27 August 2014

Elizabeth Williams' return to Lady Hester Stanhope

Figure 1: Charles Lewis Meryon in later life by Arminius Mayer (c. 1846)

In the spring of 1810, Lady Hester Stanhope left England permanently. She took with her a faithful maid and companion, Miss Elizabeth Williams, and they initially set off for the Mediterranean island of Malta. The choice of Malta was not accidental: Elizabeth's sister Louisa Jane David (née Williams) had already resided with her husband there since 1807. By April 30, 1810, Lady Hester's physician, Dr. Charles Meryon, was writing home from Valetta, Malta about Lady Hester's reception at Malta. It seems Hester was not especially enamoured with fellow members of her gender:

“We have now spent more than a week in Malta, and during that time, Lady Hester has contrived to affront almost all the women in the place. She has the most thorough contempt for her sex, at least that part of it who converse on nothing but visits, caps & bonnets, and such frivolous subjects. Hence it is that the moment she discovers one to be of that class, and her knowledge of mankind very soon puts her in possession of a person’s character, she seldom fails to manifest her disgust, and to give rise to as much disgust as she feels. She accepts no invitations except from General Oakes, and therefore cuts one off, who necessarily go only where she does [i.e. Meryon himself], from many pleasant parties. I am somewhat sorry for this her partiality for male society, as I find the families here are very sociable, and would be very hospitable.” [1]

Two months later, Meryon was still impressed by her Ladyship's effrontery, and the way in which she managed to get away with it:

“Lady H. continues to do any thing that others could not, without incurring the same blame that they would.” [2] In fact, it was reported around the same time by a British naval officer who made Lady Hester's acquaintance that "Ld[y]. S.[tanhope] had on a Man's Dress [i.e. trousers]." [3] In 1811, a woman wearing men's clothing - in other words, not a dress - was shocking indeed. Lady Hester defied convention, and she wasn't afraid to demonstrate her eccentric lifestyle. By July 1810 Lady Hester was bored and ready to leave Malta. Elizabeth, however, was to be left behind with her sister. 

Dr. Meryon noted that, “with a view to travelling more comfortably, Lady H. has parted with one of her maids.” [4] It is clear that this maid is Elizabeth Williams, as Meryon goes on to state that, “one of her Ladyship’s [Hester's] maids, who had got a sister married and settled here, and who has likewise picked up an admirer herself, has been dismissed with her wages & one hundred pounds for a marriage portion, and she now means to do with one maid & her valet, who, however, is to be as much about her person almost as a woman would.” [5] Evidently, Meryon did not believe it was a wise move on the part of Lady Hester, as he later wrote "How stupid" over that part of the page. No other page in his manuscripts has such a disapproving commentary.

Figure 2: Dr. Meryon writing "How stupid!" over his papers

After over five years of separation, Miss Williams was ready to leave Malta, and return to Lady Hester Stanhope. In November 1815, Meryon writes in his journal to express "...how happy I am to find she [Miss Williams] is coming.” [6] Around the time just prior to Elizabeth's arrival, Lady Hester was very despondent, and reflective upon her old life. Meryon, Lady Hester's faithful physician and near companion, recorded this sadness in detail:

“It was late in the afternoon, but she was not up, and was indeed a scene for reflection to contemplate the figure of the grand daughter of the great Lord Chatham on a wooden bedstead, something like those in soldier’s barracks, sickly and unable to refrain her emotion, with no relation or former friend near her, with nobody but myself (who had only known her long after Mr. Pitt’s death)...to think that the slights of those whom she had once looked down upon or whose intrigues she had foiled had driven her in disgust to these distant lands to live neglected and deserted. When I looked at her and thought of what she had been and what she now was I was deeply affected, and I paused a little to recover my composure. Here it was that she made this remarkable observation, speaking of herself. She said, “There seems to be a curse on impropriety. I have never seen any body made happy by it, and I am sure I am not. There’s poor Lady Young, once the most beautiful woman of her day, now living in a dirty house neglected and in poverty.” [7]
By March 1816, however, Lady Hester had something to cheer her spirits: 

“In the middle of March of this year, Lady Hester received information that Miss Williams, a young person strongly attached to her, had ventured from Malta to Cyprus in a vessel alone on purpose to join her. Miss W. owed her education and the care of her younger years to the protection of Mr. Pitt. Lady Hester afterwards took her near her person, and she left England with her ladyship in 1810. At Malta she found her sister married to an officer of the commissariat, with whom, at Lady Hester’s departure from that island, she remained; but her attachment was so great to her protectress, that after residing at Malta four years, she determined to follow her into the East. She accordingly embarked on board an Italian merchant vessel, and alone braved the hazards of a voyage which proved particularly distressing; for the autumnal gales were so violent that the ship sprung a dangerous leak, and the captain was obliged to put into Rhodes to refit. Here Miss Williams remained two or three months, whilst the ship which was found to be much damaged underwent a thorough repair. They sailed from Rhodes at the commencement of the new year. The captain, named Fanuggia, was a man of violent language and conduct; so that his crew, which was composed of very bad subjects, mutinied. The two parties came to blows more than once; and Miss Williams, oppressed with sea-sickness and lying in her cot, from which she was unable to move, often heard upon deck the clashing of swords and thought every moment that murder was perpetuating. At length they reached Cyprus, where some of the crew were put into prison, and other men being shipped, they crossed to Beyrout [sic] in the middle of March.” [8]

Miss Williams had undergone a protracted sea voyage, delays due to a leaking ship, then mutiny onboard the ship once it did set sail, intense violence, and dreadful exhaustion. 

“Miss Williams landed after a voyage of three months and a half, and was entertained by Mr. Laurella, the British agent, until recovered from her fatigue. Mrs. Fry [presumably the same Mrs. Fry who was at Chevening - Lady Hester's childhood home] was sent immediately to her, to instruct her how she was to dress herself - how [to] wear her veil in travelling - and how [to] conduct herself in this new world. About the 16th of March she left Beyrout escorted by Mr. Laurella, and I went to meet them on the road.” [9] All the while, Lady Hester "was very sensible to this mark of attachment on the part of Miss Williams.” [10] Miss Williams and Lady Hester had a long history together, and they were very close after the death of Pitt, a particularly vulnerable time in Lady Hester's life when she felt isolated and shunned by society. By 1816, Elizabeth was her only continuity to the past.

From the time of Elizabeth's return in early 1816, until her tragic death at the age of 42 in 1827, she remained with her "protectress," Lady Hester. In a curious endnote to this tale, Meryon mentions many years later - in 1859 - “… a small, very small, lock of Mr. Pitt’s hair, cut from his head when he lay a corpse in the house on Putney Heath where he died, by [Elizabeth] Williams, Lady Hester’s maid, and afterwards given by her to me [Meryon] when she joined Lady Hester at Joon Abrah.” [11] Elizabeth had carried Mr. Pitt's small lock of hair all the way from England, to Malta, to Joon Abrah in the Middle East. She had it in her possession for over a decade before entrusting it (at some unspecified date) to Dr. Meryon.

Why did she cut off a lock of Mr. Pitt's hair, and cherish it for many years? Could she have been more than just a servant? Pitt had certainly paid for her and her sister Louisa's education. There is no surviving evidence that he made these provisions for other children of servants, or indeed, for any other children. These two young girls were singled out. Why?


1. Charles Meryon's papers. The Wellcome Library. MS 5687 (file 1 of 3), f. 19.

2. Charles Meryon's papers. The Wellcome Library. MS 5687 (file 1 of 3), f. 132.

3. British Naval Journal, MS 6957. The Wellcome Library, ff. 56-57.

4. Charles Meryon's papers. The Wellcome Library. MS 5687 (file 1 of 3), f. 43.

5. Charles Meryon's papers. The Wellcome Library. MS 5687 (file 1 of 3), f. 30.

6. Charles Meryon's papers. The Wellcome Library. MS 7116, Accession number 349864.

7. Charles Meryon's papers. The Wellcome Library. MS 7116, Accession number 349864, f. 282.

8. From Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope, Vol. 3, Part. 2, pp. 295-6. 

9. Ibid, p. 297.

10. Ibid, p. 298.

11. Ibid, pp. 358-359.

Image Credits:

Figure 1: Charles Lewis Meryon in later life by Arminius Mayer (c. 1846) Image Source

Figure 2: Charles Meryon writing "How stupid!" over his papers many years later. Source: Meryon Papers, The Wellcome Library, MS 5687 (file 1 of 3), f. 30.

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