Ann Catley – The Feisty Diva

Ann was born around 1745, one of two daughters born to Robert Catley and his wife Jane. Her younger sibling was Mary, also known as Polly. Family life was not easy, her father was a coachman, then publican of a tavern in Norwood, London. Her mother was a washerwoman and expected Ann to follow in her footsteps. As a young girl, she was expected to help her mother with the laundry, washing it and returning it when clean.

Miss Ann Catley in the Character of Euphrosyne, 1777.
Miss Ann Catley in the Character of Euphrosyne, 1777. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.

When she was fifteen she was regarded as a talented singer and was apprenticed for £200, to a William Bates, a music teacher. This was the start of her career in the theatre and one to which she would become very accomplished and one which would serve her well. Her first appearance was aged seventeen, at Vauxhall in the summer of 1762 and later that year she appeared for the first time on the stage at Covent Garden and remained with the company until 1784.

Covent Garden Piazza and Market by John Collet
Covent Garden Piazza and Market by John Collet; Museum of London

However, unknown to her father things were not quite as they seemed with Bates, the two did not get on well, and he regarded Ann as difficult and threatened to return her to her father and to sue him, instead in 1763, he sent her to Sir Francis Delaval, allegedly to continue her education, but the reality was somewhat different.

Francis Blake Delaval (1727-1771) (after Joshua Reynolds, 18th century)
Francis Blake Delaval (1727-1771) (after Joshua Reynolds, 18th century); Wikimedia

This whole sorry saga made headline news when a court case ensued, heard before the leading judge of the day, Lord Mansfield who was shocked by what had been going on. Behind the scenes a lawyer had drawn up a contract which stipulated that Bates should receive profits from Ann’s signing, Delaval should pay Bates £200 for Ann.  Ann had effectively been sold as a mistress. The judge was appalled by this and declared that the sale of Ann was grossly against common decency. He ordered that Ann be released from Delaval and that she should not be returned to her father.

During her time with Delaval she reputedly had two children and another, Edward, who, she claimed was the son of King George III’s son Edward, Duke of York, this seems unlikely as he died 1767, and there appears to be no evidence of Ann having children until the end of 1768, but rumours abounded about her having relationships with a variety of gentlemen. Ann was now left to her own devices with three children to provide for she continued working in theatres around Britain, earning significant sums of money, so the likelihood of her need to make money in other ways seems unlikely.

Ann, took her sister Mary in to look after her children, but, by all accounts, she treated her sibling dreadfully. Mary was abused both verbally, Ann had a very sharp tongue and even sharper nails. She frequently caused Mary to have a black eye or a bloody nose.

Ann, did, however, have some sort of moral compass as this anecdote confirms. A married and somewhat debauched gentleman paid a great deal of attention to Ann. Ann repelled his advances, but he kept trying and on this occasion sent her a hamper of champagne of the most expensive champagne money could buy. Ann had had enough of this, she received the hamper with thanks. But that evening she sent it back to his home address, with a card directed to his wife informing her of the fact. At supper that night at dinner, the wife proposed a glass of champagne. Her husband was furious at his wife’s extravagance and she said that it had been given to her as a present and showed him the card, sent by Ann. The outcome of that is left to your imagination.

A Priestess of Bacchus (Anne Catley), c.1779; John Raphael Smith after John Dowman.
A Priestess of Bacchus (Ann Catley), c.1779; John Raphael Smith after John Dowman. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Ann was very much the ‘darling of the theatre’ at that time and a fashion icon, with ladies wishing to emulate her, having their hair ‘Catleyfied’. Whilst working in Dublin, there were in 1763, rumours that Ann was pregnant, but if so, no proof of a birth seems to exist, but ‘fake news’ is nothing new. Around 1767, Ann met Francis Lascelles and to the world, they appeared as husband and wife, however, to date, no proof of this marriage exists.

Francis, whether the father to all of Ann’s eleven children or not, accepted responsibility for them when he gave his name as father at their baptisms, the children were Rowland (1768), Edward Paoli (1770), Hugh (1772), Frances (1774), Rowley and Francis (both 1775), Jane (1776), Elizabeth (1784), Edward Robert (1787), Charlotte and George Robert, for whom no baptisms can be found, but who were named in her will.

In 1780, some difference had arisen between Ann and the theatre managers concerning the terms upon which she was to be engaged, for the season. One of the managers called upon her, at her lodgings on Drury Lane to settle it. The maid was going to show the gentleman upstairs and to call the mistress ‘No, no’ cried the actress, who was in the kitchen, and heard the Manager’s voice,

‘there is no occasion to show the gentleman to a room, I am busy below making apple dumplings for my brats. You know whether you have a mind to give me the money I ask, or not. I am not one of your fine ladies, who get a cold or a toothache and can’t sing. If you have a mind to give me the money, say so; my mouth shall not open for a farthing less. So good morning to you – and don’t keep the girl there in the passage; for I want her to put the dumplings in the post while I nurse the child’.

We can only assume that Ann got her own way on that occasion as she appeared to do with most things, she was nothing, if not feisty. The couple seemed to live in harmony with their brood and during her later years, Ann had become very charitable and frequently helped the poor with gifts and money.

Helpfully, Ann left a will, which, without saying as much, confirms her status as being unmarried, it was written as Miss Ann Cately (sic). At that time, had she been married her estate would have automatically transferred to her husband, whereas Ann was able to make her own will and left virtually everything to her surviving children including a house that she purchased for her daughters.

The couple owned a handsome house near Brentford where Ann was to spend her remaining days until her death in 1789 from consumption which she had suffered from for some considerable time.

UPDATE 18.4.2018

Thanks to one of our lovely readers we have been alerted to the above portrait which appears to be a relatively unknown painting of Ann (Nancy) Catley. It was loaned by John Rhodes of Potternewton House, Leeds, (a major art collector in the north of England), to the National Exhibition of 1867.

The label on the reverse of the painting records it as having been painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, We finally managed to track down a record of it exhibited at the above exhibition. So hopefully this really is a portrait of Ann.

Featured Image

Portrait of Ann Catley courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library



3 thoughts on “Ann Catley – The Feisty Diva

  1. Patrick Spillane

    I’ve been reading quite a bit about Ann Catley lately. What a gal! My partner is descended from her, as is Hugh Grant.


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