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In search of 18th century London Lesbian Bordellos

Tuesday, October 6, 2020 - 19:51

This isn't part of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, as such. It's more of a digression into historical methods and sources. I'll link this from the LHMP entry that inspired it, and it I dig futher on the thread, I'll continue to link. For What Came Before, see here.

We left off with a summary of the claims that Burford makes about lesbian bordellos and lesbian relationships in 18th century London, and a note that he doesn’t clearly support either concept in his text. (I’m not saying that either of these is a false claim. Only that Burford gave us no basis for accepting their truth.)

 So, let’s see what else we can turn up with a bit of online research.

The place to start would be the Caroline Harrington, since a countess seems most likely to have left a trace in the historic record. And here we are: the Wikipedia entry for Caroline FitzRoy Stanhope, Countess of Harrington. (It doesn’t say much for Burford’s historic accuracy that he’s turned her title into a surname. But never mind.) “After being blackballed by the English social group The Female Coterie, she founded The New Female Coterie, a social club of courtesans and "fallen women" that met in a brothel. Known for her infidelity and bisexuality, she was nicknamed the "Stable Yard Messalina" due to her adulterous lifestyle.” Wikipedia has a footnote for the claim “she had male and female lovers” (Linnane, Fergus (Oct 24, 2011). Madams: Bawds & Brothel-Keepers of London. The History Press. ISBN 9780752473383.) but on checking the cited passage (via Google Books), the details regarding her lesbian relationships are so exactly parallel to Burford’s text that I’d be surprised if he weren’t the source. (Burford is cited elsewhere in Linnane’s book.) Which brings us full circle.

Caroline’s Wikipedia page cites three historical studies that include her as a major focus. It’s possible that one or more of them has some more solidly cited evidence than “she was part of a social club of adulterous women who held their events at a brothel.”

Elizabeth Ashe doesn’t seem to have her own Wikipedia entry, so we’ll leave her for now. Trying to do a broad-scope search on “Mother Courage” runs into a lot of interference from the Bertolt Brecht play of that name and a NYC restaurant. Frances Bradshaw has no Wikipedia entry, but Thomas Bradshaw does and it rather undermines Burford’s suggestion that he seriously proposed marriage to Frances, given that he was survived by his wife of 17 years.

So taking this back to the footnote in Rizzo, it was in the context of noting that Elizabeth Chudleigh (mistress and then wife to a duke) had, in her 20s, been intimate friends with Lady Caroline Fitzroy Petersham* (later Caroline Stanhope, Countess of Harrington) and Elizabeth Ashe, and that this raised the possibility that Chudleigh’s rather strictly jealous attitudes toward her companions may have been sexual in nature.

(*Not sure where the “Petersham” come from. Caroline’s father was a FitzRoy and her mother was a Somerset, and her only husband was a Stanhope. Ah, here’s a clue. “Viscount Petersham” was a subsidiary title to the Harrington title. So, again, shouldn’t be treated like a surname.)

But while Chudleigh and Lady Caroline were much of an age (only a year’s difference) Elizabeth Ashe was eight years younger. So… ah, but a Google search on “Caroline Fitzroy Petersham” + “Elizabeth Ashe” turns up the text of a 1911 biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh by Charles E. Pearce, which places all three women together. This source may also be where the styling of “Caroline Fitzroy Petersham” comes from. The text calls her “then Caroline Petersham” in reference to an event in 1750 when her husband had not yet succeeded his father as Earl of Harrington, and therefore might have been styled “Viscount Petersham”. But it’s still confusing to treat it as a surname. Her married name was “Caroline Stanhope” regardless of title.

Anyway, in chapter 8 (Elizabeth's associates Gay ladies of fashion, The frolicsome Miss Ashe, The friendship and wrangles of Miss Ashe and Lady Caroline Petersham, A merry night at Vauxhall…) we find the following descriptions.

p. 136: It is related that while Miss Chudleigh, the free-and-easy Lady Caroline Petersham, afterwards Lady Harrington, and the latter's inseparable friend one equally free and easy Miss Ashe, were at Tunbridge Wells they were somewhat incensed by the intrusion into their circle of a Mrs. Wildman, a rich widow of low origin, who wished to pose as a lady of fashion.

p.139: One biographer, writing in 1789, asserts that Miss Chudleigh "ran the career of pleasure, enlivened the Court circles, and each year became more ingratiated with the mistress whom she served. She led fashions, played whist with Lord Chesterfield; visited with Lady Harrington (Lady Caroline Petersham) and Miss Ashe; figured at a masquerade, and laughed at the lover whom she chose not to favour with her smiles, with all the confounding grace of a woman of quality.

p.144 "Her intimacy with Lady Harrington (Lady Caroline Petersham) and Miss Ashe, who rioted in dissipation, gave a stamp to her character. She was constant at the midnight orgies of their pleasures, and no doubt participated in their sensual indulgencies." As this was written in 1780, thirty years afterwards, it is purely conjecture. It is certain, however, that Lady Harrington, then Lady Caroline Petersham, and the eldest daughter of the second Duke of Grafton, was one of the most-talked-about beauties of the day. About her intimate friend, Miss Elizabeth Ashe, there is a little mystery. She is stated indirectly by Wraxall and directly by Mrs. Piozzi (who describes her as “a pretty creature, but particularly small in her person”), to have been of very high parentage, her mother being no less a personage than the Princess Amelia Sophia Eleonora, second daughter of George II, and her father the gallant (in more senses than one) Admiral Rodney. The Princess, it is said, displayed the same partiality for Rodney which her cousin and namesake, the Princess Amelia of Prussia, manifested for Baron Trenck. Miss Ashe was as frolicsome as she was adventurous, and her escapades included a Fleet wedding, and an elopement with the scapegrace Edward Wortley Montagu, of which more later on. [Note: A “Fleet wedding” was of questionable legality, and Montagu’s Wikipedia entry makes no mention of the marriage, though it is quite brief and may not be exhaustive.]

p.146: Lady Caroline and Miss Ashe were inseparable, their friendship occasionally interrupted by quarrels, which, however, they soon made up. One may be sure that Lady Caroline was the offender, as she seems to have been blessed (or cursed) with a temper.

p.153: …[in reference to a notorious highwayman] at his trial the court was crowded with ladies of fashion, among them the inseparables, Lady Caroline Petersham and Miss Ashe, "like Niobe, all tears."

p.199: a passage merits quoting, if only for its reference to one of the never-ending series of quarrels between Lady Caroline Petersham and her bosom friend, "Pollard" Ashe… "Your friend, the eldest Miss Gunning, carries on her negotiation in all public places with Lord Coventry. The treaty must surely be near a conclusion one way or another, but whether it will be final or only a ‘provisional’ one is not yet clear… Miss Ashe is happily reconciled to Lady Caroline Petersham, who had broke with her upon account of her indiscretion, but who has taken her under her protection again upon the assurances that she is ‘as good as married’ to Mr. Wortley Montagu, who seems so puzzled between Le Chatelet in France and his wife in England that it is not yet known in favour of which he will determine”

p.204: In the early part of 1751 Lady Caroline had her last quarrel with Miss Ashe, for in July the little lady ran away with Edward Wortley Montagu, and the two were married in Keith's chapel, Mayfair. The lively associate of Elizabeth Chudleigh in many a frolic both in London and Tunbridge Wells had very ill-luck in her marriage. Poor little "Pollard" Ashe deserved a better fate. She was probably not vicious, though she enjoyed life to the full, as it was presented to her, and, like all the ladies of the Court, took no thought of the morrow. Her scamp of a husband forsook her, and, to quote Elizabeth Montagu, "Poor Miss Ashe, like the forsaken Ariadne, wept on a foreign shore." After his death she found consolation in a marriage with a captain in the Royal Navy. [Note: as Wikipedia indicates that Whortley Montagu died in 1776, that would have been a 20+ year wait for “consolation.”]

Lady Caroline's temper was easily upset, but we hear of no more escapades in company with Miss Chudleigh. So far as the ladies of the Court were concerned Elizabeth's exploit at the Jubilee masquerade* did her more harm than good, and it is highly probable her former friends looked at her a little askance. Lady Caroline no doubt thought a private intrigue was nothing so bad as open public indelicacy, and as she never hesitated to speak her mind, it can be easily imagined that Miss Chudleigh heard some very candid criticism. One may be sure, however, that the latter could take care of herself in a verbal encounter, and that her ladyship got as good as she gave.

[* This would be a reference to Chudleigh’s scandalous appearance semi-nude in a Jubilee masquerade in 1749. So this fits the general time-frame of the reference to 1751 in an earlier paragraph.]

p.215: Elizabeth's pleasant holiday at Tunbridge Wells over, she returned to London with the Duke of Kingston dangling at her heels, to find the town still agog with the doings of the Gunnings, a little variety in the way of piquant gossip being furnished by the obstreperous Lady Caroline Petersham and her lively friend, little Miss Ashe. For the time being the frivolities of these fair dames provided ample material for the diarists and polite letter-writers. The wrangles of Lady Caroline always made a dainty dish of scandal, and we learn that she and "Pollard" Ashe quarrelled about reputations, while a little later she has her " anniversary quarrel with Lady Townshend."

While this biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh is a secondary source and (consistent with the date of publication) doesn’t bother with close footnoting, many of these references attributed to Horace Walpole, and one of the references was to prolific diarist Hester Thrale Piozzi, so I’m going to consider the general tenor of the information well-sourced. As a summary, Pearce’s biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh seems to solidly support an image of Caroline Stanhope and Elizabeth Ashe as “inseparable” “intimate” friends with licentious reputations. In this era, the fact that their licentiousness included men doesn’t exclude the possibility that they were also lovers (or rumored to be such). Since Piozzi was known to have strong negative opinions about homosexuality (in both men and women), her writings might be a good place to look for a more explicit accusation, but I don’t have an electronic edition of her writings.

The suggestions that Elizabeth Chudleigh’s close friendship with them might indicate sapphic leanings on her part is more conjectural, and I’d put it down as “suggestive, but far from proven.”

So, we’ve gotten as far as accepting a “probable” lesbian relationship between Stanhope and Ashe, but what about the suggestion that Caroline Stanhope was a “frequenter of Covent Garden stews” which, if one reads very carefully, is the only point at which Burford actually intersects named lesbians and houses of ill repute? Pearce’s text contains no examples of “Covent”, no relevant examples of “garden” and no examples of “stews”. So, he can’t be the source of this accusation.

And we haven’t yet touched on the characterization of Mother Courage’s and Fanny Bradshaw’s brothels as places that catered to lesbians. But we’ll save that question for another day.

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