Plaque erected 20th June 2019 at Treasurer’s House, Minster Yard, York YO1 7JL

A lady with independent ideas in a world where men monopolised intellectual debate, Elizabeth Montagu lived at Treasurer’s House in York in early childhood. She would go on to become a leading society hostess in London and to use her privileged social position to advance the status of women.

Elizabeth Montagu

In the 18th century, wealthy families with country estates in Yorkshire acquired townhouses in York so that they could enjoy the city’s increasingly fashionable and busy winter social season. One of the most desirable addresses was the large property adjacent to York Minster, once divided into five separate dwellings. Since 1897, when Frank Green acquired three fifths of the property, the main house has been named Treasurer’s House. In 1717, Matthew Robinson (1694-1778) and his wife Elizabeth, née Drake (1693-1746) became tenants of the house’s owner, Miss Jane Squire, holding the lease until 1720. The Robinsons would eventually have nine surviving children: seven boys and two girls, and the family divided their time between York, their Yorkshire estates and Elizabeth’s relatives in Cambridge. Some of the children were born in York, including the two girls, Elizabeth and Sarah, who were both baptised in Holy Trinity, Goodramgate in 1718 and 1723 respectively.

Treasurer’s House

Treasurer’s House had been divided in two: the south-east part (“Lesser House”) and the north-west part (“Greater House”) perhaps to enable Jane Squire to earn maximum rental. In 1725, Matthew Robinson bought both parts of Treasurer’s House, raising a mortgage of £1,575 to do so. Yet, in that same year, Robinson sold the Lesser House to Bacon Morritt and, in 1728, the Greater House to Canon Finch. In 1736, unwilling to face the expense of a London property, the Robinsons moved to the Drake family’s Mount Morris estate near Hythe in Kent.

An English eccentric

Named Matthew after his father, the eldest son was baptised in York on 12 April 1713. He became a noted eccentric with an obsessive habit of bathing daily for very long periods. Edith Sitwell included Matthew Robinson in her bestselling book English Eccentrics (1933). With his unusual appearance – he grew an enormous beard – strange diet and propensity to monotonous monologues, Matthew became an embarrassment to his sisters when they took their place in society.

Matthew Robinson Jnr took the title 2nd Lord Rokeby in 1794. The other boys pursued a range of careers: the second son, Thomas, became a lawyer; the fifth, William, a cleric; and the youngest, Charles, also a lawyer, became MP for Canterbury from 1780 until 1790. However, it was the daughters who achieved fame. Sarah (1723-1795) would become Sarah Scott, an author of nine books, a social reformer, historian and translator, but her fame did not match that of her elder sister Elizabeth who, as Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, would reach the pinnacle of polite and intellectual society in what we now call the Age of Enlightenment.

Family education

Whilst Elizabeth and Sarah received no formal education, their brothers were sent away to school. Unusually, the boys were forbidden from coming home during the holidays and, therefore, did not see their parents for five years. Meanwhile, the girls were eager to learn and resented the fact that, in an era when debates in philosophy, science, the arts and religion were opening up the intellectual and rational world, women were viewed as incapable of taking part. Their parents were not unsympathetic; Matthew Robinson encouraged debate and intellectual argument in the home whilst their mother was a devotee of Bathsua Makin, tutor to the children of Charles I of England and a 17th-century campaigner for education for “gentlewomen”. The girls were also fortunate to have as their step-grandfather Conyers Middleton, a respected Cambridge don with a vast library who encouraged Elizabeth and Sarah to develop a classical education.

The two Robinson daughters were not alone in their quest for learning. Whilst, on the surface, women’s accomplishments were limited to genteel pursuits such as needlework and music, in wealthy houses across the land there was a growing recognition of the injustice inherent in the power of men over women’s intellectual and social life as well as their property. Elizabeth would later remark that ‘men know that fools make the best slaves’.

The two sisters retained their family loyalty to each other but took different paths. A catalyst was Sarah contracting disfiguring smallpox in 1742. Elizabeth moved away from home, leaving Sarah to care for their mother who died in 1746. Following a disastrous brief marriage, Sarah set up home with her friend Lady Barbara and wrote histories and novels for their income.

Becoming Lady Montagu

Elizabeth’s friend from childhood was Lady Margaret Harley, later to become the Duchess of Portland (1715-1785) and one of the most wealthy and well-connected women in England. They wrote thousands of letters to each other, some now published, giving an insight into 18th-century society life. Elizabeth thus moved in the highest social circles thanks to her friendship with the Duchess and her path was clear; she was expected to marry but her motive would be wealth and not love.

In 1742, 20-year-old Elizabeth married Edward Montagu (1692-1775) 30 years her senior. He was an MP, a wealthy coalmine owner and grandson of the 1st Earl of Sandwich. They had several homes including a country estate at Sandleford Priory, near Newbury, and a prestigious London house in Mayfair. A child called John was born in 1743 but died unexpectedly the next year, leaving Elizabeth desolate. There were to be no further pregnancies; the marriage was considered perfectly amicable but not passionate.

Socially, Elizabeth and like-minded friends took part in the 18th-century culture of formal visiting, meeting at parties and balls held in Bath and Tunbridge Wells and playing the role of hostesses in the drawing rooms of their London homes. However, they were frustrated that social events focused on card-playing, alcohol and gossip and the men and women were effectively segregated once “serious” discussion started. Instead, they looked to the model of the French soirée where philosophers rubbed shoulders with poets and scientists and the intellect of women was respected.

The Bluestockings

In Bath, a lady called Elizabeth Vesey began holding literary “breakfast clubs” and these began to attract hundreds of guests. The idea became fashionable and therefore spread throughout society. Rules were developed for such occasions which were now held at other times of the day and evening: no alcohol, no gambling or game-playing, no music, and men and women to be valued for their wit, intelligence, creativity or knowledge and not for their status or gender. Seating arrangements were contrived to promote conversation and group debate. Writers and thinkers such as Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke and Horace Walpole found in these salons a convivial forum for their latest work; painters, authors and actors such as David Garrick could exchange new ideas in the arts with those in the fields of science and astronomy. Self-serving politicians were less welcome.

Elizabeth Montagu’s wealth and superior London address put her at the heart of hosting these events but the so-called Bluestocking movement contained other prominent women such as Hannah More, Frances Burney, Hester Chapone, Elizabeth Carter and Frances Boscawen. Most historians say that the term “bluestocking” came about because a botanist, Benjamin Stillingfleet, attended an event wearing informal blue stockings instead of the black stockings normally worn at a formal occasion. The assemblies became described as Bluestocking events and eventually the participants were also so called.

Young or inexperienced writers and artists found rich patrons and mentors amongst the Bluestocking men and women and the barriers to women publishing in their own name were challenged. Elizabeth wrote; she contributed three sections to a critique of society called Dialogues of the Dead (1760) and, later, several years of study and research culminated in her work An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare (1769). She even debated with Voltaire on this subject on a visit to France.

The movement, if it can be so described, was at its height in the second half of the 18th century. When Elizabeth Montagu’s husband died in 1775, she inherited his wealth and assets and became such a shrewd businesswoman that her annual income increased assisted by the rising price of coal as industrialisation took hold of the country.

Portman Square mansion

Elizabeth’s Mayfair home, despite extensive remodelling, was now considered too small and, on becoming a widow, she bought land and commissioned a grand mansion on one corner of Portman Square. Named Montagu House, with architecture and interior design by such luminaries as James Stuart, Robert Adam and Joseph Bonomi, it became the focal point for intellectual and artistic debate in the capital. Elizabeth was called the “Queen of the Blues” as the most prominent hostess and Hester Thrale, a noted Bluestocking, stated that Elizabeth was ‘brilliant in diamonds, solid in judgment, critical in talk’. It was said that the numbers of visitors grew so large, tickets had to be issued. The interior design of some rooms was daring; one which took years to create was the feather room consisting of large panels of designs created with exotic feathers. Visitors to this wonder included Queen Charlotte and her daughters. Another room had painted walls by artists such as Angelica Kauffman. Sadly, the house was destroyed by bombing in 1942.

Numerous portraits of the individual Bluestockings were created over the years but one in particular summarised their eminence: Portraits in the character of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Samuel Richards (1779). This painting, now in the National Portrait Gallery, depicts Elizabeth and other Bluestocking women as classical figures elevated to the company of the gods.

Reaction and retreat

As the 18th century drew to a close, revolutionary events in France resulted in the British Government clamping down on radical thought and action. The Bluestocking connections with French philosophers would not be helpful to them but the decline of the movement was also due to the original leaders coming to the end of their lives and their influence. Elizabeth Montagu died at Montagu House on 25 August 1800 and was buried in Winchester alongside her husband and infant son. Her heir was her nephew Matthew Robinson Montagu who she had adopted in 1776.

The 19th century was to be a very different world where class difference would continue to be cemented but where women’s place was not just in the home but also in the mill and the factory. Education for girls was viewed in relationship to the need for skilled workers rather than the thoughts of female authors and artists. In truth, the Bluestockings were mainly conservative and only passionate about education for their own kind; they did not champion the rights of their servants or the poor and they rallied no movements in their name. The battlefield had changed and would become more political as the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft raised the banner of the Rights of Women.

Elizabeth Robinson and the other Bluestockings did, however, leave a legacy. They are referenced in the works of authors such as Mrs Gaskell, Anne Bronté and Jane Austen whose character Elizabeth Bennett demanded that her opinions be heard. Women’s research in the field of astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology would challenge the idea that men’s brains were physically designed for superior technical thought. Even so, major institutions did not permit female members and, indeed, the Royal Society did not open its doors to women until 1945.

Barbara Eaton, Yes Papa! Mrs Chapone and the Bluestocking Circle, (London: Francis Boutle Publishers, 2012)

Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Peltz, Brilliant Women, 18th Century Bluestockings, (London: Yale University Press, 2008)

Nicole Pohl and Betty Schellenberg (eds), Reconsidering the Bluestockings”, Huntington Library Quarterly (San Marino, California 2003)

Treasurer’s House is now owned by the National Trust. Visit the website for opening times.

© Glennis Whyte