My latest Regency His Unsuitable Viscountess is published in August. [The heroine] is a Regency businesswoman who has to make a marriage of convenience in order to keep control of the family business under the terms of her stepfather's will. When I was doing my research, I was shocked to discover the two highest paid bankers in the 1820s — the Peeresses (Lady Jersey, Patroness of Almacks [was] the head of Childs and the Duchess of St Albans, the head of Coutts aka where the Queen still banks) have no modern biography.
My reaction: WHAT?! I had no idea! I asked her to tell me more, because this was fascinating stuff. She wrote an article for us about it, and here it is. Thank you, Michelle!
‘Were there any successful Regency business women?’ my editor asked with scepticism evident in her voice when I first proposed the idea which became His Unsuitable Viscountess. ‘Georgette Heyer never had any businesswomen as heroines. Make sure your ideas are historically accurate, Michelle. Our readers demand it.’
Luckily, I was able to point to Eleanor Coade, the owner of Coade Stone. Coade stone was used in most of the statues in the period. However she was unmarried, partly because she wanted to keep control of her business. I’d discovered her when I read Five Centuries of Women and Gardens by Sue Bennet and was really intrigued by how a successful businesswoman would have coped in a very masculine world.
My editor accepted my research but wanted to make sure a heroine could get married and not lose control of her business. The Married Woman’s Property Act which gave women the right to be more than chattels of their husband happened in 1870. The key of course was in the settlement or marriage contract. If the wording was right, the woman could retain control of her assets. If it was wrong, she was at her husband’s mercy until the Married Woman’s Property Act. The English Marriage by Maureen Waller makes this quite clear. But I wanted to show my editor real women who had succeeded, preferably ones who were involved in the ton.
I started to research the problem, and my jaw literally fell to the ground. The two highest paid bankers of the 1820’s were Sarah Sophia, the Countess of Jersey who ran Child’s bank and Harriet Mellon Coutts, the Duchess of St Albans who ran Coutts. Unfortunately there are no modern biographies of these women. I suspect that it is because they don’t fit the model either for the feminists who like to think the women only became emancipated after the women’s right movement started or for the men of their day as women in business were thought to be somehow unfeminine. The best resource for women bankers (including the 14 who were literally licensed to print money in the Regency period) is Women Who Made Money – Women Partners in British Private Banks 1752 -1906 by Margaret Dawes and Nesta Selwyn.
Harriot Mellon Coutts was a famous late Georgian actress who married the elderly owner of Coutts four days after his mentally ill wife died. His three daughters who had married into society were less than pleased. When the eldest daughter, Baroness North sought to make a mockery of her by presenting her at court, Harriot was able to turn the tables as the Prince of Wales was a long-standing fan and greet her warmly. When Thomas Coutts died, he left the bank to Harriot, rather than his three daughters as they had been so horrible to Harriot. Because of her theatrical connections, Coutts attracted some of the more famous names including Richard Sheridan, Henry Irving, Sir Walter Scott and Fredric Chopin. Harriot was also great friends with Mrs Jordan, the Duke of Clarence’s mistress. Coutts remains the Queen’s bankers. After five years of widowhood and actively running the bank, she married the Duke of St Albans who was half her age. She continued to take an active role in the bank, making sure she had the appropriate settlement (think pre nuptial agreement) When Harriot died, she left the bank to her favourite of Coutts’ granddaughters, a girl who had been neglected by her mother. The granddaughter did not take an active part in the bank but preferred to concentrate on philanthropy.
The Countess of Jersey inherited her bank because her mother eloped with the Earl of Westmorland. Lady Jersey was the eldest granddaughter as Robert Child refused to have the eldest son, the future Earl of Westmorland inherit. Sarah became the senior partner when she reached her majority in 1806, a position she held until her death in 1867. Her husband whom she married in 1804 never had anything to do with the bank. Like Harriot, Sarah had rock solid settlement which clearly spelt out what belonged to her. Sarah served as one of the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s during the Regency period and had the unique position of knowing who was financially solvent or not. She is the woman responsible for introducing the quadrille and eventually approving the waltz at Almack’s.
It puts a whole new complexion on the process through which vouchers were granted. When the Lady Patronesses had access to this sort of information, did they really need to consult with Beau Brummell? Or was this merely men, and in particular Brummell’s first biographer, trying to play down the importance of the Lady Patronesses’ inside knowledge? It is far easier to proclaim you were cut by Brummell than admit you were refused entry because you were let in the pockets. One male historian offered the opinion that Lady Jersey only went to the bank to read ladies magazines! Huge rolling of eyes and reaching for the sick bag when I read this. Lady Jersey retained the right to hire and fire the other partners in the bank. Child’s eventually became part of the Royal Bank of Scotland and the name is currently used for its private banking arm.
When faced with this information, my editor agreed I could write my story with a Regency businesswoman. His Unsuitable Viscountess, where my heroine has to marry within four weeks or lose the family business under the terms of her stepfather’s will as her mother did not have the proper settlement, is the result. Earlier this year I discovered why Georgette Heyer did not have any businesswomen heroines when I read the Jennifer Kloester biography ( A | BN | K | S | ARe ) — Heyer didn’t approve of women in business, particularly successful women, a very Edwardian point of view. It echoes the Dawes and Selwyn book – for a number of reasons there were more top women bankers in England during the Regency period than there were during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Hopefully more people will start to explore this aspect of the Regency and celebrate the women who were feminists before the notion truly existed.
Is that not fascinating? Styles also told me that, “another one who gets overlooked is Sarah Rice, the model for Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park ( A | BN | K | S | ARe ), again no modern biography. She ran the pigeon carrier service that the Rothchilds used to get info on the war. It was her pigeons which brought the news of Waterloo. The Rothchilds might not have made money but Sarah certainly did.”
Styles added, “It puts a whole different complexion on the Regency.”
Doesn't it though? It makes more sense to me now that the patronesses of Almack's had such power: to control society, you have to control access and money, and they did. That's a lot of power right there.
Thank you to Michelle Styles for putting together so much of her research for us. Three cheers for powerful women!