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Sunday, 5 March 2017

William Pitt the Younger


William Pitt the Younger was born at Hayes Place in the village of Hayes, Kent on May 28, 1759.

Younger Pitt

His father William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham, was British Prime Minister between 1756-61 and 1766-68. He is regarded as the founder of the British Empire.

Frederick the Great said of Pitt the Elder "England has been in labour a long time...but at last she has given birth to a man."

William's mother was Lady Hester Pitt. Pitt the Younger was the second son and fourth child out of five; his elder brother, John Pitt, also had a political career.

A sickly child, William was educated at home by the Reverend Edward Wilson because of his poor health. An intelligent child, he quickly became proficient in Latin and Greek.

In 1773, aged just 14, he entered Pembroke Hall at the University of Cambridge, where he studied political philosophy, the classics, and history.

Statue of Pitt at Pembroke College, Cambridge, his alma mater. By Vysotsky

In 1776, Pitt, plagued by poor health, took advantage of a little-used privilege available only to the sons of noblemen, and chose to graduate without having to pass examinations.

Pitt's father, who had by then been created Earl of Chatham, died in 1778. As a younger son, Pitt the Younger received a minuscule inheritance. He received legal education at Lincoln's Inn, and was called to the bar in 1780.


Pitt entered Parliament as the member for Appleby in 1781.

The youthful Pitt cast aside his tendency to be withdrawn in public, emerging as a noted debater right from his maiden speech. Edmund Burke said of young Pitt's first speech in the House of Commons "not merely a chip of the old block, but the old block himself." (Thinking of Pitt's father.)

When the Whig prime minister Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham died in 1782 only three months after coming to power; he was succeeded by another Whig, William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne. Pitt joined his government; and was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer


William Pitt the Younger became the youngest British prime minister at age 24 on December 19, 1783. His appointment was dismissed by opposition leader Charles Fox as “a boyish prank”.

Many saw Pitt as a stop-gap appointment until some more senior statesman took on the role. However, Pitt gained great popularity with the public at large as "Honest Billy" who was seen as a refreshing change from the dishonesty, corruption and lack of principles widely associated with other political leaders. He declared an election and the people were behind the young upstart. His administration was re-elected with a large majority.

Pitt won a personal triumph in the 1784 election when he was elected a Member for the University of Cambridge, a constituency he had long coveted and which he would continue to represent for the remainder of his life.

A youthful admirer of Adam Smith’s The Wealth Of Nations, Pitt directed his administrative career towards economic reform, as he prioritized the rehabilitation of the nation's finances after the American War of Independence. The National Debt had trebled within the preceding two decades and Pitt attempted to pay it off in the space of 28 years by means of a sinking fund. By 1792 the debt had fallen from £243 million to £170 million.

The commencement of hostilities with France in 1793 put a stop to that plan, so Pitt was forced to issue exchequer bills to help finance the war.

In A new way to pay the National Debt (1786), James Gillray caricatured Queen Charlotte and George III awash with treasury funds to cover royal debts, with Pitt handing them another moneybag.

Income tax was first introduced by Pitt in 1799 as temporary wartime measure at a rate of two shillings (10p) in the pound.

He supported political reform until the French Revolution, when fearing the same in England, Pitt became reactionary and began suppressing anything that might undermine the state.

Pitt's 1799 Combination Act was a response to a series of strikes by skilled workers. It forbade anyone forming a Trade Union.

Pitt resigned on February 16, 1801 over George III’s opposition to his proposed policy of Catholic emancipation in Ireland.

Pitt supported the new administration, but with little enthusiasm; he frequently absented himself from Parliament, preferring to remain in his Lord Warden's residence of Walmer Castle.

In 1804, Pitt returned as Prime Minister to help co-ordinate a response to the growing threat of Napoleon.

Pitt was the British prime minister for 20 out of his 47 years, the highest percentage of lifetime as leader of any British PM.


An orator of great power and influence, Pitt had as much influence during the Napoleonic wars as Lloyd George and Churchill had during the two World Wars .

In 1793, Pitt decided to take advantage of a slave revolt in the French colony of St. Domingue (modern Haiti) to seize the richest French colony in the world, The British landed in St. Domingue on September 20, 1793. However, the heavy death toll caused by yellow fever made conquering the colony impossible.

Undeterred Pitt launched what he called the "great push" in 1795, sending out the largest British expedition yet mounted to conquer St. Domingue. As the British death toll caused by yellow fever continued to climb, Pitt was criticized in the House of Commons with several MPs suggesting it might be better to abandon the expedition. The British eventually pulled out in August 1798 after having spent 4 million pounds (a sum roughly equal to about £224,120,000.00 in today's money) and having lost about 100, 000 dead and wounded over the preceding five years, achieving nothing.

Pitt (standing centre) addressing the Commons on the outbreak of the war with France (1793); painting by Anton Hickel

At the end of the 18th century,  Pitt organised an alliance with Austria, Russia and the Ottoman Empire against Napoleon. However, the fall of the coalition with the defeat of the Austrians at the Marengo at the Battle of Hohenlinden in 1800 left Great Britain facing France alone.

On Pitt's return as prime minister in 1804, Britain joined the Third Coalition, an alliance that also involved Austria, Russia, and Sweden. In October 1805 Britain won a crushing victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, after which Pitt was toasted as savior of Europe.

When he heard the news that Napoleon had defeated his alliance at Austerlitz in December 1805, Pitt was in declining health. The ailing prime minister declared, "Roll up that map. It will not be wanted these ten years." The coalition collapsed after this loss.


Pitt was nicknamed "The bottomless Pitt" on account of his thinness.

William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806)

Pitt was haughty, imperious, private and cold. He had a formidable capacity for detail.

He was a workaholic bachelor who felt it was his duty to remain single for his "king and country's sake." It is said Pitt banished men to Australia without their wives as he felt because he was on his own so should they be.

In the film The Young Mr Pitt he declares to a flirty girl "Until victory is won, there must be no softness in my heart."

Another bachelor prime minister, Edward Heath said: "Pitt the younger was a great British P.M. He saved England from Napoleon, he was the pilot who weathered the storm. I don't know whether he'd have done it any better or quicker had he been married. "

In his early days as prime minister, Pitt was so involved in his work that he got himself into debt partly because of loans not repaid by members of his family. His debts were such that he had mortgaged his salary to Coutts Bank and he died owing £40,000. Parliament agreed to pay them off on his behalf after his death.

Pitt said: "Poverty of course is no disgrace but it is damned annoying."


The sickly Pitt was given some medical advice in his teens to drink port to strengthen his constitution. For the rest of his life, he enthusiastically followed this advice.

William Pitt daily drunk on average three bottles of port, and up to two bottles of sherry and one and a half bottles of claret a day. At times blind drunk, on more than one occasion when making a speech in the House of Commons he had to duck behind the speaker's chair to be sick.

On one occasion Pitt had a nasty swelling on his jaw so he asked the surgeon John Hunter to remove it. The eminent surgeon told his patient it would take six minutes to remove the swelling. During the painful surgery Pitt stoically stared at his pocket watch and when the gruesome operation had been completed he turned to Hunter and declared "Thirty seconds too long".


William Pitt died on January 23, 1806 at Bowling Green House on Putney Heath crushed by the overthrow of his coalition against Napoleon and the effects of years of drinking three bottles of port daily. The cause of death was likely peptic ulceration of his stomach or duodenum.

After muttering "I think I could eat one of Bellamy's meat pies", Pitt seemed to be delirious, but gradually he settled, and at about half past two in the morning, he said his last words: "Oh my country! How I leave my country."

Pitt's body was buried in Westminster Abbey a month later, having lain in state for two days in the Palace of Westminster

Trollope in The Warden described the monument to Pitt in Westminster Abbey as "who looks as though he had just entered the Church for the first time in his life and was anything but pleased at finding himself there."

Lord Byron wrote the following epitaph:
 With death doomed to grapple
Beneath this cold slap, he
Who lied in the chapel
Now lies in the Abbey.

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