The ‘Caneing’ in Conduit Street – 21 September 1796

by | Jun 15, 2024 | 1796, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


Although he had only celebrated his 21st birthday in February 1796 and had not yet achieved the rank of lieutenant, the Honourable Thomas Pitt, 2nd Lord Camelford, was no callow youth. A cousin of the prime minister, born to privilege, patronage, and wealth, he was a survivor of the famous Guardian shipwreck of December 1789, following which he had embarked on Captain George Vancouver’s challenging voyage of discovery to the north-west coast of America. Here the troubles that would blight his short life had taken root.

Upon arrival at Tahiti at the end of 1791, Captain Vancouver had issued strict instructions that there should be no fraternisation between the men of his ship and the reputedly promiscuous local women. Given the trouble Captain William Bligh had endured when the Bounty had reached Tahiti, this was an understandable order, and when he personally witnessed an interchange between Pitt and a half-naked girl, later described in the newspapers as an ‘Otaheitean Venus’, which involved the then master’s mate throwing a much coveted but old iron hoop into her canoe, the short-tempered Vancouver exploded with rage. Pitt was charged with the theft of His Majesty’s Stores and sentenced to two dozen lashes. As an officer, such a punishment was not inflicted at the gratings before the assembled ships company, but rather involved the offender being strapped to a gun, and with the beating being witnessed by the other officers.

A sturdy boatswain’s mate stepped forward and gave Pitt the first dozen lashes, whereupon the first lieutenant, Zachary Mudge, offered to intercede with the captain before the second dozen were received. Pitt was nothing if not proud, and he refused the offer and stoically endured the remainder of the punishment. Nevertheless, resentment continued to boil within him at such a harsh punishment being administered on a youth of the aristocracy for what many of his shipmates deemed a trivial offence, and it little helped his bitterness that another youngster in the midshipmen’s mess vowed that he would have committed suicide rather than allow himself to be so unfairly treated.

‘The Caneing in Conduit Street’

Over the next three years, Pitt had to suffer almost constant confinement aboard the Discovery as Vancouver progressed his voyage of exploration along the western American coast. The captain, never one to indulge the frolics and high spirits of youth, made his midshipmen’s berth a misery by tearing down the canvas that separated it from the common sailors, but more than any other, he reserved his wrath for the awkward Pitt, with many aboard believing that he harboured a personal malice towards the young man. Pitt was flogged twice more on the voyage, one being occasioned by his accidental smashing of the binnacle glass when indulging in some high jinks with another youngster, whilst he was also admonished for exchanging a pair of pistols for some valuable copper with the armourer. The final straw came when he was placed in irons for a fortnight after being accused of ‘sleeping on watch’, a charge he vehemently denied, and on 1 June 1793 he was dis-rated from the position of master’s mate before on 7 February 1794 an exasperated Vancouver threw him off the ship at Hawaii.

A Port-Jackson bound supply ship, the Daedalus, became Pitt’s new home and upon arrival in Australia the seething, frustrated, outraged, dis-rated young man suddenly discovered that he was a person of power, position, and wealth, for news reached him that his father had died the year before. He was now the Right Honourable Lord Camelford, Baron of Boconnoc, the owner of lands in Cornwall and Dorset with an income exceeding £20,000 per annum. To his credit, he had little wish to return home to enjoy these trappings, preferring instead to re-invest time in the Navy in order to achieve the promotions he felt his huge talents deserved. But he had not forgotten or forgiven Captain Vancouver’s treatment of him.

By the summer of 1796, having spent a happy nine months aboard the Resistance 44, Captain Hon. Edward Pakenham, Camelford had suffered shipwreck off Ceylon and had then made his way to the Venetian port of Cattaro, where he was placed in quarantine as a result of having passed through plague-ridden Alexandria. With time on his hands he drafted a letter to his bitter enemy, Captain Vancouver, demanding satisfaction for his treatment aboard the Discovery, and he even sent a draft of £200 in order that the senior officer could make his way to Hamburg by 5 August where Camelford intended to wait with his seconds. In the event, Vancouver did not receive this letter until the middle of August, and when he did respond in a letter sent to Camelford’s English address, he affirmed that the young man’s behaviour had fully warranted his punishment, and that in his position as commanding officer he had only been doing his duty in ordering it.

Once Camelford arrived back in England on 1 September he hastened straight to Vancouver’s address at Petersham in Surrey to demand satisfaction. The explorer was subjected to a lengthy rant but refused to yield on his affirmation that he had only been doing his duty, that Camelford’s behaviour had warranted the disciple, and that there could be no imputation on Vancouver’s honour over a matter regarding his responsibilities as a sea officer. The younger man would not be placated, and purple with rage, he swore that a duel would take place whether Vancouver desired it or not.

Upon being approached by Vancouver, Camelford’s influential guardian and brother-in-law, Lord William Wyndham Grenville, the foreign secretary, stepped into the dispute. He had previously sought to rein in Camelford, and now he expressed his view that ‘a commanding officer ought not to allow himself to be called upon to answer personally for his conduct in command’. On 7 September Vancouver wrote to Camelford expressing this sentiment and offering to submit the case for judgement to any senior flag officer on the basis that if he was found to have acted improperly, he would accept the challenge as a gentleman. by; after Unknown engraver; C. Bond,print,1804 or after

Lord Camelford

It did little good. Upon receiving the letter that day by the hand of the captain’s brother Charles, Camelford spiralled further out of control and vowed that he would immediately seek Vancouver out, both metaphorically from behind the veil of officialdom with which he preferred to lurk, and physically from the street, so that he could inflict a public insult that could not possibly be ignored. A handwritten missive the next day laid bare his fury: ‘When a man of honour has the misfortune to be embroiled with a poltroon, the line of conduct he ought to pursue is too obvious to occasion him the smallest embarrassment’. by; after Unknown engraver; C. Bond,print,1804 or after

Once more Vancouver appealed to Lord Grenville; a meeting between the two was arranged, and despairing of his protégé, the foreign secretary agreed that the captain had no other recourse but to refer the matter to the authorities. When he informed Camelford of this outcome the young peer appeared to retract somewhat, declaring that for now the affair was over. Little persuaded, Vancouver continued with his application to the authorities, but because Camelford was a peer, it was resolved that the Lord Chancellor himself, Lord Loughborough, would need to be consulted.

On the next morning, that of 21 September, Captain Vancouver and his brother left the former’s residence at 142 Bond Street and crossed over into Conduit Street to make their way to the Lord Chancellor’s house in nearby Bedford Square. By chance or design, Lord Camelford happened to be in the same street with two companions, and once he spied the object of his hatred, he shot across the road and began belabouring the senior officer with his cane. Charles rushed to his brother’s defence, grabbing Camelford by the throat and striking him around the upper arm, whereupon the young man turned the assault upon him. At this point some bystanders stepped in and hauled Charles away, whereupon Camelford recommenced his attack on Vancouver, getting in a series of smart blows which the other could barely repulse with his own stick. Satisfied at last, Camelford announced that should he ever come across Vancouver again he would repeat the thrashing. Typically, he then turned to Charles and challenged him to a duel before departing, leaving the two battered brothers to make their way to the Lord Chancellor’s house.

Summoned into Lord Loughborough’s presence in a private room at the House of Lords at 10 a.m. the next morning, a highly agitated, seething Camelford represented such an apparent threat that Lady Loughborough sought a friend to stand guard lest her own husband was also assailed. Nevertheless, the young lord was wise enough to accept Loughborough’s authority, and with a bail of 10,000 guineas being set, he agreed to keep the peace. Shortly afterwards, he was accepted onto the London 98, Captain Edward Griffith, the flagship of Vice-Admiral John Colpoys in the Channel, and he left the capital city.

Captain Vancouver may have thought the affair would end with the disarming of the young peer’s vengeful temper and his employment at sea, but in the event, ridicule followed the public thrashing. In many ways he was the author of his own misfortune, for in responding in the Morning Chronicle to a report of the incident, he repeated his earlier assertions of Camelford’s indiscretions and embellished the intervention of Lord Grenville. His fury re-ignited, Camelford, at least had the sense to respond with the pen of his associates rather than the sword, whilst one newspaper captured the mood when it commented that the ‘trifling’ primary cause of the dispute was the iron hoop incident, and that the punishment had ‘naturally led to the consequences with which the public are now fully acquainted’.

Soon, a series of jokes including the renaming of Vancouver as ‘Rear-Cover’ were doing the rounds, and they culminated with the celebrated cartoonist James Gillray’s famous depiction of the ‘Caneing in Conduit Street’. ‘Dedicated to the Flag Officers of the British Navy’, it portrayed Vancouver as a fat loser, garbed in a Hawaiian cape with the inscription ‘This present from the King of Owyhee to George III forgot to be delivered’. Hanging from his pocket, a long piece of paper carried the condemnatory phrases ‘List of those disgraced during the Voyage’, ‘put under Arrest all the Ship’s Crew’, ‘Put into irons every Gentleman on Board’, ‘Broke every Man of Honor and Spirit’, and ‘Promoted Spies’. Camelford, depicted with his cane raised, and with Charles Vancouver attempting to hold him off, is declaiming ‘Give me Satisfaction, Rascal! – draw your Sword, Coward! – what, you won’t? – why then, take that Lubber! – & that! & that! & that! & that!’. In response, the portly Vancouver has his arm raised in protection and is crying ‘Murder! – Murder! – Watch! – Constable! – keep him off Brother! – while I run to my Lord Chancellor for protection – Murder! – Murder! – Murder!’.

To many officers, including those such as Thomas Manby and Robert Barrie who had served aboard the Discovery, Captain Vancouver had indeed behaved appallingly towards the young Pitt, and in a Navy that abhorred any form of disrespect to a senior officer, let alone violence, it was telling that the affair had caused a great deal of merriment at Vancouver’s discomfort, rather than castigation of Camelford’s conduct.

The affair finally terminated after a further encounter between Lord Camelford and Charles Vancouver in March 1797 which resulted in the former reiterating his desire for satisfaction and the latter refusing to act until Camelford’s bail expired that forthcoming September. To his credit, Charles wrote to Camelford in September agreeing to a duel if the lord still felt inclined, but fortunately Camelford’s mother inadvertently opened the envelope and in a state of alarm immediately alerted the Lord Chancellor. Now it was Charles Vancouver who had to give sureties of good conduct. Meanwhile Captain Vancouver’s health entered a decline and he died at Petersham on 10 May 1798 in just his forty-first year. Unsurprisingly, the fiery Lord Camelford did not long survive him, for after a series of other unfortunate incidents he was fatally wounded in a duel in March 1804 after a trifling dispute in a coffee house.