Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What Happened to Lord Camelford’s Body? Was He Set Up to Die?

by Lisa Chaplin

“The Half-Mad Lord.”[1] That was how Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford, was known in his own lifetime. The man who killed a lieutenant for insubordination; the man who caned his former captain on the street; the man who mourned the peace, and was beaten by a furious mob for it; the man who paid watchmen to beat them up; the man who tried to kill Napoleon twice, and failed; the man who publicly accused several gentlemen of treason; the man who died at the hand of a close friend, at the instigation of his mistress. Even after his death, he was the source of amusement and speculation, and his unburied casket (the casket eccentric in its own right) in a plain London church became a new tourist destination – until his body seemed to have vanished[2].
Where did it go? Why were the remains of this lord, cousin to one of the greatest British prime ministers ever known, brother-in-law to one of the most powerful lords in the country, left in a London church for tourists to laugh at? Why were his last wishes disrespected and ignored? And in all the juicy gossip and salacious wit about this “half-mad lord”, why were his actions in the final months of his life overlooked in favour of his more outrageous acts as a younger man, and the ridiculous manner of his death? After his cousin Prime Minister Pitt the Younger’s untimely death in 1806, many of his papers were burned (thanks for the info, Jacqui Reiter). Since the truth may never be known, as with so much of history, it becomes an investigation of the documents we have, reading between the lines of what’s been left unsaid.
Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford, has been described thus: “In his twenty-nine years, which is only nine years of manhood, he assassinated an unresisting man, and set off to invade a great and warlike nation, single-handed; wrenched off many London door-knockers; beat many constables; fought a mob single-handed, with a bludgeon, and was cudgeled and rolled in the gutter without uttering a howl; mauled a gentleman without provocation, and had £500 to pay; relieved the necessities of many, and administered black eyes to many. He was studious and reckless; scientific and hare-brained; tender hearted, benevolent, and barbarous; unreasonably vindictive and singularly forgiving. He lived a humorous ruffian, with flashes of virtue, and died a hero, a martyr, and a Christian.[3] He lived his early years on a Cornish estate while his parents lived in London, and was sent away to school in Switzerland at the tender age of eleven.[4] For three years he never came home even for holidays.[5] Who would leave their only son and heir alone for years on end, never even visiting him? Why did his parents abandon a child of eleven in a foreign country, allowing strangers to complete his upbringing? Some have thought that the madness was showing even then. The infamous “Vancouver Affair”, in which Camelford challenged his former captain to a duel, and eventually caned him half to death on a London street, has been pointed out to show his ungovernable temper, his sense of superiority to most of the world.[6]
In The Caneing in Conduit Street (1796), James Gillray caricatured Pitt's street corner assault on George Vancouver.
I find it difficult to believe a baby could show such clear signs of madness – and if he did, upper class families normally hid the madness of a relative, especially one as prominent as the Pitts. So if they knew he was mad, how could they allow the boy to join the navy, the only son and heir to the new Camelford title? The boy, then plain Thomas Pitt, became a hero by the age of sixteen[7], helping save a crippled ship and staying on board until it made port in South Africa – but within a few years he’d killed his first man for insubordination, a lieutenant under his new command.
So why did his family, who’d paid off the lieutenant’s family[8], not bring Camelford home to live under quiet house arrest, as many did with their unstable relatives? Never forget William Pitt was prime minister at the time – and as the youngest prime minister in history, vulnerable to family scandals that could down his government. It would have been easy for him to arrange for sailors to drug the boy –twenty at the time – and have him brought home on another ship. So why was this “half-mad lord” allowed to continue a public life, even after he was drummed out of the navy?
Camelford’s exploits after killing the lieutenant and caning the captain are well known. He is said to have flogged a man over a small dispute over a length of rope for his ship. He had a habit of “Boxing the Watch” – beating up the men keeping order on the streets before the first London Police Force. He publicly announced his intention to kill Napoleon and failed, being quietly deported (until it hit the news reports). He returned to France by mysterious means within months, after being banned from ever returning. He was imprisoned in France, but was released, again within a few months for being “a tiresome eccentric”[9]. Despite his vow to kill Napoleon, he never returned, but began causing as much trouble as possible in London: boxing the Watch, accusing men of being Napoleon’s spies, and forcing duels on other gentlemen for nebulous reasons[10].
Then Camelford took up with Mrs. Symons, a woman who went out of her way to gain his interest. Within a short time Camelford forced a quarrel onto his close friend Mr. Best, who was a famous crack shot. Within days he was dead.
Why did Camelford do it? Some believe it was his madness. But Mrs. Symons, the former mistress of Mr. Best, told Camelford that Best had publicly ridiculed him. Why did Mrs. Symons start the furore in the first place?[11]
The solution could seem easy: a woman scorned seeking vengeance against Best. But she’d taken a step up in gaining Camelford’s protection; and by all accounts, she and Mr. Best had parted on amicable terms. So why did she do it?
The mystery grew deeper.
What were the “several commissions” he asked of known spy Sir Sidney Smith in a letter he wrote while he was dying? Why would he believe the word of this woman over a close friend, who right up until the hour of the duel protested his innocence to Camelford?[12] If Camelford did believe his mistress, why did he take the trouble of writing to the king before his death, absolving Best of all guilt?
Perhaps strangest of all, why was his last wish, a desire to be buried in Berne in Switzerland (where he said he spent his happiest years – at school) ignored? His sister Lady Grenville, wife to the former and future Foreign Minister, was known to be fiercely protective of Camelford, her little brother. Prime Minister Pitt had spent considerable amounts he didn’t have in buying off Camelford’s victims to stop his cousin from being hanged or transported. Pitt, certainly sick at the time with the illness that killed him two years later, might have been excused in not sending the body to Berne in a time of war. But why would this prominent political family put his remains in a fisherman’s casket[13] in a church in Soho, neither frequented by the aristocracy or Camelford himself? Why was the body left for years on end for the common folk to giggle over? Why not inter him at the family home, and let the scandal die a natural death?
In a time where the aristocracy couldn’t bear open scorn, and his relatives, in the most public of all careers, could ill afford ridicule, why was Lord Camelford allowed to become a public mockery in life and in death?
For a writer of historical espionage, the questions nagged at me. The “what could have happened” left unwritten in the annals of the Pitts’ history, or perhaps the facts burned after Prime Minister Pitt’s death. Why was he left unrestrained so long? What was he doing in the months leading up to his death that made Camelford’s becoming a slapstick fool, entertainment for the British reading masses and an embarrassment to his family, a necessary evil?
The undeniable facts I kept returning to were these. His cousin Prime Minister Pitt helped found the Alien Office, the forerunner of MI5. His other cousins, the Smiths, were also Alien Office agents, and Sir Sidney Smith “his colleague” both in the navy and in espionage matters[14]. His brother-in-law Lord Grenville certainly had a hand in running the Alien Office. His cousin Lady Hester Stanhope (who also later became known for her eccentricity) was earlier known as a brilliant political hostess who cared for her uncle Prime Minister Pitt until his death, and almost certainly had to know some of the maneuverings behind the scenes.
And finally: Mrs. Symons almost certainly set Camelford up for his death in a manner that made his death as publicly ridiculous as his life. And judging by his absolution of Best the night before the duel, Camelford must have allowed the drama to play out, right to his death.
Again, as with so much of Camelford’s life, the question is why? There are many inconsistencies in Camelford’s being allowed to run rampant until his death, given the way the haut ton lived back then, so fearful of any scandal – especially the political families.
My conclusion came on reading several sources on what was happening between Britain and France, and in Berne, Switzerland, at the time. In my first historical novel[15] I show the French invasion fleet found in the nick of time by British spies, and sabotaged by means still secret; the secret two-nation obsession over the inventions of American Robert Fulton; and the setting up of a plot to kill Bonaparte being only one of many, all of which were backed by an unholy union of rich French royalists, British politicians and the deposed French spymaster, Joseph Fouché. Camelford was taken by Napoleon and imprisoned. All of this was based on truth, with much reading between the lines. I did know why Camelford was arrested: he was trying to become a British hero again instead of a laughing-stock. He swore to kill the ‘upstart’ Napoleon for daring to lead France, despite the Corsican’s middle class origins (and probably more so for leading France both out of debt and into a semblance of economic and political order, and this within two years). Like many, the thought of Revolution coming to Britain, with all its possible class equality, was horrifying to Camelford. The comfortable status quo for the rich and titled, “those born and bred to rule”, must remain. This time has been nicknamed “The Terror” in Britain.[16]
Camelford was far from alone in his desire to kill Napoleon. The French Royalists found many sympathetic ears among the British upper classes. From 1796-1811, France tried to invade Britain no less than 11 times – but the alliance of Royalist, British and Fouché tried to assassinate Napoleon as many times, at no time more so than in the years between 1800-1805[17]. During that time, Napoleon bragged that there were more of his spies in Britain than there were loyal British citizens – many of them British-born. The terror of Revolution coming to Britain was very real at this time, none more so than from within: an uprising of the folk banned from leaving their class by those above them. Some were breaking out, such as Nelson in the navy, or James Watt or Richard Trevithick for brilliant inventions; but for a nation built on shaky foundations of union, to the early 19th century British government the Revolution, and Napoleon raising men of talent from any walk of life, represented all that was terrifying.
Greek mythology states that if one chops off the head, and the monster dies. When the first and second assassination attempts on Napoleon were unsuccessful, they decided to have another ready the moment one failed. In 1803-4 “The Grand Conspiracy” (a Royalist plot led by French Generals Cadoudal, Moreau and Pichegru) failed; but the British had a backup plan using British agents alone. They were planning to have the conspiracy led by former spymaster William Wickham, who had left the Agency after a crisis of conscience[18]. The plan went into action as soon they realised The Grand Conspiracy would fail (partly through the indiscretion of the de Polignac brothers, who told all their friends in London they were off to kill Napoleon[19]).
Where were the headquarters of this new plot? In Berne[20]
In research for my second novel in the series, I looked deeper into Napoleon’s brag that there were more British-born spies in his pay than there were British spies in France. There were some very strange decisions made by the Admiralty, including to blockade the French fleet at Brest after Captain Wright informed them the fleet there was crippled (not to mention that the people in Brest were starving. The roads and canals into Brest were all incomplete or too damaged to travel on)[21]. The seaworthy ships were anchored at the coast around Boulogne-sur-Mer and in Flushing, Holland – but they weren’t blockaded[22]. Also thanks to the admirals’ decision to use only traditional (slow) shipbuilders when half the depleted navy was either being used as prison hulks, fighting piracy in the Caribbean, or transporting people to New South Wales[23]. Finally, and telling to me, many admirals held ongoing animosity to the Alien Office and to espionage in any form. They deliberately ignored advice from their own men who were also affiliated with the Alien Office, and even terminated the employment of Rear Admiral Montagu, replacing him with a man who did as they told him[24].
Combine all the foregoing facts with Camelford’s accusing “certain gentlemen” of being in Napoleon’s pay – essentially, treason, then a hanging offence – and this during a time when Britain was undergoing a “patriotic paroxysm”[25] in reaction to fear of Napoleon’s invading Britain and bringing Revolution and the guillotine to the streets of London…
It seemed to me there was an undeniable recipe for conspiracy and murder by the hand of another. Camelford had obviously come too close to someone’s truth. What better way to shut the mouth of a man who would by blood and marriage have the ears of some of the most influential men in Britain than to discredit him publicly, pay a pretty woman to distract and bed him, and then set him up for death via the hand of her former lover, a crack shot? Madness indeed – and the perfect plan worked. Two hundred and eleven years later, “the half-mad lord” still isn’t given the credit he sought in the final months of his life.
But why was the poor man not even given the burial he’d asked for? Why was a lord’s remains left in a fisherman’s casket for strangers to laugh at, rather than given a quiet, dignified burial at home? The answer seemed obvious to me: given the fame he’d attracted in life, and his rather bizarre request for a burial between two trees overlooking a lake, they couldn’t afford to draw such attention to Berne. With the new conspiracy moving forward, his cousin Pitt and his brother-in-law Grenville chose to use his remains as a distraction, even a joke. They chose to honour Camelford’s desire to kill Bonaparte and end the Revolution, possibly hoping he’d have understood. And by the time that conspiracy too failed, Pitt was Prime Minister again, deep in the war, and fighting the illness that would soon kill him. Getting his cousin’s remains to Berne must have seemed unnecessary.
But why put him in a fisherman’s casket “long enough to house a shark”?[26] Was it, too, a distraction? Make everyone laugh at poor mad Camelford, and minimise anything he might have got right – like a certain admiral’s name, perhaps? In late 1803 to early 1804, the Prince of Wales himself had stepped in to put an end to any investigation into ‘his’ admirals. The Duke of York was unhappy. And after that, the strange decisions the Admiralty made came to an end.
But after the war was done, a solicitor made enquiries about Camelford’s last request of burial. He was told, “Preparations were actually made to carry out Camelford's wishes as to the disposal of his remains. He was embalmed and packed up for transportation. But at that very nick of time war was proclaimed again, and the body, which was then deposited, pro tempore, in St. Anne's Church, Soho, remained there, awaiting better times.”
The solicitor seemed to accept this explanation. He didn’t even question the casual pointing-out of the fisherman’s casket with Camelford’s apparent remains. The trouble with all this was that war was declared May 18, 1803, and Camelford died almost a year later: a fact any intelligent solicitor would have known.
By the end of the war, it would have been an easy matter for his sister and brother-in-law, still living, to honour his final request.
They did not. Why? I can only guess that perhaps, with Britain ever prepared to “war with the ancient foe”, France, Grenville couldn’t afford for any actions on his part – or Camelford’s – to haunt the future.
St. Anne’s Church in Soho claims to have the interred remains of Camelford[27]. Perhaps they are; but when the casket was opened, it was found to be empty.
Perhaps a quiet burial took place for Camelford’s sister’s sake. I like to think so. But the bizarre life and death of Thomas Pitt, the second and last Baron Camelford, continues to raise more questions than can be answered, two hundred and eleven years on.

[1] “The Half Mad Lord” by Nikolai Tolstoy Published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1979)
ISBN 10: 003047261X / ISBN 13: 9780030472619
[2] “What Has Become of Lord Camelford’s Body?” by Charles Reade, 1874, From “Jilt and Other Stories” –
[3] ibid.
[4] – “The Vancouver/Camelford Affair” -
[5] “What Has Become of Lord Camelford’s Body?” by Charles Reade, 1874, from “Jilt and Other Stories” –; “Eccentric Biography, or Lives of Extraordinary Characters” by Thomas Tegg, Griffin & Co, Glasgow, 1826
[6] Even as a child it was he who had given the orders, and had grown up completely undisciplined. Moreover, he had a wild, vengeful nature, nursing grievances against any who offended him. He was not willing to forgive and forget.” –“What Has Become of Lord Camelford’s Body?” by Charles Reade, 1874
[7] ibid
[8] “The Life, Adventures and Eccentricities of the Late Lord Camelford, Genuine Extracts of His Will”, R. Mace, W. Williams, Printer, Chancery Lane, London -
[9] “The Terror Before Trafalgar”, by Tom Pocock, John Murray Publishers, 2002, pg 44-5
[10] “The Life, Adventures and Eccentricities of the Late Lord Camelford, Genuine Extracts of His Will”, R. Mace, W. Williams, Printer, Chancery Lane, London -

[11] “The United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine”, 1838, Part III, Henry Colburn, London
[12] “What Has Become of Lord Camelford’s Body?” by Charles Reade, 1874, From “Jilt and Other Stories” –; “Eccentric Biography, or Lives of Extraordinary Characters” by Thomas Tegg, Griffin & Co, Glasgow, 1826
[13] ibid.
[14] “Secret Service – British Agents in France 1792-1815” by Elizabeth Sparrow, The Boydell Press, 1999, pg 184
[15] The Tide Watchers by Lisa Chaplin, William Morrow Books US/HarperCollins UK, Australia and New Zealand, 2015
[16] The Terror Before Trafalgar by Tom Pocock, John Murray Books, 2002, preface
[17] ibid, p 67-8
[18] Durey, Michael. William Wickham, Master Spy: The Secret War against the French Revolution. London: Pickering & Chatto Ltd., 2009, p146-50
[19] “The Plot to Kill Napoleon”, The Napoleonic Society -
[20] Elizabeth Sparrow (1992). The Swiss and Swabian Agencies, 1795–1801. The Historical Journal, 35, pp 861-884. doi:10.1017/S0018246X00026194.
[21] “Histoire de Brest”, by Marie-Thérèse Cloître, Universite de Bretagne Occidentale, 2000, translated by Collete Vlérick
[22] ibid.
[23] “The Terror Before Trafalgar” by Tom Pocock, John Murray Publishers, p 106-110
[24] ibid.
[25] “A History of Britain” by Simon Schama, Vol III, Miramax Books, p 126
[26]  “What Has Become of Lord Camelford’s Body?” by Charles Reade, 1874 –


Lisa Chaplin began writing in 1991. In 1997 she took an agent's advice to write romance novels for editing discipline and three years later became published with Harlequin. As Melissa James she sold 1.5 million books in 25 countries, with The Stolen Generation, PTSD, and families with challenges as storylines. On a day playing tour guide to American friends in 2006, she found a Napoleonic history text with a passing reference to a sabotaged French invasion fleet that reignited her lifelong love affair with history. Researching that one reference in a history text, she found the untold story she had to write. In 2007 she moved to Switzerland, which made it easier to travel to France for research and imbibe the landscape, the local customs, the history told by local experts. In 2011 she returned to Australia and quit romance to write historical fiction fulltime. In 2013 she attended the 5-day Popular Fiction Master Class run by bestselling fantasy and historical author Fiona McIntosh. Seven months later her dream to sell her beloved historical fiction was realised. The Tide Watchers sold to William Morrow, a US imprint of HarperCollins. It was released in the US in June 2015 and in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Canada and the UK in July 2015.



  1. Great post Lisa. Very, very interesting.

  2. I really enjoyed this. Very interesting and informative.

  3. Thank you so much! It's worth all the research I did :) This is going into my current novel, Blind Winter, the sequel to The Tide Watchers.

  4. Thank you so much! I'm a bit of a research fanatic. I studied for 8 years before writing the version of The Tide Watchers now on the shelves (William Morrow in the US, HarperCollins in the UK). A lot of it can't go into the books, but I'm using still more for my sequel to The Tide Watchers, Blind Winter. :)

  5. Oh. My. Word. This gentleman is history personified. What a fascinating and well-researched post!


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