1782: Charlotte and the calash bonnet

In the years before March 1782 when William’s mother lady Courtenay died, three of her husband’s four sisters had left Powderham to settle elsewhere. Mary, the eldest, had made a home for herself in London at Orchard-street, Portman-square, with mrs. Tarrant as her companion. The two middle sisters had married and each had then moved north to live with her husband at his home: Frances with sir John Wrottesley at Wrottesley Hall in Staffordshire; Lucy with John Cotes at Woodcote in Shropshire. The eldest of lady Courtenay’s daughters, Frances, had married too, starting a family of her own with John Honywood. Only Charlotte, youngest of his sisters, still lived with lord Courtenay and his thirteen unmarried children, the youngest of them just three months old. Born in January 1751, she had reached the age of thirty-one without marrying; it was easy to foresee the roles that a woman in her circumstances would be expected to perform for her brother’s family throughout the next twenty years or so.

We know next to nothing about Charlotte Courtenay’s life in the years before her marriage and not a great deal more about her life in the following forty-four years, firstly as lady Loughborough then from 1801 as the countess and dowager countess of Rosslyn. ‘My aunt‘ as Charlotte Cotes remarked, was ‘in the constant habit of burning all her letters‘. From reports in magazines we do know how she dressed on some occasions. In 1793 at the grand reception held on 18 January at st. James’s palace in Westminster to mark queen Charlotte’s official birthday, she wore ‘A white satin gown and coat. The petticoat richly embroidered with goldstones‘. At the reception in 1795 her dress was ‘A brown and gold stuff body and train; the petticoat very richly embroidered in gold and stripes of coloured chenille.’

Her mother died in 1761 when Charlotte was ten years old. In the following year her brother married Fanny Clack while her father, just a few days before his death, was created viscount Courtenay and she became styled ‘the honorable’ Charlotte Courtenay. In 1772 she reached the age of twenty-one years and was entitled by her father’s will to receive a legacy of £4,000.

In 1773 she and the bride’s father witnessed the wedding between Wilbraham Tollemache and Anna Maria Lewis (earl and countess of Dysart from 1799). In October 1780 William Beckford wrote her a letter from Bologna and in February 1781 drafted another letter while he was at Paris. In the summer of 1782 Charlotte joined a house-party at Elford in Staffordshire where she met a clever and ambitious lawyer and politician, a childless widower eighteen years her senior: Alexander Wedderburn, lord Loughborough, chief justice of the common pleas. The couple met again soon after and speedily reached an agreement to marry, which they did in a quiet way on 12 September, a little short of six months after lady Courtenay’s death. Their marriage lasted until Alexander’s death in 1805.

In December 1788 her brother died in London and her nephew William became the third viscount Courtenay. In the following July William reached the age of twenty-one but, as the family and household were still in mourning, his coming-of-age celebrations were postponed until the summer of 1790. By that time he had already taken his seat in the House of Lords at Westminster.

The historian Edward Gibbon described Charlotte as ‘not handsome, but very pleasant‘; ten years later in 1792 the wit James Hare wrote to Georgiana duchess of Devonshire, ‘As to ill natured or foolish paragraphs in newspapers, you would not have escaped them if you had been as cold as Ly Loughborough‘. In January 1793 her husband was appointed lord chamberlain and in its issue for October of that year The Gentleman’s Magazine, under the heading Births: Lately, noticed: ‘The Lady of the Lord Chamberlain, a son‘. The boy, who seems to have been Charlotte’s only child, died in the following year.

In February 1797 a small French force landed on the coast of Wales at Fishguard, setting off widespread panic across the kingdom. Another small force landed in August 1798 at Killala bay on the coast of Ireland in support of the risings against British rule. Lawyers from the Inns of Court in London began to form themselves into an association of volunteers to defend their country in the event of invasion.

In June 1798 Charlotte, as the lady of the lord chamberlain, presented the Bloomsbury and Inns of Court Association with its ‘colours’ . The colours were consecrated in the chapel of the Foundling hospital where Thomas Willis delivered a sermon on a text from the biblical book of the prophet Isaiah: ‘When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.’  The sermon was printed soon after ‘at the request of Lord Loughborough‘:

Bedford-Square, June 11, 1798.

Sir, It is much to be wished that your excellent Discourse, replete with Religion, and so very applicable to the present momentous period, should extend its influence beyond the circle wherein it was pronounced.

I therefore make it my request, that the same be printed, for the edification of those who had not the advantage of hearing it.

I have the Honour to be, Sir, With great Esteem, Your obedient humble Servant, Loughborough.

The occasion also prompted Charlotte’s second cousin Willoughby Bertie, earl of Abingdon, to publish what a reviewer in The Gentleman’s Magazine termed ‘a rhapsodical effusion‘. ‘A Letter to Lady Loughborough’ begins: “Your Ladyship having, in the most public and awful Manner, consigned Colours to the Charge of Men of the most laudable Profession, whom you are pleased to compliment for those arduous Exertions in the Service of their Country, which evince their Determination to defend (under Heaven!) our glorious Constitution;” &c.

A year later, on 21 June 1799, king George III made an inspection of ‘the different Volunteer Corps in and about the Metropolis‘. The Loughboroughs had by this time moved from Bedford-square to Bolton-house in Russell-square where they laid on ‘an elegant entertainment‘ for the royal family.

His Majesty arrived there about one o’clock. About an hour afterwards, her Majesty and the five Princesses, accompanied by the Duke of Clarence, came to the Lord Chancellor’s; and the Royal Family then sat down to their collation. About 3, his Majesty again mounted, and proceeded down Guildford-street to the Foundling-hospital.‘ The queen and princesses came in their carriages soon after, then ‘the whole Royal Family alighted, and viewed the children’s apartments, &c. which occupied nearly an hour.’

In 1801 Loughborough lost his position as lord chancellor but in compensation was created earl of Rosslyn and awarded an annual pension of £4,000. The new earl and countess had soon changed both their town and country residences, moving from Bolton-house to number 12 St. James’s-square and from Hampstead to Baylis, a house at Salt Hill near Windsor, where the royal family passed a good deal of their time at the castle.

When Alexander died at Baylis in 1805, the earldom passed to his sister Janet’s eldest son, sir James St. Clair Erskine. By her husband’s will, Charlotte was given an annuity of £1,200 and entrusted with a legacy of £2,000 for the benefit of Lucy and Charlotte Cotes, ‘as a small Retribution for their Constant kindness and Duty to me‘. Born in 1783 and 1784, the two young women were the only children of lady Rosslyn’s sister Lucy Cotes. Their mother had died in 1786 when the girls were still infants and their father married again in 1794, starting a second family.

As part of the entailed estate, the freehold house in St. James’s-square descended to the new earl ‘but with this Condition that Ly. Rosslyn if she Chuses to reside in it shall have the use of it with all the Furniture Books Linen China Pictures Plate during her life and the House to be kept in repair for her‘. If she chose not to live there, ‘she shall receive in addition to the Annuity given by my Will three hundred pounds Pr. Anm [per annum = annually] and shall have and take to her own use all such Articles of Furniture Books Linen China Pictures Plate in that or any other House of mine as she shall Chuse‘.

Charlotte chose not. The second earl of Rosslyn was soon in residence at number 12 St. James’s-square while the countess-dowager took up the lease of a house in London at Bolton Street, Piccadilly – number 3 where the writer Henry James took lodgings for several years later in the century. Now the dowager countess of Rosslyn, Charlotte lived there with the two Cotes sisters. She mentions her nephew William in her will but we do not know when they last met: in 1811 he was indicted for buggery and began the period of exile from England which lasted until his death.

In 1814 the prince regent recruited lady Rosslyn and her nieces to assist lady Ilchester in supervising the conduct of his unruly daughter, the eighteen-year old princess Charlotte. She nicknamed the countess ‘old Cross Bones‘, referring to the trio as ‘famine & the consequences‘. Lady Rosslyn ‘never seems good humored or pleased, & is always listening to what is going on, & proposing, but seldom agrees, & generally contradicts’. Writing about their winter journey from London to Windsor, the princess complained that ‘her eternal fidgets & frights nearly drove me distracted.’ She came to acknowledge that the three women had been ‘set on, & that it was not their own inclination’, but she still wanted ‘old famine &c. out of the house’. This was not to happen until the princess was able to form a new household after her marriage on 2 May 1816 with prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg.

The prince regent presented Charlotte and her nieces with jewellery to wear at the wedding: a locket with a cypher in diamonds for lady Rosslyn; one set of amethysts for the Cotes sisters with another of chrysolites (peridots). It seems that Charlotte still maintained her long-standing reputation as a woman who dressed with distinction. ‘I wish it was over‘ wrote the dowager countess of Ilchester, who was also expected to attend the wedding; ‘Lady Rosslyn’s attire I hear, is to be magnifique so I must do my best not to be outdone’.

After the wedding Charlotte returned to Bolton-street, later moving the short distance to Chesterfield-street and a newer house. In May 1817 she set up a trust for Jane and James Campbell and their daughter Charlotte (probably a god-daughter of the dowager countess). In her will of 1818 she requested that her funeral be ‘decent only‘ with ‘no hatchment over my door‘ (hatchments were wooden boards, lozenge-shaped and painted with the heraldic arms of a deceased person, for display on the outside of a house during the period of mourning). She named two of her nephews, the brothers sir John and Henry Wrottesley, as trustees and executors but Henry, who was also named as residuary legatee, was to die before his aunt’s death at the age of 75 years in 1826.

The two Cotes sisters then lived in Mayfair for a while, in Brook-street (number 22). During his frequent visits to London – he was a member of parliament for Shropshire – their father John Cotes stayed nearby at Kirkman’s Hotel (number 43 Brook-street). When Lucy died in 1835, leaving her younger sister as residuary legatee, all three of the prince regent’s gifts probably passed into the possession of Charlotte Cotes. In her will lady Rosslyn declared that she had ‘long since‘ given all her jewels to her two nieces, borrowing them back whenever she wanted to wear them.

A codicil to this will is dated 17 September 1823 at Blackheath (then in the county of Kent) where the princess Sophia Matilda lived in the Ranger’s House. Charlotte Cotes had become bedchamber-woman to the princess and was named as an executor in her will, receiving a legacy of £1,000 when the princess died in 1844. She returned to her native county of Shropshire where she took up residence at Bicton near Shrewsbury with two of her unmarried, younger half-sisters, children of her father’s second marriage: Sophia and Emily Cotes. Her effects were assessed as worth less than £45,000 when she died at the age of 74 in 1859.

Charlotte is depicted as a young child holding the reins of a dog-cart in Thomas Hudson’s group portrait of William’s Courtenay grandparents with five of their children that still hangs at Powderham castle. No formal portrait of her as an adult seems to have survived but the British Museum does hold a satirical sketch which is said to depict her; it has the title of The Calash. A calèche or calash was a light, horse-drawn carriage with a folding, retractable hood that provided shelter for passengers, though not for the driver. Calash bonnets, worn by women, featured the same kind of hood, offering some protection from rain and wind while its stiff hoops prevented the fabric from disarranging any elaborate wig or hairstyle that was coiled and piled beneath.

The museum’s catalogue gives this description: Caricature of a thin lady, walking or standing in profile to the right, wearing one of the enormous hoods known as calashes from their resemblance to the hood of a gig. This entirely obscures her face; the wearer holds the edge of it with a claw-like hand. A slight and amateurish sketch. Beneath it, the collector, R. Bull, has written, ‘Ly Loughborough by ye late Visct Courtney’. 1782? Etching

Like many members of his class, Charlotte’s brother William, the second  viscount Courtenay, was an amateur artist. Some of his works survive in prints from engravings and the British Museum also holds a few of these, depicting Westminster College and dated 1760 when he was still a  pupil there, as well as the original drawing of one: ‘The north east view of the Old Dormitory in 1758 when the new buildings were begun in Deans Yard, Westminster (copied from a scarce print of [?] date‘.

A good deal of mystery surrounds Charlotte’s relationship with William Beckford. Nothing survives to show us her perspective or give her account of matters, and only a few disconnected fragments on his side. The letter he sent her from Bologna in December 1780 indicates that they shared some tastes in music, while the letter he seems to have drafted at Paris in February 1781 is long, intimate and confidential. Later that year, when lady Courtenay was pregnant with her last child, Charlotte accompanied her brother to Beckford’s coming-of-age festivities at Fonthill where she was ‘much admired by the men‘. Perhaps she had assisted the clandestine correspondence between Beckford and her nephew William but there seems to have been a serious falling-out not long after September 1781.

The two may have met over dinner at the Courtenays’ London house in the spring of 1784 and in September both were staying at Powderham, Beckford with his wife lady Margaret and Charlotte with her husband. This caused Samuel Henley to exclaim ‘What, Lady L, that termagant of decorum &c. &c., under the same roof with you, and that roof her brother’s? Verily, wonders are not yet ended.‘ She is most likely to be the unnamed ‘aunt‘ and ‘devil‘ who sought to obstruct the relationship between Beckford and her nephew William.

After 1784 Beckford and Charlotte probably did not meet again, except perhaps in dreams. In September 1787 he had ‘strange dreams‘ in Lisbon: ‘I was riding with Lady Loughborough on hills which overlooked my plantations at Fonthill, and then was transported to a house of old Lady Ilchester, who showed me herself the apartments‘. His journal suggests some surprise at dreaming of a house that he had not visited since he was a boy but none at the ride with Charlotte.

The Loughboroughs’ house in Hampstead was not far from Maria Beckford’s home at West End, which may explain how Charlotte came to be asking mrs. Beckford to pass a message to her son. In November 1796 Beckford responded in a letter addressed to his mother but clearly intended for the ears or eyes of some third party: ‘I must not forget to tell you on the subject of Lady Loughborough’s Note, and Mr. Livingstone’s Letter, that the Non-payment of Miss Cameron’s pension was wholly owing to my late Agent’s Neglect, that regularity shall be enforced for the future and the Arrears immediately remitted. […] Lady Loughborough, who has always been partial to the family of the Stills, will not be displeased to hear that the Living of Fonthill which I have given John Still is made to him worth 350 a year.

The reference to the Stills is intriguing: the origin and character of Charlotte’s partiality are not obvious. John’s family home was at Clouds, not far from Fonthill, in the Wiltshire parish of East Knoyle. He had several siblings, including his brother James who acted as land agent for two Beckford cousins: Peter at Steepleton and William at Fonthill.

Perhaps Charlotte was not aware that Beckford’s mother had devised her own story to account for the events leading up to the scandal of 1784. To fit with this twisted fiction she had to shift the scene from Fonthill to Powderham at the time when her son and Charlotte were both staying there. Maria Beckford recounted this tale to the painter Benjamin West who some years later relayed it to his colleague Joseph Farington.

West said, that Mr. Beckford’s mother never believed Her Son to have been criminal. She wished Him, she told West, not to visit at Powderham Castle as she was convinced there were persons who wished to injure His reputation & lower His importance. She said the fact was, that Lady Loughborough, aunt to Lord Courtenay, was in love with Beckford, and had a correspondence with Him by letter, while on this visit at Powderham Castle, & Lord Courtenay then a Boy, carried the letters, one of which He so mismanaged that it fell into wrong hands, which Beckford discovering & being very passionate, He went to Lord Courtenay’s room, while He was in bed, it being morning, & locking the door, He horsewhipped Him, which causing the Boy to scream out, His Tutor came to the door & found it locked.  This gave cause for the suspicion & the reports which were soon after circulated. —

No evidence survives to support any part of Maria Beckford’s story. It is inconceivable that Beckford would not have mentioned this episode, if it had occurred while he and lady Margaret were staying at Powderham, in his blithe letter of 13 October 1784 to Samuel Henley.

Farington recorded the conversation with West in his diary for 14 December 1807, adding at the end: ‘I listened to this relation which with many other circumstances was given to Him by Mr. Beckford’s [mother] when at Her desire He visited Her alone at Her House at Hampstead; but I could not but feel the improbability of much of the story, it not at all agreeing with many other well authenticated circumstances, & being in itself difficult to give credit to; and from all I have heard the stories told to clear Mr. Beckford have not been well considered; though on the other hand, it does not appear that there is any proof actually to support the charge against Him.’


Images (from the top)

The peridots are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  An admirable report on the jewels can be viewed online: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/ea_statement_jewellery.pdf

The draughtsman and antiquary  John Carter referred to this drawing in his article on ‘architectural proceedings at Westminster Abbey’ for The Gentleman’s Magazine (vol. 85, part 2, September 1815, p.202).


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: