‘An Unnatural Rebellion’: How the British Perceived the American Revolution

Today I’d like to welcome a new guest to All Things Georgian – Jordan Baker. Jordan holds a BA and MA in History from North Carolina State University. He is a lover of all things historical and concentrates his research and writing on the history of the Atlantic World. He also blogs about history and can be found at eastindiabloggingco.com.

The coming of the American revolution was a matter of great interest for the people back home in Britain. And, as with anything that proves interesting, the revolution was the subject of many different opinions. Across the country, the British weighed in on economics, military success and failures, the morality of the revolution, and more, through the press and private correspondence. As the British enjoyed one of the freest press systems in the world, not everyone felt obliged to speak out on behalf of His Majesty or the policies of Parliament. Mix all these ingredients together and you get some colourful, eighteenth-century commentary.

Money Problems

One of the most nagging questions for people in Britain during the American Revolution was what would happen to their investments and trade deals in the colonies. Merchants, nobility, and other well-to-do British subjects had millions of pounds invested in land holdings and trade deals in the colonies that now claimed independence. And, what was worse for these titans of finance, the revolutionary governments had seized all lands and property owned by loyalists.

As the Oxford Gazette put it in 1774,

The consequences of an American War to England will be estates in houses selling for nothing; in land high; money very scarce, and public credit low; no debts paying; no trade stirring.

This rather foreboding view of the war’s potential to wreak havoc on the British economy caused some to side with the Americans. In 1775, a group of merchants from Bristol wrote to the king, expressing their desire for an end to the conflict, lest trade be irrevocably damaged.

We can foresee no good effects to the commerce or revenues of this kingdom at a future period from any victories which may be obtained by your majesty’s army over desolated provinces and […] people.’

While some merchants felt that British trade could continue to prosper even if the rebelling colonies were given independence, others within the realm felt defeat would spell the beginning of the end for the empire. In 1776, one pamphlet writer, fortuitously forgetting about Britain’s holdings in Canada, the Caribbean, and India, insisted that losing America would be tantamount to “inclosing [sic] us within the confined seas of England, Ireland, and Scotland.”

Reynolds, Joshua; Doctor Samuel Johnson; Tate

Samuel Johnson and the Political Argument Against the Revolution

A leading voice of the opposition, British writer and political philosopher Samuel Johnson published his scathing opinions in his 1774 treatise, Taxation no Tyranny. To begin this work, Johnson gave a nod to the economic arguments that dominated the early days of the revolution, weighing in with his opinion:

‘That our commerce with America is profitable, however less than ostentatious or deceitful estimates have made it, and that it is our interest to preserve it, has never been denied; but, surely, it will most effectually be preserved, by being kept always in our own power. Concessions may promote it for a moment, but superiority only can ensure its continuance.’

The crux of Johnson’s argument, though, was the American colonies had no right to rebel and that their protests over taxation and lack of representation were unfounded. When Americans, or their ancestors, had left the island of Britain where they enjoyed representation in Parliament to seek land ownership or other opportunities in the New World they had given up their representation in the government of the empire.

Or, as Johnson stated,

he who goes voluntarily to America, cannot complain of losing what he leaves in Europe.

Additionally, since the British government protected these colonists, most recently during the French and Indian War, it had the right to tax them in order to afford to offer such protection.

Finally, as the final point in his argument, Johnson delved into the moral questions of the revolution. Penning one of the most scathing retorts to the American Revolution, a sentiment that still gets brought during discussion of the revolution, Johnson argued:

We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our own liberties; an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

Hot off the Press

Much of what we know regarding how British citizens across the Atlantic viewed and thought of the American Revolution comes from the copious amounts of coverage it received in the British press, between both newspapers and more editorialized pamphlets. Given that the revolution was the biggest news of the day, newspapers felt obliged to print articles on the happenings in America, lest they lose their readership and their profits.

While some publishers sympathized with the Americans, calling them the “chosen people” of the New World and proclaiming George Washington “a man of sense and great integrity,” most publications took a more negative view of the revolution. Indeed, in Britain many viewed the American Revolution as a civil war with their American cousins. Throughout the war, many newspapers throughout Britain stoked the flames of this opinion. “It is very melancholy to think that we must sacrifice so many brave lives, in order to put an end, to such an unnatural Rebellion,” G.B Brunell, a citizen of London, wrote in December 1776.

During the last few years of the war, the British press became flooded with stories of how Loyalists suffered at the hands of Patriots, prompting them to flee to Canada and the Floridas, and articles claiming that a dissatisfaction with the new state governments widely existed in  

America. Such stories led many Britons to doubt the ability of the United States to properly govern its own people, let alone do business with other nations. If a nation was born of the “criminal enterprise” of rebellion, could it ever really be trusted?


While Britons expressed a wide array of opinions on the American Revolution, a general sentiment of imperial anxiety runs through most of these thoughts. Whether those in Britain opposed or sympathized with the revolution, most of the thoughts written on the subject dealt with the effects on the empire’s economy, the morality of rebelling against one’s sovereign, and fears of the empire’s collapse.

Featured Image

John Trumbull, American, 1756–1843 Yale University Art Gallery

General George Washington and the courtesan’s sister

Grace Dalrymple Elliott, as we have been recounting to our readers, lived an adventurous life in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England and France. However, our book, An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott, also documents the fascinating stories of her relatives.

Grace’s elder sister Jacintha showed no less enthusiasm for adventure and travel than her better-known sibling. The wife of Captain Thomas Hesketh of the Royal Fusiliers (the 7th Regiment of Foot), she bravely followed him to Canada and then into America during the American War of Independence. Like Grace, she had her fair share of charm and beauty and she came to the notice of no lesser a person than General Washington when her husband was taken prisoner.

Copley, John Singleton; General George Washington (1732-1799); National Trust, Washington Old Hall; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/general-george-washington-17321799-169070
General George Washington (1732-1799) after John Singleton Copley; National Trust, Washington Old Hall

Captain Hesketh was held in Philadelphia where he was treated fairly, and his name entered into the exchange of prisoners (at the personal request of Washington). There were problems however before his exchange, and the lack of Captain Hesketh’s personal possessions in Philadelphia was one of them as his baggage was at Lancaster, some miles away. Some of the letters referring to this ended up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, rather than in our book, so we give them in full here as a little extra detail for our readers.

In September 1776 the Philadelphian Secretary of War Richard Peters (whose father had been born in Liverpool, England) wrote to Jasper Yeates of Lancaster, Pennsylvania asking for assistance for Thomas Hesketh.

Philadelphia, September 27, 1776

Dear Sir,

A Captain Hesketh’s baggage is at Lancaster, under the care of his servant and Sergeant Cooper, prisoners of war.  He wants it much at Philadelphia and does not know how to get it. Do be so good as to take the pains of inquiring after it and send it down, directed to my care. If it be in the custody of the Committee, this letter will, I fancy, be a justification for their delivery of it. He is a British officer, a prisoner of war and a very good, but a very helpless man, therefore requires assistance in this matter. I will pay any expense attending the baggage. The reason of troubling you is, that the chests are broke open and require either new locks or to be corded and sealed and sent in the care of some trusty person. As the baggage is under these circumstances, I know it is disagreeable to have anything to do with it. But he knows this and though he believes the people who have them honest, he must run the risk.

I am your affectionate, humble servant,


To Jasper Yeates, Esq

A plan of the city of Philadelphia, the capital of Pennsylvania, from an actual survey, 1776. Library of Congress
A plan of the city of Philadelphia, the capital of Pennsylvania, from an actual survey, 1776.
Library of Congress

Unfortunately Jasper Yeates was at Pittsburg and did not receive the letter.  Richard Peters sent a further plea.

War-Office, October 9, 1776.


A Captain Hesketh, a British officer, prisoner of war at this place, is in great want of his baggage. I wrote at his request, to Mr. Yeates to send it to him, but am informed by letter from Mrs. Yeates that he is at Pittsburg. If any of your body will be so obliging as to call on Mrs. Yeates and get from her that letter I wrote him and comply with the request therein made, you will oblige your very obedient servant,

Richard Peters, Secretary at War.

To the Committee of the Town of Lancaster

Captain Hesketh’s baggage consists of one trunk, one valise, one portmanteau, one pair of canteens.

Luckily for Captain Hesketh, this time the request did receive a response and the Lancaster Committee of Observation, Inspection and Correspondence, on the 12th October 1776, agreed to send on the baggage.

In Committee, Lancaster, Pa., October 14, 1776.


Our last post brought the Committee your letter of the 9th instant, upon receipt of which I applied to Mr. Yeates for your letter respecting Captain Hesketh’s baggage, which is now sent by Christian Schwartz’ s wagoner, being one trunk, one valise, one portmanteau, one pair of canteens, which Sergeant Cooper says contains all the baggage of Captain Hesketh which was under his care, except the coat and breeches mentioned in the Captain’ s letter to the Sergeant, which are delivered to Allen’ s wife by Cooper. Sergeant Cooper desires me to mention that Captain Hesketh’s late servant, Allen, is dead.

I have made no agreement with the man about the price he is to have for carriage, but leave that to you.

I am, sir, your very humble servant,

William H. Atlee, Chairman.

To Richard Peters, Esq

At a Committee of Treasury meeting held on the 17th October 1776 it was stated that there was due to Captain Thomas Hesketh $26, being his allowance of $2 a week between the periods 20th July to 19th October.

General George Washington, 1776. National Army Museum
General George Washington, 1776.
National Army Museum

In December, Captain Thomas Hesketh was allowed to leave Philadelphia for New York, upon trust that the British would substitute another prisoner for him, on the express orders of General Washington.

I met Captain Hesketh on the road and as the situation of his family did not admit of delay, I permitted him to go immediately to New-York, not having the least doubt but that General Howe will make a return of any officer of equal rank who shall be required.

Captain Hesketh’s wife, Jacintha, was with him and heavily pregnant; had she personally interceded with the general on behalf of her husband? Washington specifically referred to Jacintha in a letter written at Brunswick on 1st December 1775 to Lieutenant-General Howe.

Besides the persons included on the enclosed list, Captain Hesketh, of the Seventh Regiment, his lady, three children and two servant maids, were permitted to go in a few days ago…

Thomas Dalrymple Hesketh was born in New York in January 1777. He would, in time, become Sir Thomas Dalrymple Hesketh, 3rd Baron Hesketh of Rufford Hall in Lancashire.

More information on Jacintha and her husband’s time in America can be found in An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott.


American Archives: Documents of the American Revolution, 1774-1776

Header image:

An East Perspective View of the City of Philadelphia, in the Province of Pensylvania, in North America, taken from the Jersey Shore, 1778. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Infamous-Mistress-Celebrated-Dalrymple-Elliott/dp/1473844835

Divorced wife, infamous mistress, prisoner in France during the French Revolution and the reputed mother of the Prince of Wales’ child, notorious eighteenth-century courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott lived an amazing life in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century London and Paris.

Strikingly tall and beautiful, later lampooned as ‘Dally the Tall’ in newspaper gossip columns, she left her Scottish roots and convent education behind, to re-invent herself in a ‘marriage-a-la-mode’, but before she was even legally an adult she was cast off and forced to survive on just her beauty and wits.

The authors of this engaging and, at times, scandalous book intersperse the history of Grace’s tumultuous life with anecdotes of her fascinating family, from those who knew Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and who helped to abolish slavery, to those who were, like Grace, mistresses of great men.

Whilst this book is the most definitive biography of Grace Dalrymple Elliott ever written, it is much more than that; it is Grace’s family history which traces her ancestors from their origin in the Scottish borders, to their move south to London. It follows them to France, America, India, Africa and elsewhere, offering a broad insight into the social history of the Georgian era, comprising the ups and downs, the highs and lows of life at that time.

This is the remarkable and detailed story of Grace set, for the first time, in the context of her wider family and told more completely than ever before.


The Life of Catherina Pitcairn

Today we take a more detailed look at one of the people mentioned in our recent biography of the eighteenth-century courtesan, Grace Dalrymple Elliott, An Infamous Mistress.

An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Infamous-Mistress-Celebrated-Dalrymple-Elliott/dp/1473844835

Our subject today is Catherina Pitcairn who was first cousin to Grace; Elizabeth Dalrymple had married John Pitcairn, a man who rose through the ranks of the marine regiments. Grace’s elder sister, Jacintha, was especially close to her Pitcairn relatives and spent some time living with her aunt, uncle and cousins at their home in Kent, close to the military base there. When Jacintha married, in 1771, to Thomas Hesketh, a Lieutenant in the 7th Foot Regiment, Catherina was a witness at the marriage. Shortly afterwards Catherina herself married, to a fellow officer from the 7th Foot, Charles Cochrane who was the second son of the Earl of Dundonald.

Winckley - 1785 wedding dress
Wedding dress in cream silk, 1785

Thomas Hesketh and Charles Cochrane were commanded, with their regiment, first to Canada and then to America where they saw action in the War of Independence. John Pitcairn too was there and his son, William, both with the British Marine force. Jacintha, with two young children in tow, followed her husband overseas and remained close by his side through his adventures in America. Catherina initially remained in England with her two infant children.

The Cochrane’s had a son (Thomas, son of the Honourable Charles Cochrane Esq and Catherine his wife was baptised on the 1st August 1773, at St Margaret’s in Rochester Kent) and a daughter.

British Infantrymen of a Royal Regiment in an Encampment by unknown artist (c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
British Infantrymen of a Royal Regiment in an Encampment by unknown artist
(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In Boston, Charles Cochrane was promoted to a Captaincy in the 4th Regiment of Foot, ‘The King’s Own’, the youngest captain in that regiment, and was employed in helping in father-in-law, Major Pitcairn. Despairing of promotion within the 4th Foot, Cochrane transferred to the 1st Foot Guards and then a commission to Brevet Major within the British Legion, the ‘Green Dragoons’. Another officer who served with the British Legion was ‘Bloody Ban’, otherwise Banastre Tarleton, remembered to history not only for his military endeavours but also as the lover of the actress and courtesan Mary Darby Robinson who was a rival to our heroine Grace Dalrymple Elliott for the affections of the young Prince of Wales in the early 1780s. Ban was Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment, composed of small loyalist units of American infantry and cavalry.

Banastre Tarleton by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782 via Wikimedia Commons
Banastre Tarleton by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782 via Wikimedia Commons

In June 1780 Cochrane asked for leave to go home and see his wife and the two young children he had left behind; additionally, his father had died and his father-in-law, Major Pitcairn had lost his life at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill (otherwise Breed’s Hill). He had been away for almost seven years. His request was granted and he was given important military despatches to take back to England with him and a letter to Lord Amherst from General James Robertson, who said of him that:

Major Cochran who carrys this is an Officer who has gallantly distinguished himself – and can inform You of what is passing here, and perfectly well of the state of Carolina and Georgia.[i]

Lord Cornwallis, in charge of the British force, was sorry to see such a talented young officer leave, writing the following heartfelt letter to the ‘Honble Major Cochrane’.

Campden, June 10th, 1780

Dear Sir,

I cannot let you go from hence without expressing the very sincere regret I feel at your leaving my corps, and assuring you that on any future occasion I shall be happy in serving with so able and spirited an officer. I heartily wish you a prosperous voyage, and a happy meeting with your family, and am with great regard,

Your most obedient and faithful servant,


Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783. National Portrait Gallery
Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783.
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Cochrane’s attempts to get home were met with drama; he was set upon by three privateers, whom he overcame and delivered back to New York as prisoners, returning to his schooner to be once again attacked by two rebel privateers from the New England shore, resulting in him jumping overboard and swimming back to shore to save the dispatches he carried whilst his schooner was taken.

Finally managing to get back to England, he collected his young family and brought them back to New York with him. Catherina and her two children waited there, in the October of 1781, while Charles Cochrane was sent to Yorktown in Virginia where a siege was underway, reaching Chesapeake Bay in a whaleboat on the 10th October with the French fleet firing on him as he landed. Perhaps he intended to rejoin the British Legion, now renamed as the 5th American Regiment and skirmishing with the French at Gloucester across the York River, but instead, he was appointed by Lord Cornwallis as his acting aide-de-camp.

Siege of Yorktown (1781) by Auguste Couder via Wikimedia Commons
Siege of Yorktown (1781) by Auguste Couder via Wikimedia Commons

A day later Lord Cornwallis was inspecting the defences and his newly appointed staff member accompanied him. Cochrane was allowed to fire one of the cannons himself, and he leaned over the breastworks to see where his shot landed in ricochet: a fatal error! A cannonball from the French and American lines (the American forces were commanded by General George Washington) was incoming, and as Cochrane leaned forward he was decapitated by it.[ii] Lord Cornwallis later surrendered his position.

His young widow was grief-stricken when she heard the news, and further tragedy lay in store for her, as her two young children both died young. Bereft, she returned to England.

The Dead Soldier by Joseph Wright of Derby, c.1789. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
The Dead Soldier by Joseph Wright of Derby, c.1789.
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Catherina Pitcairn - St Barts the LessAt the church of St Bartholomew the Less, in the City of London, on the 19th February 1789 and after years of widowhood, Catherina married once more, to Charles Owen Cambridge.

Charles Owen Cambridge was the son of Robert Owen Cambridge (who added Owen to his name to inherit from an uncle), a poet and old Etonian who was a contemporary of the renowned letter writer Horace Walpole. And Horace Walpole, in turn, was the great-uncle of Lord Cholmondeley, Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s lover and protector: as we note in our book, Grace’s world was but a small one no matter how far she or her family travelled.

Both parties to the marriage had been widowed for Charles Owen Cambridge had married previously in 1787 to a lady named Mary Edwards, only to be bereaved by her death, possibly due to an early and complicated childbirth, less than seven months later.[iii] His brother, the Reverend George Owen Cambridge, was the presumed suitor of the diarist and novelist Fanny Burney, only George showed a distinct disinclination to commit to a marriage with her. She did, however, mention the Cambridge family on many occasions in her diary.

Charles Owen Cambridge © National Portrait Gallery, London
Charles Owen Cambridge
© National Portrait Gallery, London

A son, named Robert Owen, was born to Charles Owen Cambridge and his new wife Catherina, in 1790, baptised on the 6th August at East Lavant in Sussex. Sadly the tragedy which had dogged Catherina’s former life followed her into this new marriage, and the son died young aged only fourteen years.

Catherina and Charles Owen Cambridge did both lead long, and one hopes happy, lives; Catherina died in 1835 at the age of 84 years and Charles lived on until 1847, and the tremendous age of 95 years. They lived at Whitminster House in Gloucestershire, an old, and somewhat dilapidated in their day, medieval manor house.

A description of the manor house is available to view via the British History Online website.

Whitminster House via Heritage4Media
Whitminster House via Heritage4Media

Charles Owen Cambridge was a virtuous man. He paid for the education of fifteen boys and twenty-five girls in a day school in Moreton-in-Marsh and supported twenty-six boys and thirty-two girls in a Sunday school at the same place. He was also a zealous advocate of the proposal to adopt machinery instead of climbing boys to sweep chimneys clean. In 1828 Charles and another supporter of the campaign, E.J. Kirkman, Esq, attended a meeting at Fareham in Hampshire to consider this; Cambridge and Kirkham sent the machinery from Portsmouth and supervised the cleaning of three chimneys at the Red Lion Inn with this apparatus. The conclusion was that the chimneys were effectually swept clean in about a quarter of an hour, and the good people of Fareham who attended the meeting resolved to abstain from the use of sweeping boys and to persuade their neighbours to do the same.

The Red Lion at Fareham as it is today, via Booking.com.
The Red Lion at Fareham as it is today, via Booking.com.

Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s sister, Jacintha, had her own adventures in America during the years of the War of Independence, when she followed her own husband overseas, an interesting counterpart to Catherina Cochrane’s experiences. More information can be found in our book, An Infamous Mistress: the Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott, which not only covers Grace’s fascinating life but also documents the varied and interesting lives led by her relatives.


The Lady’s Magazine: or, Entertaining companion for the fair sex, June 1804.

Hampshire Chronicle, 18th August 1828.

Gloucester Chronicle, 12th January 1839.

The Court Journals and Letters of Frances Burney: Volume ii: 1787, edited by Stewart Cooke, 2011.

Memorial of Captain Charles Cochrane, a British Officer in the Revolutionary War, 1774-1781, by Mellen Chamberlain, 1891.

Oatmeal for the Foxhound: Banastre Tarleton and the British Legion


[i] James Robertson to Lord Amherst, 12 August 1780, in James Robertson, The Twilight of British Rule in Revolutionary America: The New York Letter Book of General James Robertson, 1780-1783, eds. Milton M. Klein and Ronald W. Howard (Cooperstown, NY: The New York State Historical Association, 1983), p141.

[ii] Major Charles Cochrane has the unfortunate distinction of being the only British officer killed during this action.

[iii] Charles Owen Cambridge married Mary Edwards on the 26th July 1787 at East Lavant in Sussex; she died on the 14th February 1788.