Harriot, Duchess of St. Albans
Although Miss Mellon made her debut at Ulverston in the Lake District at the age of 10 in 1787, she did not arrive in London until 31 January 1795. Her first appearance there was at Drury Lane as Lydia Languish in a revival of The Rivals. In fact, it was thanks to the play’s author, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), who had seen her perform in the provinces, that she became a favourite with metropolitan audiences. ‘She never reached the first rank of actresses,’ according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘but she was praised for her good-natured readiness to take over parts in cases of illness, afterwards returning with good humour to the secondary roles she was accustomed to play.’ In 1805 in the Drury Lane comedy, Honey Moon, she ‘was very lively and playful’ and during the next year, when she was Louisa in The Irishman in London, The Times (24 September 1806, p. 2) hinted at both her natural ability to amuse and her ample charms when it reported that upon one of the characters addressing her as, ‘’’My lilly of the valley, my Melon!’’ there was a loud burst of applause.’
It was in 1805 that Miss Mellon became secretly intimate with the wealthy banker, Thomas Coutts. He was still married to his wife, Elizabeth Susannah (née Starkie, 1743-1815), who he married in 1763 and by whom he had three daughters, but the closing years of her life were marred by mental illness. As soon as he was able, Coutts married Miss Mellon; first, clandestinely, on 18 January 1815 and then openly on the 12 April following:
‘MARRIED. On Wednesday, at St. Pancras Church, Middlesex, Thomas Coutts, Esq. the opulent banker, to Miss Mellon, the actress of Drury-lane Theatre, who thus becomes the mother-in-law of the Dowager Countess of Guildford, the Dowager Marchioness of Bute, and of Lady Burdett.’ (The Salisbury and Winchester Journal, Salisbury, Monday, 6 March 1815, p. 4b)
Miss Mellon had just retired as an actress, making her final appearance as Audrey in As You Like It at Drury Lane on 7 February 1815. Her final salary is said to have been £12 a week, so her generosity reported at the beginning of 1815 was presumably made possible by Mr. Coutts:
‘Miss Mellon (the actress) made the poor round her beautiful house [Holly Lodge, built in 1809] on Highgate Hill happy on Christmas Day, by distributing 600 quartern loaves, and 600lbs. of fine beef, to that number of old men; and to every distressed aged female that applied, a chemise, a cloak, a blanket, and wine; and to the children of poverty, one shilling each.’ (The Bury and Norwich Post, Wednesday, 4 January 1815, p. 4c)
Following Thomas Coutts’s death on 22 February 1822, the extraordinary extent of his wealth was revealed and widely reported; so, too, was the lavish provision he had made for his widow:
‘Various statements have appeared respecting the manner in which the late Mr. Coutts has disposed of his immense property; but we understand the following is correct: Some time previous to his death, he settled upon Mrs. C. the sum of £600,000, with the house in Stratton-street [Piccadilly], all the plate, linen, wines, &c. the service of plate is said to be the most valuable of any in this country, and the stock of wines greater than any two private cellars in the kingdom; together with the house at Highgate, and all its appurtenances. Mrs. C. is likewise left half proprietress of his immense banking establishment, with all monies due to him at the time of his decease. The affairs of the house have been made up since his demise, and it is said there is a balance of £670,000 due to Mrs. C. which sum will be proved under the will. The whole amount of property (with the annual profits of half the banking business) now in possession of this Lady, it is supposed, makes her the richest widow in the United Kingdom.’ (The Lancaster Gazette, Friarage, Saturday, 16 March 1822, p. 1d)
Following her husband’s death, Mrs. Coutts, ‘opulent in person and big of heart,’ continued as one of London’s most liberal hostesses. The Press delighted in giving details of her various entertainments. One such, a fête and petite dejeuner at her Highgate villa in July 1824, was attended by about 700 ladies and gentlemen of rank and fashion, lead by their Royal Highnesses the Duke of York and Prince Leopold and the Dukes of Wellington, St. Albans and Leinster. We are told that a ‘stupendous’ temporary room was erected at the rear of the house, the interior of which was decorated ‘in a very fanciful style with pink, white, and blue stripes, hanging in close festoons from the room, and forming fluted columns. . . . Within about sixteen columns, tables were laid, four in number, for fifty-four each; and these tables were five times replenished; the first three with every thing served on china, and the last two on massive plate, sent the preceding day by RUNDELL and BRIDGE. . . . There were three waggon-loads of plate used, and forty well-dressed attendants, out of livery.’ (The Morning Post, London, Thursday, 8 July 1824, p. 3c)
It was from about this time that Mrs. Coutts and the Duke of St. Albans were often seen in each other’s company. Eventually, on 16 June 1827 at her house in Stratton Street, the couple were married: she was 50, he was 26. Scarcely able to believe her good fortune, the Duchess wrote soon afterwards to her friend, the author Sir Walter Scott: ‘What a strange eventful life has mine been, from a poor little player child, with just food and clothes to cover me, dependent on a very precarious profession, without talent or a friend in the world – first the wife of the best, the most perfect being that ever breathed . . . and now the wife of a Duke! You must write my life . . . my true history written by the author of Waverley.’ (David Douglas, editor, The Journal of Sir Walter Scott 1825-1832, Edinburgh, 1891)
Upon her death ten years later, the Duchess left the bulk of her wealth and the Coutts/Mellon plate to Mr. Coutts’s granddaughter, Angela Georgina (1814-1906). She, who was the youngest daughter of Sir Francis Burdett, 5th Bt. (1770-1844) by Sophia (1794-1849), eldest daughter of Thomas Coutts and his first wife, Susan, changed her name by royal licence in 1837 to Burdett-Coutts. In 1871 Miss Burdett-Coutts, who was a friend of Queen Victoria and one of the greatest philanthropists of the 19th century, was created Baroness Burdett-Coutts.
Heming & Chawner
The relatively short-lived partnership between George Heming (d. 1783) and William Chawner (1736-1783), trading as Heming & Chawner, appears to have been formed about the time of entering their first mark at Goldsmiths’ Hall on 17 November 1774. Chawner was one of the children of John Chawner (1705-1784), a Derbyshire yeoman and his wife Ann; his older brother was Thomas Chawner (1735-1806) with whom he was previously in partnership as spoonmakers.
This George Heming is not to be confused with his nephew, also George Heming (1748-1807), the son of Thomas Heming (1721/22-1801), Principal Goldsmith to George III, and his first wife, Ann. Whether the Heming brothers’ businesses were separate or run in tandem has not yet been established. What is clear, however, is that their extraordinary success was thanks to the intervention of John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792), later Prime Minister. It was he who in 1760, when he was close to the monarch in the influential position of Groom of the Stole, engineered Thomas Heming’s appointment as Principal Goldsmith to the King in the following manner:
‘Heming’s readiness to oblige, and to obey, in the most implicit manner, every request of Lord Bute cannot be doubted. He owed to Lord Bute his place of King’s silver-smith, and therefore his fortune. Until the accursed Scot came, and seized every department of the State, this place of trust, as well as profit, was, according to ancient custom, held by a banker, for obvious reasons. In Boldero’s house it had been many years. Upon the accession of the present King, the then Lord Chamberlain asked his Majesty, “Whether Mr. [John] Boldero should continue his silver-smith?” (In the office [i.e. Jewel Office] still it is gold-smith) The King, not having any cue [sic], answered, with his natural simplicity, ‘’YES.’’ Upon which, the necessary warrant was ordered to be made out for Mr. Boldero’s appointment. But Stuart Mackenzie (Lord Bute’s brother) owing Heming a bill for some plate, and Heming being clamorous for his money, Lord Bute, to stop his mouth, made the King break his word, and give Heming the place, which by right and by promise, was Mr. Boldero’s.’ (The London Evening-Post, London, 29-31 October 1772, p. 3b)
Thomas Heming maintained his position as Goldsmith to the King until 1782 when a general reorganisation of royal finances placed the Jewel Office under the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain. (For further comment, see James Lomax, ‘Royalty and silver: The role of the Jewel House in the eighteenth century,’ The Silver Society Journal, no. 11, London, 1999, pp. 138 and 1939). Heming then retired to Hillington, west of London, leaving his son, the younger George Heming to continue the business at the King’s Arms, (151) New Bond Street, opposite Clifford Street. About 1791 George followed his father into retirement, both men having made considerable fortunes, leaving the business in the hands of his cousin, Richard Heming (1768-1852), son of his late Uncle George and his wife, Catherine.
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