Book Review – ‘The Late Lord: The life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham’ by Richard Harding
John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (1756–1835) has not come down to posterity as one of the great figures of British history. There is in Gibraltar still some evidence of his time as governor of the Rock (1821–5), but beyond this there is little to remind people of a man who hovered around the political and military edges of influence during the critical years of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. This stands in stark contrast to his father, William Pitt the Elder and his brother, William Pitt the Younger. If he is remembered at all it is for a lacklustre period as First Lord of the Admiralty (1788–94) and as the military commander of the disastrous expedition to Walcheren during July–October 1809. His public persona was as a diffident man, idle, uninspiring and most of the time out of his depth in the intense political and military environment of his time.
Jacqueline Reiter’s new biography of the man does not seek to demolish this perception of Chatham. Indeed, she largely concludes that the contemporary criticism of Chatham was just. However, she does try to explain why this man, whose personal inclinations were not powerfully directed to political or military ambition, was placed in positions in which he was unlikely to excel.
This book illustrates how important it is to understand not just the heroes, but also those whose contributions were less dramatic or successful. Only then will we get a clear picture of the factors that drove military and naval machinery towards success or failure …