Dec 122016
 

Thumbing through back numbers of the Gentleman’s Magazine as one does, (preferably online via the Hathi Trust Digital Library  here ) I came across the ever-readable section for 1821 entitled “Obituaries, with Anecdotes of Remarkable Persons”. Actually I was looking for the entry relating to the amazing business-woman Eleanor Coade, artificial stone manufacturer, who will be featuring in my next book, to be called ‘Petticoat Pioneers’   Anyway, my curious eyes alighted on this entry:

Dec 12 At Brighton, aged 108, Phoebe Hessel. Through the goodness of His Majesty, and the occasional assistance of many liberal persons in the place, Phoebe’s latter days were rendered very comfortable. When His Majesty, then Prince Regent, was informed of her extreme age, and of her necessities, with his usual generosity, he requested some one to ascertain of what sum she required to render her comfortable. “Half a guinea a week” replied old Phoebe “will make me as happy as a princess.” This, by His Majesty’s command, was regularly paid to her. She was a woman of good information, and very communicative, and retained her faculties till within a few hours of her death.

Phoebe_Hessel's_GravestoneThe following epitaph, about to be placed in Brighton church-yard, details her singular story:- “In memory of Phoebe Hessel, who was born at Stepney in the year 1713. She served for many years, as a private soldier in the 5th Regiment of Foot, in different parts of Europe, and in the year 1745 fought under the command of the Duke of Cumberland at the Battle of Fontenoy, where she received a bayonet wound in the arm. Her long life, which commenced in the reign of Queen Anne, extended to George the Fourth, by whose munificence she received comfort and support in her latter years. She died at Brighton, where she had long resided, December 12, 1821, aged 108 years and lies buried here”

Sure enough, a quick look at Wikipedia shows the gravestone, recently restored by the Northumberland Fusiliers as successors to the 5th Regiment of Foot. There seem to be various different versions about how she came to be serving in the British Army. One story has it that her mother died when she was a youngster, and the only way that her father, a serving soldier, could look after her was by teaching her to play fife and drums, and enlist with him. Another story says that she fell in love with a soldier by the name of Mr Golding and couldn’t bear to be parted from him. So in 1728 she  joined him on active service in the West Indies, dressed as a man, and ended up visiting various battlefields in Europe. After serving for at least seventeen years she was injured at the battle of Fontenoy.

At the start of the Battle of Fontenoy the French and British generals apparently had a meetign to discuss who would get to fire first. They don't make wars like that any more....

At the start of the Battle of Fontenoy the French and British generals apparently had a meeting to discuss who would get to fire first. They don’t make wars like that any more….

One can only assume that her fellow soldiers were none too observant, and that having a relaxing hot shower after a sweaty hour or two on the battlefield  was not a common practice. Even so, there are one or two bodily functions which might have given the game away, but apparently not, and one story has it that her impersonation was only detected when she committed an offence which merited being stripped to the waist and being whipped. Imagine the surprise on the face of the Officer in charge of the punishment detail…. “what are you doing with those two, Hessel?!” Or words to that effect.

Anyway, she and her boyfriend were discharged (honourably) from the army, with full pay, and they married and settled in Plymouth where she bred little Goldings, all nine of them. Sadly eight of them died in infancy, and the ninth was later drowned at sea. Mr Golding also died and his widow made her way along the coast to the sleepy village of Brighthelmstone (aka Brighton). There she married a local fisherman called Thomas Hessel. He too died, in 1780, by which time  good old Phoebe was in her late sixties. She did what every woman of her age should do: she bought herself a donkey. She then became a well-known if eccentric character roaming around the streets of Brighton on her donkey flogging fish and vegetables to anyone who would have them.

By the turn of the century she was 87 years old, still to be found selling gingerbread and oranges, near where the Royal Pavilion was being built on the corner of Old Steine and Marine Parade. She apparently loved telling stories about her life in the Army, no doubt embellishing the tales with each telling.  The Prince Regent got to hear of her and when she fell on hard times and was sent to the Work House he made sure she got paid a pension of  10/6 a week – enough to keep her away from the debtors prison. The pension ran from 1806 until her death at the age of 108 in 1821.

She lived just long enough to be involved in George IV’s coronation celebrations held in Brighton on 19 July 1821. As Brighton’s oldest resident, she was guest of honour at the Town Banquet.

Phoebe Hessel, artist unknown.

Phoebe Hessel*, artist unknown.

Apparently she had been born in Stepney – in the Tower Hamlets area of London – and had been given the nick-name of ‘The Stepney Amazon’. The memory of this remarkable lady lives on in the names of two Stepney streets, Amazon Street and Hessel Street.

Phoebe: I have not the faintest idea where truth ends and fiction begins. Plays and books in the eighteenth century were full of tales about lovelorn young girls enlisting in foreign wars in order not to be separated from the object of their love. Maybe you were one of the inspirations for those stories. Maybe you did go undetected as a female throughout your twenties and thirties, despite wearing an army uniform alongside hundreds of fellow soldiers. For all I know every one of the tales of derring-do with which you regaled the Prince of Wales, and anyone else who would listen and give you a bob or two, were gospel truth. But no, I am not going to include you as a ‘petticoat pioneer’ in my new book, due out next year with Pen & Sword, because I cannot see you as a ‘pioneer’ when you resorted to deception. Your story is however a good reminder of how hard it was for a woman to succeed in a man’s world, and small wonder there were cases of women pretending to be men – in order to marry a wealthy (but unobservant!) heiress, or like Margaret Ann Bulkley (a.k.a. Dr James Barry) in order to pursue a career in medicine.  Whatever, good on yer Phoebe!

* I am grateful to Janet Beal for pointing out that this may well not be a portrait of Phoebe – but is more likely to represent Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. See Wikipedia here.

Jun 102016
 

It is some years since I applied to my Member of Parliament for a ticket to enable me to sit in the Strangers Gallery (now known as the Visitors Gallery) to watch a debate in the House of Commons. I gather that  you can in fact still turn up without a ticket and queue for access, particularly on a Friday, and it is an important part of the democratic process that parliamentary proceedings should be accessible – even if they are somewhat “staged for public consumption”.

William Pitt the Younger addressing the House in 1793 on the occasion of War with France

William Pitt the Younger addressing the House in 1793 on the occasion of War with France

What surprises me is how in the eighteenth century this freedom of access was sometimes looked upon as an impediment to the business of the House. But in general, strangers, that is to say people who were neither Members of Parliament nor staff employed by the Palace of Westminster, were allowed in to a viewing gallery where they could watch proceedings, and indeed to mingle in the lobby  before a debate to try and talk to their MP.

At some points in time even women (!) were allowed in and it was fashionable for ladies to turn up  at the House in their finery, and cheer their husbands/lovers/party supporters. Lady Mary Coke was one such visitor – her journals listing eight different occasions when she visited in 1768 alone.

Things got a bit heated when we started to have problems with those colonial bods in America. Debates kept getting interrupted and on 2nd February 1778 it was found necessary to eject a loud party of male onlookers – on the grounds that they were not entitled to listen to “secrets”. Worse was to follow: when Lord North was addressing the House, a party of ladies which included his wife, were deemed to be upsetting the proceedings and were forcibly ejected. A minor riot ensued as the sixty-odd visitors declined to leave of their own volition, and it took two hours to restore order.

For a while women were banned altogether, but by 1782 it was thought to be a sensible idea to create a separate area, up in the roof void, where a small number of ladies (or a larger number of small ladies …) would be permitted access. No-one thought it mattered that they were kept behind a grille, or that there was no ventilation – at least they had a place where they could watch. Quietly, and out of sight.

Thomas Rowlandson's Maiden Speach from 1792, courtesy of the Lewsi Walpole Library

Thomas Rowlandson’s “Maiden Speech” from 1792, courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library

Eight women at any one time could be admitted to this curious  “Ladies Cage” and even then, they had to apply for a ticket in advance. Men on the other hand needed no such prior arrangement or ticket if they wanted to attend….

The House of Commons in the early years of the 19th Century, from Ackermann-s Microcosm of London ( a Pugin-Rowlandson collaboration).

The House of Commons in the early years of the 19th Century, from Ackermann’s Microcosm of London ( a Pugin-Rowlandson collaboration).

Many MP’s clearly felt that allowing women into the House as observers was unseemly, unnecessary and anyway, where else could men go to where they could escape female scrutiny?  Women would destroy the ‘grave and sober temper’  of Parliament and besides, they would hear things which would ‘not at all times be agreeable to their feelings’. But if they had to be allowed, then at least keep them in a hot, airless, cage and make it as unpleasant as possible.

Thus it was that in 1832, when Elizabeth Fry asked to be permitted to observe a debate about prison discipline, she was escorted to a ventilation space above the ceiling of the chamber where she could watch what was going on behind a grating.

When the Palace of Westminster was burned down in 1834 temporary arrangements were made while the Houses of Parliament were rebuilt. In 1836 a small gallery for ladies was constructed at a cost of £400. Twenty-one ladies could sit and watch at any one time, and a few years later it was proposed that the partition should be moved so that double the number of visitors could be permitted entry. It was still described as being like the Black Hole of Calcutta and when the House discussed improvements to the Ladies section of the Strangers Gallery, the Earl of Lincoln apparently objected, saying that the whole idea was only put forward as a joke, not to be taken seriously. Ventilation was not added to the Ladies Cage until the 1860s, with Members of the House noting that the accommodation bore a strange resemblance to an Ottoman harem, with caged women peering through the bars at the duly elected representatives.

The mace used in the House of Commons

The mace used in the House of Commons

I get the impression that the House is still designed as a men-only enclave, with rules, and more particularly traditions, designed and perpetuated by men. When the Honourable Members get around to deciding what to do with the crumbling, asbestos-ridden, building in which  they currently sit I wonder whether they will also sweep away some of the other anachronisms which in my view makes ‘the Mother of Parliaments’ look like a Victorian Music Hall venue, with Prime Ministers Question Time resembling little more than an excuse for overgrown public-school boys to behave badly. It is a tribal ritual, and why anyone, male or female, would want to watch it from the public gallery, or to think that it has anything to do with accountability for the way in which this country is run, is beyond me. Here endeth the rant….

Dec 292015
 

a SaartjieBaartman7On 29 December 1815 a sad young girl died in Paris, thousands of miles from her South African homeland. She was just 25 years old, and her brief life speaks volumes about contemporary European attitudes towards race and ethnicity. Even in death she was denied dignity and respect – her remains were pickled, boiled and otherwise preserved so that audiences could gawp at her in death, just as they had done in life.

Her name ‘Saartjie’, pronounced “Sahr-kee”, was a diminutive version (in Dutch) of  ‘Sarah’, given to her by Dutch settlers after she had been orphaned when her village was raided. Her mother had previously died when Saartje was two years old. She was eleven years old when her father was killed in 1800. Six years later another raid resulted in the death of her intended husband, at  her betrothal ceremony.  Saartje was taken in by a Dutch settler called Peter Cezar  at his home near Cape Town, and appears to have been kept as a house slave. She was tiny – about four feet seven inches tall, but bright. She learned to speak Dutch and, in due course, English and some French in addition to her native tongue. Apparently she was also musically gifted, but these were not the attributes which interested Peter Cezar’s brother Hendrick, nor indeed a man called Alexander Dunlop. He was a ship’s doctor who regularly supplemented his income by supplying wild animals to menageries and travelling shows in Britain and Europe. Together they hit upon the plan of bringing the young girl to Britain – to be exhibited in freak shows. Why? Because of the size of her buttocks. There was also great interest in her because women of her tribe, the Khoikhoi, were rumoured to have enlarged genitalia. Here was a savage who could be forced to dress in the flimsiest of garments, and who would be thrust into a tiny cage where Europeans could come and gaze – and prod and feel. For those voyeurs, the entrance fee of a couple of shillings was money well spent.

a Saartjie_Baartman-3She had arrived in London in 1810 and immediately attracted the attention of the abolitionists, who lobbied for her to be set free. But Hendrick Cezar brandished a contract (written in Dutch) when the case came before  the Court of King’s Bench in November 1810. The contract suggested that Saartje had freely consented to being displayed, in return for being paid a derisory twelve guineas a year. More to the point, and for whatever reason, Saartje herself denied that she was being co-erced, and refuted allegations of sexual abuse. The court had no choice but to throw out the case, and she continued to be exhibited in degrading peep shows, where she was advertised as the Hottentot Venus. The court decision merely added to the public appetite to view this “negro freak”, and a contemporary caricature likens her to a midget (“Miss Ridsdale only 30 Inches high” ) and an albino (“Miss Harvey the Beautiful Albiness with Silk hair perfectly white and pink Eyes!” ) who were being exhibited at the same time.

The Three Graces - A midget, the Hottentot Venus and the albino woman shown courtesy of the British Museum

The Three Graces – A midget, the Hottentot Venus and an albino woman, shown courtesy of the British Museum

a Saartjie_Baartman-2For the next three years she was trailed around the country, appearing at public exhibitions at 225 Piccadilly, at Bartholomew Fair and at the Haymarket in London, and around Ireland. She also attended private viewings for the wealthy, where the observers were permitted more intimate inspection, before her contract was sold to a Frenchman. She was taken to Paris in around September 1814, and by now was being kept in appalling conditions, more appropriate to an animal. Her health deteriorated but she continued to attend exhibitions until just days before her death on 29 December 1815. The cause of death was variously given as smallpox, pneumonia  – or syphilis (although there is no evidence to suggest that she had resorted to prostitution).

a Saartjie_Baartman-1In death she was denied all dignity: her remains were kept for scientific research and public display, with pseudo-scientific papers being written seeking to establish the superiority of the Europeans over their African counterparts.It was only when the French government received a request from Nelson Mandela in 1994 that serious consideration was given to awarding Saartjie a proper burial. For years the French government considered the South African request, no doubt worried that it would establish a precedent  which might be applied to other remains and artefacts  which had come to France from overseas, but in  March 2002 her remains were handed over to the South African authorities and she was buried near her homeland in the Eastern Cape on Women’s Day, 9 August 2002. This picture shows her gravestone.

Much has been made of the alleged similarity between Saartje and Kim Kardashian – a somewhat a SaartjieBaartman8erroneous comparison given that the unlovely Kardashian’s over photo-shopped image was done for money. She (KK) is a talentless bimbo who is happy to manipulate her image and be paid vast amounts  to display her derriere, and much besides. Saartje never knew the meaning of freedom, let alone wealth, and her miserable, brief, existence helps remind us that the Georgian era was cruel, racist and heartless.

My interest is in seeing how caricaturists latched onto Saartje’s posterior as a commentary on contemporary events – the “broad bottomed” approach to government was much in the news. Lord Grenville, renowned for his fat rump, and the Whig coalition, known as the ‘broad bottoms’ were constantly being talked about, and commentators revelled in making comparisons with the unfortunate Saartje.

a Saartjie_Baartman-4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a George 4I had first seen Saartje’s image on a pedestal in this caricature by William Heath ridiculing the corpulent George IV –  her “excessive posterior” was being used as a counterweight to the “excessive girth” of the matching figure of the King on the opposite pedestal.

Here are a couple more references to her:

    A pair of broad bottoms by William Heath, courtesy of British Museum

‘A pair of broad bottoms’ by William Heath, courtesy of British Museum, showing the respective posteriors of Saartjie Baartman and Baron Grenville being measured by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Love at first sight. Or a pair of Hottentots, with An addition to the broad bottom family!! British Museum

Love at first sight. Or a pair of Hottentots, with An addition to the broad bottom family!! showing Grenville and Baartman. British Museum

The British Museum site here has at least half a dozen other caricatures in which Saartje appears as a background figure. At the time she may have been a figure of fun, an object of ridicule. Now, two centuries later, you have to feel sadness for a poor young woman who died alone, thousands of miles from home.

Nov 172015
 

The trial of the Duchess of Kingston (born Elizabeth Chudleigh in 1721) for the crime of bigamy was one of the sensations of the Georgian Age. The Press devoted endless column inches to the trial and its aftermath – to the lower orders it confirmed what they had always known: that their supposed social superiors were a load of lying degenerates. Even The Times was moved to comment in June 1788 that ‘Bigamy, it seems, is a greater crime than simple fornication or fashionable adultery.’

Elizabeth had risen from fairly humble origins – the family owned a small estate in Devon, but they were not wealthy. Her father had unwisely invested what family money there was (£1000) in South Sea Stock, and when the Bubble burst in 1720 he lost the lot. Her father died when he was only 38, leaving the five year old Elizabeth to be brought up in genteel poverty. Mother was forced to take in lodgers at her home in the newly-developed, but not yet fashionable, area of Mayfair in London.

1Elizabeth’s childhood seems to have involved little formal education. She was passed like a baton from the care of one country relation to another, until her mother used her friendship with the Earl of Bath to secure a position at Court for Elizabeth as maid of honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales. The year was 1743 and Elizabeth was 22. She desperately needed the annual sum of £200 which went with the position.

When she wanted to shock she could be coarse and vulgar. For instance, she developed a reputation for flatulence at the dinner table, and took repeated pleasure on blaming it on the dogs. She was however a popular figure at Court – vivacious, bright and witty. One day at Winchester Races she encountered a young naval officer called Augustus John Hervey. The two fell impetuously in love, and Hervey proposed marriage almost immediately. His prospects were not good – his salary was a paltry fifty pounds a year, and marriage would automatically mean that Elizabeth would have to abandon her position as Maid of Honour (since married ladies were no longer considered to be maids). More to the point he was about to leave on a two-year tour of duty. A long engagement might have been prudent, not least because it would reveal whether his prospects were ever likely to materialize. He was the second son of the Earl of Bristol but his elder brother was alive, albeit in bad health, and it was by no means certain that Augustus John would ever inherit either the title or the money which would go with it. But the headstrong couple rushed into marriage, deciding to keep it a secret from the outside world. That way, she kept her position at Court, and he was able to avoid the risk of alienating his family. The wedding took place at Lainston in Wiltshire, on 4 August 1744, and he left to join his squadron, en route to the West Indies, two days later.

When the time came for Hervey to return to England, he found that his bride had not exactly been pining away during his absence. She had developed a close friendship with James, Sixth Duke of Hamilton, and her flirtatious behaviour had attracted a host of other admirers, none of whom were aware of her marriage. Proposals from both the Duke of Hamilton and the Duke of Ancaster had been turned down. Hervey was shocked and appalled at her reputation, and the couple did not even meet up for three months. It appears that Elizabeth was keen to see that her debts were paid by Hervey, but not so keen to have to have anything else to do with him. According to later reports, Hervey engineered a private meeting at his apartments by threatening to go public about the marriage if Elizabeth refused to see him. She turned up, was locked inside, and in the words of the time “he would not permit her to retire without consenting to that commerce, delectable only when kindred souls melt into each other with the soft embrace.” In other words, he forced himself upon her. The report continued “The fruit of this meeting was the addition of a boy to the human race.”

This was in 1747. In order to conceal the pregnancy Elizabeth discreetly moved to Chelsea where she could have the child, away from the prying eyes and ears of the Court. But the child, a boy, only lived a few months. The couple agreed to separate a year after the birth, but, since the marriage was a secret, so was the news of the separation. From that point in time, Elizabeth could no longer look to Hervey for financial support and protection, leaving her in a most vulnerable position. Her impetuous behaviour and lack of decorum caused difficulties at Court – especially when she turned up at a masquerade ball at the end of April 1749, during the Jubilee celebrations of George II, wearing … virtually nothing.

Her fellow Maids of Honour were outraged at her bare-chested appearance. She went in the character of Iphigenia, who in Greek mythology was offered as a sacrifice to appease the gods offended by her father Agamemnon, and one of the guests remarked that she gave the appearance of being ‘so naked ye high Priest might easily inspect ye Entrails of ye Victim.’ As The Life and Memoirs of Elizabeth Chudleigh, published in 1788, put it:

“… it has been asserted this lady appeared in a shape of flesh-coloured silk so nicely and closely fitted to her body as to produce a perfect review of the unadorned mother of mankind, and that this fair representative of frailty … had contrived a method of giving as evident tokens of modesty, by binding her loins with a partial covering, or zone, of fig-leaves.”

The King was, as might be expected, far from disinterested in her appearance and as1ked if he might touch her breast, only to be met with the response that Elizabeth knew of something softer – and promptly placed the King’s hand on his head. His Royal Highness was enchanted by the near-naked nymph, and the gossip-mongers had a field day. Clearly she had the opportunity to become a royal mistress, but for Elizabeth this prospect did not feature in her long-term quest for security. Besides, the Hanoverian kings were notoriously parsimonious when it came to mistresses…
Instead she befriended the shy but rather well-connected Evelyn Pierrepont, Second Duke of  Kingston-upon-Hull. A cousin of Lord Bute (future Prime Minister) he was considered one of the most handsome men in England. Not for him the outrageous extravagances of Court – his interests were simple: fishing and cricket. Surprisingly, Elizabeth was happy to share these passions and by 1752 it was noted that the pair were an item. Their union meant that Elizabeth was able to spend money like water. A fine new house was built in London – called initially Chudleigh House, but later renamed Kingston House. Parties for their rich and influential friends were held, and Elizabeth was granted a fair amount of personal freedom, travelling on the continent, where she became a particular friend of the Electress of Saxony. When in England with the duke she was content to spend her time fishing and sharing his other interests – she reportedly even arranged a Ladies Cricket match in his honour.

The question of her marital status became an issue. Hervey had settled in England and wanted a divorce, which could only be obtained by a private Act of Parliament. Such a step would inevitably mean public gossip and adverse comments in parliament. If granted, the divorce would have meant that on any remarriage she would be seen to be “second hand goods”. Elizabeth therefore objected to the whole idea of a divorce and instead petitioned the Ecclesiastical Court for a declaration that she had never been married. The onus was on Hervey to prove that the marriage had taken place – but whereas servants were produced to say that they had heard of the wedding, no-one would testify that they had been present at the ceremony. Elizabeth swore blind that there was no such wedding. On 10th February 1769, sentence was pronounced, “that the said Elizabeth Chudleigh was and now is a Spinster, and free from all matrimonial contracts and espousals with the said Augustus John Hervey “ A month later, on her forty-eighth birthday, Elizabeth married the duke.

Oddly, polite society turned against the couple. Everyone knew that she had been married, and whereas it was one thing to be the Duke’s mistress, received at Court and by the great and the good, it was another to be seen as a flagrant bigamist. Elizabeth found herself shunned, and she and her husband retreated to their country estates. All was well for a few years, but the Duke suffered a series of strokes and died in 1763. Under his will, everything passed to his widow, on condition that she did not remarry. Enter the jealous relations, outraged at either having to wait, or worse still, having to be cut out of their inheritances altogether.

Elizabeth set out for the continent. She was received with the courtesies due to a duchess by the Pope, Clement XIV. Meanwhile, March 1775 saw her first, and therefore legal, husband succeed to the Earldom of Bristol, making her the Countess of Bristol. It was not a title she wished to be known by!

Later in 1775 she was forced to return to England because the Duke of Kingston’s nephew, Evelyn Meadows, brought proceedings against her based on the fact that she had married bigamously. He wanted to show that the Will should be set aside, either on the basis that there was no marriage, or that Elizabeth had used undue influence. In vain Elizabeth sought to have the hearing set aside by virtue of the earlier decision of the Ecclesiastical Court. In vain she tried to get George III to intervene, or to help her get the case transferred to the House of Lords. All this was duly reported in the papers of the day. Worse still, the actor play-wright Samuel Foote tried to put on a play called A Trip to Calais, in which the thinly disguised figure of the Duchess was represented by a coarse, avaricious woman named Kitty Crocodile. Foote’s purpose may have been no more than to extort money from Elizabeth – he reportedly turned up at her house and read aloud passages to the mortified lady, and demanded two thousand pounds in return for agreeing not to have the play published. By all accounts Elizabeth tried to outflank Foote by using her influence with the Lord Chamberlain, who was happy to have the play banned. Outraged, Foote took the story to the papers. Matters were made worse when Elizabeth responded to a letter written by Foote – he simply published the exchange of letters, which brought the entire saga out into the open. The whole story became public property.

1The bigamy trial in April 1776 was a sensation: Elizabeth was unwell and therefore escaped being locked up in the Tower prior to the trial. Instead, she was in effect put under house arrest. 350 tickets were printed granting entrance to the court – even Queen Charlotte turned up one day. The general consensus was that Elizabeth would be found guilty –and there was much conjecture as to whether she could be sent to a penal colony, given that Britain was by then at war with her American colonies.

Witnesses who had previously denied the wedding suddenly appeared out of the woodwork and agreed that they had been present at the ceremony. Others, who might have helped Elizabeth, simply declined to give evidence or went on long holidays abroad. The result was inevitable – she was found guilty, probably not helped by the fact that in 1759, before her bigamous union, she had taken the extraordinary step of registering the original marriage in the Parish Church at Lainston. Quite why she had done this was unclear – maybe it was a safety precaution in case the Duke did not marry her, perhaps she wanted to be able to fall back on the idea of being a Countess if and when Hervey became Earl. Whatever the reason, it hardly helped her case, although she personally addressed the court for three quarters of an hour. The decision of the Lords was unanimous – 119 peers took it in turns to give a verdict of guilty. Only her rank (i.e. as Countess of Bristol) spared her from imprisonment. Instead she fled to the continent, her fortune intact but her reputation in tatters.

1This cartoon, shown courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, is entitled ‘Iphigenia’s late procession from Kingston to Bristol, by Chudleigh Meadows’ and shows the duchess in a voluminous gown entering the court, followed by three elegantly dressed Maids of Honour, a fat chaplain, her physician and finally by an apothecary carrying an enormous clyster or syringe. It alludes to the fact that as a result of the trial, Elizabeth progressed from being the Duchess of Kingston to being the Countess of Bristol. The speech bubble coming out of the mouth of the duchess reads “By God and…” – the opening words of her sworn statement before the earlier ecclesiastical court.

Within days, pamphlets giving lurid details of the trial appeared not just in London but across the country. One ran to thirty-two pages and was published by Joseph Harrop, printer and proprietor of the Manchester Mercury. He sold it for three pence, or offered it for free to subscribers of his newspaper. In effect it was the forerunner of the free supplements which accompany today’s gossip magazines.

The run-in with Samuel Foote led to a secondary scandal, which was to ruin the poor playwright. Elizabeth employed the Reverend William Jackson as her secretary. He wrote articles in the ’Public Ledger’ suggesting that Foote was a homosexual. Foote successfully sued for libel, but the Reverend, probably bankrolled by Elizabeth, and using the nom de plume of Humphrey Nettle, published a lengthy attack on Foote under the title of ‘Sodom and Onan.’ It contained a recognisable portrait of Foote, together with an illustration of a large naked foot. The satire attacked Foote as a sodomite, using language which was neither subtle nor appropriate for a man of the cloth. Foote responded by re-writing A Trip to Calais as The Capuchin, with William Jackson lampooned as Dr Viper. The bitter exchange of vitriol was followed by criminal charges being brought against Foote in late 1776. He appeared before the Kings Bench to answer allegations, made by his former footman John Sangster, that Foote had attempted to “commit an unnatural act upon his person” twice in May 1775. Lord Mansfield heard the case, and concluded that the whole thing was a conspiracy to blacken Foote’s character, and Foote was acquitted. But the damage had been done, and Foote died, a broken man, shortly afterwards. He was 57.

On the back of the bigamy trial the Meadows family sought to have the Will set aside. A suit in the Court of Chancery would inevitably take many years, and during this time Elizabeth drifted from one European court to another. To her great consternation, she was not an honoured guest at Maria Theresa’s court in Vienna, thanks in part to the intervention of the British Ambassador. She found greater favour at the court of the Russian Empress, and bought an extensive estate near St Petersburg which she named Chudleigh. She also had residences in Rome and in Paris, finally dying in the French capital in 1788, still legally the Countess of Bristol but denied the title of Duchess of Kingston. The Meadows family descended on her assets like vultures, reclaiming what they saw as rightfully theirs. News quickly crossed the Channel, and in death the bigamist Elizabeth became famous once more, with pamphlets and newspapers reviving public interest in her scandalous life. One book ran to 252 pages and bore the title “Authentic Particulars of the Life of the Late Duchess of Kingston During Her Connection with the Duke: Her Residence at Dresden, Vienna, St. Petersburgh, Paris and Several Other Courts of Europe, Also a Faithful Copy of Her Singular Will”

Was she a gold digger, a callous woman who lied through her teeth and enjoyed a status to which she had no entitlement? Or was she simply a woman who genuinely did not regard herself as being married (whatever the letter of the law) when she had spent so little time with Hervey as man and wife? Perhaps she had simply convinced herself that she was entitled to regard the order from the ecclesiastical court as binding. Having been raped by Hervey, who can blame her? Certainly she appears to have been a loving and devoted partner to the Duke – he was clearly the love of her life, and vice versa. In the event it did not really matter – the public were able to indulge their appetite for scandal, gossip and intrigue, and the case sums up much about Georgian attitudes and hypocrisy towards marriage, infidelity, the courts and money. As such, she earns her place in my forthcoming book, ‘Sex Scandal and Satire, in bed with the Georgians’.

Nov 012015
 

2 silverThis post owes everything to the information given to me by the award-winning author Lynne Connolly. As ‘Lynne Connolly’ she writes historical romance, and as ‘L.M. Connolly’ spicy contemporary and paranormal romance. From my point of view, her added significance is that she is a direct descendant of a most remarkable woman called Hester Bateman. Hester was not just a success in a man’s world, she is renowned as one of the greatest silversmiths of the eighteenth century. Hers is a most remarkable story and I am most grateful to Lynne for helping me tell it.

Bunhill Row today, showing houses just down from where Hester had her workshop

Bunhill Row today, showing houses just down the road from where Hester had her workshop

Hester (in all probability she dropped the ‘H’ in conversation and was known as ‘Ester’ within the family) was born in 1708, and was baptised on 7 October of that year. Her father’s name was either John Neden or John Needham and she appears to have had little formal education. It has been suggested that she was wholly illiterate, which makes her subsequent business success all the more astonishing. At the age of 24 she married a wire-maker and chain-maker called John Bateman and proceeded to bear him six children in a short period of time. This meant that when her husband died in 1760, probably of tuberculosis, she found herself at the age of 52 with half a dozen children to bring up, and a business in which she had had no formal training. Interestingly, John bequeathed the tools of his trade to his widow, suggesting that maybe she was already well-versed in the world of making silver. But Hester must have been a determined lady: she could have taken the easy option and have sold the business – probably not for very much, since gold chain makers were ten-a-penny, and once the stock had been sold there would have been little or no goodwill. Wire-making was one of those ‘background’ trades involving the drawing of silver through a narrow gauge to produce a thin wire. As the century progressed, more and more silversmiths used the output of people like John Bateman to supply ready-made panels of metal decoration which could be applied to other silver products. The skills of people like John Bateman were absorbed into a sort of mass production process – but it was an anonymous and not particularly well-paid skill.

5 hallmarkInstead of selling up, Hester decided to carry on the business on her own and to launch it in a completely new direction. Within months of her husband’s death she registered her initials ‘HB’ with the London Goldsmiths Company. This was on 16 April 1761 and the records show that she traded from 107 Bunhill Row.

3 caryThe actual premises no longer exist, but Bunhill Row appears on the left of the map by Cary dating from 1795. Little of the output from her workshop exists from the early years – quite possibly because she had yet to establish a name for herself and was reduced to selling her pieces to other silversmiths. They would then over-stamp the sponsors mark with their own. But what is clear that she moved the business away from making wire and chains and instead became a silver-smith, making items such as spoons, forks, tea pots and decorative objects. After 1774 she was joined in the business by two of her sons, Jonathan(1747-1791) and Peter(1740-1825). Hester continued to head the business until her retirement at the age of 82. She died four years later in 1794, but by then the dynasty was well established and involved her daughter-in-law Ann (married to Jonathan), their son William and grandson William II.

During the thirty-year period when Hester was at the helm the business developed into one of the most successful silver-smithing businesses in the country. Hester’s items are renowned for their neo-classical designs, often adorned with bright-cut engraving, and with beaded edges and piercing. Her mark appears on tea-pots, jugs, caddies and sauce boats. She made decorated wine labels and inkwells, she made salt cellars and mustard pots. Trays, salvers and a vast array of household goods were produced. All had one thing in common: Hester’s attention to design and her absolute dedication to quality. She may not have been able to read or write, but she certainly knew how to impose standards of excellence. Along the way she must have been able to pick up a knowledge of book-keeping and accounts because without this she would never have survived. The soaring price of silver ingots in the period when she was in business meant that she would have needed to have kept a close eye on stock levels, mark-ups and so on. She exploited the ‘added value’ which her skills could bring, and she quickly became highly respected in what was a somewhat closed world of male silver-smiths.

The family became experts at using the latest technology to roll thin-gauge strips of silver (useful in competing with the new process of making Sheffield plate). They were brilliant at machine-punching decorations through the metal, at hammering, raising, planishing, burnishing and engraving. The only thing they do not appear to have tried their hands at was casting (and hence no examples of cast silver candle sticks with the mark HB are known). The sons had their own separate maker’s marks (WB, PB JB etc) but it is the silver which carries the mark HB which is perhaps the most collectible of all. Indeed she is rated as one of the finest silversmiths of her generation – with good reason.

Photo by Fin Fahey

Photo of St Luke’s Church, by Fin Fahey

This remarkable woman was buried at St Luke’s Church, Old Street, London. Her legacy can be found in museums and galleries throughout the country. Her Verger’s Wand is apparently still in use at St Paul’s Cathedral, while examples of her work are found at the various Livery Companies in the City. She made her mark (literally) in a world dominated by men. As far as is known, she never left the very small area of London where she lived and died. She showed a gritty determination to succeed in a business where women were almost unknown, and all this despite an education which did little to prepare her for the challenges which she met and conquered.

Hats off to Hester – and a sincere ‘thanks’ to Lynne Connolly for bringing her to my attention.

Lynne’s next book is due to be published on 1 December and will be called Reckless in Pink, set in 1750’s London.  Her website is at http://lynneconnolly.com

Finally, I am grateful to Daniel Bexfield Antiques (website here)  for some of the additional information about Hester and her family.

Silverware by Hester, shown courtesy of the Museum of Birmingham, with its neo-classical lines so reminiscent of Sheraton and Hepplewhite.

Silverware by Hester, shown courtesy of the Museum of Birmingham, with its neo-classical lines so reminiscent of Sheraton and Hepplewhite.