PITT, William Morton (1754-1836), of Kingston House, nr. Dorchester, Dorset.
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Family and Education
b. 16 May 1754, 1st and o. surv. s. of John Pitt† of Encombe by Marcia, da. of Mark Anthony Morgan of Cottlestown, co. Sligo. educ. Queen’s, Oxf. 1772; L. Inn 1774. m. (1) 26 Oct. 1782, Margaret (d. 6 Nov. 1818), da. of John Gambier, lt. gov. Bahamas, 1da. d.v.p.; (2) [Nov.] 1819, Grace Amelia, da. of Henry Seymer of Hanford, Dorset, 1s. 2da. suc. fa. 1787.
Capt. Dorset militia 1778, maj. 1798, lt.-col. 1799-1812.
In his youth Pitt spent five years travelling ‘in different parts of the Continent’. Lord Rockingham paid him compliments and Fox offered him a diplomatic assignment in Berlin in 1782, which was declined. He expected his kinsman and namesake the prime minister to satisfy his ambitions but, as he admitted in 1799, ‘I must confess that I never found Pitt much disposed to favour me’. In 1787 he had failed to induce Pitt to place him at the Board of Trade. That year he came into Encombe and by the following year had decided not to seek re-election at Poole. In 1790 he succeeded his cousin George, heir to Lord Rivers, as county Member. He vacated his seat in the spring of 1791: some thought because he was expecting a peerage, but it was to avoid taking his seat while holding a government contract for cordage. He was re-elected after the issue of a new writ on 19 Apr.1
As county Member for 36 years, Morton Pitt achieved ‘the rare success of obtaining the good will ... of all classes and parties’. His activities as a magistrate, prison reformer, Sunday school promoter and philanthropist, gained him respect. He showed off Dorchester gaol to the King in 1792, set up a hat factory there and interested Lord Eldon (who in 1807 purchased Encombe from him for £52,000) and Lord Pelham in his ‘plan for the improvement of the internal police of prisons’. He set up a factory for cordage and sailcloth at Purbeck. He was the author of an address to the landed interest on the deficiency of habitations and fuel for the use of the poor (1797). His compassion for the wronged and distressed was a by-word and, as a landlord, he reduced rents to relieve his tenants. Joseph Jekyll described him as arriving at Exeter assizes in 1804 ‘as usual on the outside of the stage coach—with one shirt and a bundle of philanthropy’. By a mixture of reckless benevolence and negligence he was eventually ruined.2 He bombarded his cousin the prime minister with pleas for patronage and tried to interest him in all his his projects, but without noticeable effect.3 A frequent subject was the militia and he published a three-part pamphlet on home defence (1796, 1797, 1803).
Despite all this, Morton Pitt was inconspicuous in Parliament. He supported his kinsman’s government silently: ‘public speaking is not that to which I feel inclined’, he admitted. In April 1791 he was listed favourable to repeal of the Test Act in Scotland, but ‘does not attend’. Owing to his mother’s connexion with Ireland he was often there and on 25 Sept. 1799 wrote to the prime minister from Carrick-on-Suir, stating his qualifications to be a commissioner for the Irish union, if it was carried on the Scottish model:
My mother being of this country, I may naturally be looked upon as equally connected with both kingdoms, anxious impartially to promote their mutual interests. I have during my travels formerly turned my thoughts a good deal to commercial concerns, I have for many years been myself the manager of a large manufacturing establishment, ... and I have had some experience in agriculture, county affairs in general, the different modes of assisting the poor in most parts of Europe, police, sessions law, and all the various branches of the business of a justice of the peace. I have sat in Parliament upwards of nineteen years, and have long been engaged in various active habits and lastly I can scarcely think of any man, likely to be appointed by you a commissioner, with whom I am not personally acquainted, if not on terms of intimacy ... You have known me a great many years, and can determine how far I may be entitled to your friendship and confidence.
In a subsequent letter he assured Pitt that ‘no sacrifice’ could be ‘too great’ to promote the Union. He asked Earl Spencer to press his claims on Pitt, who usually ignored them, though Spencer was sure that they would be accepted. It was in Spencer too that he confided a year later that he was in financial difficulties from the failure of his colliery.4
There is no evidence that Morton Pitt opposed Addington’s ministry; yet he remained a friend of Catholic relief and some believed that he supported his namesake’s question for the orders of the day on 3 June 1803. He was placed on the East India judicature committee, 9 Dec. 1801, and made a member of the court in February 1803. He did not support Pitt’s defence motion of 25 Apr. 1804; Lord FitzHarris claimed that he either voted against it or did not vote. Yet he went over to Pitt on his return to power and was soon making applications to him again. On 8 Apr. 1805 he was in the minority against the censure of Melville, but on 12 June he joined the majority for criminal prosecution. He met with Pitt’s friends on the latter’s death in January 1806, was at his funeral and voted against the repeal of his Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806. He was an early member of the Pitt Club. Yet Lord Grenville was prepared to support him when the county was contested in 1806 and he was publicly assured that his seat was not in danger. He was listed a staunch friend of the abolition of the slave trade. In 1807, when there was another contest for Dorset, he remained the favourite. As Lord FitzHarris pointed out the year before ‘He is a pleasing instance that a really good and upright man must be popular.’5
Morton Pitt was recommended as ‘the fittest and the best man’ to take up the question of Irish church reform in Parliament in June 1807, as he was ‘not connected with Party’. He declined.6 His only known speeches were to present a petition from debtors in Dorchester gaol, 3 Feb. 1806, and to present the report of the Stirling election committee, 28 Mar. 1808. He rallied to Perceval’s ministry on the Scheldt inquiry, January-March 1810, and the Whigs conceded that he was ‘against the Opposition’. He was absent on the Regency question. He voted against sinecure reform, 17 May 1810 and 4 May 1812, and against parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810. But he made no effort to cultivate Perceval. On 22 June 1812 he supported Canning’s motion for Catholic relief.7
The death of his daughter Lady Marsham just before the election of 1812 led to rumours that he would retire in favour of Henry Bankes rather than undergo another contest. But there was none. He appeared on the Treasury list of supporters and now changed his mind on Catholic relief, for he opposed it, 2 Mar., 24 May 1813 and again in 1816 and 1817. He was in the majority favouring Christian missions to India, 1 July 1813. He voted with ministers on the civil list, 14 Apr., 8 and 31 May 1815 and 24 May 1816; on the army estimates, 8 Mar.; the property tax, 18 Mar., and on the Irish vice-treasurership, 14, 17, 20 June 1816. He was also in their majority on the Admiralty establishment, 25 Feb. 1817. Four days before he had been chosen for the Poor Law committee. Later that year he proceeded to the Continent with his ailing wife and wrote shrewd reports of the French scene. His wife died at Lausanne. A year later he married his second cousin twice removed and produced an heir, ‘the sole male survivor of the last branch of the Pitts’. He again appeared on the ministerial side on the censure motion of 18 May 1819 and the foreign enlistment bill, 10 June, though he appears to have opposed the malt tax, 9 June. On 22 June he was in the minority against the extension of the franchise at Penryn. He stayed as late as 23 Dec. 1819 to support measures against sedition. His reputation for benevolence survived his ruin. He died 28 Feb. 1836.8
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. Spencer mss, Pitt to Spencer, 25 Sept. 1799; PRO 30/8/167, f. 168; Bristol Jnl. 7 May 1791; Lord Eldon’s Anecdote Bk. 154.
- 2. Geo. III Corresp. i. 637; Add. 33108, f. 411; 33109, f. 449; 35109, ff. 194, 419; Gent. Mag. (1819), i. 476; (1836), i. 663; Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 21 Mar. 1804; Sir T. Lever, House of Pitt, 362.
- 3. PRO 30/8/167, ff. 166-251.
- 4. Ibid. f. 227; 329, f. 362; Spencer mss, Pitt to Spencer, 25 Sept. 1799, reply 3 Oct., 15 Dec. 1800.
- 5. Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 22; Malmesbury mss, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 26 Apr. 1804, 9 Nov. 1806.
- 6. PRO 30/9/15, Wickham to Abbot, 28 June, 2 July 1807.
- 7. Add. 38247, f. 122; Malmesbury mss, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 23 June 1812.
- 8. Colchester, iii. 33; Gent. Mag. (1818), ii. 639; (1836), i. 663.