Thursday, July 17, 2014

“The Mischief Done Me”: all change at the Admiralty, 1794

by Jacqui Reiter

On the evening of 10 June 1794 the Countess of Chatham, wife of the First Lord of the Admiralty, arrived at London's Opera with good news. The singer Anna Morichelli was performing, but her aria was interrupted by Lady Chatham's announcement: Lord Howe's fleet had trounced the French off Ushant in what became known as the battle of the “Glorious First of June”.[1]

Henry Perronet Briggs, “Visit of George III
to Lord Howe's Flagship, 26 June 1794” (1828)

The First Lord of the Admiralty had more reason to celebrate this victory than almost anyone else. John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham was the prime minister's elder brother. He was intelligent and well-mannered, but notoriously lazy, and despite his closeness to the prime minister had little political clout. He had become highly unpopular as a result of the expedition to Dunkirk in 1793. Stores and gunboats were not sent out in time to assist the Duke of York's army, and Chatham was blamed by the press for the campaign's failure.[2] “The opinion of Lord Chatham's insufficiency in his office is quite universal,” Sir Gilbert Elliot recorded in his diary.[3]

John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, by
Martin Arthur Shee (ca 1794)
Wikimedia Commons
As far as Chatham was concerned, therefore, the Glorious First of June saved his career. In the summer of 1794, Pitt strengthened his government by coalescing with the Duke of Portland. Pitt engaged in a complex cabinet reshuffle to accommodate his new allies. To his relief Chatham kept his place, but the past year of stress had taken its toll on his health. Despite his reputation he was usually a regular attender of Admiralty Board meetings, but after the official celebrations of Howe's victory he took a holiday. From the 26 August to 29 September 1794 Chatham rested at Cheveley Park, his country estate, nursing a “Complaint in his Stomach”.[4]

Had he realised what was going on in London, he might have been less complacent.

An Admiralty Undermined

“Have you yet fixed the day of your Return?” Pitt wrote to Chatham on 22 September. “The longer you can contrive to stay [at Cheveley] the better.”[5] Pitt was only partly concerned for his brother's health. In persuading Chatham to stay away Pitt was also trying to end a cabinet rift which, within three months, would lead to Chatham's disgrace.

Chatham was one of the few members of Pitt's wartime cabinet with direct military experience, but since Dunkirk, as he later recalled, his “opinion was treated with no great respect”.[6] Strategy was decided by Pitt and his two main allies, Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville and Home Secretary Henry Dundas. Chatham resented Dundas's influence most. As Treasurer of the Navy he often interfered in Admiralty affairs. In July 1794, he became Secretary of State for War with the power to override naval requirements for military purposes.

Henry Dundas, by Henry Raeburn
(ca 1805). From Wikimedia Commons
While Chatham was away at Cheveley, eight French ships of the line were spotted making for an unknown destination.[7] Dundas decided they were bound for the West Indies, where the British were trying to open a new war front to cripple French expansion and increase British commerce. Dundas pressured Chatham to send naval reinforcements at once, but Chatham had other plans. The British had briefly possessed Toulon in the autumn of 1793 but had lost the port back to the French in December. Lord Hood's fleet remained in the Mediterranean for much of 1794, and Chatham held it a priority to reinforce him. He wrote doubting the urgency of sending ships to the West Indies, and received a testy response: the military garrisons in the West Indies desperately needed relief which the navy could swiftly provide. “If your Lordship was to see from the returns how little is left in each of [the regiments curently in the West Indies] you would not conceive that I was unduly alarmed … Our Security in the West Indies for many months to come depends entirely on a commanding and extensive Naval Force”.[8]

Dundas's tone infuriated Chatham, as did the attempt to use navy personnel to cover the War Office's shortcomings in providing insufficient troops. He wrote to inform Dundas that both he and the Admiralty Board found the “style of Complaint in your letter” insulting. As for the naval force in the West Indies, it “was very ample, and I shall think sufficient for Naval Objects”.[9]

Chatham's draft response to Dundas,
September 1794, in the National Archives
PRO 30/8/364 f 169.
His anger can clearly be seen
in the legibility of the handwriting.
When Chatham returned to London at the end of September he was horrified to find Dundas had overridden him in cabinet in his absence.[10] The six ships meant for Hood sailed for the West Indies, and the wind was unfavourable for sending any more to Toulon. Chatham was furious but there was nothing he could do; and by locking horns with Dundas he had made himself a dangerous enemy.

“Unjustly hurt”

Dundas evidently decided he could no longer work with Chatham, but he waited until a cabinet meeting at the end of November to make his move. Like most of Pitt's cabinet meetings it was unminuted. Perhaps the cabinet discussed Lord Hood's fleet, or the end of the campaign in Holland, or the West Indies. The result was a public quarrel between Chatham and Dundas, after which Dundas seems to have hinted at resignation to Pitt.[11]

Presented with a choice between Dundas and his brother, Pitt had no hesitation in choosing Dundas. In many ways Chatham's dismissal had been overdue for a year. In the words of Pitt's biographer John Ehrman, Chatham “was expendable”.[12] For the sake of ministerial unity, Chatham had to go.

Pitt dealt with the upcoming confrontation with Chatham by trying to avoid it. He retreated to the safe distance of his country villa and sacked his brother by letter. All references to Dundas were necessarily cryptic: “I must ascribe it to some fatality of temper (in whom it is not material to enquire) that the attempt to prevent the unfortunate quarrel should have been in vain”. The government had to appear strong and united, so the real reason for Chatham's dismissal had to be suppressed: “I should most wish … that nothing which has led to this point should transpire.” In a post scriptum Pitt dropped his final bombshell: “ I have preferred telling [my opinion to] you by letter to a conversation, which must be unnecessarily distressing to us both, and to which I really do not feel myself equal”.[13]

Letter from Pitt to Chatham, 1 December 1794,
Cambridge University Library Pitt MSS 1557.
Photo by Stephenie Woolterton
Fifteen miles away in Admiralty House, Pitt's news dropped on Chatham like the proverbial ton of bricks. He “hardly [knew] what to think or what to say”, but when Pitt continued to refuse his brother an interview Chatham's desperation emerged uppermost. “Without something further passing between us I must stand in a very perplexing situation”, he begged.[14] To his friend Lord Camden, Chatham was more explicit: “I am to leave the Admiralty immediately … The situation in which this arrangement puts me, is perhaps the most distressing in which any man was ever placed”.[15]

Chatham knew the public would ascribe his dismissal to incompetence. There had been no naval defeats: on the contrary the Glorious First of June was only six months past. Parliament was in recess, so there was no obvious politically-driven need for the change. Chatham understood all too well that his reputation was the sacrificial lamb on the altar of governmental stability. The fact that Pitt had been pressured into the decision by Dundas made matters worse.

“If it had been required of me, for the service of the Country, to sign my own death I should have taken as few minutes to consider as I have now done days,” Chatham told Pitt, “but when I reflect, that without attention, I may be signing my own disgrace, I know that all the feelings you possess, will not make you think the worse of me, if I pause again, & again in a situation, which I never thought I would have to look at, & for which I am so little prepared”[16].

Eventually, of course, Chatham gave in: he had no choice. He was given the office of Lord Privy Seal, a sort of “ministry without portfolio” with no real duties attached. The opposition newspapers had a field day. The Morning Chronicle printed the following caution:

“With your Gout—is it possible you should intend
To turn naval at once—and that mast to ascend;
The footing is slippery—the falling is sore,
Should you pop in the sea, you'll be heard of no more.
But if you must mount to this height to the clouds,
Be your hammock suspended aloft in the shrouds;
Then with claret well dos'd, and wrapp'd up in your rug
If the weather is calm, you may sleep like a bug:
But if storms rend the air, and the thunder roll round,
Quit the ship—Should you not, the whole crew are aground;
Get a birth [sic] more secure for yourself and the crew,
Where the wages are high, and there's nothing to do...”[17]

Admiral Alan Gardner,
by Sir William Beechey.
From Wikimedia Commons
When Parliament reconvened in January the opposition attacked Chatham. Neither Pitt nor Dundas were particularly impressive in defending the former First Lord. Pitt was too close to him, and Dundas would hardly stick his neck out for the man whose heels he had just tripped up. Chatham found a more reliable champion in Admiral Gardner, one of the Lords of the Admiralty. Briefed by Chatham, Gardner's speech was the closest Chatham got to a public defence. On Chatham's behalf Gardner demanded a public enquiry into Chatham's tenure of the Admiralty: “Nothing, he was assured, would give the Noble Lord greater pleasure, than an enquiry into his public conduct”.[18]

Of course it didn't happen, but Chatham cannot have expected his request to be granted. The young George Canning, Pittite MP for Newtown, summarised Chatham's plight: it was good “that he [Chatham] is gone—for the voice of the publick was against him, and that is reason enough.”[19]


Two years after his dismissal Chatham had neither forgiven nor forgotten. In 1796 Chatham poured out his grievances in an anguished letter to Lord Camden:

“I have never had a full and decided conversation, with my Brother on ye subject, because he has very cautiously and constantly avoided it … I am sorry I can not agree with you, in looking forward to it … It may be a little better or a little worse, but that is all, for the mischief done me, is irreparable, and tho' my Brother, whenever he gives himself time to reflect, must … regret the step into which he was surprised, he can never set it right”.[20]

The rift was papered over later that year when Pitt moved Chatham to the more prestigious post of Lord President of the Council. The promotion was tacitly meant, and accepted, as an olive branch, and by early 1797 the brothers were described by a mutual friend as “less uncomfortable together than they were”.[21] Tragically, however, they never recovered their closeness, and neither fully trusted the other for the rest of Pitt's life.

Removing Chatham from the Admiralty was sensible, and not just because Chatham was not up to the job. To an extent whether Chatham was successful or not was irrelevant: he attracted criticism simply because of who he was at a time when the war effort lurched from disaster to disaster, and the Pitt government was vulnerable.

His successor did not suffer from the same disadvantages of identity. As Lord Castlereagh observed when the French fleet broke blockade in 1797, “As there are not the same ends to be answered by attacking this First Lord of the Admiralty, as the last, I dare say we shall hear much less about it than we should if Lord Chatham had been there.”[22] Chatham's removal did help Pitt's government, but at a price. As he himself foresaw, the rest of his public career was blighted by the events of 1794.


[1] Lady Newdegate (ed), The Cheverels of Cheverel Manor (London, 1898), pp. 147-8
[2] For the reforms see John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt: The Years of Acclaim (London, 1969), 316-7; for Chatham and the Dunkirk campaign see Times, 28 August 1793; Morning Post, 30 August 1793; Morning Chronicle, 11 September 1793; Times, 14 September 1793; Morning Post, 14 September 1793
[3] Life and Letters of Sir Gilbert Elliot, 1st Earl of Minto (London, 1874) II, 160, 11 September 1793
[4] Pitt to the Dowager Countess of Chatham, 17 September 1794, PRO 30/8/12 f 462; Admiralty Board minutes for 1794, ADM 3/112-114
[5] Pitt to Chatham, 22 September 1794, PRO 30/8/101 f 123
[6] Memorandum by Chatham, undated but January 1795, PRO 30/8/364 f 171
[7] Dundas to the King, 14 September 1794, in A. Aspinall (ed), The Later Correspondence of George III (Cambridge, 1962) I, 243
[8] Dundas to Chatham, 14 September 1794, PRO 30/8/368 f 28
[9] Chatham to [Dundas], draft, undated but September 1794, PRO 30/8/364 f 169
[10] Memorandum by Chatham, undated but January 1795, PRO 30/8/364 f 171
[11] This seems clear from Pitt's letter to Chatham, undated but 1 December 1794, Cambridge University Library Pitt MSS 1557
[12] John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt: The Reluctant Transition (London, 1983), 379, 499
[13] Pitt to Chatham, undated but 1 December 1794, Cambridge University Library Pitt MSS 1557
[14] Chatham to Pitt, 1 and 2 December 1794, Cambridge University Library Pitt MSS 1558, 1560
[15] Chatham to Lord Camden, 13 December 1794, Kent RO U840/C254/1
[16] Chatham to Pitt, 5 December 1794, Cambridge University Library Pitt MSS 1565
[17] Morning Chronicle, 16 December 1794
[18] Speech by Admiral Gardner, 7 January 1795, reported in the Morning Chronicle, 8 January 1795
[19] The Letter Journal of George Canning, ed. Peter Jupp (London, 1991), p. 182, 7 January 1795
[20] Chatham to Lord Camden, 7 August 1796, Kent RO U840/C254/4
[21] Lord Bathurst to Lord Camden, undated but early 1797, Kent RO U840/C224/3
[22] Lord Castlereagh to Lord Camden, 25 January 1797, Kent RO U840/C98/1


Jacqui Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She believes she is currently the world expert on the life of the 2nd Earl of Chatham, and is writing a novel about his relationship with his brother Pitt the Younger. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at

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