Elizabeth Linley: The Sensational Life of a Georgian Woman

Elizabeth Linley was a famous singer in the late eighteenth century, not only for the remarkable music abilities of her own family, dubbed the Nest of Nightingales, but also for the tumultuous marriage to the playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan.[1] Despite both of their connections to Bath, which I have visited a view times now, I hadn’t heard of them until recently. The BBC programme Britain’s Lost Masterpieces featured a painting, supposedly of her, painted by the famous Georgian portrait painter, and a personal favourite of mine, Joshua Reynolds. That programme showed a story of celebrity not unlike those known today.

Thomas Gainsborough, Elizabeth and Mary Linley (c.1772), Dulwich Picture Gallery via Art UK

Elizabeth was one of twelve siblings born to Thomas and Mary Linley, most of whom were musically capable, a trait they had clearly inherited from their father. Thomas was a famed harpsicord player and a musical director at the Bath Assembly Rooms. Elizabeth’s brother, Thomas Junior, was compared to Mozart, and her sister, Mary, was also an accomplished singer. For Elizabeth herself, she made her public debut at the age of twelve, a very young age to be performing, but with her elder siblings already in the spotlight, it was seen as normal for the Linley family. The family’s pre-eminence in Bath was noted by painter, Thomas Gainsborough, who bad become friends with the family after moving to Bath in 1759.[2] Between the late 1760s and 1789, he had painted a number of portraits of the family, including one of Elizabeth and Mary (see above image), which was altered later on, as Mary had been unhappy with the original version.[3]

With her beauty and talent, Elizabeth became sort after by many suitors. In 1769, when she was sixteen, Elizabeth’s parents had betrothed her to Walter Long, a man who was around sixty. This engagement was ended in 1771 when Elizabeth claimed she was in love with another. Walter paid £3,000, or around £270,000 in today’s money, to Elizabeth’s father and let her keep the jewels and gifts he had already given her.[4] At the same time, a married family friend, Captain Thomas Mathews, had been harassing Elizabeth for a while by trying to force her to become his mistress. He tried any tactic he could from threatening her reputation to threating to commit suicide if she continued to ignore his advances.[5] The playwright, Samuel Foote wrote a play called The Maid of Bath about the situation. The play, which opened in Haymarket, London, in 1771, insinuated that Elizabeth’s engagement had been called off because she had had an affair with Mathews.[6] The only thing that was accurate about the play was the depiction of Elizabeth as a mixture of spirited and dutiful, but this was also a popular trope for heroines at the time.[7]

Hubert von Herkomer (after Joshua Reynolds), Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1880), Russel-Coates Art Gallery & Museum via Art UK

The situation with Mathews, alongside the popularity of The Maid of Bath, only appeared to make Elizabeth’s worries grow. She confided with her friends, Lissy and Betsy Sheridan, the sisters of her future husband. Between them, they concocted a plan for their brother, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, to escort her to France, where she could stay until she became of age.[8] Whilst on their way, Sheridan admitted his feelings for Elizabeth and the pair were married in a village near Calais in March 1772. As this was a Catholic ceremony, the marriage was not deemed legal under English law, meaning that when the couple were persuaded to return to England, they were not seen as married.[9]

Both Elizabeth and Richard’s family didn’t accept the match and were forced apart. However, Sheridan did leave love notes at a grotto in Bath for her to find, but it’s uncertain whether she ever saw them.[10] Captain Mathews was also unwilling to give up his feelings for Elizabeth and challenged Sheridan to a duel over her. This was fought in London and Sheridan won, with the demand that Mathews retract an unflattering article he had published about Sheridan in the newspapers.[11] That was not to be the last duel as Mathews failed to keep his side of the bargain and spread rumours that it was him that had one the previous duel, not Sheridan. The second duel was fought just outside of Bath. Sheridan was injured and when reports later came about the outcome of the duel, stories were told that he had been saved from death by a miniature of Elizabeth.[12]

Sheridan still didn’t give up in his pursuit for love. When he came of age in October 1772, he followed Thomas Linley around, begging him to let his daughter marry him. He even went to nearly every, if not every, concert hall Elizabeth performed at to pester for her hand in marriage.[13] Elizabeth and Sheridan were finally able to marry in London on 13 April 1773 but it would not be the happy ever after you would expect. After their marriage, Sheridan refused to let his wife perform for fear of his own reputation if she continued. Instead, she helped her husband to write his play, The Rivals, which premiered in January 1775, which was only fair when Elizabeth’s dowry had helped pay for Sheridan’s theatrical ambitions.[14] Eventually Elizabeth was allowed to perform for exclusive functions, but this was mainly to pay for the enormous debts her husband had racked up.[15] Sheridan also began to have numerous affairs, which Elizabeth was aware of. In retaliation, she also had affairs, which produced an illegitimate daughter, as well as the legitimate children she had with Sheridan.

Thomas Rowlandson, Comforts of Bath, Plate 2 (1798), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elizabeth was known to have suffered bouts of ill health throughout her life, many of which were reported to a public who were eager to have any update possible about the celebrity couple. These became even more sort after when she had all but retired from public life after a stillbirth in May 1777 and the death of her brother, Thomas, in a boating accident in August 1778.[16] She finally died from tuberculosis on 28 June 1792 at the age of 38 at Bristol Hot Wells, where she had moved to from London for health reasons. She was buried alongside her sister, Mary, at Wells Cathedral.

Whilst Elizabeth’s life may have been short, there is no denying that it had been eventful. Both her and her husband, Richard, showed that whilst we understand celebrity as a relatively modern phenomenon, it did have its infancy in the Georgian period. Many of the celebrities of the day were of musical and theatrical backgrounds, just like Elizabeth, her family, and her husband. A plaque dedicated to her can still be seen at 11 Bath Crescent, where she had lived before her marriage. When I go back to Bath later on in the year, I will now look on it with a better understanding and appreciation for the woman who it commemorates.


[1] Dulwich Picture Gallery, ‘Elizabeth and Mary Linley’, https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/explore-the-collection/301-350/elizabeth-and-mary-linley/

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] ‘Elizabeth Ann Sheridan nee Linley’, https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/elizabeth-ann-sheridan-nee-linley/

[5] Brewer, David A. (ed), The Rivals Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Polly Honeycombe George Colman the Elder (Ontario, Canada: Broadview Editions, 2012), p. 36

[6] Ibid, p. 36; ‘Elizabeth Ann Sheridan nee Linley’, https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/elizabeth-ann-sheridan-nee-linley/

[7] Aspden, Suzanne, ‘”Sancta Caecilia Rediviva” Elizabeth Linley: Repertoire, Reputation and the English Voice’, Cambridge Opera Journal, 27.3 (2015), p. 265.

[8] The Bath Magazine, ‘Duelling for the Love of Eliza’, https://thebathmagazine.co.uk/duelling-for-the-love-of-eliza/; Brewer, David A. (ed), The Rivals, p.  36.

[9] Brewer, David A. (ed), The Rivals, p.  37.

[10] The Bath Magazine, ‘Duelling for the Love of Eliza’, https://thebathmagazine.co.uk/duelling-for-the-love-of-eliza/

[11] Ibid; Brewer, David A. (ed), The Rivals, p.  37.

[12] The Bath Magazine, ‘Duelling for the Love of Eliza’, https://thebathmagazine.co.uk/duelling-for-the-love-of-eliza/

[13] Ibid

[14] ‘Scandal in the Making’, https://georgianjunkie.wordpress.com/tag/elizabeth-linley/

[15] ‘Elizabeth Ann Sheridan nee Linley’, https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/elizabeth-ann-sheridan-nee-linley/

[16] Ibid

Review of The Smuggler’s Daughter by Kerry Barrett

This book tells the story of two women trying to bring two smuggler gangs operating in Cornwall to justice; the first the teenage Emily Moon in 1799, the second Phoebe Bellingham in 2019. Both cases have their parallels, but to help solve the 2019 case, Phoebe has to figure out what happened to Emily Moon. Legend says she plunged from the cliff and her ghost still haunts the cliffs next to the pub she and her family once lived in. How true was this and how did it link to the present day case of smuggling? Of course, I won’t give you spoilers, but I hope that gives a bit of flavour to what the premise of the book is, without giving too much away.

I haven’t really read much historical fiction lately, so I must admit I was intrigued by the concept of the book, even if the main reason I chose it was because it reminded me of Poldark. There were a few reservations about it at the beginning, including the idea of having parallel timelines. Whenever I watch TV shows with that concept, I must admit, I do get quite confused with it at times. However, this book manages to keep it simple yet gripping at the same time. It certainly helps that the chapters are fairly short, so you don’t forget what’s happening in the other timeline. This also helped the reader to feel anticipation as to what was coming next, whilst also making it feel fast paced. Another reservation I had was about how much violence would be mentioned. Personally, I can take a bit, but I don’t like anything too gratuitous. I was happily surprised to find that other than at the beginning, there wasn’t much. Most of it was inferred rather than actually described, which I feel suited my tastes well. I will warn you that there are inferences of rape though, so just be careful of that.

After these initial reservations, I relaxed into the story and once I had, I found it really gripping and extremely hard to put down! The easy writing style helped with this enormously, but I also feel like the writer provoked a personal response from the reader. I know I certainly had one and just couldn’t wait to find out the fate of both the main characters and whether the bad guys were brought to justice or not.

For me, the best part was the character of Emily Moon. A girl who has only ever known the coastal village she lives in, struggles to talk and is viewed by her village neighbours as simple. She is far from it. At times, she is a silent observer, but is often helped by her drawing skills and her best friend, Arthur, who is really her childhood sweetheart. All this makes Emily a heroine with a difference, as her steely determination is often looked over by other characters in the book, but is clearly evident to the reader. Emily is a definite contrast with Phoebe, the modern day heroine.

Phoebe, originally from London, moves to Cornwall with her friend, Liv, to help run the pub Emily once lived in. She made the move after she was signed off from her job as a police officer following a particularly harrowing case. After hearing the local legends about Emily, she decides to discover more about her. Phoebe herself is very much affected by what had happened in London, so sees Emily as a way to cope with what has happened and to keep herself occupied. It is this that I feel ties both parallel timelines together. It also leaves the reader finding more about both Emily and Phoebe at the same time.

The ending does come to a satisfying conclusion, for both Emily and Phoebe, although there are a few surprises. To some extent, not all of them are total surprises, they are more logical conclusions. For that reason, the ending is definitely believable and I was very sad to finally come to an end of the book. I feel that’s always a sign of a good book, which this one definitely is! The author herself describes how she wanted to write a cross between Jamaica Inn and Line of Duty. I personally feel she has achieved that. It successfully mixed the gripping nature of Line of Duty with the smuggling and historical setting of Jamaica Inn. If there are any TV producers out there looking for the next thing to adapt, I would totally recommend this story.

The History of Christmas Cake

Whilst writing this, I’m listening to Bing Crosby Christmas songs, with the Christmas lights switched on. An unusual choice for a 26-year-old, you may think, but for me this has a personal connection. A running joke in my family was that my beloved grandad looked like the Crooner, so I always like to listen to him as it feels grandad is still here, despite him no longer being with us. Just in case you haven’t get it yet, I love Christmas, but I don’t like the tradition Christmas cake, Christmas pudding or mince pies. Whilst I don’t, everyone else in my family does. Our kitchen has smelt very Christmassy for the last month whilst my mum has been busy baking Christmas cakes for our family and friends. I’m sure lots of your houses will be filled with the treat too, whether homemade or store brought. It got me wondering of how Christmas cake has become a tradition at Christmas time.

Samuel Collings, Christmas in the Country (1791), Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

Up until the Industrial Revolution, Christmas was celebrated between 6th December and 6th January as the cold weather meant little work could be done in the fields. Presents were given, but usually to mark the beginning, St Nicholas’ Day and the end, Twelfth Night, also known as Epiphany. Boxing Day was usually the day presents were given to servants.[1] As the present giving was spread out, food was one of the largest part of the celebrations. Food that could be made ahead of time and served cold were popular as they could keep for season.[2] Food with fruit in was one of the flavours most preferred, as these usually kept longer.

Originally the flavouring we now associate with Christmas cake came in the form of a plum porridge, which was made to line people’s stomachs at Christmas aver a time of religious fasting over Advent.[3] This porridge was added to over time to include other fruits and honey, so much so it resembled something closer to a Christmas pudding.[4] From the sixteenth century, the oats became replaced with flour and eggs, which meant it took on the consistency of a cake. Spices were also becoming more available at this time, which were meant to represent gifts offered to baby Jesus by the three wise men.[5] Richer families also began to add lots of decorations made from sugar and marzipan to the cake to show they could afford it.[6]

Whilst this does sound more like the Christmas cake we recognise today, it was still not quite the same. It was made from the leftovers of all the puddings eaten over the Christmas period and was elaborately decorated with icing and figurines.[7] As Twelfth Night was celebrated by whole households the cake the centrepiece of the feast. It was shared by everyone, including servants. Both a dried pea and dried bean were placed into the cake and whoever found them would be the King and Queen for the day, no matter what social standing they had normally.[8] This tradition had largely disappeared by the Georgian times, but Twelfth Night cake was still eaten.[9]

George Cruickshank, Frontispiece to a set of Twelfth-night characters, showing a Cossack and Napoleon in front of a Twelfth Night Cake (c. 1813), © The Trustees of the British Museum

By the time of the Industrial Revolution, Twelfth Night itself was mostly a bygone thing. Most people had moved to live in cities, with little time to celebrate Christmas for a whole month, has had gone before. Instead, Twelfth Night became Christmas Day, as that was the day most people had off work.[10] From this, the Twelfth Night cake became known as the Christmas cake. In the 1870s, Queen Victoria officially banned Twelfth Night as she feared any celebrations that did occur would become too out of control and potentially riotous.[11] Thus the Christmas cake would finally be cemented to Christmas.


[1] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[2] Ibid

[3] Great British Bake Off, History of the Christmas Cake, https://thegreatbritishbakeoff.co.uk/history-christmas-cake/

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Leach, H. M. and Inglis, R., ‘The Archaeology of Christmas Cakes’, Food and Foodways, 11.2-3 (2003), p. 146; ‘Christmas Cake’, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/christmascake.shtml

[8] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[9] Ibid.

[10] ‘Christmas Cake’, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/christmascake.shtml

[11] Jane Austen Centre, ‘A History of Twelfth Night Cake’, https://janeausten.co.uk/blogs/desserts/twelfth-night-cake

Gift Ideas for History Lovers: My Top 5 History Reads of the Year

It can be hard to know what to get the history lovers in your life when it comes to Christmas, especially if, like me, they’re interested in more than one period. If you need a bit of inspiration this year, then here’s a list of my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.

Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery, by Julia Golding

Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for Jane Austen fans of all ages. A teenage Jane Austen turns supersleuth when mysterious goings-on happen at Southmoor Abbey, where she has been sent to be a companion of Lady Cromwell for a week. It’s written in a very entertaining way and is a satirical version of a Gothic novel, full of many hints of the real Jane which will be recognised by hardened fans. It’s also a good way to introduce younger readers to the world of Jane Austen. This has definitely been one of my favourite books and I found it quite hard to put down! If you would like to know a bit more, I recently wrote a review for Love British History, which can be found here.

The Real Falstaff: Sir John Fastolf and the Hundred Years War by Stephen Cooper

This book places the Hundred Years War in the context of John Fastolf, the man Shakespeare used as inspiration for his Falstaff character. It successfully blends military history and social history with the personal life of John Fastolf. It gives you a great understanding of how Fastolf fit in and influenced the world around him until his death in the 1450s, including a focus on the homes he built for himself. All in all, a very interesting read and shows just why Fastolf isn’t recognised enough.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe

In this book, Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of the legendary Chief Sitting Bull, tells the real story of his famous ancestor. This is a biography with a difference. It’s written in the traditional style of Lakota oral history. This makes it read very differently to other books, but feels true to the person of Sitting Bull. It also makes it easy to read. Again this is up there with one of my favourite books of all time as it is full of emotion but is also education in the respect it shows just how complicated history has portrayed Sitting Bull. I wrote a review of this earlier in the year, so please do take a look here if you’re interested.

Before the Crown by Flora Harding

This is another fiction book, but this time an adult one. I was recently given this by a friend as a gift, so I would definitely recommend gifting this one. It tells the story of how Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip fell in love during the war and the lead up to their wedding on the 20th November 1947. Whilst this isn’t my usual time period, my friend obviously remembered that I have a personal connection to the Queen’s wedding day as my mum was born on the exact same day. I feel this has captured a young Elizabeth and Philip well and is also a very easy read. This would definitely be a good choice for any Royal fan!

Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis

Again this isn’t my usual time period, but I read this mainly because I have been a regular visitor to the Louvre, but was unaware of the troubles the museum had had during the Second World War. Whilst this is a non-fiction book, it does read more like an action or thriller story as the museum staff risked their lives to protect the treasures in their care. Again this makes it an enjoyable read and really focuses on the individuals involved and their sacrifices, as well as the personal achievements and recognition they had after the war ended. I recently wrote a review of this, which can be found here.

Cleveland Pools, Bath: The Oldest Outdoor Swimming Pool in Britain

Bath is a wonderful example of Georgian period architecture. I visited for the first time for a long weekend in 2019. We were meant to be going back last year for a full week but with the pandemic, will be going in September instead. The city has had a long association with water an bathing. The Romans occupied the city and named it Aquae Sulis, meaning the Waters of Sulis, a British goddess who the Romans identified as a version of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and battle strategy.[1] The site is one of the most complete Roman bathing complexes in the world, so it’s no wonder that it’s now part of a World Heritage Site.

Roman Baths in Bath, 2019 (Author’s Own Image)

The city’s waters were still a huge draw for people in the Georgian era. During this time, doctors were advising their patients to take bath in mineral rich waters for medical reasons. The Pump Rooms were a place to receive medical treatment, but also a place for those in fashionable society to be seen. However, despite the city’s rich and long heritage with bathing, I had no idea until recently that that Cleveland Pools existed, despite it being the UK’s only surviving Georgian era open-air swimming pool.[2]

Building on the Bath’s reputation for its water, as well as the banning of nude bathing in the River Avon in 1801, it was decided to build a subscription pool for swimming in.[3] The design was meant to reflect the Georgian style most prominent in the area, which explains the crescent shape of the original changing rooms. It looks like a mini version of the famous Royal Crescent on the other side of the River Avon to the Pools.[4] It was built in 1815 and was originally marketed as a place for the ‘gentleman of Bath’.[5] It is believed that the pool, along with the caretaker’s cottage, were built by a local builder called Newton, following a design created by local architect, John Pinch.[6] Water originally pooled in from the River Avon which was located next to the pools.[7]

Royal Crescent, Bath, 2019 (Author’s Own Image)

The pool was remained quite popular and after much demand, a ladies pool was added following renovations in 1827, including a perpetual shower bath, although I’m not quite sure what one of those is.[8] The appeal to families continued well into the Victorian period, when the pool was once again expanded to include a children’s pool.[9] It was certainly a place to go during for the Victorians as in 1867, a man named Mr W. Evans was in charge and he sought to teach swimming at the pools, as well as having entertaining gala parties with his pet baboon.[10]

Sadly though, the popularity of Cleveland Pools was not to last. It went through many hands from the end of the nineteenth century through to the late twentieth century. This is probably why it still remained largely subscription run, other than for a brief period in 1901 when entry was free.[11] Finally in 1984, it closed as the competition with indoor pools became too great. Following closure, it was briefly turned into a trout farm.[12] When this ended, it was left in a state of disrepair.

Cleveland Pools, Bath, from river side of lower pool, Rwendland (2010), Wikimedia Commons

In 2003, it was put up for sale by the Local Council, who then owned it, at the same time it was placed on English Heritage’s At Risk Register.[13] In 2004, the Cleveland Pools Trust was established to try and save the building. In 2006, Cleveland Pools’ listed status was upgraded from Grade II status to Grade II*.[14] Grade II buildings are classed as those of national importance and of special interest, whereas Grade II* buildings are classed as ones of specific importance that are of greater importance than those in Grade II.[15]

Thankfully, that is not the end of Cleveland Pools. After 17 years of campaigning for recognition and money for restoration, the Trust was given money back in Spring. It received £4.7 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.[16] Building work also started in the Spring, and it’s hoped that people will be able to swim there from 2022. It is somewhat of a hidden gem and I hope that this lovely and important site finally gets the love it once had. I hope that I will be able to visit when the site is fully renovated and brought up to scratch again.

If you would like to know more about Cleveland Pools, do take a look at their website, where they post updates on how the building is going. Check it out here.


[1] Bath’s Historic Venues, Roman Bath’s History, https://www.bathvenues.co.uk/roman-baths-history

[2] Visit Bath, Cleveland Pools, https://visitbath.co.uk/listings/single/cleveland-pools/

[3] Historic Pools of Britain, Cleveland Pools, Bath, https://historicpools.org.uk/member_pools/cleveland-pools-bath/

[4] Historic Pools of Britain, Cleveland Pools, Bath, https://historicpools.org.uk/member_pools/cleveland-pools-bath/

[5] Historic Pools of Britain, Cleveland Pools, Bath, https://historicpools.org.uk/member_pools/cleveland-pools-bath/

[6] English Heritage, Cleveland Baths, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1396146

[7] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

[8] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

[9] Visit Bath, Cleveland Pools, https://visitbath.co.uk/listings/single/cleveland-pools/

[10] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

[11] Historic Pools of Britain, Cleveland Pools, Bath, https://historicpools.org.uk/member_pools/cleveland-pools-bath/

[12] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

[13] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

[14] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

[15] British Listed Buildings, What Are Listed Buildings, https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/site/about-listed-buildings/#.YOHja-hKhPY

[16] Cleveland Pools, https://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill

As someone whose first interest in history was the Wars of the Roses, I first came across Horace Walpole through his book Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III, in which he defended the reputation of Richard, including denying popular views that he murdered his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Horace was the rather eccentric son of Britain’s first prime minster, Robert Walpole. He was a historian, collector, social and political commentator, writer, and author. He is perhaps most well known for writing the first gothic novel, and for leaving behind around 7,000 letters, and an account of the historical items in his collection at Strawberry Hill, his house in Twickenham.[1] Strawberry Hill itself is one of the earliest examples of Gothic Revival architecture and reflects Walpole’s interest in the medieval. The unique house was a source of fascination to the polite middle classes who were becoming interested in the country houses of the rich. However, this was not how the building began its life.

Horace Walpole by John Giles Eccardt (1754), © National Portrait Gallery, London

As a younger son, Horace didn’t have his own country seat to use as a summer residence and he looked for the perfect place to convert into one. In 1747, he acquired the site in Twickenham, when it was as a rather ordinary late-seventeenth century cottage called Chopped Straw Hall.[2] It came with 5 acres of land but before long, it expanded to include 46 acres.[3] The beginning of the transformation into the building Horace wished was initially low key. The first mention of any connection to the Gothic was mentioned in a letter from Horace to a friend on the 28th of September 1749, where he mentioned about creating battlements.[4] From then on, the Gothic architecture would be developed by the ‘Committee of Taste’, including Walpole and two of his friends, John Chute and Richard Bentley. Chute had met Walpole on the Grand Tour around Europe and owned his own Tudor Gothic home in Hampshire, whereas Bentley created the drawings and plans based on Walpole and Chute’s ideas.[5] These ideas were mainly inspired by Gothic features seen elsewhere.

E. Rooker, Strawberry Hill near Twickenham (1774), British Library

The rooms created for Strawberry Hill were purposefully created to be an exaggerated and theatrical version of the classic Gothic architecture seen in the medieval period.[6] The style created was from Walpole’s imagination, but had elements that were recognisable as Gothic. It meant that a more theatrical version of the Gothic was created for the brash Georgian era. As what we now call Gothic Revival was in its infancy, there was not yet any set rules for the style. Walpole’s version of this was certainly theatrical and reflected the uniqueness of the objects he collected.[7] The building work, not including the contents, cost £21,000, around £925,000 in today’s money, so it was a rather expensive renovation project.[8]

The collection that was created at Strawberry Hill was a rather random collection almost in the style of a cabinet of curiosities but were collected by Walpole to create a museum to England’s history and heritage, especially time periods that were not seen as fashionable at the time.[9] The Georgians very much focused on items from ancient civilisations like Rome or Greece, but Walpole’s focus was very much on the medieval, right through to the Stuarts in the previous century. Some of the treasured items in his collection included locks of hair of Edward IV and Mary I, a hat that once belonged to Cardinal Wolsey, a comb of Mary Queen of Scots and a watch of George II.[10] The way these items were displayed and described were based on a mixture of “provenance, description, association and imagination”, possibly saying more about Walpole than the items.[11] Despite the criticism this has brought Walpole, both in his own time and now, there is no doubting that he tried to widen the circle of what was worthy to study as history.

Print from: A description of the villa of Mr. Horace Walpole, youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole Earl of Orford, at Strawberry-Hill near Twickenham, Middlesex: with an inventory of the furniture, pictures, curiosities, & c. Strawberry-Hill, printed by Thomas Kirgate, 1784, Rijksmuseum

To create the museum like home he wanted, it was essential for Strawberry Hill was open to the public to see the collections. This is where Walpole’s selectively anti-social behaviour really shone through. Whilst he was open to hosting foreign ambassadors, royalty, and aristocracy, it was the middling classes he found rather annoying.[12] In a letter to Sir Horace Mann dated 30th of July 1783, he wrote of the many visitors coming to Strawberry Hill, which meant he was “tormented all day and every day by people that come to see my house”.[13] He was especially peeved by the visitors who came as an escape from the illnesses circulating in London, suggesting “You see the plague! You are the plague.”[14] In a list of visitors kept for Strawberry Hill between 1784 and 1797, it shows that when the house was open between May and September, around 300 people a year viewed the house.[15]

The tour around the house is not self-guided as we would understand from a county house visit today. They would have been shown round by the housekeeper on a set route. Walpole was often known to hide under his bed when the housekeeper showed groups around.[16] Despite the aggravation these visitors caused, the house was never shut to visitors during Walpole’s lifetime. Perhaps this was partly because these tourists were the reason for his ‘museum’ existing. Instead, he chose to curb their behaviour by only allowing visitors with tickets given out with his signature on to be admitted. From 1784, a page of rules was also given to prospective tourists to ensure they knew the rules they had to follow to gain admittance. First and foremost, anyone applying for a tour would have to give their name and the number in their party, alongside the date they wished to attend. This information would be then given to the housekeeper if Walpole agreed to allow the party around the house.[17] Further rules would also have to be abided by:

  1. The person applying must give at least a day or two’s notice and would only be allowed to be a party of 4 people. Also, only one party to be shown around per day.
  2. The day given on the ticket would be valid for the day shown and if more than 4 people arrived without prior permission, the housekeeper would be allowed to turn them away.
  3. The party could only be shown around between 12 and 3 pm.
  4. No group would be admitted after dinner.
  5. If the ticket couldn’t be used on the date written on it, then prior knowledge must be given so another party could be allowed the opportunity to go.
  6. No children.

These rules may sound strict, but there could be leniency given on all of them other than the no children one, as there was always a strict no children policy.[18]

T. Rowlinson, Temple at Strawberry Hill, from “Sketches from Nature” (1822), Metropolitan Museum

Sadly, after Horace died, the building was left rather neglected and unloved by its owners and the novelty of the building and its contents wore off for visitors, meaning no one really wished to visit as a tourist. As Horace died unmarried, the house went through various distant female relatives. It wasn’t until George, the 7th Earl of Waldegrave inherited it that the building was really hated. He decided to leave the house to ruin and sold off the collection in 1842.[19] It could have ended disastrously for this once unique and popular building if it hadn’t had been for George’s widow, Frances. She had been left a lot of money by George and went on to have another rich husband, meaning she could afford to add extensions to the house in a style like Walpole’s original fantasy Gothic.[20] It is her, alongside the current owners, St Mary’s University College, that we have to thank for the survival of such an unusual, and in my opinion beautiful, building that we can now enjoy.

I have yet to visit Strawberry Hill, but it’s certainly another one to add to my to visit list when things are better and we can travel again. Of particular interest to me is the cottage in the garden that once housed Walpole’s printing press which he used to publish he works from. This printing press was the first one to be privately owned in England, and strangely housed in the only building in the garden that wasn’t built in the Gothic style, instead it was built in traditional Georgian brick. I still wonder what Horace’s thinking was behind that.[21]


[1] Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[2] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination: Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill (Oxon: Routledge, 2016), p. xvii.

[3] Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, Metropolitan Museum Studies, 5.1 (1934), p. 60.

[4] Cited in Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, p. 62.

[5] Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, pp. 63-64.

[6] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination, p. 4.

[7] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination, p. 4; Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[8] Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, p. 60.

[9] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination, p. 4.

[10] P. Bains, ‘”All of the House of Forgery”: Walpole. Chatterton and Antiquarian Collecting’, Poetica, 39/40 (1993), cited in Mack, R., ‘Horace Walpole and the Objects of Literary History’, ELH, 75.2 (2008), p. 374.

[11] Harney, M., Place-Making for the Imagination, pp. 2-3.

[12] Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[13] Cited in Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist: A History of Country House Visiting (London: National Trust Enterprises Ltd, 1998), p. 91.

[14] Cited in Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, p. 91.

[15] Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, p. 92.

[16] Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, p. 92.

[17] Cited in Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, p. 96.

[18] Tinniswood, A., The Polite Tourist, pp. 96 and 98.

[19] Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[20] Strawberry Hill House, https://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/the-house/history/

[21] Lewis, W. S., ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, p. 87.

William and Winifred Maxwell’s Escape from the Tower of London

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (where Protestant William and Mary replaced the Catholic James II as joint monarchs of England, Wales and Scotland) tensions rose within the nobility and people at large, depending on which monarch they supported. At this time large pockets of Scotland in particular were Catholic, meaning they had a natural leaning towards King James. They, alongside others supporting James, became known as Jacobites, so named because it was similar to the Latin for James. This period in history is fascinating to me, not just because I love the Stuarts, but a few years ago during researching our family history, my dad discovered that my mum’s family are descended from James II’s first wife, Anne Hyde. The Glorious Revolution is literally my ancestors having a family fall out.

The tensions finally began to come to a head in late 1715 when forces mustered in the name of James’ son, James Francis Edward Stuart, known as the ‘Old Pretender’. It wasn’t well supported as Louis XIV of France, a previous supporter of the Jacobite cause, had died in September. The Duke of Orleans, who became the Regent took a rather different approach, choosing to instead become friends with the Hanoverians, the Protestant line that had been invited to the English throne following the end of the remaining Protestant Stuarts.[1] Despite this, the forces marched through Cumberland, Westmoreland and Lancashire, until they eventually surrendered in Preston.[2] Amongst them was William Maxwell, the 5th Earl of Nithsdale. He and others were taken to London as prisoners and placed either in the Newgate Prison or the Tower of London. William was taken to the Tower, awaiting execution.

The BL King’s Topographical Collection: “THE TOWER OF LONDON”, British Library

William would probably be forgotten to history if it wasn’t for his wife, Winifred, who’s family had been closely linked to the exiled Jacobite court[3]. She was full of dedication, love and loyalty for her husband. Once news of his capture reached her at the family home in Terregles House, just outside Dumfries. Winifred bravely decided to take the month-long ride down to London through terrible winter weather, including deep snow, alone, other than for her maid.[4] After taking lodgings in the city, she wrote a petition to King George I, asking for clemency, after there was no forthcoming help from other Jacobite supporters. When none of this worked, she even visited the King in person, some sources saying she clung to his robes with her begging.[5] Still none of this worked, and Winifred knew she could only rely on herself and a few close friends to help William escape.

W. B. Blaikie, William Maxwell, Earl of Nithsdale, National Library of Scotland

Planning to escape from the Tower of London was a dangerous thing to do and was fraught with danger. Many had attempted it, but few had successfully managed it. Winifred was willing to play the long game though, and purposefully built up trust with the guards so that she was allowed to visit William regularly. This was a good way to lay the ground for the escape attempt which was scheduled for the day before William’s execution.

Winifred, along with her maid and two friends, were granted a last visit to say goodbye to William when they offered the guards drinking money and began friendly conversation with the wives of the guards.[6] Each of the women had the cloaks of their hoods up and were crying into handkerchiefs every time they left the cell, creating a confusing situation for the guards. It also gave Winifred the time to dress William up in spare women’s clothing that had been smuggled in under the clothing of her friends, and place make up on his face.[7] The funny thing is that William hadn’t had time to shave, so the make up didn’t stick to his face well. However, he was able to leave his cell and get past the guards pretending to be another of the grieving entourage. This was only made possible because Winifred stayed in the cell, pretending to have a conversation with William, and later telling the guards to leave him to his prayers.[8]

Illustration of William Maxwell’s Escape from the Tower of London from T. Archer’s Pictures and Royal Portraits illustrative of English and Scottish History … With descriptive … sketches (1878), British Library

The alarm wasn’t raised until much later after the party had managed to leave the Tower without suspicion. The pair were never caught as William was smuggled out of the country using a carriage with the Venetian ambassador’s coat of arms on, whilst Winifred made the journey back to Scotland to organise family papers and how the estate would be run whilst they were in exile.[9] By the time Winifred made the journey back to Scotland, she was pregnant and sadly after all her hard work, miscarried on the boat over to France to find her husband.[10] They did reunite and moved to Rome, where the rest of the exiled Jacobite court was living. However, despite happily being reunited, their life was still filled with varying degrees of poverty. They were helped with money and things did improve when Winifred became governess to Henry Stuart, the younger brother of Charles Edward Stuart, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.[11]

Winifred Maxwell, Countess of Nithsdale (née Winifred Herbert) from a drawing by C. Kirkpatrick Sharpe, Wikimedia Commons

William and Winifred did continue to be in love, and it is lovely to know that love never wavered, despite imprisonment, rebellion, and poverty. The pair did have two children, William, and Anne, but it is thought there were further miscarriages.[12] William Junior did return to the family home following his father’s death in 1744 and reconciled himself with the Hanoverian regime and continued to tell the tale of his parents’ escape from the Tower of London. This was especially important as his mother continued to live in exile until her own death in 1749.

This story of love is perhaps a rather bizarre one, but I must admit there is something endearing that Winifred was so instrumental in saving her husband’s live, despite the obvious risks she was taking. It’s certainly one I hadn’t heard of until recently and I hope it will continue to live on as one of the stranger parts of the Jacobite Rebellions and the history of the Tower of London. Thank you to Lauren Johnson’s talk on women and the Tower of London for bringing it to my attention. The story of the Maxwells certainly shows that whilst the Jacobite Rebellions is often told from the male perspective, just like Flora MacDonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape following his rebellion, women played an important, if forgotten role during that time.


[1] Burke, S., ‘Women of Merit Connected with Criminal Trials: The Countess of Nithsdale’, The Rose, Shamrock, and the Thistle, 5.25 (1864), p. 50.

[2] Burke, S., ‘Women of Merit Connected with Criminal Trials: The Countess of Nithsdale’, p. 50.

[3] ‘Lady Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/m/winifredmaxwell.html

[4] ‘Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/maxwell-winifred-1672-1749; Burke, S., ‘Women of Merit Connected with Criminal Trials: The Countess of Nithsdale’, p. 50.

[5] Burke, S., ‘Women of Merit Connected with Criminal Trials: The Countess of Nithsdale’, p. 50.

[6] ‘Lady Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/m/winifredmaxwell.html

[7] Davis, J. P., ‘The 5 Most Daring Escapes from the Tower of London’, History Hit, https://www.historyhit.com/most-daring-escapes-from-the-tower-of-london/; ‘Lady Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/m/winifredmaxwell.html

[8] ‘Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/maxwell-winifred-1672-1749; Davis, J. P., ‘The 5 Most Daring Escapes from the Tower of London’, History Hit, https://www.historyhit.com/most-daring-escapes-from-the-tower-of-london/

[9] ‘Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/maxwell-winifred-1672-1749; Davis, J. P., ‘The 5 Most Daring Escapes from the Tower of London’, History Hit, https://www.historyhit.com/most-daring-escapes-from-the-tower-of-london/; ‘Lady Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/m/winifredmaxwell.html

[10] ‘Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/maxwell-winifred-1672-1749

[11] ‘Lady Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/m/winifredmaxwell.html

[12] ‘Winifred Maxwell’, https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/maxwell-winifred-1672-1749

Eleanor Coade: A Little Remembered Georgian Businesswoman

Eleanor Coade was a very unusual woman for the Georgian times, but one I must admit I admire after recently coming across her story. She was a businesswoman in her own right, despite never being married. The business she owned wasn’t traditionally feminine either. She actually owned an artificial stone factory in Lambeth, London, which bore her name. Architecture was an incredibly male dominated industry, although it was common for upper class women to have a say in the decoration of the house they lived in, Eleanor is definitely one of the first I’ve come across who had a practical role. Her business was highly successful and as English Heritage describes the stone her factory produced was “one of the most widely used materials of the 18th century”.[1]

Eleanor was born on the 3rd of June 1733 in Exeter, Devon, to George Coade, a wealthy merchant, and his wife Eleanor. However, the wool trade George largely dealt in was soon in decline and in 1759, the family were forced to relocate to London because of bankruptcy, including s second one in 1769.[2] Perhaps this was what spurred Eleanor to set up her own business, hoping to help the family fortunes. It was certainly a family trait as her grandmother and uncle all ran successful businesses, something which her father had not quite inherited.

An allegory of agriculture: Ceres reclining amidst a collection of farm implements, she holds a sheaf of wheat and a scythe. Engraving by W. Bromley, 1789, after a sculptural panel by Mrs E. Coade. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

By 1766, Eleanor was listed as a linen draper who dealt in linen-based textiles. That business was definitely a success as the insurance for it raised from £200 (around £17,500 in today’s money), to £750 (around £65,500 in today’s money) in just one year![3] Sadly we don’t know her reasons for deciding to give up this business and buy up the failing artificial stone manufactory set up by Daniel Pidcot just 3 years later. Perhaps it was just boredom or a sense of adventure, or maybe she just found it more interesting. Whatever may be the case, it became obvious that she had a flare for running a business and knew what clients wanted. Eleanor alone wouldn’t have been able to afford the purchase, so she must have had help from someone. There are two options for that, her grandmother, Sarah Enchmarch, and uncle, Samuel Coade, as previously mentioned. Eleanor certainly did receive £500 from her grandmother’s will, for she had been a successful textile businesswoman for 25 years herself, following the death of her husband.[4] Eleanor also had close ties with her uncle, Samuel Coade. He had already bailed out his brother, Eleanor’s father, and in his own will, he specifically removed any of Eleanor’s outstanding debts she owed him, alongside providing a house for her in Lyme Regis, Dorset.[5]

With the purchase of the business, it was renamed Coade, and all of the bills were transferred into her name. However, as she was often called Mrs Coade, this has since created some confusion as to whether it was this Eleanor, or her mother that owned the business.[6] At that time, any woman who may have owned a business was customarily called Mrs, whether they were married or not. Despite no longer being the owner, Daniel Pidcot was kept on as a manager, probably to ease transition and to teach Eleanor about the artificial stone trade. This decision, whilst well meant, did come back to bite. In 1770, Daniel published an essay on artificial stone, and claimed that he had recently opened the manufactory, rather than in 1767, and with no mention of Eleanor being the real owner.[7] There was also more problems ahead behind the scenes, as Eleanor publicly retaliated. In September 1771 she published 2 notices about Daniel Pidcot in the newspapers. The first one placed in the Public Advertiser showed who the real owner was:

Whereas Mr Daniel Pidcot has represented himself as a partner in the manufactory conducted by him, ELEANOR COADE, the real proprietor, finds it needful to inform the public that the said Mr Pidcot is no other than a servant to her and that no contracts, or agreements, discharges or receipts will be allowed by her, unless signed by herself.[8]

The other notice publicised that Daniel Pidcot has left her employment and wouldn’t be returning.

Peter Mazell, The Font in Debden Church, Essex (c. 1786), British Library

It seems like the business had a bumpy start, but the success it would later see was all down to Eleanor and her business choices. Whilst the formula used for the artificial stone wasn’t invented by her, as it was based on much older ones, but she certainly altered it. The formula (although the exact one was a secret) roughly consisted of clay, flint, fine sand, glass and grog, clay that had already been fired and then ground into a powder. The particular type of clay used was purposefully sourced from Devon and Dorset, where Eleanor’s family came from, meaning this was probably the part she altered.[9] The added glass gave the stone it’s weatherproof quality, and it was this that made Coade stone so popular, especially for outdoor decoration.

The designs created at the manufactory were mainly bespoke, although there were some pieces that could be replicated due to the use of moulds. Most of these designs were crated by the sculptor and chief designer, John Bacon, but Eleanor did do her own designs, as some were exhibited at the Society of Artists.[10] A lot of these were mainly interior decorations, as she was interested in interior, as well as exterior design. The generic designs including things such as statues, plaques and even chimneypieces to name a few.[11] Whether an indoor or an outdoor piece, they were always stamped with COADE to make sure no one ever forgot who made them.[12]

Keith Evans, Britannia Monument at Great Yarmouth, Wikimedia Commons

The popularity of her pieces began to increase, and Eleanor made a smart move by opening a showroom in 1798. This was located in a popular area near to Westminster Bridge, which was closer to her upper-class clients. The showroom showcased some of the company’s best pieces, as well as generic items to give clients an idea of what was on offer. The showroom also produced a booklet that took them on a guided tour through Coade designs and listed places where previous commissions were, ranging from country houses, to public places, even places abroad, such as Russia, South Africa and Brazil.[13] Sadly by 1817, fashions had changed and large commissions were no longer in fashion and the showroom was forced to close, but instead it was replaced with better advertising.[14]

Despite changing fashions, nothing could detract from the amazing commissions the company had already fulfilled. These included the Britannia sculpture for the Nelson Column in Great Yarmouth, the gate piers of Strawberry Hill, a candelabra for the Prince of Wales (future George IV) at Carlton House, and a gothic font and screen at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle to name a few.[15] This is not an exhausted list as the commissions were many. With the amount of time that has passed, we cannot name how many, but English Heritage has claimed that there are over 650 surviving Coade stone examples around the world.[16] Including a few tombs, most notably William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, who was buried in the same churchyard as her 20 year business partner and distant cousin, John Seely.[17]

Linwood, J., Tomb of Vice-Admiral William Bligh, St Mary’s Churchyard, Lambeth, Wikimedia Commons

In a world where women were not necessarily the first choice of business owner, Eleanor did remarkably well. I think it’s a shame that her name is not well known, despite the obvious success she enjoyed in her lifetime, despite being in a male dominated working environment. I hope this post has done a little to change that. Eleanor herself must have realised her own influence somewhat as following her death aged 88 on 16 November 1821, her will gave much of her estate away to charitable causes. Most of the beneficiaries of her will were single women. 3 married women were mentioned, but the will stipulated that the money given to them was not to be taken by their husbands.[18] Perhaps that is Eleanor’s great legacy, that she was, and hopefully still is, a great example to women about what they can achieve if only they put their minds to it.


[1] English Heritage, ‘Eleanor Coade’, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/women-in-history/eleanor-coade/

[2] Knowles, R., What Regency Women Did for Us (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2017), p. 16.

[3] Knowles, R., What Regency Women Did for Us, p. 16.

[4] Major, J. and S. Murden, A Georgian Heroine: Eleanor Coade, https://suewilkes.blogspot.com/2017/12/a-georgian-heroine-eleanor-coade.html

[5] Knowles, R., What Regency Women Did for Us, p. 17.

[6] Knowles, R., What Regency Women Did for Us, p. 17.

[7] Knowles, R., What Regency Women Did for Us, p. 18.

[8] Cited in Major, J. and S. Murden, A Georgian Heroine: Eleanor Coade, https://suewilkes.blogspot.com/2017/12/a-georgian-heroine-eleanor-coade.html

[9] Knowles, R., What Regency Women Did for Us, p. 18.

[10] Knowles, R., What Regency Women Did for Us, pp. 19-20.

[11] Kelly, A., ‘Furnishings from the Coade Factory in Lambeth’, Furniture History, 10 (1974), p. 68.

[12] Major, J. and S. Murden, A Georgian Heroine: Eleanor Coade, https://suewilkes.blogspot.com/2017/12/a-georgian-heroine-eleanor-coade.html

[13] Knowles, R., What Regency Women Did for Us, p. 22; English Heritage, ‘Eleanor Coade’, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/women-in-history/eleanor-coade/

[14] Knowles, R., What Regency Women Did for Us, p. 23.

[15] Knowles, R., What Regency Women Did for Us, p. 20 and 24.

[16] English Heritage, ‘Eleanor Coade’, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/women-in-history/eleanor-coade/

[17] Knowles, R., What Regency Women Did for Us, p. 23 and 27.

[18] Knowles, R., What Regency Women Did for Us, p. 20 and 25.

Christian Davies: First Woman to be Paid an Army Pension in her Own Right

Female veterans were officially accepted into the Royal Hospital at Chelsea in 2009 but there was one who arrived in the 1730s. Her name was Christian Davies and she certainly had a story to tell. She lived a life that wasn’t available to most women of the eighteenth century and quite a lot of it was spent on the battlefield. The idea of war would have been known to her as she was born in 1667, the English Civil War would have been within living memory. Her protestant father had also supported James II during the Williamite War in Ireland, dying from wounds following the Battle of Aughrim in July 1691.[1] At some point after the death of her father, she went to live with an aunt who ran a pub and it would be this move that set her life on a very different path.

Whilst living with her aunt, Christian fell in love with a servant at the pub by the name of Richard Welsh. They were married and ended up having 3 children together. Their life together seemed rather ordinary until during the last pregnancy, Richard disappeared without a trace. It turned out he had been signed up for the army and shipped off to the Netherlands to fight. A letter was sent home by him explaining that he had been drunk and had woken up on a ship surrounded by other soldiers on their way to war.[2] There would have been a social stigma attached to Christian if word had got out her husband had abandoned her, regardless of the real facts. Rather than face the sad situation, she left her children with her mother and made the rather unusual choice to join the army herself and find Richard. Whether her intention was solely to find her husband or to use his disappearance as an excuse to find the opportunity for adventure, we’ll never know, but whatever those reasons, her choice to join the army herself was an incredibly brave one.[3]


Kit Cavenaugh, aka Mother Ross and Christian Davies (1706), from the Scottish Military Historical Society

Christian changed her name to Kit Cavanagh and became a rather skilful soldier, fighting in both the Nine Years War and the War of Spanish Succession. The first battle it is known she fought at was the Battle of Landen in July of 1693, where she was wounded and taken prisoner by the French.[4] She was released in a prisoner swap a year later but her secret was still not known. How Christian managed to keep her gender a secret for upwards of 13 years is a miracle, especially considering some of the situations she found herself in. She fought a duel with a sergeant in the same regiment for attacking a young woman in hopes of defending the woman’s honour.[5] The sergeant was killed and she was dismissed but soon after reenlisted in the Royal North British Dragoons, which later became the Scots Greys.[6] As if that wasn’t awkward enough, a prostitute later claimed that Kit Cavanagh was the father of her child but instead of telling the truth and decrying the other woman as a liar, Christian instead paid for the baby’s maintenance.[7] The bizarre situations the imposter found herself in didn’t stop there. In a biography later published in 1740 following her death, which claimed to have come from her own words, Cavanagh said she managed to fool the rest of her regiment into believing she was a man by using a tube with leather straps to pee through.[8] If that part was true, it shows how much effort she put into her disguise and possibly how stupid the other men around her were.


L. Laguerre, The Battle of Malplaquet (Tanières), 1709: The Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene Entering the French Entrenchments, Wiki Commons/Art UK

Following the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, Christian finally found Richard after she was put in charge of some French prisoners. Richard was getting flirty with a Dutch woman and Christian’s anger showed her true identity. Begging to still remain a soldier, Christian insisted the pair act as brothers.[9] It was not until a more serious injury of a fractured skull from the Battle of Ramillies that the truth was discovered by an army doctor. Instead of instantly sending her home, the regiment’s commanding officer recognised Kit’s bravery and allowed her to keep her pay until she was fully recovered, then would be allowed to stay as a camp follower as a soldier’s wife.[10] This situation continued for 3 years until Richard was finally killed at the Battle of Malplaquet on the 11th of September 1709.

The army life still called to her and Christian decided to stay following the Scots Greys. This led to a brief relationship with a Captain Ross, hence the nickname Mother Ross, and a 3 month marriage with a man called Hugh Jones, before he died also.[11] The wandering life never left her even when she returned to Ireland. She owned many pubs but never settled on one, despite her third and final marriage. Despite her return to a somewhat normal life, Christian remained a celebrity from her life in the army, so in some ways the army had never left her. She was presented to Queen Anne and received a £50 and 1 shilling pension from her, besides a separate pension from the Duke of Marlborough.[12] In her final years she was accepted as a pensioner at the Royal Chelsea Hospital and died there on the 7th of July 1739, later to be given a funeral with full military honours.[13]


The Royal Hospital, Chelsea: viewed from the Surrey bank with boats on the river. Coloured engraving. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Whilst there is debate as to whether the posthumous biography on Christian Davies, under the name of Kit Cavanagh, used her own words, it does certainly shed light on life in an army camp at that time.[14] It became a go-to book on women’s experience of war during the early part of the eighteenth century, which was often overlooked at the time.[15] Yet there is a more complex context behind it than who’s words were used to create this biography. It did one of two things; help promote nationalism for men and women at a time of further conflict during the Anglo-Spanish War and the War of Austrian Succession and celebrated a woman who was able to defy the typical gender roles that were expected of her.[16]


[1] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, 1682-2017 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2019), p. 192.

[2] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 193; Broderick, M., Wild Irish Women (Dublin: O’Brien Press, 2012).

[3] Traynor, J., ‘The crossdresser from Dublin who tricked the British Army’, The Irish Times, 27 June 2018, https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/abroad/the-crossdresser-from-dublin-who-tricked-the-british-army-1.3544764

[4] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 193.

[5] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 194; Broderick, M., Wild Irish Women.

[6] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 194.

[7] Broderick, M., Wild Irish Women.

[8] Broderick, M., Wild Irish Women.

[9] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, pp. 194-195.

[10] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 195.

[11] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 196.

[12] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 196; Broderick, M., Wild Irish Women.

[13] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 196.

[14] Lynn, J. A., ‘Essential Women, Necessary Wives, and Exemplary Soldiers: The Military Reality and Cultural Representation of Women’s Military Participation (1660-1815)’, in Hacker, B. C. and Vining, M. (eds), A Companion to Women’s Military History (Leiden: Brill, 2012), p. 127.

[15] Lynn, J. A., ‘Essential Women, Necessary Wives, and Exemplary Soldiers’, p. 127.

[16] Bowen, S., ‘”The Real Soul of a Man in her Breast”: Popular Opposition and British Nationalism in Memoirs of Female Soldiers, 1740-1750’, Eighteenth-Century Life, 28.3 (2004), p. 20; J. Wheelwright, ‘”Amazons and Military Maids”: An Examination of Female Heroines in British Literature and the Changing Construction of Gender’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 10.5 (1987), cited in Bowen, S., “The Real Soul of a Man in her Breast”, p. 21.

Jane Austen During World War One

Jane Austen is one of Britain’s most well-known and best loved authors. Alongside Dickens, she is definitely my favourite author. There is something happy and uplifting about her novels. It also helps that you can find lots of other things to fill your Austen need. You can so easily find sequels, academic articles, merchandise, virtually anything related to Austen or her novels. Admittedly this ‘Austenmania’ started in the 1990s with a number of TV and film adaptations, with Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice being the one that comes to mind the most. However, this type of fame has been hard come by and the beginnings of it certainly didn’t come into force until the late nineteenth century.

Jane_Austen_1870
Engraving of a young Jane Austen based on a sketch by Cassandra Austen from James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1870 Memoirs, Wikimedia Commons

The term ‘Janeite’ that is usually given to Jane Austen fans was only invented in 1894 by George Saintsbury, a writer and literary historian.[1] Whilst this was nearly 80 years after the author’s death, this was mainly due to her unpopularity in the Victorian period. To the Victorians, Jane Austen’s novels didn’t conform to their ideals as her heroines were “ungenteel” and they often made fun of the clergy.[2] It was only after the publishing of her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s biography of his little known aunt in 1870 that her image began to change to a domestic woman, reflecting Victorian expectations of femininity.[3] Whilst this helped to increase Jane’s popularity, it was only seen in a select group of people. The types of people known to be Janeites at this time were mainly men, which is surprising as contemporary society views Austen’s fans as largely women. These men were largely publishers, professors, novelists and other literati, including Montague Summers (novelist and clergyman), R. W. Chapman (editor of Jane Austen’s works) and E. M. Forster.[4] The status of these admirers meant that they flaunted the idea that they were part of a select cult who viewed her works as miracles that were above that of authors who others read.[5]

With the outbreak of the First World War, ideas on reading began to change. The National Home Reading Union’s Annual General Meeting just three months after the start of the war invited Michael Sadler, a recognised educationalist at the time to be a guest speaker. In his speech he suggested that reading was needed to keep “minds fresh and sane” and that reading “good fiction” would do this.[6] This appeal applied to those at home and on the front lines. The speech was then published and distributed to many soldiers’ camps to know this also applied to them.[7]

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John Warwick Brooke, Highland Gas Sentry Reading a Letter from Home, National Library of Scotland

Reading fiction became a part of war life as it was an easy way to distract and provide entertainment but also bolstered patriotic sentiments.[8] The patriotic feeling this brought was by an increased understanding of what British culture was and what was at risk. To some, reading books was just as important as letter writing to loved ones back home as it helped to “overcome perceived boundaries between home and battle fronts” and helped maintain pre-war identities and interests.[9]

For Jane Austen’s novels, they often became a lifeline for fighting soldiers. Siegfried Sassoon was one of many who would have read Austen during his time in the trenches.[10] It’s claimed that Pride and Prejudice was the most read of all books by soldiers during the First World War.[11] There may be some truth in this as Austen and Dickens were the main authors prescribed by doctors to wounded soldiers and those suffering from shell shock.[12] Perhaps these choices were made because by the time of the First World War, Jane Austen had come to represent Englishness that soldiers were fighting for and helped give a nostalgic view that England had remained unchanged from the past which was seen in these Georgian era novels.[13] Unfortunately, those serving in the trenches were living a very different reality of war than George Wickham’s militia regiment. Surely though it would have made some difference of distraction to those who were bored or injured.

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C.E Brock, ‘Love and Eloquence’ from Macmillan’s 1895 edition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, British Library

The 6 novels of Jane Austen may have even been read out in groups. Reading in the trenches had to be more informal than people at home as it had to fit around active service.[14] To ensure this happened many charities were set up to send mainly donated books to the front lines. These included the Camp Libraries, Red Cross Library, St John’s War Library Committee and Worker’s Educational Association, who between them sent active and wounded soldiers, as well as prisoners of war.[15] Jane Austen’s books would have been included in these as ensuring that soldiers read good quality fiction was seen as a way of stopping them from seeking unacceptable entertainment elsewhere, particularly in taverns and brothels.[16]

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World War One: Islington Public Library used as a hospital ward. Photograph by Langfier Ltd., 1916. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Regardless of the reasons why Austen was given to soldiers to read, there is no doubting the unity a love of the author can bring, either today or in the past. This was something Rudyard Kipling knew in his story The Janeites he wrote about a group of WW1 soldiers who found solidarity over their love of Jane Austen. The story was published in May 1924 in an international magazine called Storyteller. The men purposefully named a loud gun Lady Catherine de Bugg as a joke about the infamous Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice.[17] The idea for the story came from a visit Kipling took to Bath in 1915 and from his time researching the history of his son John’s regiment, following his death in the First World War.[18] Following his son’s death, Kipling read aloud all of the Austen books to his family, using it as a tool for solace, just as many of the soldiers on the front also did.[19]

Just as we today often read Jane Austen as a source of refuge and distraction from difficult times, so did the soldiers having to endure the hell of the trenches. I only hope that it really did offer the comfort they craved and helped to be a defence against the war environment around them.[20] What is certain is that the popularity of reading books during the First World War had been vital for helping soldiers and civilians alike. By the end of March 1919, Britain had sent 16 million books to the front.[21] The Red Cross alone had sent 2.8 million donated ones and 1.2 brought ones to fill these frontline libraries.[22] Even on the Homefront the amount of patronage for public libraries increased.[23] Jane Austen’s works would have played a part in this. As William Dean Howells notes, Austen “has not yet died” because of her enduring popularity and this is even more the case during WW1 as it helped those in their time of extreme need and possibly even in their own dying moments.[24] No wonder that at the time she was seen as a redemptive figure who was part of England’s bygone glory and a symbol for a soldiers duty to protect it.[25]

[1] Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), p. 8.

[2] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2013), pp. 22-23.

[3] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 23.

[4] Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, p. 8.

[5] Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, pp. 8-9.

[6] Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort: The National Home Reading Union During the First World War’, First World War Studies (2015), p. 2.

[7] National Home Reading Union, ‘Work Among the Troops’, HRM, XXVI, no. 4 (Jan 1915) cited in Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 2.

[8] J. Potter, Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women’s Literary Responses to the Great War, 1914-1918 (2005) cited in Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 2.

[9]  Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, pp. 9-10

[10] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24.

[11] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24.

[12] Sutcliffe, M., ‘Reading at the Front: Books and Soldiers in the First World War’, Paedagogica Historica (2016), p. 5.

[13] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24; Roper, M., ‘Nostalgia as an Emotional Experience in the Great War’, The Historical Journal, 54.2 (2011), p. 441.

[14] Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 10.

[15] Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 11.

[16] Sutcliffe, M., ‘Reading at the Front’, p. 5.

[17] Fullerton, S., Happily Ever After, p. 24.

[18] Lewis, L. and Kieffer, G., ‘The Janeites’, http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/rg_janeites1.htm

[19] Lewis, L. and Kieffer, G., ‘The Janeites’, http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/rg_janeites1.htm

[20] Roper, M., ‘Nostalgia as an Emotional Experience in the Great War’, p. 439.

[21] Sutcliffe, M., ‘Reading at the Front’, p. 4.

[22] British Red Cross, What We Did During the War, https://vad.redcross.org.uk/en/What-we-did-during-the-war

[23] A. Ellis, Public Libraries and the First World War (1975) cited in Liebich, S., ‘Reading as War Effort’, p. 2.

[24] William Dean Howells cited in Johnson, C. L., Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, p. 8.

[25] Johnson, C. L., ‘Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures’ in Copeland, E. and McMaster, J. (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 239.