PYBUS, Charles Small (1766-1810), of Great George Street, Westminster.
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Family and Education
b. 3 Nov. 1766, 2nd s. of John Pybus of Cheam, Surr. by Martha, da. of Charles Small of Lewisham, Kent. educ. Harrow 1776; St. John’s, Camb. 1781; L. Inn 1781, called 1789; I. Temple 1784. unm.
Ld. of Admiralty June 1791-July 1797, of Treasury Aug. 1797-Nov. 1803.
The career of Charles Small Pybus is evidence that Pitt did not unerringly single out talent in his official appointments and that political office, especially if undertaken at too early an age, did not necessarily bring financial reward, a secure professional status, or even personal satisfaction. His father prospered in the Madras civil service, and after his return to England founded the London banking house of Pybus, Hyde, Dorset and Cockell.1 Pybus himself, unlike his elder brother, had no place in this establishment and read for the bar, but before he had completed his training he took advantage of his family’s connexions with Dover (his paternal grandfather had been employed in the packet service there)2 to contest the by-election of January 1789. He was defeated, but by standing, so he boasted to Rose in November 1789, had
shown my attachment to government at a most unequivocal moment, and at a great expense: my family, though not illustrious is, I trust, respectable and opulent: my education has been the best possible: my introduction into life and my connexions good: my fortune above dependence; and both my moral and intellectual character in the world, I have been persuaded to believe, above mediocrity.
This immodest display of his talents came in justification of a request, which even Pybus was prepared to admit might carry an ‘air of absurd presumption’, for the grant in reversion of Lord North’s offices of lord warden of the Cinque Ports and constable of Dover Castle. With remarkable effrontery for a man so young and so politically inexperienced, he went on to offer Rose in return a down payment of 1,000 guineas and a quarter of his salary for life.3 Not surprisingly he was not awarded the grant, but he received government support when he was elected for Dover after a contest in 1790: £1,500 was still owing to him when Rose submitted the secret service account for the general election to Pitt in 1791.4
Pybus immediately made his mark in the House with two set speeches. In his maiden speech, 22 Dec. 1790, he argued that the impeachment of Warren Hastings had not been terminated by the dissolution and was praised by William Adam for ‘viewing the question upon the true constitutional ground, unfettered with any technical matter, or constrained legal analogy’. On 12 Apr. 1791 he seconded Belgrave’s motion for the previous question, moved against Grey’s resolutions on Oczakov, in a lengthy speech which was valuable to government as he claimed to be acting without their advice. That month too he was listed among opponents of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland. His efforts were rewarded at the end of the session when he took Belgrave’s place at the Admiralty and abandoned the law for a political career. He later claimed that ‘some little reputation for talent as a public speaker must have been my only recommendation, for I had then no personal acquaintance with Mr Pitt’; and Samuel Egerton Brydges* reflected that Pybus
had had a most fortunate fate in public life, if the gratification of a most unreasonable ambition could be called fortunate ... This was one of the young men whom Pitt so strangely promoted. He was quick and intelligent, with a pompous roll of words—but not sound. His vanity and pretension were ridiculous and offensive, and he took upon himself aristocratical airs, to which he had not the smallest pretension.5
Certainly he was not as impressive a debater in office as his early speeches had promised. He had to confine himself to a supporting role in the renewed discussion of Oczakov, 29 Feb. 1792, when he followed the famous maiden speech of Lord Hawkesbury, and thereafter, apart from a brief speech on the war in India, 15 Mar. 1792, and a defence of the Admiralty’s use of convoys, 18 Feb. 1794, his recorded contributions to debate were negligible. He voted for abolition of the slave trade, 15 Mar. 1796, and the assessed taxes augmentation bill, 4 Jan. 1798, and acted as a ministerial teller in the divisions on the Nottingham reform petition, 21 Feb.; the traitorous correspondence bill, 1 May; parliamentary reform, 6 May 1793; thanks to the managers of Hastings’s impeachment, 20 June 1794; the French invasion of Ireland, 3 Mar.; the Bank stoppage, 10 Mar. 1797, and the slave trade limitation bill, 2 May 1799.
Nor did office help him to win any post carrying patronage (and a residence) in the Cinque Ports, an ambition which he pursued relentlessly for the remainder of his career.6 His one promotion after 1791, and that a minor one, came in 1797 when he made the routine transfer from the Admiralty to the Treasury; but by then his sights were set much higher and in March 1798 he applied through Dundas to succeed Thomas Pelham as Irish secretary.7 The publication in 1800 of his attractively produced but ludicrously inflated poem The Sovereign, addressed to the Tsar Paul and unfortunately appearing in print soon after the Russian withdrawal from the war, brought him only ridicule and probably ended what little hope he might have had of efficient office. In a mordant little piece the Gentleman’s Magazine reviewers admitted they were
not a match for a lord of the Treasury in putting together so small a number of lines, on fashionable paper, in fashionable type, with his own portrait, not that of his hero—for so small a price as one guinea, or, with the portrait, £1 11s.6d.
Sylvester Douglas remembered that when the poem first appeared the doggerel lines
Poetis nos laetamur tribus Pye, Peter Pindar atque Pybus
were in everybody’s mouth.8 In July, not daring to solicit Pitt personally, Pybus persuaded the Prince of Wales, whom he had met through his friend the Duke of Cumberland, to apply on his behalf for the chief justiceship in eyre vacated by Lord Sydney’s death. The Prince did his best for Pybus, rehearsing his laments that he had lost money by abandoning his profession for politics and that without financial security he had no ‘hope of ever being united to an amiable woman for whom he entertains the greatest attachment’, but his intervention was in vain. In November 1800, ‘now thoroughly convinced that any mixture of my supposed desires would of itself be sufficient to destroy all prospect of success’, Pybus again asked the Prince to approach Pitt and help him secure an Irish peerage ‘which, nominal and barren indeed as that honour has now become, may perhaps eventually operate as the means of ensuring some provision for me hereafter’.9
Although his approaches to Pitt had been respectful, to Addington Pybus addressed a string of frenetic and increasingly hostile applications. When finally dismissed from the Treasury 18 months after his retirement from the House, he gathered these documents together, added a commentary and submitted them to Addington in the form of a ‘narrative’ ‘intended for the press’.10 It was a pathetic tale of obsessive desire for recognition and of repeated failure, in which Pybus showed virtually no grasp of the realities of political bargaining. As soon as Addington assumed office he applied for the governorship of the Cape, believed the office was promised to him, but failed to get it. In June 1801 he asked unsuccessfully for the clerkship of the pells. In November he rejected the ‘dreadfully humiliating and mortifying’ offer of the government of St. Vincent, which was acceptable to him only if combined with a peerage. On 26 Feb. 1802, again disappointed of the Irish secretaryship, he announced his intention of retiring from Dover, and although he claimed to have been offered Treasury support if he contested the general election, could not be persuaded to alter his decision. His dismissal from the Treasury was accompanied by the offer of the government of the Bahamas or the auditorship of the public accounts, both indignantly rejected. He evidently had difficulty in persuading the press of the newsworthiness of his tedious narrative, for on 1 Feb. 1804 he wrote to Addington:
I have yielded to the better, and I hope to the more habitual propensities of my nature: I shall not publish the manuscript I sent to you, but have no desire to renew our correspondence, or to receive an answer. My object is simply to inform you that my intention is altered and that whilst it is your gratification to exult in my ruin, it shall be my triumph to forgive you.11
This was not the last that ministers of the crown heard of him. When Pitt returned to power later in 1804, Pybus begged forgiveness for his acrimonious letter of 1802 concerning his thwarted ambitions for a post in the Cinque Ports, which he attributed to ‘the feverish influence of disappointment and distress upon a mind perhaps too sensitive’, sought ‘a renewal of Mr Pitt’s friendship’ and offered to repay it by ‘the most strenuous exertion’ of his talents ‘(such as they are) if those talents should be deemed worthy of employment’. The appeal was evidently ignored, as no doubt was his final begging letter to Pitt, 6 Dec. 1804.12 When Lord Grenville came to power in 1806, Pybus pestered him with requests to obtain a royal warrant entitling him to recover ‘property, of which I consider myself to have been robbed by the caprice of an unfeeling relation’, who had left it to legatees in Holland, but Grenville, on Treasury advice, declined to intervene.13 At the general election of 1806, Pybus, claiming to be responding to ‘the strong and urgent solicitations of many of my late constituents’, made a bid to secure his return for Dover ‘at a very inconsiderable expense’, but the appearance of a wealthy candidate backed by government forced him to withdraw his pretensions. He made this activity the pretext for a vain appeal to Grenville to procure his return elsewhere ‘without that expense which I am totally unable to sustain’, offering in return to support the ‘Talents’ and exert himself ‘as a man of business’.14
Pybus’s need for recognition dominated his life, but his abilities were inadequate for the political situations he sought and his pride would not let him settle for anything less. He deluded himself into believing that it was on government’s behalf that he had sacrificed a promising career at the bar and expended £15,000 in four contested elections at Dover.15 Although financial considerations and the reduction of his private fortune were recurring themes in his correspondence, it was reputation rather than wealth that he sought. Thus in rejecting the auditorship of the public accounts he informed Addington:
it was hardly possible to have paid a worse compliment to a person of any liberality of sentiment, than to suppose that money was the golden idol of his adoration, the chosen deity, at whose shrine he was prepared to immolate that pride, which is the best security for character, and for honour.16
The worry of his failures seems at times to have exacerbated or induced physical illness. He concluded one letter to Pitt:
Wishing, yet fearing to enter upon this application, on which every thing that is most dear to me now hangs in suspense, my spirits have for some time past been such as really to unfit me for public business in the House, and materially to affect my health. For months past I have had a serious complaint in my stomach, which no medicines have made any continued impression upon, and which I am sure never can be removed as long as my mind remains in its present state of dreadful agitation.17
Farington wrote of his last illness:
Beechey told me that Charles Small Pybus, who died lately had been long troubled with complaints which were thought by Sir Henry Halford and co. to be in his stomach, but it proved to be in the biliary ducts ... A gall stone burst a vessel which gave an opening for the gall bladder to discharge itself into the stomach, and the corrosive quality of its contents caused his death after much suffering ... Beechey said he was of an irritable temper and was always on ill-terms with one person or other.18
Brydges simply recorded that he died, 5 Sept. 1810, ‘before he exceeded a middle age; his spirits having drooped at the fall from so unexpected a height’.19
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: J. M. Collinge
- 1. Hilton Price, London Bankers, 25-26; J. M. Holzman, Nabobs in Eng. 76, 158.
- 2. J. B. Jones, Annals Dover, 392-3.
- 3. NLS mss 3795, f. 21.
- 4. PRO 30/8/229, f. 318.
- 5. Fortescue mss, Pybus to Grenville, 13 Mar. 1806; Brydges, Autobiog. i. 33-34.
- 6. PRO, Dacres Adams mss 1/55; 4/69, 70; PRO 30/8/169, f. 246.
- 7. PRO 30/8/169, ff. 242, 244.
- 8. Gent. Mag. (1800), ii. 854-5; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 155.
- 9. Prince of Wales Corresp. iv. 1548, 1570.
- 10. Sidmouth mss, enc. in Pybus to Addington, 19 Dec. 1803.
- 11. Ibid.
- 12. PRO 30/8/169, ff. 235, 250.
- 13. Fortescue mss, Pybus to Grenville, 28 Jan., 8, 26 Feb., 3, 13 Mar., Grenville to Pybus, 17 Mar. 1806.
- 14. Ibid. Pybus to Grenville, 24 Oct. 1806.
- 15. Ibid. Pybus to Grenville, 15 Mar. 1806.
- 16. Sidmouth mss, Pybus’s narrative p. 74.
- 17. PRO 30/8/169, f. 253.
- 18. Farington, vi. 243.
- 19. Brydges, i. 34.