Portrait of Nelly O'Brien by Joshua Reynolds, c.1762-1763.

Revealing new information about the courtesan, Nelly O’Brien

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted the courtesan Nelly O’Brien twice, between 1762 and 1764. Both paintings were paid for by her lover, Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke, although she was introduced to Reynolds by Admiral Augustus Keppel, 1st Viscount Keppel. (Keppel was the great-grandson of Charles II by his mistress, Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth.)

Nelly O'Brien by Joshua Reynolds; Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow
Nelly O’Brien by Joshua Reynolds; Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Bolingbroke also commissioned Reynolds to paint a picture of his wife, Diana Spencer, daughter of the 3rd Duke of Marlborough at the same time. Horace Walpole claimed that Bolingbroke had asked Reynolds to give Diana’s ‘eyes something of Nelly O’Brien, or it will not do’. Walpole continued, ‘as he has given Nelly something of his wife’s, it was but fair to give her something of Nelly’s; and my Lady will not throw away the present!’.

Lady Diana Beauclerk by Joshua Reynolds
Lady Diana Beauclerk by Joshua Reynolds; English Heritage, Kenwood

Frederick and Diana’s marriage was a disaster; he took lovers and so did she, famously having an affair with Topham Beauclerk (like Keppel also a great-grandson of Charles II, but by Nell Gwyn). When Bolingbroke divorced his wife in 1768, she promptly married her lover.

Frederick and Nelly (whose origins remain obscure) were an item certainly by 1763. Most sources seem to suggest that Nelly bore Bolingbroke a son, born c.1764, supposedly named Arthur and of whom nothing else is known. If she did bear a child by Bolingbroke, it’s more likely that he was born a year or two earlier. It was not Bolingbroke who fathered a child on Nelly in 1764, it was her new love, the splendidly named Sackville Tufton, 8th Earl of Thanet.

Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke
Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke (via Brigitte Gastel Lloyd)

Alfred (not Arthur) Tufton was born 23rd November 1764, and baptised almost a month later, on 20th December, at St George, Hanover Square. His birth was hardly a secret; Nelly was named alongside Sackville in the baptism register. The wit, George James ‘Gilly’ Williams, writing to his friend, George Selwyn on Christmas Day, 1764, said:

I told you Nelly O’Brien has a son. It was christened yesterday. Bunny and his trull were sponsors. Now for his name; guess it if you can; it is of no less consequence in this country than Alfred; but Magill was so drunk he had like to have named it Hiccup!

(Bunny is thought to be Sir Charles Bunbury, who had recently married Lady Sarah Lennox, daughter of the Duke of Richmond. Magill, the drunk, was Henry Magill, curate of St George’s.)

A year later, on 4 December 1765, a second son was born; this one was given his father’s name, Sackville Tufton, and baptised at the same church as his elder brother on New Years’ Day, 1766.

St George's, Hanover Square by T. Malton, 1787
St George’s, Hanover Square by T. Malton, 1787

After that, things rapidly went downhill for Nelly. Her earl was seeking a wife, and his family would certainly not countenance a union with a courtesan. In the summer of 1767 (on 30th July), Sackville Tufton married Mary daughter of Lord John Sackville. Beforehand, Nelly had been turned out of his Grosvenor Square house to make way for the new bride, although she appears to have moved only a few streets away and taken rooms on Park Street, almost certainly provided for her by the earl as Nelly was once again carrying his child.

Grosvenor Square c.1789; Robert Pollard
Grosvenor Square c.1789; Robert Pollard

Nearly six months after Sackville’s marriage to Mary, Nelly was delivered of a third son. Stanley Tufton was born 18th January 1768 and baptised 5th February. In the baptism register at St George’s, his parents were described as they had been with the older boys, Sackville Tufton, Earl of Thanet and Elinor O’Brien. Presumably, the new Countess of Thanet was fully aware. She was also pregnant herself and her daughter, Lady Elizabeth Tufton, was born that spring. Nelly was, however, furious at having to leave Grosvenor Square. As she complained to anyone who would listen, her former lover had a good precedent to follow: when the wife of Augustus Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton was pregnant in 1764, the duke moved his lover, the courtesan Nancy Parsons, into their London home where they lived together openly. The Earl of Thanet had moved his courtesan out!

Nancy Parsons, also Mrs. Horton and later Viscountess Maynard by Joshua Reynolds
Nancy Parsons, also Mrs Horton and later Viscountess Maynard by Joshua Reynolds;
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A few weeks after Stanley’s birth, realising that she would never reclaim her position as the earl’s mistress and facing an uncertain future, Nelly wrote her will. All her wealth appeared to be in the form of fine clothes and a quantity of valuable diamond jewellery which, besides her three sons, were all that she had been left with. Her star, which had shone so brightly, was looking decidedly dimmed.

I Elinor O Brien do leave to my mother all my best cloaths, to my maid Ann Dixon all my old cloaths, to Miss ?Pyrott one of my best diamond rings, to Nurse Duran such token or legacy as they can chuse out. I beg Lord Thanet will take care of his children and believe them his own. To my children I give my diamonds to be equally divided between the three and I beg my ready money will be sent to my mother and some to poor Molly and I hope all my debts will be paid immediately my ??

Could ‘poor Molly’ possibly be Nelly’s sister? The will is frustrating in its ambiguity. Another mystery concerns the nurse, was she there for Nelly, or for her newborn son. Was Nelly ill? Although still just a young woman, she would be dead before the year was out. While she was afterwards said to have died in childbirth, and in anguish from being abandoned by her earl, the fact she wrote her will, to try to safeguard her children’s future, could indicate that she had indeed been unwell for several months. In March the Public Advertiser newspaper reported her demise, followed by a retraction:

Wed. March 23, 1768. Sunday last died in Park Street, Grosvenor Square, the celebrated Miss Nelly O’Brien.

Friday, 1 April, 1768. The account inserted in the Papers of the Death of Miss Nelly O’Brien in Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, is premature; that lady being in perfect health.

Unfortunately for Nelly, the account was not premature. On Saturday 2nd April 1768, Nelly O’Brien was buried at St George’s, Hanover Square (a new burial ground attached to the church had been consecrated in Bayswater three years earlier).

(A burial at St Ann, Rotherhithe on 29th December 1768 is often mistakenly thought to be hers. Likewise, Nelly’s assumed birth year of 1739 is taken from incorrect burial: the Elinor O’Brien buried in Rotherhithe was 29 years old. We still have no true idea of Nelly’s birth date.)

On 4th May 1768, one of her creditors was granted administration of her estate; the whereabouts of her diamonds are now unknown.

The two elder sons, Sackville and Alfred Tufton, joined the East India Company, Sackville in their naval service and Alfred as a writer, based at Kolkata. When his brother Sackville wrote his will in October 1788, Alfred was left the bulk of his wealth.

Stanley was not mentioned and, although we have not been able to trace him further, it would seem likely that he died young. In a later codicil, Sackville left bequests to his half-brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters from his father’s marriage to Mary Sackville, so it looks like he had been brought up as their sibling.

He also left legacies to his O’Brien aunts and uncles (sadly not named!), his mother Nelly’s siblings and to his grandmother (Nelly’s mother) who was still clearly alive in 1794. Sackville died the same year. Alfred lived to 1812; he had been promoted to the position of Judge at Gya but had returned home in the early 1800s in ill-health, and had never fully recovered. He was only 47-years of age when he died. Both Sackville and Alfred’s resting place is a shared grave in the church at Hothfield in Kent, where his ancestors, the Earls of Thanet, have their seat.

Portrait of Nelly O'Brien by Joshua Reynolds, c.1762-1763.
Portrait of Nelly O’Brien by Joshua Reynolds, c.1762-1763. © The Wallace Collection

In September 1809, almost 41 years after Nelly’s death, a gentleman named Edward Jeremiah Curteis wrote to Alfred Tufton, who had been detained in London due to illness. There had clearly been some conversation between the two, and Alfred had been under the illusion that his long-dead mother, who he hardly recalled, had died around the time of Sackville’s birth.

Mrs Curteis, Edward’s wife or mother, recalled that:

your mother did not die until about the period of Lord Tufton’s marriage, which was more than two years later than you suppose – she was then great with child and the probable cause of death was grief and vexation at the marriage and desertion of the Earl of Thanet.

She went on to say that the earl had been persuaded to marry by his family, but before that, he had previously taken a ‘small but elegant’ and admirably furnished house in Brook Street for his mistress (which Lady Thanet went to see incognita). A Mrs Toke had told Mrs Curteis that Lord Thanet had snubbed Nelly in public which ’caused chagrin and mortification to such a degree as that a miscarriage ensued, and that having miscarried a third infant she died in childbed’.

It’s possible that Nelly had been pregnant again, but her third child was Stanley, born a year before her own premature death. Mrs Curteis’ memories had possibly become confused.

Sources not mentioned above:

George Selwyn and his contemporaries, with memoirs and notes, vol. 1, John Heneage Jesse (1843)

Correspondence of the Curteis family of Windmill Hill, Battle, East Sussex Record Office, AMS 5995/5/8

The Diaries of a Duchess: extracts from the diaries of the first Duchess of Northumberland (1716-1776), edited by James Greig (1926)

National Archives wills: PROB 11/1247/21 and PROB 11/939/51

The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, vol 82, part 1 (1812)

The letters of Horace Walpole (ed by J Wright), 1842

We would like to thank the staff at the City of Westminster Archives for confirming the record of Nelly’s burial for us.

A Time Traveller’s Adventure: As a Guest at the Opening of Norfolk House

Today we welcome the lovely historian, writer and blogger, Anna Thane to our blog. Anna is the host of the blog ‘Regency Explorer‘ so if you haven’t taken a look at it, then we would highly recommend you take a peek at it, she has some fascinating information on there.

Imagine yourself a time traveller. It’s 10 February in 1756 in London. You are invited to a major event: The opening of Norfolk House, the London home of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk. Your hosts, Edward and Mary Howard, have just finished redecorating their house and are eager to present it to high society.

The_Duchess_of_Norfolk_in_1737
Mary Howard, Duchess of Norfolk. 1737, by John Vanderbank

Here are 6 tips to make your evening a success.

  1. Dress to impress the “In” Crowd

A party at Norfolk House is a splendid affair. Mary and Edward entertain only the crème de la crème of high society.

One might sooner be a knight of Malta than qualified for them,

wryly notes author Horace Walpole (1717 –1797).

Dress in your most fashionable attire. Male time travellers should choose a richly decorated coat and matching waistcoat, breeches and silk stockings. Female time travellers will be envied by all other ladies when wearing a dress with a wide panier.

gown
1750s gown, on display at the Museum of London

waistcoat
Splendid Waistcoat, on display at Hereford House

  1. Ignore the sticklers

Upon approaching Norfolk House, 31 St. James’s Square, you find the street a bustle of carriages, servants and guests. Countless torches lighten the way to the location. They also illuminate the new facade of the house. It looks austere. ‘Not fit for a Duke’, you hear some of the arriving guests mumble.

Don’t listen to them. These people obviously have no idea of architectural trends. The façade of Norfolk House was built in the style of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio: Tasteful, and the height of fashion!

  1. Don’t be afraid of ‘Mylord Duchess’

You enter the hall of Norfolk House and continue upstairs to the principal storey. Here, your hostess will greet you. Mary is said to be intelligent and forceful. Horace Walpole even calls her ‘My Lord Duchess’ – safely behind her back.
Mary’s reputation as ‘Power Woman’ is based on two aspects: She is more active in society than the Duke, and she has a keen interest in politics. As a matter of fact, Mary is the mastermind behind the political success of the family. In the early 18th century, the Dukes of Norfolk had Jacobite sympathies and played an active part in the affairs of the House of Stuart. Mary, however, realised that the Duke of Norfolk’s future is with the Hanoverians. Under her influence, her husband has been a loyal supporter of George II. for the past two decades.

When you meet the formidable Duchess, prove yourself worthy of her invitation by showing countenance and composure. If you want to ingratiate yourself with her, you can pay her a clever compliment. For example, congratulate her on the embroidered chair covers in the rooms. This will be received well, as Mary, an accomplished needlewoman, did many of the chair covers at Norfolk House herself.

  1. Mind your step

Mary, the driving force behind rebuilding Norfolk House, has spared no costs to decorate the interior in the latest fashion, Rococo splendour. Everything is magnificent and tasteful.

You can join in the “Oh” and “Ah”, but don’t get carried away and forget your manners. It’s vulgar to gawp, and you wouldn’t want to find yourself the object of Horace Walpole’s caustic comment on society: You would have thought there had been a comet, everybody was gaping in the air and treading on one another’s toes”, he wrote about the opening party on 10 February in a letter.

Music Room

  1. Boast with insider knowledge

A party is only fun when you know at least some of the guests. Being a time traveller, you are at a disadvantage: You don’t know anybody. How to make contact?

Apply a trick: Join a group of guests and remark that Norfolk House reminds you of famous Holkham Hall in Norfolk.

You can’t go wrong with this: Norfolk House and Holkham Hall were built by the same architect: Matthew Brettingham. – Okay, William Kent was in charge of building Holkham Hall, but Brettingham was his assistant. His architectural taste was formed there, and he derived most of the Palladian detail of Norfolk House from Holkham Hall (add this as additional information).

As you obviously are in possession of insider knowledge about the high society, people will consider you as a part of the ruling elite and thus worth being talked to.

  1. Be cosmopolitan and liberal

Mary and Edward are Roman Catholics, and they head one the most high profile recusant families of England. Being Catholic means that Edward can’t take his seat in the House of Lords. Nevertheless, Mary and Edward use their position as high-ranking peers to promote religious tolerance.

1755 Fan english
Mary, the charming hostess and a born diplomat, is totally at her ease at entertaining both catholic and protestant nobility. Her formula for success: cosmopolitanism. Nothing about her is ‘Popish’. Her talk is clever, and her political ideas are well balanced. Under her influence, the protestant ruling élite loses their suspicion of Roman Catholics.

Be smart, follow her lead, and help laying the fundament of religious tolerance. Besides, you will find many budding political talents among her guests, and most of them will be very influential in the decades to come. Wisely network: Your cosmopolitan attitude can secure more invitations to glorious 18th-century parties.

 

Sources

Alice Drayton Greenwood: Horace Walpole’s world – A sketch of Whig society under George III.; G. Bell and Sons: 1913

Clare Haynes: Of Her Making: The Cultural Practice of Mary, 9th Duchess of Norfolk; in: Tulsa Studies in Women’s’ Literature 31(1):77-98, March 2012

Matthew Kilburn: Howard [née Blount], Mary, duchess of Norfolk (1701/2–1773), noblewomen in: Oxford dictionary of National Biography: 2004.

Robert L. Mack: The Genius of Parody: Imitation and Originality in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century English Literature; Palgrave Macmillan: 2007.

Horace Walpole, John Wright, George Agar-Ellis Dover: The letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford: including numerous letters now first published from the original manuscripts; in six volumes; volume 3 (1753-1759); London: 1840.

British History Online, Survey of London, Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Covent Garden Market (1726), Pieter Angillis from the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Hannah Norsa, 18th century actress: the intricacies of relationships within her circle

To many people the life of Hannah Norsa, the first Jewish actress to take to the London stage, is unknown, but she was another of the stars performing at Drury Lane, so we simply had to tell her story, especially as it interweaves with the lives of other well known theatre folk of the period.  We are also delighted to have found some new information to add to what was already known about her.

Hannah Norsa by R. Clamp, after Bernard Lens (III), stipple engraving, published 1794; National Portrait Gallery
Hannah Norsa by R. Clamp, after Bernard Lens (III), stipple engraving, published 1794; National Portrait Gallery

Hannah Norsa appeared on the stage for the first time on 16th December 1732 in the part of Polly Peachum in the Beggar’s Opera, following in the footsteps of Lavinia Fenton who had bagged herself a Duke as a lover following her tenure in the role.

Miss Norsa was the daughter of Isaac (or Issachar) Norsa, an Italian Jew from Mantua in northern Italy who, in 1717, was living in Brydges Street in Covent Garden where he co-owned the Green Cannister tavern with his brother Abraham. Prior to that, from 1713, Isaac had owned the Cocoa Tree Chocolate House on the south side of Pall Mall. In 1722, the two brothers took over the Punch Bowl Tavern in Drury Lane which they were still owners of in 1736 at Abraham’s death and so Hannah grew up around the Covent Garden theatres. Isaac also seems to have operated as a warehouseman in Covent Garden, possibly in the capacity of a tea merchant, in the 1730s and he died in 1748, being buried in a ‘handsome manner’ at the Jews Burial Ground at Mile End.

Hannah’s mother was most probably Esther de Aharon de Chaus who married Ishac de Jehosuah Norca (Isaac) at the Bevis St. Mark’s Synagogue in January 1714; she died in 1738 and was buried in the same cemetery that Isaac was to be laid to rest in a decade later.

Covent Garden Market (1726), Pieter Angillis from the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Covent Garden Market (1726), Pieter Angillis from the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Hannah, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen years of age when she took to the stage if her parents had married in 1714,  captivated just as much in the role of Polly Peachum as Lavinia Fenton had done, and in other roles for just over three years before she was taken off the stage by Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford from 1745 and son of Britain’s first Prime Minister, with whom she lived as his mistress until his death in 1751. He intended to marry her once his current wife would conveniently die and leave the way clear; unfortunately, this lady outlived her husband, putting paid to that scheme but Hannah lived at Houghton Hall in Norfolk with him, in every way but one his wife.  Hannah also occupied a small house at Stanhoe near King’s Lynn owned by Walpole.

Hannah gave Robert one son, born illegitimately and who must have died young as no mention is found of him subsequently.  This son, named Robert for his father, was born on the 12th August 1740 and baptised a month later on the 11th September at St. Margaret’s in Westminster, the register recording Hannah’s surname incorrectly.

Robt s: to the Rt Honble Robt Ld Walpole by Hannah Horsah

In Memoirs of a Royal Chaplain, 1729-1763; the Correspondence of Edmund Pyle, D.D. is the following letter from Barbara Kerrich, wife of the Rev. Samuel Kerrich, to her spinster sister, dated 18th October 1749:

 To tell you ye truth I made Mrs Norsa a vissit first my Lord ask’d me several times very kindly, I believe it was taken well, for she soon return’d it, I wouldn’t tell you of my Vissit because I didn’t know what you wou’d think of it, for I don’t know but it might be cutting a bold stroke, She is a very agreeable Woman, & Nobody ever behav’d better in her Station, She have every body’s good word, and bear great Sway at Houghton, She is every thing but Lady, She came here in a Landau & Six horses & one Mr Paxton a young Clergyman with her.

 Barbara Kerrich’s sister Elizabeth Postlethwayt replied nine days later, saying:

 I think you cou’d not well avoid making a visit to Mrs Norsa without disobliging my Lord and ’tis a thousand pityes a Lady that can behave so well should fail in so great a point.

Horace Walpole wrote of being at Vauxhall Gardens in 1750 and inviting from the next box there ‘my brother Orford . . . with his Norsa’.  An encounter with Hannah’s father was also recounted by Horace Walpole; he had been present at the trial of the rebel Jacobite lords in 1746 as his brother, Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford, auditor of the Exchequer, had a gallery which ran along the side of the court at Westminster. Walpole was amused by the sentence by the prisoners peers of ‘Guilty, upon my honour’ and wrote that he ‘was amused too, with old Norsa, the father of my brother’s concubine, and old Jew that kept a tavern . . . I said ‘I really felt for the prisoners!’ Old Issachar replied, ‘Feel for them! Pray if they had succeeded, what would become of all us?’

 Horace also wrote on the 26th June 1747 about the fashion for men of fortune to keep an actress as a mistress.

 This Lord [Lord Luxborough] keeps Mrs Horton the player; we keep Miss Norsa, the player; Rich, the harlequin, is an intimate of all, and to cement the harlequinity, somebody’s brother (excuse me if I am not perfect in such genealogy) is to marry the Jewess’s [Miss Norsa’s] sister.

Vauxhall Gardens by Canaletto (via Wikiart)
Vauxhall Gardens by Canaletto (via Wikiart)

Robert Walpole’s will, written less than two months before his death, is very short and to the point. He appoints Lord Walpole his son his sole executor and hopes he will take the advice of his uncles Edward and Horatio Walpole in the execution of it, he leaves £200 per year to a Robert Robertson for the term of his life, to his servants a years wage and asks that Lord Walpole will ‘take care that Mrs Norsa have her judgment well served to her.’ Walpole died in debt and some reports say he had squandered a £3000 legacy which Hannah had received from her father and which she had loaned to him.

Portrait of Robert Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford (1701-1751) by John Theodore Heins (via Wikimedia)
Portrait of Robert Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford (1701-1751) by John Theodore Heins (via Wikimedia)

Hannah, after Walpole’s death and pursued by his creditors, took refuge for a while in the house of John Rich. Rich (1692-1761), who invented the art of pantomime, was a former libertine, actor and manager of the Covent Garden Theatre. He had been reformed by his third wife, Priscilla Wilford, who had herself previously been on the London stage, performing under the name of Mrs Stevens, before that having worked as a barmaid and waitress at Brett’s Coffee-house in St. James’s Square; all three of Rich’s wives had been actresses.

Priscilla had lived with John Rich as his housekeeper and mistress for some years before he married her in 1744 whilst continuing to act for his company. She converted to Methodism, shunned alcohol and any form of licentiousness and transformed her hard living husband. In 1747 the following was written about John Rich:

 Mr R__h, to be sure, has been a great Libertine in his Time, and much given to the Flesh; but now, Glory be to G_d for it, the manifestation of the Proverb is happily come to pass in him, viz.

Never too late to mend: And tho’ he has been to blame heretofore, yet Solomon and David were much addicted to Women. And if Mr R__h hath err’d and stray’d in that point, yet he is now like the lost Sheep that is found: He hath now turn’d the Brothel into a Temple, and he kneeleth to pray where he hath kneel’d heretofore to ____.

Photolithograph of the actor-manager John Rich as Harlequin, carrying his slapstick, from an etching of 1753. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Photolithograph of the actor-manager John Rich as Harlequin, carrying his slapstick, from an etching of 1753. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

John Rich, when he died, left his wife Priscilla as joint manager, while she remained a widow, of his Covent Garden theatre along with his son in law John Beard. If Priscilla was to remarry she was to be replaced by her brother, Edward Wilford.

The whole set was well known to the actress George Anne Bellamy, a contemporary of theirs. She says that Hannah Norsa (who she names as Miss Nassau) was the intimate friend of Priscilla during her time on the stage and that it was Priscilla who advised her friend to place herself under the protection of Walpole. 

Priscilla’s brother, Edward Wilford had a dual career, that of a clerk in the Exchequer office (under Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford) and also employed at the Covent Garden theatre both as a pit doorman and in the theatre treasury.  On the 23rd July 1746, he married Rachael Norsa, sister of Hannah, at Roehampton in Surrey. A newspaper article announcing the marriage stated that Rachael’s father was the Earl of Orford’s steward and that she was possessed of a considerable fortune coupled with great beauty (Horace Walpole’s letter of 1747 above indicates that his knowledge was a little out of date!)

Rachael might have been the ‘Little Miss Norsa’ who appeared with her brother ‘Master Norsa’ on the London stages in the mid 1730s, both of these two appearing at a Covent Garden benefit performance for Hannah on the 29th April 1735 and also being part of the company of ‘Lilliputians’, comprised mainly of the children of London actors. Priscilla again was responsible for this union between her brother and the sister of her friend according to George Anne Bellamy, knowing that, as Walpole was Auditor of the Exchequer, she was ensuring that her brother would gain a fortune from the places within his gift.

The marriage produced two sons, Richard Rich Wilford born c.1754 and George John Wilford and by 1756 the family was living in New Palace Yard in Westminster.   The back windows of their house looked out onto the back windows of a house on the neighbouring Bridge Street occupied by a Mr John Berkley, the two being very close together. This gentleman, who was a clerk in the Exchequer alongside Mr Wilford, had been introduced to Mrs Wilford by her husband and they began to visit one another when Edward Wilford was from home, often signalling to each other that the moment was an opportune one by means of a candle placed in their respective back garret windows. Mr Berkley had, on occasion, had to escape from the Wilford’s back garret window when the master of the house came home unexpectedly, from which he was able to climb to his own garret window.

Westminster Hall and New Palace Yard by Thomas Sandby (attributed to) (c) Palace of Westminster;
Westminster Hall and New Palace Yard by Thomas Sandby (attributed to) (c) Palace of Westminster

On another occasion, he had to run down to the kitchen and hide in the coal hole. All this was testified to by Ann Hipkin, one of the Wilford’s house servants, at a hearing for a divorce bill which Edward Wilford brought against his wife. Ann Hipkin also told of hearing both the noise of the easy chair in the back parlour and some ‘expressions of her mistress’ emanating from the room whilst she was in there with Berkley which led to her belief that ‘her Mistress was then in the Act of Adultery with Mr. Berkley.’ Mary Nash, another of the servants, gave similar evidence.

Edward Wilford had, at last, become aware of his wife’s infidelities and turned her out of the house on the 10th March 1758. She never returned there. At a ‘criminal conversation’ trial, Edward Wilford was awarded damages of £500 and John Berkley petitioned that this was an excessive amount as his salary only amounted to £50 a year, but the decision stood. Wilford petitioned the House of Lords for a divorce to be granted, which would enable him to marry again, and this was heard in 1759 although it does not seem to have been finalised.

John Berkley was living in Westminster in 1768 and still of His Majesty’s Exchequer, when he made his will, being weak in health, leaving all to his dear wife Ann Berkley, making no mention of Rachael. He died shortly after.

By the 1770s Edward Wilford was living in a house in Ranelagh, Chelsea with his widowed sister, Priscilla Rich. In September 1776 the two were out taking the air in their phaeton near their Chelsea home when an empty brick card drawn by four horses and with two men driving them at a furious rate collided with them, taking a wheel off the phaeton and overturning it, throwing out the two occupants. Priscilla Rich dislocated her arm and the cart passed over Edward Wilford’s body leaving him badly bruised and with blood pouring from his nose, mouth and ears. He was expected to die but managed to pull through. One of the men driving the brick cart was sentenced to a year in Newgate in an attempt to deter others from committing a similar offence.

Hannah Norsa, from the Lewis Walpole Library
Hannah Norsa, from the Lewis Walpole Library

Priscilla died in 1783, leaving £100 of bank stock to the Theatrical Fund established at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden; her brother Edward, her executor, when carrying out her wishes gave an equal donation from his own pocket. In her will, written in 1778, she also left ten guineas to her old friend Hannah Norsa (stated as of Brompton Road at that date) for her to buy a mourning ring to remember her by; Rachael was not mentioned but Priscilla was obviously still well disposed to Hannah.

In 1766 Hannah Norsa, describing herself as a spinster, was living in Rotterdam in Holland, by 1769 she was back in England, living on Bridge Street in St. Margaret’s Westminster (where John Berkley had lived) and she died in August 1784 at Brompton Row in Kensington. She left a considerable fortune in her will (proven 29th October 1784), giving rise to speculation that she had kept the £3000 she had received from her father safe from Walpole’s debts and from his creditors. Edward Wilford was called to her lodgings on the morning after her death and it was he who took possession of Hannah’s paperwork and testamentary documents, taking them back to his house at Chelsea. In Hannah’s will, her sister is still described as the wife of Edward Wilford. Edward himself died in July 1789 at his Chelsea home. At the time of his death, he was Chief Clerk to the Auditor of the Receipt of his Majesty’s Exchequer and Clerk of the Debentures.