Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pitt, Thomas (1775-1804)
Cape of Good Hope, was deserted by a great part of the crew, Pitt was one of those who remained and succeeded in bringing the wreck into Table Bay. In March 1791 he joined the Discovery, with Captain George Vancouver [q. v.], and continued in her for nearly three years, in the survey of North-west America. On 7 Feb. 1794 Pitt, who by the death of his father on 19 Jan. 1793 had become Lord Camelford, was, for some act of insubordination, discharged to the shore at Hawaii. During the following months he reached Malacca, apparently in a trading vessel, and on 8 Dec. was entered as an able seaman on board the Resistance. Three weeks later he was appointed acting-lieutenant of the Resistance, but on 24 Nov. 1795 was summarily discharged and left to find his own way to England. He took a passage in a country ship named the Union, which was cast away on the coast of Ceylon in December. In September 1796 he joined the Tisiphone in the North Sea, and a fortnight later was moved to the London in the Channel fleet. On 5 April 1797 he passed his examination, and about the same time challenged Vancouver, who expressed his willingness to go out if any flag-officer to whom the case might be referred should decide that he owed Camelford satisfaction. Camelford refused any such reference, and, meeting Vancouver in the street, was only prevented from caning him by the bystanders.
On 7 April 1797 Camelford was promoted to the rank of lieutenant; on 2 Aug. he joined the Vengeance with Captain Thomas Macnamara Russell [q. v.], on the Leeward Islands station; and on 13 Sept. was appointed by Russell, then senior officer at St. Kitts, to command the Favourite sloop, whose captain had been invalided. Russell, who had no authority to give any promotion, made out the order of appointment as that of ‘acting commander.’ On 16 Sept. the appointment was repeated by Rear-admiral Henry Harvey, the commander-in-chief, then at Martinique, who, having full authority to give an acting commission, appointed Camelford ‘lieutenant commanding’ of the Favourite.
Charles Peterson, the first lieutenant of the Favourite at the time, was Camelford's senior by nearly two years, and his practical supersession by Camelford caused him much indignation. He contrived to transfer himself to the Perdrix frigate, then commanded by Captain William Charles Fahie [q. v.] On 13 Jan. 1798 the two ships, Perdrix and Favourite, were alone in English Harbour, Antigua, both alongside the dockyard, refitting. Fahie was on leave, and Peterson claimed to be senior officer in the port, both as the representative of Fahie and as Camelford's senior on the lieutenants' list. Camelford, repudiating such a pretension, sent in writing to Peterson a formal order, describing himself as ‘commanding his Majesty's sloop Favourite and senior officer.’ Peterson addressed a counter-order to Camelford, describing himself as ‘commander of his Majesty's ship Perdrix and senior officer.’ Camelford on this sent a lieutenant of the Favourite with a party of marines to repeat the order and to arrest Peterson if he refused to obey. Peterson prepared to defend himself, and the lieutenant, not caring to use force, withdrew. Camelford himself then went to the wharf alongside of which the Perdrix was lying, and Peterson, calling to the men of the Perdrix to come on shore and fall in, went out to meet him. As the Favourite's marines formed up behind Camelford, Peterson gave his men the order to load with ball cartridge. Camelford, advancing, inquired if Peterson refused to obey his orders. ‘I do,’ replied Peterson. Camelford snatched a pistol from one of his officers, presented it at Peterson, putting the same question a second and a third time, and receiving the same answer. At the third refusal he fired, and Peterson fell dead.
On 20 Jan. Camelford was brought to trial before a court-martial at Martinique. According to naval law, Peterson was the senior officer, and Camelford was the mutineer. But, without entering into the facts of his appointment, the court assumed the truth of Camelford's statement that he was senior officer and that Peterson was guilty of mutiny, and he was honourably acquitted. This decision can only be explained by the supposition that, with the knowledge of the occurrences at Spithead and the Nore, of the disturbed state of the fleet off Cadiz, and of the recent loss of the Hermione [see Pigot, Hugh, 1769–1797], the court was panic-stricken at the very name of mutiny (Minutes of the Court Martial, in the Public Record Office; they have been printed, 1799, 8vo).
Meanwhile Camelford was promoted by the admiralty on 12 Dec. 1797, and on 4 May 1798 exchanged into the Terror bomb, which he took to England. In October 1798 he was appointed to the Charon, and, while fitting her out, resolved to go to Paris in order to get a set of French charts. At Dover he obtained from M. Bompard, then a prisoner of war [see Warren, Sir John Borlase], a letter of introduction to Barras. He was described as a man willing to render important service to France. The boatmen whom he hired to take him to Calais, however, were suspicious, and handed him over to the collector of customs, who searched him, found the letter to Barras, and sent him up as a prisoner to the secretary of state. After a prolonged examination before the privy council he was set at liberty; but the admiralty, disapproving of his conduct, superseded him from the command of the Charon. Camelford indignantly requested that his name might be struck off the list of commanders, which was done (Marshall, Roy. Nav. Biogr. iii. 202).
For the next few years he lived principally in London, where he achieved an extraordinary notoriety by disorderly conduct. On 7 May 1799 he was fined 500l. for knocking a Mr. Humphries downstairs in a quarrel at the theatre (True Briton, 17 May 1799). On 7 Oct. 1801, when there was a general illumination in the west-end for the peace, the house in Bond Street in which Camelford lodged was by his orders left in darkness. The mob hammered at the door. Camelford rushed out and began striking the spectators right and left with a thick bludgeon. Finally, all the lower windows of the house were smashed, and he himself injured (Times, 8 Oct. 1801). Camelford afterwards entered an action against the county for the damage done by the mob (ib. 17 Oct.). The story of another quarrel and fight at the theatre in February 1804 is related by two eye-witnesses, James and Horace Smith [q. v.], who called next day at Camelford's lodgings in Bond Street to say that, if wanted, they were ready to give evidence that he had been assaulted. Camelford received them with great civility. ‘Over the fireplace in the drawing-room,’ they wrote, ‘were ornaments strongly expressive of the pugnacity of the peer. A long thick bludgeon lay horizontally supported by two brass hooks. Above this was placed parallel one of lesser dimensions, until a pyramid of weapons gradually arose, tapering to a horse whip’ (Rejected Addresses, ‘The Rebuilding, by R. S.’). A fortnight later, on 6 March, while in a coffee-house, he met a former friend and an admirable shot, Mr. Best, and grossly insulted him. A woman with whom Best had lived had told Camelford that Best had spoken of him in disparaging terms. The two men met next morning in the meadows to the west of Holland House, close by where Melbury Road now runs. Camelford fired first, missed his man, and fell mortally wounded by Best's return. He died on 10 March 1804.
By his will, written the night before the duel, he made a particular request that no one should be proceeded against for his death, as the quarrel was entirely of his own seeking. A verdict of wilful murder, against some person unknown, was returned at the inquest. He desired to be buried in Switzerland, at an indicated spot which he had known in his childhood. The body was accordingly embalmed and packed in a long basket, but the course of the war prevented its being taken abroad, and it was left for many years in the crypt of St. Anne's Church, Soho, probably thrust into some vault, and was eventually lost sight of (Reade, ‘What has become of Lord Camelford's body?’ in Jilt and other Stories). He was not married, and by his death the title became extinct. Camelford is said by those who knew him personally to have been capable of better things than his misspent life seemed to promise. He read largely, and was especially devoted to the study of mathematics, chemistry, and theology, which last he took up—according to his own story—out of a desire to find matter to puzzle the chaplain of his ship. He was free with his money, generous and kind to those in trouble.
[Life, Adventures, and Eccentricities of the late Lord Camelford (1804), a vulgar but fairly accurate chapbook, which is now rare; there is a copy in the Library of the Royal United Service Institution. Gent. Mag. 1804, i. 284; Ann. Reg. 1804, p. 470; Cockburne's Authentic Account of the late unfortunate Death of Lord Camelford; other authorities in the text.]