11 December 2014

'Exaggerating a large Shoe and Flannel into a serious Illness'

A modern view of Kingston Lacy (formerly known as Kingston Hall) 

Pitt travelled to Bath in early December 1805 due to his rapidly declining health and a severe case of gout. The address that was recommended to Pitt by Dudley Ryder's brother Richard Ryder was Mrs. Gay's house at No. 2 Johnstone Street. By the end of December, Pitt was still confined primarily to the house in Bath, often finding it difficult to even walk down the stairs. When he wasn't making the short trip to The Pump Room to drink the waters, he was keeping his mind occupied with politics, anticipating news from the continent, and taking books out from Mr. Upham's Circulating Library. Meanwhile, his friends were beginning to be alarmed by reports they had heard regarding his health. One such friend was Henry Bankes (1757-1834) of Kingston Hall (now Kingston Lacy), Dorset. 

A portrait of Pitt's friend, Henry Bankes, inside Kingston Lacy (my photo)

In a typical response that was characteristic of Pitt's distanced relationship to his own personal wellbeing, he severely downplayed his condition to Bankes. In a letter dated from Bath on Dec 22, 1805, Pitt wrote:

“My dear Bankes,

Many thanks for your kind & friendly Inquiries. I am sorry that you have partaken in the Anxiety which the Officiousness of the Newspapers has occasioned among my Friends, by exaggerating a large Shoe and Flannel into a serious Illness. I have been confined about Ten Days by a fit of the Gout, which, tho I may have thought it a little wearing, has been highly satisfactory to my medical Oracles; and I am now so much recovered that I expect very soon to feel nothing but its good Effects. I wish I could relieve You from the anxious Suspense in which We are all involved as to the State of the Continent. One the whole I think We are justified in hoping that the favourable account of the Issue of the Battle of Austerlitz will prove the true one, and in that Case I have scarce a Doubt that Prussia will step in and render the Advantage decisive. In the other Alternative the Prospect of the Continent tho not hopeless, is discouraging indeed; and the uncertainty between such Extremes is no small Trial of one’s Patience and Philosophy. If I hear any Thing important, which may not otherwise reach you so soon, I will let you know. Ever sincerely Yrs, W.P." [1]

Lamentably, the Battle of Austerlitz was a huge defeat, and it physically shattered Pitt's already precarious recovery. Exactly one month and a single day after his letter to Bankes, Pitt was dead at the age of 46. Pitt was once called "a noonday eclipse" by a man called Ralph Creyke, a friend of William Wilberforce, as he died in the middle of his life. James Stanhope, an eyewitness at the time of Pitt's death, described his life departing like a candle burning out.

Pitt's relationship to his health, or, to put it more aptly, his denial of his own health issues, is a subject that repeated itself throughout his short life. Pitt often buried or repressed his own pain and emotions through the overuse of alcohol, throwing himself into politics, or a combination of the two.

It's a topic that I have continuously encountered throughout my research into Pitt's personal life.


1. William Pitt to Henry Bankes. December 22, 1805 (copy). The Kent History and Library Centre, Pitt MSS: U1590/S5/O8, f. 131.

1 comment:

  1. Oh bless him :-( I seem to recall in 1800 his friends knew he had to be really ill, because he actually complained about his health himself :-(