The Almack’s best known today is the “Marriage Mart” of the Regency era, with the Lady Patronesses at the helm: Lady Jersey, Lady Sefton, Lady Castlereagh, Mrs. Drummond-Burrell, Princess Esterhazy and Princess Lieven. We know of it from novels, for its mediocre suppers, stringently-enforced rules (no waltzing without the approval of a Lady Patroness), and highly prized vouchers. However, there was life at Almack’s before that. And it was somewhat different…
One cannot underrate the importance of assembly rooms in the Georgian and Regency periods. With the sharp divide between men’s and women’s activities, a free zone where both could be present was a necessity. Places to see and be seen, young people were closely chaperoned as they met, danced and conversed. Potential marriage partners were on display, and the rituals of courtship (or commerce) observed. Every town or city had its own assemblies during its social season. Of course, London had to have the most exclusive of all. One thing the assembly rooms have in common is gambling. Cards were offered for the entertainment of those who did not dance. This included women.
Almack’s Coffee House opened in 1763 in St. James’s Street, and, some years later, became known as the gentlemen’s club Brookes’s. (Coffee houses catered to men.) William Almack decided on a new venture, selected a site on King Street, St. James’s, east of Pall Mall Place, and built three very elegant rooms, offering a ball and supper once a week for twelve weeks for a subscription of 10 guineas. In 1768, he added another room for cards, decorated in blue damask. It did not take long for Almack’s to be firmly established and popular with the highest of high society, including Lady Sarah Lennox, the Duke of Cumberland (brother of George III), the Duchess of Gordon and other notables. It became known for high play, with fortunes lost and won, by women as well as men.
On May 6, 1770, Walpole wrote to George Montagu about an innovation at Almacks: “It is to be a club of both sexes to be erected at Almacs, on the mode of that of the men of Whites. Mrs. Fitzroy, lady Pembroke, Mrs. Meynel, lady Molyneux, Miss Pelham, and Miss Loyd, are the foundresses.” I found the inclusion of two single ladies in such a leadership position interesting, and decided to investigate Miss Pelham. Who was she, and how did she get into this position at Almacks?
I cannot say unequivocally that I found her. However, I did find a likely candidate: Frances Pelham, daughter of Rt. Hon. Henry Pelham who served as Prime Minister during George II’s reign (Mr. Pelham’s brother was the Duke of Newcastle). Available data indicates that Frances was born in 1728, one of six daughters, and the second eldest of the four who survived into adulthood. The earliest mention I have of her so far is in John Robert Robinson’s biography of William Douglas, fourth Duke of Queensberry. Then Lord March, William Douglas took a house on Arlington Street in Piccadilly in 1752 next door to that of the Hon. Henry Pelham, then First Lord of the treasury. According this biography, the reason for his choice was “the bright eyes of Miss Frances Pelham, who had smitten the heart of this noble ‘macaroni’.”2 At this time, Frances would have been approximately 24 years old. According to this source, Lord March and Miss Pelham conversed through facing windows, as her father would not admit him. Supposedly, Lord March courted Miss Pelham upwards of seven years. Upon her father’s death in 1754, unaccountably, the couple did not marry. One speculation is that, with her father’s death, any hope of political assistance for Lord March died as well, but that idea is discounted in Mr. Robinson’s biography. Her father left her a life estate in Esher, Surrey.
Little information surfaces about Miss Pelham again, until mentioned in relationship to Almack’s, and gambling. In 1770, Frances Pelham would have been forty two years old and well past an expectation of marriage, a spinster of means and social status. Her being involved with such a venture as Almack’s is not an impossible or unlikely event. At any rate, at this point in time, the Miss Pelham of Almack’s was a gambler, who was famed for her fondness for deep play. By 1773, she was known for losing hundreds of pounds a night, and (with several of the other ladies) had moved away from Almack’s to other venues, and had earned the nickname of Miss Pell-Mell. There are indications that she dissipated her own fortune and required assistance from her relatives.
Miss Frances Pelham never married, and died the 10th of January 1804 at about age 76. According to The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History, Politics and Literature for the Year 1804, she had an excellent reputation. This reference indicates she was very rich, with a considerable estate. However, A Topographical History of Surrey is very specific that Mr. Pelham had left his possessions in Esher for her life by will and, at her death, the property devolved to her nephew. This in some ways supports my theory identifying Frances Pelham with Miss Pelham of Almack’s fame, as a life estate limited the inheritor’s ownership, and his (or her) ability to dispose of assets. She would have had a place to live and conceivably assets (or at least family) to support her after she had gambled away her disposable funds.
I am continuing my research, but we may never find incontrovertible evidence for the identity of Miss Pelham, founding patroness of Almack’s. I haven’t even been able, to date, to find a portrait of Frances Pelham, and she is not identified in The Peerage. However, I can’t help but feel that Miss Frances Pelham, spinster daughter of a Prime Minister of superior social standing, may have found some satisfaction and excitement in an alternative life as Miss Pell-Mell, gambler, for a period of time after other options faded away.
1 Letters from the Hon. Horace Walpole, to George Montagu, Esq. From the Year 1736, to the Year 1770 (The Works of Horatio Walpole, Earl of Oxford in six volumes. Vol. VI.) P. 434
2 Robinson, John Robert, ’Old Q’ A Memoir of William Douglas Fourth Duke of Queensberry K. T. P. 59.
Chancellor, E. Beresford. Memorials of St. James’s Street and Chronicles of Almack’s. New York: Brentano’s, 1922.
The University of Nottingham. “Biography of Henry Pelham (c. 1695-1754: Prime Minister.” http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/collectionsindepth/family/newcastle/biographies/biographyofhenrypelham(c1695-1754;primeminister).aspx
Google Books. The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1804. “Deaths in 1804.” London: W. Otridge & Sons, et al, 1806. http://books.google.com/books?id=TdU7AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA464&lpg=PA464&dq=Miss+F.+Pelham,+The+annual+register+1804&source=bl&ots=ugJ5Qbg07d&sig=NF6zZzWbEHe65CVT5A8X-Wz8o7s&hl=en&sa=X&ei=gCbTUu_0HoinsQTl5YDIDA&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Miss%20F.%20Pelham%2C%20The%20annual%20register%201804&f=false
Google Books. A Topographical History of Surrey by Edward Wedlake Brayley, F.S.A., etc. London: G. Willis, 1850. http://books.google.com/books?id=wWnM-tMf85sC&pg=PA436&lpg=PA436&dq=frances+pelham,+topographical+history+of+surrey&source=bl&ots=5V6kaNl98D&sig=ZweRJpPbO9qY8aORj3ex9c0dpag&hl=en&sa=X&ei=cCPTUo6yLPLOsASZzoCYDQ&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=frances%20pelham%2C%20topographical%20history%20of%20surrey&f=false
Google Books. Letters from the Hon. Horace Walpole, to George Montagu, Esq. From the Year 1736, to the Year 1770 (The Works of Horatio Walpole, Earl of Oxford in six volumes. Vol. VI.) London: Rodwell and Martin, 1818). http://books.google.com/books?id=ZCvnAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA443&lpg=PA443&dq=walpole+wrote+to+montagu&source=bl&ots=-JxOG2WTFW&sig=XCdeVrtoz-CR2rkwOys3q3HOqqk&hl=en&sa=X&ei=5-zJUvCRE4bskAeHmYGoCQ&ved=0CEUQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=there%20is%20a%20new%20club&f=false
Google Books. ‘Old Q’ A Memoir of William Douglas Fourth Duke of Queensberry K.T. by John Robert Robinson. London: Sampson Low, Marston and Company, Limited, 1895. PP. 58-61. http://books.google.com/books?id=BxEMAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA60&lpg=PA60&dq=%22Old+Q%22+and+Miss+Pelham&source=bl&ots=2cGiJt0Dog&sig=x6xMaGpc2NqwgfirEWBVzyNNnxE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=a_LSUq_vI5S1sASA6YD4Cw&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22Old%20Q%22%20and%20Miss%20Pelham&f=false
Google Books. Women, Sociability and Theatre in Georgian London, by Gillian Russell. Cambridge University Press, 2007. http://books.google.com/books?id=C-L61YcegI8C&pg=PA69&lpg=PA69&dq=Gillian+Russell+Miss+Pelham&source=bl&ots=SmhlUVXk5v&sig=2bG266CZ6l_kAJHrD00c-p2vJTk&hl=en&sa=X&ei=0_jSUuqNG_DLsQS0m4DAAw&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Gillian%20Russell%20Miss%20Pelham&f=false
All images from Wikimedia Commons.