In November 1779, the 35-year-old Thomas Lord Lyttelton, well known for his wild life and the many women he had seduced, died suddenly at his Epsom home, Pitt Place (demolished in the 1960s). The event created a great stir, because it was said that he had seen a vision a few days previously which correctly predicted the time of his death, but had ignored it. On 12 June 1784, Boswell recorded Dr Johnson as saying, ‘It is the most extraordinary thing that has happened in my day. I heard it with my own ears from his uncle, Lord Westcote. I am so glad to have every evidence of the spiritual world, that I am willing to believe it.’
An account of the affair was preserved at Pitt Place and published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1816; it is said to be a contemporary record by Admiral Wolseley, who was in the house at the time. He explains that Lord Lyttelton had suffered several ‘suffocating fits’ [asthma attacks?] in the preceding weeks, and was in London:
While at his house in Hill-street, Berkeley-square, he dreamt, three days before his death, he saw a Bird fluttering, and afterwards a Woman appeared in white apparel, and said, ‘Prepare to die, you will not exist three days.’ He was alarmed, and called his servant, who found him much agitated and in a profuse perspiration. This had a visible effect the next day on his spirits. On the third day, while at breakfast … he said, ‘I have jockeyed [cheated] the ghost, for this is the third day.’
The whole party set off for Pitt Place. They had not long arrived when he was seized with a usual fit. Soon recovered. Dined at five. To bed at eleven. His servant, about to give him rhubarb and mint water, stirred it with a toothpick; which Lord Lyttelton perceiving, called him a slovenly dog, and bid him bring a spoon. On the servant’s return, he was in a fit. The pillow being high, his chin bore hard on his neck. Instead of relieving him, he ran for help; on his return found him dead.
A more detailed account, printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine the previous year (1815) but not claimed to be contemporary, shows some embellishments. The bird is not mentioned, and the visionary woman (‘one of the most angelic female figures that imagination could possibly paint’) specifies that he will die ‘at the hour of twelve’. To help keep his spirits up his friends, unknown to him, had put his watch, and all the clocks in the house, forward by half an hour; so when it was, as he thought, 12.15, he went off to bed, saying, ‘This mysterious lady is not a true prophetess, I find’ – only to die a few moments before the real midnight. The same account says that at this very moment Miles Andrews, a friend of Lyttelton’s who had invited him down to Dartford, woke to see him looking at him from between his bed-curtains, wearing dressing-gown and nightcap. Thinking his friend had arrived at an unexpectedly late hour and needed a bed, Andrews rang for a servant, who denied that Lord Lyttelton was in the house. Puzzled, and suspecting a practical joke, Andrews went back to sleep. Only late next day did he learn the truth, and fainted.
An account said to be that of the Lord Westcote whom Dr Johnson mentions, and supposedly written in February 1780, was published long afterwards in Notes and Queries (1862). It tells much the same story, adding some further details, for instance that Lyttelton explained his dream of the bird by recalling that a few days previously he had actually seen a robin fly into somebody’s room. This is interesting, for it was already a superstition in his time that birds entering a house were a death omen, and there is ample evidence in the following century that robins were especially feared. A further point, reported by Charles Harper in 1907, was a suggestion that the ghostly woman was the recently deceased mother of a girl (or two girls) whom Lyttelton had seduced.