Search this blog

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Queen of the bluestockings: Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800)

Elizabeth Montagu from a print on display in Dr Johnson's House Museum
Elizabeth Montagu from a print on display
in Dr Johnson's House Museum
Mrs Montagu is an important character in A Perfect Match. She is an old friend of Alicia Westlake's father and it is while visiting her house in Portman Square that Alicia first comes face to face with the intriguing Mr Merry. 


Elizabeth Montagu (2 October 1718 - 25 August 1800) was a bluestocking hostess and the author of An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare (1769).

Family background

Elizabeth Robinson was born in York on 2 October 1718 (1), the daughter of Matthew Robinson and his wife Elizabeth Drake. Both families were wealthy and well-connected, and the family estate included land in Yorkshire and Cambridge and later Kent.

Mount Morris, Monks Horton, Kent,  main residence of Elizabeth's family from the 1730s
Mount Morris, Monks Horton, Kent,
main residence of Elizabeth's family from the 1730s
Elizabeth had seven brothers and one sister, Sarah, with whom she was very close. The girls were taught Latin, French and Italian as well as classical and English literature and history.


Elizabeth often stayed with her maternal grandmother and her second husband, Dr Conyers Middleton, who was a respected Cambridge academic. Elizabeth developed an appreciation for lively intellectual conversation both with her parents and in the Middleton household.

Her nephew wrote: “Her uncommon sensibility and acuteness of understanding, as well as her extraordinary beauty as a child, rendered her an object of great notice in the University”.(2)

Whilst in Cambridge, Elizabeth became friends with Lady Margaret Harley, daughter of the Earl of Oxford, who married William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland in 1734. Lady Margaret’s mother gave her the nickname Fidget. She visited the Duchess of Portland in London and widened her network of acquaintances to include Mary Pendarves (3), the poet Edward Young and Gilbert West.

Elizabeth Montagu  from The Letters of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu (1810)
Elizabeth Montagu
from The Letters of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu (1810)

On 5 August 1742, Elizabeth married Edward Montagu, a man nearly thirty years her senior. He was a grandson of the 1st Earl of Sandwich and MP for Huntingdon and owned coalmines and estates in Northumberland, Yorkshire and Berkshire.

They had one son, John, whom they called Punch, who was born on 11 May 1743 in London. Elizabeth was devastated when he died suddenly in September 1744 and from this time onwards, she became increasingly religious.

After 1750, Elizabeth and Edward lived in London in Hill Street, Mayfair, but visited Sandleford Priory, their Berkshire estate near Newbury, in the spring and summer. The couple remained on friendly terms, but often spent time apart. Edward often visited his estates in the north alone whilst at various times, Elizabeth visited Bath, Tunbridge Wells, Paris, the Rhineland, the Low Countries and the Scottish highlands.

Literary hostess

Elizabeth became one of the three leading literary or bluestocking hostesses, together with Elizabeth Vesey and Frances Boscawen.

She started by inviting people to literary breakfasts and by 1760, she was hosting large evening assemblies where intellectual conversation and not cards was the central attraction. According to Fanny Burney, the chairs were arranged in a semi-circle in order to facilitate discussion.(4) 

Fanny Burney  from Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay (1846)
Fanny Burney
from Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay (1846)
An introduction to Mrs Montagu’s was seen as a way to securing patronage. Her visitors included Dr Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David and Eva Garrick, Horace Walpole, William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, Elizabeth Carter, Hester Thrale, Mary Delany (3), James Boswell, George Lyttelton, James Beattie, Hannah More, Fanny Burney, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Sarah Fielding, Hester Chapone, and Anna Williams.

Elizabeth Montagu's protegée, Hannah More,  from Memoirs of the life and correspondence   of Mrs Hannah More  by William Roberts (1835)
Elizabeth Montagu's protegée, Hannah More,
from Memoirs of the life and correspondence 
of Mrs Hannah More  by William Roberts (1835)
The critical writer

Hester Thrale described Elizabeth as “the first woman for literary knowledge in England, and if in England, I hope I may say in the world”.(5)

But although hailed as a great writer, Elizabeth had very little published. Apart from her contributions to Lyttelton’s Dialogues of the Dead (1760), her only published work was her critical An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare (1769), supporting the English playwright’s work against Voltaire’s criticisms. It was very well received, but it included criticism of Samuel Johnson’s work and damaged her relationship with him.

“The wittiest woman in this Country”

Elizabeth was a brilliant conversationalist. Hannah More described her as having “a large and manly as well as a gay and brilliant mind, much veracity, kindness and great fidelity in friendship”.(6) She also declared that Elizabeth was “without exception the wittiest woman in this Country”(7) whilst Samuel Johnson is said to have nicknamed her “Queen of the Blues”.

Samuel Johnson,  from The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (1791)
Samuel Johnson,
from The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (1791)
Elizabeth was painted as one of the nine women depicted as muses in Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel (1778).


Fanny Burney described her as “middle-sized, very thin, and looks infirm; she has a sensible and penetrating countenance, and the air and manner of a woman accustomed to being distinguished, and of great parts”. (8)

Her nephew said: “She was of the middle stature, and stooped a little, which gave an air of modesty to her countenance.”(2)

A domineering woman

Elizabeth was a forceful character and this often came out in her letters, as did her strong opinions. She believed in the independence of women and that marriage was a matter of wealth and connections. She was interested in politics and was fiercely loyal to the crown.

Her sister, Sarah, lived as her companion for some years before getting married. It has been suggested that it was a wish to be free of her sister’s overbearing behaviour that pushed Sarah into her brief, unhappy marriage.

Elizabeth was apt to fall out with people who did not agree with her. In 1772, Dorothea Gregory, a doctor’s daughter from Edinburgh, became Elizabeth’s ward. Elizabeth treated her like a daughter and intended her for her nephew, but when Dorothea fell in love with and agreed to marry a penniless suitor, Elizabeth was furious and cast her off.


On 12 May 1775, Edward Montagu died, leaving Elizabeth almost his entire estate – an income of around £7000 per annum. She successfully managed her business affairs and was generous with her money.

She granted annuities to indigent writers and patronised promising new talent, such as Hannah More’s Bristol milkmaid turned poet, Ann Yearsley. Sadly, this attempt at benevolence ended badly; their desire to manage the poet’s income led to a scandalous break with her patrons.

Portman Square

Portman Square, from Ackermann's Repository of Arts (Aug 1813)
Portman Square, from Ackermann's Repository of Arts (Aug 1813)
In 1777, Elizabeth commissioned James Stuart to build Montagu House in Portman Square. She was finally able to move in in late 1781 and continue her literary assemblies here. She had a special room made to display her feather work – a huge tapestry made entirely from feathers which Queen Charlotte visited Montagu House to see.

Montagu House, 22 Portman Square, from The Private Palaces   of London past and present by EB Chancellor (1908)
Montagu House, 22 Portman Square, from The Private Palaces
 of London past and present by EB Chancellor (1908)
Elizabeth gave an annual entertainment in Portman Square for London climbing boys.


Elizabeth Montagu died on 25 August 1800. She left her entire estate to her nephew, Matthew Robinson Montagu, later Baron Rokeby.

(1) Some sources give her date of birth as 2 October 1720.
(2) From The Letters of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, published by Matthew Montagu (1810).
(3) Mary Pendarves (neé Granville) became Mary Delany on her second marriage in 1743.
(4) From Burney memoirs as quoted in Hannah More, The First Victorian by Anne Stott (2003).
(5) From Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay, volume 1, 23 Aug 1778.
(6) From a letter by Hannah More 2 Sept 1800 quoted in Hannah More, The First Victorian by Anne Stott (2003).
(7) From a letter by Hannah More 1 Sept 1800 quoted in Hannah More, The First Victorian by Anne Stott (2003).
(8) From Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay, volume 1.

Sources used include:
Burney, Fanny, Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay, edited by her niece, Charlotte Barrett (Henry Colburn, 1846, London)
Chancellor, E Beresford, The Private Palaces of London past and present (1908)
Eger, Elizabeth, Bluestocking circle (c1755-c1795), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, online edn Jan 2012, accessed 7 June 2012)
Montagu, Elizabeth, ed Climenson, Emily, Elizabeth Montagu, The Queen of the Bluestockings, her correspondence from 1720-1761 (1906)
Montagu, Elizabeth, The Letters of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, pub Matthew Montagu (1810)
Schnorrenberg, Barbara Brandon, Montagu, Elizabeth (1718-1800) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn May 2009, accessed 7 June 2012)
Stott, Anne, Hannah More, The First Victorian (2003)

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Regency History's guide to Kew Palace

Kew Palace - front view
Kew Palace - front entrance
Where is it?

Kew Palace is situated within the botanical gardens at Kew in London.


Kew Palace was built for a rich merchant in the 1630s with its distinctive curved gables on each façade and characteristic red colour. It is sometimes referred to as the Red House or the Dutch House. It was first used as a royal residence in 1729 by George II and Queen Caroline as a home for their eldest daughters.

Kew Palace - rear view
Kew Palace - rear view
The palace was given to the public by Queen Victoria and is now under the care of Historic Royal Palaces.

Georgian connection

Early Georgian

From 1728, George II’s eldest daughters, Anne, Caroline and Amelia, lived in Kew Palace whilst Frederick, Prince of Wales, lived in the White House, a larger building which used to stand opposite.

After his estrangement from his father, Frederick lived at Kew with his wife, Princess Augusta, and his growing family. Princess Augusta was a keen botanist and promoted the development of Kew Gardens. She also kept a menagerie of animals.

George III had lessons with his brother Edward in Kew Palace. When his father died in 1751, Princess Augusta managed to persuade the King to allow her shy 13 year old son to stay with her at Kew.

Desk, Kew Palace
Desk, Kew Palace
Late Georgian

The nursery

In 1764, George III’s eldest sons, George and Frederick, were quarantined with whooping cough in Kew Palace.

After this, George III and Queen Charlotte began to use Kew as additional accommodation for their ever increasing family and after the death of George III’s mother, Princess Augusta, in 1772, they began to use the White House as their country retreat rather than Richmond Lodge. George and Frederick had their own establishment in Kew Palace.

At Kew, George III and Queen Charlotte led a more normal family life. They played cricket, celebrated birthdays and had picnics at Queen Charlotte’s Cottage in the gardens, with the Queen’s menagerie nearby.

Queen Charlotte's Cottage
Queen Charlotte's Cottage
From 1776, George III spent more time at Windsor and visited Kew less frequently, although the royal nursery remained at Kew.

George III’s illness

When George III became mentally unstable in 1788, he was confined in apartments in the White House at Kew and again in 1801 while the Queen and Princesses stayed in Kew Palace. On a further recurrence of his illness in 1804, he was confined in Kew Palace itself.

Around 1800, George III planned to build a Gothic castellated palace at Kew, but it was never completed. He visited Kew for the last time in 1806 and work on the new palace was abandoned.

Queen Charlotte's bedroom, Kew Palace
Queen Charlotte's bedroom, Kew Palace
In June 1818, Queen Charlotte became ill on her way to Windsor and was forced to stay at Kew. She became too ill to move and so the double wedding of Edward, Duke of Kent, and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Leiningen, and William, Duke of Clarence, and Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, was conducted in the Queen’s drawing room at Kew Palace on 11 July 1818.

Queen Charlotte died in Kew Palace on 17 November 1818.

What can you see today?

• A wax head of George III made by Madame Tussaud from life

Wax head of George III  made by Madame Tussaud
Wax head of George III
made by Madame Tussaud
• The chair that Queen Charlotte is supposed to have died in

The chair that Queen Charlotte died in
The chair that Queen Charlotte reportedly died in
 • George III’s harpsichord

George III's harpsichord  in the Queen's Drawing Room at Kew Palace
George III's harpsichord
in the Queen's drawing room at Kew Palace
• George III’s bath (in the kitchens)

George III’s bath
George III’s bath
 • The hatchment displayed at the palace after Queen Charlotte’s death

  The hatchment displayed at Kew Palace  after Queen Charlotte’s death
The hatchment displayed at the palace
after Queen Charlotte’s death
• Costumed guides

Costumed guides at the front entrance to Kew Palace
Costumed guides Alice Painting and Mary Ruane
at the front entrance to Kew Palace (June 2013)
Last visited: June 2013.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy my guide to Kensington Palace.
To discover more about Kew, read my guides to Queen Charlotte's Cottage and the White House.

Sources used include:
Groom, Susanne and Prosser, Lee, Kew Palace, the official illustrated history (2006)

Photographs © Andrew Knowles -

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Regency History’s guide to Kensington Palace

Front view of Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace, London
Where is it?

Kensington Palace is situated in Kensington Gardens in London.


Kensington Palace started life as a Jacobean mansion built around 1605. It was bought by William III and Mary II in 1689 and was transformed into a royal palace by Sir Christopher Wren so that the King and Queen could live away from the London air.

The palace was first opened to the public in 1899 and is now in the care of Historic Royal Palaces.

Georgian connections

View of Kensington Palace through gate
Kensington Palace, London
George I and George II both used Kensington Palace as one of their principal residences, but after the death of Queen Caroline in 1737, much of the palace fell into disrepair.

Neither George III nor his sons, George IV and William IV, chose to live at Kensington Palace. They granted “Grace and Favour” apartments to courtiers and members of the royal family.

Kensington Palace residents included Caroline of Brunswick, George IV’s estranged wife; the Duke and Duchess of Kent and their daughter, the future Queen Victoria; and Princess Sophia, daughter of George III.

What should the Georgian enthusiast look out for?

• George III’s coronation robes

George III's coronation robes on display in Kensington Palace
George III's coronation robes, Kensington Palace
• The room where Queen Victoria was born

Room in Kensington Palace where Queen Victoria was born with inset plaque stating her date of birth
Room where Queen Victoria was born , Kensington Palace
 • The state apartments of George II and Queen Caroline

State apartment, Kensington Palace
State apartment, Kensington Palace
Last visit: August 2012

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy my guide to Kew Palace.

Sources used:
Kensington Palace official website

Photographs © Andrew Knowles -

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

"Successful Blogging" workshop with Rachel Knowles

I am delighted to announce my involvement with the Purbeck Literary Festival next month.

Poster for Purbeck Literary Festival 2014

I will be running a workshop entitled Successful Blogging in the village of Corfe Castle, just a stone's throw from the stunning castle ruins.

Interactive workshop

What is a successful blog? How can I persuade more people to read my blog? How should I deal with comments? How do I get started?

Whether you are looking for tips on how to increase your readership or are yet to write your first post, this workshop will help you identify your blogging goals and give you tips on how to achieve them.

Corfe Castle
Corfe Castle
When and where?

When: Friday 28 February
Time: 10.30am-1pm
Where: Corfe Castle Village Hall, Corfe Castle, Dorset
Cost: £6

Sorry - there is no online booking system. Tickets are available from:
Swanage Tourist Information Centre Tel. 01929 422885
Discover Purbeck Information Centre Tel. 01929 552740

My event page is here.
For more information about the rest of the festival, go to the Purbeck Literary Festival website.

Find some tips from my blogging workshop here.

Photographs © Andrew Knowles -

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Great Gale in Weymouth and Portland

A wild sea off Portland, January 2014
The sea off Portland 7 January 2014
UK storms - January 2014

The UK has been battered by storms this week. Strong winds and heavy rain have caused severe flooding in some parts, with ferocious seas and swollen rivers bursting their banks. Down the road from where I live in Weymouth, the road over to the Isle of Portland was closed and the siren was sounded to indicate that the sea defences had been breached. Chesil Beach has been re-sculpted. Instead of steps of shingle down to the sea, there is now a steep wall of pebbles.

Aerial view of Chesil Beach, January 2014
Chesil Beach 7 January 2014
The storm of 23 November 1824

But this is nothing to the damage caused by the storm of 22-23 November 1824, known as the “Great Gale”. The storm that hit the south coast of England on the night of the 22 November 1824 is the worst that Weymouth and Portland has ever seen. Hurricane-force winds combined with spring tides to produce tsunami-like waves that topped Chesil Beach.

Chiswell village destroyed

The sea water crashed over the top of Chesil Beach, crushing the village of Chiswell with the force of the sea. More than 30 houses were destroyed and many more made uninhabitable. At least 25 people lost their lives, swept away by the water or crushed beneath the ruins of their homes.

The Gentleman’s Magazine reported: “The destruction of lives and property at Chiswell, Portland Island, Dorset, has been most dreadful; about twenty men, women, and children, were found dead and missing, and more than two hundred persons were without a habitation, and not a particle of property left them. There was scarcely a boat left out of the great number that belonged to the fishermen of the island. Whole streets were swept away in less than half an hour from the time the sea first made in, which was about six o’clock in the morning, and the cries of despair and suffering of the poor unfortunates upon whom the houses were falling, was dreadful. Numbers were dangerously wounded and bruised in their courageous and humane endeavours to rescue others from death.” (1)

Disaster at Ferry Bridge

A view of Portland from a Weymouth guidebook from 1857
The Isle of Portland from Weymouth as a Watering Place (1857)
The wild waters eroded Chesil’s pebbled bank and “the Chisel Bank throughout its whole extent was lowered some twenty to thirty feet” (2).

The rope-drawn ferry that operated between the mainland of Weymouth at Wyke and the Isle of Portland, was destroyed by the storm. The ferryman’s cottage was swept away and the ferryman was drowned trying to save a horse.

The sandbank which had previously enabled horses and wagons to drive across to the Island at low water was completely washed away and the gap between Wyke and Portland was four times as big. For some days, Portland was completely cut off from the mainland.

Weymouth seafront smashed to pieces

A view of Weymouth seafront from a Weymouth guidebook from 1835
Weymouth seafront
from Weymouth and Melcombe Regis New Guide
by E Groves (1835)
The rector of Wyke recorded: “The pier of Weymouth Harbour was materially damaged, and three fourths of the esplanade at Melcombe Regis entirely thrown down and demolished.” (2) The stone posts and chains were pulled from their places and destroyed. Waves poured over the road and flooded the houses on the seafront in Gloucester Row and the Crescent with sand, water and gravel. Boats were torn from their moorings and destroyed or carried down the main streets as if they were at sea.

At a place called the Narrows where the Weymouth backwater joined the sea over the road, two people were swept away and drowned.

The Gentleman’s Magazine reported: “The breakwater, and nearly the whole of the esplanade are washed away. The houses near the sea had four feet of water on their basements.” (1)

At the Preston end of Weymouth, the sea again swept over the road and flooded “Lodmor flat” – where Lodmoor Country Park is today.

A stone on Weymouth seafront commemorating
the destruction of Weymouth esplanade in 1824
More local destruction

Further west along the coast at Abbotsbury, seven metres of floodwater were recorded. At East Fleet, a tidal wave picked up a haystack and other debris and crashed into the village. The church and several cottages were wrecked. In Dorchester, a falling chimney stack killed the Reverend Richman and his wife in their bed.


The storm wrought havoc on the seas causing shipwrecks all along the Dorset coast. The West Indiamen Carvalho and Colville were wrecked on Chesil Beach.

A close-up shot of an old map of Weymouth and Portland showing the words Portland Road

The Gentleman’s Magazine reported: “Off Weymouth, a large ship, entitled the Colville, was wrecked, and every soul on board perished. Seventeen of the dead bodies were thrown up by the sea.” (1)

One of those who drowned – Henry Gosling - was determined not to be buried in an unmarked grave and wrote his name and address on a piece of his shirt and tied it around his neck before he died.

The Ebenezer was more fortunate. The huge waves tossed the ship high onto Chesil Beach; its captain and one crew member were drowned, but the rest were saved. After being repaired, it was relaunched on the Weymouth side of Chesil Beach rather than attempting to lift it back over the top.

(1) From The Gentleman’s Magazine (1824)
(2) From a record of the storm by George Chamberlaine, Rector of Wyke church, written in the back of the baptismal register on 16 December 1824 as quoted in All about Ferry Bridge by Doug Hollings (1993).

Sources used include:
Attwooll, Maureen, Shipwrecks (Discover Dorset series) (1998)
Ellis, George, The History and Antiquities of the Borough and Town of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis (1829)
Hollings, Doug, All about Ferry Bridge (or Smallmouth) (1993)
Simpkin & Marshall, Weymouth as a Watering Place (1857)
The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle (1824)
Tucker (pub), Tucker's Improved Weymouth Guide (1851)

Photographs © Andrew Knowles -