John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham

General John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, KG, PC (9 October 1756 – 24 September 1835) was a British soldier and politician. He is best known for commanding the disastrous Walcheren Campaign of 1809.

The Earl of Chatham

John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham
after John Hoppner, 1799
Lord President of the Council
In office
21 September 1796  30 July 1801
MonarchGeorge III
Prime MinisterWilliam Pitt the Younger
Preceded byThe Earl of Mansfield
Succeeded byThe Duke of Portland
Personal details
Born9 October 1756[1]
Hayes, Kent, England
Died24 September 1835 (aged 78)
London, England
AwardsOrder of the Garter
Military service
Allegiance United Kingdom
Branch/service British Army
Years of service1774–1835

Chatham was the eldest son of William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham. He was two and a half years older than his famous brother William Pitt the Younger, the future prime minister.

Early career

Chatham joined the army as an ensign in the 47th Regiment of Foot on 14 March 1774.[1] He served as aide-de-camp to General Guy Carleton in Quebec, but resigned his commission in 1776 in protest against the war with America, to which his father was vehemently opposed.[2]:421-422 He only returned to the army in March 1778, this time as a lieutenant in the 39th (Dorsetshire) Regiment of Foot.[2]:511 He was due to sail to Gibraltar as aide-de-camp to the lieutenant governor, Colonel Robert Boyd, when his father collapsed mid-speech in the House of Lords and died shortly after.

Having succeeded to the earldom, Chatham spent the following year in Gibraltar before transferring to the West Indies with a newly raised regiment, the 86th Foot. By the end of 1781 he was back in Britain and in 1782 obtained a captaincy in the London-based 3rd Regiment of Foot Guards. Although he was appointed colonel in October 1793 and major-general in February 1795, Chatham does not appear to have undertaken any military duties for nearly fifteen years after the end of the War of American Independence in 1783.[3]

Political career

For much of the 1780s and 1790s Chatham focused on a political career. His brother, William Pitt the Younger, became prime minister in December 1783, and in July 1788 offered Chatham the cabinet post of First Lord of the Admiralty. 'I have had my doubts whether the public may not think this too much like monopoly,' Pitt confessed, 'but that doubt is not sufficient to counterbalance the personal comfort which will result from it and the general advantage to the whole of our system'.[4] Pitt's cousin William Wyndham Grenville explained the reason for the appointment in more detail: Chatham would connect 'the department of the Admiralty with the rest of the administration, which has never yet been the case under Pitt's government, even in the smallest degree'.[5]

Chatham's tenure as First Lord of the Admiralty was not especially distinguished. Important reforms were shelved and Chatham soon acquired a reputation for disorganisation and laziness.[6] Contemporaries noted 'the inconvenience attending his laying in bed till the day is advanced, as officers &c were kept waiting'.[7] During the first major campaign of the French Revolutionary Wars Chatham's Admiralty was blamed in part for the failure of the 1793 siege of Dunkirk. Due to miscommunication between the Board of Ordnance and the Admiralty, the ships carrying siege weaponry and supplies for the besieging forces arrived two weeks late. Although in this instance Chatham does not seem to have been guilty of any neglect, his reputation was fatally compromised.[8] It was around this time that he earned his nickname of 'the late Lord Chatham' due to his unpunctuality.[9]

Chatham nevertheless hung onto his office until the following December, when Pitt finally responded to pressure and moved his brother to the less responsible post of Lord Privy Seal.[10] Two years later Chatham was promoted to Lord President of the Council.[11] Here he stayed, remaining in office after Pitt's resignation under Henry Addington, until a cabinet reshuffle in June 1801 moved him to the post of Master-General of the Ordnance.[12] He continued in this post until May 1810, with only a short interval out of office in 1806–1807. He became the General Officer in Command of the Eastern District in 1806.[13]

Later military career and Walcheren

In 1798 Chatham returned to the army. He was appointed to command a brigade in the Helder campaign in 1799.[14] He was wounded by a spent ball at the Battle of Castricum on 6 October.[15] After this he served as commander of various military districts, but for some reason was passed over in favour of Arthur Wellesley for a command in the Peninsular War.[16]:27

In May 1809 the Secretary of State for War, Lord Castlereagh, offered Chatham the command of an amphibious assault aimed at destroying the French fleet and fortifications around Antwerp and the island of Walcheren.[17] Chatham commanded the largest expeditionary force Britain had yet fielded in the war.[18] Despite early success in taking the town of Flushing, the campaign was an unmitigated disaster. The army made slow headway and the French immediately withdrew their fleet to Antwerp, a tactic that should have been foreseen by the politicians, admirals and generals planning the campaign from the start.[19] While Chatham quarrelled with the naval commander, Sir Richard Strachan, as many as 8000 British troops succumbed to malaria.[16]:201

Chatham was recalled in disgrace. His appearance before a parliamentary enquiry did him no favours, particularly when it emerged that he had presented the King with a private memorandum which ought to have gone to the Secretary of State for War first.[20] Spencer Perceval's government withdrew its support from Chatham and he was forced to resign from the Ordnance in May 1810.

Chatham's political and military reputation was ruined. A poem circulated making fun of his inactivity and the lack of co-operation between the army and navy:

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.[16]:217

Later life

Chatham did not serve actively again, but was promoted to full General in January 1812.[3] He continued to hold various ceremonial positions: he had been appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jersey and High Steward of Colchester in 1807, and in 1820 succeeded the Duke of Kent as Governor of Gibraltar.[1]

He died at his house in Charles Street, London, on 24 September 1835, aged 78.[21]


Chatham married The Hon. Mary Elizabeth Townshend, daughter of the 1st Baron Sydney, on 10 July 1783.[4]:126 The couple had no children. Lady Chatham died on 21 May 1821.[22] Chatham did not remarry and on his death the Earldom of Chatham became extinct.

Titles from birth to death

  • Master John Pitt (1756–1761)
  • The Honourable John Pitt (1761–1766)
  • Viscount Pitt (1766–1778)
  • The Right Honourable The Earl of Chatham (1778–1789)
  • The Right Honourable The Earl of Chatham, PC (1789–1790)
  • The Right Honourable The Earl of Chatham, KG, PC (1790–1835)


  1. Doorne, Christopher. "Pitt, John, second earl of Chatham (1756–1835)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22330.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. Taylor and Pringle (1839). Correspondence of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. Vol. 4. John Murray.
  3. Philippart, J. (1820). The royal military calendar. Vol. 1. T. Egerton. pp. 375–6.
  4. Earl Stanhope, Philip Henry (1861). Life of the Rt. Hon. William Pitt. Vol. 1. J. Murray. p. 376.
  5. Rodger, N.A.M. (2004). The command of the ocean. Allen Lane. p. 363.
  6. Ehrman, John (1969). The Younger Pitt: the years of acclaim. Dutton. pp. 316–7.
  7. Greig, James (1922). The diary of Joseph Farington. Vol. 1. Hutchinson & Co. p. 54.
  8. Duffy, Michael (July 1976). "'A Particular Service': The British Government and the Dunkirk Expedition of 1793". English Historical Review. Oxford University Press. 91 (360): 529–54, 552–4. JSTOR 566625.
  9. Wraxall, Sir Nathaniel (1836). Posthumous memoirs of my own time. Vol. 3. R. Bentley. p. 130.
  10. Ashbourne, Lord (1898). Pitt: some chapters of his life and times. Longmans, Green & Co. pp. 172–3.
  11. Hague, William (2004). William Pitt the Younger. HarperCollins. pp. 382–3.
  12. Pellew, George (1847). The life of Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth. Vol. 1. J. Murray. p. 410.
  13. "Lord Chatham's aides-de-camp at Walcheren, 1809". Retrieved 20 December 2015.
  14. Ehrman, John (1996). The Younger Pitt: the consuming struggle. Constable. p. 253.
  15. Earl Stanhope, Philip Henry (1862). The life of the Rt. Hon. William Pitt. Vol. 3. J. Murray. p. 198.
  16. Howard, Martin R. (2012). Walcheren 1809: the scandalous destruction of a British army. Pen and Sword.
  17. Marquis of Londonderry, Charles William Vane (1851). Memoirs and correspondence of Viscount Castlereagh, 2nd series. Vol. 6. William Shoberl. p. 256.
  18. Howard, M. R (1999). "Walcheren 1809: a medical catastrophe". BMJ. 319 (7225): 1642–1645. doi:10.1136/bmj.319.7225.1642. ISSN 0959-8138. PMC 1127097.
  19. Christie, Carl A. (1981). "The Royal Navy and the Walcheren campaign of 1809". In Symonds, Craig L. (ed.). New Aspects of Naval History. Naval Institute Press. pp. 190–200.
  20. Gray, Denis (1963). Spencer Perceval: the Evangelical prime minister. Manchester University Press. pp. 299.
  21. The Gentleman's Magazine, volume 4 (1835), p. 546.
  22. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, volume IX (April–August 1821), p. 364.
Political offices
Preceded by
The Viscount Howe
First Lord of the Admiralty
Succeeded by
The Earl Spencer
Preceded by
The Earl Spencer
Lord Privy Seal
Succeeded by
The Earl of Westmorland
Preceded by
The Earl of Mansfield
Lord President of the Council
Succeeded by
The Duke of Portland
Military offices
Preceded by
The Marquess Cornwallis
Master-General of the Ordnance
Succeeded by
The Earl of Moira
Preceded by
Lord George Lennox
Governor of Plymouth
Succeeded by
The Viscount Lake
Preceded by
The Earl of Moira
Master-General of the Ordnance
Succeeded by
The Lord Mulgrave
Preceded by
George Morrison
Colonel of the 4th (The King's Own) Regiment of Foot
Succeeded by
John Hodgson
Government offices
Preceded by
The Marquess Townshend
Governor of Jersey
Succeeded by
The Viscount Beresford
Preceded by
Sir George Don
Governor of Gibraltar
Succeeded by
Sir George Don
Peerage of Great Britain
Preceded by
William Pitt
Earl of Chatham
Viscount Pitt

Preceded by
Hester Pitt
Baron Chatham
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