Friday, 14 October 2011

Dido Elizabeth Belle: Kenwood and Beyond

The Brimstone Butterfly’s  post about Dido Elizabeth Belle dating from December 2009 has proved to be a perennial favourite. Intrigued by the interest it occasioned, I have delved further into Dido’s story  and have drawn some rather different conclusions to the one’s I first entertained. Given time, I might    change my mind yet again as Dido Elizabeth Belle remains teasingly enigmatic.                                                                                

I earlier speculated as to whether Dido had been left cowering in Kenwood House, along with the rest of the Mansfield household, when an unsuccessful attempt was made to storm the place by the Gordon Rioters in 1780. The rioters, incensed at Parliamentary legislation which sought to reduce the punitive laws affecting Catholics, were bent on attacking the mansion of Lord Mansfield, Dido’s great uncle and the Lord Chief Justice of England.The rioters’ plans were thwarted by the quick thinking of the landlord of the Spaniard’s Inn, a still extant Elizabethan inn, in London's Highgate. The landlord persuaded the mob to avail themselves of ale or two at his hostelry sited but a short distance from Kenwood House. Whilst they quenched their thirst, the landlord secretly had word sent to the army, who were able to round-up the rioters before they could continue on their way.

More recently I discovered that Gordon rioters had also targeted Lord Mansfield‘s London townhouse with far more catastrophic results. In his memoirs Sir Nathaniel  Wraxall, who wrote so scathingly about William V of Orange, published an eye witness account of the attack on Lord Mansfield’s Bloomsbury home in 1780.

"I was personally present at many of the most tremendous effects of the popular fury on the memorable 7th of June, the night on which it attained its highest point. About nine o'clock on that evening, accompanied by three other gentlemen, who, as well as myself, were alarmed at the accounts brought in every moment of the outrages committed, and of the still greater acts of violence meditated, as soon as darkness should favour and facilitate their further progress, we set out from Portland Place, in order to view the scene. Having got into a hackney-coach, we drove to Bloomsbury Square, attracted to that spot by a rumour, generally spread, that Lord Mansfield's residence, situate at the north-east, was either already burnt, or destined for destruction. Hart Street and Great Russell Street presented each to the view, as we passed, large fires composed of furniture taken from the houses of magistrates, or other obnoxious individuals. Quitting the coach, we crossed the square, and had scarcely got under the wall of Bedford House, when we heard the door of Lord Mansfield's house burst open with violence. In a few minutes, all the contents of the apartments being precipitated from the windows, were piled up and wrapt in flames. A file of foot-soldiers arriving, drew up near the blazing pile, but without either attempting to quench the fire or to impede the mob, who were, indeed, far too numerous to admit of their being dispersed, or even intimidated, by a small detachment of infantry. The populace remained masters, while we, after surveying the spectacle for a short time, moved on into Holborn.”

Wraxall's description of the forces of law and order standing helplessly by as Londoners rioted and burned down buildings has uncanny parallels with recent events in the capital during the summer of 2011. It was whilst I was reading Sir Nathaniel Wraxall’s account in his memoirs of the rioting in 18th  century Bloomsbury that I came across his amusing anecdote about Dido’s contemporary, Charles, 11th Duke of Norfolk, who lived in St James’ Square. According to Wraxall the Duke was guilty of "carrying his neglect of his person so far that his servants were accustomed to avail themselves of his fits of intoxication for the purpose of washing him, and to strip him as they would a corpse in order to perform the necessary ablutions. Nor did he change his linen more frequently than he washed himself. One day he complained to Dudley North that he was a martyr to the rheumatism, and had ineffectually tried every remedy for its relief. 'Pray, my lord,' was North's reply, 'did you ever try a clean shirt?'"

Aside from these tumultuous events arising from her great uncle’s position as Lord Chief Justice, Dido generally enjoyed a settled life within the Mansfield household. She had received an education that equipped her to act as Lord Mansfield’s amanuensis on at least one occasion. A letter Mansfield dictated to her and which she transcribed into her neat script survives today and was displayed at the exhibition on Slavery and Justice a few years back. According to the London Chronicle of 1788 Dido was also able to acquit herself well in company being possessed of all the requisite social graces expected of a young lady in 18th century English polite society.
Sir John Lindsay father of Dido Elizabeth Belle
The paper claimed in an obituary about her father, Admiral Sir John Lindsay, that Dido‘s “amiable disposition and accomplishments have gained her the highest respect from all his Lordship’s relations and visitants.”  There was one man who Dido singularly failed to impress with either her disposition or her looks. It is his account of their only encounter which has been seen as providing a definitive insight into Dido’s life at Kenwood. Yet I now believe it would be unsafe to regard Thomas Hutchinson’s words as being anything other than those of a highly partisan observer, who contemptuously dismisses Dido as a “Black.”
Hutchinson had first been invited to Kenwood on Sunday 17th July 1774,  some 6 weeks or so after he had been forced into political exile from America. The following day he was proudly writing to his friend Chief Justice Oliver about his visit and described the estate as “a most elegant place and the entertainment as elegant.” It must have been some small consolation to Hutchinson that he got to hobnob with the great and the good in England after the humiliation of his own home across the Atlantic being stormed by an angry mob before being burnt to the ground. Hutchinson and his family barely escaped with their lives, an experience the Mansfields would later endure themselves.

On August 29th 1779 Hutchinson was still in political exile. He would never return to America and within the year he would be dead. Perhaps his relative old age and bitterness occasioned his poisonous attitude towards Lord Mansfield’s charismatic ward, Dido Belle, or perhaps he was simply an oafish bore.

Of Lord Mansfield himself Hutchinson wrote gushingly in his diary that he at “74 or 5, has all the vivacity of 50. He gave me a particular acct. of his releasing two Blacks from slavery, since his being Chief Justice.” Hutchinson was equally admiring of the elderly Lady Mansfield who had “the powers of her mind still firm, without marks of decay.” He contrasted Lady Mansfield’s simple and becoming dress with that of her contemporary, whom he had seen at court,. Lady Say. He had observed  the latter’s “head as high dressed as the young Duchesses etc. What a carricature she looked like! How pleasing, because natural, Lady Mansfield’s appearance”.
Dido Belle and Elizabeth Murray on the terrace at Kenwood with the bridge in the background

The view from the Terrace at Kenwood towards the mock bridge. December 2010
Hutchinson then fixed his malign gaze towards Dido:
“A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other. She had a very high cap and her wool was much frizzled in her neck, but not enough to answer the large curls now in fashion. She is neither handsome nor genteel — pert enough. I knew her history before, but My Lord mentioned it again. Sir John Lindsay having taken her mother prisoner in a Spanish vessel, brought her to England where she was delivered of this girl, of which she was then with child, and which was taken care of by Lord M., and has been educated by his family. He calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her — I dare say not criminal. A few years ago there was a cause before his Lordship bro’t by a Black for recovery of his liberty. A Jamaica planter being asked what judgement his Ldship would give? “No doubt” he answered “He will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.” She is a sort of Superintendant over the dairy, poultry yard, etc, which we visited. And she was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said”

Hutchinson’s description of Dido as being neither handsome nor genteel is not borne out by her portrait showing her large expressive eyes and captivating smile nor by the London Chronicle of 1788 enthusing over her “ amiable disposition and accomplishments.” Incidentally, the London Chronicle is believed to have been the first newspaper in Europe to publish the full text of the United States Declaration of Independence in August 1776, by which time Hutchinson's  political career in America had turned to ashes and he was reduced to being an increasingly irrelevant commentator on American affairs on behalf of the British Government.

The fact that the former Governor of  Massachusetts ’ comments regarding Dido are so churlish in the extreme, made me wonder whether Dido’s time in his company was deliberately kept to a minimum by her great uncle, who had known Hutchinson long enough by then to get the full measure of the man. Perhaps Dido was tactfully kept from dining with the others on that one occasion when Hutchinson was present. Lord Mansfield made Dido write letters to his friends on his behalf when he was ill and to refer to the fact that the letters were in her hand. Her presence within the bosom of the Mansfield family was therefore no secret in high society given that the London Chronicle also recognised her as being Sir John Lindsay’s natural daughter and lauded her character and charm. Moreover, being a “natural” daughter and a poor relative to boot, regardless of her skin colour, is it really surprising that Dido would have wished to make herself as agreeable as possible to the family which had taken her in. Furthermore, Hutchinson contradicts himself .On the one hand he describes Dido as being at Lord Mansfield’s beck and call and on the other he  repeats a  plantation owner’s gossip that she held the entire Mansfield family under her sway. It also seems strange that the London Chronicle was fully aware of who Dido’s father was but not Hutchinson. Admittedly Hutchinson did not live long enough to be aware of the provisions of Sir John Lindsay’s will in which he left £1,000 to be shared between “John and Elizabeth Lindsay, my reputed son and daughter.’ There is some dispute as to whether Elizabeth Lindsay was in fact Dido Elizabeth Belle, given that historians have yet to identify who exactly Lindsay’s son John was.

As a young woman Dido was paid a handsome allowance and given the post of superintendent of the dairy and poultry yard at Kenwood. I took photographs of the dairy last year not realising Dido’s link with the pretty white-washed buildings. The present interiors lacked the original fittings to be found at Ham House. The décor of the latter owes more to highly sentimental 18th century notions of pastoral life than what would be actually be found in the average dairy. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than at Syon House where the model dairy was placed next to the more prosaic and functional working dairy. There was nothing intrinsically demeaning about Dido’s role as the superintendent. Her title proves that the actual day-to-day work was carried out by underlings. At Syon House the Duke of Northumberland and his guests were content to watch a dairymaid going about her business. Across the Channel, at le Hameau de la reine, a rustic retreat was created for the French royal family in the parkland at Versailles. Marie-Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting would play at being dairymaids in the exquisite dairy, in which even the milk was poured into dainty porcelain milk churns embossed with the Queen’s monogram and produced by Sèvres, the royal porcelain manufacturers.

In England, Marie Antoinette's contemporary Queen Charlotte was given a thatched cottage in the grounds of Kew Palace as a wedding present from her husband King George III. The cottage was a glorified summer house, allowing the royal family to have picnics or take tea there (all prepared by servants using the kitchen below) and pretend, if only for a short while, that they too were leading a simple country life. The royal rustic ideal was somewhat undermined by the paddock  full of kangaroos they kept just outside the cottage, not a sight usually encountered in the English countryside of the period.
When her childhood companion and cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, married George Finch Hatton in 1785. Dido remained behind at Kenwood to care for her ailing great uncle. Incidentally, Elizabeth’s son and heir, the 10th Earl of Winchilsea, achieved notoriety when he was challenged by the Duke of Wellington, then the Prime Minister, to one of the last duels in England.  The Duke had been stung to the quick by certain comments Finch-Hatton had made regarding the Duke’s support of Catholic Emancipation. The duel took place in Battersea Fields (now part of present day South London) in 1829. The Duke missed his target. He claimed it was deliberate but he was known for being a far better military strategist than shot. His rival fired into the air, probably deciding that it might be a blot too far on his family escutcheon to kill the victor of Waterloo. Finch-Hatton’s apology to the Duke for his former conduct, backed-up by a letter his seconds thoughtfully produced and to which Finch-Hatton had already signed his name, was accepted by Wellington and both departed the scene unscathed.  Another of Elizabeth’s descendants was Denys Finch Hatton, immortalised by Robert Redford in the film “Out of Africa”.
18th century print of St George's Hanover Square London
In March 1793 Lord Mansfield died at Kenwood. Later that same year Dido married under the name Elizabeth Belle. Perhaps her choice of name reflected a desire to create a new life for herself as a respectable middle class matron far away from the public gaze, instead of continuing her former existence as the exotic protégé of the Lord Chief Justice and as such known far beyond the confines of her Mansfield family home. Research by the professional genealogist Sarah Minney revealed that on 5 December 1793 she married John Davinier, a Frenchman and a Gentleman’s Steward at St George's, Hanover Square in London. It is a church with which I am well acquainted having attended several recitals given there by a choir the Partridge was once a member of.
The Steward's Room on ground floor of two storey brick building at end of colonnade

I do wonder how Dido and Davinier met. Was it at Kenwood? A former Steward's Room there now serves as a café. Although the estate offices were built after Dido's time, a steward would have been required to handle Lord Mansfield's extensive affairs at Kenwood in the capacity of an estate manager. Did such business bring John Davinier to the house? Dido married him within months of Lord Manfield's death. According to the accounts of the time, she had proved indispensable to Mansfield in his final years. Consequently, ties of affection and duty might well have made it all but impossible for Dido to leave Kenwood for a married life whilst he was still alive. Mansfield's death left her free in more senses than one. Despite Dido having been raised in his household from infancy, Lord Mansfield was taking no chances and had stipulated in his will that “I assert to Dido her freedom” lest any seek to enslave her on account of her black mother. Legacies from her great uncle, great aunt and and her father meant she brought a dowry to the marriage. That, combined with the money her husband earned as Gentleman's Steward meant they could afford to live in their own house, staffed by a number of servants. Her position in her new home was unassailable. Dido could now call upon others "every minute for this thing and that" and be shown "the greatest attention to everything" she said.

The Daviniers went on to have at least three children, including twin brothers Charles and John and a third sibling William Thomas. Dido’s last known descendant was Harold Davinier. Ironically, the latter died under the apartheid regime of 1970s South Africa. He was classified as white and therefore, unlike his bewitching ancestress, would no doubt have passed muster with the boorish Thomas Hutchinson. The 18th  century Daviniers set up home in a house in Ranelagh Street, now known as Ebury Street, in London’s Pimlico. Dido’s neighbours in the 1790s included at number 12 Charles Wilkin, the English miniature painter and engraver. Ranelagh, later Ebury Street, has always attracted a rather Bohemian set from the Victorian Poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson to Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Other celebrated writers have included George Moore and actors such as  Dame Edith Evans and Michael Caine. Exiled from her beloved Knole, Vita Sackville West and her husband also set up home here. Unfortunately, Dido’s own house did not survive redevelopment in later decades.

It is again thanks to the sterling efforts of Sarah Minney that we know that Dido died in July 1804 around the age of 43. (The exhibition on her life at Kenwood had stated that she had been baptised in 1761).  Her funeral was held at St George's, the same church in which she had married and in which her children had been baptised. Her earthly remains were buried at St George's Fields near the present day Bayswater Road. The graves were all exhumed and the remains reburied elsewhere in the 1960s when the graveyard was redeveloped. Consequently, Dido has no known grave, unlike her father, Sir John Lindsay, and her great uncle, Lord Mansfield, both of whom were interred in Westminster Abbey. Yet Dido has achieved a posthumous fame that has eclipsed that of her father. Indeed, there is a certain pleasing symmetry that in 1788, Sir John Lindsay ‘s obituary drew attention to the fact that he was both an Admiral of the Red and Dido’s father and today, over two hundred years later, place his name into a search engine and those are still deemed the two key fact about his life.

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