The Walpoles: Two of a Kind!

Certain members of Norfolk’s Walpole family of the past, if not born insane became so at some point in their lives. George Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford, was one – and his mother Margaret (nee Rolle) was another. As with both his parents, George also indulged in life’s little vices, not that the aristocracy of the time considered them to be so.

George Walpole (Robert_Walpole,_1st_Earl_of_Orford_by_Arthur_Pond)
Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, KG, PC (1676 – 1745), was a British politician who is generally regarded as the ‘de facto’ first Prime Minister of Great Britain. He was George Walpole’s grandfather.

These two paintings are of Robert Walpole, (2nd Earl of Orford, KB (1701 – 1751), and Margaret Rolle, 15th Baroness Clinton, (1709 – 1781), wife of Robert. Both portraits are by John Theodore Heins and produced as a matching pair. Photos: Wikipedia.

George Walpole, (3rd_Earl_of_Orford,_by_Jean-Etienne_Liotard)
George Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford (1730 – 1791) was a British administrator, politician, and peer. He was the only child of Robert Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford and his wife Margaret Rolle (above) and became known as the ‘Mad Earl’. Image: Wikipedia.

George’s father, Robert Walpole, was born in 1701 and finally succumbed on 31 March 1751. He was, at the very least, a British Peer and married the rich heiress, Margaret Rolle – neither loved the other. In 1736, six years after George was born, Robert separated from Margaret in favour of a mistress by the name of Hannah Norsa; she was a leading singer and actress at Covent Garden.

George Walpole (Hannah-Norsa)
Hannah Norsa by R. Clamp, after Bernard Lens (III), stipple engraving, published 1794. Image: Wikipedia.

Horace Walpole, writer, George’s uncle and brother of Robert, described Norsa as “my brother’s concubine” when she went to live with him. Then at the point when Robert succeeded to the peerage as Earl of Orford, in 1745, Norsa moved to Houghton Hall in Norfolk. A local clergyman’s wife wrote of her at the time:

“She is a very agreeable Woman, & Nobody ever behav’d better in her Station, she has every body’s good word, and bears great Sway at Houghton, she is everything but Lady, she came here in a landau and six horses & …… a young Clergyman with her.”

In 1740, Norsa had a son with Orford, but who died young. Forever loyal, Norsa stayed with Robert until his death in 1751, having apparently financed his extensive debts – but not really enough to make any difference! Robert, in his Will, asked that his successor:

“take care that Mrs Norsa have her judgment well served to her.”

As for Margaret (George’s mother), she was the 15th Baroness Clinton in her own right and a wealthy Devonshire aristocratic, known both for her eccentricity – bordering on madness – and also extramarital affairs. Horace Walpole frequently alluded to Margaret as “his sister-in-law and her profligate habits”. Not to put too finer a point on her ‘comings and goings’ she did make the point, shortly after the birth of George in 1730: “not to let her husband lie with her and at last stipulated for only twice a week”! We know this because Horace Walpole, mentioned it in a letter to Sir Horace Mann on 17 June 1746. – the Horace’s exchanged many snippets of family gossip! It was also common knowledge between the two Horace’s that Margaret habitually quarrelled with the entire Walpole family; consequently, Robert and her lived apart from each other. Later Margaret obtained a legal separation from him and also departed for the continent, first going to Naples and afterwards to Rome and Florence. When she was about to leave England, the wits of the ‘Beef Club’ showed their antipathy towards Sir Robert Walpole by addressing her in the following ‘Toast’:

“Go, sprightly Rolle, go, traverse earth and sea
And fly the land where beauty is not free.
By your own wealth enslaved to one you hate,
Mourne not your own, but think of Britain’s fate.
Life may be welcome on some happy shore,
Where not a W [Walpole] shall approach thee more.”

We find that by 1734 Margaret had taken Thomas Sturgess {Sturgis] as a lover plus a second husband, he being the Honourable Sewallis Shirley. How many dalliance relationships Margaret had both before her separation from Robert Walpole and thereafter is best left. Suffice to say that in 1781 Margaret died at Italy’s Pisa, in Tuscany and was buried at Leghorn there. Selina, Countess of Huntingdon said of Margaret: “a woman of very singular character and considered half mad”. 

Georga Walpole (Horace_Walpole)
Horace – real name Horatio – Walpole , 4th Earl of Orford (1717 – 1797) was an English writer, art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and Whig politician. He was the son of the first British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Image: Wikipedia.

It is Horace Walpole we have to thank for providing ‘pen sketches’ of his nephew, George Walpole; other than the snippets that he revealed, very little is known about George’s early years. We do know, through Horace, that in 1739 his friend, John Chute, said that he was ‘quite astonished at [George’s] sense and cleverness’; but within the year Horace worried about the ‘wild boy’. He also thought that George’s friends were leading him into bad ways and was to ask his friend and a minister in Florence, the same Sir Horace Mann, to make friends with young George while he was on a Grand Tour. In 1742, Horace then threw the cat amongst the pigeons by referring to George as “a most charming boy, but grown excessively like his mother in the face”. This comment would not have gone down well with the Walpole’s at a time when the parent’s unhappy relationship was a sore point.

Following the death of his father in 1751, George became the 3rd Earl Orford at the age of 21 years; he also inherited the family home at Houghton Hall, along with a family debt of £50,000. His father had made sparse efforts to, at least, reduce the total amount of the debt around the Walpole’s neck; he did so by selling off his own father’s London paintings and Houghton silver. However, he found out that the sum received barely dented the family’s total debt. Young George would do no better; in fact he would add further to the family’s woes!

Georga Walpole (Houghton Hall)

George moved into Houghton Hall and during his time there he served as High Steward of King’s Lynn, High Steward of Yarmouth, Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk and Colonel of the Norfolk Militia. He also served as a ‘Lord of the Bedchamber’ to King George II until the latter’s death, and then to King George III until 1782. On the death of his mother in 1781 he became the sixteenth Baron Clinton.  Amongst all these formal duties placed on the Earl, we still hear Horace Walpole speaking about George’s personal traits and experiences – like the time when friends of George tried, apparently, to persuade him to marry the Heiress, Margaret Nicholl. The thought was that the Nicholl’s wealth would save the debt-ridden Walpole Estate; but here, Horace stepped in once again and stopped such a move, leaving Margaret to go off and marry someone else. Later Horace referred to George as “charming”, with “the easy, genuine air of a man of quality and……his address and manner are the most engaging imaginable” However, George never answered letters or kept engagements, instead, he spent most of his time drinking, enjoying women and gaming. In April of 1751 George’s uncle, Horace, again wrote to his friend Horace Mann to say that his nephew was “the most ruined young man in England”.

Georga Walpole (Houghton Hall)2
This illustration is from ‘The Comprehensive History of England’ by Charles Macfarlance et al (Gresham Publishing, 1902). Image: Public Domain.

As an ardent falconer, George spent £100 a year on each of his birds of prey, sending them to the continent during moulting season. In addition to gambling, he indulged his mistress, Mrs Patty Turk, a former Houghton maid. To pay his growing debts, George sold Houghton’s exterior stone staircases. By 1773, Horace Walpole found Houghton:

“half ruin, though the pictures, the glorious pictures and furniture are in general admirably well preserved. All the rest is destruction and devastation. The two steps exposed to all weathers, every room in the wings rotting with wet; the ceiling of the gallery in danger…… the park half covered with nettles and weeds……a debt of above £40,000, heaped on those of my father and brother…”

But the worst was yet to come, by what Horace again described as the “shipwreck of my family” (see Footnote below).

George Walpole (Houghton Hall_Copyright @ Donna Simpson.)3
Houghton Hall. Image: Copyright Donna Simpson.

Whatever other time George had at his disposal, he included sport, particularly hare coursing. He founded the Swaffham Coursing Club in 1776, initially with twenty-six members who each named their greyhounds after a different alphabet letter. For some years Swaffham was the leading coursing club in England, holding several meetings a year. He also organised coursing for neighbouring farmers and provided prizes. Throughout all this, he displayed all the extravagance shown by his late father. Then, just like his mother before him, he became increasingly eccentric and, eventually, insane – as indeed was his mother. Two of a Kind indeed!

By then, George Walpole was generally regarded as the “Mad Earl”, someone having periodic bouts of madness and having “toad-eaters” around him and spending “by the handfuls and pocketful’s”, again according to Horace. But even he couldn’t put an end to either George’s recurring illness, or his antics and so-called ‘escapades’. It would seem that in 1756 George challenged his friend, Lord Rockingham, to race five turkeys against five geese from Norwich to London; the winner would be the one with the most birds at the finishing line at Mile End. George, who clearly had something going for him, won; he won because he knew turkeys did not roost – but geese did; one up on the Lord one would think! Then there were the occasions when he would use four deers to drive his open four-wheeled carriage, normally referred to as a ‘phaeton’ and pulled by horses. On one occasion at Newmarket when he used these deers, he was chased by a pack of hounds and only just made it into the Yard of an inn. It was Horace who, in 1777, had George moved to a house near London during one of his bouts while he, Horace, dealt with the stewards…… and so, it went on and on…..

In November 1791 Patty Turk, George’s mistress, died. It was said that George refused to accept the fact and hid her body under a pile of boots in a cupboard, not wanting to be parted from her. In his grief, he developed a fever and died at Houghton on 5 December 1791 at the age of 61. His titles — except the title of Baron Clinton, which passed into the Trefusis family who were descendants of George’s great-aunt Bridget Rolle (1648–1721), passed on to his uncle Horace Walpole; he also took the still heavily encumbered Houghton Estate. Because George never married, he left no legitimate heirs. However, there is documentary evidence that he had an illegitimate daughter, named Georgina Walpole, whose mother was Mary Sparrow of Eriswell

Within the story of George Walpole, it should not be forgotten that, certainly within the County of Norfolk, he was very popular; everyone liked his manners and the way he was passionately absorbed in things around him. In 1791, the year in which he died, Dr. Charles Burney visited him and “found his Lordship’s head as clear, his heart as kind and his converse as pleasing as it has always been.”  In 1792, Rochester Lane (the main entrance to the Castle Ditches in Norwich was widened. The work was financed by public subscription, and our George had been one of the biggest subscribers. The new road, Orford Street in the city, was named after him and Hog Hill became Orford Hill.

Footnote: Above everything else, George Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford will be particularly remembered for his 1778 sale of his grandfather’s magnificent art collection, the “shipwreck of my family”, the phrase coined by Horace Walpole. This episode started in the autumn of that year when George hired James Christie, founder of the ‘eponymous’ auction house, to value his grandfather’s paintings in “the most profound secrecy” – a wish that didn’t really work! Alexey Musin-Pushkin, Russia’s ambassador to the Court of St James, was to quickly inform Catherine the Great of the impending auction:

George Walpole (Catherine_II_by_J.B.Lampi_(1780s,)
Portrait of Catherine II in her 50s, by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder. Image: Wikipedia.

“Your Majesty has perhaps heard of the collection of paintings of the celebrated Robert Walpole…… His grandson, Lord Orford [our George] is taking the liberty of placing everything, or part of it, at Your Imperial Majesty’s feet. It is worthy, in the opinion of all connoisseurs, of belonging to one of the greatest sovereigns.”

Wasting no time, Catherine instructed the diplomat to make an ‘en bloc’ offer of £40,550 [1778 value] for 204 of Walpole’s best paintings. Catherine’s apparent talent for clandestine negotiations paid off. By July 1779, the Empress and George Walpole had struct a deal. News of that deal unleashed a firestorm of protest. The trustees of the British Museum petitioned parliament for their purchase and the erection of a new building in the grounds of the British Museum, but to no avail – the King was pre-occupied with the American Revolution. Fast forward to the 1930’s which saw the sale of some of the collection, leaving 126 pictures which now forms the collection at The Hermitage in St Petersburg. In 2013 seventy paintings from the “magnificent” art collection built up by Britain’s first Prime Minister temporarily returned home to Houghton Hall in Norfolk; the first time in over 230 years. The collection included Rembrandt, Velasquez and Rubens.

For those interested in such things – here is the Walpole’s Family Tree, from the first person mentioned in this blog, to the present incumbents:

Georga Walpole (Family Tree)

THE END

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Walpole,_3rd_Earl_of_Orford

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=K8bY-u9uveAC&pg=PA82&lpg=PA82&dq=Thomas+Sturgess+Margaret+Walpole+1734&source=bl&ots=aOa6T-2FDB&sig=ACfU3U1Mtd1Ixf582OQLxE-5NLWphYRRFg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwir2bC98ZnmAhVgSBUIHf_uDTUQ6AEwEnoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=Thomas%20Sturgess%20Margaret%20Walpole%201734&f=false

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Mary_Wortley_Montagu

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=BA_CCwAAQBAJ&pg=PT168&lpg=PT168&dq=patty+mrs+turk+houghton+hall+1773&source=bl&ots=hA-4GLoKra&sig=ACfU3U1HI_yVvwGEMVto6sZbLu5I1AA3Hg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjc5-TX45vmAhXPTsAKHVRYBi8Q6AEwDXoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=patty%20mrs%20turk%20houghton%20hall%201773&f=false

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