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16 November 2017

Scandalous and formidable Lady Holland

Elizabeth Vassall Fox, Lady Holland, is known as the celebrated hostess at Holland House, Kensington. Wife of Whig politician Henry Richard Fox, 3rd Baron Holland, she gathered together the greats of political and literary society for her famous ‘salon’. Their circle were known as the ‘Holland House set’, with the guests being meticulously recorded in her Dinner Books.

Lady Holland kept a journal from 1791 to 1815, documenting her lengthy continental journeys as well as her time in England. She hero worshipped Napoleon Bonaparte, despite her country being at war with him! She preferred male company but had female friends, including other notorious ladies, such as Lady Bessborough, Lady Caroline Lamb and Lady Oxford. Her own scandalous early life, involving adultery during her disastrous first marriage, divorce and an illegitimate child, could have resulted in disgrace but Lady Holland surmounted these obstacles to become a dazzling success in society.

Portrait of Elizabeth at NaplesEngraving of the portrait of Elizabeth at Naples in 1793 (Vesuvius in the background) by Robert Fagan © National Portrait Gallery, London

Born in 1771, daughter of Richard Vassall and Mary Clarke, Elizabeth was beautiful, intelligent and vivacious, and heiress to a considerable fortune. Aged fifteen, she was married off to the much older Sir Godfrey Webster, a mismatch made in hell. They had five children. Desperate for foreign travel, she persuaded Webster to take her on a tour of Europe that lasted several years. She ignored her husband, throwing herself into a busy social life and the admiration of many men. One was Thomas Pelham, who remained besotted even after their affair was over, writing to her frequently.

In 1794, in Naples, Elizabeth met the love of her life, Henry Richard Fox. Not quite love at first sight- she disliked his suntan and initially seemed to prefer his friend Lord Granville. But soon they were smitten with each other and inseparable until his death in 1840.

BL Add MS 51927Elizabeth’s first impressions of Lord Holland, from her journal of 3rd February 1794 (Add MS 51927, ff.124v-125). She describes him as “not in the least handsome” and having “many personal defects, but his pleasingness of manner and liveliness of conversation get over them speedily. He has just returned from Spain, and his complexion partakes of the Moresco hue”. She is concerned about his “very complex disorder, called an ossification of the muscles in his left leg”.

She gave birth to Lord Holland’s son, Charles Richard Fox, in November 1796. Webster divorced her on 4 July 1797. He was awarded Elizabeth’s entire fortune of £7000 per annum, £6000 ‘damages’ from Holland and custody of the children. In 1796 Elizabeth had devised a plan to keep hold of at least her daughter Harriet by successfully faking the child’s illness, death and funeral in Italy. The secret came out in 1799 and Harriet was restored to Webster.

Add MS 36370 North East View Holland HouseNorth East View of Holland House, June 10th 1812. Drawing by John Buckler (Add MS 36370, ff.105-106).

On 6 July 1797 Lady Webster became Lady Holland and settled into her happy second marriage, with further children born. The couple began entertaining on a grand scale, attracting illustrious and numerous guests, and the Holland House set was born. Guests included the Prince of Wales, Whig politicians, literary figures such as Sheridan, Byron, Dickens and Wordsworth, and continental luminaries.

Add MS 51957 dinner bookDinner-book entry for the day Lady Holland died, and those who dined on the following days, written by her devoted servant, Harold Doggett (Add MS 51957, ff.186v-187). He had been writing the records, hence the ‘post mortem’ entries. Lady Lilford is her daughter Mary Elizabeth and Colonel Fox is her son Charles Richard Fox.

Lady Holland had a reputation for being an imperious battle-axe, who alienated people and dominated her husband. The latter showed no objection to her ruling the roost, as long as she didn’t interfere with his politics. She fell out with Lady Caroline Lamb when she objected to the affair her eldest son Godfrey was having with the married, deranged and promiscuous Caroline. Lady Caroline got her revenge by lampooning Elizabeth as the ‘princess of Madagascar’ in her novel Glenarvon. The nickname ‘Old Madagascar’ stuck!

Zoë Stansell
Manuscripts Reference Specialist

Further reading:

The Holland House Papers are held in the British Library Manuscripts Collections: Add MS 51318-52254

The papers of the 3rd Lord & Lady Holland (437 volumes) are referenced: Add MS 51520-51957

Items relating to Lady Holland, I have touched upon above, are: General Correspondence of (letters to) Lady Holland: Add MS 51845-51856

Lady Holland’s Journals: Add MS 51926-51940

Holland House Dinner Books: Add MS 51950-51957

Sonia Keppel, The Sovereign Lady (1974)

Earl of Ilchester, The Journal of Elizabeth Lady Holland (1908)

C.J. Wright, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography articles on ‘Lady Holland’ and the ‘Holland House set’. The online ODNB is a subscription database, available on British Library reading room computers.

 

14 November 2017

A paper maker makes the papers: the shocking death of William Moinier Leschallas

Here in the British Library's Reference Team we often receive enquiries that spark our curiosity, tempting us to dig a little deeper. Following a recent request for help in establishing the identity of a paper manufacturer, I was surprised to find myself drawn into a Victorian mental health crisis, one which lead to a tragic death.

Tasked with establishing who watermarked their paper with the word ‘Moinier’ followed by the date, I began browsing newspaper reports on British Newspaper Archive. A search for ‘Moinier’ and ‘paper’ quickly revealed the full name of our man – William Lewis Moinier Leschallas. He was a wholesale stationer, rag merchant and manufacturer of a unique type of paper based in Chatham. His business ventures did not receive widespread media attention, but there was plenty of coverage in the circumstances of his demise.

Kendal Mercury

Kendal Mercury, Saturday 18 December 1852, British Newspaper Archive.

William ended his own life in 1852. His brother John Leschallas reported that William was 57 years old (although another report suggests he was 75, an early typo perhaps). This meant that he would have started seeing societal changes in approaches to mental health. At a local level, the 1808 County Asylums Act encouraged the building of county lunatic asylums. However, poor ‘lunatics’ often found themselves sent to workhouses, houses of correction or prisons, until asylum building became compulsory in 1845. These were intended to cure patients, where possible, with the introduction of new therapeutic regimes. A substantial number of patients were discharged from institutions within twelve months of admission.

Northampton General LA

‘The Northampton General Lunatic Asylum’, from Edward Pretty, 1849, Wetton's Guide-book to Northampton, and its vicinity, 1303.d.3. BL Flickr.

 

Sadly for William, he did not receive the support that he needed. A servant found his body seated upright between two piles of papers in his warehouse. A discharged pistol clasped in his right hand caused the bullet wound in his right temple. Many of the reports go into startling graphic detail about the servant’s gruesome discovery. The inquest into William’s suicide provides us with some understanding of what he was going through.

Witnesses alluded to William’s struggles with deteriorating mental health. His brother John told the Coroner that William had been suffering from deteriorating mental health for over a year. Problems were thought to have started shortly after a mill forming a significant part of his business was destroyed by a fire. This caused William believed that his business had fallen into financial difficulty. Prior to this, a report from 1836 suggested that William had encountered financial hardships before, when a partnership was dissolved because of growing debts.

Perry Bankrupt GazettePerry's Bankrupt Gazette, Saturday 06 February 1836, British Newspaper Archive

Scrutiny of accounts suggested that business had recovered, contrary to William’s beliefs, and was actually doing rather well. He thought that the company’s healthy accounts had been fabricated in order to mislead him. In a letter read out at the inquiry William mentioned that he thought he was being watched, and had attempted suicide on a previous occasion. This led to many newspapers declaring that William suffered from ‘delusions’ and ‘insanity’.

Carlisle JournalCarlisle Journal, Friday 24 December 1852, British Newspaper Archive

After all the evidence was heard at the inquest, the jury returned a verdict of ‘temporary insanity’.

Claire Wotherspoon

Manuscripts Reference Specialist

Further reading:

Barbara T. Gates, 2014, Victorian suicide: mad crimes and sad histories, YC.2015.b.2389.

Joseph Melling and Bill Forsythe (Eds.), 1999, Insanity, institutions, and society, 1800-1914: a social history of madness in comparative perspective, YC.2000.a.5463.

Andrew Scull, 1993, The most solitary of afflictions: madness and society in Britain 1700-1900, YC.1993.b.4876.

09 November 2017

Testimony from the Trenches: personal journeys of WW1

First-hand accounts of war provide us with details missing from official reports, and offer insights into personal survival strategies, ranging from the mundane and superficial to the profound. Collections at the National Archives, Imperial War Museum and National Army Museum cover official and non-official narratives, ranging from military documentation and papers of high-ranking or well-known officials, to the private collections of individuals from the rank-and-file.

The British Library also holds personal archives relating to a number of conflicts, including the recently-catalogued archive of Alfred Forbes Johnson, which will shortly be available for consultation in our reading rooms (Add MS 89235).

AddMS89325box

Letters in the archive, following re-housing. Copyright held by Tim Johnson, on behalf of the family of A F Johnson.

Lieutenant Corporal Johnson was drafted into the Royal Garrison Artillery from the Artists’ Rifles in 1917, and discharged in the spring of 1919. His archive consists of trench maps, retrospective war diaries, collected memorabilia and correspondence with family members.

AFJportraitPortrait of Alfred

Daily letters to his wife Essie allow a good grasp of how he, his colleagues and family managed and made sense of their imposed obligations. Alfred’s philosophy was to spend life productively, no matter the circumstances, and with good humour.

'This is a weird state of affairs here. The Hun is shelling something about a quarter of a mile on the left, and on the right there is a band playing.' (16/08/1918)

His strategies included exploring the landscape, villages and towns of France and Belgium, engaging in debates of the day with Essie and the Mess, and involving himself in lectures, sports and intellectual activities. Most significantly, the British Museum employee read avidly, favouring satire, the humour of Dickens, and other classics, popular novels and magazines of the day.

'I generally manage to read a book every time I am at the O.P. as there are generally many hours in the early part of the day when it is too hazy to see anything.'

AFJreading

Magazines which Alfred and colleagues read at the time are held in the Library’s journal collections. A flyer included advertises how reading material was distributed to the troops. The Sphere illustrates the first tube strike in London in 1919, which Alfred discusses with Essie at the time.

Alfred expresses regret at losing out on bonding with his new-born son Christopher in his two year absence. Yet he gained from his experience too: a Military Cross, a vastly enriched literary repertoire, skills in French, German, Italian, and even a new-found tolerance for Americans!

The archive also includes letters from other serving family members. Alfred’s brother-in-law Reggie died of wounds following his involvement in supporting front-line duty. The battles at Loos and Polygon Wood have since become notorious landmarks for reckless objectives in warfare.

'The German Minenwerfers are terrible things, you hear a slight pop & then see the bally thing coming over, it is very hard to judge where they will let, so you are kept in suspense with your eyes protruding out of your head watching the torpedo till it hisses down…. Dugouts werent much use against these blighters.' (20/04/1916)

The young man eagerly describes his knowledge of German and British ammunition, makes frequent requests for Lemon Fizzers from his mother, and tells of his generally uncomfortable experience:

'In the night we have heaps of company, rats & mice & the other livestock.. everytime you wake [the rats] are fighting & squeeking all over you.. the other night one took a flying jump on to my face, he had been washing his feet I believe, it was just like a wet rag.'

In what was to be Reggie’s last letter he anticipated that American involvement would bring about an end to the war; it was to be the last his family heard from him.

'Essie hasn’t given my pants away has she? I shall want them when Peace is declared, which may be soon if America has declared war.' (04/05/1916).

19CountyLondonRegimentPhoto sent on to Reggie's next of kin following his death

Find further stories of servicemen from the British Library collections at Europeana 1914-1918, as well as many commissioned articles exploring the effects of the war.

Layla Fedyk

Cataloguer, Modern Archives and Mss