Pitt William Pitt the Younger twice served as Prime Minister: from 19 December 1783 to 14 March 1801 and from 10 May 1804 to 23 January 1806. Hewas born on 28 May 1759 at Hayes near Bromley in Kent: that year was also the Anno Mirabilis of the Seven Years' War being conducted by Pitt the Elder. The younger Pitt was the second son and fourth of five children born to William Pitt and his wife Hester Grenville. The younger Pitt's mother was the sister of George Grenville and Earl Temple; the boy was always the favourite son of Pitt the Elder, who was created Earl of Chatham in 1766.

Pitt was a fragile, sickly child, with inherited gout. Because of his debilitating ailments, he was taught at home by Rev. Edward Wilson, a Cambridge graduate. The boy was competent in Latin at the age of seven; he had a quick, retentive mind and seems to have been more interested in books than in 'gentlemanly' sporting activities. His father took a personal interest in his son's studies, preparing him to excel as an orator by setting him sight and verbal translations of passages from Greek and Latin authors, and hearing him recite. In 1773 he was sent to Pembroke Hall (now College), Cambridge, at the age of fourteen, where he studied classics, maths, English history and political philosophy. At University, Pitt worked hard and showed a reserved, aloof, and self-controlled character. He graduated with an MA, without examination, in 1776. His father chose Cambridge because, having been educated at Oxford-and hating every moment of it, he did not want his son to go to there.

In 1773 Pitt suffered an attack of gout, and Dr. Anthony Addington (father of PM Henry Addington) prescribed a bottle of port a day as the cure. Port is the most toxic of all wines and the prescribed remedy probably exacerbated the problem. Pitt was only fourteen years old but he continued to drink throughout his life.  Henry Addington commented 'Mr. Pitt liked a glass of port very well, and a bottle better'.

Whilst he was at university Pitt became friendly with Lord Camden and several other peers, which stood him in good stead when he entered political life. From early 1775 and while still at Cambridge, he often went to hear debates in parliament. Pitt apparently was consciously preparing himself for parliament. On one occasion he was introduced to Charles James Fox: ultimately, the two became sworn political enemies. He was present at his father's last speech in the House of Lords on 7 April 1778, and helped to carry the earl from the chamber.

On 11 May 1778 the Earl of Chatham died leaving his son an income of less than £3,000 a year; in the same year Pitt entered Lincoln's Inn to study law. He ran into debt and stayed that way until his death.  He was called to the Bar in June 1780 and joined the Western Circuit. He also stood as candidate for Cambridge University in the 1780 General Election and came last in the poll out of five candidates, but secured 14% of the total votes cast. Pitt began canvassing patrons for a seat in parliament, and in November 1780 he was offered Appleby by Sir James Lowther, through influence of Duke of Rutland who was a university friend of Pitt. In January 1781, at the age of 21, Pitt took his seat in the House of Commons. Samuel Goodenough, an MP, said in February 1781, 'The famous William Pitt, who made so capital a figure in the last reign, is restored to us', and Edmund Burke commented: 'He's not a chip off the old block; it's the old block itself'. Pitt attached himself to Shelburne's group — naturally enough, since this was his father's political following.  

Pitt's maiden speech supported Burke's Bill of Oeconomical Reform. Pitt was called on by MPs to speak with no warning and no chance to prepare; he stood up and demonstrated his oratorical ability. Pitt had a rich voice and was an effective speaker: cool, incisive and a master of reasoned argument. He was rarely emotive but was a very impressive speaker who used a wide vocabulary. For example, when speaking of the American War, he called it 'most accursed, wicked, barbarous, cruel, unnatural, unjust and diabolical'. Pitt was most concerned about the American War and in 1782 he moved for a Select Committee to consider a reform of parliament with the intention of consolidating middle-class power and restricting the influence of Crown; the motion was defeated. He spoke rarely until 1783 when he became PM ,and he refused 'minor office' under Rockingham.  Pitt was influenced by Shelburne and was never a democrat. He also had powerful friends.

Pitt was appointed Chancellor of Exchequer at the age of twenty-four by Shelburne in July 1783. Pitt knew little about his new duties and less about practical business of government, although he was in all but name leader of the Government in the Commons. There were only three commoners in Shelburne's Government and the Ministry was insecure because Shelburne could not command a majority despite having royal support. In 1783 Shelburne resigned following a concentrated onslaught from Lord North, Charles James Fox, and their supporters. Pitt, who declined to form a government, also resigned. Many of Pitt's later economic measures carried out Shelburne's policies although Pitt gave scant recognition to Shelburne.

On 12 September 1783 he went to France with William Wilberforce and Edward Eliot, the only visit that he made to the continent. He stayed some time at Rheims, where he met Talleyrand, and on 9 October he went to Paris and Fontainebleau. He returned to England on 24 October and took up residence in his brother's house in Berkeley Square, intending to resume his legal work.

Holwood House in c. 1795. Pitt the Younger bought the estate ten years earlier.

The Fox-North coalition, under the nominal leadership of the Duke of Portland, survived only until December 1783 when George III successfully undermined the ministry. On 19 December Pitt accepted the post of PM at the age of 24. His ministry was hailed as a 'mince-pie' administration and it was not expected to last much beyond Christmas. This first ministry survived until 14 March 1801. However, Pitt spent the first month as PM fending off attacks in parliament from Fox, suffering a number of defeats in the process.

In February 1784 Pitt was made a Freeman of the City of London. As he returned from the ceremony his carriage was attacked opposite Brooks's, the club frequented by his opponents, and he escaped with difficulty. This outrage caused much indignation against the opposition politicians and Fox's majority sank to twelve on 1 March. The following month Pitt won a general election to retain his position as PM and also won one of the seats for Cambridge University, a constituency that he represented for the rest of his life.

On Pitt's advice, Wilberforce took up the slave-trade question; Wilberforce was ill on 9 May 1788 so Pitt brought forward the resolution for him. It was supported by Fox and Burke and was carried. In 1790 the king pressed Pitt to accept the Order of the Garter but he declined, requesting that it might be conferred on his brother, Lord Chatham, instead. However, in August 1792 and at the king's request he accepted the wardenship of the Cinque ports, which was worth about £3,000 a year. In the autumn of 1785 he had bought Holwood, an estate near Bromley, Kent, which put him further into debt. He took delight in the place and loved to improve it but his affairs fell into disorder. He neglected them and his servants robbed him.

Pitt's premiership in peacetime lasted from 1783 until 1789 when the French Revolution occurred. During that period he rescued the nation's financed from the brink of disaster but that work was undone by the lengthy French Wars that began in 1793.

Pitt appears to have had little in the way of a non-working life. He never married and was held to be 'indifferent' to women. In 1797 he renounced his expected marriage to Eleanor Eden on the grounds of his great debts of about £30,000. His hostess at Downing Street was Jane, Duchess of Gordon. Private debts caused Pitt a great deal embarrassment. His official salaries had amounted to £10,500 but he owed £45,000 in 1801. On his resignation as PM, his creditors began pressing him for payment, and it looked as though he might be declared bankrupt. A group of London merchants offered him £100,000 and the king proposed a gift of £30,000 from his privy purse, but Pitt declined both. Finally fourteen of his friends and supporters gave him £11,700 as a loan (which was never repaid) and he sold Holwood which, after the mortgage on it was paid, brought him £4,000. His birthday on 28 May 1802 was celebrated by a dinner, for which Canning wrote the song 'The pilot that weathered the storm'. Pitt, who was at Walmer Castle, was not present. In 1803 he took his niece, Lady Hester Stanhope, to live with him, and, while spending the autumn at Walmer, organised and reviewed a large body of Cinque port volunteers in anticipation of a French invasion.

At the close of the session of 1805, Pitt's health was poor. The news of the Battle of Trafalgar that had taken place on 21 October affected his sleep. On 9 November he attended the lord mayor's banquet. When he was toasted as 'the Saviour of Europe' he said that Europe was not to be saved by any one man, and that 'England has saved herself by her exertions; and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example'. On 7 December he went to Bath and while he was there he heard the news of the battle of Austerlitz that had taken place on 2 December. When he heard of the armistice that followed it, he became very ill. He left Bath on 9 January 1806. As he entered his house he saw the map of Europe on the wall: it called forth one of him most famous comments: 'Roll up that map, it will not be wanted these ten years'. On the 13 January he received Lords Hawkesbury (later Lord Liverpool) and Castlereagh, and on 14th received Lord Wellesley. Pitt took to his bed on 16 January and was visited by his tutor — now Bishop-Pretyman, to whom he dictated his will. He died early on the 23 January. His last words are variously reported as being, 'Oh, my country! how I leave my country!' or 'I think I could eat one of Bellamy's veal pies'. His debts amounted to £40,000; they were paid by the nation; pensions were granted to his three nieces, and a public funeral was voted, which was carried out on 22 February in Westminster Abbey.

Pitt had an image of austerity and appeared to have manners that were cold and repellent. He trained himself to the presentation of an exterior of calmness and self-possession. Most his supporters admired and obeyed him but were not drawn to him personally. Men found him stiff and unbending; and the king felt far more comfortable with Addington. Pitt had few intimate friends but he did enjoy company; he spent a great deal of his spare time with younger MPs. Together they indulged in practical jokes, horse-play and bouts of heavy drinking. Almost the whole of Pitt's life was spent in parliament; he was Prime Minister for almost nineteen years out of a parliamentary career lasting twenty-five years. He was always in debt; he drank heavily and probably died of renal failure and cirrhosis of the liver at the age of forty-six.

Related Material

Recommended Reading

John Erhman, The Younger Pitt. 3 vols. London, Constable, 1969.

Robin Reilly, Pitt the Younger 1759-1806. London, Cassell, 1978.

J. D. Jarrett, Pitt the Younger. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974.


Victorian Overview Victorian History Prime Ministers of England

Last modified 4 January 2006