Regency Family Disaster: Disinheritance

By the time of the Regency, the family of Chichester had been deprived of the majority of its vast fortune by one generation of spendthrifts. But it convulsed over the dignity it valued most, its English title–the barony of Fisherwick. Although the house that bore this illustrious name and symbol of an Irish family’s entry into the highest society had long since been demolished, the baronial title Fisherwick remained the jewel in the crown, which could not be bought, sold or torn down.

The Countess of Charleville wrote to Lady Morgan in 1819 describing various bits of news to be had ’round London, gossip being the only enlivening thing when what one really wants is to get away from England entirely. She conveyed a variety of things to her ladyship, such as Lord and Lady Westmeath’s separation “for temper” and the outrage over Byron’s impious Don Juan. But the most intriguing of all was the following:

Lord Belfast, when he later become 3rd Marquess Donegal

Lord Belfast, when he later become 3rd Marquess Donegal

“…the overthrow of Lord Belfast’s marriage and fortunes, by Lord Shaftesbury having discovered that the Marquis and Marchioness of Donegal were married under age by licence, and not by banns, which renders it illegal, and bastardizes their children irreparably, is the greatest news of the upper circles at present.”

Lord Shaftesbury was the sixth earl of that name (seventh, according to his contemporaries). He had lately come into the  title upon the death of his older brother and was one of the wealthiest men in England, with a daughter whose dowry could redeem many a debt. While still just the Honorable Cropley-Ashley Cooper, his lordship had been a clerk in His Majesty’s ordinance office. It is not too fanciful to imagine he had developed a healthy dose of skepticism during the course of administering a government function ripe with the potential for corruption.

When Lord Belfast, the heir of the Marquis of Donegall came courting, Shaftesbury had already been primed to sniff out any irregularity and not just because there were rumors about his mama.

It was generally known that Belfast’s mother, the Marchioness of Donegal, had been born a “natural” child. Even the circumstances of her marriage, a parson’s mousetrap baited by a scheming father, were overlooked in view of the high-flown family into which she had been brought in. Only after the birth of seven boys did talk surface that she might have been a minor at the time of her marriage. And according to the Marriage Act of 1753, with the aim of reducing clandestine marriages, a “natural” child had to have the consent of the Lord Chancellor to wed. Neither the couple who adopted her in Wales nor her putative father had standing to give consent for her marriage.

Some say Shaftesbury found out this anomaly via an anonymous letter. However this occurred, the marriage between his daughter and Lord Belfast was called off, a social event that made a family affair into a national one, as Lady Charleville goes on to relate:

Lady Glengall - "that little she-attorney"

Lady Glengall – “that little she-attorney”

“The young lady had said she married only for money; therefore, for her, no pity is shown; but poor Lord Belfast, to lose rank, fortune, and wife at once, at twenty years of age, is a strong and painful catastrophe to bear properly.”

All at once the family fortunes seemed at a standstill. Everywhere Lord Belfast became known as simply Mr. Chichester, for now his cousins, the sons of the Marquis’ deceased brother, Lord Spencer Stanley, were next in line to inherit the marquisate and its venerable barony of Fisherwick.

“I hear Mr. Chichester (rightful heir now) behaves well; but he cannot prevent the entail affecting his heirs, nor the title descending to him from his cousin.”

It wasn’t long afterwards that Belfast cast his eye on the daughter of the Earl of Glengall. According to Regency diarist Henry Edward Fox, Lady Glengall was a “little she-attorney,” determined to get her daughter off her hands even if she had to craft a new title for the Marquis of Donegal’s disinherited scion. Perhaps this was the reason that the indolent Lord Donegal was moved to Act.

What followed was a fascinating, if somewhat lengthy and confusing journey into Regency-era litigation. Far from disputing the lack of the Lord Chancellor’s order, Lady Donegal insisted she was not a minor when her father bamboozled Lord Donegal. Indeed, she scrambled together several aged witnesses and fought jurisdictional barriers to get evidence before the court as to her true birthdate.

The conclusion was a Parliamentary order to regularize the Donegal union that had been made illegitimate by the old Marriage Act.

Moral of the story: some families are too high up on the social ladder to fail–er, fall.

Harriet, Marchioness of Donegal

Harriet, Marchioness of Donegal

Postscript: What financial and legal ruin the Chichesters may have survived, their physical evidence has been erased. During the Victorian period, the mausoleum containing the bodies of the family, built near the vanished Fisherwick Hall, had become infested with rabbits and was destroyed.



Regency Family Disaster: Fisherwick’s Demise

George, Lord Belfast, had a brother six years younger–Lord Spencer Stanley Chichester (1775-1819). Spencer Stanley was the last child born to the old Marquis and his beloved first wife, Anne. He was only four when his mother died.

Lord Spencer Stanley Chichester

Lord Spencer Stanley Chichester

When George came of age in 1791, he had already declined an education at his father’s alma mater, Oxford, and left home for the gaming tables and the turf:

“I had the whole story of Lord Belfast and a sad one it is….the foolish young man had been bamboozled out of 40,000 pounds in the space of nine months by some villainous people..” — 1791 letter from Lady Newdigate

Sixteen year old Spencer Stanley remained at Fisherwick, companion to a perplexed father puttering about his shells and books in between trips to London for Parliament and the Season. One can easily speculate how his lordship, despairing over his absent elder son’s dissipation, should turn for comfort to the younger.

Imagine how he must have rejoiced, after seeing George rebuffed by a chit in the schoolroom, when Spencer Stanley married the Lady Harriet Stewart, the daughter of the earl of Galway. No one thought to question why the older son was absent from the nuptials, which was a good thing for it might have cast a cloud over the festivities.

Lady Harriet Chichester

Lady Harriet Chichester

You see, on that very day, George was being married to the daughter of a moneylender.

It was shortly afterwards that Spencer Stanley was informed by his father the Marquis that Fisherwick and all the furnishings therein would one day be his. And because the old man did not trust his older son to see his will carried out, he made the younger the executor and appointed a trustee to advise him:

“against the many embarrassments which the great extent and multiplicity of my concerns and his own inexperience and the unhappy conduct of his brother may otherwise involve him in..” —

In 1799, the brothers came into their inheritance, their father having died at age fifty-nine. Creditors descended in ever larger droves on the hapless George, who had executed a number of post-obit bonds to cover his debts incurred after his estrangement from the family. His younger brother held all the cards, including a cash settlement from the Lagan Canal in the family’s Irish property. The building of this waterway had yet to be paid for, its equity stripped to pay out the settlement. George, as the new marquess and owner, was liable for this worthless asset, already deeply encumbered by the interest payments on the construction bonds.

The new marquis and his family moved from house to cottage across England, sometimes barely escaping with their clothes. Meanwhile, Spencer Stanley lived on at splendid Fisherwick, among the Gainsborough portraits of his family and perhaps idly playing on Queen Elizabeth’s virginal.

Then, in January 1816, La Belle Assemblee reported that Lord Spencer Stanley Chichester had presided over the sale of his father’s collection, including the Queen’s virginal, almost twelve years before. This was followed by the Survey of Staffordshire which revealed Fisherwick had been sold to one Richard Howard, Esquire six years before, in 1810. The Survey, being concerned with the land’s economic value in its mines, farms, and woods, cast a cynical eye over the fall of Fisherwick:

“..a profusion of embellishment, and extravagance of expenditure, this earthly paradise, as it was termed by vulgar minds..demolished by other architectural projectors for the value of the materials, which have been carried off to decorate the paradise of some other fanciful mortal.” — A Topographical History of Staffordshire, William Pitt (1817)

A footnote to Fisherwick’s fate concerned its magnificent stone portico. Sadly, the wrenching away of this decorative feature had destroyed the house itself:

“..such was the firmness of the fabric, that the destruction of the building has been the almost entire destruction of the material itself..” The New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 6 (1816)

According to this source, the pillars were to fetch 1000 pounds bid for by a new church to be built in Birmingham, but went to the Viscount Anston for a fraction of that amount. Eventually the portico wound up in the industrial town of Walsall, decorating the old George hotel, until this too was demolished in 1934.

those pillars do appear to be Ionic in design

those pillars do appear to be Ionic in design

Spencer Stanley died in Paris in 1819, leaving two sons and three daughters.

How he had journeyed to this end, leaving in his wake the destruction of his papa’s beloved Fisherwick, is a matter of conjecture. Had George prevailed upon his younger brother to pledge what he had to stave off the never-ending horde of creditors, swallowing up what the old Marquis had fought in vain to save? Or had Spencer Stanley, without the steadying hand of his father, fallen prey to the gambling vice that afflicted his older brother, losing Fisherwick through his own efforts?

The answer may lie in a future dispute among members of the Chichester family–one concerning the very name of Fisherwick itself.




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.





Regency Family Disaster: Fisherwick Hall

Many of the great Regency family disasters had glorious foundations in the Georgian period.

The Chichester family is one such example. They built their finest house, Fisherwick Hall, between 1766 and 1779 upon the foundations of a hall belonging to a long-gone Elizabethan family. Because the name Chichester was to live forever in Staffordshire glory, it made sense to tear down old Fisherwick Hall to make way for a more glorious (and everlasting) successor.

Old Fisherwick Hall

Old Fisherwick Hall

The family’s patriarch at that time was Arthur Chichester, the first marquess of Donegall. It was he who made Fisherwick Hall into “a sumptuous edifice,” designed by Capability Brown:

“The building extends seventy feet each side of (the) portico, and the whole extent of the front is one hundred and eighty feet. The pilasters and decorations of the windows are of the Corinthian order, and the building is composed entirely of durable white stone.

By an easy flight of steps beneath the portico we ascend to a magnificent Hall, ornamented with sixteen pilasters of highly polished marble, the compartments and ceiling interspersed with elegant decorations in stucco.” — A Companion to the Leasowes, Hagley, and Enville: With a Sketch of  Fisherwick, near Lichfield, Volume 3 (1800)

The Sketch goes on to relate the manner of Fisherwick’s interior design. Scagliola chimney pieces and statues filled the Hall, the drawing-room sported Monsieur Rigaud’s frescoes of Apollo and Ariadne, the library held a considerable collection of books, the halls were hung with Gainsborough paintings. Bonomi the Elder designed the furniture and Joseph Rose executed decorative plaster work.

However, the land on which Fisherwick was situated was indifferent at best:

“A flat, infertile heath, such as we see in various parts of this island, and such as never fails to disgust the eye (!)” — On Planting and Rural Ornament, a Practical Treatise, William Marshall (1803)

Fisherwick Hall "a sumptuous edifice"

Fisherwick Hall “a sumptuous edifice”

Happily, the marquess retained Capability Brown to remedy the situation. The result was such that Mr. Marshall waxed eloquent in his description of the landscape’s overall effect. The estate offices situated rather unfortunately at the front of the house had been rendered all but unseen by judicious plantings and a bending driveway that took one quite unconsciously past these pedestrian buildings to the terminus that was Fisherwick’s magnificent portico. A walk was installed which wound through the shrubbery, enabling “ladies to make the entire circuit of the grounds without setting foot on a carriage road.”

And finally, there was a large number of artifacts, some of which remained unopened in their boxes.

The most remarkable of these must have been the virginal instrument belonging to Queen Elizabeth I:

“It is covered in crimson velvet, and richly decorated in front with japan and gilt ornaments, among which are the arms and supporters of Queen Elizabeth at one end, and at the other, a bird, crowned, and holding in its right paw a scepter. It is in shape and size much like a spinet, but opens on the opposite side, and then resembles a common piano-forte.” The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1815

At the beginning of the Regency era, Fisherwick Hall represented the pinnacle of a family’s ambitions.

Pride comes before a fall.

The Virginal of Elizabeth I -- now in the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Virginal of Elizabeth I — now in the Victoria and Albert Museum