Women in 18th Century Politics – 1784 Election

A Borough secur'd or Reynards resource: a caricature featuring the Duchess of Devonshire and Charles James Fox
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

As we all know the ‘well to do’ women of the Georgian era were regarded as objects of beauty that simply swooned and fainted at the sight of a gallant gentleman. They wore stunningly beautiful clothes and shoes and spent hours on their hair and beauty regime. They paraded around Georgian London, Bath, Brighton etc. in their finery and partied into the early hours, but on the whole, they were regarded as fairly vacuous creatures.

STOP RIGHT THERE!

OK, so we’ve done the whole film thing, now let’s move on and dispense with that image. If we’re being totally honest that is, to a certain extent, the stereotypical image held of women from that period as, let’s face it, they had very few, if any ‘rights’ during that time. Only those in what was regarded as the lower class, worked, the remainder were kept in comfort by their spouses or parents if not married, they had no voting rights, rarely any disposable income of their own unless they had inherited money that was solely for their use and their husband could divorce them with minimal discomfort on their part.

The Duchess of Devonshire and Charles James Fox
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

Whilst women were maybe not able to publicly ‘have a voice’ in the world around them and how it worked it, appears from reading the newspapers of the day that actually they took more than a passing interest in the arts, science and politics. Many of the names we have become familiar with over the years did, in fact, take a more active role in politics than we had at first assumed with many of them engaged in gathering support for their chosen politician during elections using whatever methods were at their disposal.

One of the most famous election campaigns that took place was that of the 1784 Westminster election.   If you thought politics and political campaigning today was vicious then take a look back to the Georgian era when things were far worse!  We came across a book written October 1784 that provides a detailed account of all the events during the campaign – History of the Westminster Election from 1st  April to the 17th May.  

A meeting of the female canvassers in Covent Garden
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

The Westminster election was of paramount importance as this was one of the key boroughs for two reasons – firstly every male homeowner could vote and secondly due to the number of voters it was equally important to both the Whig and Tory parties. There were two seats to be had and three candidates, so the battle was between Cecil Wray and Lord Hood, both Tory’s, and Charles Fox, Whig, therefore the candidates needed to use every weapon in their armoury to achieve success; none more so than Charles Fox. The battle then commenced.

The Duchess of Devonshire by Joshua Reynolds.
The Duchess of Devonshire by Joshua Reynolds.

The Duchess of Devonshire led the female canvassers accompanied by her sister Lady Harriet Duncannon, as she was titled at that point, later to become Lady Bessborough. The list of women involved in the election included Albinia, The Countess of Buckinghamshire, the Duchess of Portland, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s wife, Elizabeth née Linley, Lady Jersey, the Honourable Mrs Bouverie and the Scandalous Lady Worsley.

Lady Worsley by Joshua Reynolds
Lady Worsley, Joshua Reynolds

Others including Perdita aka Mrs Robinson, The White Crow, aka Maria Corbyn,  The Bird of Paradise aka Gertrude Mahon, Lady Archer, Lady Carlisle, Mrs Crewe, Mrs Damer and the Miss Waldengraves,  Lady Grosvenor and Mrs Armistead, the future Mrs Fox,  so quite a little collection.

Mrs Bouverie and Mrs Crewe. Print after Sir Joshua Reynolds. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.
Mrs Bouverie and Mrs Crewe. Print after Sir Joshua Reynolds. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.

The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser of 6th April 1784 confirmed that the

Duchess of Devonshire along with Lord Derby & Lord Keppel are the firm of Mr Fox’s responsible committee.

This seems to imply that her role was a little more than just to ‘look pretty’; presumably, she was there to help to obtain votes however she could. It is reported that she canvassed every day and that she arranged for a thousand coalition medals to be struck, one of which she gave to every voter who agreed to support Fox.

NPG D9540; 'A coalition medal struck in brass' (Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford; Charles James Fox) by James Sayers, published by Edward Hedges
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Just over a week later The Bath Chronicle reported that

‘ It was observed of the Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Duncannon, while they were soliciting votes in favour of Mr Fox, on Saturday last, they were the most lovely portraits that ever appeared upon a canvas’.

Like most people we had heard the story that the Duchess secured votes for Charles Fox by offering kisses in exchange for their vote, but until now we had assumed this was simply a myth that has evolved over time due to the astounding number of caricatures of such a scene, but it does seem from this letter written by a certain Duchess to Fox that there was some truth in it*.

‘Dear Charles

Yesterday I sent you three votes but went through much fatigue to procure them. It cost me ten kisses for every plumper.  I’m afraid we are done up – I will see you at the porter shop and we will discuss ways and means’.

Yours

D_____e House

NB Clare Market is a filthy place – keep up your spirits. I have a borough – you know where.’

The was much printed in the newspapers about her ‘method’ and many derogatory comments made about morals. The reality, however, was that amongst the public she was a very popular figure, not only because of her looks but also because she did actually engage with the public and by all accounts was able to discuss eloquently and put forward information about what Fox stood for.

As a campaigner for Wray we have the much quieter and more demure Duchess of Rutland, needless to say, we don’t have a plethora of caricatures for her!

‘we can assure the public, that the beautiful and accomplished Duchess of Rutland does not drive about the streets and alleys, or otherwise act in a manner unbecoming of a lady of rank and delicacy’.

Procession to the Hustings after a successful canvass.
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Duncannon and possibly Mrs Crewe

Despite the mocking and caricatures of these women, predominantly  of the Duchess of Devonshire, and the vile abuse they apparently received from Wray’s supporters and the press, the only person who apparently clearly objected to her participation in the election was her mother who felt that she was being used by Fox, no-one else appeared to have any objection which is quite telling; it appears that even the Queen was a supporter of the Duchess of Devonshire:

Her majesty has all the morning prints at breakfast every day and the Princesses are permitted to read them. Her eye caught the indecency of that one which attacked the Duchess of Devonshire. She gave it to an attendant and said let that paper never more enter the palace doors.  The story got round and the same orders were given everywhere else.’ 

There were even comments made that women’s participation in politics could result in them wanting to vote – shock horror, how times have changed!

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough, 1787
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough, 1787; Chatsworth House

The Duchess of Devonshire suffered greatly at the hands of the press, but she clearly had a passion for politics and felt that the country would benefit from Fox’s appointment. We are aware from The Cavendish Family by Francis Bickley, that she wrote to her mother advising her of how miserable she was, but that she had begun her involvement and that she would see it through to the end.  Given that the odds were stacked against Fox winning the election from the beginning, it could be argued that a win from Fox was highly unlikely that without the help of these women!

Election te^te-a`-te^te
1784 Election Tete a Tete

15th May of 1784 The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser printed the following letter purporting to be from Lady Worsley to the Duchess of Devonshire, whether it was genuine or not we have no idea, but it is nevertheless interesting

Madam

Before the General Election in the year 1780, the name of Lady W____y stood fair and respectable; the gay world derives no entertainment from her follies. The forms of decency and decorum had not been neglected, and, therefore men of gallantry felt but little encouragement to make approaches.  Sir Richard found not Cassio’s kisses on my lips, for neither Cassio nor Roderigo revelled there. But, Madam   in the general Election of that day I acted like yourself – like a woman of life – a woman of spirit, but how unlike a politician! As you set your face against Sir Cecil Wray, I opposed my influence to that of Jervoise Clerk Jervoise.  I coaxed, I canvassed; I made myself, in the language of Shakespear ‘base, common and popular’. I was charmed with the public attention I received from the men; they talked to me of irresistible graces; the pressed my fingers; they squeezed my hand and my pulse beat quicker; they touched my lips, and my blood ran riot; they pressed me in  their arms and turned my brain. O, the joy! The rapture, the enchanting, thrilling, aching sensations, which beset my soul! They banished in an instant, all ideas of a cold, a formal education; they drove from my mind all decent forms which time and observation had copied there. Your Grace is apprized of the sequel. Before the canvas – Was your Grace strict? So was I. Was your Grace modest? So was I.  And if after the canvas, your Grace should find a violent metamorphosis in your feelings; I am ready to confess – so did I.

I am, Madam

Dorothea W____y

If you found this article interesting then you might also enjoy our book, A Georgian Heroine, about an 18th century woman who lived life on her own terms and who took far more than a passing interest in the politics of the day!

 

* History of the Westminster Election, 1784

Elizabeth Ann Sheridan nee Linley

We had no plans to write about Elizabeth, wife of Richard Brinsley Sheridan as much has already been written about her and we have always aimed to add something new to already published information.  However, having watched historian, Hallie Rubenhold on BBC 2’s Newsnight programme relatively recently, talking about women who were famous in their own right at the time but who have been overshadowed by their more successful spouses we decided to look again at Elizabeth’s life.

Elizabeth Linley and her sister Mary by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1772. Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Elizabeth Linley and her sister Mary by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1772. Dulwich Picture Gallery.

The first thing that jumped out was that no-one was quite sure when she was born, apart from September 1754, so, although we have not found her birth we can now confirm her baptism as it appears in the parish records, 25th September 1754 at St Michael’s church, Bath, Somerset. Elizabeth was one of 12 children born to Thomas and Mary Linley, Thomas, being a renowned composer.  Elizabeth began her singing career in 17661 when she was put forward as a public singer in the rooms at Bath aged only 12. She went on to make her debut at London’s Covent Garden in 1767 alongside her brother Thomas.

Three years later when Elizabeth was a mere 16 years of age she was betrothed by her father to an elderly but extremely wealthy gentleman, Walter Long. Not long after this Elizabeth made it clear that she would never be happy in this marriage – why would she be, she was around 16, he 60 and apart from the age gap she had already fallen for Richard Brinsley Sheridan. With this, the marriage was cancelled and Walter paid Elizabeth’s father a settlement figure of £3,000 (approx. £270,000 in today’s money) and Elizabeth was allowed to keep the jewels and gifts that he had already given her.

The Public Advertiser Friday 6th July 1770 described Elizabeth in the following glowing terms:

A young lady from Bath whose general excellence in every accomplishment which can adorn and render amiable the female character and whose particular talents as a singer justify the most extravagant description. The inimitable sweetness of her voice dispelled the gloom of disciplinarian austerity, nor could the sober, morose Fellows of Colleges refrain from joining many an enamoured academic in bearing testimony by repeated bursts of applause to her great merit and graceful deportment.

However, the episode with Walter Long returned to haunt her when the whole episode which she would undoubtedly have wished to remain private became very public courtesy of Samuel Foote, who chose to write a play about it – ‘The Maid of Bath’ which opened in 1771 at the Haymarket theatre. The play only lasted for a few performances and ridiculed Elizabeth.  Following that, Elizabeth and Sheridan eloped to France with the assistance of his close friend, Mr Ewart (senior), a brandy merchant, who not only helped them to obtain safe passage but also provided them with letters of recommendation.  According to Sheridan’s memoirs, the couple married at the end of March 1772 in a small village near Calais by a priest well known for his services of this kind.  Eloping in such a fashion caused an outcry and Sheridan was branded a scoundrel and liar.

 

However, when the couple returned to England and no proof could be found of their marriage they were eventually officially married on the 13th April 1773 in the presence of her father as she was still as a minor.

After their marriage Sheridan’s fame began to spread and at the same time Sheridan decided that he would no longer permit his new bride to perform on the stage as it apparently reflected badly upon his professional reputation, a fact that appears to be confirmed in his memoirs, dated 1773:

The celebrity of Mrs Sheridan as a singer was, it is true, a ready source of wealth; and offers of the most advantageous kind were pressed upon them by managers of concerts in both town and country.  But with a pride and delicacy, which receive the tribute of Dr Johnson’s praise, he rejected at once all thoughts of allowing her to reappear in public; and instead of profiting by the display of his wife’s talents, adopted the manlier resolution of seeking a reputation of his own. An engagement had been made for her some months before by her father, to perform at the music meeting that was to take place at Worcester this summer. But Sheridan, who considered that his claims upon her had superseded all others, would not suffer her to keep this engagement.

Lloyd’s Evening Post of the 16th July 1773 provides an interesting article!

at the late Installation at Oxford, immediately after the honorary Degrees had been conferred in the Latin Proscenium, to which the words Caufa Honoris always are made use of, Lord north, filled with admiration at Mrs Sheridan’s excellent vocal performance, said to Charles Fox, who sat by him  “I think we should give her husband a Degree Caufa Uxoris”, “I think so too, my Lord,” (replied the young commoner), and I should be very glad to be admitted on this ground ad Eundem!

In the mid-January of 1774, The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser reported that Elizabeth was ‘dangerously indisposed’ and that there was virtually no chance of her singing anywhere during the season.  This opinion was followed up by Adam’s Weekly Courant a few weeks later which indicated that her health was still showing no sign of improvement

Mrs Sheridan is dangerously ill. The Queen has offered her 200l a year for life for private concerts.

Whether Elizabeth took up this offer we have no idea, but in today’s money that would have been worth about £12,000, but given newspaper references later, it seems highly likely that she complied. The next reference to Elizabeth’s health does not appear until December 1774, so whatever her illness at the time it clearly lasted some considerable time, but she appeared to be fully recovered. There were few mentions of Elizabeth in the press over the next few months.

Sheridan’s play The Rivals was first performed at Covent Garden on the 17th of January 1775 and despite no longer being in the public eye The Middlesex Journal of the 26th January 1775 provides us with a glimpse as to how Elizabeth had been spending her time and more importantly her involvement in what is arguably one of her husbands most famous works:

We hear that the admired Epilogue to the Rivals is the composition of Mrs. Sheridan. There is a delicacy in the thoughts and in the expressions of this poem, that claim the warmest approbation, and leave us in doubt which we shall most applaud, Mrs. Sheridan’s excellence in music, or in poetry.

Sheridan was now enjoying the trapping of city life was in stark contrast to that of Elizabeth who preferred to remain in the country and apparently, as a result, their marriage became somewhat tempestuous. However, despite their differences on the 16th November 1775 Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Thomas/Tom at the couple’s home in Portman Square according to the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser. The couple’s address was, at the time, regarded as one of the most fashionable addresses in London and they appear to have enjoyed socializing with the rich and famous, but of course entertaining such people by giving twice weekly concerts came at a price and not one that the couple could really afford. They were reputed to be permanently in debt.

Elizabeth and Thomas Linley by George H. Every, after Thomas Gainsborough
Elizabeth and Thomas Linley by George H. Every, after Thomas Gainsborough. National Portrait Gallery.

January 19th, 1776 the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser reported that David Garrick had sold his share in Drury Lane theatre to a Dr Forde, Mr Ewart and two very familiar names – Mr Linley (father in law of Sheridan) and Richard Sheridan – the purchase price being 35,000l.  Although not mentioned in this report we do know that the ‘villain’ in one of our other planned books was also involved in the purchase of the theatre and was a close friend of Sheridan’s which is another reason that Elizabeth’s story is of interest to us as our heroine would more than likely have been well acquainted with her. We can only presume that both Elizabeth’s father and Sheridan used some of the money provided by Walter Long to help fund this project.

The next mention of Elizabeth in the press was in June 1776 when she gave a private performance for the Queen where she sang several songs for their Majesties. These private concerts continued, with reference in the press being made regularly. Sheridan may have wanted his wife to quietly retire but the press were not going to let her slip into obscurity quite so readily, with her name being mentioned frequently with her setting the ‘gold standard’ for other singers to aspire to – no-one quite bettered her though for some considerable time.

Family Group (called 'The Sheridan Family': Richard Sheridan, 1751–1816, Elizabeth Linley, 1754–1792); Benjamin West, c.1776; Walker Art Gallery
Family Group (called ‘The Sheridan Family’: Richard Sheridan, 1751–1816, Elizabeth Linley, 1754–1792); Benjamin West, c.1776; Walker Art Gallery

Wednesday 7th May 1777 tragedy struck the couple as Elizabeth was delivered of a still born child. Clearly, this loss took its toll on Elizabeth as physicians were called to see her just a couple of days later.  The Public Advertiser 12th May carried the same report about the still birth and directly below it reported the birth of a female, likely to live forever – daughter of Sheridan’s Muse!

A little over a year later on the 5th August 1778, Elizabeth’s brother tragically drowned in a boating accident and the press described Elizabeth as being inconsolable. There appear very to be few references in the press after this date pertaining to Elizabeth, perhaps she had become the dutiful wife; the press only reported the couple appearing in public at concerts and the like.

Although women were unable to vote it did not appear to preclude them from taking an active interest in the politics of the day as The Public Advertiser of 4th April 1782 confirmed Elizabeth’s presence at the hustings:

The Duchess of Devonshire, Mrs Bouverie, Lady Milner, Mrs Sheridan and some other ladies were on the hustings. The ladies joined in the shouts and applauses of the people and The Duchess of Devonshire and Mrs Bouverie who wore blue and buff riding habits and Lady Milner who was likewise in a riding habit took off their hats and joined the huzzahs of the people.

Procession to the hustings after a successful canvass.

We move then on a few years to the 17th February 1784 when once again Elizabeth had been taken gravely ill at the seat of the Honourable Mr Bouverie in Northamptonshire. Sheridan immediately left London to be by his wife’s side, her life being described as in ‘immediate danger’.

After this event the press remained exceptionally quiet again for the next few years apart from a few mentions about her social diary, until 13th October 1791 when, yet again there appear grave doubts about her surviving her present illness, but as if by magic she made a full recovery some two weeks later, but then disappeared to Southampton a few weeks later to assist with her recovery, Sheridan going to collect her on the 8th of March 1792 once she was fully recovered.  We know from Lord Fitzgerald’s letters to the Duchess of Leinster that he was having a relationship with Elizabeth and was fully aware of Elizabeth’s trip to Southampton; the couple had a child, Mary, born 30th March 1792.

By the 17th April 1792, Elizabeth was expected to die within 6 months according to her physicians and the media. Reports stated that as soon as she was well enough to undertake the journey she should be moved from London to Bath. A few weeks later this account was rectified and an apology printed stating that now her health was much improved, although less than one month later, initial worries were proved correct and Elizabeth was in fact dying.

Elizabeth, who was never physically strong, succumbed to tuberculosis which proved fatal and she died on the 28th of June 1792, aged just 38. The press reported her death as happening at 5 o’clock in the evening at Bristol Hot Wells with her husband present. She was buried in the same vault as her sister Mary, at Wells Cathedral on the 7th July 1792 and was followed to the grave by her legitimate daughter Mary shortly after.

The Chester Chronicle, 30th August 1799 described Elizabeth as ‘A lady of unrivalled beauty and the rarest talents’. So despite not having performed publicly for almost 30 years her reputation as a talented and beautiful singer remained.

The politician John Wilkes described Elizabeth as ‘the most modest, delicate flower he had ever seen’ when referring to Sheridan’s loss.

The Gentleman’s Magazine 138, dated 1825 includes a letter purported to have been written by Elizabeth to her close friend Miss Saunders which makes for fascinating reading.

So, Elizabeth clearly was unrivalled in her talent and beauty, but it does appear that she remained in the shadow of her husband, whether this was largely due to his ego or whether her health was the main reason, it seems hard to determine. The impression created is that he was overwhelmingly anxious about his wife’s state of health throughout their marriage and clearly, rightly so as she was incredibly fragile.  Certainly, whatever the reason, Elizabeth supported her husband in not only his writing but also in his political career and she was much involved in the politics of the day, being present at the hustings with the Duchess of Devonshire.

 

1 Thomas Linley, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Thomas Mathews, their connections with Bath (1903)