by Antoine Claudet, 1844

The year 1839 marked the start of photography as we know it today. Both Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) and William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) had been experimenting independently for several years on their different photographic processes when Daguerre announced his discovery to the world in Paris on 7 January 1839.

This prompted Talbot to display the results of his negative/positive process to the Royal Institution in London (the same organization as today presents the BBC Christmas Lectures) on 25 January 1839. He then presented a Paper to the Royal Society on 31 January 1839, describing his process as “photogenic drawing.”

Talbot sent examples of his work in early February 1839 to Sir David Brewster, who was later to become the first President of the Photographic Society of Scotland (PSS) and an Honorary Member of Edinburgh Photographic Society (EPS).

Many people did not take to Daguerreotypes, as they thought they were too stark, too unflattering – too real, as there was none of the softening of imperfections previously available in portraiture. In fact, the Illustrated London News reported that when Wellington was shown the finished Daguerreotype of himself, above, “He looked at it for a moment, shook his head, and, with a half smile and half frown of recognition, muttered ‘Very old! Hum!’ and turned away in thought.”

The Daguerreotype of Wellington was taken by Claudet, a Frenchman who had studied under Daguerre and who later set up studios in London. It has been estimated that he made up to 1,800 pictures per year.

Ada Lovelace by Claudet, 1843

The announcements about photographic techniques by Talbot and Daguerre were made about eighteen months into the reign of Queen Victoria, and about eighteen months before she married Prince Albert. Both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert became keen enthusiasts of photography and collectors of photographs. Prince Albert became the first Patron of PSS. He died in the year that EPS was established.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Buckingham Palace, 1854

The image above of the Queen and Prince Albert was made by John Jabez Edwin Mayall (17 Sept 1813 – 6 March 1901) a British daguerreotypist who began his career in Philadelphia. With his partner, Samuel Van Loan, Mayall operated from 140 Chestnut Street in 1845-6, until his return to London, where he opened, at 433 The Strand, ‘The American Daguerreotype Institution’, styling himself ‘Professor High-School’ (or Highschool). Photographer by appointment to Queen Victoria and creator of iconic images of 19th-century Britain and British notables, Mayall ran numerous studios in London and later Brighton, where he became mayor in 1877. Several of his sons also became photographers, using the business name Mayall.

John Jabez Edwin Mayall, self portrait, 1844


Caroline Herschel by Mayall, 1853
Princess Alice by Mayall, 1861
Alfred, Lord Tennyson by Mayall, National Portrait Gallery
Princess Alexandra in her wedding gown, Mayall, 1863


You will find The Daguerreian Society website here.



From The Horse-World of London by William John Gordon (1893)

. . . . Our cab horses are generally Irish, many of them being shipped from Waterford. They come over unshod, in order that they may do no damage, and to keep them quiet they have their lips tied down; and what with this lip-tying, and the sea passage, and the change of climate, it takes them about eight weeks to get into working order, during which they are gradually drilled into shape, first in double harness and then in single harness, round the squares and quiet thoroughfares.

As a rule, they are four years old when they arrive, they cost 30L, they last only three years, and they are then sold to go into the tradesman’s cart; but horses are rising in value, and cost more to buy and fetch more to sell than they used to do. This, of course, refers to the bulk of the horses, which, as in the omnibus service, are mostly mares. There are some that cost more, some that cost less; some that last longer, some that do not last as long; and on the cab-rank there is a fair sprinkling of British horses and a few foreigners, but the thoroughbreds of whom we have heard are as rare as the doctors, warriors, and members of the Athenaeum Club who are said to drive them.

A cab horse is well fed; hansom horses average a sack of corn each a week; and they want it, for in the six days during the season they are driven over two hundred miles. There is nothing out of the way in a day’s work of forty miles; and this with a weight of half a ton behind, including the cab and driver, but not the passengers. The way in which the horse is worked varies in different yards and with different men. There are over 3,500 cab-owners in London, and as some of them own a hundred and more cabs, there must be a large number who have but one or two cabs, and perhaps two or three horses, when the horses have a hard time of it. Many are worked on the ‘one horse power’ principle, in which the cab, generally a four-wheeler, goes out at eight in the morning and comes back at eight at night. The fourwheelers that frequent the railway stations have two horses, the first going out at seven in the morning and returning about two in the afternoon, the second going out to stay at the station till ten, and then perhaps loitering about the theatres with a view to picking up a last fare.

When a horse is bought by the cab-master it is occasionally numbered, but oftener named from some trivial circumstance connected with its purchase, or from some event chronicled in the morning newspapers. A whole chapter might be written on the names of the London cab horses, which are assuredly more curious than elegant. Three horses we know of bought on a hot day were Scorch, Blaze, and Blister; three others bought on a dirty morning were Mud, Slush, and Puddle; two brought home in a snowstorm were named Sleet and Blizzard; four that came in the rain were Oilskin, Sou’-wester, Gaiters, and Umbrella. Even the time of day has furnished a name, and Ten o’clock, Eight-sharp, and Nine-fifteen have been met with . . . Some horses are named from the peculiarities of the dealer or his man, and in one stable there were at one time Curseman, Sandyman, Collars, Necktie, Checkshirt, and Scarfpin. The political element is, of course, manifest, and in almost every stable there are Roseberies and Randies, Salisburies and Gladstones, Smiths and Dizzies. Some stables are all Derby winners, some all dramas, some all songs, some all towns. It is the exception for a horse to be named after any peculiarity of its own, unless it be an objectionable one; and it would never do to give it a Christian name, with or without a qualifying adjective, which might lead to its being mistaken for one of the men in the yard.


The favourite colour for a cab horse is brown; the one least sought after is grey. A grey horse will not do in a hansom, unless for railway work where the cabs are taken in rotation and the quality or colour of the horse is of no consequence. Why clubland should object to grey horses is not known, but the fact remains that a man with a grey horse will get fewer fares with him than with a brown one. One explanation is that the light hairs float off and show on dark clothes, but this is hardly satisfying, and it seems safer to put the matter down to fashion. Anyhow, a hansom cabman will not take out a grey horse if he can help it, unless it be an exceptionally ‘gassy’ one, gassy being ‘cabbish’ for showy. But not so a four-wheeler man; if he can have a grey horse he will, the reason being that if ever a housemaid goes for a cab she will, if she has a choice, pick out the grey horse. At least, so says the trade, which may, of course, be prejudiced or romancing; but the prejudice or the romance is known all over London.

London has 600 cabstands, exclusive of those in the City and on private ground, such as the railway stations. A few of these are always full; a few have never had a cab on them even though they may have existed for years. The 600 cabstands on an average afford accommodation for eleven vehicles each. The rest of the cabs are either carrying passengers or else plying empty along such streets as Piccadilly, where they are a nuisance to all but those who want cabs. The same thing may, however, be said of the cabstands, and, considering the convenience that ‘ crawlers’ afford, it is only the very strenuous reformer who would abolish them entirely, if it were possible to do so.

Out of the 15,000 cabmen, about 2,000 are convicted every year for drunkenness, cruelty, wilfull misbehaviour, loitering, plying, obstruction, stopping on the wrong side of the road, delaying, leaving their cabs unattended, etc, etc. The cabman who ‘knows his business best’ is the one who can crawl judiciously without getting into trouble with the police, resulting for a first offence in the famous ‘two-and-six and two,’ which means half-a crown fine and a florin costs.

At many of the stands there is a ‘shelter,’ which is much larger inside than a glance at the exterior would lead one to suppose. The shelters are generally farmed from the Shelter Fund Society by some old cabman. They are the cabman’s restaurants, and the cabman, as a rule, is not so much a large drinker as a large eater. At One shelter lately the great feature was boiled rabbit and pickled pork at two o’clock in the morning, and for weeks a small warren of Ostenders was consumed nightly.

Only a handful of cabmen’s shelters or tea huts remain in London, with several still serving refreshments.

The two-wheeler improves every year. There are many hansoms now in London as good in every way as private carriages, and these will often have a fifty guinea horse in their shafts. The four-wheeler improves but microscopically, and, though it becomes no worse than it used to be, it touches a depth which is by no means desirable. Most cabs are varnished twice a year, some are varnished but once, and that, of course, is just before inspection day, when the new annual licence is applied for. On that morning many a newly varnished mockery will journey gingerly to Clerkenwell, and just satisfy the inspector’s lenient eye, returning triumphantly with the inside and outside plates and the stencilled certificate on its back, which show that the vehicle has passed muster, and that the owner has paid 21. for a licence to work it in the London streets. Besides the 21., the owner has to pay fifteen shillings carriage duty to Somerset House; and, for a licence and the badge to drive, the cabman has to pay to the police five shillings.

The cabman has to pass an examination as well as the vehicle, but the vehicle is examined every year, while the cabman is only examined once, and then not in personal appearance, though there may be a bias that way, but in an elementary knowledge of London topography. The knowledge required is not very great, and 1,500 candidates apply in a year, but it is interesting to note that out of every 100 candidates 34 are ‘ploughed’—a much higher percentage of rejections than exists among the vehicles.

The cabman takes his licence to the owner whom he desires to make his ‘master.’ He takes the cab out on trust, leaving his licence as a deposit so long as he remains in the same employment. The engagement is terminable at any time, and when the man changes masters his old master has to fill in on the back of his licence the length of time he has been in his service. At the end of the year the man takes the endorsed licence accounting for his year’s work to New Scotland Yard, and there gets a clean one covering another twelve months.

The amount paid by the man for the day’s hire varies with the vehicle, the master, and the season. It is much less really than it is nominally, owing to the numerous occasions on which allowances are made for bad luck and bad weather. Continuous wet is not cabmen’s weather; what they like is a showery day, or, what is better, a fine morning and a wet afternoon, or a series of scorching hot days when people find the other means of conveyance too stuffy for comfort. Although the amount is frequently stated to be more, the average for hansoms during the last year over several yards was nine shillings for the first three months in the year, then a rise every week of a shilling a day to the end of May, when it remained at the maximum of eighteen shillings till the second week in June, when it dropped a shilling a week down to the nine shillings at which it will remain for the rest of the year. The height of the London cab season is thus from the Derby week to the Ascot week, the one day being the Thursday after the Derby. If you wish to go to the Derby in a hansom you pay 31., of which 11. is extra profit, it being estimated that the man would have taken 21. if he remained in London. And, curiously enough, the distance to and from Epsom is the average day’s journey of a London cab horse.


I have a great friend in Beth Elliot. Those of you who follow this blog and my posts on Facebook will know that Beth and I try to get together whenever I’m in England. And you may recall that Beth was my saviour when my phone was stolen in London, taking me to buy a new one and following that up with a fabulous day out in Greenwich. This time over, Victoria Hinshaw and I spent a few days doing research on the Duke of Wellington at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), located in Reading.

As it turns out, Beth lives just outside of Reading, in the very same town in which our hotel was located. Needless to say, we had the opportunity to see each other often. What does need to be said is that Beth went out of her way to accommodate Vicky and myself, picking us up at the train station, driving us where we needed to go, joining us for dinner nightly and taking us to hidden villages and places of interest on our days off. She was even kind enough to bring us back to her home on several occasions, giving us lunch, wine, laughs and the opportunity to see her fabulous garden and to unwind in her incredibly comfy front room.

Since Beth, Vicky and I first met in 2010, during Number One London’s Duke of Wellington Tour, she and I have shared personal histories and family stories, and I was most enchanted with her stories of her beloved Uncle Frank, who was Financial Editor for the Times. Frank Wright was born in 1900 and graduated from Manchester University before joining the staff of the Manchester Guardian, moving in 1924 to it’s London office as Assistant Chief Editor, going on afterwards to join the Times of London.

Uncle Frank

What I knew about Uncle Frank was that he and his wife, Auntie Marie, had never had children of their own and so looked upon Beth as a most favourite niece. Beth spent many hours with Uncle Frank and Auntie Marie, but what sticks in my mind most are Beth’s stories of going with Uncle Frank to his London office. Once the day’s business was done, Uncle Frank would ask Beth what she most wanted to do, and would then grant her wishes, regardless of the fact that most of the places she chose were at opposite ends of London. Off they’d go, Uncle Frank indulging the wishes of his favourite little girl and Beth enjoying his undivided attention.

So, when Beth mentioned during our last visit that she had some things of Uncle Frank’s she was set to take to the charity shop, I had to ask –

“Wait. What? What sort of things?”

“Oh, just some old clothes. I’ve got a Chinese robe he bought in the 30’s at Harrods.”

“Wait. You’re giving Uncle Frank’s 1930’s Chinese robe from Harrod’s to the charity shop?!”

“Do you want to see it?”

“Er. Yes!”

Off she went, up the stairs and back down. “I have this, too,” she said, laying a treasure on the table before me.

“It’s Uncle Frank’s cigarette case,” she said.

“And it’s leather. And embossed with his initials.” Upon opening it, I saw the Harrod’s stamp. I picked it up and inhaled the smell of leather and tobacco.

“Would you like it?” Beth asked.

“What? Don’t you want it?”

“I don’t smoke. And besides, what am I ever going to do with it. If you think you can use it, please take it.”

I stared at her. Stunned. “I don’t smoke, either. But I’d love to have it. Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’ve got to have a clear out. And here’s the robe I told you about.”

“Try it on,” Beth urged.

Silently I prayed, please, Uncle Frank, be the same size as me. Please. I slipped the robe on and . . . it fit. Like a glove.

“I love it,” said I, looking at myself in the mirror and running a hand over the black silk lapel. “How does it look?”

“It looks fabulous on you,” offered Vicky.

“Do take it if you want it,” said Beth. “It’s only going to be given away otherwise.”

“I can’t believe you’re giving this away.”

“I can’t believe you want it,” said Beth. “Hang on, I’ve got some other bits if you want to see them. Come with me out to the garden, they’re in the shed.”

In the shed?!

After a quick rummage, Beth came out with a rather large box, which held a morning suit – tailed jacket, waistcoat and striped pants. Even a pair of spats.

Holding out the jacket, Beth said, “Here, give it a try.” I took it from her and attempted to get into it. Dash it all, it didn’t fit.

“It’s too small!” I lamented.

“It isn’t,” Beth said.

“There’s no way I can get it on,” I wailed.

“Here, give it to me,” Beth said, in her no nonsense way. “Now, you stand there and I’m going to slip it on you. You don’t think Brummell got into his coats without help, do you? Gentlemen needed a valet to don their coats. Turn your back to me and put your arms down at your sides and I’ll slip this on you.”

I complied, doubtfully. Beth slid the coat sleeves up over my arms, gave it a yank and settled it upon my shoulders. “There. I told you it would fit. Go look in the mirror.”

I obeyed. Reader, it fit. As though it had been tailor made for me.

“Wow,” said Vicky.

“How does it look?”

“Wow,” repeated Vicky. “Do you like it?”

“Like it?! I love it.”

“Here, take the waistcoat, too,” offered Beth. It, too, fit like a dream. Once I’d removed the coat, Beth directed my attention to the construction details inside, gorgeous attention to detail and quilting that had gone out of fashion many decades ago.

“Try the pants on,” suggested Beth. I did, but while Uncle Frank and I seemed to be the same size from the waist up, we varied widely from the waist down. Or it was the style of the striped trousers that defeated me – I looked like a clown in the baggy trousers.

“No,” said Beth, “those won’t do. But there are a few final things you must see.”

I didn’t care about anything else. The robe and coat were each beyond my wildest dreams. But who was I to say no?

This time, she came through with a hat box. Opening the lid, we found a leather collar box and, upon opening that, we discovered that it still held a number of collars, as well as collar and cuff studs. Beneath that was a gentleman’s white silk dress scarf. And under that were the hats. Three hats. And what hats they are!

“Try them on,” Beth prompted. After a stunned moment, I lifted the first hat, a derby, and put it on. Again, it fit as though it had been made to fit my head alone. Then there were two top hats, one a traditional beaver hat, the other a silk, collapsible opera hat. Each one fit. And looked deuced fine atop my head, if I do say so myself.

Derby hat.
The two top hats.
Beaver top hat.
Gentleman’s collapsible silk top hat, meant to be worn to the theatre or Opera.

“Do you think you can fit this all into your suitcase?” Beth asked, once I’d left off admiring myself in the mirror.

“Never. We’ll have to ship it. Are you absolutely certain that you want me take it all?” I asked. “I mean, I know what Uncle Frank meant to you.”

“Uncle Frank would be thrilled that they were being given to someone who can enjoy them. Believe me, you’re doing me the favour by allowing me to clear all this out of my attic and shed. I just can’t believe that you actually want it all. I’ll go and fetch a box and we can pack these up.”

While Beth was gone, Vicky asked, “What in the world are you going to do with all that suff?”

“I’m going to wear it. At writer’s conventions and seminars. And maybe on Sundays. All my costuming needs have been taken care of in one fell swoop!”

My costuming needs had been take care of, and not only by Uncle Frank. I had found the beauty below in a charity shop in Bath for twenty quid before meeting up with Vicky and Beth.

Black velvet robe.
Detail of the bead work on the collar.

Next day, Beth boxed up my treasures – and tied up the boxes with string. I’ll let you digest that for a bit. String. A lost art. I could wax lyrical and write an entire post about the string, but I’ll spare you. Shortly thereafter, Beth and I walked down to her local Post Office and shipped the boxes off to my address in America. And they both arrived long before I made it home.

I’m thrilled to report that all of Uncle Frank’s clothing has now been dry cleaned and they are hanging in my closet, just waiting for their first airing at the upcoming Romance Writers of America (RWA) Conference in Denver. Now all I need is a valet.


This is the first installment on a series of posts we’ll be re-running from The Horse-World of London by William John Gordon  (1893), each one chock-a-block full of interesting details. We hope you’ll enjoy them as much as we do!
Copyright The Postal Museum

The Post Office owns no horses; it does its work by contract, and McNamara’s have `horsed the mails’ ever since 1837, when so many good things began. They have now 600 horses at their central quarters in Finsbury and the local branches from which the outer ring of postal districts is worked, besides a few hundred others for trade traffic. And out of London there are forty-two horses on the Brighton road working the Parcels Coach, and the twenty-six Tunbridge Wells Coach horses, and the other coach horses; but these cannot fairly come into our census, except as regards those for the first stage out and last stage home —the stages being the ten-mile ones of’ the glorious old coaching-days,’ concerning which we may have something to say presently.

The mail horse is the least conspicuous of draught animals. How often do we hear a shout of ‘Here comes the mail!’ and how seldom do we trouble as to what its horses are like! Our attention is caught and fixed by the scarlet cart, while horse and man pass unnoticed; scarlet will have its way, and a mass of it in movement throws all its surroundings into background. Not that the horse need fear criticism. At times he is somewhat rough, at others a trifle weedy; but, taking him by the hundred, he is a serviceable servant, with no nonsense about him, and rarely much to find fault with. Like most of his brethren, he makes his first appearance in the London streets between his fifth and seventh years. Younger than five, no wise master will have a horse for London cartage work. ‘Under that age,’ as an authority told us, ‘they are like children and catch every ailment that comes along.’
The Post-Office horse is always at work. What with ‘mails inwards’ in the morning, ‘mails interchangeable’ during the day, and ‘mails outwards’ at night, and ‘foreign mails’ arriving before their time at all hours of the day and night, and which he must always be at the railway to meet, he has quite enough to employ and worry him. He begins his week’s work at four o’clock on Sunday afternoon; he ends it at half-past ten on Sunday morning; and at any time during that long week he is liable for instant service, and has only five and a half hours’ undisturbed rest. Of course he gets a good deal more as he becomes used to the bustle of the stable, but that is the only respite he is sure of—just enough, as it were, to go to church and digest the Sunday’s dinner. And yet with all this, while the tram horse is cast after four years, and the omnibus horse after five, the mail horse is not weeded out of the service until on an average he has spent six in it.

He is generally English, but comes from no county in particular, and costs rather more than the omnibus horse, for we shall be averaging him rather under the mark at 36L; but he is well looked after and has few ailments. It is not often that a mail horse is sick or goes very wrong. At every railway station to which he goes there is a foreman to look after him, and at every stable there is a keeper to every dozen horses, so that he is attended to at both ends, and his keepers check each other to his advantage. And he lives, as a rule, in flats, in an atmosphere of disinfectants and a continual round of whitewashing; so that everything is done to keep him in health, and the result justifies the effort.
And he is fed well—indeed, if he were not, he could not stand the work. One of the noticeable things at the ever-extending headquarters in Castle Street is the mixing machine, in which the oats and clover and hay and beans are blended into the general mass which forms the fodder. On one floor the hay and clover are being chopped by steam, the knives, owing to the silex in the straw, requiring renewal every twenty minutes; on another floor the chopped stuff is being poured into hoppers sackful by sackful; on another, oats are being poured into another hopper, beans into another; and all these hoppers communicate with channels and spiral travellers and ingenious mixers, so that in the delivery the blend is even and free from all patchiness—the last stage being when the mixture is shot into a huge bin, the bottom of which is, by a turn of a lever, converted into so many swing-fans, between which the provender falls instantly into the sacks below.
McNamara’s not only mix their own fodder, but make their own harness, their own shoes, their own wheels, and even their own carts—for the mail carts are not designed by the Post Office, but by the contractors, and then built on approval. The body of a one-horse mail cart looks n6t unlike a cupboard until it gets the wheels on, but it is rather more elaborate in its decoration, simple as it may seem, for before it gains the royal colour which saves the horse from notice it requires no less than sixteen different coats of paint and varnish. There are 260 of these red carts and vans, and the yard is busy with them and the parcel coaches coming in splashed and thick with mud—the coaches having been out all night, to remain till night, and the carts having most of them been out since four in the morning, and being off again with the change horse.
In and out the horses are worked with very little attempt at a hard-and-fast routine, owing to the irregularity in time and bulk of the foreign mails, which forms the great difficulty of the business, and makes the problem to be dealt with that of dealing with surprise trains. The unexpectedness of these is due to the limit being made as wide as possible at the shipping company’s request, in order to save them from all risk of penalty for being behind-hand, and the arrival taking place as far as possible within the limit, for the sake of the company’s reputation. The inland mail that comes to the moment can be provided for as easily as the outgoing mail that starts to its time; it is the foreign mail brought by the record-breaker, and delivered any number of hours before it is due, for which the Post Office horse has to suffer.


By guest blogger Julia Gaspar

In her own time, Elizabeth, Lady Craven was famed for two things  – for the private theatricals that she loved to put on in her own home, and for the series of scandalous love affairs that filled the gossip columns and often provided material for salacious satire. Younger daughter of the Earl of Berkeley, she was married at the age of sixteen to the boorish but immensely wealthy Lord Craven. In 1774, when the French ambassador, the Comte de Guînes, paid her rather too much attention, her jealous husband made his fury very public and whisked her off to his Berkshire estate, Benham Park, to keep her out of mischief. By 1783 their marriage broke down altogether and Elizabeth had to leave England in a storm of scandal and disgrace.

Elizabeth Craven painted by Ozias Humphrey c.1780

Nothing daunted her as she braved social disapproval and ostracism, and after a couple of years living in France set out on a protracted tour of the whole of Europe. She visited Italy, Austria, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Romania and Hungary, writing about everything she saw. She then spent several years in Germany as the mistress of the Margrave of Ansbach, before marrying him and returning to England in 1792. She went on writing and producing plays for a lively and artistic social circle, while the prim and proper never quite got over their disapproval. After her second husband’s death, in 1815, she retired to Naples where she had a little villa built for herself overlooking the bay with views of Vesuvius and Capri.

Lord Craven painted by Thomas Beach

I have never enjoyed writing any book more than the biography of Elizabeth Craven. I first heard of her when reading a book about theatre in German courts, which said that this remarkable Englishwoman, the mistress of the Margrave of Ansbach, had taken over the theatricals and entertainments in his little German court and was putting on plays of all sorts, including some she had written herself. I was intrigued, and simply had to know more about her, so I read her travelogue, A Journey Through the Crimea to Constantinople, and started to discover an amazing woman, bold, adventurous and outspoken. The more I read about her  – and the more of her own writings I discovered  – the more enthusiastic I became. This was a woman who was not only beautiful but brainy too, an author of poems, plays, stories and letters, witty observant and full of passion for life. She faced down a lot of social disapproval for her love affairs and she had some advanced feminist opinions.

Benham Park from a Regency print

Lady Craven actually wrote her own Memoirs in her old age, but while they included a lot of detail about all the famous people she had known  – the writers, artists, actors, musicians, statesmen and royalty – and the places she had visited, they are not very candid about her love affairs. I had to track those down via her poems and her surviving letters, some of which are in manuscript collections. What a passionate person she was! She loved and scandalized, and lived to love and scandalize again.

William Beckford by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1782

One of her lovers was the young William Beckford, a prodigiously talented writer who shared Elizabeth’s love of music. In 1782 the pair of them collaborated on an Arcadian Pastoral, a musical entertainment, which was performed in London in front of an audience of high society that included the Duchess of Devonshire and her mother, Lady Spencer. Elizabeth Craven was the first person to read Beckford’s novel Vathek, which he sent to her in manuscript.

But Elizabeth was living dangerously. Her marriage fell apart. Her husband had a mistress and decided to prosecute her for divorce. London resounded with the scandal and gossip and she had to leave for France with her youngest son, Keppel, leaving her six other children behind in the care of their father. Georgian divorce laws were very cruel to the woman.

She did not accept this injustice silently. In France she wrote one of her most interesting books, Letters to Her Son, in which she denounces all the unfair laws of marriage and divorce. Why should a woman have to obey her husband? Why should he be allowed to beat her, lock her up, give her no money, or be unfaithful while she had no legal redress? Why should the father get the children after a marital separation, even if he was impudently living with a mistress? All this was tyranny. Craven set out for her son a plan for a happy and successful marriage, in which the partners treat each other as affectionate equals. Without a doubt she was way ahead of her time.

Reynolds’ drawing of Elizabeth Craven

While she was a feminist, she was no man-hater. In 1785, she set off on her travels with an English lover, Henry Vernon, who had gone into the Spanish navy for fun and come out a hero. They started by touring Genoa, Pisa, Florence and Venice. Then they went on to Vienna, which she loved, and then Warsaw, where they met King Stanislaus Augustus, and St. Petersburg, where they were received in a friendly way by Catherine the Great. Elizabeth drove over frozen wastes in a sledge, and rode with Cossack horsemen to see remote beauty spots. She dined with Tartar chieftains in the Crimea, and explored all the sights of Istanbul, including the great mosques and the old city.

Grotto of Antiparos drawn by Craven herself

The prospect of seeing Greece excited her so much she wrote a poem about it. On the Greek island of Antiparos she boldly descended into an underground grotto, filled with extraordinary stalactites, which she drew, and in Athens she marvelled at the sculptures on the Parthenon. Finally they started to wend their way back slowly through Transylvania and Hungary, wary of bandits and sometimes sleeping in the wagon or on the floor of a bare cottage.

The Margrave of Ansbach

From 1787 until 1791, Elizabeth lived in Germany as the guest then the mistress of the Margrave of Ansbach, a genial and cultured man whose previous mistress had been the celebrated French actress Mme Clairon. Elizabeth could not only act, she loved to write plays and produce them and she took over the court entertainments as a full-time job. One of her most entertaining plays, The Modern Philosopher, was written for production at Triesdorf. Her son Keppel went with her and took part in many of the productions. After the death of the Margrave’s wife, and of Lord Craven in 1792, the Margrave married Elizabeth, in defiance of convention. She refused to accept the status of a “fallen woman” excluded from society, and when they came to live in England they attracted a crowd of artistic, Bohemian, and unconventional friends around them. While she was never received at court, she hosted a lot of lively and creative people, and took in many refugees from the French Revolution, (among them the notorious adventurer and womanizer the Comte de Tilly, who became her last secret love). Her beloved youngest son Keppel brought his own friends to stay and fill the house with the laughter of young people.

Brandenburgh House, Hammersmith

When the Margrave died, Elizabeth was not left rich. I am still finding out more about her financial affairs, now, after publishing the book, and it appears that she had to be resourceful in coping with unpaid debts and pensions that did not turn up. So she retired to Naples where she could live inexpensively, basking in the warm climate of the South, and creating a wonderful garden – another one of her passions. She died at the age of 78, with Keppel at her side.

Posillipo at Naples, where Elizabeth Craven spent her old age.

I will never get tired of learning more about Elizabeth Craven. Since publishing her biolgraphy, I have discovered another lost work of hers, a full-length novel called The Witch and the Maid of Honour, which can be added to the considerable list of her works. Every new discovery just seems to make her more fascinating.

Editor’s Note:

Julia Gaspar’s book, Elizabeth Craven: Writer, Feminist and European (Vernon Press  2017), contains the full story of Elizabeth Craven and her circle – Now out in paperback.

You can learn more about The Modern Philosopher, by Elizabeth Craven, translated and edited by Julia Gasper, published by Cambridge Scholars Press October 2017 here.

You’ll find Julia’s blog, Elizabeth Craven and her World here, and Julia’s post for the Wordsworth Trust, Elizabeth Craven: Georgian Feminist here.


The Amorous Marrave and the Titled Wanderer: Elizabeth with her second husband.