Caroline, Countess of Harrington and The New Female Coterie

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Caroline, Countess of Harrington: “The Stable-Yard Messalina.”

I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed doing the research for my book In Bed With the Georgians and one of the things I found really fascinating concerned what was known as The New Female Coterie. It was a sort of ‘club for fallen women’ and was headed by Caroline, Countess of Harrington.

Rumour has it that she was black-balled for membership of the altogether more salubrious and uber chic Female Coterie – a group of ‘ladies of quality’ which met at London’s Almack’s Assembly Rooms. They would link up at Almack’s for a spot of supper, a good natter, and a round or two of loo (a popular card game).

But there was no way that these good ladies wanted to have anything to do with Caroline, Countess of Harrington, who had altogether too racy a reputation. So Her Ladyship went off in a huff and founded her own club. It wasn’t an association with formal rules or membership – more an informal gathering of people who had in common the fact that they were expelled from ‘polite society’. In other words, they were linked by the fact that they had been caught out committing adultery.

So where did they meet? Appropriately, in a top class brothel! It was run by Sarah, a well-known member of the Prendergast family. Her premises at King’s Place were able to attract some of the best known and wealthiest men in the country.

Caroline was originally known as Lady Caroline Fitzroy and was born on 8 April 1722 as the daughter of Charles Fitzroy, 2nd Duke of Grafton and Lady Henrietta Somerset. She married William Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Harrington, in 1746 and died on 26 June 1784 at the age of sixty-two. Her somewhat colourful lifestyle makes it important to distinguish her from the ‘other’ Countess of Harrington, namely Jane, Countess of Harrington.

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The impeccably well-behaved Jane, Countess of Harrington

Jane married Caroline’s son, who went on to become the 3rd Earl. As such Jane led a blameless life, and was, with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, one of the beauties of the Age. Ironically Jane’s younger sister, the scandalous Seymour Dorothy Fleming, was to join Jane’s mother-in-law Caroline as a member of the New Female Coterie. Seymour also figures in my book in her own right – she was the notorious “woman with twenty-seven lovers” who figured in the infamous Crim. Con. case between Sir Richard Worsley and George Bisset.

But back to Lady Caroline: she was regarded as a great beauty and was renowned for her love of a bit of bling. At the coronation of George III, Lady Harrington appeared “covered with all the diamonds she could borrow, hire, or seize,” and was “the finest figure at a distance.” She was the subject of much comment by that notorious old gossip Horace Walpole, and she revelled in the notoriety.

Lady Caroline Harrington may have had seven children by her husband, but she apparently had an insatiable appetite for sex. She was an enthusiastic bisexual whose conduct scandalised Society.
Her husband, who acquired the nickname ‘the goat of quality’ was too busy bedding other women to bother about what his wife was getting up to. However, the couple maintained some shred of respectability because the profligate Lord Harrington wasn’t hypocritical enough to divorce her for following his example.

The Press nicknamed her the “Stable Yard Messalina” — Messalina being the debauched wife of the Emperor Claudius. The “stable yard’ was a reference to the name of their home near St James’ Park, and her title of the “Stable Yard Messalina” was intended to convey her ardour, stamina, and enthusiasm in the bedroom. She was portrayed as a nymphomaniac “of highly refined salaciousness” who had enjoyed illicit sex with dozens of men, including her footman. An article in the Town & Country Magazine said that there were many reports of her amours “with lovers from a monarch down to a hairdresser and every member of the diplomatic body” as well as a Northern potentate and several of her own servants.

She had a weakness for both sexes and when her lesbian lover Elizabeth Ashe deserted her for a diplomat she “was quite devastated…her character was demolished by the desertion.” Denied social acceptance elsewhere, she formed the New Female Coterie where members would meet up once a month to catch up with other women ostracised by society. Here the great-but-no-longer-good would meet to have a good natter, and get drunk on champagne and nostalgia. It had the advantage that if any of the ladies felt so inclined, they could take their pick of lovers from the gentlemen visitors. For Sarah Prendergast, it must have been good for business being able to call on the services of such ladies, and for the women it gave them an opportunity to make a few guineas while finding an outlet for their sexual desires.

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“The Goat of Quality:” The Second Earl of Harrington, also known as “The Stable Yard Macaroni.”

Caroline’s husband the 2nd Earl Harrington was also known as “Lord Fumble”, and was described as being as “lecherous as a monkey.” He frequented the same Prendergast brothel as his wife, and turned up regularly as clockwork, four times a week. Once, he grew bored with the resident whores on offer and so he asked Mrs Prendergast to send out for more, from a nearby emporium run by a Madam known as Mother Butler. He was loaned the use of two girls known as Country Bet and Black Susan, and passed a few hours in their company. He then paid them each a miserly three guineas, much less than the going rate.

When the girls returned to Mrs Butler she demanded her cut of twenty-five percent and was furious to discover the underpayment. She apparently didn’t believe the girls, and seized their fine clothes as a punishment. The girls retaliated by accusing her of stealing the clothes and suddenly the whole thing snow-balled: the magistrates investigated the claim of theft, and statements were read out in Court that the Earl of Harrington always attended Mrs Prendergast’s every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and that it was his custom to ask for two girls on each occasion.

All this was reported in the Morning Post and the Morning Herald. The Earl was furious and demanded that Mrs Prendergast buy up all copies of the papers. She was terrified at the thought of losing a valuable customer, so she employed all six of her girls to do just that. They couldn’t buy the ones already in circulation in the various clubs, coffee shops and taverns which stocked them, so these were simply stolen. She also paid five guineas to Country Bet and Black Susan to drop the case, and wrote letters to all her clients assuring them that their anonymity was safe and that nothing like this would ever happen again.

It was all a bit like some of the leaks on the internet we read about, where members names and passwords are hacked from dating sites!

Mike Rendellin-bed-etc

Mike’s book In Bed with the Georgians: Sex, Scandal & Satire in the 18th Century comes out with Pen & Sword at the end of November. It is available at a discounted price of just under £12, direct from the publisher here. Mike also does a regular blog on all-things-Georgian at http://mikerendell.com/blog/

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“A Most Infamous, Vile Scoundrel”: Francis Charteris, The Rape-Master General

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A mezzotint of ‘Colonel Francisco,’ shown courtesy of the British Museum, with the heavily ironic words underneath: “Blood!–must a colonel, with a lord’s estate, be thus obnoxious to a scoundrel’s fate? Brought to the bar, and sentenc’d from the bench, Only for ravishing a country wench?”

For some people the word ‘rake’ is applied almost as a compliment–a recognition of hard-living and hard-drinking, with an almost heroic life spent on gambling and fornicating. But there was nothing heroic about Francis Charteris; he was not just a rake, he was a rapist, and a serial one at that. There are few men from the Eighteenth Century who come across as so totally devoid of decency and morality. Here was a thoroughly nasty piece of work–Swift described him as “a most infamous, vile scoundrel.”

Redeeming features? None that anyone could see. He was born in 1675 into a wealthy aristocratic Scottish family. He joined the army and was chucked out on four occasions, most notably by the Duke of Marlborough who had him court-martialed for cheating at cards. Eventually he was dismissed by Parliament for accepting bribes. By then he had achieved the rank of colonel–a rank which he had purchased largely through his expertise at cards. On one occasion he fleeced the Duchess of Queensbury out of £3000 by the simple expedient of playing cards with her after positioning her in front of a mirror, enabling him to see each hand of cards reflected in the glass.

He amassed money through bribery, fraud and blackmail as well as by dabbling on the nascent stock market (he was one of the few who did not get burned when the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720). He would lend money at an exorbitant rate of interest – sometimes 100%. It was small wonder that he reputedly had an income of £7000 a year, as well as a hundred thousand pounds invested in stocks and shares. He was a bully, a cheat and a con-artist, and a man who apparently thought he could have any woman he wanted, under some twisted idea of ‘droit de signeur.’ On one occasion in Scotland he raped a married woman at gunpoint, before running away to England to avoid capture. That meant that he was unable to return to the country of his birth, where he owned substantial estates, but in 1721 was able to petition the king (George I) for a pardon.

Armed with the pardon, he clearly felt that he was free to commit rape with impunity–he reveled in the name “Rape-Master General” and bragged of having had his way with some three hundred women. Nathaniel Mist, in his ‘Weekly Journal’, wrote “We hear a certain Scotch Colonel is charged with a Rape, a misfortune he has been very liable to, but for which he has obtained a Nolle Prosequi. It is reported now that he brags that he will obtain a Patent for ravishing whomever he pleases.”

Honour had no place in his repertoire. On one occasion when staying at an inn in Lancaster he reportedly persuaded a young servant girl to have sex with him on payment of a gold guinea. The next day, before departing, he told the inn-keeper that he had given the girl a gold coin and asked her to have it changed into silver, and that she had failed to deliver his change. The girl was searched, the gold coin discovered, and of course the word of Colonel Charteris was accepted, and the girl’s protestations were in vain: he got his guinea back, and she got the sack.

One of the drawbacks of his notoriety was that it was well-nigh impossible to find female servants to work in his household, so when he needed a new servant-girl for his home at Hanover Square in London, he gave his name as Colonel Harvey. It was apparently part of a ritual, played out for the amusement of the somewhat fat fifty-four year old colonel and his friends. Girls would be hired, raped, and then pushed out onto the streets.

As the Newgate Calendar put it: “his house was no better than a brothel, and no woman of modesty would live within his walls. He kept in pay some women of abandoned character, who, going to inns where the country waggons put up, used to prevail on harmless young girls to go to the colonel’s house as servants; the consequence of which was, that their ruin soon followed, and they were turned out of doors, exposed to all the miseries consequent on poverty and a loss of reputation.”

In October 1729 a young woman called Anne Bond was taken on as a maid-servant and was immediately besieged by the loathsome lothario. She resolutely declined the Colonel’s demands for sexual favours. On the third day she overheard someone refer to her master as Colonel Charteris. Realizing who ‘Colonel Harvey’ was, she sought to leave his employment immediately. He responded by having her locked in her room. The next day, 10th November 1729, he sent for her demanding that she make up the fire. He then brutally raped her, after gagging her screams with his night cap. When she stated her intention to report the crime, had her stripped and horse-whipped, alleging that she was a thief. She was thrown out with no possessions.

Brave girl –she made a complaint against Charteris and initially he was charged with the misdemeanour of assault with intent to rape. The Middlesex Jury upgraded the charge to rape, a crime which carried the death penalty. The case was referred to the Old Bailey and the trial started on 27 February 1730. By then the trial was the subject of huge Press attention. His defense team tried to besmirch Anne Bond’s character, claiming that she was a prostitute and a thief. He claimed that the act was consensual, producing his household servants to give evidence that the girl was lying, and that they had heard no noises or screams at the time of the alleged offence. Charteris even produced a letter which his footman swore on oath came from the girl, but it was clearly a forgery. Three witnesses were produced to give evidence that Anne was a virtuous and religious young woman. The jury retired for just 45 minutes to consider its verdict, and on 2 March Charteris was found guilty and sentenced to death.

That should have been the end of the matter–he was carted off to Newgate prison and his goods were seized as being forfeit to the Crown. He was, it transpired, one of ten men sentenced to death by the court that day.

However, a campaign to pardon the appalling colonel got under way–it appears that he had ‘friends in high places’ not least with Robert Walpole, First Lord of the Treasury. More to the point, he seems to have been able to buy off Anne Bond with the promise of an annual sum of £800, enough for her to get married. She planned to open a public house, apparently to be named ‘The Colonel Charteris Head.’ The sum of fifteen thousand pounds was apparently spent on ‘oiling the wheels of justice’ (in other words, laid out in bribes). It worked. Six weeks after sentence was handed down, George II granted a Royal Pardon, and the man was set free. He then had the nerve to sue for the return of his goods, even though his conviction as a felon meant that the seizure was entirely lawful. He ended up having to sell shares to obtain the return of his chattels. Meanwhile the Press also alleged that he made a substantial ‘thank you’ gift to Sir Robert Walpole….

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Hogarth, A Harlot’s Progress (Plate 1). When William Hogarth drew the first plate of his Harlot’s Progress, he shows the young, innocent Polly arrive in London with Colonel Charteris fondling himself in the doorway in eager anticipation of debauching the girl. His manservant ‘Handy Jack’ is by his side (top right).

The public were outraged–the poor because it was a clear example that the rich could get away with anything, and the rich because he was a disgrace and a dishonest cheat. He was pilloried in the Press with books such as “Some authentick memoirs relating to the life, amours … of Colonel Ch—-s. Rape-Master General of Great Britain.” A ballad entitled “On General Francesco, Rape-Master General of Great Britain” was published and he became the subject of satirical attacks by popular writers such as Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot and Jonathan Swift.

Charteris returned to Edinburgh in ill-health, possibly as a result of illness contracted in prison. He died on 24 February 1732. The outraged citizens of Edinburgh saw no reason why he should receive the full sacrament–they chased away the clergyman conducting the funeral, and pelted the grave at Greyfriars with manure, offal, and dead cats.

His conduct and unpopularity coincided with a campaign aimed at discrediting Walpole, who was seen as corrupt. The idea that “the rich can get away with it” was echoed in John Gay’s The Beggars Opera, which cast the hero as a highwayman and posed the question: why do the poor get punished for their crimes, when the rich do not?

in-bed-etcMike Rendell retired as a lawyer 15 years ago and now writes and lectures on Georgian history. He has written The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman based on the treasure trove of family papers (diaries, day books, etc) kept by his 4x great grandfather. His next book, In Bed With The Georgians: Sex, Scandal, and Satire in the 18th Century, will be out in October from Pen & Sword Books. You can visit him at http://mikerendell.com.