Lady Hester Stanhope on board the H.M.S. Salsette
Figure 1: Anonymous early 19th century journal of a British naval officer
The Wellcome Library in London houses some of the most fascinating archives relating to the history of medicine. One such item is an anonymous early 19th century journal compiled aboard the H.M.S. Salsette, a frigate patrolling the eastern Mediterranean Sea as part of the British naval blockade of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. The journal covers the period from September 1811 until November 1812, and is still in its original calfskin binding with brass clasp and vellum hinge.
It is believed that the unidentified author may possibly be the ship’s surgeon Robert Allan, whom the Navy List (1814) notes was posted to ‘Salsette’ in 1810 . Nevertheless, references to medical topics within the journal are extremely rare, and this leads to more questions regarding the author’s identity. Instead, the unknown author preferred to log the official duties of the ship and its captain, Henry Hope (1787-1863) as well as to describe the surrounding geography and antiquities of the region.  The ‘Common Place Book’ came into the possession of The Wellcome Library in 1992. Apart from a note on the inside front cover that it once belonged to the rector Henry Ernest Ketchley in 1917 in Biddeston, Chippenham, the journal’s previous whereabouts and provenance are unknown .
|Figure 2: The anonymous author’s inscription inside the front cover|
The journal was commenced on board the H.M.S. Salsette whilst it was anchored in the Harbour of Siria [sic] in September 1811. The anonymous British naval officer’s precise identity may not be authenticated, but he does record meeting the late Prime Minister William Pitt the younger’s unconventional niece Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839). At that point in time Lady Hester was travelling with her much younger lover Michael Bruce as well as her physician Dr. Meryon. The unidentified British seaman met Lady Hester’s entire entourage in February 1812, and he recorded his ‘remarks’ recounting the experience. The author initially spelled Dr. Meryon’s name as ‘Merian’ before he became better acquainted with him.
|Figure 3: The author’s ‘remarks’ on first meeting Lady Hester Stanhope|
The first mention of Lady Hester Stanhope is recorded at 8 am on 9th February 1812, when the H.M.S. Salsette was anchored in the Bay of Rhodes. The author notes the following:
“Dr. Merian [sic] arrived there [Rhodes] on Wednesday last & that Lady S[tanhope] & suite were ready to embark. Her luggage was received in the course of the day & and in the even’g. Her ladyship came on board accompanied by Messr. Bruce, Pierce, and Dr. Merian [sic]…they all wore the Turkish Dress except the servant maid. Ldy. S[tanhope] had on a Man’s Dress. 8 pm. Weigh’d & made sail…for Alexandria."  It is highly intriguing, but completely in keeping with other contemporary accounts of her costume, that Lady Hester Stanhope would choose to wear a ‘Man’s Dress,’ in other words – not typical feminine attire for the time. In 2014, this is not shocking to us, but cast your mind back just over two hundred years to 1812, and it was noteworthy enough to be commented upon!
The voyage to Alexandria was not without its dangers. On the 10th February, just one day after making sail, the ship encountered a storm. “At Midnight the wind came contrary & at day light amounted to a heavy gale &…[with] the gale likely to continue with a mountainous Sea, it was thought necessary to run for some harbour, therefore bore up for Mamorial Bay at 9 am & at 12 anchored in that secure harbour. Towards evening the wind moderated.”  After several days of waiting in a nearby bay for the wind to subside, they continued on their course for Alexandria. By the 14th February, five days after commencing their journey, the author recorded that they “had run the distance of 180 miles; & 150 from Alexandria.” 
By the 16th February, they had arrived. It had taken one week to make the voyage due to inclement weather. After arriving at about midday, “…the Secretary of Col. Miss. the British Resident in Egypt came to the Ship. Lady Hester St[anhope] dined with us & in the Evening the Capt, Messr. Bruce, Pierce, Dr. M[eryon] & the greater part of the Officers went to a Race given at the Spanish Consuls, when we were introduced to Col. M & Mr. Maltass the Consul.”  The anonymous author must have been quite high-ranking to accompany the dining party of Lady Hester Stanhope. On the following day, “the Govr. [was complemented] with a salute of 15 Guns, which he returned with an equal number. Lady H. Stanhope left the ship to pay her respects to Col. M…she [Lady Hester] was saluted with 13 guns. The fort returned it with the same number.”  This was done as a mark of respect for high-ranking people.
|Figure 4: Lady Hester Stanhope (probably) by an anonymous artist|
For a few months, there is no mention in the Common Place Book of Lady Hester Stanhope. Presumably, her and her companions disembarked at Alexandria. However, in August 1812 it seems as though Lady Hester wanted the H.M.S. Salsette to carry her from Saide to Damascus. “Mr. Pierce, a gentleman who had previously travelled with Lady H[ester].S[tanhope] & whom we had convey’d (with her) from Rhodes to Alexandria…informed me her Ladyship had left Acre 17 days ago for Saide from whence she intended to proceed to Damascus…”  By the 26th August, Lady Hester was writing directly to the ship’s captain from Saide. “…She [Lady Hester] saw the Ship pass that town & sent a boat out to us, but not being able to reach us, sent a Messenger by land. She said she meant to proceed to…the Village where the prince of the inhabitants of Mount Lebanon live (the Druses) where she expected the Capt. would follow her as its only 7 hours ride from Saide…”  The next day, the ship “…arrived off Saide at 3 [pm], where a boat came up with Mr. Bruce, her Ladyship’s companion…” 
By that point, the crew of the H.M.S. Salsette had become well acquainted with Lady Hester Stanhope and her entourage. On the 28th August 1812, the ship’s crew “visited the shore & call’d on our friends that accompany her Ladyship. Mr. Bruce offered us the use of his horses & in company of Dr. Meryon & a [oe] we rode out into the country to visit the Gardens, the site of the ancient town of Sidon…at 4 pm her Ladyship went on board to dine & was saluted with 13 guns.”  After several days on land, the company “weighed & sailed from Saide” for Damascus on the 31st August . The anonymous author and other members of the ship’s crew had grown fond of Lady Hester and her companions. The reference to them as “our friends that accompany her Ladyship” is quite telling . Unfortunately, there is no further mention of Lady Hester Stanhope after her disembarkation at Damascus. The journal also ends abruptly soon after on November 8th, 1812 with about 10 blank pages at the end of the book. Sadly, this is where the story ends. At this distance of time, we do not know the identity or fate of the writer of this naval journal. His very small, neat handwriting became large and messy towards the end of the book, right around the time the ship’s crew encountered a devastating outbreak of plague. Indeed, Lady Hester Stanhope fell ill – and survived – the plague at the end of 1812. Until this can be investigated further, one can only speculate whether the author succumbed to plague as an explanation for why the journal ended abruptly with about numerous blank pages. Dr. Charles Meryon, Lady Hester’s physician, wrote to Miss Williams, a close female friend of Lady Hester, at Malta on June 2, 1813, informing her of her Ladyship’s recovery:
“I had to write to you some time since by the desire of Lady Hester, who was too feeble to take up the pen herself. Thank God she is now tolerable, & has almost recovered her entire strength, and is just regaining her good looks very fast. I know your respectful affection for her Ladyship and I forbore on that account to tell you at the time the full extent of the danger she had seen. There is no doubt that her malady was the plague.”  This places the date where Lady Hester contracted the plague to either the very end of 1812 or the beginning of 1813, which was consequently the same time that the anonymous British seaman noted the malady in the vicinity of the ship. If anyone knows anything more about this journal, or the authorship of this Common Place Book, I would be very interested to hear from you. Until then, this is a mysterious but highly interesting relic of Napoleonic Era history.
1. Anonymous early 19th century British Common Place Book. The Wellcome Library, MS 6957, Accession number 348987. The provenance note can be found here: http://search.wellcomelibrary.org/iii/encore/record/C__Rb1920835__Sms%206957__Orightresult__X3?lang=eng&suite=cobalt.
4. Anonymous early 19th century British Common Place Book. The Wellcome Library, MS 6957, ff. 56-57.
5. Anonymous early 19th century British Common Place Book. The Wellcome Library, MS 6957, f. 57.
9. Anonymous early 19th century British Common Place Book. The Wellcome Library, MS 6957, f. 93.
11. Anonymous early 19th century British Common Place Book. The Wellcome Library, MS 6957, ff. 94-95.
12. Anonymous early 19th century British Common Place Book. The Wellcome Library, MS 6957, f. 95.
13. Anonymous early 19th century British Common Place Book. The Wellcome Library, MS 6957, f. 96.
14. Anonymous early 19th century British Common Place Book. The Wellcome Library, MS 6957, f. 95.
15. Charles Meryon’s papers. The Wellcome Library. MS 5688, file 1 of 3, letter addressed to Miss Elizabeth Williams at Malta.
Figure 1: An anonymous early 19th century ‘Common Place’ journal of a British naval officer on board the H.M.S. Salsette (my photo)
Figure 2: The anonymous author’s inscription inside the front cover (my photo)
Figure 3: The author’s ‘remarks’ on first meeting Lady Hester Stanhope
Figure 4: Lady Hester Stanhope (probably) by an anonymous artist. This is approximately what Lady Hester looked like when the British naval officer met her in 1812:
About the Author:
Stephenie Woolterton has an MSc in Social Research, and a background in Psychology. She is currently researching and writing her first book on the private life of William Pitt the Younger. She is also working on a historical novel about Pitt’s ‘one love story’ with Eleanor Eden.
She blogs at: www.theprivatelifeofpitt.com and can be contacted via Twitter at: www.twitter.com/anoondayeclipse.
Written content of this post copyright © Stephenie Woolterton, 2014.