Today, 28 May, is the anniversary of the birth of William Pitt the Younger, Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister, who was born in 1759.
At the age of 21, he was elected into Parliament and at the age of 24 he became the youngest Prime Minister of Great Britain. Later he was the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland after the Acts of Union came into force on 1 January 1801.
He served as Prime Minister for nearly 19 years in a parliamentary career that lasted 25 years, during which there he had to face the problems of the Roman Catholic emancipation, of the Regency crisis on the occasion of George III’s madness, and of the Napoleonic wars
All of these issues undermined his health, and the news of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz devastated him. His health declined rapidly, and in the early hours of 23 January 1806, at the age of 46, he died after pronouncing these words: “Oh, my country! How I leave my country!”
After his death it was found out that, despite being known as a voice for fiscal responsibility, he had paid no attention to his personal accounts and left tremendous debts, which were paid by the nation.
Pitt had been a frail child with several health problems, including an inherited form of gout. After an attack, when he was only 14 years old, his physician prescribed a glass of port a day as a cure.
… and Pitt continued to drink throughout his life.
Advised to take port every day for medical reasons, he used to drink a bottle of port before breakfast, a second bottle before tea and a third before supper…and another bottle before giving a speech in the House of Commons. (All of his cabinet drank heavily, and it was said that “the only distinguishing feature of his Pitt’s government was their collective capacity for drink”.)
Therefore he became known as a “three-bottle-a-day man”.
This over-indulgence may have exacerbated his gout, one form of which, saturnine gout, arises from drinking high-lead-content drinks.
During the Napoleonic Wars the vineyards of France, Italy and Spain had been denied to Britain, so the only available Port was from Portugal. Since the sea trip to England was really long and could spoil the wine, the makers fortified it with brandy and added sugar of lead as a preservative and sweetener, which could cause lead poisoning.
We don’t know for sure whether this added to Pitt’s health problems, but he died when he was only 46, and from contemporary accounts it appears that he succumbed to renal failure and cirrhosis. This suggests that his alcohol consumption was a contributory factor, possibly complicated by lead poisoning.
Image Uncorking Old Sherry / Js. Gillray, inv. & fecit (10 March 1805)
William Pitt stands in the House of Commons, facing the opposition represented by bottles containing the heads of the most important opposition leaders