Mrs Elizabeth Steele was the friend and companion of the actress and courtesan Sophia Baddeley. Known to Sophia as her ‘dear Betsy Steele‘, she was born on 24th March 1740 (the last day of the year in the old style calendar), in St Margaret’s, Westminster, to parents Richard and Antonetha Hughes and was baptized there on 1st April 1741.
After Sophia Baddeley’s death Elizabeth published ‘The Memoirs of Mrs. Sophia Baddeley’ recounting Sophia’s history and putting in a little of herself too. In Volume 3 of the Memoirs Elizabeth writes:
. . . I mean, some time or other, to write my own history; which has been full of adventures, though not of amours, and will entertain the public greatly. I shall not say, therefore, too much of myself here.
Elizabeth died shortly after this and never got to write her own history. We hope she would approve of this short account of her life.
Elizabeth’s father, Richard Hughes, possibly originating in Caernarfon, North Wales, worked as a slater, respected enough to be appointed Slater to his Majesty. In 1749 he lived in Channel Row, Westminster and by 1753 he was of Parliament Street. This is where Elizabeth grew up with her siblings, and where she became friends with the young Sophia Snow who was to achieve fame as Sophia Baddeley. Something which intrigues us is that Sophia had a brother named Anglesey Snow born a couple of years before her and who died at just a few weeks of age. It’s an odd name to choose but Caernarfon looks out onto the Isle of Anglesey and this curious name could hint at a closer relationship between the Hughes and Snow family than has yet been thought.
Richard Hughes was responsible for slating the roof of Westminster Hall in 1748-49 (Georgian Group Journal vol. 13, 2003), and of 22 Arlington Street but seems to have overstretched himself somewhat; in 1753 he took out a 72 year lease on the Westminster Fish Market, building eight new houses there. The terms of the lease stipulated that these houses could only be occupied by fishmongers and with such a restriction on them they failed to sell and remained empty. Richard also held leases on eight more houses (four of which were new builds) in Strutton Ground and Duck Lane, Westminster and two further houses in Southwark.
With the Fish Market houses not returning his investment Richard, by 1757, was heavily in debt and had to declare himself bankrupt. An auction was held in February 1758 to try to sell his leasehold properties but by June 1761 he was a prisoner for debt in the King’s Bench Prison, his address now listed as St George’s Fields in Southwark where the prison was. Perhaps his family were living close by?
Elizabeth was no stranger then to hardship and poverty. At around this time she married Hugh John Steele, also a slater like her father, marriage offering an escape from the trials of her parents. The couple lived in the St Margaret’s area of Westminster where Elizabeth had grown up, three children being born to them there, a daughter also named Elizabeth in 1762 who died within the first year of her life, another daughter named Elizabeth baptized 12th January 1763 who did survive followed quickly by a son named Hugh for his father who was baptized 11th June 1764. Elizabeth’s friend Sophia Snow married Robert Baddeley, an actor from the Drury Lane theatre, in St Margaret’s in January 1764, having supposedly eloped with him first and Elizabeth records that after Sophia’s marriage the two women lost touch with each other for several years.
Little is known of the early life of Hugh John Steele, but he is named in the 1754 will and testament of Hugh Steele, Gentleman of St James’s Westminster, as his great-nephew.
In September 1766 Hugh John and Elizabeth Steele baptized another child, a son named George Fred Steele, at St James in Westminster. This son, who was born 30th August 1766, was probably named for a friend of Elizabeth’s, one George Frederick Meden, a gentleman living in December of the same year at Strutton Ground (Elizabeth’s father had held the lease on several houses there just a few years earlier). In December 1766 Elizabeth and George Frederick Meden witnessed the suspicious death of a man in Queen Street and had to stand as witnesses in the inquest into the case. Elizabeth, described as the wife of Hugh John Steele of Air Street in the Parish of St James Westminster, slater, stated that she was walking along Queen Street, which is in the St Margaret’s area of Westminster, at about 7 o’clock in the evening, in company with Meden when she witnessed a man running without any shirt, coat or waistcoat on, being chased by two men. She heard two strokes and the man fell to the ground and was taken to the Westminster Infirmary. Elizabeth went to the Infirmary and left her name with the Matron there. George Frederick Meden described himself as a gentleman and gave much the same account as Elizabeth. The man who died was named Richard Aris and it was decided that his death was of natural causes.
The year after this, in 1767, Hugh John Steele, of St James’s Westminster was declared bankrupt, his profession being given as haberdasher and slater, which seem very incongruous occupations. Perhaps the haberdashery business was run by Elizabeth whilst her husband carried on his occupation as slater?
Elizabeth’s son was obviously named for Meden but it is open to conjecture as to whether he was father or godfather to the babe. All we can say with certainty is that Hugh John Steele was named as the father on the baptismal record, that he was struggling financially at the time and that Elizabeth was keeping company, without her husband being present, with another gentleman. Whatever the truth of Elizabeth’s relationship with Meden, of whom we can find no further record, Elizabeth and her husband Hugh parted company shortly after this, although remaining on friendly terms. Hugh John Steele moved from St James’s Westminster to Lambeth and then, still beset by debts, found himself by June 1769 resident in the King’s Bench Prison. For Elizabeth history must have seemed to be repeating itself and to preserve herself from ruin she renewed her friendship with Sophia Baddeley, then at the height of her fame and separated from her own husband, the two women taking up residence together.
Elizabeth has been accused of living off Sophia and indeed there is some truth in this. However we feel that the relationship was a mutual one of need for each other, both needing the support of the other in the absence of their husbands, Sophia able to bring the money in to the household and Elizabeth being the one able to control the finances and curb the excesses of her spendthrift friend.
Indeed, Elizabeth claims to have helped to bail Sophia and her family out of trouble with her own money, if her account of events is true. When Sophia’s father, Valentine Snow, had to pawn his trumpet and the regalia associated with his post as Sergeant Trumpeter to the King, and then needed them back to perform at Windsor, it was Elizabeth who loaned the money for this to be accomplished. Perhaps she used Mr Trip, the St Martin’s Lane pawnbroker she mentions in the Memoirs whom she had known from childhood; he did exist.
Men visited the house frequently, with varying degrees of approbation from Elizabeth. Almost all called to see Sophia but Elizabeth was not without her admirers. She was asked to permit a gentleman of fortune to call on her, whom she does not name, but declined to give her permission. Of herself she said she was:
. . . young like Mrs Baddeley, and though I could not boast, perhaps, of her share of beauty, I was not in the early part of my life without my temptations. But I thank God I had a mind above them all, and conducted myself with that propriety every woman ought; and I call on all those whose names I have mentioned in these volumes, to contradict the assertion if they can, or lay any thing to my charge that is not strictly virtuous.
In the early 1770’s Elizabeth took a lease on a house in Henley, Oxfordshire, intending to settle her husband Hugh John Steele and her children there. She mentions visiting them there throughout the Memoirs, in company with Sophia Baddeley. She also says that she has a sister who lives in the King’s Road in Chelsea, possibly the same lady who has a husband in charge of the stores at Portsmouth (presumably at the Naval dockyard there) and who travels to Ireland to visit Colonel Lutterell with Sophia. Elizabeth Steele’s 10 year old daughter went too, although Elizabeth herself stayed in London, to fend off their creditors and to post letters to the clueless husband in Portsmouth from his wife so that he thought she was safe in Chelsea. This sister keeps good company as Elizabeth says that Lady Grosvenor had visited her the day before she did. Elizabeth also tells us that her mother, in the 1770’s, was a widowed Mrs Hughes, living in Westminster.
Elizabeth had a brother named Richard Hughes, named after his father, but known as Dick Hughes, who also followed the profession of slater but who was also involved with the theatre folk. He was a companion of the comedian Tom Weston and shared a house with him in Kilburn, ostensibly as his servant but really to act as a bully-boy to ward off Weston’s creditors. Tom Weston was a contemporary of Sophia’s husband, Robert Baddeley, the two men both starting off as a cook before taking to the stage. When Weston died in 1776 a purported mock will was put about, leaving satirical bequests to various people. To counter this Weston’s widow, Martha, sent in to the papers a document she claimed was her late husband’s genuine will and testament and one of the witnesses to this was Richard Hughes. Dick Hughes also appended a letter, giving his address as St James’s Place, attesting to this. We have yet to find proof of this will actually existing however.
Although Elizabeth tolerated Sophia’s lovers, she took especial dislike to Stephen Sayre; she moved out of the house she shared with Sophia whilst he was there. In the Memoirs she reproduces a letter from Stephen Sayre expressing dissatisfaction with the Royal family, written to John Harding Esq., of Charterhouse, Honiton in Somerset, Sheriff of that county as Sayre had been Sheriff of London. She says she became possessed of this letter after the death of Harding’s widow, Mrs Ann Harding, in May 1786. In ‘Stephen Sayre: American Revolutionary Adventurer’ by John Richard Alden, he speculates that Elizabeth Steele was assisted in writing the Memoirs by Alexander Bicknell, and that Bicknell inserted a passage into a letter of Sayre’s to discredit him. Betty Rizzo, in ‘Companions Without Vows: Relationships Among Eighteenth-Century British Women’ identifies this ghost writer as William Jackson, the Irish revolutionary, spy and journalist. We can offer a little further information leaning towards Jackson being involved as we can place him with Sophia Baddeley’s brother Jonathan in the August of 1774 when the pair, together with a Mr Churchill and another unnamed gentleman, were victims of an attempted armed robbery upon the coach they were travelling in at Turnham Green near Fulham. Jonathan Snow and William Jackson both appeared when the case was tried at the Old Bailey.
Whether or not Elizabeth Steele had assistance in writing the Memoirs she did indeed inherit the personal belongings of Mrs Ann Harding in May 1786, which would have given her access to John Harding’s letters as she was named as her sole executrix in Ann’s last will and testament and it is from this document that the name of her husband was first revealed to us. Ann Harding’s will is short and sweet; it was written on the 12th May 1786 and proved in London by Elizabeth three days later. Elizabeth Steele is named as Ann’s ‘good friend’ and she receives a third share of Mrs Harding’s estate as well as being responsible for the administration of it. There is a further note transcribed on the margin of this will however, dated the 25th August 1788, and it is this note that provided us initially with the name of Elizabeth’s husband. It says that Elizabeth, described as the wife of Hugh John Steele, was dead by this date, having died intestate and so administration was passed to one of Ann Harding’s daughters.
And so we pass to the end of Elizabeth’s story. Sophia Baddeley’s youth and beauty was beginning to wane and she had been abandoned by her wealthy lovers. Elizabeth instead went into business and partnership with ‘a woman who did not like Mrs Baddeley’, reducing their contact further. Amy Culley, in ‘The Sentimental Satire of Sophia Baddeley’ points out that, whilst Elizabeth claimed she was never with Sophia after 1780, the manager of the theatre at York, Tate Wilkinson, recorded that in 1783 Sophia’s ‘friend and companion, a Mrs. Stell, was with her, who I fancy had always occasion for such sums as that unfortunate woman received.‘
Sophia Baddeley lived out the end of her life in Edinburgh, dying there in July 1786. Possibly, as she had taken ownership of Ann Harding’s personal papers, Elizabeth also took possession of Sophia’s in order her to write the Memoirs, which were published in 1787, a year after Sophia’s death.
If publication of the Memoirs was intended to bring Elizabeth a much needed income it was too little, too late. The World and Fashionable Advertiser newspaper carried a notice from Elizabeth in the 2nd August 1787 edition in which she stated that a Dr John Trusler, her publisher, had appropriated the sums of money for the first edition and she had filed a Bill in Chancery against him. She advertised the fact that many thousands of volumes of the second edition, all signed by her, were released that day, her signature being by advice of counsel and to deter the possibility of piracy; in return he accused her of piracy!
In October 1787 she was sought in connection with a forgery on a bill of exchange. Amy Culley draws attention to a satirical description of Elizabeth at the time of her being wanted for the forgery, depicting her ‘with a Mole on her left Cheek; her Mouth drawn aside, (apparently by a Paralytic Stroke) her Right Eye Blood-shot.’ In desperation and unwell she took rooms at the Dolphin Inn at Bishopsgate, in some accounts being in company with a man who called himself her husband, arriving in a shabby old chariot requesting lodgings and a nurse. There she died, ‘in extreme agonies and distress’, papers in her pocket revealing her name. The supposed husband quietly disappeared. Elizabeth was buried as a pauper in the churchyard of St Botolph at Bishopsgate on 18th November 1787, recorded as Elizabeth Stell, poor, aged 45.
Links to ‘The Memoirs of Mrs Sophia Baddeley‘ which are available to read online can be found within our previous article on Sophia.