A lecture to Molesey History Society: Part 5
The third of the triumvirate of Prime Ministers in The Elmbridge Hundred is completed with David Lloyd George (1863-1945), who bought The Firs/Upper Court on The Portsmouth Road near Cobham in 1919, and more research is needed on his time there.
To keep the ex-Prime Ministers in check, The Elmbridge Hundred is fortunate to have selected Arthur Onslow (1691-1768), the greatest speaker of the House of Commons. As an historian of the Victorian age, I am a great admirer of Walter Bagehot who sings the praise of Onslow in his great work The English Constitution. Onslow was a speaker of impeccable integrity in a corrupt age, and recognized the importance of distancing the chair from the politicking connivers on either side of the house. He established the impartiality of the speaker, insisting on strict observance of procedure and practice, and introduced important administrative reforms of the House of Commons. In October 1720 Onslow married Anne (1703-1763), the daughter of John Bridges of Thames Ditton, who was also the niece and heir of Henry Bridges of Ember Court. He bought Sandon manor in 1741, and lived there until his death in 1768, when the estate passed to his son George Onslow (1731-1814), who was a politician. He had few of the qualities of his father, and Horace Walpole described him as "a noisy, indiscreet man", while Junius calls him a "false, silly fellow". George and Henrietta moved to Clandon Park, and his eldest son Tom Onslow, a famous dandy, and even sillier fellow, succeeded him at Sandon.
As I mentioned, upon the death of the Duke of Newcastle in 1768, the duke's wife sold the Claremont estate to Robert Clive (1725 - 1774) in an attempt to help clear her husband's debts. Although only fifty years old the house was politically tainted and aesthetically outdated and so, Clive employed Holland & Brown to build a new Palladian mansion. Having suffered from bouts of depression throughout his life, Clive committed suicide in 1774, which meant that he never saw the new Claremont completed. His short but eventful career is defined by the three trips that he was to make to India between the 1740's and 1760's. He joined the East India Company, and by following the victory in the Seven-Years War, the Treaty of Paris in 1763 left Britain in control of most of India. Aged just 32, Clive became Governor of Bengal between 1757 and 1760, and again from 1765 to 1766. Clive of India, as he is popularly known, along with his contemporary William Hastings implemented the widespread reform and expansion of the Company that was the foundation of British rule over India.
Another important Elmbridge figure in the foundation of empire was John Ligonier [formerly Jean-Louis de Ligonier] (1680-1770), who was commander-in-chief of British army during Seven Years War. There is a famous Joshua Reynolds portrait of 1760. He retired and spent his later years at Cobham Park where the unmarried Earl reputedly kept a harem of four young girls. Clearly, he enjoyed his retirement, since he died aged 89, and is buried in Cobham Church. He left Cobham Park to his nephew Edward Ligonier (1740?-1782), who was also an army officer. Edward was taken into John Ligonier's care when his father Francis Augustus Ligonier [formerly François-Auguste de Ligonier] (1693-1746) died. Edward however had a somewhat less contented home life at Cobham. He fought a duel in Hyde Park with Count Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803) an Italian poet who was having an affair with his wife, Penelope. Count Alfieri visited Cobham Park to 'meet' Lady Penelope, who had something of a reputation. A crack shot from the British army against an effete Italian poet was a bit one sided, and after deliberately wounding but not killing Alfieri, Edward promptly divorced Penelope. Thankfully, because Alfieri's 1st play Cleopatra was produced in 1775, and he went on to write 21 tragedies and 6 comedies. Feted as a national literary treasure in Italy, Alfieri also composed epic, lyric, and satirical poetry, and translations of the classics, as well as penning an inevitably fascinating autobiography. He is buried in the church of Santa Croce, between Macchiavelli and Michael Angelo, with a sepulchral monument by Canova. Alfieri refused to marry Penelope to save her from ruin, after discovering that she had also been sleeping with a stable boy for some while. Alfieri and Penelope fled to France until the scandal died down, but she returned to England and to social ostracism a few months later. Alfieri moved onwards and upwards, and became intimate with the Countess of Albany wife of Prince Charles Stuart and on the death of the prince she lived with him as his mistress. Penelope remarried a Captain Smith 13 years later. The whole affair was a great social scandal, and inspired a popular novella entitled Lord Lelius and the Fair Emelia, or, The Generous Husband of 1771.
The Elmbridge Hundred is full of historical exposés, a hotbed of scandals and artistic love triangles. The most famous of these by far is the Merediths. George Meredith was a celebrated Victorian novelist and poet, though he is read little today. His short-lived marriage to Mary Ellen Meredith had a great effect on his writing. George and Mary Ellen married in 1849. They settled in Weybridge at a boarding house called 'The Limes' (in what is now The Quadrant), and later at their own house at 54/56 Baker Street. The marriage was initially happy, and George wrote a series of pastoral poems inspired by the local landscape. Meredith's first fiction in 1856 was, The Shaving of Shagpat: an Arabian Entertainment, which he claimed to have 'written ... at Weybridge with duns at the door'. Around 1857, Mary Ellen began an affair with the painter Henry Wallis (a friend of her husband's). In a letter to Wallis, Mary Ellen wrote, "I love you so really, so far beyond anything I have known of love". The couple had a child, Felix, and their passionate relationship soon cooled. Mary Ellen died only a few years later, living in seclusion at Oatlands. Neither George Meredith nor Henry Wallis attended her funeral. George later remarried and moved to Box Hill, but never really got over Mary Ellen's betrayal. Her loss inspired some of his most profoundly emotional work, such as his sonnet series Modern Love of 1862. "I bleed, but her who wounds I will not blame.?Have I not felt her heart as 't were my own?Beat thro' me? could I hurt her? heaven and hell!?But I could hurt her cruelly!" (Sonnet 19). Mary Ellen (1821-61) was the daughter of the poet Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) she had been married before meeting Meredith to Lieutenant Edward Nicolls, who drowned two months after the married in command of HMS Dwarf in Ireland. In August 1849, after five years a young widow, she married George Meredith, an ambitious young poet with no obvious prospects. In early 1855, George Meredith met the painter Henry Wallis (1830-1916), who asked him to pose as the dead poet Thomas Chatterton for his Wallis' sublime painting, which now hangs in Tate Britain. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856 and made Wallis famous overnight. John Ruskin described it as "faultless and wonderful". As ever, Ruskin is right, but its fame and fascination for the Victorian public owed much to its link with Wallis's love affair with Mary Ellen, which began during the summer of 1857. Her father, Thomas Love Peacock, was broken hearted and lost his desire to write.
Another marriage-wrecking love triangle in Elmbridge was that of Prince Frederick Augustus, the duke of York (1763-1827). I have already mentioned that he was The Grand Old Duke of York of nursery rhyme fame, who was the 2nd eldest son of King George 3rd. He bought Oatlands in 1794, and moved there with his new wife Frederica Charlotte Ulrica Catherina, duchess of York (1767-1820). Frederica was the eldest daughter of Frederick William 2nd, King of Prussia, and great niece to Frederick the Great. Frederick and Frederica's marriage was a political alliance of royal dynasties, and the Duke and Duchess of York separated soon after their marriage in September 1791. James Gillray savagely caricatured the royal mismatch in Fashionable Contrasts; - or - the Duchess's little shoe yielding to the magnitude of the Duke's foot, which was published by Hannah Humphrey in January 1792. The feet and ankles of the Duke and Duchess of York are entwined in what I can only describe as 'fully-attired copulation', with the boorish duke's clodhopper feet imposing themselves between the delicate slippers of the dainty duchess. In 1803, the Duke of York took as his mistress a courtesan called Mary Ann Clarke [née Thompson] (1776-1852). The duke set her up close to Oatlands at Columb's House, on the site of what is now St George's College Junior School on Thames Street in Weybridge. The former resident, Mary Ann Clarke is not a role model that the school's website promotes to prospective parents. The duke's affair became a political scandal when the Frederick was charged with corruption for promoting officers from whom Clarke had taken bribes. It was a hugely lucrative little earner if the nursery rhyme is to be believed and The Grand Old Duke really did have 10,000 men all pushing for promotion! Publicly renounced by the duke, Clarke proved politically shrewd, writing her own revealing memoirs and extracting large pensions from the government to keep her story suppressed. By 1809, the scandal had forced the duke's resignation as commander-in-chief of the army. Clarke was prosecuted for libel in 1813, and imprisoned for nine months. On her release from prison, she went to live in France where she died in Boulogne-sur-mer in 1852.
To escape the scandal and her unhappy marriage, the German-born Duchess of York retired from public life to Oatlands. Having evaded a messy ménage à trois she created a no-doubt equally messy menagerie there, which included her favourite dog 'Satan', a rescued ex-racehourse called 'Eclipse', and numerous monkeys to whom she was devoted. As a regular dog-walker in Oatlands Park, I often sidestep the notion that Frederica must have started the tradition of dotty dowagers who are too posh to pick up their pet's poo in that park. Her father-in-law, George 3rd, a man not noted as a subtle psychologist "Affection must rest on something, and where there are no children, animals are the object". Jerome K. Jerome mentioned the sizeable graveyard she made for her menagerie in the 1889 book Three Men In A Boat. She died at Oatlands Park in 1820 and was buried in Weybridge old church. In 1822, York Column in Weybridge was funded by public subscription and erected in her memory as a testament to her popularity as a generous local benefactor. The great early Victorian life historian and diarist Charles Greville (1794-1865) described the duchess in later life as, "…clever and well-informed; she likes society and dislikes all form and ceremony, but in the midst of the most familiar intercourse she always preserves a certain dignity of manner… probably no person in such a situation was ever more really liked."
With all these complex love triangles and tangled affairs going on in Elmbridge, it is little wonder that the greatest modern chroniclers of love found inspiration here. Two of The Beatles were selected for The Elmbridge Hundred. John Ono Lennon (1940-1980) lived at Kenwood in Weybridge where from 1964-1966 he wrote songs for the albums Beatles for Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. Already by 1964, Lennon was a multi-millionaire and had set up home on St George's Hill with his wife, Cynthia and their young son Julian. Lennon had met Cynthia Powell as a student at Liverpool College of Art and they married on 23rd August 1962. In May 1968, Cynthia took a holiday in Greece without Lennon. She arrived back at Kenwood from Greece earlier than expected she discovered Lennon and Yoko Ono sitting cross-legged on the floor in matching white robes, with Ono's slippers outside the Lennons' bedroom door. Cynthia and Julian remained at Kenwood while Lennon and Ono moved into Ringo Starr's flat in London. When Paul McCartney visited her and Julian later that year, on the way to Kenwood he composed the song Hey Jude in his head. George Harrison (1943-2001) lived at a bungalow called 'Kinfauns' in Esher with Patty Boyd from 1964 to 1970. During Lennon's break-up with Cynthia, most of the demos for The Beatles' White Album were recorded there. 'Kinsfauns' was within the boundaries of Claremont, but has now been redeveloped
Of course, it is not that Elmbridge has any detrimental affect on marriages, I for one got married whilst I have been living here and am very happy, but history does tend to record the scandals and errors people make. It is something that I have tried to stress to the local biographers, young and old, that have contributed to The Elmbridge Hundred. In writing a life history, we have a duty of care to the person whose life we are narrating not to emotionally abstract. Perhaps, the historian I most admire and have tried in vain to emulate is G.M. Young, who wrote in the 'Introduction' to his great masterpiece Victorian England: Portrait of an Age of 1936 that what was important in history was, "not what happened, but what people felt about it when it was happening". One has a personal responsibility to try to be truthful, not to fictionalize, or over-dramatize in retelling a story. G.M. Young describes history as recounting "the conversation of the people who counted" "Who were they? What were the assumptions behind their talk? And what came of it all?" What I most admire in G.M. Young is the easy, discursive tone of unpretentious accessibility with which he sifts such a density of detail. His historical writing feels conversational and autobiographical. His tone is always civilized, discursive, good-humoured, and tolerant. He draws the reader in, leaving you in no doubt that you and he are both emotionally involved in the story he is telling.
Ernest Edward Kellett (1864-1950), a friend and contemporary of G.M. Young, wrote in the preface of his memoirs As I Remember (1936), "I cannot expect the public to take notice of so obscure and undistinguished a life as mine". Kellet felt that he could only "play … the part of a traveller who happens to have seen a country not familiar to the majority of his audience and to describe it for their benefit". Kellett's memoirs seamlessly link serious intellectual concerns, and important theoretical issues by recounting casual encounters, anecdotes, and stray thoughts. "Mr. Kellett's memories," wrote Young in his essay 'Tempus Actum' "…are of real historical value". In both Kellett and Young, the truth is often an aside, a few stray words one might miss in passing, and need to seek in the small print at the foot of the page, an intriguing, tangential, but essential footnote.
The Diaries Of Charles Greville, particularly his journals from 1820 - 1837, describing the reigns of George IV and William IV, and journals of the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1852, were also an inspiration for The Elmbridge Hundred. The English and American public has devoured few memoirs with greater hunger than those of Charles Greville. His journals of the reigns of George IV and William IV sold five editions in its first year of publication. Greville's witty, fiercely honest memories record the impressions of a contemporary eyewitness. Anecdotes and gossip, events he saw and things he heard are written down as the reliable stuff of history. Greville does not seek to recount scandal, but to collate and bequeath some source materials for history, by which his contemporaries could be judged. His focus is the private motivations that caused and defined public moments; and his memoirs are one of the great life history documents of the 19th century.
As an historian whose primary interest is in the impact of industrial and technological change (I am currently researching and writing a social history of the art of electro-metallurgy from its invention circa 1840 with the V&A Museum and the University of Sussex) another historian I admire is a local one. E. Royston Pike's book Human Documents of the Industrial Revolution in Britain of 1966 is an exemplar of the original research methodology I have been encouraging local A-level students to discover. All the documents Royston Pike lays before the reader "are original documents, prepared and written and set down in print when the Revolution was actually going on". He writes, "No doubt many of them are one-sided, some of them frankly partisan, most of them limited in their viewpoint. But then they are not what have been filtered through the minds and pens of historians, writing long afterwards in a calmer atmosphere and enjoying the not inconsiderable advantages of knowledge after the event. They are the raw material of history; and what they may perhaps lose in balanced reflection and considered judgment they much more than make up for in first-hand testimony, in the warmth of feeling engendered by personal experience."
Personal experience, like lives, race by in a blur of detail, and I have not enough time to tell you about all of The Elmbridge Hundred. Over half the lives remained untold this evening. What unites the work of Kellett, Young, Greville, and Royston Pike is the humility of knowing that history is always, primarily a collective endeavour. How can one historian hope to capture the vast diversity of human experience and character of a past society in its entirety? It is the task that most unites and divides a community, but one that can only be achieved together. One of the strongest of all urges is that of any long-lived person is to pass on memories, and to re-create for younger people the ways in which things have changed for better or worse during his or her lifetime. Younger people, in forming their own ideas, opinions, and personal style need to evoke in the present the elusive moods and tones of a disappearing past, to recount lost modes of speech and thought. Most of all, it reminds us that history, and the art of recording it in words and images, is not just about events on the international and national stage, or even local achievements. G.M. Young makes it abundantly clear that real history is often what goes on happening despite those events. Reviewing the memoirs and letters of the Victorian progressive Liberal politician, atheist, and early advocator of birth control, John Russell, Viscount Amberley, he says: "Amberley was a long-winded fellow, and some of the details relating to the arrival of the little Russells struck me as being, in our grandmothers' use of the word, unnecessary. Yet I am not sure that this very abundance of trifling intimacies was not required to make the picture complete, giving it a kind of aerial perspective in which the [grand events of public life] appear as they really did appear to people who were all the time thinking quite as much about their babies… their mothers-in-law, and their gardens…"