Stepping Back: Lady Chatham’s mysterious complaint

“Tell me I may be suddenly different”: Lady Chatham’s mysterious complaint

by Jacqueline Reiter


22 March 1807, morning. The tall, elegant Dover Street house of John, 2nd Earl of Chatham has been in turmoil since the previous evening. Maids are scouring the front steps; windows are thrown open on all floors for airing. Inside, servants pull dust-sheets off the elegant furniture, make the beds, and warm the rooms. His Lordship, who is Military Commander of the Eastern District, is not expected back from Colchester until April at the earliest. Something has brought him back to London early.

At noon he arrives, with Mary, Countess of Chatham. Lord Chatham leaves his wife in countess_chathamDover Street and proceeds to Burlington House, the town residence of His Grace the Duke of Portland, nominal head of the followers of Chatham’s brother, the late prime minister William Pitt. Within hours frenzied rumours race across the capital. Soon the rumours are confirmed: Portland heads a new Pittite government, in which the Earl of Chatham is Master-General of the Ordnance.

His and Her Ladyship appear in public as representatives of the new ministry. On 9 April 1807 they are both at a very crowded Drawing-Room at St James’s Palace. On Sunday 19 April Lady Chatham attends Mr Johnstone’s concert, where she listens to a variety of well-sung Italian arias. While Lord Chatham attends Privy Council meetings and takes the oaths in the House of Lords, his wife rubs shoulders with the Prince of Wales at Lady Camden’s rout.

johnhayterlessblurreddetailBut all is far from well in Dover Street. His Lordship stays out late on business; Her Ladyship, “exhausted with London hours & racket”, barely gets to bed before two in the morning.[1] They have always been a close couple, but now they barely see each other, and for the first time in their marriage live in separate apartments.[2]

Chatham’s servants are renowned for their discretion; they will say nothing of what happens behind His Lordship’s polished front door. The gossips have to draw their own conclusions. Are the new lines on Lord Chatham’s face a reflection of his new responsibility, or something deeper-rooted? Are the ill-concealed shadows beneath Lady Chatham’s eyes entirely due to the late hours she keeps? What is going on?

The real answer is known to a tiny, and very select, circle. Apart from the unhappy couple themselves, three people know all that passes in Dover Street: Lady Chatham’s sister, Miss Georgiana Townshend; her physician, Dr Henry Vaughan; and her maid.

In fact Mary Chatham has been in a “low and nervous state” for over a year.[3] Her disorder, whatever it is, translates into a deep dejection of spirits that alternates with episodes of violence and self-harm. While in Colchester with her husband, she could hide it: but now her husband is a cabinet minister again, she must appear in public as though nothing were amiss. Her maid is skilled in applying enough cosmetics to conceal the marks of distress on her face, but no cosmetics in the world can heal the pain in her heart.

Georgiana nurses her sister devotedly, and writes regularly to Dr Vaughan about her sister’s condition. Her helplessness is plain:

“I only wish to state a few particulars … about my poor afflicted Sister. The agitation she labours under, appears to me to be only transferred, tho’ there is not the same violence used as towards me, but she has no controul before my Mother … She certainly by her Letters to me, has no better opinion of herself … The last Letter was the least well written, & saying she still lived too shut up a life feeling unfit for every thing & making herself more unfit by doing so … All the Family think her odd; & her being odd makes others so, & then she says she never shall be well again.”[4]

Mary herself is well aware of the trap she is in. She writes to Georgiana: “I am shocking horrible in mind & Spirits … Keep it to yourself … or rather burn it, tell me I may be suddenly different.”

Mary’s maid keeps Georgiana updated when Georgiana cannot be in Dover Street. Her stories do not make for comfortable reading. “I leave you to judge in what state [my lady] must have been in [sic], before she would attempt to strike me, which her Ladyship actually did on Tuesday at dressing time … she immediately became conscious of what she had done, & … said she could not live in this way … she must put an end to it.”

But Mary has to “live this way”, and, after striking her maid, submits to being dosed up with opiates before being sent out to a public dinner with Lord Chatham.[5]

How long can this go on without Mary’s illness becoming common knowledge? Georgiana “dread[s] her making her case more known”. As for Lord Chatham, he has so much to worry about as it is: Georgiana believes he is in complete denial. “Poor Lord Chatham thought her getting better when she was as ill as ever … alas! There is I fear too much truth in that.”[6]

frognal housePoor Lord Chatham, indeed. John and Mary have been married for nearly twenty-four years: they have stood by each other through everything, and (since they have no children) have no-one but each other. But this is too much for him. John cannot fully devote his attention to his cabinet duties: Mary knows, and this makes her worse. “Doctor Vaughan pressed me much to go away for a time,” John writes to his brother-in-law Lord Sydney, “as he thought it better on many accounts, and particularly that the having kept me so long, from where I ought to have been, is a source of great anxiety to [Mary]”.

So John goes to Colchester to resume his military command, “where I shall be near, in case of any change”. Mary, meanwhile, goes off with Georgiana to Lord Sydney’s house at Frognal, Kent.

“I am myself pretty well,” John concludes his letter to Sydney, bleakly, “but the misery I have suffered in the last fortnight or three weeks, has required all the fortitude I have left, to bear up against.”[7] In the taciturn Chatham’s hands, words like “misery” inflate a hundred times in meaning.

The couple spend the winter apart.

Months pass. Mary remains unwell.

“Lady Chatham is I hope essentially better, but far from well yet,” John writes in May 1808. “This has been a year of sad distress”.[8] The strain of trying to appear normal is taking its toll, and John starts to wonder if he will ever get his wife back again.

The Chathams continue to spend much of their time apart. “I have not seen Lady Chatham for some time,” John tells his banker, Thomas Coutts, in November, “but form her letters I hope she is rather better than she was, tho’ her amendment, I am sorry to say, has been very slow”.[9]

Thankfully the new year of 1809 brings a significant change. Mary’s spirits rise, and her violent episodes decrease. Her symptoms have always been patchy, but now she goes through weeks at a time without episodes of black despair. She no longer talks of suicide, and begins to emerge in public once more – thin and pale, but recognisably her old self.

What was wrong with Mary? We’ll never know. Perhaps it does not matter. Two things, however, are obvious. The first is the remarkable fact that, despite two years of mental illness and lengthy periods apart, John and Mary manage to keep their marriage going. The second is that, as loving as they remain, the basis of their relationship has changed. Once they shared all burdens; now John finds himself keeping bad news from her, making decisions alone, and, in his own words, “mak[ing] every thing appear to the best”.[10]

Still, John – a congenital pessimist – dares to hope his luck may be on the turn. His wife’s illness has forced him to pass up several civilian and military appointments over the past two years; but he remains in the Cabinet, and there are military opportunities opening on the continent. Perhaps 1809 will be the year for him to re-establish himself on the public scene. Perhaps 1809 will bring him and Mary good fortune.

Thank goodness Lord Chatham cannot see into the future, for he could not be more wrong.


[1] Mrs Mary Townshend to Lord Sydney, [10 October 1807], Sydney papers Box 16, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan; [Georgiana Townshend] to Dr Vaughan [later Sir Henry Halford], 14 April [1807], Halford MSS Leicestershire RO DG24/819/2

[2] [Georgiana Townshend] to Dr Vaughan, 14 April 1807, Halford MSS Leicestershire RO DG24/819/1

[3] Chatham’s words from a later recurrence of Lady Chatham’s illness, to the Bishop of Lincoln, 17 March 1818, Ipswich RO Pretyman MSS HA 119/T108/24/7

[4] [Georgiana Townshend] to Dr Vaughan, 14 April 1807, Halford MSS Leicestershire RO DG24/819/1

[5] Reported in [Georgiana Townshend] to Dr Vaughan [later Sir Henry Halford], 14 April [1807], Halford MSS Leicestershire RO DG24/819/2

[6] [Georgiana Townshend] to Dr Vaughan, 14 April 1807, Halford MSS Leicestershire RO DG24/819/1

[7] Chatham to Lord Sydney, 27 October 1807, Sydney papers Box 16, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

[8] Chatham to Mrs Catherine Stapleton, 11 May 1808, National Army Museum Combermere MSS 9506-61-3

[9] Chatham to Thomas Coutts, 23 November 1808, Kent RO Stanhope MSS U1590/S5/C42

[10] Chatham to Mrs Catherine Stapleton, 2 December 1810, National Army Museum Combermere MSS 8408-114

11139464_10101236064424150_849280726_n Jacqueline Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She is currently working on the first ever biography of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, due to be released by Pen & Sword Books in September 2016. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at, and can be found on Twitter as

7 thoughts on “Stepping Back: Lady Chatham’s mysterious complaint

    • Well, maybe… yes. You’ll just find my own blog though. The reason 1809 was such a rubbish year for them, however, is a matter of established historical record and nothing whatever to do with Lady C. 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s