Monday, March 5, 2018

Dining at the Pavilion

Today marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Creevey, an English lawyer and politician who hobnobbed frequently with the Prince of Wales (before he became Prince Regent and then King George IV) in his Brighton Pavilion. He was an avid letter writer and diary keeper; although much of his diary was lost soon after his death, the parts that survived were published along with his letters as The Creevey Papers. Most of the following article is taken from my book Brighton in Diaries (History Press, 2011).

Creevey was born in Liverpool on 5 March 1768. His father died soon after the birth and his mother married again. He studied at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and then trained as a lawyer, but rose rapidly in the exclusive society of the Whig Party. In 1802, he married Eleanor Ord, a relation of Charles Grey, the future Prime Minister, and a rich widow with five children. The same year, he became a Whig MP in the House of Commons, and within a few years had been appointed Secretary to the Board of Control.

When, in 1811, the Prince of Wales became Prince Regent, the Whigs, including Creevey, were expecting him to favour them with government positions, but were much disappointed when he chose to retain the Tories appointed by his father. Creevey, who had been an enthusiastic visitor to the Prince’s table in Brighton, then ceased to be an intimate of the Royal. Increasingly, also, Creevey found himself at odds with the Whig leadership. When he stood as an MP for his home city Liverpool in 1812, he lost the election. To make matters worse, he was found guilty in a libel case, and consequently suffered heavy legal debts when trying to appeal.

The Creeveys moved to Brussels for five years, between 1814 and 1819, where Creevey came to know Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, and to be the first civilian to interview him after the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. It was Creevey who recorded the Duke’s famous quote about the battle - ‘It has been a damned nice thing - the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’.

In 1818, Creevey’s wife Eleanor died, and soon after he finally returned to England with his stepdaughters. He served in Parliament again, as MP for Appleby in the first half of the 1820s, but became less interested in political affairs, and more concerned with society and gossip. Prime Minister Grey, though, made him Treasurer of the Ordnance in 1830, and then Lord Melbourne made him treasurer of Greenwich Hospital in 1834. He died in 1838, having had no children of his own, and having lived the last decades of his life a relatively poor man. Further information is available online at Wikipedia, History of Parliament, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required)

Charles Cavendish Greville, one of the best 19th century diarists (see The King’s bathing habits), wrote of him thus in 1829: ‘Old Creevey is rather an extraordinary character. [. . .] He possesses nothing but his clothes; no property of any sort; he leads a vagrant life, visiting a number of people who are delighted to have him, and sometimes roving about to various places, as fancy happens to direct, and staying till he has spent what money he has in his pocket. He has no servant, no home, no creditors; he buys everything as he wants it at the place he is at; he has no ties upon him, and has his time entirely at his own disposal and that of his friends. He is certainly a living proof that a man may be perfectly happy and exceedingly poor, or rather without riches, for he suffers none of the privations of poverty and enjoys many of the advantages of wealth. I think he is the only man I know in society who possesses nothing.’

Creevey is mostly remembered today for his letters and to a lesser extent his diary both of which provide a colourful and accurate source of information about politicians and royalty of the day. They were collected and edited by Sir Herbert Maxwell and published (two volumes) in 1903 by John Murray as The Creevey Papers - A Selection from the Correspondence & Diaries of the Late Thomas Creevey, MP. Both volume I and volume II are freely available at Internet Archive. Creevey had ‘an acute eye for absurdity’, says the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and is very good at describing the surface of events and places. However, it adds, he is incurious about the underlying processes shaping them; and it is a cartoonist’s talent, he has, sharp, but not deep or lasting.

Unfortunately, most of Creevey’s extensive diary was lost, possibly destroyed by his friends wanting to suppress the contents. Greville, again, explains how after Creevey’s death, some thought the publication of the journal and letters would be ‘painful and embarrassing to many people now alive, and make very inconvenient and premature revelations upon private and confidential matters’. Thus, though there are some diary entries in The Creevey Papers, the bulk of the book is made up of Creevey’s letters and Maxwell’s biographical commentary.

Here are a few of those diary entries, all taken from 1811 when Creevey was to be found often at the Pavilion in Brighton, still friends with the newly-empowered Prince Regent.

30 October 1811
‘Brighton. The Prince Regent came here last night with the Duke of Cumberland and Lord Yarmouth. Everybody has been writing their names at the Pavilion this morning, but I don’t hear of anybody dining there to-day. . . I presume we shall be asked there, altho’ I went to town on purpose to vote against his appointment of his brother the Duke of York to the Commandership-in-Chief of the Army.’

31 October 1811
‘We have got an invitation from the Regent for to-night and are going. I learn from Sir Philip Francis, who dined there yesterday, the Prince was very gay. . . There were twenty at dinner - no politicks - but still Francis says he thinks, from the language of the equerries and understrappers, that the campaign in Portugal and Lord Wellington begin to be out of fashion with the Regent. I think so too, from a conversation I had with one of the Gyps to-day - [Sit William] Congreve, author of the rocketts, and who is going, they say, to have a Rockett Corps. He affects to sneer rather at Wellington’s military talents. The said Congreve was at the same school with me at Hackney, and afterwards at Cambridge with me; after that, a brother lawyer with me at Gray’s Inn. Then he became an editor of a newspaper . . . written in favour of Lord Sidmouth’s administration, till he had a libel in his paper against Admiral Berkeley, for which he was prosecuted and fined £1,000. Then he took to inventing rocketts for the more effectual destruction of mankind, for which he became patronised by the Prince of Wales, and here he is - a perfect Field Marshall in appearance. About 12 years ago he wrote to me to enquire the character of a mistress who had lived with me some time before, which said mistress he took upon my recommendation, and she lives with him now, and was, when I knew her, cleverer than all the equerries and their Master put together.’

1 November 1811
‘We were at the Pavilion last night - Mrs Creevey’s three daughters and myself - and had a very pleasant evening. We found there Lord and Lady Charlemont, Marchioness of Downshire and old Lady Sefton. About half-past nine, which might be a quarter of an hour after we arrived, the Prince came out of the dining-room. He was in his best humour, bowed and spoke to all of us, and looked uncommonly well, tho’ very fat. He was in his full Field Marshal’s uniform. He remained quite as cheerful and full of fun to the last - half-past twelve - asked after Mrs Creevey’s health, and nodded and spoke when he passed us. The Duke of Cumberland was in the regimentals of his own Hussars, looked really hideous, everybody trying to be rude to him - not standing when he came near them. The officers of the Prince’s regiment had all dined with him, and looked very ornamental monkeys in their red breeches with gold fringe and yellow boots. The Prince’s band played as usual all the time in the dining-room till 12, when the pages and footmen brought about iced champagne punch, lemonade and sandwiches. I found more distinctly than before, from conversation with the Gyps, that Wellington and Portugal are going down.

The Prince looked much happier and more unembarrassed by care than I have seen him since this time six years. This time five years ago, when he was first in love with Lady Hertford, I have seen the tears run down his cheeks at dinner, and he has been dumb for hours, but now that he has the weight of the empire upon him, he is quite alive.  . . I had a very good conversation with Lord Charlemont about Ireland, and liked him much. He thinks the Prince has already nearly ruined himself in Irish estimation by his conduct to the Catholics.’

2 November 1811
‘We were again at the Pavilion last night. . . The Regent sat in the Musick Room almost all the time between Viotti, the famous violin player, and Lady Jane Houston, and he went on for hours beating his thighs the proper time for the band, and singing out aloud, and looking about for accompaniment from Viotti and Lady Jane. It was curious sight to see a Regent thus employed, but he seemed in high good humour.’

3 November 1811
‘I have heard of no one observation the Regent has made yet out of the commonest slip-slop, till to-day Baron Montalembert told me this morning that, when he dined there on Friday with the staff of this district, the Prince said he had been looking over the returns of the Army in Portugal that morning, and that there were of British 16,500 sick in Hospitals in Lisbon, and 4,500 sick in the field - in all, 21,000. It might be indiscreet in the Prince to make this statement from official papers, but he must have been struck with it, and I hope rightly, so as to make him think of peace.’

5 November 1811
‘We were at the Prince’s both last night and the night before (Sunday). . . The Regent was again all night in the Musick Room, and not content with presiding over the Band, but actually singing, and very loud too. Last night we were reduced to a smaller party than ever, and Mrs Creevey was well enough to go with me and her daughters for the first time. Nothing could be kinder than the Prince’s manner to her. When he first saw her upon coming into the drawing-room, he went up and took hold of both her hands, shook them heartily, made her sit down directly, asked her all about her health, and expressed his pleasure at seeing her look so much better than he expected. Upon her saying she was glad to see him looking so well, he said gravely he was getting old and blind. When she said she was glad on account of his health that he kept his rooms cooler than he used to do, he said he was quite altered in that respect - that he used to be always chilly, and was now never so - that he never had a fire even in his bedroom, and slept with one blanket and sheet only.’

6 November 1811
‘We were again at the Pavilion last night . . . the party being still smaller than ever, and the Prince, according to his custom, being entirely occupied with his musick.’

9 November 1811
‘Yesterday was the last day of the Prince’s stay at this place, and, contrary to my expectation, I was invited to dinner. We did not sit down till half-past seven, tho’ I went a little past six. [. . .] We were about sixteen altogether. The Prince was very merry and seemed very well. He began to me with saying very loud that he had sent for Mrs Creevey’s physic to London. . . At dinner I sat opposite to him, next to Ossulston, and we were the only persons there at all marked by opposition to his appointment of his brother the Duke of York, or to the Government generally, since he has been Regent. [. . .] We did not drink a great deal, and were in the drawing-room by half-past nine or a little after; no more state, I think, than formerly - ten men out of livery of one kind or other, and four or five footmen. At night everybody was there and the whole closed about one, and so ended the Regent’s visit to Brighton.

The editor of The Creevey Papers, Sir Herbert Maxwell, concludes this section of diary entries with a short comment: ‘And so, it may be added, ended Creevey’s intimacy with the Regent. Henceforward he acted in constant opposition to his future monarch’s schemes.’

The Diary Junction

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