pitt's handwriting, with a mention of Goostree's gentleman's club, from a 1779 letter to his friend Edward James Eliot (Source: Pretyman Papers, Ipswich Record Office, Suffolk, England).

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