Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford (1775 – 1804) had a reputation for violent madness the ton deplored, scorned and ultimately mourned. His conduct is a catalog of misadventures that would gratify the wildest schoolboy imagination. His character, a hot mess of contradictions, is the prototypical anti-hero.
He was the fighting peer of the Regency.
Thomas longed to go to sea and at first the notion seemed like a good idea, given his unruliness as a lad:
“If his lordship could have conquered that irritability of temper, which involved him in such a variety of disputes that ultimately ended in his death, he would have attained the highest naval honors.” — Life, Adventures and Eccentricities of the late Lord Camelford (1804)
Perhaps it was that irritability of temper which helped him survive his first voyage, one the history books record as ‘almost unparalleled.’ He and a skeleton crew navigated the crippled frigate HMS Guardian — little more than a raft — almost 2000 kilometers back to port.
While imminent shipwreck conditions suited Thomas, smooth sailing did not. His naval career ended after he assaulted his former commander, shot and killed a fellow officer and attempted a solo invasion of France.**
Thomas was still a seaman when he became Baron Camelford. He inherited a fortune exceeding £150,000 and an annual income over £20,000. His estates sprawled across the counties of Cornwall and Dorset. His family was a powerful and well-connected political dynasty.
“..ambition was the spur of his life..to achieve success independent of inherited rank and wealth.” — The Half-Mad Lord, Nikolai Tolstoy (1978)
Returning to England, Thomas became a fearsome presence, particularly in London. He never shrank from physical violence. His temper and courage were legendary. Many thought him insane.
A jury awarded £500 in damages (a huge sum in those days) against him for assault in the Theatre Royal during a play appropriately titled, The Devil to Pay. The watch-house constables knew him well and sometimes let him take their place in adjudicating offenders, who he always pardoned after a stern talking-to. Woe betide the nightwatchman he found asleep at his post.
His notoriety alone invited unprovoked challenges from the foolhardy.
As Lord Camelford, Thomas could live in the most sumptuous of surroundings. He owned beautiful Boconnoc in Cornwall, an estate of over 7,500 acres, ‘made for its late owner and for a great mind.’ His Mayfair townhouse was a refined neo-Classical villa on Park Lane, Camelford House.
Thomas preferred modest lodgings above a tea shop in Bond Street.
It was here he put to rest the menace posed by the first Bond Street Loungers, dandified young men whose business it was to harass shoppers, block sidewalks, leer at women and generally make a nuisance of themselves. One of these louts brought his boorish behavior into a nearby coffee house. After brow-beating the harassed waiter, he mocked a shabbily dressed young man reading his newspaper nearby. The waiter (with relish, no doubt) informed the coffee-house buck that he’d just taunted Lord Camelford.
” ‘Lord Camelford!’ returned the former, in a tone of voice scarcely audible; horror-struck at the recollection of his own impertinence, and almost doubting whether he was still in existence..actually stole away without daring to taste his Madeira.” — The Eccentric Mirror by G. H Wilson (1807)
Thomas was politically connected to both the Pitt and Grenville families (his uncle was William Pitt the Younger). From his father he inherited the rotten borough of Old Sarum. Generally he supported the policies of his sister’s husband, the Pittite Tory William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville.
Thomas would get a burr under his saddle and vote for policies that went against his family and their interests–and at the most inconvenient of times. He alarmed both established parties with his connections to the radicals Sir Francis Burdett and John Horne Tooke, espousing their egalitarian principles. At other times he and his cudgel forced radicals to listen to a blind fiddler he hired to play patriotic tunes in their gathering place.
A virulent protester against the peace with Napoleon, Thomas refused to light his windows in support of the nightly London celebrations taking place. A mob broke his windows and knocked down his door. Fearless, he took up a sword and cudgel and dashed into the street, fighting the drunk, maddened crowd all alone, with some success, until felled by a brick from behind. His senseless body mercilessly kicked and stoned, he barely escaped with his life.
He was ready for them the next night, guarding the tea shop with a mob of brawny seamen he’d rounded up on his own.
Unbeknownst to the fashionable world, his lordship eschewed the social events of the ton to go to areas of London stricken with typhus and blue ruin. There he sought out families to render them financial aid.
“In such deeds as these, and at an expense of several thousands a year (he mortgaged one of his estates in this effort) did this unaffected philanthropist pass the hours which he stole from the dissipation of high life; and his protégées were not aware of the name or quality of their benefactor, until his untimely fate put a period to his munificent donations.” — The Clubs of London, by Charles Marsh (1832)
Thomas loved all kinds of sports and was a nonpareil himself. An accomplished amateur boxer, he sponsored many professionals of the sport and could be counted on for a generous purse even after their careers. He patronized the Jolly Brewer, an establishment owned by the famous Jem Belcher, gifting his valuable dog to the retired pugilist.
“He always received the respect due to his position, and if a coal-heaver or meatporter of his acquaintance attempted any insolence he was swiftly paid in his own coin.” — Tolstoy
He could shed his rough exterior and become the fashionable beau, being among the first to wear a Jean de Bry coat and the Belcher neck cloth. He was a rather ‘well-looking man.” This was evident during his brief courtship of his cousin, Lady Hester Stanhope, herself an enigmatic figure of beauty and independence. Her memories of Lord Camelford are full of admiration and very illuminating–‘people were very much mistaken about him.’ His wide-ranging adventures inspired her to embark on her own travels.
Generally unchaperoned, the two attended ton parties, drove down turnpikes in Thomas’ curricle and spent time at his estate in Cornwall. She told her doctor many years later that Lord Camelford’s appearances at balls and routs put people in a fright, but when engaged in conversation, he was ‘charming, irresistible, so well-bred, such a ton about him.’
Her greatest tribute to Thomas was the fact he couldn’t abide hypocrisy, particularly amongst those who occupied the highest levels of society. He hated whoever who took advantage of others and used his status as a peer to rectify injustice:
“He was a true Pitt, and, like me, his blood fired at a fraud or a bad action.” — Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope by Charles Lewis Meryon, I (1846)
The fatal duel that took Thomas’ life could have been avoided, by all accounts. As he lay painfully dying (the bullet was lodged in his spine) he forgave his opponent, Captain Best. Only too late did he realize that the insult lodged against him was fabricated by a disgruntled mistress.
His death occasioned a great deal of comment. The men breathed a sign of relief, ‘it was dangerous to sit in company with such a man,’ one said. Lady Bessborough, who often appears in this blog as Lady B, was sorry for him and the ‘dreadful lesson against violent passion his whole life and death have been!’
“He was a man of superior abilities but of singular character…in him Courage was a struggle of sentiment against Constitution.” — The Farington Diary, Vol II, Joseph Farington (1923)
*The Guardian’s passengers were mostly convicts being transported to Australia. They and the accompanying crew and guards abandoned ship only to die almost to a man in the life boats.
**Lord Camelford was often flogged and placed in irons under mutinous conditions on board ship closely resembling those of the Bounty. Unlike Christian Fletcher, his lordship made it back to England and assaulted old Captain Vancouver until the latter’s brother, fresh from fighting native Americans and felling trees in Kentucky, returned the favor and nearly killed his lordship. As for the murder of a fellow officer, his lordship’s actions were found to be necessary to quash what was ruled a mutiny.