The Great Bath Road is prosaically known as the A4 these days. Driving along it through the outskirts of London is equally unromantic: there is the odd office block towering above a long row of unremarkable two-storied houses, the ground floor of which is occupied by launderettes, ethnic shops, newsagents, fish-and-chips, Chinese and pizza takeaways.
But not far from the Osterley tube station, if you turn left into Jersey Road and drive a little further, you’ll find yourself going through the large gates of Osterley Park, and you’re instantly transported into another time. Modern Greater London lies behind you, forgotten, as you advance through the peaceful domain of Robert Child, the extremely wealthy banker who owned the place in early Georgian times.
Sadly for him, the gentleman’s life became anything but peaceful when his only daughter, Sarah Anne Child, fell in love with John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland. Robert Child strongly opposed the match. Some of his contemporaries wondered why, as the young earl was rich, well-born and well-regarded. One of his reasons might have been that he wished for a son-in-law who would be willing to change his name to Child, so that the family name would not die with him.
Nevertheless, in a turn of events worthy of a romance novel, his wilful daughter did not bow to the paternal will. In May 1782, aged 18, she eloped in the dead of night to Gretna Green with her beloved. They were attended by several servants, some in a second carriage, some on horseback, all armed. Two hours later, Mr. Child and another gentleman set off in hot pursuit in a chaise-and-four. Two servants rode ahead and eventually caught up with the fugitives on the Great North Road, just beyond Baldock. An altercation ensued, the banker’s men were pulled from their saddles, one horse was shot and died on the spot, the other was left dying of fatigue. The fugitives took to the road again. Lord Westmorland had already taken the precaution of arranging beforehand for relay horses all the way and, to frustrate Robert Child’s efforts, he also hired all available horses at a couple of strategic points along the journey. Not strapped for cash himself, Robert Child used every means money could buy to pursue them, but despite another altercation in Cumbria, the couple made it to Gretna Green together and were duly married. Their exploits were widely reported in the papers and, thanks to Naomi Clifford’s wonderfully informative site and her efforts to find glimpses of the Georgian way of life in old newspapers, you can find some very entertaining snippets here.
As far as Robert Child was concerned, the matter was very far from over. In his last will and testament, after generous bequests to his wife and to several others, he stipulated that his vast fortune should go to Lady Westmorland’s second son or, should there be no second son, to her first daughter, so that his money would not benefit the earls of Westmorland and their estate.
Cue Sarah Sophia Fane, the fortunate second daughter who was to inherit Osterley Park and the bulk of her grandfather’s fortune (some 30 years before the fictional Mr Darcy was born, Robert Child was estimated to have been worth not ten, but fourteen thousand a year). She married George Villiers, 5th Earl of Jersey who, by the bye, did change his name to Child-Villiers. We know her as the beautiful and influential Lady Jersey, one of the patronesses of Almack’s (not to be confused with her mother-in-law, the sharp-tongued Lady Jersey who was for a while the Prince Regent’s mistress).
Some say she was known as Beautiful Sarah or Queen Sarah, on account of her great beauty and position in society, but in letters and diaries of the time she is affectionately and irreverently nicknamed ‘Silence’, for her habit of talking too much.
Lord and Lady Jersey spent little time at Osterley. They made their home at the Jersey family seat, Middleton Park in Oxfordshire, so Robert Child’s beautiful house remained unaltered.
Even now, we can see it decorated for a Georgian Christmas.
The Kissing Bough is hung inside the front door – the traditional evergreen sphere decorated with ribbons and mistletoe. Visitors were embraced under it and any bad feeling or enmity instantly forgotten (and of course ladies passing below could be kissed, as long as a berry was plucked at the same time off the mistletoe).
Garlands of greenery decorate the columns and the fireplaces, Christmas wreaths and flower arrangements add brightness and colour.
The table is set for the desert course with sweetmeats, fruit and nuts. There is dancing in the great hall and some very elaborate Georgian games in the long gallery.
If you make your way to the kitchen, you’ll see cakes cooking on the hot plate and a Christmassy aroma of cinnamon and cloves fills the air.
Mr Darcy’s parents might have felt more at home at Georgian Osterley than he would, these were the entertainments of their generation, and chances are he hasn’t been in the kitchen since he was nibbling biscuits as a boy. Still, I could find treasured glimpses of a Darcy Christmas and with any luck some year I might be able to seek them further north, at one of the Pemberleys.
Happy Christmas, wherever you are, enjoy the holidays and have a wonderful New Year!