PITT, Thomas I (1653-1726), of Pall Mall, and Mawarden Court, Stratford sub Castle, Wilts.
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Family and Education
b. 5 July 1653, 2nd surv. s. of John Pitt, rector of Blandford St. Mary, Dorset 1645–72, by Sarah, da. of John Jay of West Hemsworth, Witchampton, Dorset. m. by 1679, Jane, da. of James Innes of Reid Hall, Moray, 4s. (1 d.v.p.) 2da. (1 d.v.p.).
Freeman, E. I. Co. 1688; asst. N. W. America trading co. 1691; pres. Fort St. George, Madras 1697–1709; gov. Jamaica 1716–17.1
Commr. taking subscriptions to S. Sea Co. 1711, building 50 new churches 1715–d.2
Almost the prototype of the ‘nabob’, Pitt made two fortunes in India, the first as a freelance trader and the second as poacher turned gamekeeper, in the employ of the Old East India Company whose interests he had hitherto subverted, and whose governor, Sir Josiah Child†, could never be brought to regard him otherwise than with distaste as ‘that roughling, immoral man’. A younger son of a cadet branch of the Pitts of Strathfieldsaye, Hampshire, he had originally gone east in the company’s service in 1673 but had deserted to work in a private capacity with Matthias Vincent† of Hugli, the chief officer of the company in the Bay of Bengal, and Richard Edwards, head of the factory at Balasore. He came back eight years later a man of substance, but was soon obliged to return to India to repair his interloping operation after the exasperated Child had dismissed Vincent and Edwards and begun legal action against them and their accomplices in order to reassert the chartered monopoly, culminating, in Pitt’s case, in a fine of £1,000. His trading activities were in no way curtailed, however, and by 1688 he and the company had struck an uneasy peace: part of his fine had been abated, and he had been admitted a freeman, holding some £300 of stock. In the meantime he had been investing on a large scale in property in England: a ‘comfortable establishment’ in London, and estates in Dorset and Wiltshire, settling his country seat at Stratford sub Castle, outside and adjacent to the decaying borough of Old Sarum, in which he was able to cultivate a strong, and in due course a dominant, interest.3
Pitt had a businessman’s contempt for politicians, and although sparing no scruples in his own pursuit of commercial gain, affected to demand high standards from Members of Parliament. The advice he lavished on his eldest son as to how to behave in the Commons combined practical common sense with a traditional idealism (see PITT, Robert). Perhaps because he was a parvenu, Pitt prized the constitutional virtues of what he called ‘a country gentleman Parliament’. In practice, however, it was his commercial interests that preoccupied him in the House, and also tended to dictate his political allegiances, in the narrow sense that the current state of his relationship with the Old East India Company determined his attitude to administration, and more generally in that the preservation of trade routes and security for shipping disposed him to take a strong view of the need for national defence against the French. While professing a ‘veneration’ for the Church of England he was suspicious of those who exploited the Church’s ‘name’ as a ‘rattle . . . to bring over a party’, and was always more conscious himself of the external threat posed by Louis XIV than of the dangers of domestic religious dissension. A man who stood across the parties rather than a moderate, his habitual vehemence of expression disguised the character of a ‘trimmer’, and it is no surprise that the political primer he recommended to his son was the Miscellanies of Lord Halifax (George Savile†).4
In the Convention Pitt had attacked the East India Company, and supported the disabling clause of the corporations bill. This was enough to justify his classification as a Whig in Lord Carmarthen’s (Sir Thomas Osborne†) list of the new Parliament in 1690. Naturally he was nominated to various committees on East Indian affairs. In April 1691 Robert Harley* marked him as a Country party supporter. Closely involved in the first attempt to replace the East India Company with an alternative body controlling the Indian trade, Pitt was a member of the ‘committee of 24’ appointed by the interloping syndicate in October 1691 to co-ordinate its campaign for a charter, and that same month was seconded to the sub-committee to which the syndicate entrusted the task of drafting a parliamentary bill for the establishment of a new company. He spoke in the House on 13 Nov. in a debate on East Indian affairs, ‘for a new company and against the old’, and four days later in a committee of the whole for the hearing of complaints against the company. Described by Luttrell as ‘a prosecutor of the East India Company’, Pitt ‘delivered into the committee the heads of complaint against the company, consisting of 16 articles’. His other recorded contribution to debate in this session took place on 11 Jan. 1692, when he presented a petition ‘from divers artificers and tradesmen that had served the Ordnance’, complaining that the Exchequer tallies they had been paid with were ‘so far behind and after so much it was little worth’. It is possible that at about this time he was himself suffering financial losses, as one of his biographers has speculated, though this suggestion is not easily reconciled with his expanding portfolio of commercial interests, from international enterprises in the transatlantic trade down to such local undertakings as the Avon navigation project. At any rate, he spoke with some feeling in the House on 21 Nov. 1692 in affirmation of ‘the truth of the report’ from the committee of inquiry into shipping losses. Luttrell noted that he
said he believed 1,200 of the 1,500 ships were taken within the soundings, in the chops of the Channel, for want of stationary ships to guard them; that, as to the number of them taken belonging to the several ports of this kingdom, they would by far exceed the number of 1,500 – nay, that he believed there were more taken than were left in the whole kingdom. Then he desired to know that, since the winter was come on so far, how it comes to pass there is no winter guard at sea? And though it is said it is no sign of the decrease of the trade of this nation because the customs are as high as usual, yet it arises not from thence but because of the great duties now on commodities, but if you abstract all the new duties from the old you will find a difference.
It is conceivable that business worries, in the form of increased sensitivity to competition from the Dutch, were also at the root of his strong remarks on 5 Dec. on the subject of ‘foreign’ influences at court. Leading off in the debate in the committee of the whole on advice to the King, he produced a motion that positively stamped over very dangerous ground:
As the last time you made a good step to remove foreign officers, so I am now for removing foreigners out of your councils. Therefore I am for an address to his Majesty that foreigners may not be the dictators of affairs here in England.
These proved to be sentiments the majority did not share.
On 22 Dec. he returned to more familiar territory, when he
complained to the House of an abuse done to him and some other Members – that they had gone and printed a paper of the governor, deputy-governor and 24 committee for a new East India company, and had made them members thereof, when he knew nothing of the matter.
The House, however, ‘looking on it as a simple thing and only a trick of some persons who were against the Old Company, they let it fall’.5
Inclusion among the supporters of the Court in Grascome’s list, compiled at some point after the spring of 1693, seems on the face of it incompatible with Pitt’s speeches in the previous session, notably his tirade against foreign councillors, but it may reflect the shifting political configurations of the ‘moneyed men’ in the City following the rise to power of the Junto Whigs. Certainly Pitt put some of his funds into the newly established Bank of England in 1694. By this time he was back in India, on what was to prove his last interloping voyage. The company had tried to prevent his ships from putting to sea, but after a hearing at the Privy Council in March 1693 he and his partner obtained permission to go as far as Madeira, and with the tacit consent of the King (who had clearly forgiven Pitt his Commons ranting) they travelled on, arriving at Pitt’s old haunt at Balasore in the autumn. As usual, company officials found his conduct unbearable, denouncing it as little better than piracy. ‘Captain Pitt’, one reported, ‘made a great bouncing, and have carried himself very haughtily.’ But there was little that could be done: ‘notwithstanding all our endeavours . . . to frustrate and oppose the interlopers in their designs, they are rather countenanced and encouraged by the whole country in general’. In these circumstances the company’s court, and in particular Sir Thomas Cooke*, decided to make peace and offered Pitt terms. When he returned to England in 1695 he acted for the company as an intermediary in its attempt to purchase goods held by the French, a service which a year later was paid for by a remittance to him of certain duties. At about the same time, in December 1696, he successfully recommended a connexion of his to the post of company factor in India, a sign that the rapprochement was complete. This reversal of alliances had its effect on his politics. During his time in India his chronic absenteeism had only once been brought to the notice of the Commons, in January 1695, when he and two other defaulters were the subject of inquiry and debate. While the others were summoned, no action was taken in his case. He returned himself at Old Sarum in the 1695 general election, but, aside from signing the Association, seems to have taken little part in the proceedings of the first session of that Parliament. In the summer of 1696 he and Robert were granted a pass to travel to Holland, almost certainly on business, but he was back at Westminster in time to vote on 28 Nov. against the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†, a striking departure from his previous partisan allegiance, and doubtless to be explained by his new involvement with the East India Company. At the end of the Parliament he was still being characterized as a ‘Country party’ man, in the analysis of the 1698 election results. By this time, however, he was once more in India. Probably at Cooke’s instigation, the company had appointed him in December 1697 to its Madras presidency, over the resistance of the unforgiving Child, and in July 1698 he arrived at his base, Fort St. George.6
Pitt’s 11-year stint as president and governor of Fort St. George frequently displayed the least attractive aspects of his personality. Arrogant, overbearing and at best blunt-spoken, he rode roughshod over the sensitivities of his council, and quarrelled bitterly with anyone who stood in his way. His particular venom was reserved for servants and allies of the New Company, most notably his cousin John Pitt, who as the New Company’s chief agent on the coast of Coromandel was for the first few years his direct adversary, and thereafter, following the union of the two companies in 1702, his underhand rival. Relations with his own friends and family were often equally turbulent: he conducted a long-distance marital feud with his wife, and in exerting parental discipline over his sons resorted more readily to threats and scorn than to praise and encouragement. Not even those like (Sir) Stephen Evance* or John Dolben*, who were entrusted with the supervision of his affairs in England, could expect to escape the lash of his tongue in the event of any mishap, the one exception being his kinsman George Pitt* of Strathfieldsaye, to whom he paid an exaggerated respect and before whose social standing he seems to have been abashed. But in administrative terms his stewardship of the Old Company’s affairs was on the whole a success. Nor did he neglect his own advantage, growing ‘prodigious rich’ again, and amassing, according to one estimate, a fortune of £300,000. His greatest coup, and the episode with which his name was ever after coupled, was the acquisition in 1702 of what came to be known as the ‘Regent diamond’, a gem of monstrous size, weighing 410 carats, for which he paid a bargain price of little over £20,000. The history of the diamond, its transportation home in the care of Robert Pitt, its cutting at the cost of £7,000 (more than recouped from the cleavage and dust alone) and its eventual sale in 1717 to the French regent for £135,000, became a contemporary legend, and Pitt found it necessary to deny some of the wilder fancies which became attached to the original tale and which imputed outright larceny to what had been a sharp but legal purchase. Some of the mud stuck, however, and where it did not, envy produced the same effect.7
Politically, Pitt remained during his Indian exile most closely associated with the Tory circles that still controlled the Old Company. Cooke’s personal support was vital, but other regular correspondents like Thomas Coulson*, Sir Henry Johnson* and Arthur Moore* were not much less important, especially in the critical years 1701–3 which witnessed the reconciliation between the companies and the parcelling out of Indian appointments between them. Although urged by some of his friends to mollify New Company moguls like (Sir) Gilbert Heathcote* and not to write the ‘provoking letters’ that seemed to issue naturally from his pen, he signally failed to display the requisite diplomacy. Instead he regarded Heathcote’s intrigues in London and the machinations of John Pitt at Fort St. David (who had been installed as governor there as part of the 1703 compromise) as a challenge to be faced down. Yet in observing from afar the party battle in England he still reserved his judgment. The minority of Whigs among his correspondents, most notably Dolben, provided him with a view from the other side, and in any case, once the crisis in his own affairs had passed and he had secured reappointment, his natural detachment from partisan causes was again visible. In September 1704 he wrote, ‘I like not the face of our public affairs abroad or at home. God send a miracle to save old England at last.’ In 1707 he berated Robert for letting himself become the catspaw of High Churchmen in the Commons; and a year later denounced him in even more violent terms:
It is said you are taken up with factious cabals, and are contriving among you to put a French kickshaw upon the throne again, for no true English heart as the present Queen has (and pursues no other interest than that of her own nation) can please your party. If I find or hear of any child of mine that herds with any to oppose her present Majesty’s interest, I will renounce him for ever.
He hoped for peace, but it would have to be on satisfactory terms, secured by force of arms.8
Pitt’s own statements of his financial position were never reliable, for he always pleaded poverty, or impending poverty if his wishes were not carried out or if his family continued in their extravagance in spite of him. Nor are his statements of intent – to stay in India or to return home – any more trustworthy as evidence, for his views changed with his moods. But from around 1707 onwards his determination to quit India took on an increasing solidity, partly from anxiety about ‘the ill management of my public and domestic affairs’, especially since the arrival in England of the diamond, and partly because the reported conspiracies of Heathcote and the New Company men (even after the death of John Pitt at Fort St. David) were becoming more alarming. The death of Cooke removed his most important prop. Dolben called it a ‘catastrophe’ and sent immediate word in January 1709 that Pitt’s ‘old enemies’ had attempted to ‘remove him’ from Madras as soon as they had secured the upper hand in the management. Furthermore, Pitt’s letters convey the impression that he felt Robert’s imprudent and spendthrift behaviour was imperilling the family’s fortune, though he may have been using this as a focus for other anxieties. His decision to come home anticipated the decision of the managers to dismiss him, and thus he had the satisfaction of resigning, with the boast that he left Madras, and Fort St. George in particular, ‘the jewel of all European settlements’. He had embarked by the close of 1709, and after a lengthy voyage, and a frustrating spell stranded at Bergen in Norway – ‘this melancholy place’, he called it – where to pass the time he compiled a lengthy vindication of his conduct over the acquisition of the great diamond, finally reached English soil in October.9
News of the Sacheverell trial and the consequent furore over the Church had shocked Pitt deeply. He feared that ‘our nation is ripe for destruction’. Yet the Tories welcomed his return in the expectation that his hostility to the New Company and to the other Whiggish financial institutions (he no longer held Bank stock, for example) would align him with the ministry, or at least with Robert Harley*. In September 1710 John Drummond† informed Harley from Amsterdam that he had spoken to Pitt en route for London:
I think I have made him yours, and have drunk your health heartily with him. He will have a powerful purse in England, and be a thorn in the side of some great men now at the head of the Bank and India Company if they should thwart you. Therefore, if you can get him chose in Cornwall, pray do.
There was no need for any such expedient, for Pitt was able to bring himself in at Old Sarum. He was classed as a Tory in the ‘Hanover list’, and in the first session was not only included among the ‘Tory patriots’ voting for peace, and the ‘worthy patriots’ who exposed the mismanagements of the previous administration, but was also a member of the October Club. This time he was not the only Pitt in the Commons: he took his place alongside George and Robert, and even Samuel Pytts, all Tories. He was an unsuccessful candidate on the Tory slate for the elections to the board of the united East India Company, and was named by Harley as one of the commissioners to receive subscriptions for the flotation of the South Sea Company. But his honeymoon with Harley’s ministry was over by the end of the year. He rebelled against the Court in the division of 7 Dec. 1711 on the motion for ‘No Peace without Spain’, and soon left the October Club for the March Club. So too did his son and cousin. It is highly probable that he was responsible for introducing on 27 May 1712 a bill for the continuance of the united East India Company, and for taking the chair of the committee of the whole in which the bill was discussed. A year later, and despite being added to the Wiltshire commission of the peace in December 1712, he had drifted even further from the ministry. He was listed as a Whig for having voted on 18 June 1713 against the French commerce bill. Fear of the French and fear for the succession were the forces impelling him back to his original party allegiance, and the marriage in February 1713 of his younger daughter to the rising Whig star James Stanhope* appears to have set the seal on his return.10
In the 1713 general election Pitt stood unsuccessfully for Wiltshire and Andover. His electoral failures frustrated Stanhope’s hope of being brought in at Old Sarum, for Pitt now needed a seat there himself. Having voted on 18 Mar. 1714 against the expulsion of Richard Steele, he spoke in a debate in April on the Spanish trade. His most telling intervention came on 22 Apr., when the Lords’ address on the peace was under discussion. As a result of the treaty, he argued, ‘the power of France’ had ‘so much increased’ that the only way to reduce it again would be to address the Queen to lend her ministers to King Louis. This rather heavy-handed wit aroused widespread laughter. An account of the debate misleadingly described him as a ‘discontented Tory’. In the Worsley list and two other lists of the Members re-elected in 1715 he was classed as a Whig.11
Pitt was uncompromisingly pro-Hanoverian: ‘I see nothing attending us but ruin and confusion’, he wailed in 1715, ‘and this is a consequence of the last cursed reign’, and above all of the peace, in which ‘the fruits of our victories’ had been carelessly ‘given up’. His criticism of his son’s Toryism was matched by his denunciation of the rebels. Re-elected in 1715 he remained in Parliament until his death, apart from a short interlude following his appointment as a colonial governor. Pitt died ‘of an apoplexy’ at Swallowfield, Berkshire on 28 Apr. 1726, and was buried at Blandford St. Mary. He was commemorated with an inscription detailing his ‘benefactions’, which comprised the restoration of two parish churches, including that of Blandford, and the erection of a third. In other respects he was a businessman par excellence, giving nothing away, resenting waste, and never lending except on ‘unquestionable security’. Where he failed, spectacularly, was in the management of his family. Three years before his death he had written pathetically, ‘the misfortune that all my sons have brought on me will very speedily carry my grey hairs to my grave, and I care not how soon it is, for I am surrounded with the plagues and troubles of this world’.12
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: D. W. Hayton
Unless otherwise stated, this biography draws heavily on C. N. Dalton, Life of Thomas Pitt.
- 1. Hedges Diary ed. Yule (Hakluyt Soc. lxxviii), pp. cxlix, clix; CSP Dom. 1690–1, p. 527,
- 2. Pittis, Present Parl. 351; F. Cundall, Govs. of Jamaica in 1st Half of 18th Cent. 66.
- 3. Add. 22185, f. 13.
- 4. Hedges Diary, p. ciii; HMC Fortescue, i. 18, 22, 27.
- 5. Bodl. Rawl. C.449 passim; Luttrell Diary, 16, 23–24, 120, 247, 294, 336; CSP Dom. 1693, p. 33; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1557–1696, pp. 321–3; Bodl. Carte 130, ff. 339–40.
- 6. DZA, Bonet despatch 6/16 July 1698; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 68; Hedges Diary, pp. xvii–xviii, xxiv, xxxii–xxxiii; DNB; CSP Dom. 1696, p. 248.
- 7. G. M. Trevelyan, Eng. under Q. Anne, iii. 157–8; Add. 22185, ff. 98, 111, 124, 130, 144; Wilts. RO, Penruddocke mss 332/267, George to Thomas Penruddocke, 31 Oct. 1704; Add. 70421, Dyer’s newsletter 18 Nov. 1710; HMC Fortescue, 23, 26, 38, 41.
- 8. Hedges Diary, pp. lxvii, lxxix; K. Feiling, Tory Party, 355–6; Add. 22186, f. 111; 22851, ff. 48, 58, 109; 22852, ff. 4, 10–11, 49, 73–76, 173; 59479, ff. 29, 83, 105; 59480, f. 109; 59481, f. 1; C110/28, Peter Godfrey to Pitt, 4 May 1700, Dolben to Pitt, 19 July 1701, 20 Oct. 1708, 18 Jan. 1709, Evance to Pitt, 1/11 Aug. 1702, Evance and Robert Pitt to Pitt, 20 Jan. 1706–7, Thomas Marshall to Pitt, 23 Jan. 1707–8; HMC Fortescue, 12, 18, 24, 27, 34, 39.
- 9. Add. 22186, ff. 130, 144; HMC Fortescue, 27, 30–31, 34, 37, 43–49; Hedges Diary, pp. cxiv–cxv, cxx.
- 10. HMC Portland, iv. 594; Huntington Lib. Stowe mss 58(8), p. 73; Boyer, Pol. State, i–ii. 263; iii. 120; Huntington Lib. Q. xxxiii. 165; Bull. IHR, xxxiii. 227; NSA, Kreienberg despatch 1 Apr. 1712; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 215; Speck thesis, 80; G. Holmes, Pol. in Age of Anne, 280, 283.
- 11. Hants RO, Jervoise mss, James Harris to Thomas Jervoise*, 30 Oct. 1713; Letters of Burnet to Duckett ed. Nichol Smith, 59; HMC 15th Rep. VII, 212–16; Add. 47027, ff. 100–1; Kreienberg despatch 22 Apr. 1714; Bonet despatch 23 Apr./4 May 1714; Wentworth Pprs. 379.
- 12. HMC Fortescue, 51; The Gen. n.s. vii. 44.