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Ladies of Letters | An Appendix

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There wasn’t space to include all the background information provided by Roger Hudson for his piece on the Stanley Letters which appears in Slightly Foxed Issue 75. For those who would like to read more about the letters and the family, Roger has supplied an appendix.

John Holroyd served in the 21st Dragoons before going on the Grand Tour from 1763 to 1766. His wealth came from estates in County Meath, Yorkshire, Buckinghamshire and Middlesex, enabling him to buy Sheffield Place in Sussex in 1769 two years before Maria Josepha’s birth, and during the invasion scare of 1779 to raise a regiment of Dragoons at his own expense. He was MP for Coventry from 1780 to 1784 and for Bristol from 1790 to 1802. He received two Irish peerages, the second one ‘with remainder’ to his two daughters and their sons. These allowed him to continue as an MP, but in 1802 he was made a British peer, and then eventually an earl in 1816. He was an ardent pamphleteer on commercial and agricultural matters, very aware of the revolutionary developments going on in ironmaking, cotton and steam power, but a violent opponent of Wilberforce’s motion for the abolition of the slave trade in 1791, which pleased his Bristol constituents. After the death of Maria Josepha’s mother, he married Lucy Pelham, daughter of the 1st Earl of Chichester in 1794 and then, in 1798, Anne North, daughter of the Prime Minister. He employed the outstanding architect James Wyatt at Sheffield Place, who first really used a picturesque gothic style there. Its park, on which Capability Brown and Humphry Repton worked, now belongs to the National Trust. Maria Josepha’s sister Louisa married Captain (later General Sir) William Clinton in 1797.

The Stanleys claimed to be the senior branch of the family to which the Earls of Derby also belonged. The latter had started their rise to prominence after boxing clever at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Maria Josepha’s husband John inherited his baronetcy on the death of his father in 1807 and was made a peer in 1839. In 1809 he bought another estate in Cheshire called Winnington, largely it seems because of the salt mines that came with it. The family lived there before returning to Alderley in 1817, where they also had a cobalt mine. He passed his estate at Penrhos in Anglesey to his younger twin son William. John’s brother Edward spent thirty-two years as rector of Alderley, only to be made Bishop of Norwich in 1837. His son Arthur was a famous mid-Victorian figure as Dean of Westminster. His daughter Mary went out to the Crimea to nurse alongside Florence Nightingale and then scandalized her family by converting to Roman Catholicism. Maria Josepha’s comment was that ‘If she had a spark of right feeling, she would shrink from meeting those whose opinions of her conduct she knows to be as adverse as mine.’

Maria Josepha’s and John’s elder twin son Edward was a selfish man with a turn of mind sarcastic enough to earn him the nickname of Ben, after Sheridan’s character Sir Benjamin Backbite. He yearned for high office but when he eventually got a seat in the Cabinet in 1860 it was only as Postmaster-General. He kept away from his large family of young children as much as he could, regularly going off by himself to Scotland each August for two months of Highland sport. Luckily his wife adored him in spite of his faults and his treatment of her: ‘Even after my long experience that tenderness is not given to me I often feel my heart overflow with love.’ Again, ‘I am so anxious to have done what I think he will like, but it is generally odds whether what I have done is right or wrong.’ She was born a Dillon, an Irish Jacobite family that fled to France after 1689. A younger branch became hereditary colonels of the Dillon Regiment there, until the last of them was guillotined in 1794 (see ‘Daughters of Time’, SF no. 5), but the elder branch’s head, the 12th Viscount, had become an Anglican in 1767 and thereafter was accepted by George III.

Henrietta Maria was the 13th Viscount’s daughter. She lived at Winnington in the 1840s (and her husband too when he could not avoid it), the last of her children was born in 1844, her husband became Lord Stanley in 1850 on his father’s death, and she was widowed in 1869. As she grew older she became more caustic and formidable, and much involved in education for women. She was one of the founders of Girton College, managing to prevent the building of a chapel there, for fear too much would be spent on it, until after her death. Straightforwardly she announced that she had left her brain to the Royal College of Surgeons, ‘because it will be so interesting for them to have a clever woman’s to cut up’. When her grandson Bertrand Russell admitted to her that he had not read various books, ‘She turned to the company with a sigh and said “I have no intelligent grandchildren.”’

Her daughter Blanche has already been encountered. Her eldest son Henry converted to Islam; his brother Algernon became a Catholic titular bishop in Rome, it is said, just to annoy him. Her eldest daughter Alice married Augustus Lane-Fox who, in order to secure an inheritance, changed his name to Pitt-Rivers. General Pitt-Rivers was a pioneering and painstaking archaeologist, and his ethnographical collection forms the museum bearing his name in Oxford. Kate married Lord John Russell’s son, and their son was Bertrand Russell. Rosalind married the Earl of Carlisle who moved in Pre-Raphaelite circles, and they had eleven children, many of whom she alienated by her domineering ways. Her views were radical and eventually came between her and him, though both were keen temperance campaigners. The story that she poured all his claret down the drain is alas not true.

Henrietta’s son Johnny as a child seems to have been often out of control, chasing the maids armed with a spear and breaking a jug on a younger brother’s head. When Lord and Lady (Blanche) Airlie came to stay at Alderley shortly after their marriage, someone made them an apple-pie bed. Eventually Henry the Muslim owned up. When asked why by his father he replied, ‘I had to because Johnny stood over me with a pistol and said he would shoot me if I didn’t.’ Johnny entered the army aged only 16 and was sent out to the Crimea but had to be invalided home almost at once. In 1857 he went to India to be an aide-de-camp to Lord Canning, the Governor-General, and there Lady Canning took him under her wing. His attitude towards Indians and the names he called them are deplorable, but the Indian Mutiny was still in progress and atrocity stories abounded. For all their incorrectness his letters are wonderfully lively and his devotion to Lady Canning shines through.

When she was first reading through the correspondence, Nancy Mitford wrote to her friend the travel writer Robert Byron that, ‘It is like being under chloroform. I feel in another world.’ How much more so today, eighty years on. In July 1855 Maria Josepha complained, ‘I wish one could talk through an electric tube, writing is such a fatigue in hot weather.’ We must be deeply grateful that she couldn’t.

© Roger Hudson 2022


About the contributor

Roger Hudson’s An Englishman’s Commonplace Book was published by Slightly Foxed at the end of 2020.

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