They say “Money doesn’t buy class.”
This was certainly true of Thomas Pit, the 2nd Baron of Camelford; an obnoxious figure from the late 18th century who by all accounts was a thug, a bully and, as those at the time described him, a “desperate bruiser.”
Pitt was born in Cornwall in 1775. His father, also called Thomas, owned property on Hanover Square and was a career politician who eventually gained a peerage to the House of Lords.
The young Pitt was educated at Charterhouse School (which was then located close to Smithfield Market but has since moved to Surrey) but he soon grew bored of education and, against his father’s wishes, decided instead to pursue a career in the Royal Navy.
Aged just 16, Pitt signed up to join the crew of the HMS Discovery which had been tasked with exploring America’s Pacific coast.
During the long voyage Pitt proved to be quite a handful.
As well as smashing a delicate navigational device he also slept on duty, dabbled in illicit trade and pursued amorous liaisons with native islanders; activities which were strictly forbidden.
For these misdemeanours the ship’s Captain, George Vancouver (after who the Canadian city is named), had Pitt flogged and was eventually forced to have him placed in irons.
Although harsh, such punishments were not unusual at the time and what appeared to infuriate Pitt most was the fact he was made to sit shackled alongside his more ‘common’ shipmates.
Unable to cope with such ruthless authority, Pitt was discharged whilst docked in Hawaii and had no other choice but to find his own way home.
Whilst away, his father died meaning the peerage was passed on; an inheritance which ensured the young tearaway was officially a Lord by the time he finally made it back to London.
In 1795 Captain Vancouver also returned to London. His expedition had been utterly gruelling- out of 153 men, only 6 had made it back.
Vancouver settled in Petersham, south-west London where he hoped to enjoy the view from Richmond Hill and pursue the quiet life: a simple desire which was soon blighted when Thomas Pitt discovered his old commander was back in town.
Hellbent on revenge, the newly made Lord sent a letter to his former tormentor which was packed with insults and challenged him to a duel; a bout which he hoped would “Give him satisfaction for his injuries.”
When Vancouver refused, Pitt vowed to track him down in person, finally succeeding in September 1796 when he cornered his nemesis on Conduit Street (which branches off of Regent Street )and administered a ferocious beating with a cane.
The attack, which became popular gossip in London after being satirised in a cartoon, left an already weakened Vancouver in very poor health and he passed away soon after.
Pitt however faced no repercussions, largely due to his privileged connections.
Following this encounter, Pitt continued to exude a violent nature which struck fear in many Londoners.
He was especially fond of roaming the streets in search of potential crooks and troublemakers to rough up; a pastime known as ‘Boxing the Watch’.
In one incident he battered a tollgate keeper black and blue after claiming to have been given counterfeit pennies in change- a trifling sum for a man of such wealth.
Pitt’s fearsome reputation was further bolstered by his dog, ‘Trusty’; a bull-terrier brutalised into becoming a champion fighting dog.
During his career, Trusty endured 104 bouts and remained unbeaten. Pitt later gifted his prized pet to ‘Fighting Jim Belcher’; the celebrated bare-knuckle boxer, explaining that “The only unconquered man was the only fit master for the only unconquered dog.”
Fortunately, it appears Trusty received kinder treatment from Jim and was able to live out his days in the Jolly Brewers, a former Wardour Street pub taken over by the boxer in his retirement.
For Thomas Pitt, the 2nd Baron of Camelford however there would be a great deal more violence, controversy and murder to follow…
To be continued…
Whenever I have American tourists in my cab I always enjoy pointing out the statue of George Washington which stands outside the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square.
Unveiled on the 30th June 1921, the statue was a kind gift from the United States and is in fact a replica, based upon Frenchman, Jean Antoine Houdon’s marble version (commissioned in the 1790s by Thomas Jefferson) which can be seen in Richmond, Virginia.
The statue shows Washington resting upon a ‘fasces’; a collection of wooden rods which the Romans employed as a symbol of authority. There are thirteen sticks in Washington’s bundle, representative of America’s original thirteen states.
As the Commander In Chief during the War of Independence and of course, the first ever President of the United States, George Washington is once rumoured to have said, “I will never set foot in London again!”
It is said that those responsible for installing Washington’s statue in London bore the legendary President’s sentiment in mind- and so arranged for a quantity of Virginian soil to be placed beneath the plinth, thus ensuring that the statue is technically on American turf…