‘Dearest Liz’, the Remarkable Life of Elizabeth Armistead

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For a short period between her 14th and 16th birthdays, necessity forced Emma Hamilton into Covent Garden, the heart of London’s sex trade. Ahead of her talk at Seduction Late on 14 February, Catherine Curzon traces the life of another extraordinary woman drawn to London’s sex trade.

The origins of Elizabeth Bridget Armistead, née Cane, are a matter of conjecture. According to the lady herself, she was born on 11 July 1750, but on the other details of her earlier life Elizabeth was deliberately vague.

Covent Garden in the 18th century at the Museum of London
Covent Garden in the 18th Century, by John Collet. Bequeathed to the Museum of London by Mr Ernest E. Cook through the Art Fund. Image © Museum of London

She seemed to have come from nowhere, emerging fully formed and wonderfully skilled in the pleasure-filled world of Georgian London, where she was known as Mrs Armistead to the clients who flocked to her in the brothel where she built her reputation.

Even Mrs Armistead, the name she became known by, is a mystery. In fact, the first suggestion of her existence comes courtesy of artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, who listed an appointment with Mrs Armistead at Mrs Mitchell’s upmarket brothel in Soho.

Elizabeth was determined to land herself a patron and she hit the big time when she met Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke. There was no stopping her and she went through a succession of ever-more illustrious men all the way to George, the Prince of Wales.

Soho, City of London from the west half
Soho, City of London from the west half of the: 'Plan of the cities of London and Westminster, the borough of Southwark and parts adjoining shewing every house', 1792

Elizabeth had a marked interest in politics and was close friends with the famed Whig, Charles James Fox. That friendship turned to love. The relationship took everyone by surprise but the couple remained devoted to one another for the rest of their lives. With her patrons gone, Elizabeth’s life changed forever. She sold her properties and belongings to keep their heads above water, whilst Fox rejected an offer of marriage into a hugely rich family, and he and Liz married secretly instead.

Political astronomy
Political astronomy: British political figures are presented as stars surrounding the Treasury as the sun at the centre. The figures depicted include Charles James Fox (Foxonin Star, at the top), 1805

The truth of the marriage came to light in 1802 and London society was whipped into frenzy by it, but the ever-cool Foxes were soon accepted and back on the social scene once more. Tragically, the happiness of Elizabeth and Fox was to be all too short-lived, and in 1806 Fox died, his body exhausted by years of hard living. The last word the Whig grandee spoke was his wife’s name, murmuring of his ‘dearest Liz’.

Elizabeth was awarded a pension of £1200 and a £500 annuity courtesy of her former lover, George IV. As she grew older, Elizabeth became ever more devoted to her philanthropic activities and her charity made her a beloved figure in the nearby village of Chertsey. The woman who had once been so notorious, a beacon of scandal and opulence, was now an elder stateswoman of the Whigs and held in respect as such. She lived to the grand old age of 92, and passed away 8 July 1842, having spanned the Georgian era, the Regency, and the dawn of the Victorian age.

Elizabeth’s funeral was intended to be private, but her friends and supporters had other ideas. The service at All Saints’ church in Chertsey was overwhelmed with not only friends, but those who wanted to pay their respects to the woman whose kindness, charity and grace had endeared her to people from all classes and all walks of life.

Find out more about Seduction Late, 14 February

More about our Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity exhibition