PITT, Thomas (1737-93), of Boconnoc, Cornw.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



17 Dec. 1761 - 1768
1768 - 1774
1774 - 5 Jan. 1784

Family and Education

b. 3 Mar. 1737, o. surv. s. of Thomas Pitt of Boconnoc.  educ. Marylebone; Clare, Camb. 1754-8.  m. 29 July 1771, Anne, da. and coh. of Pinckney Wilkinson, 1s. 1da.  suc. fa. 17 July 1761;  cr. Baron Camelford, 5 Jan. 1784.

Offices Held

Ld. of Admiralty Apr. 1763-Aug. 1765.


‘I have been struggling with infirmities the greater part of my life’, wrote Thomas Pitt in 1781 reviewing its ‘uneventful’, cheerless course.1 His father’s ‘great object’ in marrying had been ‘to have a son who when of age might cut off the entail of the estate and make him easy’. His mother, a meek and pious woman, his father treated with ‘a mixture of contempt and disgust’; when Thomas was placed at school, she left Boconnoc; and she was never allowed to see him again. Next the children were brought home, ‘with no other object than economy; for he [the father] had little pleasure in our society’. Thomas was with him during the crisis in his affairs, and saw his ‘proud spirit ... humbled by distress and broken by repeated disappointments’—‘I cannot now recollect without horror the scenes of anguish and despair I was witness to’. In January 1754 he entered Cambridge; when a year later his father, escaping from creditors, wanted to take him to France—‘to make a property of me in due time to my ruin’—William Pitt, Thomas’s uncle, dictated to Thomas a letter asking his father to leave him at Cambridge: ‘the violence of my father’s temper made it impossible for me to urge these arguments by word of mouth ... it was concerted that I should elope from his lodgings in London’. Thomas senior was ‘frantic with grief, rage, and disappointment’, but Tom remained in the care of his uncles, William Pitt and Richard Lyttelton. ‘The violent emotions with which these scenes affected me however left a sensible impression upon my health, and nervous disorders which some time after increased upon me to a very alarming degree owed their origin to anxiety of mind.’

From William Pitt he received letters reminiscent of Chesterfield’s.2 On 14 Jan. 1754 Pitt wrote to the boy, who felt ‘by nature ill-adapted to public schools’ and by his upbringing was rendered still more a-social, about ‘the amiable abhorrence you feel for the scene of vice and folly ... which has opened to you at your College’—‘be sure to associate with men much older than yourself’; and on 6 Dec. 1755 described a letter from him as ‘worthy of a better age, worthy of your noble, untainted mind’. Thomas himself aspired to become ‘superior to any of those whom I look back upon at present with a feeling of admiration ... my ambition instigates me to wish and hope to be a great man ... a conspicuously good man’ (20 Apr. 1755). On 24 July 1755, William refers to Thomas’s father planning ‘schemes of perpetual vexation’; and Thomas on the 27th: he ‘is most freely welcome to indulge his evil genius ... I am ... thoroughly insensible to any of the mean marks of his displeasure’. The letter overflows with affection and gratitude to William. But later Thomas remembered having seen him ‘through the medium of early prejudices and found his manner something so precise, so formal, and so imperious that it did not much conciliate my affection’; and even suspected him of having an eye to his own chance of succeeding under the entail, ‘which was by my state of health grown no bad one’.

His health was ‘by degrees so much impaired as rendered me incapable of books or any serious attention’; Richard Lyttelton, watching over him with the tenderness ‘of a fond parent’, sent him on ‘expensive journeys, sea bathing, etc.’ At Brighton a letter from his father reached him ‘full of kindness and forgiveness’, but urging him to cut the entail, pay his father’s debts, and make provision for his sisters. With this letter Thomas went to Hayes; William Pitt ‘breathed fire and fury against my father’; and when shown the answer Thomas had sent, forced on him ‘the mortification of £100 ... which all the circumstances that accompanied it made me feel as an affront to me and a disgrace to him’. How does this square with William Pitt’s letter of 20 Aug. 1757,3 directed to Brighton, which welcomed a family reconciliation and highly approved of Thomas’s reply? Perhaps the letter falls into a later stage in the negotiations—no precise dates are given in the Memoir (anyhow, what men remember is in a way as important as what actually happened). Thomas senior now came over to England, resolved to cast himself upon the mercy of his creditors if his son did not help him. ‘It is in vain to describe ... the effect ... upon my shattered nerves’—placed between father and uncle, after many violent scenes he achieved a settlement. Then, seeking repose and relief in a mild climate, he went with Lord Kinnoull to Lisbon (February 1760), travelled in Spain, and was in Italy when the news of his father’s death reached him. ‘My affairs made it necessary for me to hasten my return to England.’ ‘I had now the world before me and though my fortune was considerably reduced, yet it was sufficient to preserve my independence.’

In March 1761 his father had promised Newcastle to vacate his seat ‘when his perplexities are finished’. Thomas repudiated an agreement made without his knowledge and concurrence—‘my father was under a previous engagement to myself to elect me at Old Sarum when I consented to the raising so large a sum for the payment of his debts’.4 He returned himself for his father’s seat. Would he also try to revive the family interest in Cornish boroughs? He greatly resented Bute’s behaviour over Bodmin—he ‘deprived me of my natural interest: in the borough’. When the Grenville Administration was being formed, Pitt applied for the stannaries: ‘if it is given to no Cornish man ... I should have very little to regret. But ... if it should be given to rely other Cornish man, it would give such an impression ... in the county as would hardly be to be effaced. They look upon it as an act of justice to the memory of my father whose popularity far exceeded that of his competitors.’5 Grenville, unable to comply with Pitt’s request, hoped that this would not ‘interfere with any purposes of yours in this part of the world’.6 Yet a year later Pitt would not try to recapture Lostwithiel (almost at the gates of Boconnoc)—he wrote in June 1764:7

I ... wish to decline as much as possible entering into these kind of transactions, which occasion endless torment and vexation, subject one after all to a thousand disappointments, and for which indeed I find myself ill calculated.

Wherein he was right: he required detachment and reacted badly to stress and strain.

Warm-hearted, generous, and capable of devotion, but sensitive, irritable, and easily hurt, Pitt harboured suspicions and grievances which grew and rankled within him. He loved Richard Lyttelton, a warm and friendly character; but was turning bitterly against William Pitt; and attached himself to the sober George Grenville, to whom ‘order and economy were natural’— an extreme contrast to the violence, extravagance, and haughtiness of Thomas’s father and uncle. ‘I knew my honour would be always safe with him ... I served him therefore with zeal and confidence.’ In Bute’s list of December 1761 Pitt was classed as Bute’s supporter. He himself writes: ‘I divided against Mr. Pitt and his connections ... I belonged however to no party, and gave my vote as it happened on both sides of the House.’ He voted with the Opposition on 1 Dec. 1762 for postponing consideration of the peace preliminaries; but next was counted by Fox among the Members favourable to them. When the Grenville Government was being formed the King wrote to Bute, 12 Apr.: ‘as my Dear Friend thinks it right to humour Grenville with young Pitt I will not refuse it’.8 Pitt was placed at the Admiralty Board—‘I have never repented the having acted under [Grenville’s] banners.’9 In January 1764 Pitt spoke on the Cider Act—he ‘has gained great reputation by two speeches in the House of Commons’, wrote Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu;10and on 10 Jan. 1765 he seconded the Address ‘with uncommon propriety and force’.11

On Grenville’s dismissal, Pitt, then at Boconnoc, asked Grenville what was the most respectful way for him to resign;12 was advised to wait till informed by authority about his situation;13 waited a fortnight, and had just sent his resignation to Egmont when he was informed by Conway, that the King wished him to continue at the Admiralty.14 Urged by Egmont to reconsider his decision, he replied: ‘I think myself under a necessity to decline uniting myself to a party I have ever dissented from and pledging myself to a political system I have ever disavowed’.15 Meantime his name had been inserted without his knowledge in the new commission.16 But this is the twist which the story receives in his Memoir:

I was in Cornwall at the time this change [of Government] took place. I did not choose to have the air of resigning what I could not keep, and I therefore suffered the new commission for the Admiralty to be made out with my name in it before I wrote to desire Lord Egmont, who was at the head of the Board, would lay my resignation at his Majesty’s feet.

He spoke and voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act. When Chatham formed his Government, Pitt claims to have been offered preferment, and to have refused it to Chatham’s ‘indignation and disappointment’. He thus concludes his vivid account:

If I were to say the moment of my life when I have felt the highest exultation, it was in returning from this interview. I had lived to complete my triumph and to convince the man who had insulted me how much I was his superior.

Whether it impressed his uncle the same way seems doubtful.

Pitt continued to vote and speak on the Opposition side. He ‘did very well’, wrote Grenville to Temple after the debate of 11 Nov. 1766 on the indemnity bill.17 Possibly in order to consolidate his interest at Okehampton he stood there himself in 1768; but after that sold it to Clive. For Old Sarum he returned W. G. Hamilton, a friend of Temple’s, and John Craufurd, a Government supporter, a surprising choice which was held up against him during the campaign for a dissolution of Parliament in 1769: according to Walpole,18 Pitt ‘having harangued the county of Cornwall in favour of a petition,19 was severely reproached with having sold his own borough of Old Sarum to a Scotch placeman’.20

His aversion to crowds coloured even his opposition: on 13 May 1768 he criticized the Government for having left London ‘in the hands of the mob’,21 on 2 Feb. 1769 spoke of the levelling spirit which, if not ‘opposed constitutionally, would end in anarchy’. That night he voted to declare Wilkes’s introduction to Lord Weymouth’s letter a seditious libel, but the next day, following Grenville, spoke and voted against his expulsion;22 and on 17 Mar. denied the power of the House to declare him ineligible.

George Grenville died on 13 Nov. 1770. ‘I have never belonged to any other leader’—henceforth Pitt ‘cautiously avoided all factious appearances’, and, critical both of ministers and Opposition, appears in very few division lists. On 6 Feb. 1772 he seconded Meredith’s motion on subscription to the 39 Articles—

lamented the levity with which the subject had been treated, but used wit himself in ridiculing the Articles, which he wished to have expunged and obliterated for the sake of common sense.23

He spoke strongly against the royal marriage bill, March 1772, but did not approve of the Opposition amendment either. On 25 Feb. 1774 he passionately pleaded for making Grenville’s Election Act permanent—‘was I to be brought in a litter I would come to express my opinion of the great utility of this bill’.24

In 1774 Pitt resumed his seat at Old Sarum, with his father-in-law for colleague. But no vote or speech by him in this Parliament is recorded before 17 Feb. 1778 when, in the debate on Lord North’s conciliatory proposals, he ‘declared he had absented himself of late, as not knowing what part to take, but now gladly embraced that of peace’;25 dissented from the Opposition who wanted the commissioners appointed by Parliament and not by the Crown; and hoped they would not divide ‘except on the most essential points’.26

Then followed another long absence: in the summer of 1778 he went to Italy for his health, and did not return till early in 1780. The next four years were politically the most significant in his life. Unconnected with any party, seeking neither preferment nor popularity, disinterested and independent, he acted from a sense of duty, and the prominence given to his speeches in contemporary reports shows the esteem in which he was held. ‘Whatever views of ambition he might formerly have entertained’ he said on 24 Apr. 1780 ‘... were long since dead in him ... and nothing did tempt him to abandon his domestic retirement ... infirm and scarcely able to support the fatigues of parliamentary attendance’ but the desire to contribute toward saving the country. In the debate on Dunning’s motion on the influence of the Crown, 6 Apr. 1780, Pitt delivered a severe attack against North (he ‘had never spoken nearly so well’, wrote Horace Walpole).27 He spoke of North’s ‘most notorious mismanagement as minister’;28 taxed him with waste of treasure and blood; with having ‘sunk and degraded the honour of Great Britain’: that he continued in office was ‘an indubitable proof of the enormous influence of the Crown’. That influence now became with Pitt well-nigh an obsession: every problem was judged by him from that angle. On Sawbridge’s motion for shorter Parliaments, 8 May: the influence of the Crown was not confined to Parliament; out of doors it was alarming; if the minister could start court candidates every year, or every three years, what independent country gentleman could bear the expense? On 27 Nov. 1781: it did not matter ‘what set of puppets worked the dismal scene’ while the system and the secret influence remained which had ‘continued through the whole of the present reign’. Three days later he proposed to withhold supplies. ‘No instance of such a refusal could be found since the Revolution’ replied Grey Cooper. The House has to act against the prerogative, retorted Pitt. The moment calls for it. ‘It is effectual and it is safe.’29 He supported each of the consecutive motions against the American war; and after the North Administration had fallen, moved for an inquiry into national finance since 1776. Wicked, irresponsible extravagance by those in authority had a familiar ring for Thomas Pitt. On 16 Apr. 1782 he spoke in favour of Crewe’s bill for disfranchising revenue officers, but when on 7 May his cousin William Pitt moved for a committee to inquire into the state of parliamentary representation, Thomas spoke against it as leading ‘to the principle of equal representation, which is totally inapplicable to the British constitution’; and criticized the mode and time of making the proposal. And next:

What, Sir, is the purpose of Parliament, but a balance against the power of the Crown? ... Members of this House, however variously elected ... if they answer the great purpose of defending the people at large from the encroachments of power and the increasing influence of the Crown ... answer every purpose of our intention ... The weight of property ... I will say, the aristocratical weight of property ... increasing in this House, has enabled it to stand against the increasing influence of the Crown.

An ‘innovation purely democratical’ might weaken them. Specific propositions, not involving equal representation, could be considered; he declared himself partial to Chatham’s scheme of ‘adding one knight of the shire to each county in England’. To this he reverted when on 7 May 1783 William Pitt moved his specific proposals for parliamentary reform: the addition of a hundred knights of the shire seemed to him too great, the disfranchising of corrupt boroughs too drastic; but ‘while he stood forth in defence of the chartered and prescriptive rights of others’, he would surrender his own [i.e. Old Sarum] ‘as a voluntary sacrifice’. If the reform he recommended was carried and his offer accepted, he suggested that the representation of Old Sarum should ‘be transferred to the proprietors of the Bank of England’.30

Even when Pitt supported the Government he did so in his own way, as an independent. On 17 May 1782, when seconding Fox’s motion for repealing the Act 6 Geo. I ‘for better securing the dependence of Ireland on the Crown of Great Britain’, he dissociated himself from some of Fox’s maxims: he could admit no limitation on the powers of the Imperial Crown over its subjects and dependencies; though a right was one thing, and its exercise another. Or again, when on 18 Dec. 1782, Fox, by that time in Opposition, made a motion fit to embarrass the Government in the peace negotiations, Pitt moved the order of the day—but no minister knew he intended making it till he made it.

The Fox-North manoeuvres in February-March 1783 deeply disgusted him: ‘That as to ministers and the candidates for ministry’, he said on 17 Feb., ‘he looked upon them as dealers in the same merchandize, that they discredited each other’s wares to recommend their own, and to draw customers to them.’ And on 21 February he saw ‘the deepest system of party’ avowed: while the country was gasping for existence, ‘men of the first abilities ... were engaged solely in an open struggle for power’.31

When Shelburne resigned and William Pitt felt unable to form a Government which could have obtained a majority in the House, the King on 7 Mar. sent for Lord Gower and empowered him to offer the Home Office to Thomas Pitt. In a memorandum reviewing the negotiations of March 1783 the King refers to ‘the very able state of the conversation that past between them’—a paper drawn up by Pitt of which a copy in the King’s handwriting is at Windsor.32 Gower said that before undertaking the task he had to be assured of ‘the assistance of some man of character and abilities in the House of Commons’, and asked Pitt to take the leadership of the House. Pitt expressed his warm indignation at the unnatural, shameless union between Fox and North, and declared that he would be ‘the last man in England to advise the smallest condescension’ toward them if he saw any chance of successful resistance. But were the contest to end in surrender, ‘Government would be still more disgraced and these factions rendered less odious by the natural effect of popular opposition’. He foresaw, on the other hand, the difficulties they were bound to encounter if conceded office, and in courtly terms advised the King to give them rope to hang themselves:33 to yield to them in the arrangement of offices and as to public measures, but withhold from them his royal favour—they would soon become ‘contemptible in the eyes of the public, insignificant as leaders of party and would in a short time give way’ to an Administration enjoying the King’s confidence, popular with the nation, and ‘supported by the weight of property and independence’. In conclusion he said that he ‘was by indolence and by many concurring circumstances totally unequal to public business, but most certainly unequal to a task like this’. After further negotiations had failed, the King at the end of the month ‘attempted again to call forth Mr. Thomas Pitt to the first efficient office in the House of Commons’, but he refused once more.34

He saw the Coalition Government as a cabal which had seized power against the sense of the prince; and left him no choice in the appointment of ministers; no voice as to the measures they were to pursue: ‘a republic of the worst sort’.35 Fox’s East India bill he described, 20 November, as ‘an attack on the liberties of the subject, the independence of Parliament, the prerogative of the Crown, and the principles of the constitution’; and the motion against interventions on behalf of the King in parliamentary proceedings, 17 Dec. 1783, as ‘the last pang of a desperate party’.36

He was created a peer, 5 Jan. 1784: strongly conscious, even toward Chatham, of his own position as head of the House of Pitt, he required rank. In the Lords he supported William Pitt’s Government (but in 1785 was opposed to his cousin’s scheme of parliamentary reform).37 He died in Florence, 19 Jan. 1793.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier


  • 1. ‘Family Characters Anecdotes’, Fortescue mss at Boconnoc, hereafter referred to as ‘Memoir’.
  • 2. Chatham Corresp. i.
  • 3. Ibid. i. 256-257.
  • 4. Add. 32927, f. 156.
  • 5. Pitt to Grenville, 12 Apr. 1763, Grenville mss (JM).
  • 6. 13 Apr. 1763, Grenville letter bk.
  • 7. To Chas. Lyttelton, bp. of Carlisle, who forwarded the letter to Grenville, 16 June, Grenville mss (JM).
  • 8. Sedgwick, 218.
  • 9. For an eminently fair and objective character of him by Pitt see GRENVILLE, George.
  • 10. R. Blunt, Eliz. Montagu, i. 89.
  • 11. Harris’s ‘Debates’.
  • 12. 16 July, Grenville mss (JM).
  • 13. 19 July, Grenville letter bk.
  • 14. Pitt to Grenville, 13 Aug., Grenville mss (JM).
  • 15. 11 Aug. ibid.
  • 16. Cal. Home Office Pprs. 1760-5, p. 672.
  • 17. Grenville Pprs. iii. 341.
  • 18. Mems. Geo. III, iii. 262.
  • 19. For Pitt’s account of the meeting see his letter to Grenville, 7 Oct. 1769, Grenville mss (JM).
  • 20. Corresp. for Feb.-Mar. 1768 in Caldwell Pprs, ii(2), pp. 132-7, does not explain Pitt’s nomination of Craufurd, but shows that it was personal to him.
  • 21. Cavendish’s Debates, i. 11-12.
  • 22. Ibid. 184; Chatham Corresp. iii. 350.
  • 23. Walpole, Last Jnls. i. 11.
  • 24. Brickdale’s ‘Debates’.
  • 25. Last Jnls. ii. 117.
  • 26. Almon, viii. 394.
  • 27. Last Jnls. ii. 296.
  • 28. Thoroton to the Duke of Rutland, 7 Apr., HMC Rutland, iii. 27.
  • 29. Almon, xvii. 376; Debrett, v. 31-32, 71-72, 74-78.
  • 30. Debrett, vii. 127-33, 137-8; ix. 700-6.
  • 31. Debrett, ix. 232-5, 359.
  • 32. Fortescue, vi. 265-8, 321-7.
  • 33. See also another paper by Pitt, marked by the King ‘Mr. Thos. Pitt’s first paper’, Fortescue, vi. 318-19. The date suggested for it by Fortescue, ‘?28 Mar.’ is certainly wrong, but it is difficult to determine its relation to vi. 265-8—it reads like its summary, and materially adds nothing to it. Some phrases from it are included below.
  • 34. Fortescue, vi. 326-7; Life of Shelburne, ii. 256, 261.
  • 35. Debrett, ix. 700-6.
  • 36. Debrett, xii. 446.
  • 37. See HARDINGE, Geo.