Ledger Legends: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
In the third in our series examining the handwritten ledgers of famous historical figures in the Barclays archives, we delve into the accounts of 18th century socialite and fashion icon, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire – whose gambling addiction reportedly saw her rack up debts worth nearly £4,000,000 in today's money.
Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) was an 18th century English socialite renowned in aristocratic circles for her beauty, wit, charm and style – as well as her scandalous affairs, unconventional lifestyle choices and ruinous gambling addiction.
The duchess, who counted Marie Antoinette and the Prince of Wales among her close friends, led a fascinating, complicated and ultimately tragic life. One of the most talked about women in England, her extravagant sense of style sparked myriads of fashion crazes – including, at one point, for one-yard hair towers full of artificial birds and fruit.
The great, great, great, great aunt of Princess Diana was also once a customer at Goslings and Sharpe of Fleet Street, London – the oldest bank in the Barclays Group.
Surviving ledgers in the bank’s archive reveal that Georgiana banked twice with Goslings and Sharpe, once for a mere six days in 1790 and again in 1795 until her death in 1806. It is possible that the duchess only opened the accounts alongside her main Coutts bank account in an attempt to gain more credit, as she was continuously – and notoriously – in debt.
The duchess was just 17 when she married the affluent bachelor William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire, in 1774. The union was to prove an unhappy one. A series of miscarriages, a failure to provide an heir and her husband’s infidelity would become catalysts for the duchess’s addiction to drink, drugs and, most famously, gambling – then a common pastime for the rich.
It is thought Georgiana – vividly portrayed by Keira Knightley in 2008’s The Duchess – would spend in one night what a country gentleman would have to live on for 20 years.
Entries from her accounts shed light on the duchess’s spending, with one showing a payment of £600 on 14 October 1795 from her brother-in-law Lord Bessborough. Despite her husband’s extreme wealth, Georgiana was known to ask friends and family for loans on a regular basis. It is even rumoured she befriended the wealthy banker and founder of Coutts bank, Thomas Coutts, so that he would write off her debts.
The accounts also show several payments to a Mr Baker. It is possible this refers to a Sir George Baker – the well-known physician to King George III during his period of porphyria-induced ‘madness’ – who Georgiana may have known through the same circle.
The bank not only played host to the duchess, but to her best friend and successor Lady Elizabeth Foster or ‘Bess’. ‘Bess’ would come to live with the duke and duchess in what was viewed as a scandalous ‘ménage à trois’ – one reluctantly tolerated by a desperately lonely Georgiana. Records show a payment of £12 12s to the duchess herself, as well as £25 to the Duke of Richmond – whom ‘Bess’ also had a long-term affair with.
Georgiana tried extremely hard to keep her gambling debts hidden from her husband. It was only after her death, aged only 48, that the duke finally discovered the extent of what she owed – which was nearly £4,000,000 in today’s terms. He apparently remarked, “is that all?”.