Tuesday 18 August 2015

Princely Debts and a Wealth of Resources

It's my pleasure to welcome Charlotte Frost to the salon today for a look at researching the mountainous debts of the Prince of Wales!


Princely debts and a wealth of resources

The debts of George, Prince of Wales, eldest son of George III, are true friends to anyone interested in late-eighteenth-century life.

In August 1795, four months after Wales married Caroline of Brunswick, Parliament appointed a Commission to settle his debts and arrange adequate income for his newly-married state. The Commission asked Wales’s officials and creditors for financial information that would normally have remained in his private papers, but because it was gathered for central government it is now held by The National Archives. 

Creditors who had been shuttled between Wales’s officials at Carlton House, his bankers in Pall Mall, and the Duchy of Cornwall office in Somerset House now had a named, accountable contact in the secretary to the Commission at an office in New Palace Yard, and they didn’t hesitate to submit their bills, plead the merits of their claims, and put their hardships on record. The secretary replied, taking copies for his files. And the lot ended up at TNA. Soap, statuary, jewels, brown bread, laundry, stockings darned and pots mended—look no further than the sturdy boxes of HO 73/17–32. 

If you’re researching anyone who supplied Wales with pheasants or picture frames, stabling or stationery, they’re here. Ditto if they gilded, painted or baked for him. This is where Charles Bazalgette found the sumptuous descriptions of fabric and design in his recent biography, Prinny’s Taylor. My own special interest is eighteen months of post-Regency-Crisis panic borrowing through loans raised on debentures by Wales and his next two eldest brothers, Frederick, Duke of York, and William, Duke of Clarence. I had anecdotes and accusations from Wales’s contemporaries, but not much more. Then I found his lawyers’ claims for unpaid fees for work on the loans—page after itemised page of dates, names, places, amounts, documents drafted, signatures obtained, legal opinions, attendances, and travel costs. 

Every story has two sides, and the secretary’s correspondence prickles with tension between creditors’ expectations that their bills would at last be paid, and the Commission’s ability to pay. With limited funds for which it answered to Parliament, the Commission challenged and reduced claims, and where debts were incurred jointly by all three brothers, only Wales’s portion could be paid. Here are narratives of fear, worry and disappointment.

The Commission’s papers are mostly tied in bundles according to creditor or purpose. One reference number covers up to three boxes of bundles. Some look as though they’ve never been opened. Their documents might enfold a sprinkling of sand—fine but gritty, and surely incapable of absorbing surplus ink. With luck, the bundle you want to see again on your next visit will be easily recognisable—an odd shape or bound with something other than faded pink tape. Among slim bundles of receipts circled with gummed paper you could find a signature for arrears of wages from a lower servant you’ve lost hope of finding. Or you might need a list of Christmas tips to servants, recently conserved, flat in a file, but still in a box.  

Bless TNA for big tables, decent lighting, allowing cameras, and heaving these boxes around just so that I can study them. My documents are in three languages, two of which I don’t understand, and even the English is used in such specialist ways that I have to keep checking that it means what I think it does. Yet no one questions my right to order up box after box. 

I’d love to hear from Salon visitors who are working with HO 73/17–32. Do get in touch. You can email me on Sirwilliamknighton at gmail dot com.


This post copyright © Charlotte Frost, 2015.


Unknown said...

Quite fascinating. I only know about the tailoring accounts of course, but an analysis of all the other debts - although a huge task - would be amazing.

Unknown said...

You're clearly on the 2nd floor of the NA if you have large desks! ;-) I'm not working on Prinny's debts, but I must say I love the experience of coming across documents that have apparently remained unread for centuries.

Charlotte Frost said...

Hi Charles - I'd especially like to get to the bottom of a reference to "H.R.H.'s particular business", and a letter whose author assures the recipient that he has forgotten every word of their meeting and took no notes. But I suspect it'll be another researcher, looking with fresh eyes, who works out what they mean.

Charlotte Frost said...

Hi Jacqui – This archive really does deserve to be more widely known. Fashion, food, art, servant life, everyday make-and-mend – just a fraction of what's there. Go on, join us on the second floor and order up a couple of boxes :-)

Unknown said...

It's entirely possible we have rubbed shoulders there already without knowing it! I may have a look see at some point -- I'm generally to be found there nosing through the Chatham MSS, or the Admiralty/Ordnance/War Office records, some of which (mysteriously) require me to go up to the 2nd floor. (I can't always work out exactly why as the documents aren't always huge -- presumably there's a size cut off.) I too love the photography permission: I could not be writing my book otherwise as I only have Saturdays to go to London!

Unknown said...

Have you got a copy of that letter, Charlotte? Where is the reference?

Charlotte Frost said...

Hi Charles - The reference is HO 73/19, creditors E-G. The only E-G name that comes to mind is Nathaniel Forth, secretary to Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans. Wales, York and Clarence encouraged him to arrange post-obit loans which turned out to be treasonable and were cancelled in great panic. But I'm only speculating. I'll email you my transcription.