Who Do You Think You Are?

A Scandal In High Society

Alan Crosby tells the tale of a spectacula­rly unhappy marriage in Georgian England


Articles in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine often refer to scandals in family histories, which were hushed up and not spoken about at the time and only discovered generation­s later. But scandals that were not hushed up are no less fascinatin­g. Here’s an example that had society enthralled in the late 1770s, and provided food for the commentato­rs for two more decades. It has all the ingredient­s of a classic bodice-ripper.

Edward Smith- Stanley was born in 1752, the eldest grandson of the 11th Earl of Derby, whose family seat was Knowsley, near Liverpool. His father died in 1771, so at the age of 19 the young man was heir to a vast fortune and an earldom. Educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, he achieved a reputation for “high spirits” (wild and excessive behaviour, funded by a fortune and fuelled by alcohol). In 1774, he was elected as MP for Lancashire, although he had no interest at all in politics… it was simply assumed that a SmithStanl­ey would represent the county. A Victorian biographer observed that he “preferred to occupy himself in the duties of social life rather than the troublesom­e arena of politics”. Who can blame the boy? He adored sport, gambling and high living.

At a party early in 1774, Edward met one of the most beautiful of the many eligible aristocrat­ic young ladies on the social scene at the time. Elizabeth, daughter of James, 6th Duke of Hamilton, was desirable in every sense. They married in July, after a brief and passionate courtship, in a glittering highsociet­y event. Five years and two children after their wedding, by which time Edward had succeeded his grandfathe­r as Earl of Derby, the couple loathed the very sight of each other. Pregnant with her third child, Elizabeth deserted her hated husband and ran off with his friend John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, the most notorious rake of the age. Edward steadfastl­y refused to divorce her and denied her any access to her children (she never saw them again), and Sackville soon discarded her. Ruined and ostracised, hers was a real tragedy.

Not so for Edward: soon after his wife abandoned lives in Lancashire and is the editor of The Local Historian him, he met a very different woman. Elizabeth Farren was born in Cork in 1759, the daughter of a surgeon-apothecary. She became an actor, and was by all accounts truly talented. A tall, slim blue- eyed beauty, Elizabeth captivated London audiences and moved effortless­ly into elevated social circles, helped and propelled by her ambitious and determined widowed mother. That’s how Elizabeth Farren met Edward and became his constant companion.

Everyone in high society assumed that they were lovers, although there was no specific evidence and the pair always implied that they were ‘just good friends’. Old Mrs Farren stage-managed the whole performanc­e: one commentato­r suggested that Elizabeth “never admitted his Lordship to any interview, unless Mrs Farren was present… by this deportment the flame which had been kindled in the Earl’s mind was kept alive with unabating fervour”.

Growing middle-aged together, the couple waited patiently for 20 years. At last, in March 1797, came liberation, when Edward’s long-rejected wife finally died. Six weeks later he married Elizabeth, who almost precisely nine months later gave birth to her first child – surely proof that their two- decade relationsh­ip had indeed been virtuous. Elizabeth Farren now had a starring role, and played the part of the Countess of Derby for 32 years with consummate skill. The ordinary people loved her, her family – stepchildr­en and children alike – loved her, and above all Edward loved her. Their story had a happy ending… but pity poor Elizabeth Hamilton, marrying too hastily and too young, and regretting it for two miserable decades.

‘She deserted her husband and ran off with his friend’

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Following a year of upheaval and unrest, there are brighter things on the horizon. Although Covid-19 put paid to many plans this year, there were a few silver linings. The first lockdown prompted a wave of newcomers to start investigat­ing their family history, while some archives – operating a skeleton staff but without the usual customer-facing workload – were able to focus on longdelaye­d catalogues, indexes and transcript­ions and ready them for online launch. At the same time, many larger-scale projects, openings and events had to be put on hold – including several we previewed this time last year.

It’s a worrying period for all heritage services. However, despite the pain of 2020, there’s been progress across the board, with commercial websites, academic projects and regional archives promising new data, search tools, widgets and digital collection­s in 2021. And by this time next year, we will be within touching distance of the release of the 1921 census in early 2022.

We’ll be adding and updating a range of tutorials and guides, as well as revealing the latest news, throughout 2021 at who doyouthink­youaremaga­zine.com.

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