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The Late Lord (Hardback)

The Life of John Pitt - 2nd Earl of Chatham


By Jacqueline Reiter
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 269
ISBN: 9781473856950
Published: 11th January 2017



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John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham is one of the most enigmatic and overlooked figures of early nineteenth century British history. The elder brother of Pitt the Younger, he has long been consigned to history as ‘the late Lord Chatham’, the lazy commander-in-chief of the 1809 Walcheren expedition, whose inactivity and incompetence turned what should have been an easy victory into a disaster.

Chatham’s poor reputation obscures a fascinating and complex man. During a twenty-year career at the heart of government, he served in several important cabinet posts such as First Lord of the Admiralty and Master-General of the Ordnance. Yet despite his closeness to the Prime Minister and friendship with the Royal Family, political rivalries and private tragedy hampered his ascendance. Paradoxically for a man of widely admired diplomatic skills, his downfall owed as much to his personal insecurities and penchant for making enemies as it did to military failure.

Using a variety of manuscript sources to tease Chatham from the records, this biography peels away the myths and places him for the first time in proper familial, political, and military context. It breathes life into a much-maligned member of one of Britain’s greatest political dynasties, revealing a deeply flawed man trapped in the shadow of his illustrious relatives.

★★★★★ This is one of the best historical biographies I’ve ever read. I knew a fair bit about the period, partly from A level and partly through research for my own historical fiction, but along with most other people I suspect, I knew very little about Chatham.
The book is a fantastic blend of research and story, and the writing style is easy and flows well. There are plenty of references, but the author manages to make this a book which is simply good to read, despite the obvious scholarship behind it.
By the end of it I felt I knew a lot more about this period of history and a huge amount about John Pitt, both his personal and public life. The author doesn’t gloss over any of his faults but manages to present a sympathetic and likeable portrait of a much maligned and often ignored historical character.
I loved it, I hope she goes on to write more, and I would recommend it to both historians and the general reader. You won’t be disappointed.

Amazon Customer

John Pitt was the son of a great man (William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham) and the brother of another (William Pitt the Younger), but he never aspired to greatness himself. Indeed his political enemies derided his incompetence and tardiness, calling him in his lifetime ‘the Late Lord Chatham’.

Does Jacqueline Reiter succeed in rehabilitating him? She makes the case that he was not as lacklustre as he has been painted and that he had more than his share of bad luck. Overshadowed by his father and brother until middle age, his chance to make his mark was lost in the shambles of the Walcharen campaign of 1809. His wife’s long bouts of insanity were also a severe drain on his time and energy.

This is an interesting study of a little-known politician, and it contains an excellent account of the Walcharen campaign, which was a bigger expedition than Wellesley’s expedition to the Peninsula.

Historical Novel Society

The Second Earl of Chatham is one of the most enigmatic and overlooked figures of early nineteenth century British history. The elder brother of Pitt the Younger, he has long been consigned to history as ‘the late Lord Chatham’, the lazy commander-in-chief of the 1809 Walcheren expedition, whose inactivity and incompetence turned what should have been an easy victory into a disaster. Chatham’s poor reputation obscures a fascinating and complex man. This biography peels away the myths.

Julian Stockwin action-adventure historical fiction

As her first book Jacqueline has quite clearly demonstrated her excellent detective skills to find every shred of information about Chatham in order to produce such a comprehensive and well written book.

The Late Lord is packed with source material and contains an exemplary index, maps and endnotes, which will prove immensely useful for the historians of the future to delve into.

Having lived such a fascinating life it begs the question as to why a book about his life has never been written before – well, it has now and that’s all that matters. You get the distinct impression that The Late Lord danced to only one tune – his own and managed to make enemies without even trying, even his own brother managed to sack him from his post as he felt he was not up to the task. Life can’t have been that easy for him, trying to live up to family expectations and permanently in the shadow of his brother.

It is high time his life was documented and I’m sure he would have been incredibly happy with this biography, even if he had hoped that his mistakes such as the Walcheren Expedition could have been hidden from future generations. Cornwallis’ assessment of him was that he was ‘incapable and improper’, was he implying that The Late Lord had been promoted to his level of incompetence? possibly so. History has blamed Chatham solely for the failure of the expedition, but it could be argued that he simply did not have the experience required for such a demanding post.

Not only do we see Chatham’s professional life but we also gain an insight into his private life and the domestic struggles having a wife with mental health issues and the impact that had upon him. All this information enables to meet a fully rounded person, not just the person held responsible for an unmitigated disaster that was the Walcheren Campaign.

Many authors of biographies say that their leading character directs them the process and if this is the case, then the author must have been sent down many rabbit holes during her research. I must say that the little I knew of Chatham I had didn’t really have a great impression of him, but having read Jacqueline’s book I have completely changed that perception – he was actually quite a likeable character!

Reviewed by Sarah Murden, co-author of 'A Right Royal Scandal' and 'An Infamous Mistress'

As featured by

Exclusively British, March 2017

To produce a biography of one of history’s peripheral figures requires detective work as much as writing talent. In the case of John Pitt, the biographer has to deal with an extra dimension of complexity. The challenge is to provide an objective portrait of someone, who, as the son of William Pitt the Elder and older brother of William Pitt the Younger, found his life constantly overshadowed by, and unfavourably compared to, his more renowned relatives.

Jacqueline Reiter has succeeded in combining the detective work, the objectivity and the writing talent, in the process creating a book which is as remarkable for its attention to detail as for its impartiality.

Read the full review here.

1/72 Scale Plastic Napoleonic Figures

John Pitt, the 2nd Earl of Chatham, is an enigmatic figure often quickly dismissed in histories of the Napoleonic Wars as being indolent, ineffectual and over-shadowed by more illustrious family members. He was particularly blighted by his perceived poor leadership of the notorious Walcheren expedition. In a long overdue reassessment Jacqueline Reiter gives a detailed portrait of this complex man and a fresh insight into the political and military events of the period. Whilst being undeniably lazy and unable to make his own luck, he emerges as being sensible and capable. The author’s extensive archival research also reveals the calamitous impact of his beloved wife’s illness in the later years of his career. For the first time we have a three dimensional view of Chatham. This excellent biography is as readable as it is erudite.

Martin Howard, author of Walcheren 1809: The Scandalous Destruction of a British Army

As featured on J D Davis.

J D Davis

Author guest blog as featured on Dirty Sexy History.

Dirty Sexy History

Author guest blog featured on A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to Life.

A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to Life

Author Guest Blog as featured on The Review.

The Review

Jacqueline Reiter has provided an invaluable service in seeking out the ‘late Lord’ and producing a much needed account of his life and career. Her book is brimming with emotional intelligence and intuition about her subject’s mind. The prose zips along at a merry pace but is based on a vast amount of primary research and a mastery of detail. In the event, we not only get to see the world through Chatham’s eyes, but have fresh first-hand insights on some of the most important political and military events of the era. The result is a book that is both charming and hugely impressive as a feat of scholarship.

John Bew, author of 'Castlereagh: Enlightenment, war and Tyranny'

The Late Lord is based on impressive research in the archives and published sources and the author is completely at home in the period. Reiter’s judgement is thoughtful, perceptive and well balanced, while her prose is lively and entertaining. After two hundred years of neglect, Chatham has been immensely fortunate in being the subject of such a fine biography.

Rory Muir, author of 'Wellington: the Path to victory' and 'Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace'

About Jacqueline Reiter

Jacqueline Reiter has a PhD in late 18th century political history from the University of Cambridge. Born into a diplomatic family, she has long looked upon history as a fixed point of reference in a peripatetic life. A professional librarian, she lives in Oxford with her husband and two children.

Perfect Partner

Walcheren 1809 Scandalous Destruction of a British Army (Hardback)

In July 1809, with the Dutch coast 'a pistol held at the head of England', the largest British expeditionary force ever assembled, over 40,000 men and around 600 ships, weighed anchor off the Kent coast and sailed for the island of Walcheren in the Scheldt estuary. After an initial success, the expedition stalled and as the lethargic military commander, Lord Chatham, was at loggerheads with the opinionated senior naval commander, Sir Richard Strachan, troops were dying of a mysterious disease termed 'Walcheren fever'. Almost all the campaign's 4,000 dead were victims of disease. The Scheldt was…

By Martin Howard

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