PITT, Thomas (c.1705-61), of Boconnoc, Cornw.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754, ed. R. Sedgwick, 1970
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

1727 - 1754
1754 - Mar. 1755
30 Mar. - 17 July 1761

Family and Education

b. c.1705, 1st s. of Robert Pitt and bro. of William Pitt (d.1778) , Earl of Chatham. educ. Eton c.1718-21. m. (1) c.1731, Christian (d. 5 June 1750), da. of Sir Thomas Lyttelton, 4th Bt., of Hagley, Worcs., sis. of George Lyttelton, 2s. 2da.; (2) c. 1 July 1761, Maria, da. of Gen. Murray. suc. fa. 1727.

Offices Held

Assay master of the stannaries Mar. 1738-Feb. 1742, lord warden Feb. 1742-Mar. 1751; recorder, Camelford 1735-d.

Biography

Soon after coming of age, Thomas Pitt succeeded to large entailed estates giving him the nomination of both Members for Old Sarum, and an interest sufficient, with careful attention, to command one and at times two seats at both Okehampton and Camelford. Determined to carve out for himself a parliamentary career, he felt the need for money as well as landed property, ignoring family claims which had been made on his grandfather’s death.

My father, [his son, the 1st Ld. Camelford wrote] seized whatever fell into his hands without account either belonging to my grandfather or grandmother, keeping at arms length every demand upon him, till somehow or other these litigations seem to have worn themselves out and slept by the acquiescence of all parties.1

Though the general election came only three months after his succession, he was active in all the constituencies where he had inherited an interest. Unsure of his strength at Okehampton, he had himself returned for Old Sarum as well, where he also brought in his uncle, Lord Londonderry. Electing to serve for Okehampton, he chose Matthew Chitty St. Quintin to join Londonderry. Another uncle, Col. John Pitt, represented him at Camelford. In his first Parliament, except for voting against the motion granting the King £115,000 for civil list arrears in April 1729, he supported the Administration. But in the next he followed his wife’s uncle, Lord Cobham, into opposition, carrying with him his brother, William, and his two brothers-in-law, George Lyttelton and Robert Nedham, whom he had brought in at Old Sarum and Okehampton, leaving Sir Thomas Lyttelton (Camelford) as the only Member returned by him who continued to support Walpole. A ‘dull’, ‘ill-informed’, speaker, he made no mark in the House, concentrating instead on electioneering.2 Owing to his electoral activities, he was forced in 1737 to obtain an Act of Parliament enabling him to sell Swallowfield to John Dodd for £20,770. Next year, he increased his dwindling income by accepting an office from the Prince of Wales, the beginning of a connexion which was ultimately to reduce him to bankruptcy, exile, and black despair.

At the general election of 1741, Pitt acted as Cornish election manager for the Prince, in alliance with Lord Falmouth (Hugh Boscawen) and the local Tories under Sir William Carew, against the government manager, Richard Edgcumbe. It was largely owing to his efforts that the Opposition won 27 out of 44 Members for Cornwall, the first time in this period that the Government had suffered defeat in that county. With his additional four seats at Old Sarum and Okehampton, he could claim to have played a major part in reducing Walpole’s parliamentary majority to a figure which proved inadequate. As a reward, the Prince promoted him to be warden of the stannaries.

From 1735 to 1742 Pitt’s politics had conformed to those of the Cobham group, consisting of William Pitt, Lyttelton, and the Grenvilles, who had also been closely associated with the Prince. But on Walpole’s fall, he went over with Frederick to the Administration, while the Cobhamites (though Lyttelton and William Pitt remained in the Prince’s service), continued to oppose. They eventually entered the Government in 1744 and 1746, but he parted company with them again in 1747, when he reverted to opposition with his royal master, for whom he again acted as chief election agent in Cornwall at the general election that year. Underestimating the importance of Falmouth’s conversion to the Administration and without Tory cooperation, he faced the campaign with high hopes of repeating the victory of 1741. To his brother-in-law Ayscough, the Prince’s clerk of the closet, he wrote that he saw ‘great reason to hope for success’:

I will be as active and diligent as possibly I can. I will spare no pains, nor scruple running any risk to promote the service of my master, who has bound me to him by the indissoluble tie of gratitude for favours and honours bestowed on me ... You tell me I am to spare neither money nor pains: to the utmost of my power I shall not, but the latter will hold out much longer than the former ... No men can attack to any purpose without ammunition sufficient for the attack.

But, in the event, instead of the sixteen Members he had hoped to return, he had to be content with twelve. Mournfully he reported:

I shall be ashamed to look the Prince in the face after the hopes that I had raised in him. I am vexed to the soul. What can I say? That I have been betrayed by villains that I had reason to depend on ... This I can say, that nothing has been wanting in me; but my success has been far short of the expense of money and trouble ... My uneasiness at present is so great that I hope never to be desired again to undertake the same kind of work. I would not, almost upon any consideration, undergo the same anxiety of mind, which success could hardly have recompensed me for ... I am most damnably mortified ... I shall hide myself at Boconnoc, for I am ashamed of making appearance in the world.

Comforted somewhat by a letter from the Prince, thanking him for his zeal and trouble, assuring him that he had ‘shown the enemy a better generalship than they can boast of’, and hoping to see him soon at Cliveden ‘with his gun’, he began to talk of the future, claiming that even where success had eluded him a foundation had been laid. But next year, hard pressed by his creditors, and challenged at both Camelford and Okehampton by the Duke of Bedford, his situation was ‘enough to make a man mad’.3 1749 and 1750 were spent in devising complicated schemes for borrowing enough money to stave off the bankruptcy to which his borough-mongering had reduced him. He and his brother-in-law, Ayscough, attempted to secure a lease of the tin farm in the duchy of Cornwall, obtaining petitions from the miners to call a stannaries parliament to be presided over by Pitt as lord warden to ratify the deal. Though Dodington opposed the scheme as a ‘scandalous job’, Pitt ‘lured [the Prince] to it by shewing to him new acquisitions in the Cornish elections’. The parliament of tinners met in the summer of 1750, but refused to be guided by the lord warden either as to their place of meeting or any of the business they were to transact, ending in a complete fiasco.4 According to Horace Walpole, Pitt was ‘baffled by an opposition erected by the Boscawens, under the auspices of the ministry’.5 Neither loans from Ayscough nor the Prince’s grant, in return for the right to nominate both Members at Old Sarum, of £3,000 and an annual salary of £1,500, proved adequate.6

The final blow was Frederick’s death on 20 Mar. 1751. If the Prince had lived to come to the throne, Pitt was to have been appointed to the lucrative office of vice-treasurer of Ireland, with a peerage, retaining the stannaries.7 Now, deprived of his patron, overwhelmed with debts and lawsuits, threatened in his boroughs, and informed by his brother, William, that the King had no further use for his services, he was obliged, as he afterwards put it, ‘to look about him’.8 He opposed the regency bill in May 1751, proposing ‘to leave out such words as precluded the Princess from disposing of offices’. He then opened negotiations with the Pelhams for the disposal of his only negotiable asset, his electoral interest at Old Sarum, Okehampton, and Camelford, which he ultimately pawned to the Government for £2,000 and a pension of £1,000 a year during pleasure.

Sorry I am to say [wrote Camelford] that, dividing ... in their political systems, in which my father was shipwrecked at the time that his brother rose to the top of everything, there was not a moment through the course of their lives when these obligations [of William to Thomas] seem to have been remembered, though the situation of my father when his brother was first minister was so reduced as to solicit in vain the appointment to the Swiss Cantons as an object of his ambition.9

He died 17 July 1761.

Ref Volumes: 1715-1754

Authors: J. B. Owen / Eveline Cruickshanks

Notes

  • 1. ‘Family Characters and Anecdotes’, by the 1st Ld. Camelford, Fortescue mss at Boconnoc.
  • 2. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, i. 27; Yorke’s parl. jnl. Parl. Hist. xiii. 140.
  • 3. HMC Fortescue, i. 110, 120, 122, 127, 132-3.
  • 4. Dodington Diary, 68-73, 75-80; A State of the Proceedings of the Convocation of Parliament for the Stannaries (1751).
  • 5. Mems. Geo. II, i. 142.
  • 6. HMC Fortescue, i. 133-5.
  • 7. ‘Family Characters’.
  • 8. R.N. Aldworth to Duke of Bedford, 20 Dec. 1753, Bedford mss.
  • 9. ‘Family Characters’; Add. 32724, f