In this latest blog post for the Georgian Lords, Dr Charles Littleton, senior research fellow on the Lords 1715-1790 section, considers a surprise find among the personal papers of a Whig peer in the early years of the eighteenth century.
Historical gems can turn up in unexpected places and in initially unpromising sources. Charles Bennet, 2nd Baron Ossulston, is a case in point. In the first two decades of the eighteenth century he was a wealthy peer, with a widely-dispersed landed estate and an opulent townhouse in St James’s Square. George I created him earl of Tankerville in 1714, appointed him to his privy council, and gave him a government sinecure.
[J.Bowles, View of St James’s Square, source: Wikipedia]
We know a good deal about Tankerville because the papers of the Bennet family were deposited with the masters in Chancery for a number of disputes concerning Tankerville’s will after his death in 1722. There are close to 15 large boxes of miscellaneous papers concerning his financial affairs which were never reclaimed by the family and are now at the National Archives [TNA, C 104/81, 82, 83, 113, 114, 116, 147, 148, 149, 150]. Buried among them are five volumes of a diary spanning the period 1703 to 1712. This ‘diary’ is largely a bald, and illegibly scribbled, account of the many acquaintances the then Baron Ossulston dined with each day. It does not tell us about the inner man, but does reveal the political circles in which he travelled, and provides occasional glimpses of his involvement in the House of Lords.
There is also a bundle of papers containing about 107 love letters endorsed ‘Letters from Mrs Sidney to the late Lord Tankerville etc, about they knew what’. The letters are exclusively from a Mrs Sarah Sidney to Ossulston and extracts from one (with spelling and punctuation modernized) can give a sense of their content, tone and intensity:
I’m in prodigious good humour tonight from the hopes you gave me that you love me. To tell you my more than life, my soul with what passion I return it would be endless & impossible since it is not in the power of words to tell what my heart feels in favour of you my charming angel… If you will I’ll meet you in the walk as we did tonight & bring my sister. Or if you can’t, tell me where I may take you up I’ll go by myself and stop where you resolve to be.
This letter is dated merely ‘Monday or rather Tuesday morning’, and all of Mrs Sidney’s letters are undated. We can, however, get a sense of the timing of this relationship from Ossulston’s own diary where he recorded for 9 July 1710 that:
About 2 of the clock I take water in my barge, with Mrs Sydney. Only she & I went as far as beyond Greenwich; did not go ashore anywhere but bought 3 dozen of claret by the way. We returned about nine & came ashore & I came home.
Several of Sarah’s letters provide ‘external’ news by which the time-frame of the affair can be more accurately dated. In one she informed Ossulston that ‘I’m just now told Lord Sunderland is turned out but more of this I’ll know by tonight. Duke Beaufort has the small pox’. This letter was thus written on or around 14 June 1710, when Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland, was dismissed as secretary of state. The earliest letter that can be dated through the news provided is from 24 April 1710, a month before Ossulston’s wife died. The latest comes from 16 October 1710.
These letters illuminate the social life of the Augustan aristocracy in an area where they were packed closely together – St James’s Square. Sarah was a close neighbour of Ossulston. Confirmation comes from the opening sentence of the first letter quoted above: ‘I’m just come from looking out of the window and have seen Bug and my next neighbour come home and everybody but my dear that I watched for’. ‘Bug’ was Henry Grey, duke of Kent, given his nickname on account of his foul breath. He lived at no. 4 St James’s Square, two doors away from Ossulston House. Sarah lived close enough to Ossulston to tempt him with the offer ‘I’m going to dress in sight of your window…’ She was most likely connected, as a high-ranking servant or lady-in-wating, to the household of James Hamilton, 4th duke of Hamilton, who lived across the street from Ossulston House. This proximity can explain the frequency of her communications with Ossulston, both written and in person. The letters also show the late hours kept by some of the Square’s inhabitants, not least Sarah herself. In one letter she writes ‘It is now not eight a clock & I did not go from looking at the window where I knew you were till two o’clock’. She ended this letter by hoping ‘you heard music at your window this morning between one & two’, suggesting that she was not the only one to keep such hours on the Square.
All, however, did not run smoothly in this relationship. Mrs Sidney appears to have had a rival in an (as yet) unidentified ‘country neighbour’ of Ossulston’s in Middlesex. There are as many letters expressing jealous rage and forlorn resignation as there are effusions of love. But one other issue may have also come to divide the couple – politics. For some of the letters suggest clearly that Sarah was a Tory, which would not be surprising if she was in Hamilton’s household. When this issue first came between her and the Whig Ossulston she professed innocence:
I’m in the dark as to what you mean about being used like a fool & tool of a party … For my politics that part of your [letter] is soon answered for I don’t think there’s anybody in the world meddles so little in that as myself…
Later, as Whigs were in decline in the late summer, she was more confident in poking at Ossulston’s pretensions and doing a fair bit of gloating:
I’m mighty glad to know you are so much obliged to the whole party & since you stick so close to them in their adversity I hope they’ll acknowledge it if ever they should chance to have it once more in their power to be insolent in prosperity.
Finally, the last of her letters that can be confidently dated – to mid-October 1710 – is so precisely because she took the opportunity to dig at him with some of the final humiliations of the Whigs, while still trying to arrange another romantic assignation:
If I’m not exactly at the hour don’t wonder for I’m obliged to go to Kensington but will return as soon as I can that I may be as punctual as possible. ….. I have malice enough not [to] be able to end this without telling you with a great deal of pleasure, Lord Lincoln has lost his pension & poor Mr Steele his place of Gazzetteer [sic].
These over 100 letters add a human story to the summer of 1710, which is usually seen as a turning point in British political history, with the fall of the Junto-Whig ministry and Robert Harley’s construction of a Tory-leaning government. Mrs Sidney’s letters show the trials of two people trying to carry on a romantic liaison in the aristocratic hothouse of St James’s Square during this tumultuous summer when the political world was refashioned in the heat of party conflict – which may have come close to tearing this couple apart as well.
- Clyve Jones, ‘The Parliamentary Organization of the Whig Junto in the Reign of Queen Anne: The Evidence of Lord Ossulston’s Diary’, Parliamentary History, x (1991), 164-182.
- Clyve Jones, ‘A Westminster Anglo-Scottish Dining Group, 1710-12: The Evidence of Lord Ossulston’s Diary’, Scottish Historical Review, lxxi (1992), 110-128.
- Clyve Jones, ‘The London Life of a Peer in the Reign of Anne’, London Journal, xvi (1991), 140-155.