Regency Family Disaster: Debtors’ Prison

The heir to Fisherwick Hall was George Augustus Chichester (1769 – 1844). The oldest son of the Marquis of Donegall, Viscount Chichester was generally known as Lord Belfast, even in debtors’ prison, to his father’s chagrin.

"It's hard to be strict with a man who loses money so placidly," said a Yankee guard of his prisoner, one Rhett Butler

“It’s hard to be strict with a man who loses money so placidly,” said a Yankee guard of his prisoner, one Rhett Butler

For awhile, the marquis had covered his heir’s debts, which sprang primarily from gaming. He had ambition that his son, like himself, might marry well. Unfortunately, rumors of Lord Belfast’s profligacy reached the ballrooms of London, finally saturating them to such a degree that no willing candidate for his hand could be found.

Then success seemed probable when Lord Belfast took a fancy to the fifteen-year-old daughter of the Duchess of Leinster, “still in her frock.” But not even the schoolroom was proof against the news of mounting debts and the match was called off:

“..our dear Cecilia might have been made by it unhappy for life, as it is dear creature she has only to be thankful she has escaped so happily being married to a dissipated bad man..”

letter of Mrs. Anne Finch to Lucy Fitz-Gerald reprinted in — Living Like a Lord, the Second Marquis of Donegall, 1769-1844, W. A. McGuire 1984

By this time the harassed father had bailed his son out to the tune of 80,000 pounds and exhausted, bade him to go his own way, which was to prison. At times in Marshalsea and at others in Fleet, it appears Belfast preferred the latter. The beauty of life in this particular debtors’ prison allowed his lordship, according to one disgruntled creditor, the opportunity:

“of going to all public places and all races and fox hunting which were within forty or fifty miles of London for several years that his lordship was prisoner.” — Living Like a Lord, McGuire

Not all prisoners enjoyed such flexible “day rules” as Lord Belfast. It’s just that he made it so lucrative for guards and others alike to give him free rein and continue his poor performance at gambling. He seems not to have exercised any more judgment than before; indeed, prison seemed to encourage his bad habits, shielding him from the harassment of those to whom he owed many thousands of pounds.

Lord Belfast's illegitimate wife

Lord Belfast’s illegitimate wife

Eventually even this velvet restraint, however lenient, had become tiresome.

And when in need, Chichester tended to turn to those who did not have his best interests at heart.

One such fellow was Edward May, worse than a cardsharp and a good deal smarter. He looked past the worthless vouchers that could be wrung from Belfast’s cardplay toward a glittering horizon filled with political promise, in faraway Ireland. Belfast’s father, the marquis, was a great landowner in County Donegall and had in his patronage a good deal of government appointments and the like. Presumably these benevolences would be inherited, along with the marquis’ titles, and could be exercised on behalf of those who held them (or their dependents).

But the old man was still alive and who knew how long he might live?

A tie of a permanent sort was required, one that would last longer than some scribbled agreement. In exchange for his freedom, May offered his lordship the hand of his illegitimate daughter, Anna, in marriage. She, like her other siblings, was the issue from a union May entered into with the still-married wife of a Liverpool merchant.  Lord Belfast agreed.

The marquis was beside himself.  His son’s behavior had quite cut up the family peace but there was nothing that could be done to void such an lowering union.

It was then that the old man took stock in all that he held dear. The swine his son consorted with would soon hunger for more. So the marquis divided his estate between what he could not save–the marquisate and all the entailed properties–and gathered close to him what he could.

His beloved Fisherwick, its contents, even the Gainsborough portraits were inventoried meticulously and drawn up in a new will. None of which he loved the most would ever be wasted, sold or even touched by a son so unworthy. Lord Belfast was as good as dead to him.

And what remains lost, can never be found again.






9 thoughts on “Regency Family Disaster: Debtors’ Prison

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