Frances Elizabeth Anne Braham was born on 4th January 1821. Her father was the German Jewish tenor, John Braham, who performed on all of the main theatres and opera houses of Europe and America. Although of very comfortable means, Braham was tied into building St James’s Theatre in London and this was proving to be a drain on his finances.
As a result of her father’s theatrical connections, Frances, along with her mother and father was invited to a dinner party at Strawberry Hill in the summer of 1838. Strawberry Hill House was then in the occupation of the 6th Earl Waldegrave, John James Henry, and his family. By all accounts, Frances was a strikingly beautiful young lady and as this was her first visit to Strawberry Hill, she set out to explore the house. Whilst doing so, she was observed by the Earl’s two sons, John James and George who both fell in love with her on the spot and set about finding out who she was. John had declared his love for her before the night was over.
Frances and John then started to spend a good deal of time together, despite objections from her mother as Frances saw the opportunity to leave the family nest. John is described as “extremely good looking but uncouth – and illegitimate,” the 6th Earl and his fiancée having jumped the gun. However, Frances was not interested in the family fortune which had passed to John’s brother George who became 7th Earl. Frances and John were married on 25th May 1839.
At George’s insistence, they both stayed for long periods at Strawberry Hill and were told to treat the House as their own. Both brothers were thoroughly dissolute and Frances applied a very motherly care to them. John was an epileptic and his fits grew progressively worse until he failed to recognise her. He died within a year of being married. Frances retired to friends and family in London.
Meanwhile George drew himself into the Waterford set, a circle of friends of dubious repute whose only interests seemed to be in drinking and gambling. During Derby week 1840, George and three friends went to Kingston Fair “which outdid Greenwich
for riotousness.” On the way back to Twickenham after midnight, one of the party decided “to knock up a woman who kept a mangle” in Hampton Wick. We are told that door knockers had an irresistible fascination for Lord Waterford and an unholy racket was being created in the early hours of the morning. When PC Charles Wheatley tried to quieten them, a scuffle took place outside the Swan Inn and the policeman was badly knocked about. The miscreants all succeeded in getting away but a hat was left at the scene. From this George and a Captain Duff were traced and arrested but they refused to divulge the names of the other two. It was noticeable that Lord Waterford left by sea for his castle in Northumberland the following day.
Out on bail, George went to see Frances and express his profound love for her. He declared that he had found a way around the Marriage Act of 1835 which prevented a man from marrying the spouse of his deceased brother and he proposed to her immediately.
Taken completely by surprise, Frances accepted and they were married in Edinburgh on 28th September 1840. The infamous Captain Duff was best man at the wedding – and the worse for drink!
George, Lord Waldegrave and Captain Duff appeared at the Queen’s Bench on 3rd May 1841 and pleaded guilty to the charges and were sentenced to six months imprisonment in Newgate and fined £200 and £20 respectively. Showing an amazing degree of loyalty, Frances insisted on joining her husband in jail for the period of his sentence. Despite being imprisoned, “they led a very social life and hosted many dinner parties.” However all through this period their financial problems were mounting; the estates were not being properly managed and some were not even paying for themselves. This growing stress caused Frances to miscarry and sadly her condition was such that she would never have children.
When they left Newgate, Waldegrave had been used to drinking excessively and was given to bouts of bad temper. Whilst thinking about satisfying their creditors, he hit on the idea of selling Walpole’s lifelong collection of treasures. Thus the Great Sale of 1842 commenced and for 32 days Walpole’s works were disposed of to the far corners of the United Kingdom. Whilst the sale was underway, Frances and George slipped away to the Continent and to ensure their married status, they took out Prussian citizenship and went through another marriage service on 4th June 1844.
On returning to England, they went to their Somerset home, Strawberry Hill having been stripped of its furniture and furnishings, where Frances wanted to live quietly with her husband. George however wanted to show off his Countess to “the London Season” and began a round of socialising which went neatly with his excessive drinking. He was taken ill in February 1845 and Frances insisted on nursing him herself. A brief relapse was followed by a mighty new bout of illness. Family friend Dr Cutler declared that George had cirrhosis of the liver and that time was short. George died on 28th September 1846.
Frances, now Countess Waldegrave, twice widowed and only twenty five found herself extremely wealthy but entirely alone. At this point in time she re-met an old friend of her father’s, George Granville Harcourt, a widower of 61 and son of the Archbishop of York. Harcourt was clearly smitten, despite the 36 year age gap and pressed his troth. Although Frances wanted to endure a year of widowhood to consider her future, she succumbed to his intentions and they were married by special licence on 30th September 1847.
Under Harcourt’s careful guidance, Frances was introduced to the British political scene. Operating from Harcourt’s family home of Nuneham, Frances gradually set out to make her mark on society, despite some remarks of an unsupporting nature from Harcourt himself. However Frances blossomed as a hostess and caught the eye of Liberal hopeful, Chichester Fortescue, an old friend of Harcourt’s. As Harcourt’s influence waned, Frances set about restoring Strawberry Hill which had remained empty since the Great Sale. A huge amount of money was expended on the project and by the time Harcourt died in 1861, Strawberry Hill was the epicentre of Liberal politics in the country.
Lord John Russell, Gladstone and Disraeli were all regular visitors to Strawberry Hill and an invitation there was the most coveted prize of the season. Fortescue wasted no time in proposing to Frances by way of a 13 page letter. He had a rival in the Duke of Newcastle and was anxious to see him off. Frances wanted to allow a respectable year of mourning to pass and so became secretly engaged
to Fortescue. They married on 20th January 1863.
The social and political whirl of the 1863 – 1866 culminated with Fortescue, now a Privy Councillor, being appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland and moving out to Dublin with Frances. On the occasion of a visit to the theatre, a wag from the audience shouted “And would your ladyship be after informing us, which of your four husbands do ye like the best ?”
With an exquisite and inimitable turn of her
head, she looked at the questioner and, without a moment’s hesitation, her clear, lovely voice flashed back: “The Irishman, of course.”
This brought the house down and overnight Frances was the Queen of Dublin.
At last, with a husband of her own age, Frances enjoyed many happy years with Fortescue until she was struck down “with rheumatic pains in my chest, arms and back” and she died in the arms of Fortescue on 5th July 1879.
Ref. “Strawberry Fair” by Osbert Wyndham Hewitt (1956)
“Lady Frances Waldegrave, Political Hostess at Strawberry Hill 1856 – 1879” by Kathleen Carroll (1998)
Ken Howe is a local historian and author of several books.
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