While reading about the life of William Wickham, Britain’s first spy master, I came across a reference to ‘the notorious and disgraced Lord Camelford.’ Obviously I had to find out more.
Born at Boconnoc near Lostwithiel in Cornwall – the house purchased by the Pitt family in 1717 after selling the famous Pitt diamond to the Regent of France (the diamond ended up in the hilt of Napoleon’s sword) - Thomas Pitt was a cousin of both Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and William, Lord Grenville, secretary of state at the Foreign Office.
Thomas spent his early years in Switzerland then returned to England and was enrolled at Charterhouse School. He later claimed those years were the happiest of his life. So why did his father want to move him to a different public school? Whatever the reason, in a sign of things to come, Thomas rebelled and enlisted in the navy as an able seaman.
By the age of sixteen he had already acquired a reputation for bad behaviour. Yet when most of the crew abandoned HMS Guardian after she struck an iceberg near the Cape of Good Hope Pitt remained on board. Aided by the remaining crew he helped Captain Riou bring the ship safely into Table Bay.
Pitt then joined Captain Vancouver’s ship, HMS Discovery on a voyage of diplomacy and discovery. Because all officer berths were taken he again signed on as an able seaman.
In Tahiti he was flogged for trying to buy the favours of an island woman with a piece of broken barrel hoop. He was flogged again for unauthorised trading with Indians at Port Stewart, flogged once more for breaking the ship’s binnacle glass while fooling about, and finally clapped in irons after he was discovered asleep when he should have been on watch.
In 1793 his father died, elevating Thomas to the peerage as the second Baron Camelford, an event that would have lethal repercussions for Captain Vancouver. This same year when one of the ships on the expedition returned to England, Vancouver sent the unmanageable Pitt with her. But Pitt jumped ship in Hawaii. After being discharged from another ship and shipwrecked off Ceylon, eventually he got back to Europe, seething at what he perceived as ill-treatment by Capt. Vancouver who had returned to England in 1795.
Pitt challenged Vancouver to a duel which the captain declined saying he was unable ‘in a private capacity to answer for his conduct in his official duty.’ So Pitt stalked then attacked him on a street corner in London. While accusations and rebuttals flew back and forth in the press, an ill and exhausted Vancouver died.
In 1797 Pitt was promoted to lieutenant and given command of HMS Favourite over the head of her first lieutenant, Charles Peterson, who was his senior. Refusing to serve under Pitt, Peterson transferred to HMS Perdrix. When both ships were in Antigua in 1798, the two men quarrelled over rank. After Peterson three times refused Pitt’s orders, Pitt shot and killed him.
Pitt was court-martialled but acquitted, probably due to Admiralty panic over the recent Spithead and Nore mutinies. He joined another ship but was arrested for trying to make an unauthorised visit to France, then at war with England.
Leaving the navy he returned to London but his behaviour didn’t improve. Fined for knocking a man downstairs during a quarrel, he fought a mob that smashed his windows because he hadn’t lit lamps to celebrate the peace with France.
Yet in 1799 he donated £1500 towards the establishment of a school in Soho Square.
His volatile temper led him to challenge his friend, Captain Best, to a duel over an uncomplimentary remark Best was supposed to have made to Pitt’s latest fling who had previously been Best’s mistress.
The following day Best asked Pitt in the name of their friendship to withdraw his challenge. Fearful of being called a coward Pitt refused.
On 7th March 1804 they met in a field near Holland House. Pitt fired and missed. Best’s shot left Pitt paralysed and bleeding internally. He died three days later, leaving instructions that Best was not to be charged. He was twenty-nine years old. The title died with him.
Despite his strong sense of honour and proven courage, Thomas Pitt’s violent nature and frequent legal battles saw him condemned as mad. Today’s medical knowledge might offer a less scathing diagnosis.