The People of Gibraltar
1821 - John Pitt – The Late Lord Chatham

Queen Victoria’s father - the Duke of Kent - died in January 1820. It was an event which seems to have been met with complete indifference in Gibraltar despite the fact that he had been Governor of the place for the previous seventeen years. There were several good reasons for this not least the fact that the Duke hadn’t set foot in the place since he was forced to leave in 1803. (See LINK) Since that date the fortress had been run in his name by a whole raft of Acting Governors of varying degrees of competence.

The Rock of Gibraltar ( Early 19th century – Vilhelm Melbye )  (See LINK)

When the job became vacant after the Duke of Kent’s death, those who had looked after the shop on his behalf failed to fit the bill as his replacement. They were sent packing and the Duke was succeeded by John Pitt the Earl of Chatham.

John Pitt Earl of Chatham

If the casual reader finds the above slightly confusing – well so do I. The history of the governorship of Gibraltar is not easy to follow. Since 1704 the Rock has often been governed by what might well be described as absentee landlords who left others to act on their behalf be it as either Acting Governors or as Lieutenants or even simply as military commanders – all of them doing more or less the same job for much less money than the real thing.

The Earl of Chatham certainly fits into this picture and in more ways than one. It is said that his position as Governor was largely ceremonial. If the Duke of Kent never visited the Rock because he wasn’t allowed to, Pitt rarely did so because he didn’t want to. 

The 1937 edition of the Gibraltar Directory – an official publication in which the slightest activity by any high official of the British administration would always have more than their fair whack as news - introduced the Earl as follows:
15th November 1821 - Arrival of General Earl of Chatham, K.G. Governor of Gibraltar.
 From that day onward he is never mentioned by name again. When General George Don died in 1832 (see LINK) it was big news – and Don wasn’t even a proper Governor. He had just been “Acting” on Pitt’s behalf from 1825. When Pitt died ten years later– still Governor of Gibraltar – not a word was written about it anywhere.

Captain Frederick Sayer (see LINK) an army officer and a Civil Magistrate at Gibraltar - makes a passing reference to him in his 1862 history of the Rock.

Precautionary prohibitions forbid that the fortifications should be described in this work though Lord Chatham likened the studied secret policy of the engineers to the timorous ostrich which, hiding from his enemy, thrusts his head into the sand and fancies that the rest of his body is invisible. 
Reading between the lines it would seem that the engineering fraternity of which there have always been quite a few in Gibraltar had little trust in their theoretical Commander in Chief. If so I would say they were entitled to be skeptical. When John Pitt’s father the first Earl of Chatham was doing his stint as Foreign Secretary he actually offered to return Gibraltar to Spain. 
. . . And in case it shall be found necessary for attaining these great and essential ends, to treat an exchange of Gibraltar for the island of Minorca with the ports and fortresses thereof . . . . 
 This was intended to be part of a deal to entice Spain to become an ally of Britain rather than of France during one of those endless, incomprehensible European engagements of the mid 19th century. It didn’t work. Gibraltar remained British but the very idea must have upset the long memories of more than one conservative military mind.

William Pitt the Elder – the 1st Earl of Chatham.

Another reason why Chatham probably never attained flavour of the month status with his military underlings was his disastrous leadership of the Walcheren Campaign during the Napoleonic Wars. As commander of an amphibious force he was supposed to destroy the forts that defended the island of Walcheren in the Netherlands as well as a French fleet anchored nearby.

He achieved neither. While he was procrastinating - and quarrelling with his naval commander Sir Richard Strachan - he managed to lose thousands of his troops to a sickness which became known at the time as Walcheren fever but may have been malaria. Chatham never recovered from this fiasco and his military reputation was ruined. A ditty poking fun at his incompetence went like this:

The Earl of Chatham, with his sword drawn,
Stood waiting for Sir Richard Strachan;
Sir Richard, longing to be at 'em,
Stood waiting for the Earl of Chatham.

The Walcheren Campaign 

A contemporary satirical cartoon that suggests that that Pitt was not the only one who was pilloried for the Walcheren fiasco

And so it went on. Pitt was no doubt burdened by his surname and his title - his younger brother William was known as Pitt the younger not because he was John’s younger brother but to distinguish him from his father - both of them incidentally Prime Ministers during John’s lifetime.

Sir Tresham Lever – a chronicler of the Pitt family - thought him both “stupid” and “useless”. Others stated the obvious. He was an incompetent general and a wretched administrator. He also drank too much. But the main criticism was that he was unpardonably lazy and unpunctual – so much so that he was often referred to - while he was still alive - as the “late Lord Chatham”.

The text of this early 19th century letter from Spencer Perceval to John, Earl of Chatham reads as follows: “There is to be a meeting at my house tomorrow Evening at 9 o’clock precisely, and I hope your Lordship will be able to attend it” - The underlining of the word “precisely” suggests that Chatham’s reputation for his lack of punctuality was probably well deserved.

To return to his connections with Gibraltar the truth is that practically none of the better known modern histories of the Rock have anything at all to say about him. Historians such as Frederick George Stephens (1870) (see LINK), Allen Andrews (1951) (see LINK) Ernle Bradford (1971), George Hills (1974) (see LINK) and Maurice Harvey (2000) (see LINK) completely ignore him. In fact they don’t even mention him.

One exception is G.T. Garratt (1939): 

At first the idea of encouraging a more reputable population does not seem to have occurred to those Governors like Sir George Don, Lord Chatham, and others who held the post after the Napoleonic wars.  
It would be hard to exaggerate the irresponsible rascality of those Jews, Levantines, dissident Spaniards, Moors and Italians who found their way back to Gibraltar after the great siege, discovered innumerable ways of making money in the Napoleonic wars, and continued throughout the nineteenth-century to occupy the cramped and shoddily-built town which had been so hastily erected in the ruins. 
Garratt tries to have it both ways – and he isn’t the only historian to make the same mistake. The most irresponsible rascals on the Rock were the administrators of the Garrison as they never lifted a finger to improve conditions for the civilian population. It was their own inaction that made the place so unattractive for those British born Protestant immigrants that they hankered after. General Don did try with the odd initiative here and there but one has to agree with Garratt - there is no record of Pitt having done anything at all in this respect. 

Another British historian, Sir William Jackson lists him as “Governor” in the appropriate front page of the appropriate Chapter;
General John Pitt, earl of Chatham, 29 January 1820
 But that was the one and only time that Sir William bothers to mention him. The 1820 date refers to his appointment as Governor rather than the day he decided to have his first night’s sleep in the Convent - something that he would have done on his own. His wife, Lady Mary Chatham had died in May 1821 six months prior to his arrival on the Rock. He was 65 years old. According to some he was both overweight and depressed. Yet he himself wrote the following to a friend just before leaving for Gibraltar.
I am tolerably well in health, but I do not gain much ground, otherwise. . . There is a great deal of constant business [as Governor], which occupies my mind, and from this, I think I have found most relief.
A curious comment considering he had not yet set foot on the Rock

Mary Countess of Chatham ( Unknown )

When General Don died in 1832, Sir William Houston took over as Acting Governor and looked after the Rock while Pitt continued as his nominal – if almost certainly inactive - superior until his death in 1835.

Despite all the foregoing, Chatham did leave his mark on the Rock and in several different ways. The first was his supposed involvement in the construction of a Protestant Church to meet the needs of the civilian Anglican community on the Rock. According to an unreferenced article in Wikipedia on the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, it was Chatham who persuaded the British Government in 1820 to sell a derelict building near Main Street (see LINK) and use the money to build the church on its land. 

The Protestant Cathedral of the Holy Trinity ( Mid 19th century – Unknown )

In my view this seems highly unlikely for various reasons, not the least of them being that in 1820 he had not yet arrived in Gibraltar. That Chatham should have been involved in such minutiae as the sale of a Garrison owned derelict property he had never seen does not ring true. Given that construction of the building did not start until 1825 a far more likely scenario is that the person responsible for the details of the project was actually his eventual lieutenant, General George Don who probably set up the scheme in Pitt’s name.

Around 1824 and just to the west of the Casemate Gate, (see LINK) development work was started on a counterguard which was meant to protect Orange Bastion. It was named Chatham’s Counterguard in honour of the residing Governor. Were they just being polite or was this his own idea?

Gibraltar’s Devil’s Tongue with Chatham’s Counterguard facing it to the left in the background – visible just behind two of the soldiers is the entrance through and exit from the Counterguard - it included a drawbridge that was known as Chatham’s Wicket  ( 1804  - Henry Aston Barker )

Another initiative was the widening and enlargement of the then single Casemate Gate. A commemorative inscription dated 1824 has him down as John Earl of Chatham for unknown reasons leaving out his surname. Again I would say that the dedication might be purely ceremonial and that “John” had very little to do with its construction.

The two Casemate Gates as seen from the Counterguard – the one on the left was constructed in 1884 during the tenure of another Governor of the Rock    ( 19th - William Lee Hankey )

The top section of the two main Casemates Gates in the 21st century

Finally I must mention his General Regulations and Standing Orders for the Garrison of Gibraltar which he published in 1825. (See LINK)  These Standing Orders could of course have easily been produced by somebody else – and I must say that writing them does look very much like the kind of hard work which the Earl of Chatham is reputed to have run a mile from. 

Pitt remained in Gibraltar until 1825 after which the actual running of the place was officially handed over to General George Don while Pitt occupied himself with other matters back home. Nobody seems to know why he left but a fair guess would be that it had something to do with his health.

He actually left in July   ( 1825 - Unknown newspaper clipping )

So the question is - how did a man who was both work-shy and apparently unsuited for the job – at the very least in the eyes of his peers - end up as Governor of Gibraltar? It is of course a question that could be asked of many other scoundrels who have occupied the post before and since – but this is an essay on John Pitt. Could the fact that he was known to have been a very good friend of the Prince of Wales have had anything to do with it?

Letter from the Prince of Wales to the Earl of Chatham dated 1799

The letter - shown above - refers to Chatham’s departure to Holland to take part in an Anglo-Russian Expedition . It reads as follows:
Dear Lord Chatham, I have this moment heard that your Brigade is under orders of March Tomorrow Morning; in all probability you will wish as well as Lady Chatham to be rid of me in that event. I hope in God that Lady Chatham meets this severe trial with proper fortitude, & that her good Sense & nerves will support her through it. My good wishes attend you always my Dear Lord & I am ever with great truth, Your very sincere Friend - George P.
It was a friendship which persisted.  Even after the Prince became King he continued to correspond with Chatham whom he addressed as his “dear friend” often finding himself “impatient” of having the pleasure of seeing him. 

George IV

Perhaps in the final analysis the late John Pitt wasn’t quite as useless or as unpunctual as many claimed him to be. Perhaps during his stay on the Rock he actually put aside his natural lethargy and was indeed personally responsible for all those initiatives that bear his name. Perhaps.

What is curious, however, is that a man of whom so much is known about his military, political and personal life – and all of it reasonably available to the casual historian - should have had so little written about him during his four years as resident Governor of the Rock of Gibraltar.

With grateful thanks to “Always wanted to be a reiter” on Tumblr – She knows more about John Pitt than I ever will and I have unashamedly pinched much of the non-Gibraltar stuff  from her.