The Fighting Peer of the Regency

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.

1804 memorial etching by Dighton, via the National Portrait Gallery. ‘Lord Camelford was not such a man as you would have supposed. He was tall and bony–rather pale–with his head hanging generally a little on one side–so.’ — Lady Hester Stanhope

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.

And yet:

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.**

Camelford’s sister, Anne, painted here as Hebe by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1792 —  She was one of the few persons her brother loved. He left his fortune to her and her husband, Prime Minister Lord Grenville.

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.

And yet:

“..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.

Shepherd’s 1850 watercolor of Camelford House, for a short time the residence of Charlotte, Princess of Wales, later demolished in 1915. Photo via British Museum

And yet:

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)

Bond Street Loungers

via National Portrait Gallery – Gillray illustrates the rude phenomenon of the Bond Street Loungers in 1796. They were rather more respectable by the time of the famous 1820 illustration from Captain Gronow’s Reminisces.

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.

And yet:

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.

Bill Richmond, prize fighter and cabinet maker. He is credited with dragging his employer Lord Camelford to safety.

And yet:

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

And yet:

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)

Lady Hester Stanhope on Horseback – Her lonely and abusive childhood was similar to Camelford’s–isolated on a country estate with her brother by a father who meant to force his heir to renounce his inheritance, once he came of age, thus breaking the entail that protected the family fortune from Lord Stanhope’s spendthrift habits. Hester helped her brother escape.

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.

There’s a Tory in Lansdowne House

“Ah, Lord Grenville,” said Lady Portarles, as following a discreet knock, the clever, interesting head of the Secretary of State appeared in the doorway of the box, “you could not arrive more a propos. Here is Madame la Comtesse de Tournay positively dying to hear the latest news from France.”

The distinguished diplomat had come forward and was shaking hands with the ladies.

“Alas!” he said sadly, “it is of the very worst. The massacres continue; Paris literally reeks with blood; and the guillotine claims a hundred victims a day.”

The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy                                           File:1st Baron Grenville.jpg

The year was 1792 and Lord William Wyndham Grenville (1759 – 1834), First Baron Grenville, was Foreign Secretary.  He was a member of the Tory cabinet formed by Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and was tasked with managing the blood bath and upheaval that was occurring on the Continent.  To complicate matters, there was conflict among the ministers.  Lord Grenville was positive that greater success against the French in the War of the First Coalition could be had with military action on the continent, as opposed to skirmishes at sea and jousting with the colonies as proxies.

He was up against Pitt’s great friend, Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville and the kingdom’s Secretary of War:  “a man so profoundly ignorant of war that he was not even conscious of his own ignorance.”  Dundas was a wealthy man, purely by virtue of his first wife.  He divorced her over adultery, and ensured she would never see her children again.  This was a sentence imposed for the rest of her life.  She lived another sixty-nine years.

Pitt could not be persuaded to abandon Dundas, even when the man became instrumental in stopping all efforts to abolish the slave trade.  It is almost certain that at this time Grenville began to rethink his Tory connections.  Then came the King’s refusal to consider the question of Catholic emancipation and the Pitt government resigned.

A quiet interlude followed while Grenville was out of office.  A time for reflection and for preparation of his greatest life’s work that still lay ahead.  He had heard of the ideas being discussed in a Palladian home in Berkeley Square.  He did not have to visit there for long before he found himself surrounded by a circle of Whig supporters.

Grenville’s chance came in 1806 when Pitt died, leaving a vacuum of power.  Enter his lordship with the backing of Lansdowne House and he was elevated to the position of Prime Minister.  It was an extraordinary moment as he became head of a coalition government known as the “Ministry of All Talents.”  And none too soon.  War with France had reached a fever pitch and national unity was vital.  Grenville’s charm united politicians from almost every persuasion.  He even managed to placate His Majesty to accept such persons to whom he had been previously hostile.

It was then one of the most important goals cherished in Lansdowne House was achieved–the abolition of the slave trade.

In 1823 Grenville retired.  He and his wife withdrew, childless, to a country home he had built, Dropmore House, near Windsor Castle.  He established one of the largest stands of conifer trees in Britain at his pineturn there.

Sadly, Dropmore was badly damaged by a fire that took four days to put out in 1990. Another in 1997 left the house uninhabitable.  The property has since been restored by a developer interested in turning the mansion into luxury apartments.  It is a pity the firm in charge of this endeavor has gone into liquidation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4y5fybV7vW4 at 52.51 is a lovely clip from the 1934 movie production of the Scarlet Pimpernel.  It is the ballroom scene in which his lordship plays a slight role.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvctyYcUIaE at 6:03 is also a clip from the Dr. Who series showing the exterior of Dropmore before it was destroyed by fire.