In the late eighteenth-century, John Wilkes, journalist, radical and politician, took a cottage on the Isle of Wight in which he installed his middle aged mistress Amelia Arnold and subsequently he was a frequent guest at Knighton Gorges Manor, the nearby house of Maurice George Bisset and his wife. Bisset’s wife, formerly Harriat Mordaunt, was the illegitimate daughter of Charles Henry Mordaunt, the 4th Earl of Peterborough and his mistress (and later second wife) Robinaiana Brown and also cousin to the infamous courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott, as we reveal in our book An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliot. Another local landowner was Sir Richard Worsley whose wife Bisset had, some years earlier, eloped with, leading to a very public and shocking criminal conversation case (for more information on the infamous Lady Worsley see Hallie Rubenhold’s excellent biography, The Scandalous Lady W).
John Wilkes had a legitimate daughter, Mary (Polly) (to whom he wrote about Lady Peterborough and Miss Mordaunt in 1775) and two illegitimate children, a son by his housekeeper Catherine Smith who he passed off as his nephew and a daughter named Harriet by his mistress, Amelia Arnold.
Thursday, Oct. 16, 1775
Lady Peterborough, Miss M___t, more gloomy and dejected than ever, and Miss G___d as pert and flippant as at Bath, more is impossible, are here, and no other ladies I believe of your acquaintance.
Wilkes wrote to his daughter Polly from Sandham Cottage, his house on the Isle of Wight, on 15th July 1791 to tell her that ‘Captain Bissett dined here yesterday, but I have neither seen nor heard of Sir Richard Worsley. The French ladies are at Knighton House, a grandmother, mother and little daughter’ and later that same month he wrote again, mentioning that he was kindly supplied with melons and other fruit from Knighton Gorges. The French ladies were perhaps aristocratic emigrants who had run for their lives before they lost their heads to the guillotine during the French Revolution. Grace Dalrymple Elliot and her friend Lady Seymour Worsley (Sir Richard’s wife) were not quite so lucky, and while they kept their heads on their shoulders, they were unable to flee Paris and had to endure the terror of those years, documented in An Infamous Mistress.
Knighton Gorges (now demolished) was one of the most magnificent houses on the island, a contemporary description in an island history says of it:
The manor house is an ancient building, but appears to have been constructed with much taste and judgment; and great attention has been evidently paid to it, to preserve its original beauty, in the various reparations which inevitably have been bestowed upon it. In particular we may observe, that one part of the building is finely variegated by the ivy that binds its gable ends, which perhaps, are too numerous to afford pleasure and delight to the eye; and that the windows in front are all latticed and retain their antique pillars of stone for their present supporters. It is finely situated on the gentle rising of a hill between some fine woods, but at a sufficient distance to afford some very beautiful prospects.
The picture at the head of the article is of (from left to right) John Glynn, John Wilkes and John Horne Tooke and is a copy after Richard Houston, (original 1769) (National Portrait Gallery London)
A New, Correct and much improved History of the Isle of Wight, John Albin, London, 1795