On the 18th November, 1772, a twenty year old university student called John Scott crept along Sandhill on the bank of the Tyne in Newcastle under the shadow of the castle. He was equipped with a ladder and, when he reached the very handsome half-timbered house that stands on the corner of Sandhill and Side, the steep street up to the cathedral, he propped the ladder against the wall and helped Miss Elizabeth “Bessie” Surtees to climb down from a first floor window.
Conveniently, the Great North Road runs along Sandhill and up Side so it was easy enough to hand the daughter of wealthy banker Mr Aubone Surtees into a post chaise and head for the Scottish border. They were married at Blackshiels on the next day, eighty eight miles from Newcastle, so John must have left the major road and taken the most direct route towards Edinburgh, via Jedburgh on what is now the A68.
So far, so romantic, although you are probably wondering by now what this has to do with Jane Austen’s London. Young John Scott was the third son of a respectable coal-fitter (a sort of broker) of Newcastle and was studying at University College Oxford with the intention of entering holy orders. His school career appears to have been marked by truancy and regular whippings for misdemeanors so his father was probably hoping he would settle down, study hard and become a respectable clergyman. All looked set when he graduated in 1770 and was awarded a fellowship.
The elopement ruined all chance of a career in the church and he lost his fellowship as a result. However his father stood by the pair and John entered the Middle Temple in 1773 to study for the bar. Despite his father’s support the young couple seem to have been hard up. “Many a time have I run down from Cursitor Street to Fleet Market to buy sixpenny-worth of sprats for our supper,” he recalled later.
However he did well eventually, argued several difficult and interesting cases and began to rise in his profession. He became a Member of Parliament, then entered the Lords as Baron Eldon in 1801 to become Lord Chancellor. He held that position for over twenty years and was known for his opposition to Catholic emancipation and his support for the Prince Regent against his wife, Princess Caroline. He was created Earl of Eldon by George IV in 1821, probably in recognition for that support.
William Hazlitt wrote of him, “Lord Eldon has one of the best-natured faces in the world; it is pleasant to meet him in the street, plodding along with an umbrella under his arm, without one trace of pride, of spleen, or discontent in his whole demeanour, void of offence, with almost rustic simplicity and honesty of appearance – a man that makes friends at first sight, and could hardly make enemies, if he would; and whose only fault is that he cannot say Nay to power, or subject himself to an unkind word or look from a King or a Minister. …There has been no stretch of power attempted in his time that he has not seconded: no existing abuse so odious or so absurd, that he has not sanctioned it. He has gone the whole length of the most unpopular designs of Ministers … On all the great questions that have divided party opinion or agitated the public mind, the Chancellor has been found uniformly and without a single exception on the side of prerogative and power, and against every proposal for the advancement of freedom.”
I first came across Eldon when I was researching Walks Through Regency London and explored Bedford Square where he had a very fine town house at number 6. He also had a pretty uncomfortable time there! In 1815 he was besieged by Corn Law rioters who fixed a noose to the lamp post outside. The only way he could get out to attend Parliament or the King was to creep through his back garden into the grounds of the British Museum escorted by Townsend the Bow Street Runner.
Probably just as uncomfortable was to be laid up with gout and have the Prince Regent barge into the house and refuse to leave until Eldon appointed one of the Prince’s cronies to the office of Master of Chancery. Eldon yielded.
And then to cap it all his daughter Lady Elizabeth eloped in 1817 with George S Repton (son of Humphry Repton) after Eldon had refused to allow them to marry. Given that the circumstances of Elizabeth’s parents’ marriage were well known there was considerable satirical humour at Eldon’s expense.
Even more ironic was that when George III was asked to give his consent for a reform of the marriage laws he found that both his Lord Chancellor and his Archbishop of Canterbury had made run-away marriages!
I was reminded of Lord Eldon during my current research for a book on the Great North Road. It seems that Eldon liked to take a holiday from the pressures of London and used to stay at the Wheatsheaf, a posting inn at Rushyford Brook, a charming hamlet on the Great North Road just south of Ferryhill and the River Wear. At least it used to be charming. Now a large roundabout sits right on top of “…a pretty scene, where a little tributary of the Skerne prattles over its stony bed and disappears under the road…” Eldon established a cellar at the inn and he and Holt the landlord used to dispose of seven bottles a day of ‘Carbonell’s Fine Old Military Port.’ According to Sidney Smith they would drink eight bottles on Sunday to fortify themselves before church service. Apparently Eldon always went to church at Rushyford, but rarely in London. When reproached because, in his position he should be “a buttress of the church” he retorted that he was merely “an outside buttress.”
Modern newspapers would have a field day with Lord Eldon!