Sunday, March 8, 2015

Lady Mahon: The Short Life of William Pitt’s Eldest Sister

by Stephenie Woolterton

Lady Hester Pitt, Viscountess Mahon
by an unknown artist, c. 1770s
Little is known about the short life of William Pitt the younger’s eldest sister, Lady Hester (Pitt) Stanhope, Viscountess Mahon (1755-1780). Unlike her daughter, also named Lady Hester Stanhope, Lady Mahon did not live past the age of sixty, and travel throughout Europe and the Middle East. Instead, she married at the age of 19 and died before her twenty-fifth birthday, her body exhausted from five successive pregnancies in as many years. Nevertheless, her life is worthy of historical attention as, like her younger siblings, she was raised under the backdrop of two political dynasties - The Pitts and the Grenvilles - and she was an example of a highly educated 18th century woman.

Lady Hester Pitt was born in October 1755, the first child of William Pitt the Elder (later 1st Earl of Chatham) and his wife Lady Hester (née Grenville). The Dictionary of National Biography lists her birthday as October 18th, 1755, although this has not been verified in baptismal registers. She was likely to have been born at the Pay Office, where her parents were then residing, and her mother was under the care of the famous 18th century London physician Dr. John Hunter [1]. It is probable that her father was absent when she was born as there are letters passing between the couple at the time [2].

It is not surprising that such was the case, as the Pitts spent great stretches of time apart throughout their marriage, much of it due to Pitt the Elder's own volition. Government business and trips to Bath (sometimes also for his health) usually kept him away from his wife, and she was forced to accept his frequent absences.

Unlike most girls at the time, Lady Hester benefitted from a thorough private education, being tutored at home by the family chaplain, Reverend Edward Wilson, alongside her sister Lady Harriot, and her three brothers, John (Lord Pitt), William, and James Charles. All five children were proficient in classical languages, translating ancient Greek, and quoting lengthy passages from Thucydides and Polybius [3]. Her childhood was split primarily between her parent’s two residences at Hayes Place, near Bromley in Kent, and Burton Pynsent, just outside the village of Curry Rival, Somerset.

She was accustomed to an upbringing full of scholarly stimulation and politics. Her father was raised to the peerage in the summer of 1766, the ‘Great Commoner’ becoming the first Earl of Chatham. In the following year, in a letter dated 17th June 1767, Jane Hamilton, Lady Cathcart writes to Hester’s mother Lady Chatham, speaking of a recent visit from three of the Pitt children. Lady Hester was eleven years old:

"…We had the finest Cricket Match in our Court you can imagine. You never saw anything more like a School Boy than Ld Pitt [John], wch I think says a great deal for his Education. The Young Ladies danced: Ldy Harriet in particular I think a genius in that talent, her little feet and all her little fair figure is delightful. Ldy Hester’s Stile and Air is different ... There is an openness, a Solidity and goodness in her [Hester] that makes one quite her friend. She was as Womanly and Careful that her Br and Sisr shd not over Eat or over Heat themselves as Dame Sparry [the children’s nurse] herself could have been, wch at her age [she was 11] is delightful, as she has as much of good hum[ou]r and liveliness as any of them…" [4]

From this passage, she is depicted as the caring sister looking after her younger siblings. Several years later, her mother the Countess of Chatham wrote to their cousin Mrs. Pitt, remembering Lady Hester and Lord Pitt’s recent stay at Boconnoc: “…Our Boy [John, Lord Pitt] and Girl [Hester], tho’ Harp and dancing, and Hounds and Hunting, have furnish’d their amusements, the delights of Cornwall do not cease to be regretted." [5]

Although Lady Hester did not suffer from nearly as many childhood illnesses as her brother William, there are records of her being treated by the family physician, Dr. Anthony Addington, for muscular pains and a rash in early 1772. At the time, the sixteen year-old Lady Hester was forced to take to her bed. Dr. Addington told her mother that, "The Pains which Lady Hester has felt in her Neck, Shoulders, Collar-Bone and Side, have been all muscular," and "...bleeding, purging and James’s Powder [quinine]" were used to treat her. [6]

After weeks of lying in her bed, and following Dr. Addington’s strictures, her ailment was still persisting. The doctor wrote again to Lady Chatham on February 1, 1772, advising a new course of treatment: “…I find it necessary for Her [Lady Hester] to have Patience with her Bed … I believe Your Ladyship and Lord Chatham are satisfied with me, that it is necessary to support Lady Hester with light and nutriceous [sic] diet … For this Reason, it must be right to allow Her Chicken, or Turkey or Rabbit for Dinner with Wine and warm water; to give Tea with toasted or untoasted Bread and very little Butter for Breakfast only; to use Broth or Sago or Panada for Supper; and thin jellies or Gruel between Meals…” [7] The nature of Lady Hester’s complaint is not entirely clear, but she recovered with time.

Charles, 3rd Earl Stanhope, by an
unknown artist (Wikimedia Commons)
By 1774, she was an eligible young woman, described by a family friend as “one of the most accomplished persons of the age.” [8] She certainly caught the eye of her second cousin, Charles Stanhope, Viscount Mahon. He was a tall, lanky, and eccentric young man who had recently returned to England after being educated in Geneva for ten years. Their grandparents Lucy Pitt and James, 1st Lord Stanhope, had married in 1713, producing six children including Charles’s father, Philip [9]. Unlike today, the couple’s familial relationship was deemed unimportant, and was in any case common amongst aristocratic marriages.

Lord Mahon was intelligent, scientifically inquisitive, and passionate about social reform. It was a love match, despite the familial connection, and he quickly proposed. On September 24, 1774, Mahon’s father Philip, 2nd Earl Stanhope, wrote to Lord Chatham to express his joy on hearing of the engagement: “My Son has rejoiced his Mother and me exceedingly by acquainting us with the proposal he has taken the liberty to make to dear Lady Hester, to whom he assures us it is not disagreeable. Our hearty approbation of a connexion which does him and us so much honour is already given, and nothing remains but the obtaining of your Lordships and Lady Chatham’s concurrence, which we flatter ourselves that the short acquaintance you have had with the young suitor has given you no cause to refuse. If we are so happy as to find you in the favourable dispositions which we wish, nothing in our power shall be wanting to settle everything as much as possible for the lasting happiness of so beloved a couple…” [10]

Lady Hester’s marriage settlement was duly drawn up. In an extract from the indenture, there was a particular provision stipulating that if she died before him, Lord Mahon would receive the Sum of £2,000 per year, “free from all Taxes and Deductions whatsoever.” [11] It may seem small in today’s currency, but it was quite a hefty sum at the time.

The couple married on December 19, 1774 at St. Mary the Virgin church in Hayes. Lady Mahon quickly fell pregnant, but she miscarried in April 1775. Her mother, the Countess of Chatham, attended her, and later wrote to Mrs. Pitt: “…I was obliged to quit my Patient at Home [Lord Chatham] yesterday to make a visit to my Daughter Mahon who is indispos’d from a Circumstance that brings some Mortification and disappointment with it. I had the Consolation however to find her better than I could have expected, and not likely to suffer long confinement…” [12]

Good news came in August, when Lady Chatham apprised Mrs. Pitt that, “…My daughter Mahon’s situation you will best understand by being told that she is both very sick, and very well.” [13] Lady Mahon was pregnant again. That child was Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope, born in London on March 12, 1776.

1778 Rate Book for Harley Street
(Westminster City Archives)
In the late 1770s, the Mahons were living at number 52 Harley Street, and paying £140 in rent [14]. Since the late 18th century, 52 Harley Street has become number 61. It served as their London residence when they were not staying at Chevening. Throughout her short marriage, Lady Mahon served as her husband’s secretary, assisting him in his new-fangled electrical experiments after he became obsessed with observing lightning strikes. At one point, Lord Mahon even attempted to induce lightning using a cow on the Chevening estate as a conductor. [15]

Over the next few years, Lady Mahon had a pregnancy that resulted in the birth of a stillborn son, and a daughter named Grizelda. In late February 1780, she gave birth to a third daughter, Lady Lucy Rachel Stanhope. Her recovery was complicated by the onset of puerperal fever. Lady Mahon was not able to write to her mother for over two months. On April 24, 1780, she told her mother, “I begin to feel very comfortable again after this long Illness,” and “…I go out every day in the Post Chaise and feel very great advantage from the Air which will I trust do all that is now to be done.” It was to be her last surviving letter. [16]

Chevening House in Kent (Wikimedia Commons)
Her health seemed to rally in the spring, and she was able to attend a ball, take drives in her chaise, and go shopping with her sister Lady Harriot for lute strings and chintzes [17].
Nevertheless, her condition suddenly worsened in the summer. On June 17, 1780, the Mahons were staying at their house on Harley Street, and Grace Trevor, the great friend Lady Lucy Stanhope, the unmarried sister of Philip, 2nd Earl Stanhope, wrote to Lady Chatham that she had recently had the pleasure “…to hear dear Lady Mahon is well. We felt much for them on account of the [Gordon] Riots in London: they are, I find, as we are, under the care of the Military.” [18]

St. Botolph’s Church, Chevening (Wikimedia Commons)
Then in a letter to their former tutor Rev. Wilson on July 11, 1780, William Pitt stopped him from visiting the Mahons in Harley Street, telling him, “Ld and Lady Mahon are both at Chevening, which I hope will have agreed better with her than London seem’d to do latterly.” [19] Sadly, the air of Chevening did not improve her failing health, and Lady Mahon died the following week on July 18, 1780. [20] She was buried in the South-east vault of St. Botolph’s church beneath the Stanhope Chapel. After Lady Mahon’s death, her three little daughters were left to the care of their grandmother, Lady Grizel Stanhope.

Within a year, Lord Mahon married his deceased wife’s cousin, Louisa Grenville, and he later had three surviving sons by her. It was an unhappy marriage, and in the coming years Charles, 3rd Earl Stanhope after 1784, would fall out with all six of his children, become estranged from his second wife, and take up with a music instructor. There is no mention in the surviving Pitt family correspondence concerning Lady Mahon’s death, but they would have been greatly affected by it. Lady Mahon's death came two years after her father's passing, and by the end of 1780, her younger brother James Charles also died in the West Indies. William Pitt had stood as godfather to Lady Lucy, Lady Mahon's youngest daughter, and he would later assist her when she married an apothecary. Viscountess Mahon’s legacy continued in her free-spirited daughter Lady Hester Stanhope, and in the descendants of her daughter Lady Lucy Rachel (Stanhope) Taylor.

1. Birdwood, V. (ed.) So Dearly Loved, So Much Admired: Letters to Hester Pitt, Lady Chatham from her relations and friends (1744-1801). London: HMSO, p. 5.
2. Ibid, p. 6.
3. Lord Rosebery (1895) Pitt. London: Macmillan, p. 3.
4. Birdwood, V. (ed.) So Dearly Loved, So Much Admired: Letters to Hester Pitt, Lady Chatham from her relations and friends (1744-1801). London: HMSO, pp. 97-98.
5.  Hester Chatham to Mrs. Pitt, August 27, 1771. Dropmore Papers. British Library Add Ms 59490, f. 4
6. Birdwood, V. (ed.) So Dearly Loved, So Much Admired: Letters to Hester Pitt, Lady Chatham from her relations and friends (1744-1801). London: HMSO, p. 258.
7. Ibid.
8. Kent RO: Pitt MSS U1590, Thomas Cholmondeley of Vale Royal to Lady Stanhope, 8 October 1774.
9. Ellis, K. (2008) Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope. London: Harper Press, p. 12.
10. Philip, 2nd Earl Stanhope to Lord Chatham. September 24, 1774. PRO 30/70/5 f. 344.
11. An extract from Lady Hester Pitt’s marriage indenture. Stanhope MSS (C45), 17th December 1774.
12. Hester Chatham to Mrs. Pitt, April 13, 1775. Dropmore Papers. British Library Add Ms 59490, f. 24.
13. Hester Chatham to Mrs. Pitt, August 7, 1775. Dropmore Papers. British Library Add Ms 59490, f. 27.
14. The 1778 Rate Book entry for Harley Street, showing number 52: The house of Lord Viscount Mahon. Westminster City Archives, London.
15. Ellis, K. (2008) Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope. London: Harper Press, p. 21.
16. Lady Mahon to Lady Chatham, April 24, 1780. PRO 30/70/5, f. 358.
17. Headlam C. (ed.) The Letters of Lady Harriot Eliot. (1914) Edinburgh: Constable, Letter of 29 May 1780. 
18. Birdwood, V. (ed.) So Dearly Loved, So Much Admired: Letters to Hester Pitt, Lady Chatham from her relations and friends (1744-1801). London: HMSO, p. 213.
19. William Pitt to Reverend Edward Wilson, July 11, 1780. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Pitt MSS.
20. There are two primary sources for this date: The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. 50, 1780, page 348, and The Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 45, by Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, (1896) page 366.

Image Credits:
Images were found via Wikimedia Commons. The portrait of Viscountess Mahon can be accessed via


About the Author:
Stephenie Woolterton is currently writing a biography of William Pitt the Younger’s private life. Her website is and she’s on Twitter @anoondayeclipse. 

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