1814: A house by the Hudson

William’s house in New York stood on a prominent knoll in the north-western corner of the city area, between the Bloomingdale Road and the North or Hudson River.

The road dropped to the north into a valley where the settlement of Manhattanville straddled a small stream. To the west a long wall of cliffs stretched above the shoreline of New Jersey on the far side of the river. Woodland, fields and orchards spread from the road’s eastern side across the Kingsbridge Road towards Haerlem Creek, the village of Haerlem and the Haerlem River. Southward the road ran for a few miles through farmland and then more densely populated areas until it reached the heart of the city and became Broadway.

This is the area where the battle of Haerlem Heights was fought in September 1776 when George Washington led his forces to victory over the British troops who were occupying New York. In the summer of 1814 Great Britain and the USA were again at war but now the positions were reversed: it was Americans who were seeking to protect their city against attack from land and sea by British forces. ‘Patriotic Citizens’ were labouring day and night to complete a line of defences from Haerlem Heights around to Sandy Hook on the New Jersey shore.

The plan for the defences had been devised by a military survey team led by brigadier-general Joseph Gardner Swift. The new works were ‘chiefly constructed by the labour of the Citizens of the City of New York, Long Island, and of the neighbouring Towns near the North River, and in New Jersey. All classes volunteering daily working Parties of from Five to Fifteen Hundred Men. The Fortifications are testimonials of Patriotic zeal.

At the end of the year Swift submitted his report to the Committee of Defence which had been set up by the Common Council of the city. As well as a ‘large and elegantly finished Map of the Haerlem line’, the report included surveys, maps and views both large and small. One of the views features William’s house, suggesting how it may have looked from the south.

Hudson house (2)

The stone tower in the foreground was incorporated into the line of defences and became known as Fort Horn in honour of major Joseph Horn, the militia officer who supervised the works at Haerlem Heights. On the left, above the tower, is a steamboat on the Hudson, perhaps one of those designed by Robert Fulton who lived in New York with his wife Harriet and their children.

Courtenay and Fulton had been acquainted for more than twenty years. As his friend Cadwallader D. Colden noted, Fulton on his first visit to England ‘spent two years in Devonshire, near Exeter’. James Renwick, a member of Swift’s 1814 survey team, was more forthcoming: the young American, who had trained as a painter, lived for that time at Powderham in the castle ‘filled with masterpieces’, ‘occupied in copying the pictures it contains’. In Renwick’s account, when William arrived in New York ‘Suspected and accused of an infamous crime, his birth and title, which have in many other instances served as passports even for vice and frivolity to American hospitality, did not avail him, and every door was closed against him except that of Fulton.’

On the Military Sketch of Haerlem Heights and Plain, drawn for Swift’s report by captain James Renwick, William’s house is marked simply as Courtnay but at some time the property became known as Claremont. In The New York of Yesterday, his history of Bloomingdale, Hopper Striker Mott tells how the trader Michael Hogan named the house ‘after the royal residence at Surrey of Prince William, Duke of Clarence, afterwards King William IV’, but this story cannot be wholly true as the Claremont in England was not Clarence’s house and he did not live there. Extended, adapted and perhaps rebuilt by the Post family later in the 19th century, the Claremont in New York became a popular eating-house which survived until 1951 when the building was destroyed by fire during demolition.


Historical and topographical writers gushed appreciation of Claremont and its setting: ‘an elegant country mansion, upon a most desirable spot’ (Benson J. Lossing); ‘of noble proportions and ample space, with portico, halls and windows, where there is ever abundance of light and air admitted’ (Matilda Despard); ‘The superb view from the knoll on which the mansion stands is surpassingly lovely’ (Hopper Striker Mott); ‘The spacious building bears witness to the enlarged ideas and ample means of the projector, while his taste in selection of locality is amply testified by the grand view which is afforded from every point.’ (Abram C. Dayton).

It’s clear from the maps in Swift’s report that William’s house stood just outside the city’s new defences. From the east to the stone tower above the river there was ‘a line of intrenchments with faces and flanks, crossing the Bloomingdale road to a commanding height on Mark’s grounds, and running along its summit to the bank of the North River, which falls abruptly and nearly perpendicularly to the water’s edge.’

The defences were never put to the test. British forces shifted their attention south to Chesapeake Bay, Washington and Baltimore. In December a peace treaty was agreed at Ghent between the two countries but it was several weeks before news of this crossed the Atlantic, and fighting continued in Louisiana where American forces won a famous victory in January 1815 at the battle of New Orleans.

Swift completed his final report to the Committee of Defence on 31 December 1814. Unable to find the document in 1889 when he was preparing his local history of New York and Vicinity during the War of 1812-’15, R. S. Guernsey sent a letter to the prolific author Benson J. Lossing who replied:

‘I have General Swift’s Report of the Fortifications on Manhattan Island in 1812-15, accompanied by many drawings of them, maps, etc.,etc.

‘When I was preparing my ‘History of the War of 1812-15,’ I found in the garret of the Hall of Records, in the City Hall Park, this report, covered thickly with dust and cobwebs and among papers mutilated by mice. I called the attention of Mr. Valentine, then Clerk of the Common Council, to the report, and asked for the privilege of taking it home with me for use. It was granted, with the additional privilege of keeping it as long as I please. ‘It will be safer in your hands than left to the careless custodians of it, as you see how they neglect such things,’ said Mr. Valentine.’

After a loan of nearly 30 years Lossing returned the report which was then deposited with the New York Historical Society. Guernsey included a transcript of Swift’s verbal text in his history, along with the view of Courtenay’s house. The whole report is now available online, finely presented by the New-York Historical Society.

Images from the top

The map and watercolour come from Swift’s report, pages 19 and 24:



The oil painting of the Claremont dates from around 1855 and is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of New York: Accession Number 54.90.169.

1811: A noble lord absconds

Two hundred years ago, in the first weeks of the Regency, John Hepburn and Thomas White were executed in London.

Hepburn, in his forties, was an army officer; White, just 16 years of age, a drummer in the Guards. They had been arrested after the police raid on the White Swan public house in Vere Street, tried and found guilty of buggery. The Prince Regent declined to grant them pardon and on the 7th of March 1811 the two men were hanged in public before a large crowd of spectators. One of the Regent’s brothers, the duke of Cumberland, was there along with lord Sefton, lord Yarmouth (son of the Regent’s married mistress, lady Hertford) and ‘several other Noblemen’. Lord Courtenay was not in their company: William by that time was safely far away from England.

Later in the same month, at the court of assize in Exeter Castle, the Grand Jury of the county of Devon indicted a pair of local men for committing a felony at Powderham in December 1808: ‘that detestable and abominable crime (not to be named among Christians) called Buggery’. On the 16th of March the sheriff of the county was commanded to:

‘take the said William Viscount Courtenay and William Fryer if they shall be found in his Bailiwick and them safely keep so that he may have their bodies before the Justices of our said Lord the King assigned to hold the next assizes’.

The judge sir Alan Chambre, sheriff Arthur Champernowne and members of the Grand Jury all knew that William Courtenay, even if arrested, could not be tried by a jury of commoners at a court of assize. As viscount Courtenay, he was a member of the peerage of Great Britain and, until 1948, British peers charged with a felony were tried by their peers in the House of Lords at Westminster. Such trials did not happen often: there had been only two since 1760 when earl Ferrers, found guilty of murder, was hanged.

Felonies were divided into two classes. Some, such as bigamy and manslaughter, were ‘clergyable’. A peer found guilty of such a crime would pay a fee and escape any further punishment. This happened in 1765 with baron Byron of Rochdale and again in 1776 with the duchess of Kingston.

Other felonies such as treason, rape and murder were ‘not clergyable’. For these the sentence was invariably death, although a peer found guilty might later be pardoned: after the Jacobite uprising of 1745, king George II pardoned one of the four Scottish lords found guilty of treason. Buggery was another felony ‘not clergyable’.

In 1811 the House of Lords intervened before the summer session of the Devon assizes. At parliament in Westminster on Thursday the 13th of June Jacob Pleydell-Bouverie, earl of Radnor, said that he proposed to ‘move for the copy of an indictment against a Noble lord who had absconded’. Lord Ellenborough, the Lord Chief Justice, observed that ‘much difficulty would obtain in respect to his Lordship’s motion, for want of a precedent’.

The difficulty had been overcome by the following Tuesday when the Lords ordered that the ‘Bill of Indictment, found by the Grand Jury of the County of Devon, at the last Assizes, against William Viscount Courtenay, for a Felony not clergyable, be removed before this House, and that a Writ of Certiorari be issued under the Great Seal for that Purpose’.

John Follett, the Clerk of the Assizes of the Western Circuit, duly delivered the bill of indictment ‘with all Things touching the same’ and on Friday the 12th of July 1811 ‘the same was read’:

‘The Jurors for our Lord the King upon their Oath present that The Right honourable William Lord Viscount Courtenay late of the Parish of Powderham in the County of Devon not having the fear of God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil on the twelfth day of December in the forty ninth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord George the third by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland King Defender of the Faith with force and arms at the parish aforesaid in the County aforesaid in and upon one William Fryer then and there being feloniously did make an assault and then and there feloniously wickedly Diabolically and against the Order of nature had a venereal affair with the said William Fryer and then and there feloniously did carnally know him the said William Fryer and then and there feloniously wickedly diabolically and against the order of nature with the said William Fryer did commit and perpetrate that detestable and abominable crime (not to be named among Christians) called Buggery Against the form of the Statute in such case made and provided and against the Peace of our said Lord the King his Crown and Dignity’

Just as John Hepburn had been charged with ‘consenting & permitting’ Thomas White to commit the crime of buggery with him, so William Fryer was charged with consenting to an ‘assault’ by William Courtenay. That is, in both cases the two men had been having consensual sex with each other.

The bill of indictment continues with the charge against William Fryer:

‘And the Jurors aforesaid upon their Oath aforesaid do further present that the said William Fryer late of the Parish aforesaid in the County aforesaid labourer at the time of the committing of the felony aforesaid by the aforesaid Right honourable William Lord Viscount Courtenay in form aforesaid then and there feloniously was consenting with the aforesaid Right honourable William Lord Viscount Courtenay that he the said Right honourable William Viscount Courtenay the detestable and Sodomitical Crime aforesaid with him the said William Fryer then and there in form aforesaid should commit and perpetrate Against the form of the Statute in such case made and provided and against the Peace of our said Lord the King his Crown and Dignity.’

The bill was read to the House of Lords in the midst of debates on lord Stanhope’s Bank Notes Bill, and there the legal process paused. William Courtenay was not tried for buggery, either in 1811 or later.

Powderham Park, Exmouth, engraved by E. Finden 1836 by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield 1793-1867

It would be good to know what became of William Fryer. A man of that name was charged in March 1815 at Winchester assizes with ‘unnatural crimes’ and the theft of rum. The 1861 census records a William Fryer in St Marylebone, a widower aged 72 and born in Kenton, a parish neighbouring Powderham, who would have been aged 19 in 1808.

William Courtenay had crossed the Atlantic before the March assizes to take refuge in America, far beyond the reach of English justice. In its edition for September 1811, the European Magazine reported:

‘Lord Courtenay has taken some ground about six miles from New York, on which he is erecting a splendid mansion. He has launched a grand carriage with a suitable equipage, but sees no company.’

The 1811 bill of indictment with the writ of certiorari is held in the UK’s Parliamentary Archives: record HL/PO/1/52/2.

The Grand Jury at Exeter Castle in March included five baronets and two members of the House of Commons as well as 16 other gentlemen – all ‘good and lawful Men of the said County of Devon’. The writ lists the jurors in this order:

  • Sir William Pole Baronet
  • Sir Stafford Henry Northcote Baronet
  • Sir Thomas Dyke Acland Baronet
  • Sir John Lemon Rogers Baronet
  • Sir John Kennaway Baronet
  • Arthur Howe Holdsworth Esquire
  • Albany Saville Esquire
  • John Burridge Cholwich Esquire
  • Raymundo Putt Esquire
  • Samuel Kekewich Esquire
  • John Bulteel Esquire
  • Ayshford Wise Esquire
  • James Coleridge Esquire
  • John Brickdale Esquire
  • Samuel Frederick Milford Esquire
  • Richard Pine Coffin Esquire
  • Baldwin Fulford Esquire
  • Paul Treby Treby Esquire
  • Pierce Joseph Taylor Esquire
  • Richard Hall Clarke Esquire
  • William Tucker Esquire
  • George Warwick Bampfylde Esquire
  • John Morth Woolcombe Esquire

At the time of the assizes Arthur Howe Holdsworth and Albany Saville were members of parliament for Devon boroughs: Holdsworth for Dartmouth, Saville for Okehampton.


George Cruikshank: Merry Making on the Regents Birthday 1812.

The regent is dancing with his current mistress, lady Hertford, and trampling on a petition for mercy which he has already rejected. Joseph Thompson, the condemned man, was hanged for forgery, leaving a wife and three children who are lamenting at the foot of the gallows. On the left the Lord Chamberlain (lady Hertford’s husband) is saying ‘Curse these French horns‘ while reviewing the Order of the day which begins with ‘Breakfast | 2 to be HUNG at Newgate‘. The other person to be hanged that morning was Catherine Foster, condemned to death for making false oath. On the right, the words from the man with children read: ‘If Rich Rogues like poor ones were for to Hang it would thin the land such numbers would Swing upon Tyburn Tree.’


Edward Finden: engraving after an original drawing of Powderham Park taken by Clarkson Stanfield for Stanfield’s Coast Scenery, 1836.


1783: Isabella Courtenay and her niece

In the summer of 1781, in the nineteenth year of their marriage, William’s parents became grandparents when Frances, the eldest of their children, gave birth. Frances Courtenay had married her cousin John Honywood and the couple’s first child was named after the two grandmothers – Frances for lady Courtenay and Elizabeth for her widowed sister Honywood who lived at Alphington, between Powderham and Exeter in Devon.

As was the way of things for most of her married life, lady Courtenay herself was pregnant when her grandchild was born. She had given birth the year before to Sophie, her twelfth daughter, and now she was carrying Louisa who was to be her last child, born at the family’s London house on Christmas Day.

Louisa was baptised at Powderham in January but the family was soon back in London so that lord Courtenay could attend parliament. After the war in North America had ended in victory for the Thirteen Colonies and their French and Spanish allies, the British government was in crisis. The prime minister had resigned, the opposition was preparing to take power and king George III had drafted a letter of abdication:

‘His Majesty therefore with much sorrow finds he can be of no further utility to his native country which drives him to the painful step of quitting it for ever.’

In the midst of all this excitement lady Courtenay’s death in March 1782 passed almost unnoticed. She died before any more of her 50 or so grandchildren were born.

Several years later, in 1800, the Gentleman’s Magazine published a letter from ‘Investigator’ in which he recalled a visit to Powderham:

‘There were also at that time at large in the park a nice breed of pyed pea-fowls, in which the late lady Courtney, whose prudence and good conduct in her once unexpected high situation was always exemplary, took great delight.’

The family observed a year of formal mourning, both in their dress and in the style of hospitality and entertainment at their houses. The marriage in September between lord Courtenay’s youngest sister, Charlotte Courtenay, and lord Loughborough could not be celebrated at Powderham or any of the other houses lived in by the family but took place near the home of her sister Frances Wrottesley in Staffordshire.

Throughout that year political crisis had continued at Westminster. The new administration had been forced out of office and was about to be replaced by an unhappy and short-lived coalition of its opponents. By the beginning of March 1783 the Powderham family was back in London although lord Courtenay had not yet resumed attendance at parliament.

The family’s London house was 16 Grosvenor Square – on the north side, between Brook Street and Upper Brook Street. Lord Courtenay’s father had bought the lease in 1755 while he was still sir William Courtenay, a baronet and one of the members of parliament for the county of Devon.

One evening lady Honywood was visiting with her daughter. They were sitting by a fire with Isabella, the third of lady Courtenay’s children, when a spark flew out, or perhaps the poker accidentally fell from the grate. Within seconds Isabella Courtenay’s dress was aflame:

‘she was so miserably burnt before any assistance could be procured, that she died at two o’clock next morning in the greatest agonies. No person was in the room when the melancholy accident happened except her sister, Lady Honywood, and her child, who were not capable of affording any assistance, the former falling into fits. The young lady, when her cloaths caught fire, ran out of the room, and from room to room, without meeting with any one to give her the least aid, until it was too late to overcome the flames. It is generally thought her immediate death, however, was owing to the fright.’

As with other publications which reported the accident, the Annual Register continued with advice to other ladies about how best to deal with an event of this kind:

‘In such cases, the first thought should be to avoid running about; to fall down and roll one’s self up in the carpet, or in the bed-quilt, as the safest and most certain expedient; but the horror and trepidation are generally such as to prevent the mind from taking the necessary steps for deliverance.’

Isabella, ‘who was most elegantly accomplished, and had almost completed her 18th year’, was the first of lady Courtenay’s children to die. She was buried at Powderham a year after her mother.

In the next spring the king and his new prime minister, the younger William Pitt, had secured a major victory in the general election for the British parliament. Sir John Honywood, who had inherited a baronetcy from his grandfather in the same month as his daughter Frances Elizabeth was born, became one of the new members of the House of Commons, returned by the 100 or so electors of the Kent borough of Steyning. During the summer of 1784 he visited the studio of sir Joshua Reynolds to have his portrait painted, alongside a large and glossy dog. In the same season sir Joshua painted lady Honywood with her daughter.

Reynolds, Joshua, 1723-1792; The Honourable Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood (b.1763), and Her Daughter

Frances Elizabeth married in 1802 by which time she had several sisters as well as a brother John. Her husband Aubone Surtees, an army officer in the 11th Light Dragoons, came from a family of wine merchants prominent in the civic life of Newcastle-upon-Tyne; he himself became mayor of the town in 1821. Both are listed in an 1827 directory for Newcastle: ‘Surtees Fanny, gentlewoman’ at 7 Saville Place, and ‘Surtees Aubone, wine, &c. merchant’ with his home at Saville Place and a business address at 14 Sandhill.

Frances became the mother of eight daughters and five sons. In 1851 she was still living at Saville Place with two of her grown-up children – Villiers Charles Villiers, the elder of her two surviving sons, and Augusta Matilda. Aubone lived on for most of the decade, through the Crimean War and the Indian Rebellion, dying in September 1859 at the age of 82. He was buried in the cemetery at Jesmond, in the same grave as his wife.

Frances Elizabeth survived not just her sisters and her brother, sir John Courtenay Honywood, but also his son and successor, sir John Edward Honywood. The young sir Courtenay Honywood had inherited the baronetcy by the time his great-aunt died at the age of 73 in August 1854 at Pigdon Cottage, the Northumberland home of her youngest son Honywood Graham Surtees.

Her uncle William had parted with the house in Grosvenor Square to Richard Howard of Castle Rising (Norfolk) half a century before. It was afterwards renumbered from 16 to 17, and in the 20th century demolished. Both the portraits by Reynolds survive – the painting of Frances Elizabeth with her mother is now in the collection of Bristol City Art Gallery.


Joshua Reynolds: the hon. lady Honywood and her daughter, 1784.


The portrait of sir John Honywood can be viewed online at Historical Portraits archive: