Scandal of 1784: texts from the time

Towards the end of 1784 William found himself at the centre of a scandal through his relationship with William Beckford, the wealthy owner of Fonthill in the English county of Wiltshire. William was 16 and Beckford 24 years old. Accounts vary but it seems that William’s tutor discovered the two of them having sex together and reported this to William’s father.

The sequence of texts below opens with an undated note from William to lady Margaret Beckford which must relate to arrangements for a day in the spring of 1784 at the Courtenays’ London house in Grosvenor-square, and ends before the second major scandal of William’s life with Joseph Farington’s record of his conversation with Benjamin West on 14 December 1807.

Most of these texts are from private letters and journals which were not published until the 20th century. Apart from the five newspaper paragraphs, only two of the passages below were published before 1893: lord Loughborough’s letter of 1784 which Polwhele published in 1836, and the account of William’s ‘presentation’ at a levee which Woolmer published in 1805.

All these texts have been copied from secondary sources and each needs to be checked with the original manuscript or newspaper. There will probably be some typos alongside mistranscriptions.

After the reports and comments in newspapers of 1784, the first published account seems to be in the Notes to Don Leon. These were published in 1866 (there may have been an earlier printing) but had been written perhaps twenty or more years before then:

Mr. Beckford, when he reached manhood, was pronounced to be one of the most promising young men in England. Lord Courtenay, then about seven years old, was on a visit with his sisters at Mr. Beckford’s house, // and having been missed one evening from his bedroom, search was made after him, and, some suspicion being excited, persons in the house went into Mr. Beckford’s bed-room, and found Lord Courtenay in bed with him. The king wanted to hang them both; but the relations of the parties, who had great parliamentary interest, threatened to oppose the king’s measures if he did: and so Mr. B. was desired never to go beyond the walls of Fonthill, and never to speak to any nobleman; and that is the reason why, for a number of years, no nobleman ever saw the inside of Fonthill Abbey.

In 1937 Guy Chapman offered a reconstruction of the whole episode which he called ‘the Powderham scandal’. My interpretation of the evidence is different from Chapman’s as will be evident from posts on this website.


  • 1784 (? May). Note from William Courtenay to lady Margaret Beckford.
  • 1784 (September/October). Letter from lord Loughborough to Richard Polwhele.
  • 1784 October 13. Letter from Beckford to Samuel Henley.
  • 1784 October 20. Letter from Samuel Henley to Beckford.
  • 1784 October 29. Draft by Beckford.
  • 1784 November 22. Letter from lady Margaret Beckford to lady Gower.
  • 1784 November 22. Letter from W. Beldam to lord Hardwicke.
  • 1784 November 27. Item in the Morning Herald.
    • 1784 November 27. Letter from Beckford to John Lettice.
  • 1784 December 1. Item in the Public Advertiser.
  • 1784 December 8. Item in the Morning Herald.
  • 1784 December 10. Item in the Public Intelligencer.
  • 1784 December 25. Letter from Charles Greville to sir William Hamilton.
  • 1784 December 30. Item in the Morning Herald.
  • 1785? Letter from Beckford to Samuel Henley.
  • 1785? Letter from Elizabeth Carter to mrs Montagu.
  • 1785 January 4. Letter from Judith Milbanke to Mary Noel.
  • 1785 February 26. Letter from Beckford to Samuel Henley.
  • 1785 March 21. Letter from Beckford to Samuel Henley.
  • 1785 September. Draft by Beckford.
  • 1786 May 27. Letter from lady Euphemia Steward to lady Stafford.
  • 1787 May 30. Journal entry by Beckford.
  • 1790? Draft letter from Beckford to lady Craven.
  • 1791 January 3. Diary entry by Hester Piozzi.
  • 1794 June 4. Diary entry by Joseph Farington.
  • 1797 January 22. Diary entry by Joseph Farington.
  • 1797 October 29. Diary entry by Joseph Farington.
  • 1798 September 13. Diary entry by Joseph Farington.
  • 1805. Shirley Woolmer, A concise account of the city of Exeter.
  • 1807 December 14. Diary entry by Joseph Farington.

  • 1784 (?May). Note from William Courtenay to lady Margaret Beckford.

My dear lady,
I am sorry I should have managed matters so badly, but you desired to know what time all plagues will be out of the way, and as that will be the only day I mentioned it to you. I hope you will persuade William to come with you. But I am sorry to say Lord and Lady Loughborough dine here that day, if you dont think that will hinder you I hope you will come. I shall expect you both.

I remain yours affectionately

W. Courtenay.

My love to W and hope he will come.

  • 1784 (September/October). Letter from lord Loughborough to Richard Polwhele.

Powderham Castle, Friday.

I am very sorry to be obliged to set out for — before I have an opportunity of returning you my thanks in person for the amusement I have received from the MSS. The Feodary is not only interesting in respect of the local history of the County, but as it contains the most accurate particulars of an ancient manor I ever saw, in the Survey of the Honors of Plympton and Okehampton. Though the book appears to be an office copy of the Records, from the equal number of words and lines in each page, I suspect the transcriber has sometimes mistaken the abbreviations, which increases the difficulty of reading his work; but any one possessed of a general knowledge of the Topography of the County, would find great aid from the proper names. Risdon’s Survey with this Feodary, added to those aids that are in print, Domesday, the Red Book of the Exchequer, and the Monasticon, would furnish a very large stock of materials for a History of Devon. Mr. Moore tells me, that large collections for that purpose were made by a late steward of Lord Courtenay. I shall be extremely flattered to have the honour of seeing you, should any occasion call you towards London.

  • 1784 October 13. Letter from Beckford at Fonthill to Samuel Henley.

I have been on the point of writing to you fifty times these last six months, & have made a thousand beginnings, but c’d never find spirits or time to go on. O, I have been wonderfully vexed and griped with L[oughborough]. pills. You must know we have been in Devonshire and passed a month at Powderham Castle, where I lived in one perpetual worry, to use a nursery expression which I have caught at the above mentioned place. Wm, poor wretch, is more to be pitied than any reptile that crawls the earth, and is mangled, bruized and smashed every day.

I wish to God your little gathering wd not keep you away from Fonthill any longer; but that you wd come & take a few turns with me in the Egyptian labyrinth and talk over old stories.

Mr. Lane is rockifying, not on the high places, but in a snug copse by the river side, where I spend many an hour dreaming abt my unfortunate princes (Vathec’s companions), & contriving reasonable ways & means of sending them to the Devil.

What are you about now? Have you got a fair copy of yr translation, & will you believe that it is you & not I who possess the proof imps of Johnson’s Song Book? Hunt for them once more I beseech you, & if you come to see and comfort me, which I trust you will, bring the long story & l’Esplendente if you have him, & the book of songs & a thick pair of shoes, for I trudge abt all day long amidst pine stumps & furze brakes, &c. Adieu; let me subscribe to Strutt, & share with you in Capt Cook’s & K. portraits, & hear from you immediate.

Lady M. is very well, & I hope to God will continue so this time.

I suspect old Taylor of bowing the knee to Baal, & glorifying the maker of those cursed pills that have done me much mischief, & given Wm twinges he can never recover.

  • 1784 October 20. Letter from Samuel Henley to Beckford.

At the time it first reached me, I confess I could scarcely believe. How are the mighty fallen! What, Lady L[oughborough], that termagant of decorum &c. &c., under the same roof with you, and that roof her brother’s? Verily, wonders are not yet ended.

  • 1784 October 29. Draft by Beckford, headed ‘Dover, Oct. 29th, 1784’.

I rambled about the Port with heaviness of heart, the weather as gloomy as my spirits; passing along the beach, I came under the perpendicular cliffs crowned by the Castle. Snug under one of these I found to my great surprise a little green spot, enlivened with mignionet and gilly flowers; steps cut out in the rock, leading to strange dens with something like gothic entrances, to which an old sea-captain often repairs in the summer months to carouse with a few boon companions. Beneath, lie plains of sea; above, nod the Castle walls, and many a crag mottled with samphire. A little boy showed me about, who seemed to delight greatly in Captain Smith’s vagaries — for so is the old man called.

  • 1784 November 22. Letter from lady Margaret Beckford at Fonthill to lady Gower (her aunt Susannah, known as lady Stafford from 1786).

I flatter myself you cannot disapprove of the part I have taken, nor of my conduct; sure, I was not to abandon a man who had always behaved to me with the greatest tenderness and affection. The satisfaction I feel at having acted in the manner I did, is not to be expressed; I every hour see fresh proofs of gratitude and affection from my dear husband. The affection you have always shewn, my dear Lady Gower, makes me believe you will now shew it and stand forth as my friend, now that I want your assistance; and shew by your goodness to me and my husband you do not believe the half of what has been said. I wish it was in my power to persuade to come down here. I am not well enough to write, and yet have so many things I wish to inform you of, relative to Lord L[oughborough]‘s behaviour, that I should take it as the greatest favour in the world; would you but come and see me, I am at apt to think I should convince you how much to blame my brother has been.

  • 1784 November 22. Letter from W. Beldam to lord Hardwicke in Bath.

The tea-tables are full of the detection of B-kf-d in a scandalous affair with a boy at Mary[le]bone School. It is remarkable how many detections of this sort have happened of late.

  • (1784 November 27: Guy Chapman notes in Beckford: ‘A letter written by Beckford to Lettice from Fonthill on Nov. 27th, mentions an earlier news-sheet paragraph than I have been able to find.’)

  • 1784 November 27. Item in the Morning Herald, a newspaper published in London.

The rumour concerning a Grammatical mistake of Mr. B——– and the Hon. Mr. C———- , in regard to the genders, we hope for the honour of Nature originates in Calumny! — For, however depraved the being must be, who can propagate such reports without foundation, we must wish such a being exists, in preference to characters, who, regardless of Divine, Natural and Human Law, sink themselves below the lowest class of brutes in the most preposterous rites.

  • 1784 December 1. Item in the Public Advertiser, a newspaper published in London.

Mr. —– of ——— &c. &c. is certainly gone post haste to Italy! Master —– , the eldest, the only son of Lord —- , has left Westminster School, and accompanies Mr —- ! Dr. M—- D—- was the gentleman who was unlucky enough to detect the nasty flagitious business. Florence is the place of destination fixed on for the eccentric travellers.

  • 1784 December 8. Item in the Morning Herald, a newspaper published in London.

If anything could heighten the detestable scene lately acted in Wiltshire, by a pair of fashionable male lovers, the ocular demonstration of their infamy, to the young, and beautiful wife of one of the monsters, must certainly have effected it.

  • 1784 December 10. Item in the Public Intelligencer, a newspaper published in London.

The Lady of Mr. B—- , before the late event which makes the air of Italy necessary for him, had scarcely any provision of a separate maintenance; but it is expected not to be a very scanty one, for obvious reasons not less than the jointure, which is 4000£ a year.

  • 1784 December 25. Letter from Charles Greville to sir William Hamilton (his uncle). The heading is not dated but according to a later passage in the letter: ‘there is not in the parish so tidy a house as ours, it being Christmas day’.

Since I wrote the other letter, which you will receive about the same time you will receive this, I have to thank you for yours from Naples, just after your arrival. I envy you the pleasure of a fine sun & appartment at Naples. For the present I content myself with London, which is very empty indeed.

Hamilton (Ld Abercorns) is in town. I call’d on him & he was very gracious, pressed me to dine, which I did, & spoke very friendly, & wished me at any time to employ him with his friends, if I chose to approve of them. It was well meant & I was obliged by the manner. He enquired kindly after you, & seems to be pleased with relations taking notice of him, & displeas’d with Scotland for not paying him the same attentions which Ireland did. As I never should have made his acquaintance but thro’ you, & there is nothing that is not honorable in him, tho’ he is high and conceited, I shall not be inattentive to his civility to me— which is the more flattering as it is only on extraordinary occasions that his acquaintance ripens early into friendship. I realy do not feel myself in a situation to accept favors, as those which I formerly received only made me for a time richer, & from the instability of administrations left me considerably poorer.

I did not write to you about Beckford, untill I could know from some authority both the fact & his intentions. It seems young C. was put to a school with a clergyman near Fonthill ; he went over very early one morning before they were up & into Courty’s room; Mr. Moore, the tutor’s name, heard a creeking & bustle, which raised his curiosity, & thro’ the key hole he saw the operation which it seems he did not interrupt, but informed Ld C., & the whole was blown up. He remains at Fonthill till Ly Margt, who it seems is with child, either lays in or miscarries. They then are to go abroad together, as he cannot brave it, & it is too public to pass as a slurr. His promised honors will be witheld; he probably will be obliged to vacate his seat, & retire to Italy to make up the loss which Italy has sustained by Ld Tilney’s death, unless he aspires to the office of G. Chamberlain to the k. of P.

  • 1784 December 30. Item in the Morning Herald, a newspaper published in London.

The Fonthill fool is ere this in Italy —- Are we, if possible as foolishly to suffer the money that was his, to go after him.

  • 1785? Letter from Beckford to Samuel Henley.

I have been very wretchedly, & unable to write; but, tho’ still much out of order, I cannot delay thanking you for the first nor of your translation, which I think excellent. I shall be very glad to receive the continuation as soon as possible. I wish you may prevail upon Bell to take off a copy of his Shakespear on fine paper, & I rejoice that you have secured a copy of Strutt.

You mentioned Cook’s Travels into Russia. Have you procured them? You aid something also abt a copy of Grose. Is it compleat? Pray tell me if Esplendente is in yr possession? the long story I am certain is; & you would oblige me by sending it to to Bell, directed to Wildman, as I want much to look it over. I heard some time ago Ld A. did not intend to visit Rendlesham.

It is impossible for me to enter into details upon the subject you mention. Let it suffice for me to assure you that a certain young person I once thought my friend has proved himself the meanest traytor & the blackest ennemy. You may guess who moved the wires, & made this miserable puppet dance to its destruction.

I have reason to think yr old worthy friend has been lately deceived, as well as many of his neighbours, not only into false opinions of me but of yrself.

  • 1785? Letter from mrs (Elizabeth) Carter to mrs Montagu in Portman Square, London.

I had received an account of B-‘s horrid behaviour, but did not know, till by your letter, what was become of him. Poor Lady — is indeed greatly to be pitied. Are you at all acquainted with Lady — ? I hear she does not design to quit her wretched husband? This young man at his first setting out, appeared to have such uncommon parts and so much knowledge, that it might have been reasonably hoped, that when the coxcomb was outgrown, he would have made a very distinguished figure in society. When he afterwards so extravagantly and ridiculously addicted himself to music, all prospect of his becoming great or respectable was over; but till this last sad story, I never heard that his conduct was vicious.

  • 1785 January 4. Letter from hon. [Judith] mrs. Ralph Milbanke to her aunt Mary Noel.

What an infamous wretch is Beckford! & what a disgrace to the Age that he should be suffered to walk about! it is suspected that the Grande-monde mean to protect that vice sourdement, as in Italy, & if B is not universally shunn’d (is he?) it is too strong a confirmation of it.

  • 1785 February 26. Letter from Beckford to Samuel Henley.

Your translation had all the spirit of the Caliphs & their daemons. I long for the continuation, & hope you will soon gratify my impatience.

The origil Esplendente is in my possession, but I thought a copy had been in yours. Are Cooke’s Travels unbound; should that be the case, you would oblige me by sending them to Kaltweber, with directions to dress them in crown marble gd leaves.

I shall be very glad of a fine paper copy of Bell’s Shakespear, 1st imp. Have you the heads for Cooke’s Voyage? Never have I been able to find the proofs of Johnson’s Coll: of Songs. What copy have you in store for me?

My curiosity is not a little raised to know the tone of your old friend’s expected letter.

Be assured I am not the only innocent person shamefully calumniated.

Lady M., I hope, will make me a father in the space of a month.

I am still very unwell — no wonder. A Bookseller offers me the foll[owing]. S. H. eds at the foll. prices: —

[… list not copied …]

Are they worth buying at that rate?

  • 1785 March 21. Letter from Beckford to Samuel Henley.

You make me proud of Vathec. The blaze just at present is so overpowering that I can see no faults; but you may depend upon my hunting diligently after them.

Pray send the continuation, I know not how it happens; but the original when first born scarce gave me so much rapture as yr translation.

Were I well & in spirits I should run wild amongst my rocks and forests, telling stones, trees & labourers how gloriously you have succeeded. My imagination is again on fire.

I have been giving the last evenings to one episode, & sown the seeds of another which I trust will bring forth fruit in due season.

I eagerly hope you will one day or other introduce those plants to our English soil. We have had a dismal winter — ground cracked, shrubs pinched, &c., workmen numbed, but I have gone on sinking my princes to Hell with active perseverance.

I am offered Cooke, 2d Ed. L. P. Pray leave your reserved proof of the head for me.

Will you be so kind as to send Grose, & let me know if Strutt & Shakespear have yet reached you?

When shall I have any chance of seeing you? I have good reasons for not following the advice contained in yr last immediately. I am not the only innocent person Ld L. has accused.

Ask Taylor if he knows who dissuaded Ld C. from sending his son to you, & upon what account you was reckoned an improper person? Don’t imagine but what I shall exert myself. I hope in less than a fortnight to send you good news of Lady M.

  • 1785 September. Draft by Beckford, headed ‘fragment d’une lettre Septembre 1785’.

je me traîne vers le soir aux bords du Lac & appuyé contre les murailles de la vieille Tour de Glérolles je contemple les sombres teintes d’un Ciel de Tempête réfléchi dans l’abîme des eaus […] les flots gagnent, couvrant le rivage — — je me retire — — — ils me poursuivent en mugissant — je les vois s’épuiser en rosée futile, se briser à mes pieds & disparaître comme les voeuxs & l’attachement de mon indigne Ami [William]

[towards evening I drag myself to the shore of the lake and, leaning against the walls of the old tower of Glérolles, contemplate the sombre hues of a tempestuous sky reflected in the waters’ depths […] the waves surge, covering the beach — I draw back — they pursue me with a roar — I see them wearing themselves out in a froth of spume, breaking up at my feet and vanishing like the vows and affection of my unworthy Friend]

  • 1786 May 27. Letter from lady Euphemia Stewart at Château de la Tour de Peilz near Vevey in Switzerland to her sister Susannah (lady Stafford, known as lady Gower from 1768 to 1786). Their niece lady Margaret Beckford had died at the château the day before this letter was written.

Poor Mr. B. is inconsolable; I hope, my dear, you will get the C[hancello]r and Lord Stafford, my brothers and brothers-in-law to forget the past, as he is certainly quite changed and cares for nothing but what she valued.

  • 1787 May 30. Journal entry by Beckford at Lisbon.

I wished them [street dogs] at hell for breaking my dreams which were very agreeable. Methought I was walking with William Courtenay on the declivity of green hills scattered over with orange trees in blossom. Our eyes were bathed in tears of affection and forgiveness, our hands were joined and we seemed to have entirely forgotten the miseries we had occasioned each other. If I believed in presentiments I should expect good news by the Packet.

  • 1790? Draft letter from Beckford to lady Craven.

I cannot yet pretend to have taken the Road of acquiring popularity, – for I have just stopped the career of Fox hunters by a wall not quite so long or so high as that of China – but better built I dare say. Vathec you recollect was spoiled by Carathis and will have his way tho’ it lead to the Devil. I am extending my forests and sticking them full of hideous iron traps and spring guns that snap legs off as neatly as Pinchbeck’s patent snuffers snuff candles. In process of time, when my Hills are completely blackened with Fir, I shall retreat into the center of this gloomy circle like a spider into the midst of his web. There will I build my tower and deposit my books and my writings and brood over them till it please Heaven to close my eyes on this strange medley of mischievous Beings and open the doors of a pleasanter existence. Few people have right or reason to hold this dismal language; but I have been hunted down and persecuted these many years. I have been stung and lacerated and not allowed opportunities of changing that snarling, barking style you complain of, had I ever so great an inclination. No peace, no respite have I experienced since the 1st license was taken out at Nebuchadnezzar’s office for shooting at me. If I am shy or savage you must consider the baitings and worryings to which I allude – how I was treated in Portugal, in Spain, in France, in Switzerland, at home, abroad, in every region. You was in Turkey or in Lubberland when the storm raged against me and when I was stabbed to the heart by the loss of Ly. Margaret. And what was the balm poured into my wounds? A set of parag[raphs] accusing me of having occasioned her death by ill usage. Allowances were to be made for former attacks but none for this, and I will own to you that the recollection of this black stroke fills me with such horror and indignation that I sigh for the pestilential breath of an African serpent to destroy every Englishman who comes in my way.

  • 1791 January 3. Diary entry by Hester Piozzi.

I have been reading Vathek, ’tis a mad Book to be sure, and written by a mad Author, yet there is a Sublimity about it – particularly towards the Conclusion.

Mr Beckford’s favourite Propensity is all along visible I think; particularly in the luscious Descriptions given of Gulchenrouz: but his Quarantine seems to be performed, & I am told he is return’d quietly to Fonthill. When we were at Milan Mr Bisset brought over the news how he was hooted from Society by my Lord Loughborough, who threatened corporal or legal Punishment for Mr Beckford’s Violation of young Courtenay – Brother to Lady Loughborough. At Lausanne no Englishman would exchange a Word with the Creature; & charming Doctor Fisher’s charitable Heart pitied his wretched exclusion from the World.

But since Courtenay came to his Estate and Title, and I suppose treated the whole Business as a Joke, or common Occurrence, all is over; and I hear nothing said of Mr Beckford but as an Authour. what a World it is!!!!

  • 1794 June 4. Diary entry by Joseph Farington.

Wyatt said a good deal to me abt. Mr. Beckford of Fonthill. He thinks him a man of extraordinary abilities, and of unbounded expence. His income from Jamaica for the three last years has not been less than 120,000, a year. Wyatt believes that the greatest part of this enormous sum He expends. Beckford is easy to professional men, but of consummate pride to people in higher situations.

About a month before Beckford was talked of [the scandal of 1784] Wyatt went to Fonthill with him. Beckford shewed him a copy of a patent of peerage then making out for him to be Lord Beckford of Fonthill. This was abt the beginning of Pitts administration. The Peerage was quashed in consequence of the rumour.

  • 1797 January 22. Diary entry by Joseph Farington.

Fuseli I called on. Beckford of Fonthill some years ago proposed to publish his travels, Johnson, printed them in Quarto. They were written with genius, — full of reflections on Individuals & on nations, — malevolent and expressive of a bad heart. — The descriptions of Landscapes &c were admirable, — throughout the whole there was a spirit like Champagne prevailing, — sparkling everywhere. __ Fuseli had half a doz: leaves of the letter press which He gave to Edwards of Pallmall. — When ready for publication the Books were all sent for, and faithfully delivered by Johnson to Beckfords agent. — Beckford had been prevailed on to suppress the work, as it would have made him enemies everywhere —

Revd. Mr. Henley his Tutor said Beckford had no generosity. — The affair with Lord Courtenay was made known by Beckfords own relations, Lord Strathavon slapt his face. — Beckford is of a very unamiable disposition. Jealous of everybody who excells. — Parsons, his music master He was jealous of on acct. of his professional knowledge. — He is an Actor, but no gentleman, said Fuseli, — He speaks many languages – dances – sings, mimicks, you see the character is irregular by looking in his countenance, there is a twist in his look. —

  • 1797 October 29. Diary entry by Joseph Farington.

Lysons mentioned the evident puffs of Beckford in the newspapers, seconding the extravagant character given of him in the last European Magazine recommending him as the most proper person to negotiate a peace with France. –He also remarked on his reconcilement to the tutor Dr Lettice, after a separation of some years, on which Beckford in lieu of an annuity settled on the Dr. paid him £5000. Beckfords sister having expressed concern at his situation, said to her, that He saw no prospect of him again being admitted to Society – but that the best thing He cd. do would be to endeavour to prevail on some well connected young woman to marry him, that wd. be his only chance. — Beckford wrote a romance in French, called Vertax – which is said to be very clever – it has been translated into English.

  • 1798 September 13. Diary entry by Joseph Farington.

Boydell told us the late Mrs Beckford of West-end, Hampstead, often talked to him abt. her Son and of his situation in consequence of the odium which lays upon him. – She said his pride had prevented him from doing what would have been most prudent – He should have gone to Covent Garden, said she, and have got ½ a dozen woemen abt. him, – this would have done more to remove the suspicion than anything else.

  • 1805. Shirley Woolmer, A concise account of the city of Exeter.

In the year 1789, his most gracious Majesty King George the Third visited this city,
with her Majesty Queen Charlotte, and part of the Royal Family […]

[On 14 August 1789] At one his Majesty held a levee at the [bishop’s] Palace, (the first since his recovery.) The levee was attended by the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Lisburne, Lord Viscount Courtenay, the Bishop, Dean, Members for the city and county, High Sheriff, the principal country Gentlemen, the Colonel and Officers of the Dragoons, and other military corps, the principal Gentlemen of Exeter, &c. who were all introduced separately, and had the honour to kiss hands.

  • 1807 December 14. Diary entry by Joseph Farington.

He [Benjamin West] told me that the latter end of October, while He was at Bath, Mr. Beckford, requested him to come to Fonthill, which He did & staid there three days. Mr. Beckford represented to Him the state of His affairs, exhibiting a very great change indeed from His former situation. Four years ago the building of the Abbey at Fonthill had cost £242,000. He showed that Wyatt by his negligence & inattention, had caused Him an unnecessary expense of £30,000. — He said that at present, such is the state of commerce, that His Jamaica estates are rather an expense to Him than a source of Income; — That he had to answer claims upon Him been obliged to sell his estate in Bedfordshire which brought £62,000 & His estate in the neighbouroud of St. Pancrass for £12,000. — Nothing now remains to Him but His unproductive Jamaica estates, & the Fonthill estate which is reckoned at £10000 a year; more might be made of it were the extensive park & grounds turned to greater advantage. Upon this Income He knows it is impossible to keep up His former establishment, & He has accordingly reduced it to a very limited scale compared to what it had been. — His carriages & Horses have been sent away for sale, & Coachman, grooms & attendants, discharged. — He also desired West to assist Him in disposing of His valuable collection of pictures & drawings, saying at the same time, He should feel much at parting with them as they never could be recovered by Him. —

I asked West how He was in spirits? He said, He appeared to bear it in a manly manner, saying He had been accustomed to persecution & mortification, observing that the change from what He had experienced in early life had been great indeed. Then incense was offered to Him & flowers strewed in his way wherever He went. — He seemed to think His education had not been conducted judiciously, & that being brought up in private, He had not experienced those checks which are useful. That at a public school He should have been exposed to make His way among others, taking the consequences of things as they might happen. He has at times spoken of the charge which has caused Society to withdraw from Him, which He always represents to be persecution founded in injustice & falsehood. He says He can never forgive Himself for two things: One the breaking His promise to His Mother who urged Him not to go to Powderham Castle (Lord Courtneys) at the time He did, when the affair took place which has so much injured His reputation; — and the other His yielding to the entreaties of His wife, Lady Margaret Beckford to quit England, & go for a time to Swisserland, — while this matter was agitating the public mind. — Dr. Lettice, His ci-devant tutor, & Lord Thurlow, both seconded Lady Margaret in Her endeavour to effect this point. —

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. —

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. —

West told me that Lord Aboyne, brother to the late, Lady Margaret Beckford, who went down to Fonthill to effect a separation between Her & Mr. Beckford after the report was circulated, and quitted them in the most hostile manner, has of late written to & had intercourse with Mr. Beckford. — Lady Margaret was pregnant at the time & continued attached to Mr. Beckford till Her death which happened two or three years afterwards while they were abroad.


Joshua Reynolds, 1782: William (Thomas) Beckford. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Page history

  • 2019 April 19: first published online.
  • 2022 April 23: two undated texts added at start of sequence: note from William Courtenay to lady Margaret Beckford; letter from lord Loughborough to Richard Polwhele.
  • 2022 June 18: added at 1805: Shirley Woolmer’s account of William’s ‘presentation’ at a levee held in Exeter, August 1789.
  • 2022 June 26: hyperlink added to 1784 (lord Loughborough to Richard Polwhele).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s