25 February 2014

Educating & providing for female servants in the late 18th century

In an undated letter marked 'Private,' Lady Hester Stanhope wrote to Pitt's former private secretary William Dacres Adams about an upcoming domestic marriage she helped to arrange for one of the 'servants' under her protection. From internal evidence, the letter was written after Pitt's death - either late 1806 or early 1807 - and clearly Dacres Adams was familiar with the servant in question. Lady Hester writes:

“…I must now tell you that I consider one of my Children disposed of. Louisa [Williams] has had a very advantageous offer at Malta, and only waits my consent to marry. The man bears an excellent character, is very good looking, and about five and twenty [25 years old]. I am willing to believe he must be greatly attached to her [Louisa] by the thorough honourable manner in which he has conducted himself. Louisa owes much to that excellent woman Mrs Fernandey who she went out with and from her I have the description of this young man[’s] situation and character. He has been known to her [Mrs Fernandey’s] husband for eight years. Now, I hope you wish me joy and admire my speculation for I sent the girl abroad on purpose to marry him as she [Louisa] was infinitely too well educated for a servant, but not having a shilling in the world it was difficult to know what to do with her. How fortunate I always am in my plans for others. Indeed, the success of those I feel interested about is the greatest happiness which in future I can enjoy…” (BL Add Ms 89036/2/3, f. 72)

Lady Hester Stanhope was of course referring to Louisa Jane Williams, a servant who had effectively grown up in William Pitt the younger's household. Indeed, Pitt paid for Louisa and her older sister Elizabeth's 'board and education', amongst other sundry items, from at least 1797 - six years before Lady Hester Stanhope came to live with Pitt. Below is a bill from the Chatham Papers at The National Archives (PRO 30/8/217) with a breakdown of just one quarter's board and education for 'Miss E & L Williams' from Michaelmas [September] to Christmas 1797:

As you can see, the girls, aged twelve and ten in late 1797, had a servant. Do servants have servants? Neither of the girls appear in servant's lists at the time, and Louisa never appears in a list of Pitt's servants at all. Elizabeth Williams only appears in a list of servants at Pitt's death in 1806. Pitt paid for the girls' board and education until at least 1801, after which there are no surviving records. He may have continued to provide for them in some way afterwards, and certainly Elizabeth stayed on until his death. 

What is extraordinary is why Pitt would pay for the education of two female servants? Education for women in the late 18th century was meagre at the best of times. Although Pitt grew up with his two older sisters being provided with the same education at home as he and his brothers received, it is quite incredible, and a credit to his benevolent character, that he took it upon himself to pay for two little servant girls to receive a private tutor for at least 4 consecutive years. It is admirable, but also unusually rare for the time. Perhaps we can write this off as one more instance of Pitt's amazingly kind nature, but it does raise an eyebrow. Why those two girls? Even if their father was a long-standing, trusted servant, the length of time and expense involved in funding the girls' education, board, and incidental expenses (Pitt also paid for Elizabeth's stays - corsets), was remarkably high. Pitt was never financially flush, and indeed by the time of his resignation in 1801 his debts reached over £40,000. Pitt never gave much thought to his finances, but resigning a portion of his income to the education of female servants appears significant. 

Looking into this issue, I believe there is a connection between these two girls and Pitt. Until more information is uncovered (and I have many more accounts and letters to examine until I can be sure there isn't anything else which previous researchers have not missed or glanced over), this is my reasoned speculation. What is also significant is how Lady Hester Stanhope refers to Louisa Williams in her letter to William Dacres Adams. She calls Louisa one of her 'Children.' The other 'child' was the then twenty-one year old Elizabeth Williams, Louisa's sister, who stayed with Lady Hester as a 'female companion' for many more years. Lady Hester obviously cared a great deal for the two girls, but even Lady Hester acknowledged, with good reason, that Louisa was 'infinitely too well educated for a servant.' A marriage prospect came up for Louisa, and Lady Hester was happy to consent for her to be sent to Malta 'on purpose.' 

Louisa Jane Williams married John David in 1807 at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Malta. It was listed as a British Overseas Marriage. John David worked in the commissariat department, and they settled there. Elizabeth Williams stayed with Lady Hester Stanhope, and subsequently followed her to Wales, and then traveled on with her to the Middle East.


BL Add Ms 89036/2/3, f. 72

The National Archives. Chatham Papers. PRO 30/8/217


  1. Fascinating post. I loved your speculation. One never knows, does one?

  2. Gah, I just wrote an immense commentary on this and Blogger ate it for breakfast. In sum: v. interesting, nay fascinating. Love the "children" ref. Clearly the girls were educated with "prospects" in mind beyond service, since Lady H considered them to be way too well educated to be servants. Probably Pitt's early death left them a bit up a creek without a paddle. I'll tell you more in person when we next meet as I can't be bothered to type out all my comments again! *yawn*