Mar 082016

To mark International Women’s Day I thought I would post a profile of a woman who will feature as one of my fifteen ‘paradigm shifters’ to be included in my forthcoming book “Petticoat Pioneers”.

by; after Samuel Bellin; Thomas Barber,print,mid 19th century

Charles Latrobe, after Samuel Bellin.

MGIn a way Margaret, Lady Middleton achieved nothing out of the ordinary – she was an accomplished portrait artist; she was a close friend of Dr Johnson and David Garrick; she knew an awful lot of important people; and she held dinner parties. But she was also an extremely influential figure in the abolition movement, which perhaps explains why the Moravian preacher Christian Latrobe, a family friend, once claimed that ‘the abolition of the slave trade was…. the work of a woman, even Lady Middleton.’ Later, her friend Hannah More, herself a staunch abolitionist, wrote to Margaret in 1791, saying ‘you have the first title to every prize on the whole slave subject’. Praise indeed – and that from a woman very much involved in the behind-the-scenes work to promote the abolitionist cause.

For such an influential and fiercely intelligent woman there are remarkably few details of her early life. Born Margaret Gambier some time after 1730 into a family who had come to Britain as Huguenot refugees in the 1690s, she was well-educated, clever and artistic. Her parents James Gambier and Mary Mead were evangelical Christians, who saw it as their job to improve conditions in the world around them. If there was a wrong, then it was their Christian duty to right it. The fact that Margaret was a woman, and therefore had no prospect of going to university or entering Parliament, simply strengthened her view that her skill should lie in influencing others. She could not vote, but in her middle age she certainly learned how to persuade, cajole and inspire others to vote with their conscience.

 William Wilberforce by Anton Hickel, (1745-98)

William Wilberforce by Anton Hickel, (1745-98)

Many would argue that Margaret was the single most influential person in persuading William Wilberforce to present the abolitionist case in Parliament. Not a naturally decisive man, he suffered constantly from self-doubt and needed the encouragement from Margaret to adopt the cause as his life’s work. Wilberforce was not over-keen on allowing women to take part in the abolitionist meetings or to drum up support for petitions, writing in 1826 ‘I own I cannot relish the plan. All private exertions for such an object become their characteristic but for ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture. I fear its tendency would be to mix them all in the multiform warfare of political life.’

The fact that the influence of Margaret Middleton was so effective is revealed in one of his letters to her, when he replies to her letter urging him to present a bill before Parliament with the words: ‘I feel the great importance of the subject and I think myself unequal to the task allotted to me, but yet I will not positively decline it.’

More importantly, having committed himself to the cause, Margaret was closely involved in much of the strategic planning behind the various anti-slavery bills put before Parliament.

Admiral Charles Middleton, later Lord Barham (1726-1813)  *oil on canvas on board  *75.5 x 63.2 cm  *19th century

Admiral Charles Middleton, later Lord Barham (1726-1813) 

How did this happen? Largely in conjunction with her husband, whom she had met on her uncle’s ship when he was in his mid-teens. A few years older than her, he was an impoverished servant serving under Captain Samuel Mead, who was in charge of HMS Sandwich. The fact that she fell head-over-heels for him did not endear their relationship to her parents – his prospects were far from clear, and he had yet to establish a name for himself in his chosen career i.e. the Royal Navy. She faced more parental opposition when she declined to marry a suitor of her parent’s choice, and in time her parents dis-inherited her. The couple had to wait a further twenty years, until 1761, before the 35 year old Charles Middleton was able to take a prolonged period of shore leave, and marry Margaret. She got pregnant immediately and gave birth to a daughter exactly nine months later.

In the period up until her marriage Margaret was estranged from her parents and lived with a close friend Elizabeth Bouverie, a Huguenot who owned an estate at Barham Court at Teston in Kent. Margaret and Elizabeth had been at school together, fostering a lifelong friendship. Together they had hosted parties for their artist friends and intellectuals – men like Samuel Johnson, who described Margaret as one of the wisest people he knew, and fellow artist Joshua Reynolds.

Barham Court, Teston.

Barham Court, Teston.

So close was the connection, and so generous was Elizabeth as host, that Margaret continued to live at Barham Court after she married. Eventually, the estate was bequeathed to Charles Middleton, but in 1761 Charles was happy to spend time ashore and to devote his energies over a twelve year period to farming and managing the Barham Court estate. He also owned a London house at Hanover Square, where he could attend to his burgeoning naval career. He was a highly political animal, becoming Comptroller of the Navy in August 1778. He was awarded a baronetcy in 1781 and three years later was elected as M.P. for Rochester.

He introduced James Ramsey, who he knew from his sailing days, to the circle of friends at Barham Court. Ramsay had served as ship’s surgeon on board HMS Arundel when it was under the command of Charles Middleton. Later he gave up being a surgeon to become an Anglican vicar and worked tirelessly on the Caribbean island of St Kitts to improve working conditions for the plantation slaves. Margaret had been involved in correspondence with Ramsay over a twenty year period. Now he was appointed secretary to Sir Charles Middleton, and given the living at Teston Church and made Rector at nearby Nettlestead.

Another visitor to the group came at the invitation of Ramsay – the indefatigable Thomas Clarkson, who became curate at Teston and went on to be a founder member of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He was to devote his whole life to criss-crossing the country giving lectures, interviewing sailors and collecting signatures to his anti-slavery petitions.

Another guest was John Newton – a former slaver who had himself been reduced to servitude and abject poverty by a disgruntled slave trader on an island off the coast of Sierra Leone. When he eventually escaped and returned to Britain he experienced an epiphany when the ship he was on board nearly sank off the coast of Ireland. Eventually recanting of his old ways, he became a firebrand of a preacher, and among other things went on to write the anti-slavery song ‘Amazing Grace’

In this way Barham Court became the place where all the threads of the anti-slavery movement came together. Friendships were forged, roles were worked out, and the leading lights went forth, imbued with determination to get the message across.

James Ramsay

James Ramsay

Ramsay had seen the appalling treatment of slaves first-hand during his time in the West Indies. What alarmed him was not just the cruelty but also the apparent indifference shown by people with whom he raised the topic. But with Margaret and her husband he found sympathetic listeners – they rebuilt his confidence, convincing him that he had a duty to speak out. They helped him draft what became an important treatise on slavery, which was published in 1784 as a book-length tract called an ‘Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies’. The preface to the tract was a lengthy letter which was in fact written by Margaret, Lady Middleton. Clarkson was to say of Ramsay’s book that it was the “first controversy ever entered into on the subject, during which, as is the case in most controversies, the cause of truth was spread’. It certainly helped light the fuse under the abolitionist cause, and inspired a generation of activists to campaign against the degrading and barbaric trade in human misery.

1788 saw the publication of another paper by Ramsay entitled ‘An Inquiry into the Effects of Putting a Stop to the African Slave Trade’. His works were extremely influential – he had seen the horrors of slavery at first hand, and he was a mainstream Anglican clergyman whose ideas could not be dismissed out of hand.

Ramsay’s success, coupled with the generosity of the Middleton’s as hosts, and Sir Charles’s increasing importance as a reformer of the Royal Navy, meant that influential visitors were eager to attend the Middleton dinner parties. In private meetings such as these the nascent abolition movement took hold. Strategies and tactics were discussed – and it was clear that a parliamentary voice was essential. Around this time the daughter of Charles and Margaret got married – and her husband had been at St John’s College Cambridge with William Wilberforce. William was introduced to the regular gatherings at Barham Court, meeting Ramsay in 1783. He loved the Barham Court atmosphere, writing later that he found Barham Court ‘in high preservation. It has none of the grand features of your northern beauties but for the charms of softness and elegance I never beheld a superior to Barham Court’.

In 1788 Charles Middleton addressed the House of Common on the evils of the slave trade, and his wife asked whether he was prepared to spearhead the abolition campaign in Parliament. He declined, saying that William Wilberforce ‘not only displayed very superior talents of great eloquence, but was a decided and powerful advocate of the cause of truth and virtue.’ In practice it was a wise choice – Middleton remained to serve as a most effective Comptroller of the Navy, introducing much needed reforms, eradicating corruption and improving the lot of the common sailor, with increased pay and better conditions. He was eventually made up to Admiral (June 1795) and was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty (1805). When he retired from office he was given the title of Baron Barham of Teston. He died aged eighty-six on 17th June 1813.

And what of his wife Margaret? She died suddenly in 1792. The timing was significant because in that same year John Thornton purchased an estate in Clapham and it quickly took over from Barham Court as the centre of the abolitionist cause. The Clapham Sect carried on where the salons of Margaret, Lady Middleton had left off. But although she did not live to see her cause carried through to the Statute Book, she was hugely influential. In an era where it was not particularly fashionable to “wear your heart on your sleeve” and promote your evangelical Christian beliefs, she relentlessly used her social clout and network of contacts to further her chosen cause. Faith and philanthropy were inseparable in her mind – a combination which was to find an echo in the life of Elizabeth Fry in the decades which followed.

Apr 152015

Today I am delighted to offer a guest blog-spot to author David Ebsworth, who brought out a fascinating book earlier this year entitled The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour. Over to you David!


a4 Ebsworth1“They say that, on the day after the battle, you couldn’t find a pair of pliers for love nor money. Not for fifty miles around. The new fashion – in London, Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburg – was for dentures fitted with real teeth.

Waterloo teeth

Waterloo teeth

And there, on those few square miles of Belgian soil, lay no less than 50,000 potential donors, most of them dead, the rest so close to it that it didn’t much matter. And it wasn’t just the nature of dentistry that changed in June 1815. The battles fought in Belgium over those few brief days brought an end to 22 years of almost continuous fighting between the European powers in what had been, effectively, the first “world war” – and historians estimate that as many as 7,000,000 military and civilian casualties occurred between 1804 and 1815 alone. Until 1917, this was known as “The Great War.”

a6 Panorama2Those battles also brought an end to that military rivalry between Britain and France which had flared so violently and plagued each of the six centuries since the Anglo-French War of 1202-14.

From now on, France would be our ally in all subsequent conflicts – the beginning of a new and more modern Europe in which Germany and Italy would be born, and the seeds of social democratic government would slowly begin to replace the despotism of the old Royal Houses. It’s a process that’s still evolving, of course. But many other things remained entirely unchanged. International banking continues to fund all sides in current conflict, exactly as they did in 1815. The arms industry is still the main beneficiary of warfare, exactly as it was in 1815. And regardless of the original spark, which may ignite the bonfires of war, it has generally been international banking and the arms industry that have fanned the flames and kept the bonfires burning.

a 1 Bonaparte1So, with this in mind, and the bicentenary of Waterloo coming up, I began to think how I might tell the story from a slightly different perspective.   As usual, I began by looking at the controversies.

Was victory at Waterloo

(a) won by the brilliance of Wellington and the resolute steadiness of his British infantry,  or

(b) truly threatened by the alleged cowardice of his Dutch and Belgian contingents, or

(c) snatched from the jaws of an ignominious British defeat by the timely arrival of Wellington’s dogged Prussian allies, or

(d) simply thrown away, against all the odds, by the French.

You’ll find whole battalions of eminent historians, this year, fighting their own battles, for and against each of these viewpoints.

a5 Catherine Baland at ChiclanaAnd then there were the legends – none striking me so hard as the tale of Charles Napier (95th Rifles) and the broken body of a beautiful female French cavalry trooper he discovered among the thickest of Bonaparte’s dead. It was this tale that set me on the path of researching the many feisty women who fought, in their own right, in their own way, in the French front lines.

By the time I’d finished that research, I knew what I didn’t want to write. Not yet another “boy’s own adventure” story of Waterloo. Not another one-sided account that failed to recognize the battlefield fever and frenzy, the heroism, that gripped British, Dutch-Belgian, Prussian and French alike – nor to at least acknowledge that all the protagonists genuinely believed they were “on the right side.” Hindsight, and the pen of the victors, might have shaped the way we’ve been taught about Waterloo over the past 200 years but, on the day, among the French ranks, it all looked very different indeed!

So I became a bit fixated on some little-known and often forgotten issues.  First, Napoleon faced two very powerful armies, not one – and each of those armies was numerically as strong as his own.  By the time of Waterloo itself, over the previous three days, the French had already fought two major battles and several smaller ones. The French army, and its commanders, had slept little over those few days. By the end of the battle, many French Divisions, almost a third of Bonaparte’s total force, had still not fired a shot nor been engaged. For at least half the battle, a relatively small number of French soldiers held off wave after wave of Prussians trying to come to Wellington’s rescue – in some of the bloodiest fighting which those taking part had ever seen.

And, for most of the battle, Bonaparte – either by choice or through illness – was not even present on the field.

The result of all this has been The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour – a tale of Waterloo told from the viewpoint of two French women participants. But is this Napoleonic chicklit? Definitely not. This is a very traditional action story, and will hopefully appeal to all readers of historical fiction. Somebody’s said that the novel’s perhaps akin to Thomas Keneally’s The Daughters of Mars and, if so, that’s a great compliment.

But I’ll leave readers to make up their own minds!”




David has published three previous novels: The Jacobites’ Apprentice, Finalist in the Historical Novel Society’s 2014 Indie Award; The Assassin’s Mark, set during the Spanish Civil War; and The Kraals of Ulundi: A Novel of the Zulu War. Each of these books has been the recipient of the coveted B.R.A.G. Medallion for independent authors.


Thanks for that, David. More details of David’s work are available on his website here. The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour was published on 1st January and is available through all normal outlets.

Dec 132012

I used to live in Richmond Hill in Bristol and was aware of the green plaque a few doors down advising the world that it used to be the home of Sarah Guppy, an English inventor who lived between 1770 and 1852. Indeed I always parked my car in the tree-filled garden opposite her home at 7 Richmond Hill, unaware that she had bequeathed it to the city on condition that it was not built upon. It remains as a delightful, quiet, enclave right in a busy part of the city.

But what of Sarah Guppy the inventor? It is fair to say that female inventors are few and far between in the Georgian and Victorian era, for one very good reason. If a woman was married she could not own property in her own name – and as a patent was intellectual property this meant that a woman could not apply for a patent in her own name and had to do so via her husband.

Clifton Suspension Bridge

Nevertheless Mrs Guppy can lay claim to an extraordinarily eclectic mix of inventions. Where for instance would we be without a device to prevent barnacles forming on boat hulls? She earned a contract with the British Navy worth £40,000 for that one. Or even more usefully, for the safe piling of bridge foundations (patented in 1811 and used free of charge by Thomas Telford when building his bridge over the Menai straits, and by Isambard Kingdom Brunel with the Clifton Suspension bridge some ten years later). She never sought to charge a licence fee for her pile-driving ideas because she regarded them as being for the public benefit.

She also put forward a scheme to prevent soil erosion on railway embankments by planting willow and poplar trees, while my favourite invention was one which modified a samovar-type of tea urn to enable you to boil an egg in the steam while at the same time keeping the toast warm on a steam-heated metal plate. An ideal breakfast maker in fact!

Sarah’s exercise bed

In between time Sarah invented a way of keeping fit in the bedroom – patenting a sort of hybrid bed-come-gym, with drawers beneath the bed forming steps for exercise, and with bars suspended from the ceiling for developing upper-body strength.

Other patents covered a type of fire hood for the kitchen. She also devised a modified candle holder which would enable candles to burn for longer, and a method of caulking wooden boats so that they were more sea-worthy.

In all Sarah took out ten patents in the late Georgian and early Victorian period – a remarkable achievement.

She had been born Sarah Beech in Birmingham into a wealthy family with trading links to the West Indies (in particular with the sugar trade) and had married Bristol trader Samuel Guppy. At first they lived in Queen Square and later in Prince Street and quickly became the focus of Bristol society. They were a glittering and successful couple, well connected with leading figures of the age especially Brunel. She had six children including Thomas Richard, who went on to become one of Brunel’s assistants. Together the pair formulated the idea of a rail link from London to Bristol, combining it with the notion of a ship travelling to New York. This led to the Great Western Railway and the launch of the Great Western steamship. Indeed Thomas Richard Guppy was Directing Engineer of the Great Western Steamship Company, of which Mr. Brunel was the Consulting Engineer.

When her first husband died the 67 year old Sarah made an unfortunate decision to re-marry. She took as her spouse one Richard Eyre-Coote who was still in his late thirties.

Arnos Court, Brislington (now a hotel)

For Richard, his wife’s money meant a life of profligacy and gambling, particularly on the horses, and before long Sarah moved out of their home at Arnos Court Brislington and bought 7 Richmond Hill where she remained until her death at the age of 82. By then all her money had gone, squandered by her second husband. There’s a lesson there for all cougars….