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Thursday, 19 October 2017

The notorious Lady Craven, Margravine of Brandenburg-Ansbach-Bayreuth

Lady Craven by Romney from Romney by R Davies (1914)
Lady Craven by Romney
from Romney by R Davies (1914)
Profile

Elizabeth, Margravine of Brandenburg-Ansbach-Bayreuth, previous married name Lady Craven (17 December 1750 – buried 13 January 1828), was a playwright and author, notorious for her scandalous affairs during her first marriage to Lord Craven.

Early years

Elizabeth Berkeley was born on 17 December 1750, the youngest daughter of Augustus Berkeley, 4th Earl of Berkeley, and his wife, Elizabeth Drax of Charlborough in Dorset.

The infamous Lady Craven

William Craven, 6th Baron Craven, from   The Beautiful Lady Craven, Lady Craven's   memoirs edited by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)
William Craven, 6th Baron Craven, from 
The Beautiful Lady Craven, Lady Craven's
memoirs edited by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)
On 10 May 1767, at the age of 16, Elizabeth married William Craven (1738-91), a man some twelve years her senior. Two years later he became the 6th Baron Craven on the death of his uncle. They had seven children: Elizabeth (1768); Maria (1769) who married William, 2nd Earl of Sefton; William, 1st Earl of Craven (1770); Georgiana; Arabella; Henry Augustus Berkeley (1776); and Keppel Richard (1779).

The marriage, however, was not a success. Both Elizabeth and her husband indulged in affairs, notably Elizabeth’s scandalous liaison with the French ambassador, the Count of Guines, in 1773, which even made it into the pages of the Morning Chronicle.

The Count, afterwards the Duke, of Guines, from   The Beautiful Lady Craven, Lady Craven's   memoirs edited by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)
The Count, afterwards the Duke, of Guines, from 
The Beautiful Lady Craven, Lady Craven's
memoirs edited by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)
Elizabeth became friends with Horace Walpole, corresponding with him and visiting his home at Strawberry Hill. Some of her early work was published on the Strawberry Hill Press. During this period, she wrote a satire on German snobbery and several plays, including The Miniature Picture, which was put on at Drury Lane in 1780/1.

Horace Walpole  from The Beautiful Lady Craven, Lady Craven's   memoirs edited by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)
Horace Walpole
from The Beautiful Lady Craven, Lady Craven's
memoirs edited by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)
Whilst Lord Craven tolerated Elizabeth’s behaviour, she was still received in society, but in 1783, Lord Craven had had enough. He arranged a separation, giving Elizabeth a settlement of £1,500 a year.

Travel and intrigues

Lady Craven, from   The Beautiful Lady Craven, Lady Craven's   memoirs edited by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)
Lady Craven and her son,
from The Beautiful Lady Craven, Lady Craven's
memoirs edited by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)
Taking her youngest son Keppel with her, Elizabeth went to live near Versailles in France where she wrote plays for the court theatre. She became romantically involved with Henry Vernon, the great nephew of Admiral Edward Vernon, and over the next few years, she travelled extensively in Europe, in France, Italy, Austria, Poland, Bulgaria, Russia, Greece and Turkey. Whilst on her travels, she wrote to Christian Frederick Charles Alexander, the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach-Bayreuth, whom she had met in France. The Margrave was part of the Prussian royal family with a sickly wife back at home.

At the suggestion of Horace Walpole, Elizabeth published the story of her travels, A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople (1789), her most popular work.

Lady Craven and the Margrave of Anspach  from The Beautiful Lady Craven, Lady Craven's   memoirs edited by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)
Lady Craven and the Margrave of Anspach
from The Beautiful Lady Craven, Lady Craven's
memoirs edited by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)
 The Margrave of Ansbach

In 1787, Elizabeth visited her long-time correspondent, the Margrave of Ansbach, and successfully displaced his mistress in his affections. Together they travelled to Berlin to arrange the sale of the Margrave’s principality to the King of Prussia for a very handsome sum. The Margrave’s ailing wife died in early 1791, and Lord Craven followed suit in September. Less than a month later, on 13 October 1791, Elizabeth married the Margrave in Lisbon with great style.

The Margrave of Anspach from The Beautiful   Lady Craven, Lady Craven's memoirs   edited by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)
The Margrave of Anspach from The Beautiful
 Lady Craven, Lady Craven's memoirs
 edited by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)
Brandenburg House

Elizabeth and the Margrave travelled to England and bought a house in Fulham overlooking the Thames which they called Brandenburg House. If Elizabeth had hoped that her wealth and position would see her past indiscretions forgotten, she was to be disappointed.

The Bon Ton in March 1792 said:
The Margravine of Anspach is not visited by any of the leading Ladies of Fashion, although she had not been wanting in sending round her cards of invitation, and calling at their houses. At a ball given at her house a few nights since, to which there was a general invitation, only thirty people of both sexes were present.1
It must have been an even greater blow to Elizabeth that she was not received at court. George III disapproved of her marriage, thinking it unequal – the Margrave was a member of the Prussian royal family and Elizabeth was only the daughter of an earl. The King refused to recognise the title of Princess Berkeley that the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II had bestowed on her.

Despite these setbacks, Elizabeth entertained lavishly at Brandenburg House and frequently put on plays in the little theatre near the house.

Brandenburg House from Old and New London by E Walford (1878)
Brandenburg House from Old and New London by E Walford (1878)
Benham Park

Around 1799, the Margrave bought Benham Park, near Newbury in Berkshire, the country seat of the Cravens. The Margrave took a keen interest in horseracing and bred horses at Benham.

The Margrave died quite suddenly on 5 January 1806 leaving his wife a fortune of around £150,000. Elizabeth erected a huge memorial to him near Benham, on the Bath Road.

The widowed Margravine continued to divide her time between Benham Park and Brandenburg House with occasional trips to Europe.

The Persian ambassador

Mirza Abul Hassan Khan by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1810)  in Fogg Art Museum  Photo by Daderot CCO via Wikimedia Commons
Mirza Abul Hassan Khan by Sir Thomas
Lawrence (1810) in Fogg Art Museum
Photo by Daderot CCO via Wikimedia Commons
Elizabeth entertained the Persian ambassador, Mirza Abul Hassan, several times during his diplomatic visit to England in 1809-10. He first visited Brandenburg House in March 1810. In his journal, he described it as ‘a heavenly house overlooking the Thames’, and wrote of a room full of Chinese porcelain and another full of musical instruments, all of which, he was told, Elizabeth could play. He wrote of Elizabeth that: ‘In her youth she was incomparable in beauty, grace and charm; even now, in old age, her face bears the traces of youthful beauty.’2

The ambassador was back at Brandenburg House on 6 April 1810, during the London riots over Sir Francis Burdett’s arrest. He noted that two of the Margravine’s guests, Lord Keith and his daughter Margaret Mercer Elphinstone, arrived covered with mud, because the rioters had pelted them with stones for refusing to remove their hats.

On 16 May, he was invited to experience the Brandenburg House Theatricals:
Brandenburgh House Theatre was opened yesterday for the first time since the death of the Margrave. Miss Jane Cramer’s performance was much admired. The Persian Ambassador was in the fashionable circle, and the Duke of Kent’s Band attended.3
Queen Caroline and the end of Brandenburg House

In June 1820, Caroline, Princess of Wales, the estranged wife of George IV, returned to England to claim her position as Queen Consort of England. Elizabeth lent Brandenburg House to Queen Caroline, and it was here that Caroline died on 7 August 1821, having failed in her attempt to be crowned Queen. The following February, Elizabeth commissioned the sale of furniture, china and books at Brandenburg House, and in May, the fabric of the building was sold off, including staircases, chimney pieces, doors, windows, and the scenery and machinery of the theatre.

Villa Craven

Elizabeth was living in Villa Craven, her house in Naples, when she wrote her colourful memoirs which were published in 1826. She died two years later and was buried in the British cemetery at Naples on 13 January 1828.

The tomb of the Margravine of Anspach, Naples,   from The Beautiful  Lady Craven, Lady Craven's   memoirs ed by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)
The tomb of the Margravine of Anspach, Naples,
from The Beautiful  Lady Craven, Lady Craven's
 memoirs ed by AM Broadley and L Melville (1914)

Notes
(1) From Craven, Elizabeth Craven, Baroness, The beautiful Lady Craven edited by AM Broadley and Lewis Melville (1914). Ansbach was sometimes spelt Anspach as in this article.
(2) From Hassan Khan, Mirza Abul, A Persian at the Court of King George 1809-10, edited by Margaret Morris Cloake (1988).
(3) From Craven, Elizabeth Craven, Baroness, The beautiful Lady Craven edited by AM Broadley and Lewis Melville (1914). Brandenburg was sometimes spelt Brandenburgh as in this book.

Sources used include:
Davies, Randall, Romney (1914)
Courthope, William, editor, Debrett's Complete Peerage of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1838)
Craven, Elizabeth Craven, Baroness, later Margravine of Brandenburg-Ansbach-Bayreuth, The Beautiful Lady Craven edited by AM Broadley and Lewis Melville (1914)
Hassan Khan, Mirza Abul, A Persian at the Court of King George 1809-10, edited by Margaret Morris Cloake (1988)
Turner, Katherine, Elizabeth, Margravine of Brandenburg-Ansbach-Byreuth (other married name Elizabeth Craven, Lady Craven) (1750-1828) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition May 2010; accessed 9 June 2017)
Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1878, London) Vol 6

LBHF Libraries blog: The end of Brandenburg House

Friday, 6 October 2017

St James's Palace in Regency London

St James's Palace, London (2012)
St James's Palace, London, today
St James’s Palace is a royal palace in London with its main entrance opening onto Pall Mall. 

History of St James’s Palace

St James’s Palace is built on the site of a lepers’ hospital. Henry VIII acquired the land in 1531 and built the palace in the years that followed, naming it St James after the saint to whom the hospital was dedicated. He pulled down the hospital, with the exception of the chapel, and erected a red-brick Tudor palace, and enclosed the nearby meadow to form St James’s Park. 

Charles I stayed at St James’s Palace on the night before his execution and was led through St James’s Park to the scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

After most of the Palace of Whitehall was burnt down in 1698, St James’s Palace became the principal London residence of the monarchy and the setting for state occasions.

View of St James's Palace during the time of Queen Anne from Old and New London (1878)
View of St James's Palace during the time of Queen Anne
from Old and New London by E Walford (1878)
The Court of St James’s

In The history of the Royal Residences, Pyne wrote that after George III’s accession to the throne:
The court was immediately removed to St James’s Palace, the king having issued an order for holding a drawing-room there every Thursday and Sunday.1
The Picture of London for 1813 wrote:
Well-dressed persons who wish to see the nobility and other persons of distinction go to court, on drawing-room days, may easily obtain admission to the ante-room, by permission of the officer of the guard, the yeomen, or other persons in waiting, provided application be made before the court begins. On birth-days, admission may be obtained to the gallery of the ball-room, either by the ticket of a peer, or the introduction of a page, or any person in the royal household. Admission may also be obtained to the Lord Chamberlain's box, but it is necessary to be full dressed. In this, as in most other cases, a small fee, properly applied, is the readiest and most independent passport.2
St James's Palace  from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
St James's Palace
from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
Royal marriages and births

George III and Queen Charlotte were married at St James’s Palace on 8 September 1761. George III bought Buckingham House, what is now Buckingham Palace, for his wife, and this became the main London residence for the royal family. However, it was at St James’s Palace, not Buckingham House, that George III’s first child, the future George IV, was born on 12 August 1762.

Pyne recorded that:
For the gratification of the public, it was announced, before the young prince was twelve days old, that his royal highness was to be seen at St. James’s from one until three o’clock on drawing-room days.3
The future George IV and Princess Caroline of Brunswick were married in the Chapel Royal of St James’s Palace on 8 April 1795.

Princess Caroline of Brunswick by Sir Thomas Lawrence (c1804) © National Portrait Gallery, London George IV when Prince of Wales by John Hoppner (1792) © The Wallace Collection
Princess Caroline of Brunswick by Sir Thomas Lawrence (c1804)
© National Portrait Gallery, London
George IV when Prince of Wales by John Hoppner (1792)
© The Wallace Collection
Fire at St James’s Palace

Old and New London stated:
On the 22nd of January, 1809 … about half-past two in the morning, a fire was discovered in St James's Palace, near the King's back stairs. The whole of the private apartments of the Queen, those of the Duke of Cambridge, the King's court, and the apartments of several persons belonging to the royal household, were destroyed; the most valuable part of the property was preserved.4
Feltham wrote in The Picture of London for 1818:
In 1808 the south-eastern wing of the building was destroyed by fire, and it still continues a vast mass of ruins; the state apartments were, however, uninjured, and the court of George the Third and his Queen were held here. It is said this palace will speedily be pulled down, and on the spot facing St James's Street a grand triumphal arch will be erected, to commemorate the victories of the late war, and to form a grand passage into St James's Park.5
Contrary to Feltham’s expectations, two centuries later, St James’s Palace is still standing, but the king’s private apartments were never rebuilt. The Queen’s Chapel stands apart and is now separated from the rest of St James's Palace by Marlborough Road.

The German Chapel or Queen's Chapel, St James's Palace  from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
The German Chapel or Queen's Chapel, St James's Palace
from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
Residents of St James’s Palace

The Picture of London for 1818 wrote:
The other parts of St James's Palace are very irregular in their form, consisting chiefly of several courts. Some of the detached apartments are occupied by the Duke of Cumberland and the Duke of Clarence, others by the king's servants, and others are granted as a benefit to their occupiers.6
On 31 May 1810, the Duke of Cumberland’s valet, Joseph Sellis, was found dead in the Duke’s apartments in St James’s Palace. The event led to scandalous accusations against the Duke that Sellis had been murdered by his master rather than committing suicide. You can read a full account here:

The exterior of St James’s Palace

St James's Palace from The Beauties of England and Wales Vol X   by EW Brayley, J Nightingale and J Brewer (1814)
St James's Palace from The Beauties of England and Wales Vol X
  by EW Brayley, J Nightingale and J Brewer (1814)
The outside of the palace was not universally admired. The Microcosm of London wrote:
This royal residence, it must be acknowledged, does not wear an appearance suited to the character of the sovereign who there holds his court; or to the power, wealth, and extent of that empire which he governs. Foreigners, accustomed to view the magnificence of the continental palaces, never fail to express their astonishment at its unappropriate exterior: and some of their travelling writers have almost doubted the affection of the English people for their kings, by permitting them to inhabit a structure so inferior in its figure to the proud character of the metropolis in which it is situated, and to the high claims of the monarch of the most opulent nation of the world.7
The Picture of London for 1810 was not so harsh:
The external appearance of this palace is inconsiderable, yet certainly not mean. It is a brick building; that part in which the rooms of state are, being only one story, gives it a regular appearance on the outside.8
The Microcosm of London continued:
It is an irregular, heavy, brick building, but of considerable extent, and is not relieved by any ornaments. In the front which presents itself to St James's-street, is a Gothic arched gateway, with embattled towers, which leads into a square court, where the company of guards on duty is daily relieved, and where it parades in form on state days: the colours are fixed in the center of it. On the south and west sides are handsome colonnades, forming a covered passage to the great staircase, which is at the south-west corner of it. There are two other courts beyond it, besides an inhabited open space, called the Stable-yard, but they do not deviate from the ordinary appearance of the rest of the structure; though some of their apartments have an agreeable view over the garden, as well as St James's and the Green parks.9
Courtyard of St James's Palace in 1875  from Old and New London by E Walford (1878)
Courtyard of St James's Palace in 1875
from Old and New London by E Walford (1878)
A tour of St James’s Palace

The writer of The Microcosm of London felt the interior of the palace was much superior to its exterior:
The Palace … has, for many years, been employed merely as the scene of the royal drawing-rooms on court days; but, with all its disadvantages as to exterior appearance, the number, succession, and proportions of its apartments are such, for every display of regal state and ceremonial connected with a court, that it may be said, we believe, to rival the most admired palaces of foreign princes.10
The Chapel Royal

On the west side of the first and principal court is the chapel royal, which is the same as belonged to the ancient hospital; and, ever since the demolition of that building, has been converted to the use of the royal family.
Before the King made Windsor the principal place of his residence, he always went, attended by the royal family, in great state, to the chapel on Sundays, and after divine service there was a regular drawing-room.11
Old and New London described the Chapel Royal:
It is oblong in plan, and plain, and has nothing about it to call for particular mention, excepting, perhaps, the ceiling, which is divided into small painted squares, the design of which was executed by Hans Holbein.12
The Chapel Royal, St James's Palace  from Old and New London by E Walford (1878)
The Chapel Royal, St James's Palace
from Old and New London by E Walford (1878)
The State apartments

The Microcosm of London wrote:
The state apartments are of handsome proportions, and range in commodious succession; but they do not contain those superb decorations or splendid furniture, which might be expected to adorn the residence of George the Third.13
Old and New London wrote:
The State Apartments, in the south front of the Palace, face the garden and St James's Park. The sovereign enters by the gate on this side; it was here, on the 2nd of August, 1786, that Margaret Nicholson made an attempt to assassinate George III as he was alighting from his carriage.14
The Microcosm of London continued:
The entrance to these rooms is by the staircase that opens into the principal court next Pall-Mall. The guard-rooms are at the top of it: that to the left is called the Queen's, that to the right is the King's, which leads to the apartments, and is occupied by the yeomen of the guard.15
Guard Chamber, St James's Palace  from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
Guard Chamber, St James's Palace
from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
Immediately beyond the latter is the King's presence-chamber, where the band of pensioners range themselves on court-days.16
King's Presence Chamber, St James's Palace  from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
King's Presence Chamber, St James's Palace
from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
That is a mere passage-room to the principal apartments, of which there are five, opening into each other, and fronting the park. The center room is called the privy-chamber, with a canopy of state, which is used on one peculiar occasion that very seldom occurs; when his Majesty receives an address from the people called Quakers.
On the right are two drawing-rooms en suite: the first serves as an antichamber to the latter, which is called the grand council-chamber, and where the councils of state were held when this Palace was inhabited by the royal family. At the upper end is a canopy, beneath which the King receives addresses delivered in form to the throne. In the center of the room is suspended a large chandelier of silver gilt. The canopy of the throne was put up on account of the union of the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, and was displayed on the first drawing-room after that event, which happened to be the Queen's birth-day. It is of crimson velvet, bordered with a broad gold lace, and enriched with embroidered crowns, set with fine pearls. The shamrock, the badge of the Irish nation, forms one of the decorations of the crown, and is accurately executed. It is the apartment in which their Majesties hold their drawing-rooms.17
A drawing room at St James's Palace from The Microcosm of London by R Ackermann and W Combe (1808-10)
A drawing room at St James's Palace
from The Microcosm of London by R Ackermann and W Combe (1808-10)
To the left of the center room, are two levee-rooms; the first serving as an antichamber to the other. They retained their old and worn-out furniture, till the marriage of the Prince of Wales, when they were fitted up in their present state. The walls are now covered with very beautiful tapestry, whose colours are quite fresh, though it was fabricated for Charles II. It had never been put up, but had lain forgotten, during the long interval of so many years, among the useless lumber of the Palace, till it was accidentally discovered in an old chest, some time previous to the occasion which suggested the appropriate use that has been made of it. In the grand levee-room a very superb bed was put up at the same time. The furniture is of crimson velvet, manufactured in Spitalfields.18
Old and New London wrote of the old Presence Chamber or Tapestry Chamber:
When a drawing-room is held, a person attends here to receive the cards containing the names of the parties to be presented, a duplicate being handed to the lord in waiting, to prevent the presentation of persons not entitled to that privilege.19
Queen's Levée Room, St James's Palace  from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
Queen's Levée Room, St James's Palace
from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
Old and New London wrote:
The "Royal Closet" is the name conventionally given to the room in which the Queen gives audiences to ambassadors, and also receives an address annually on her birthday from the clergy of the Established Church.20
The Microcosm of London concluded:
The ball-room is in that part of the Palace which stretches on to the Stable-yard. It is of considerable dimensions, with ranges of seats above each other for the court: there is a gallery at one end for the musicians, and two side galleries for the spectators. The area is for the dancers and the royal circle. It used to be employed for the court balls on birth-nights and other royal festivities, when the assembled company formed a magnificent and splendid spectacle; but it does not in itself possess the least decoration. It is painted of one colour; nor does it appear to have been refreshed by the brush for many a year. But these festal scenes have been omitted for many seasons; and indeed the Palace itself is only used for purposes of state.21
Old bedchamber

Pyne wrote:
The old bedchamber is the last room at the east end of the south front of St James’s Palace, looking into the garden; the apartments east of which were destroyed by the fire that happened there a few years since.22
Old Bedchamber, St James's Palace  from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
Old Bedchamber, St James's Palace
from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
The kitchens

Kitchen, St James's Palace  from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
Kitchen, St James's Palace
from The History of he Royal Residences by WH Pyne (1819)
St James’s Palace today

St James’s Palace is still a working palace today and houses various royal officials and is the London residence of some members of the royal family. The Queen’s Chapel is occasionally open to the public.

St James's Palace today (2012)
St James's Palace today
Notes
(1) Pyne, WH, The History of the Royal Residences of Windsor Castle, St James's Palace, Carlton House, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, Buckingham House and Frogmore (1819).
(2) Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1813 (1813).
(3) Pyne op cit.
(4) Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1878, London) Vol 4.
(5) Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818).
(6) Ibid.
(7) Ackermann, Rudolph and Combe, William, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 3 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904).
(8) Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810).
(9) Ackermann op cit.
(10) Ackermann op cit.
(11) Ackermann op cit.
(12) Walford op cit.
(13) Ackermann op cit.
(14) Walford op cit.
(15) Ackermann op cit.
(16) Ackermann op cit.
(17) Ackermann op cit.
(18) Ackermann op cit.
(19) Walford op cit.
(20) Walford op cit.
(21) Ackermann op cit.
(22) Pyne op cit.

Sources used include:
Ackermann, Rudolph and Combe, William, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 3 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
Brayley, Edward Wedlake, Nightingale, J and Brewer, J, The Beauties of England and Wales Vol X part II (London and Middlesex)(1814)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1810 (1810)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1813 (1813)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
Pyne, WH, The History of the Royal Residences of Windsor Castle, St James's Palace, Carlton House, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, Buckingham House and Frogmore (1819)
Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1878, London) Vol 4

Royal Residences website
All photos © regencyhistory.net

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Covent Garden Theatre burns down 20 September 1808

Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, from The Microcosm of London Vol 1 (1808)
Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, from The Microcosm of London Vol 1 (1808)
The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, was completely destroyed by fire in the early hours of the morning of 20 September 1808.

Patty Wilkinson, the daughter of the actor-manager Tate Wilkinson and long-time companion of Mrs Siddons, said that
... before the audience left the house, she perceived a strong smell of fire while she was sitting in Mr. Kemble's box, and spoke of it to several of the servants as she was passing to Mrs. Siddons's dressing-room; but they said that it was only the smell of the lamps in the front of the stage.1
According to the Microcosm of London:
The building was discovered to be on fire, after midnight, on the 19th of September, 1808; and so irresistible were the flames, that before five o’clock on the following morning, nothing remained but an heap of smoking ruins. The real cause of this fatal catastrophe has never been discovered, nor has even a probable conjecture been formed as to the origin of the conflagration.2
The terrible fire was generally attributed ‘to the wadding of a gun, that was discharged in the performance of "Pizarro," having lodged unperceived in some crevice of the scenery.’3

A dreadful loss of life

The Picture of London for 1818 wrote:
But the destruction of the Theatre itself formed but a small part of the calamity: an engine had been introduced within the avenue opening from the Piazza, when, dreadful to relate, the covering of the passage fell in, and involved all beneath in the burning rubbish. The remains of fourteen unfortunate sufferers were afterwards dug out, in a most shocking state; and sixteen others, in whom life remained, were sent to the hospital, most miserably mangled and burnt.4
Another account reported ‘twenty-three firemen being killed by the unexpected fall of a part of the ruins.’5

Campbell’s Life of Mrs Siddons stated:
A number of firemen were crushed under the falling-in of the burning roof, and several unfortunate individuals, having approached the conflagration too nearly, were scalded to death by the steam of the water that arose from it. I shudder in calculating the number of victims —they must have amounted to thirty! Many of them were dug out of the ruins in such a state that they could not be identified.6
Harriot Mellon’s concern

Harriot Mellon as Volante  from The Life of Thomas Coutts Banker  by EH Coleridge (1920)
Harriot Mellon as Volante
from The Life of Thomas Coutts Banker
by EH Coleridge (1920)
The fire spread to some of the neighbouring houses which were also burnt down. In her memoirs of the actress Harriot Mellon, who later became the Duchess of St Albans, Mrs Cornwell Baron Wilson wrote:
Miss Mellon, who was a great coward respecting fire, was almost out of her senses at the proximity of the flames to her house in Little Russell Street. But when a report arrived that several walls had fallen in and buried a number of poor creatures, her whole anxiety was for their rescue from their dreadful sufferings, if still alive.
Accordingly, with her usual promptitude, she took every measure to aid the great cause of humanity. The compiler of these volumes, on the evening after the fire, when returning home from school under charge of one of her father’s servants, begged hard to be taken to see the ruins. The crowd was alarming; and the servant carried her as near as was practicable, which was to the theatrical book-seller's shop, nearly opposite, which is still kept there.
Many workmen were engaged in digging out the bodies of the unfortunate persons who were buried under the ruins; and they worked by torchlight at their sad occupation. At the door of the bookseller's shop was placed a large barrel of ale, ordered by Miss Mellon, from which the labourers were supplied by her directions. In the drawing-room window above stood Miss Mellon herself, all anxiety, earnestly urging the men to proceed, and offering five pounds for each of those who were brought out alive, and two pounds for each body of the hapless creatures who perished. She was dressed in a blue satin pelisse, looking lovely in her anxiety; and each time she appeared at the window she was received with animated cheers by the crowd, who seemed ready to worship her.

While remaining there, eight individuals were exhumated, and Miss Mellon distributed her rewards; but life was extinct in all, and they were carried to St Paul's churchyard, Covent Garden.7
The unfortunate Mr Webb

One victim of the catastrophe was only discovered three months after the fire. A report in The Gentleman’s Magazine, dated 10 January 1809, said:
The workmen employed in clearing away the ruins of Covent Garden Theatre at the Piazza door, where the Phoenix engine, with the firemen, were so unfortunately destroyed, dug out, near the cistern, the body of a young man, not burnt, but much bruised. It proves to be the son of Mr Webb, of Tottenham-court-road, and had been missing ever since that dreadful morning; but his parents, until the discovery of the corpse, had flattered themselves with the delusive hope that he had been either trepanned into a regiment of the line, or been impressed into the Navy.8
Irreplaceable losses

The loss of property was estimated at £150,000 of which only £50,000 was covered by insurance. Not only the building, but all its contents were destroyed. This included the organ bequeathed to the theatre by Handel and many pages of unpublished manuscript music. All the scenery, costumes, musical and dramatic libraries were lost. In addition, the wines of the famous Beefsteak Club which were stored there were destroyed.

It was a particular blow to the Kemble family. John Kemble, part-owner and manager, was ruined. He had invested everything and more in the theatre and had not repaid what he had borrowed. But Kemble was fortunate in his patrons, who were eager to provide him with the resources to rebuild the theatre. George, Prince of Wales, gave Kemble £1,000 and the Duke of Northumberland gave him £10,000, refusing to make it a loan.

Kemble’s sister, the great tragedienne Sarah Siddons, lost her entire wardrobe – the costumes and jewellery that she had collected over her long career, including the French Queen’s veil which was worth £1,000 alone.

Mrs Siddons from The Portfolio ed PG Hamerton (1894)
Mrs Siddons from The Portfolio ed PG Hamerton (1894)
A new theatre rises from the ashes

Extra funds were raised by issuing subscription shares of £500 each and work was soon underway to rebuild the theatre. George, Prince of Wales, laid the foundation stone on 31 December 1808, and within ten months, the new theatre was finished. The new Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, opened on 18 September 1809.

Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, from Ackermann's Repository (1809)
Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, from Ackermann's Repository (1809)
Notes
1. From Campbell, Thomas, Life of Mrs Siddons (1834).
2. From Ackermann, Rudolph and Combe, William, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 3 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904).
3. From Campbell, Thomas, Life of Mrs Siddons (1834).
4. Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818).
5. Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1873, London) Vol 3.
6. From Campbell, Thomas, Life of Mrs Siddons (1834).
7. From Wilson, Mrs Cornwell Baron, Memoirs of Miss Mellon, afterwards Duchess of St Albans new edition Vol 1 (1886).
8. From The Gentleman’s Magazine (1809).

Sources used include:
Ackermann, Rudolph and Combe, William, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 3 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
Campbell, Thomas, Life of Mrs Siddons (1834)
Feltham, John, The Picture of London for 1818 (1818)
The Gentleman’s Magazine (1809)
Walford, Edward, Old and New London: A narrative of its history, its people, and its places (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1873, London) Vol 3
Wilson, Mrs Cornwell Baron, Memoirs of Miss Mellon, afterwards Duchess of St Albans new edition Vol 1 (1886)