Friday, January 17, 2020

Romancing the Tower of London: William Harrison Ainsworth

By Nancy Bilyeau

On a December night in 1840, a sizable group of writers, editors, publishers, printers and illustrators gathered at the Sussex Hotel, in the fashionable town of Royal Tunbridge Wells, for a dinner party. It is possible that Charles Dickens, the young author of Oliver Twist and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, was invited to the party. Most definitely in attendance was George Cruikshank, the talented illustrator of Oliver Twist.

The host of this lavish affair was the famed 35-year-old novelist William Harrison Ainsworth. The occasion: the successful serialization over the last year of his fifth novel, The Tower of London: A Historical Romance, which told the story of the tragic Lady Jane Grey, beginning with her arrival by barge at the Tower to launch her nine-day-reign and ending with her decapitation on Tower Green on July 10, 1553.

William Harrison Ainsworth

The novelist was sure to have cut quite the dash at his own party: He was tall, slim and dark, with a fondness for stylish clothes that earned him the description dandy. From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: "Lady Blessington, whose salon he attended, said he and Count D'Orsay were the two handsomest men in London."

In a passage accepted as autobiographical, a character in one of Ainsworth's novels says, "Some people told me I was handsome, and my tailor (excellent authority, it must be admitted) extolled the symmetry of my figure, and urged me to go into the Life Guards."

Ainsworth was at perhaps the zenith of his career in 1840. He was a friendly rival to Dickens; in fact, his 1839 novel Jack Shepard outsold Oliver Twist in early editions, and Ainsworth had recently replaced Dickens as editor of Bentley's Miscellany, the predominant fiction magazine.

The rivalry with Dickens would not last; nor would the friendship. Dickens would become a colossus as Ainsworth slowly sank into oblivion. His 39 historical novels, all of them romances and adventures, were astoundingly popular with the reading public of Victorian England, but not with the critics. Although Ainsworth was himself a genial and generous man, he was often on the receiving end of literary volleys almost hysterical in their dislike. When his books no longer sold as well, he had no circle of supporters to buoy him. Quite the opposite. One writer said of him in 1870: "Let us start with an opinion fearlessly expressed as it is earnestly felt, that the existence of this writer is an event to be deplored." Ainsworth was still alive when this sentiment was published, and in reduced circumstances.

That dazzling night at Royal Tunbridge Wells, Ainsworth, mercifully, could not know that his books would go out of print, that fellow writers such as Edgar Allan Poe would describe his prose as "turgid pretension."

Yet he is not without a legacy. The book celebrated that night, The Tower of London: A Historical Romance, triggered a new kind of interest in William the Conqueror's castle keep. It was an interest that deepened through the Victorian age, and is part of the reason visitors pour into the Tower, to the tune of 2 million a year.

Ainsworth was born on February 4, 1805, in Manchester, as the city became the center of the industrial movement. Thomas Ainsworth was a prominent lawyer and pressured his oldest son to follow him in that profession, which he did for a time, but without much enthusiasm. There was a younger son, Thomas Gilbert Ainsworth, who at university suffered a "brain fever" and was incapicitated by mental illness his entire life.

Two years after the father died, Ainsworth, newly married, published his first novel, the romance Sir John Chiverton. It brought him to the attention of Walter Scott, who befriended Ainsworth but privately referred to him as an "imitator." His next two books, the historical novels Rockwood and Jack Schepard, both featuring famous outlaws, were tremendous successes. Yet some criticized the romanticizing of criminals, a complaint Dickens was also hearing with Oliver Twist.

It was time to try something different.

When Ainsworth, along with his illustrator, George Cruikshank, researched the Tower of London, it was far from the smoothly operating tourism operation of today. It had been two centuries since the last monarch, Charles II, resided there. Dickens wrote: "Once a fortress, a royal residence, a court of justice and a prison, {the Tower} is now a government storehouse and armory." An outbreak of disease caused by poor water supply (and blamed on the filthy moat) killed three men of the garrison.

A visitor in 1851 wrote:

"Every one must be struck with the incivility and want of accommodation therein. Upon entering the gates this afternoon I found some hundreds of persons, male and female, huddled together, striving to obtain tickets from a window under a portico where no two persons can pass abreast, and the scene there reminded me of what might be expected at the gallery entrance of a theatre on boxing night. After waiting just one hour we obtained our tickets and were ordered into what is called the ante or refreshment room. This room is about 12ft. by 18ft., with a counter containing ginger pop, buns, &c., immediately behind which are two waterclosets (I understand recently erected). I will not attempt to describe the stench one had to contend with, the place being completely crammed with persons waiting their turns or numbers to be called, but merely add that this room seems to be the resort of pickpockets, two ladies having been eased of their purses, containing some pounds, during the half hour I was present therein."

Ainsworth opened the door to a more illustrious period in the Tower's history. It's true that the novel's prose is melodramatic ("heaving bosoms," "piercing black eyes" and "sinister smiles") and the pages are crowded with Gothic characters (not one or two but three supporting characters who are giants--and a dwarf!) along with august personages of the past. But Ainsworth's diligent research brings to life the grounds, the kitchens, the passageways, the prison cells and the beautiful chapels of the Tower. He made full, imaginative use of the Tower of London, as a setting for a story of high drama. And Cruikshank's 40 engravings and 58 woodcuts play their suggestive part.

Cruikshank's depiction of Lady Jane Grey
And in the center of it all is Lady Jane Grey, a character of undeniable pathos, surrounded by conspiracies. Ainsworth invests the Spanish ambassador, Simon Renard, with the malevolent abilities of a Blofeld straight from Bond. Northumberland is formidable indeed.There is an energy to the book, and an eerie, even frightening atmosphere. The rack, the Scavenger's Daughter and the infamous Little Ease are all present and accounted for.

The current official Historical Royal Palaces Tower of London "fact sheet" on torture emphasizes how little actual torture has taken place within its walls: "Myth-making reached its peak in the 19th century, spurred on by novelists who wished to evoke the Tower of London in its former days as an ancient fortress and stronghold e.g. Ainsworth’s The Tower of London." Ainsworth may have put the devices of torture to Gothic uses, but they were very much present in the 16th century. Ironically, government-approved torture of prisoners ebbed during the reigns of Edward VI, Jane Grey, and Mary, only to rise to highest levels during reign of Elizabeth.

After The Tower of London, Ainsworth's career went on for more than thirty years. The characters in his books were not dimensional; bosoms continued to heave and black eyes to snap. R.H. Horne, Dickens' friend and collaborator, described Ainsworth as "a reviver of old clothes" whose novels are "generally dull except when revolting." Punch satirized Ainsworth as an aging Tudoresque dandy with the caption "The Greatest Axe-and-Neck Romancer of Our Time."

By the time of the Punch jab, Ainsworth, a widower, was responsible for his mentally ill brother. He had accepted a government pension because...he needed it. A year after a dinner in his honor in Manchester, arguably the only place where he was still esteemed, William Harrison Ainsworth died at the age of 77.
But the Tower felt the lingering impact of Ainsworth. In the foreword of his book, he had called for the opening to the public of Beauchamp Tower, the place of imprisonment of the Lady Jane Grey, where she is thought to have written on the wall of her cell. The cause was taken up by powerful patrons, including Prince Albert. Beauchamp was restored by architects and made available to visitors; other buildings were opened too.

Ainsworth's influence, as explained in The Tower of London: The Official Illustrated History:

"In The Tower of London: A Historical Romance, the Tower was first and foremost the setting for an endless series of heart-rending events and foul play. The author tells of dungeons though in fact the Tower has very few basement rooms and of a time when Tower Hill boasted a scaffold and "its soil was dyed with the richest and best blood in the land.” Such fantasies, backed by the relentless march of the romantic movement, helped create and fuel an ever-increasing demand to see and experience such events.”

No matter how much the novel's violence veers into fantasy, the faintly menacing image of the Tower that draws the throngs of the curious today was created in part by William Harrison Ainsworth. He was the greatest neck-and-axe romancer of his time...and perhaps of ours too.

This article is an Editor's Choice and was originally published August 19, 2012. 


Nancy Bilyeau is a historical novelist and magazine editor based in New York. She wrote the Joanna Stafford trilogy, a trio of thrillers set in Henry VIII’s England, for Simon & Schuster. Her fourth novel is The Blue, an 18th century thriller revolving around the art & porcelain world. Her latest novel is Dreamland, set in Coney Island of 1911, is published by Endeavour Quill. A former staff editor at Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and InStyle, Nancy is currently the deputy editor at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and contributes to Town & Country, CrimeReads, and Mystery Scene magazine.

For more information, visit

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Opera in Early 18th Century London

by Lucy May Lennox

Today opera has an (undeserved) reputation for being stuffy and dull, with the stereotypical image of a fat woman shrieking in a horned helmet. Opera in Georgian London was very different—it was the equivalent of our big budget superhero movies today, all about spectacle and popular entertainment.

The style of opera popular throughout Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century is called opera seria. Opera seria originated in Italy, which is why operas composed and performed in England were in the Italian language, and the most celebrated singers were from Italy. Unlike later opera styles, opera seria features solos almost exclusively; there is very little choral or ensemble singing. There are only a few duets, usually performed between lovers to highlight their emotional connection. The performance was very stylized, not intended to be naturalistic, and the singers showed their skill through vocal ornamentation rather than emotional expression. The plots were heroic and/or tragic, borrowed from Greek and Roman mythology, and the stagecraft featured all kinds of spectacles such as flying horses, mythological creatures, and magic. In contrast to performances in Italy, opera seria in London was popular entertainment for high and low alike, and the performances tended to be much more raucous.

Caricature of Handel opera seria Flavio featuring castrato Senesino
on the left and soprano Francesca Cuzzoni center.

London opera in the early eighteenth century is synonymous with the composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Although Handel is best remembered today for his oratorios, particularly the Messiah (1742), he made his name in London in opera seria. Born in what is now Germany, Handel studied opera in Italy before moving to London in 1712. Over the course of his career, he composed forty-two operas, most of which were produced by the Haymarket Theater and the Theater Royal, Covent Garden. His operas were dramatic spectacles including dance as well as virtuoso singing, and drove the craze in London for opera seria. Today his best known aria is “Ombra mai fu” from Serse (Xerxes, 1738), written for castrato voice.

Handel composed oratorios throughout his career as well, but the most famous of these he composed in the 1730s and 1740s. In part he turned to oratorios in reaction to changing tastes in London, as the exotic appeal of opera seria waned. In contrast to opera seria, which was performed in Italian, most of Handel’s oratorios were composed in English. While the plots of opera seria were taken from classical antiquity, the text of the oratorios came from the King James Bible. In fact, Handel first wanted to stage bible stories as operas, but the Bishop of London would not allow it. Performing scenes from the bible in Covent Garden theaters, associated with prostitution, was considered blasphemous. Bible stories should only be performed in a church. Oratorio, in which the singers did not wear costumes or act out the scenes, but stood on stage beside the orchestra, was a compromise between theatrical and church music, and allowed the religious theme to be performed in a secular setting. Several of these oratorios were conducted by John Stanley, a blind composer and organist who worked closely with Handel for many years.

Portrait of Farinelli
The most popular voice type in opera seria was the castrato, a man castrated before puberty so he maintained a soprano range into adulthood. The practice of creating and training castrati was limited to Italy, although they performed all over Europe. The most popular castrato in London was Farinelli (1705-1782). There was a film about him made in 1994, although it is not very biographically accurate. The popularity of Farinelli and other castrati in London was intense but brief, peaking in the 1720s-1730s. There was an equally intense backlash against castrati, not only because they challenged gender norms, but because they were not English. Male social clubs called beef-steak societies were one source of this backlash. In particular the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks was founded in 1735 by John Rich, the manager of the Theater Royal, Covent Garden, as a means of expressing a British masculine identity. Rich was also the producer of the Beggar’s Opera (1728), written by John Gay as a parody of opera seria and the style popularized by Handel. Some of this xenophobic sentiment can be seen in the broadside “London” penned by beefsteak society member Henry Carey:
There your English actor goes, with many a hungry belly
While heaps of gold are laid, God wot! on Signor Farinelli
What did a castrato performance sound like? There’s no way to know exactly. Castration not only affected the vocal cords, but the entire physical development. Castrati had elongated limbs and large barrel chests, which gave them tremendous lung capacity and vocal power. Musically, their high voices symbolized virtue and purity, but certainly part of the appeal for audiences was the spectacle of a man with an almost inhuman high voice. After the castrati disappeared, revivals of opera seria tended to use female singers in their place through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but lately there has been a trend for male countertenors to reclaim these roles.

Although men with high voices were the superstars of the era, there were women opera stars as well. One of the biggest stars in London was Anna Maria Strada del Pò (1719-1741) who was brought from Italy by Handel and performed the soprano lead in many of his operas. While she was celebrated for her fine vocal technique, she was also mocked for her appearance, particularly for inelegant facial expressions as she sang. Charles Burney noted that, “she had so little of a Venus in her appearance, that she was usually called the Pig.”

Portrait of Anna Maria Strada

Not all the prima donna were Italian. Kitty Clive (1711-1785), who was from Ireland, was another major star of the era. While Kitty Clive sang the role of Delila in Handel’s oratorio Samson (1743), she was best known for her comedic roles in David Garrick’s company. Likewise, Lavinia Fenton (1708-1760) was famous as a singer and comic actress, originating the role of Polly Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera (1728). The English singer Susannah Cibber (1714-1766), a contralto, sang many male roles in Handel’s oratorios. She was praised for her expressivity in tragic roles, although her vocal technique was not considered as polished as that of Italian singers.

Scene from The Beggar’s Opera, by William Hogarth. Lavinia Fenton as Polly Peachum is in
the center, and the Duke of Bolton is in the box to the right. Note the audience members sitting on
 the stage, talking during the performance.

Handel also innovated the inclusion of extensive dance scenes in opera seria, as another form of titillating spectacle. One of the most famous (or infamous) dancers was Marie Sallé (1707-1756), a French ballerina born to a family of circus acrobats. John Rich brought her to the Theater Royal, Covent Garden, where she appeared in several of Handel’s operas. She was known for dancing in loosely-fitting, revealing costumes, to the scandalized delight of audiences. She was also rumored to have female lovers, and was not the only performer to do so (for example, actress Elizabeth Ashe, the lover of Caroline, Countess of Harrington).

Attending a Covent Garden opera performance in the early eighteenth century was a very different experience than today. Opera performances only occurred at certain times of year, and when the season was over, there was no way to hear the same performances again. In an age of recorded music, we tend to forget how precious and rare live performance could be.

Opera performances could stretch on for four hours or more, although audiences might come and go as they pleased. Before the overture, there were usually three pieces played to entertain the crowd as they arrived at five o’clock to secure seats until the show began at six o’clock. Called the First, Second, and Third Music, these might be instrumental pieces or solos by up and coming singers, followed by a prolog or speech by the manager. Likewise, during the intermission (intermezzo or entr’acte), there would be additional performances as the sets and costumes were changed.

Audiences were loud and disruptive. A Trip Through the Town (1735) describes the theater audience thus: “They talk continually no matter of what, for they talk only to be taken notice of, for which reason they raise their voices to be taken notice of by those who pass by.”

Riot at the Theater Royal, Covent Garden, 1763
over increased ticket prices.
There was very little separation between the audience and the players. Although the interior of the theater was similar to theaters today, there was no curtain. The boxes, or balcony seats along the edge of the theater, extended alongside the stage. The wealthiest patrons were allowed to have seats right on the stage. Some Covent Garden theaters had rows of spikes along the proscenium to prevent overly amorous or critical audience members from leaping onto the stage during a performance.

Audiences might shout at the players or throw rotten fruit if they did not like a performance. Riots were not uncommon. Burford writes,
In 1738, after a riot in the Haymarket Theater in protest at the appearance of some French players, it was enacted that the public had a legal right to manifest their dislike of a play or the actors. In 1744 there was a riot at Drury Lane Theater over contemplated rises for admission. In another fracas in 1755 there was a free fight with gallants jumping from the boxes into the pit, their swords being drawn and blood being shed while the women screamed when the mob tore up scenery and smashed up the seats.
Audiences might also take sides in a rivalry between singers, booing the rival and cheering their favorite loudly, as happened with Handel’s singers Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bourdoni. The two women even fought each other on stage. Handel threatened to throw Cuzzoni out a window when she refused to sing an aria during rehearsals.

All this meant that the life of an opera star was precarious indeed, especially for women. The actresses were all assumed to be prostitutes. The sad fact is that many were forced to become the mistress of a wealthy patron or engage in outright prostitution because the wages were so low. Many of the celebrated divas died alone and penniless, as happened to La Strada. Lavinia Fenton, on the other hand, married her much older lover the Duke of Bolton after the death of his first wife, and became a duchess.

Susannah Cibber’s personal life also erupted in scandal. She married actor Theophilus Cibber, son of playwright Colley Cibber, but she was far more famous and rich than her husband. As all of a wife’s assets belonged solely to the husband, she attempted to circumvent this law by placing her money in trust, but he managed to spend it all anyway. To pay the bills, they took in a tenant named William Sloper, which led to an affair that twice landed all three in court, with competing claims that Cibber forced Susannah at gunpoint to have sex with Sloper, or that she fell in love with Sloper and they slept together while a spy observed them from a closet. Nevertheless, she continued to perform through this scandal, which only increased her popularity.

Marie Sallé and Lavinia Fenton used their status to improve the working conditions and treatment of women on stage. Clive campaigned publicly for better pay for actresses, and for separating the career of actress from prostitution. She also wrote several short plays satirizing the poor treatment of actresses.

There have been some recent revivals of opera seria that attempt to capture the flavor of the era. This excerpt of a German production of Serse, with the cross-dressed singers arguing with the conductor, gives us a small taste of what it might have been like to attend the opera in the eighteenth century.

Selected sources:

Burford, E. J. Wits, Wenchers and Wantons: London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century. Robert Hale: London, 1990.

Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Parker, Roger, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Schœlcher, Victor. The Life of Handel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.


Lucy May Lennox is the author of The Adventures of Tom Finch, Gentleman, a novel set in the opera world of eighteenth century London.

London, 1735. Tom Finch, composer and conductor, approaches life with boundless good cheer and resilience, despite his blindness. Join Tom for a picaresque romp through high and low Georgian society among rakes, rovers, thieving whores and demi-reps, highway robbers, bigamists, and duelists, bisexual opera divas, castrati, mollies, and cross-dressers, lecherous aristocrats, and headstrong ladies. This meticulously researched, witty and lively tale overturns stereotypes about disability and revels in the spectacle and excitement of 18th century opera.

Monday, January 13, 2020


By Michael Paul Hurd

Charles II’s Royalist army was defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army at Worcester on 3 September 1651. Following the defeat, Charles II became a fugitive for the next six weeks, before he successfully escaped to Normandy, France, on the morning of 15 October 1651. During his fugitive period, Charles II covered a circuitous 625-mile (1006 km) route from Worcester to Shoreham and were almost captured on several occasions. The route of Charles II’s escape is known as “The Monarch’s Way” and is signposted as a Public Footpath in its entirety. Charles II himself recounted the exact details of his escape to the Earl of Clarendon, Samuel Pepys (pronounced “peeps”), and his personal physician, Doctor George Bate. There were few discrepancies in the accounts recorded by each of the three men.

During his time as a fugitive, Charles II apparently gained a new appreciation for the life of the common man in England and how badly the populace had been affected by the English Civil Wars. Traveling in disguise most of the time and without a significant entourage, he relied on loyal subjects and Catholic noblemen for concealment. The subterfuge was elaborate: Charles was at times dressed as a common field hand, had his coiffure changed to match the locals, and even had what would have been the equivalent of a “dialect coach” to teach him how to speak and walk like a local laborer instead of an educated royal. At other times, he adopted an alias.

One of his most notable situations was his brief stay at Boscobel House in Shropshire, on 6 and 7 September 1651. There, Charles spent all day hiding – and even sleeping -- in a nearby oak tree while Parliamentary forces searched nearby. This tree later became known as the “Royal Oak” and a descendant of that tree still stands on Boscobel grounds. The King’s companion at the time, a Colonel Charles Careless, hid with Charles inside the oak tree and was responsible for alerting the King to imminent danger. Meanwhile, Boscobel House caretakers were detained and questioned by Parliamentary forces at the local militia headquarters but somehow managed to convince their interrogators that the King had never been on Boscobel House grounds, nor the White Ladies priory in particular.

So loyal were the Boscobel caretakers that they did not surrender Charles’s location to the Parliamentarian militia, even when reminded that there was a £1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the King and that the penalty for harboring the royal fugitive was “death without mercy.” However, the proximity of the militia to Charles’s location of concealment emphasized the importance of getting Charles out of England as quickly as possible.

Boscobel House - Image Attribution

Once again, Charles was on the move. His next exploits involved assuming the identity of a servant accompanying a woman who had a travel pass from the Parliamentarian military to visit a friend who was about to have a baby in Abbots Leigh, Somerset. Charles rode with the woman on a single horse, which threw a shoe during the journey. Because Charles had assumed the identity of a servant, it was his responsibility to take the horse to a local blacksmith; there, he engaged in a conversation with the blacksmith. In Charles’s own dictation of the escape to Samuel Pepys, he claimed to have told the blacksmith that “the rogue, Charles Stuart… deserved to be hanged more than all the rest…” Later, the King continued the ruse as a servant and was put to work in the kitchen, tending to a joint of meat roasting in the fireplace. He was inept at winding up the apparatus, and even claimed that he came from such poor beginnings that his family rarely ate meat, hence the inability to operate the roasting jack.

The exploits of the escape became even more elaborate over the next couple of weeks. His loyal accomplices tried to locate available ships to depart from Bristol; there were none available for at least the next month. Finding a hiding place in Trent while two Royalist officers tried to find a ship to sail from Lyme Regis or Weymouth, Charles himself witnessed a celebration by the local villagers who believed that he had been killed at Worcester. No one had recognized him. He later traveled with Juliana Coningsby, a niece of Lady Wyndham (who was the wife of accomplice Colonel Wyndham), pretending to be an eloping couple. They reached the market town of Bridport but found that the town was filled with Parliamentary troops. Charles boldly walked through the town to the best inn and arranged for rooms. He was almost recognized at the inn, but deflected and convinced the ostler that they had been servants together in the employ of a Mr. Potter in Exeter.

After the encounters in Bridport, the escape became much more complicated, but eventually Charles and his longtime traveling companion, Lord Wilmot, reached Brighthelmstone (now known as Brighton). There, the King was recognized by a former servant of the royal household under Charles I. This recognition was immediately problematic for the King; the captain of the vessel that was to transport him and Wilmot to France demanded an additional £200 as “danger money” before he would set sail. On the morning of 15 October 1651, Charles and Wilmot boarded the “Surprise”, sailing at the next high tide, around 7 a.m. A mere two hours later, Parliamentarian cavalry arrived in the village of Shoreham with orders to arrest the King.

Lord Wilmot

The previous narrative is an extreme oversimplification of Charles II’s escape to France. However, throughout the journey, Charles II repeatedly crossed paths with commoners and even assumed the identities of common servants; this is believed to have given him a thorough appreciation for their plight. When he returned to England nine years later at the request of Parliament following the death of Richard Cromwell, England was in political turmoil and the religiously divided House of Commons welcomed the Declaration of Breda in mid-1660. In this declaration, Charles II promised tolerance and liberty. He even promised not to exile past enemies nor confiscate their wealth.

Some historians have characterized Charles II as a popular King and a legendary celebrity in British history. Others have cited his ineptitude and poor judgment as contributing to a series of poorly prosecuted wars in the latter half of the 17th Century. Regardless of the bifurcated opinions, Charles II managed to guide Great Britain out of a period of extended political turmoil and towards the evolution into a constitutional monarchy under the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Acts of Settlement (1701).  These documents actually formed the basis for the United States Constitution, ratified approximately 100 years later.


Michael Paul Hurd retired from full-time employment in 2018 and began writing his first historical fiction novel in August of that year. His “Lineage Series” of novels projects the touchpoints of his family onto events in history on both sides of the Atlantic. Genealogical research indicated that he is a distant relative of Jane Giffard, wife of Sir John Giffard, MP (1466-1556) and their line, which at one time owned Boscobel House. Married to his wife, Sandy (daughter of a British emigrant to the United States), for nearly 40 years, he spent over a decade working in the United Kingdom, from 1983-1994. There he took an interest in British history, studying under Dr. Sid Brown of Leeds University. Fourteen novels are planned for Hurd’s “Lineage Series,” several of which will involve topics relevant to British history as they evolve out of the vignettes of the first book in the series. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

Tea Rooms and the Women’s Suffrage Movement

by Anita Davison
The Gardenia
Until the 1880’s it was not considered respectable for a woman to eat or drink in public either alone or in the company of other women. Kate Frye, an organiser for the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage, stayed in a Norfolk hotel while organising suffrage meetings. Her diary of 22nd March 1911 states:

Came in, had my lunch [in the hotel dining room] in company with four motorists. It is funny the way men come in here and, seeing me, shoot out again and I hear whispered conversations outside on the landing with the waitress. Then they come in very subdued and make conversation one to another and try not to look at me. Awfully funny – they might never have seen a woman before – but I suppose it does seem a strange place to find one.

Some enterprising business men, and women, saw the need for a haven for women away from the home, especially those providing female rest rooms. Thus cafes and tea rooms started to appear in the west end. These proved immediately popular for suffragists who would gather there or hire adjoining rooms in which to organise their activities and hold meetings.

The smarter restaurants were Slaters, Fullers, and The Criterion Restaurant Room at Piccadilly Circus. Smaller establishments were Alan’s Tea Rooms at 263 Oxford Street, The Tea Cup Inn, Kingsway, and the Gardenia, a vegetarian Restaurant in Catherine Street, Covent Garden.

Some of these cafes were part of chains, like the ABC, founded in the 1880s, and Lyons in 1894, catering for upper-working-class and lower-middle-class women who could sit at separate tables and be served, not by waiters, but by waitresses.

Alan’s Tea Rooms
Corner of Alans Tea Rooms

Alan’s was located on the first floor of No 263 Oxford Street, close by Jay's fashion store. The red brick building, constructed circa 1864, had a semi-circular arcaded Venetian style window, an early-19thc-style fireplace, and contained arts and crafts furniture with slightly splayed legs and high stick-backs chairs with rush seats.

The owner was 34 year old Miss Marguerite Alan Liddle, the daughter of a Shropshire solicitor. She employed her brother, Alan who lent his name to the café, as a manager. When Emmeline Pankhurst split from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies [NUWSS] in 1903 to form the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union [WSPU], she began a newspaper, Votes for Women, in which Alan’s Tea Rooms was advertised. Helen Liddle lived at 8a Holland St, Kensington as a lodger in the apartment of Miss Emilie Chapman, a nurse, and ran the tearooms until 1916.

After a series of disruptive activities, in October 1909 Helen broke a post office window in protest at women being excluded from a Parliamentary meeting for which she was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour. Her companion was Emily Wilding Davison whose will she had witnessed earlier that day. In Helen’s book, The Prisoner, a suffragette memoir, she states that she wanted to describe the atmosphere of prison and its effect upon a prisoner who is forcibly fed. While her brother was advertising her luncheons etc. in Votes for Women her sister was on hunger strike in Strangeways.

The Gardenia opened in 1908 by Thomas Smith, a young man who lived with his wife and two children in rooms above the restaurant. This establishment was well placed for the suffragist movement, as the Women’s Freedom League headquarters were located in Robert Street, just south of the Strand. The WSPU headquarters were to the east of Aldwych in Clement’s Inn. Vegetarian restaurants were particularly popular among suffragettes – many of whom were aligned to the anti-vivisectionist campaign.

The Teacup Inn opened in 1910 in a ground floor shop and basement, located in Portugal Street off Kingsway. Entirely staffed and managed by women, the owners, Mrs Alice Mary Hansell and Miss Marion Shallard, advertised the cafe in Votes For Women as "Dainty luncheons and Afternoon teas at moderate charges. Home cookery. Vegeterian dishes and sandwiches. Entirely staffed and managed by women."

Across Portugal Street, the Tea Cup Inn faced the London Opera House which opened in November 1911 close to the WSPU office. In 1912 the WSPU moved to Lincoln’s Inn House in Kingsway, making the Teacup Inn probably the nearest place of refreshment. The Teacup Inn was advertised at least once in the Pankhurst paper, The Suffragette, in June 1914, stressing: "Kitchens open for inspection".

Molinari’s Restaurant was at 25 Frith Street, Soho, advertised in The Suffragette magazine, offering to donate 5% of their takings to the cause for suffragists who wore badges. However in the 1920s the Home Office reported that its proprietor, Angelo Molinari, was the proprietor of ‘doubtful’ restaurants – suspected of running brothels in upstairs rooms.

Criterion Restaurant - The Criterion Restaurant built in 1874 at Piccadilly Circus [where it still remains] adjoins the theatre. In its Edwardian heyday it offered the Victoria Hall and the Grand Hall for hire on the first floor. The magnificently decorated Grand Hall overlooked Piccadilly Circus and was a café which provided the much vaunted ladies’ cloakrooms. The Actresses’ Franchise League [AFL] held its meetings at the Criterion due to its convenient location close to the theatre district.

Eustace Miles Restaurant opened at at Chandos Place, Covent Garden in May 1906 by Eustace Miles, who was a Cambridge-educated health guru – a real tennis player – prolific author – and vegetarian. He ran his establishment with his wife, Hallie as a ‘Food Reform’ restaurant.

Among his shareholders was the writer E.F. Benson, the headmaster of Eton, Bernard Shaw and his wife, Dr Helen Wilson, a Sheffield-based doctor and suffragist, and Mrs Ennis Richmond, a suffragette who ran West Heath, a progressive school in Hampstead.

Ellen Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, who lived nearby in Bedford Street, sold Votes for Women from a pitch outside the Eustace Miles.

In March 1907 the WSPU chose it as the venue for a breakfast celebrating the release from Holloway of the prisoners who had been arrested when taking part in the deputation from the first Women’s Parliament. A year later, a breakfast was held for women who had taken part in the pantechnicon raid on Parliament.

English Suffragette China
As with Alan’s Tea Rooms and the Gardenia, the Eustace Miles rented a room for suffragist meetings and by those giving women-related talks. Kate Frye, a non-vegetarian, often ate there. The restaurant flourished during the First World War when meatless cookery became a necessity and stayed in business for over 30 years.

Prince’s Skating Rink Exhibition
In May 1909, the more militant of the suffragist organisations, the WSPU, held a fund-raising event at the Prince’s Skating Rink, Montpelier Square in Knightsbridge, where Mrs Henrietta Lowy and her four daughters together with Una Dugdale ran a tea room to serve refreshments for delegates. Una, the debutante daughter of a naval officer, sparked a national scandal in 1912 when she married Victor Duval, the founder of the Men's Political Union for Women's Enfranchisement, but refused to use the word "obey" in her marriage vows. The hall designated for the tea room was decorated with purple, white and green murals to Sylvia Pankhurst's designs with a blend of Pre-Raphaelite, Biblical and pagan symbolism of a female sower and angels as the centrepiece.

Lowry and Dugdale commissioned a Staffordshire pottery to make china specifically for serving refreshments at the exhibition - white china with a design based on Sylvia Pankhurst’s ‘portcullis’ and sported an ‘angel of freedom’ motif. The initials ‘WSPU’ are set behind the angel set against dark prison bars, surrounded by thistle, shamrock, rose and dangling chains. At the end of the Exhibition, 22 piece sets were offered for sale and used as propaganda tools to convert the ladies’ ‘anti’ neighbours.


From the EHFA Archives, originally posted on February 6, 2015. (Post slightly altered to meet EHFA guidelines.)

Anita Davison also writes as Anita Seymour. Her first published novels were set in the 17th Century and include Royalist Rebel and The Woulfes of Loxsbeare series. Her latest novels are Edwardian cozy mysteries, the Flora Maguire Mysteries.

Research of Edwardian London provided her the opportunity to look at the history of the Women’s Suffragette Movement.

Find Anita:
TWITTER: @AnitaSDavison

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

MacDonald's Choice

By Dr John Little

For many years Britain regarded herself as a seafaring nation and much of her folklore tapped into that. The size of her trading empire, the might of her navy and the ubiquity of her merchant ships upon the world’s oceans made it inevitable that seamanship and competence in navigation were things almost universally admired. History is littered with tales of bravery at sea, feats of endurance and hardihood in the face of great odds. Particular instances which stand out are those of William Bligh, of the Bounty, and Ernest Shackleton. Bligh’s astonishing voyage of 4,164 miles after being cast adrift was a cause of great admiration when he wrote about it on his arrival back in England. Similarly Shackleton’s traversing of 800 miles of ocean in an open boat to fetch help for his stranded expedition was instrumental in making him a national hero.

19th-Century Three Mast Barque similar to the Henry James
(Public Domain Image)

The actual deed of heroism need not involve great distances; Victorian Britain held up Grace Darling as an extraordinary heroine for rescuing people from a wreck using a small rowing boat. This admiration of people who took on the sea in open boats against all odds, has extended to those of other nations. Names such as Willem Bontekoe, Willem Barents, and more modern voyagers like Sir Francis Chichester, Sir Alec Rose and Dame Ellen MacArthur still have power to cause admiration and even awe at what they accomplished. Chay Blyth and Robin Knox-Johnson also come to mind; doubtless there are many others. There is however one man missing from this canon and his name has been almost forgotten, along with his voyage.

Scotland is a nation whose men have used the sea for centuries and this is especially true of those who come from the western isles. In 1888 the first mate of the iron barque Henry James was a Lewisman called Donald MacDonald. On 10 April his ship hit an uncharted rock in the Pacific Ocean and, burdened with several thousand tons of coal, she sank quickly until mostly submerged. There was no chance to take much as the passengers and crew abandoned ship; supplies were loaded into a boat but it was wrecked by the swell. It happened so quickly that some of the crew were stark naked. Thirty people in two boats had to make for the nearest land, which was Palmyra Atoll, almost 50 nautical miles away.

Four small girls, two women, one of them heavily pregnant, and twenty-four men struggled to reach terra firma. When they got there, tired, baked by the sun and almost without resources, they found the island to be deserted. There were no fruits or berries, no vegetables of any kind save coconuts, no animals and, at first, no water supply. There were some abandoned huts which gave shelter but for the next two weeks they foraged and scraped for shellfish, land crabs, sharks, pepper grass and anything else which could sustain life. They were way off a shipping lane and rescue looked as if it might be years away.

Passenger List (Image Credit)

Captain Lattimore asked Donald MacDonald if he would undertake to go and get help. Presumably as a western isles man he was well used to open boat travel; MacDonald refused. The journey proposed was 1300 miles to the nearest possible rescue and he was very unlikely to make it, let alone the men who would go with him. After two weeks on the island MacDonald was looking at one of the four small girls among the castaways and she was struggling to eat and swallow part of a seagull which was raw. One of the crew made a doleful remark to him that the poor child was not long for this world; her name was Laura Mary Hastings. It was at that moment that MacDonald made his choice and undertook to go and find help.

In a twenty-seven foot ship’s boat loaded with what provisions could be spared and many coconuts, he and four other men set off, hoping to reach Samoa. Before he left MacDonald gave a ring to one of the small girls, convinced that he had spent his last day on solid earth and would not make it to Samoa. They went well at first but hit a frightful thunderstorm a few days into their voyage. The coconuts turned sour in the heat and had to be thrown overboard. The rest of the food soon ran out and they resorted to eating their shoes. After eating the leather binding of their telescope they found that their tongues swelled up and their lips cracked; a couple of the men sucked their own blood to gain relief from the hunger. They suffered from dysentery and pain in the guts; the sun dried them out until their skins were burned black and covered in sores from burn and salt.

After eighteen days at sea they were dried out husks, two of the men were incapable of further effort and they had all but given up. As the sun came up on the eighteenth day at sea they sighted Samoa in the far distance and headed for it. Soon they met an island schooner which took them into the harbour at Apia and they could tell their tale and beg for rescue. MacDonald had navigated 1300 miles in an open boat across the ocean and hit his target bang on; a truly amazing piece of seamanship and navigation.

Sketch by helmsman Chambliss of Capt.
Lattimore coming aboard the Mariposa
Image credit
There were steam warships that could have gone to rescue the people on Palmyra but they could not move because of the political situation on the islands which were in a state of civil war. The British consul organised a schooner to go to the rescue but she would have to beat against the wind and the journey would take at least a month. After the schooner’s departure on its mission of mercy a great American steamer, the Mariposa arrived in Apia and its legendary Californian Captain Hayward heard the story for himself. He decided to alter his course and rescue the people on Palmyra, which he did. The steamer arrived at the atoll ten days before the schooner and took on the twenty five people still cast on the shore, taking them to Hawaii from whence the British Consul was able to despatch them homewards. Throughout the whole perilous debacle, no one had died.

The Maripsosa (Public Domain Image)

MacDonald returned home to Glasgow and the shipping community there was full of admiration. His bosses recommended him to the Board of Trade to receive a medal for bravery at sea. This was refused and the only reason that seems plausible was because such a thing would have made national, even international news. The political situation between Britain, the USA and Germany in Samoa at this time was so delicate that the British government had good reason for not wishing to place Samoa centre stage in the attention of the world’s press. The indignation caused in Glasgow was considerable and The North British Shipping Company instead nominated MacDonald for a Lloyds Bronze medal for saving life at sea. This was awarded and the ceremony was reported in the Glasgow newspapers; it was ignored by the newspapers nationally which was rather anomalous. Normally one would have expected to see paragraphs about such things in regional newspapers across the nation. MacDonald would have been a national hero; but it did not happen.

At the ceremony MacDonald appears to have been very shy; he had to have someone speak for him after the medal had been awarded. His family and friends had been told nothing about it, and MacDonald never spoke of it until he described the voyage in a letter forty years later. Unlike Bligh or Shackleton, MacDonald was no patrician with a fine accent; he was an ordinary working sailor from Lewis and this may have had something to do with his treatment; but the non syndication of his story across the UK remains a puzzle.

There is a particular grace note to this story which played out eight years after the rescue. Donald MacDonald was by now the first mate of the Auldgirth, a Glasgow ship on the Australia trade run. Docked at Portland, Oregon, MacDonald saw two young women approach the gangplank of the ship and one of them called up to him and asked if he had been the first mate of the Henry James.

“‘Well ladies, I saw the last of that ship’ I replied.

She then took off her glove, took a ring from her finger and handed it to him. It was his own.

Putting my hands on her shoulders I said ‘Then you are Laura Mary Hastings’

‘Between sobs she answered ‘I am sir, and this is my sister Ada.’”

MacDonald's Medal (Image Credit)
MacDonald’s medal is in New Zealand, where he settled after retiring. His story may be found in a few contemporary newspapers and in more detail in The Gaelic Vikings by James Shaw Grant from which the above extract is taken. Apart from that his name is virtually forgotten in Lewis, in Glasgow, in Scotland and in history.

What MacDonald did ranks with the great open boat voyages in the history of the sea; if this article helps to raise his profile slightly then I can only be glad.


Dr John Little spent almost forty years teaching in various schools in London and the South East. He was head of History at Meopham School and Rochester Independent College. He gained the first History PhD  awarded in the University of Westminster. He has done a considerable amount of long distance walking in the UK and particularly the Lake District. Until he was 52 he could not drive and cycled everywhere, including completing a Land's End to John o' Groats ride. He has cycled extensively in Britain and some parts of Europe. His PhD was grounded in WWI and he has guided numerous trips for children and adults to the Western Front.
He has written nine books, mostly novels, and has settled into historical fiction as his favoured genre. His work is based on real evidence, people and events contained in plausible narratives. He also give talks and presentations on the topics about which he writes.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Pantechnicon Fire of 1874

By Karen Odden

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the developer Seth Smith helped to transform a swampy mire into the elegant West End of London.

Seth Smith

One of his buildings, the Pantechnicon, occupied nearly two acres in Motcomb Street, smack in the middle of Belgravia. It stood five storeys tall and had an elegant Greek-style portico, with a façade of pale marble Doric pillars, suggesting the majestic durability of ancient buildings and similar in style to museums such as the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (built in the same decade). The name “Pantechnicon” meant “all” (pan) “art” (techne), and the building was originally conceived as a bazaar with stalls where all types of art could be sold—the work of jewelers, blacksmiths, painters, carpenters, and so on. The bazaar business failed, and eventually the building was re-purposed as both a storage facility for carriages and a warehouse where wealthy Londoners could store their valuable belongings when they closed up their city houses during the off-Season, when parliament was not in session. The Spectator commented with some asperity:
“It had become a habit of Belgravia and Tyburnia when the rich inhabitants … went out of town, to pack valuables and furniture in crates and send them to the Pantechnicon, and habits pursued for forty years by the rich and indolent can seldom be interrupted.” 
Deposited valuables included furnishings, paintings, pianos, jewels, silver, libraries, family heirlooms, and objets d’arts; some London bankers even rented rooms there for the deposit of deeds and plate.

This new storage business was enabled by the new Pantechnicon van, with a movable ramp at the back, that made it convenient for removers to fetch items from people’s homes and then deliver them back upon request. (Now the word “Pantechnicon” refers to the large moving vans themselves.) The general manager of the building was George Radermacher who also—an interesting tidbit for literary fans—was responsible for cataloging George Eliot’s  library.

The Pantechnicon was advertised as “the largest, the safest, and the most fireproof warehouse in the metropolis.” According to an 1874 issue of The Saturday review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art,
“the ceilings were lathed with iron rods and covered with a composition which, as was hoped, would resist the fiercest fire, and would not crack or fall down if water was thrown upon it while hot. The boarded floors were covered with iron plates laid upon patent felt to preserve the under side of the iron from rust and to deaden the sound. The rooms were separated from each other by brick walls and wrought-iron doors, and the stairs were all of stone. All the chimney flues were lined with cast iron, and there was not a piece of wood exposed … [because] a belief prevailed forty years ago in iron as a protection against fire … a belief that has probably perished in the ruin of the Pantechnicon.” 
Four different iron walls stretched east to west, “the idea being that the doors could be shut, the progress of the fire stopped, and the damage confined.” Not a gaslight was allowed on the premises except in the offices at the entrance. The only lamps used were safety lamps.

Despite these precautions, beginning at approximately 4:30 pm on Friday, February 13, 1874, the Pantechnicon went up in flames, shooting crimson and orange spears high into the sky and spreading smoke for miles.

Nearly all the firetrucks in London were called upon; men from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, troopers of the Life Guards, Foot Guards from the Chelsea barracks, and members of the Salvage Corps cooperated to bring the fire under control and prevent nearby houses and stables from being damaged. At 7 pm, the roof fell in with a great crash; still, it took three days for the fire to be fully extinguished. Some personal property including approximately 100 carriages was saved, but between the fire and the streams of water, the event was perhaps the single largest episode of destruction of art and furnishings in the Victorian era—and it could have been worse. The Spectator noted, “the landlord of the House of Commons is much more indebted to the [change in] wind [direction] than to Captain Shaw [superintendent of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade].”

The timing of the fire was also remarkably unfortunate. Usually, Parliament would be in session in February—and the MPs, having returned to town, would have retrieved their items out of the Pantechnicon. But by the end of 1873, it was clear that Gladstone would call a General Election, beginning February 1 and lasting two weeks, so Parliament was not in session as usual on February 13. One journalist made the dark jest that the MPs could lay the bill for lost items at Mr. Gladstone’s door.

It is difficult to assess the value of the objects lost. Because people had such faith in the Pantechnicon, they under-insured their valuables—or found ways to avoid insuring them altogether. For example, one family hid their jewels in their furniture. The cost of insuring a headboard was significantly less than insuring jewels—but jewels hidden inside were (ostensibly) safe all the same. (Tricky!) However, it is known for certain that the fire destroyed the MP Sir Richard Wallace’s painting collection, worth £150,000; and the MP Sir Seymour Fitzgerald’s art collection, worth £200,000, which included many portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds and paintings by other masters including J.M.W. Turner. Contemporary accounts estimated the total value upon the destroyed items at £2,000,000 (approximately £220,000,000 or $280,000,000 today).

The Pantechnicon fire wasn’t the first major fire of the Victorian era, of course. Earlier fires occurred notably at the Houses of Parliament (1834), Tower of London (1841) and in Tooley Street (1861). The London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE) was founded in 1833, a conglomeration of fire insurance company brigades, and the “firemen” were intent on saving insured property (as opposed to uninsured property or lives). A concern for saving lives led to the establishment in 1836 of the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, which was recognized by Queen Victoria. It offered rewards to “escapemen” for saving lives and placed scaleable ladders throughout the city, to facilitate rescues.

Somewhat like the physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries who squabbled for authority over patients after the Medical Act of 1854, conflicts arose between the firemen and escapemen over objectives and methods. Eventually, the LFEE handed over their equipment and responsibility to the government, and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, assigned the task of protecting both lives and property, was founded in 1866. It had been in place for eight years under the supervision of Captain Eyre Massey Shaw when the Pantechnicon fire broke out.

The mystery of how the fire started was never solved, but the Pantechnicon fire focused public attention upon urban fires and how to prevent and contain them. Fireproofing was not the science it is now; it was generally thought that iron and stone were more fireproof than wood, although by the 1870s Edwin Chadwick, a Victorian social reformer, pronounced that the most important factor was decreasing response time and having “hydrants and a ready water supply,” whereas a writer for The Saturday Review claimed that what mattered were the building materials, as “it is acknowledged now that good stout timber is more trustworthy than iron for supports, because timber will stand till nearly burnt through, whereas iron will bend or yield under heat, and throw down that which rests upon it.” Conversely, a writer for the Spectator declared with equal confidence,
“It is [in] brick, brick solidly built, brick in thick masses, that we repose our confidence, which increases with every reduction in the height of the building at stake. Sparks fly upwards here as well as in Judea, and the lighter the roof the less in the danger of that ‘tumbling in’ which usually destroys all hope. We cannot see why wood, or iron, or stone should be used at all.” 
It would be some time before science caught up with the behavior of fires.

The original façade of the Pantechnicon survived the fire, and eventually the building was rebuilt. It has recently been developed into a public space with shops and eateries, and people can visit it in London.


Karen Odden earned her PhD in English literature from New York University, where she wrote her dissertation on representations of railway disasters in Victorian medical, legal, and popular literature, tracing our current ideas about “trauma” back to a time before the shell-shock of WWI to the railway disasters of the 1850s-1880s. She has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; her critical essays on Victorian literature have appeared in numerous books and journals; and for nearly a decade, she served as an assistant editor for the academic journal Victorian Literature and Culture. Her first Victorian mystery, A LADY IN THE SMOKE, was a USA Today bestseller, and her second novel, A DANGEROUS DUET, won for best Historical Fiction at the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards. Her third, A TRACE OF DECEIT, was published in December 2019 by William Morrow. She lives in Arizona with her family and her beagle-muse, Rosy.

twitter: @Karen_odden
Instagram: @karen_m_odden
Facebook: KarenOddenAuthor

Monday, December 30, 2019

Happy New Year from EHFA

From your Editorial Team: Cryssa Bazos, Charlene Newcomb and Annie Whitehead

We're taking a short break until after New Year but we very much look forward to sharing lots more articles with you in 2020, covering all aspects of British History.

We'd like to take this opportunity to wish our readers a Very Happy New Year!

Friday, December 27, 2019

Mary Edwards, An Independent Woman

By Lauren Gilbert

Portrait of Mary Edwards by William Hogarth
Mary Edwards (or Edwardes) has already been mentioned on the EHFA blog in connection with the arts and Hogarth. She was a fascinating and strong-minded woman, not afraid to make decisions or to take her life into her own hands.

Mary was born c 1704 or 1705, daughter of Francis Edwards of Welham Grove, Leicestershire, and his wife Anna Margaretta Vernatti, who was a wealthy Dutch woman. She may have been baptised May 25 1705 at Saint Anne Soho, Westminster, London. A great heiress, Mary succeeded to the estate of her father upon his death 1728-1729. Her estates included properties in the counties of Essex, Hertford, Kent, Leicester, Middlesex and Northampton, in the city of London, and in Ireland. She had an annual income between 50,000-60,000 pounds. All were at her disposal. Data indicates she preferred being in London rather than her estate at Welham.

Mary was of age and in control of her own fortune. Mary met Lord Anne Douglas Hamilton (who was the 3rd son of the James Hamilton, 4th Duke of Hamilton, and was born Oct 12, 1709) about 1730. He was the godson of Queen Anne, and named for her. He was younger than Mary by four to five years. Accounts indicate she fell in love with him. They may have been married sometime around 1730-1731, possibly in Fleet, but the location is unclear. Their marriage appears to have been a hasty marriage, as no one’s approval was required. A certificate may exist but has not been found.

Circumstantial evidence supports that there was a marriage in 1731 or earlier: on July 8, 1731, Mary granted property to Lord Anne in Leicester and on Aug 15 1733, her arms and crest were granted to Lord Anne; he added Edwards to his name as shown on bank stock September 11, 1733 in the name of Lord Anne Edwards Hamilton; she called herself Lady Hamilton Edwards.

Mary and Lord Ann had a son, born circa 1732-1733. There are indications that the child’s birth date may have been March 4, 1733 (old calendar). (A bill, Edwards v Mitford, filed in 1743 shows Gerard Ann Edwards as the surviving son of Mary Edwards and his age as 10, which supports a 1733 birth date.) Lord Ann’s possible marriage to Mary and their son appear in Anne Hamilton’s listing in The Peerage, as well as in the Scots Peerage, which implies that the question of the marriage’s validity has been a topic of discussion.

A patron of the arts, Mary’s name is linked to that of William Hogarth, and she was one of his most loyal patrons, encouraging his satirical works. She was also a subject for him. Coincidentally, some of his works appear to support the marriage:

A portrait of Anne Edwards Hamilton was painted in the uniform of the Second Regiment of the Guards c 1731 has been attributed to William Hogarth; Hogarth painted a portrait of her son Gerard Anne Edwards Hamilton c 1732 and the entire family (The Edwards Hamilton Family) c 1733.

The marriage disintegrated between 1733 and 1734. Available data indicates that Lord Anne was an avaricious spendthrift, and Mary was concerned about preserving her fortune and her child’s inheritance. Long before the Married Women’s Property Acts, Mary had no real recourse in law as Lord Anne’s wife to prevent him from draining her funds. So she took an unusual and drastic step and repudiated the marriage.

The process appears to have begun when she had their son christened as Gerard Anne Edwards on March 28, 1733 St. Mary Abbots Church, and showed herself in the record as a single lady. There was no marriage contract, and she allegedly bribed the officials at the Fleet to delete all references to their marriage from the Fleet registers. There is an indication that a final separation was established in a deed dated in May of 1734. The Leicestershire Archives show several documents from June of 1734 filed as Hamilton v Edwards, showing Mary Edwards as “spinster” that involve the support of Gerard Anne Edwards. She subsequently referred to herself as Mary Edwards, spinster. This process had the side of effect of rendering her son illegitimate legally. Mary never remarried.

Lord Ann was married (or married again, as one prefers) in Oct 1742 to Anna Charlotte Maria Powell, an heiress, in Bath. (This was before Mary’s death in 1743.) They had two sons. If, in fact, he and Mary were legally married, this marriage would have presumably been bigamous, which would have had serious ramifications for inheritance. The matter has not arisen as no primary evidence has surfaced, and efforts to document such evidence apparently have not been successful.

Mary made her will on April 13, 1742, leaving her entire estate to her son, and she died at approximately age 38 on Aug 23, 1743. There is an indication that her death may have been precipitated by her consumption of gin. A commemorative panel appears on family tomb in the Church of St Andrew Welham.

Mary’s mother Anna Margaretta survived her. Data shows her death occurring in 1765. Leicestershire Archives holds a copy of Anna’s will, proved April 15, 1765, leaving her estate to Gerard Ann Edwards (son of Mary Edwards, decd.).

Gerard Ann Edwards was married to Jane Noel, daughter of Baptist Noel, 4th Earl of Gainsborough on October 8, 1754. He died October 29, 1773. His only son, Gerard Noel Edwards, succeeded to the estate of his uncle Henry, 6th Earl of Gainsborough, and assumed by royal license the name and arms of Noel May 5, 1798.

Sources include:
Curzon, Catherine. (2015, June 13). “A Beloved Patron: Hogarth and Miss Mary Edwards,” on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Tscherny, N. “An Un-Married Woman, Mary Edwards, William Hogarth and A Case of Eighteenth Century British Patronage”, in WOMEN AND ART IN EARLY EARLY MODERN EUROPE: Patrons, Collectors and Connoisseurs edited by Cynthia Lawrence. University Park, PA : Pennsylvania State University Press, c1997.

Paul, Sir James Balfour, ed. THE SCOTS PEERAGE Founded on Wood’s Edition of Sir Robert Douglas’s PEERAGE OF SCOTLAND. Vol. 4. Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1907. [on Mary Edwards.]

Googlebooks. Maclehouse, James, ed. THE SCOTTISH HISTORICAL REVIEW. Vol. 5. Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons, 1908. [on Lord Anne Hamilton.]

The Peerage. “Lord Anne Hamilton,” last edited 15 June 2014; “Gerard Anne Edwards,” last edited 6 December 2009; “Mary Edwardes,” last edited 29 June 2008.

British History Online. “Welham” by J. M. Lee and R. M. McKinley in A HISTORY OF THE COUNTY OF LEICESTERSHIRE: Volume 5, Gartree Hundred. PP. 330-336. London: Victoria County History, 1964.

Kensington Parish News, Spring 2014. St. Mary Abbots Church. “Inspiring Women” by Jane McAllen (The article refers to Mary Edwards, and shows the date of baptism of Gerard Anne Edwards on 28th March 1733.)

Illustration: Portrait of Mary Edwards by William Hogarth [Public domain].


Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life.  Lauren has a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History.  A long time member of JASNA, she has presented several programs. She lives in Florida with her husband.  Her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, is available.  A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, her second novel is in production and will be available soon.  A long-time contributor to this blog, her work is included in both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She is also researching material for a non-fiction work.  For more information, visit her on Facebook  and on Amazon.