Today (October 27) in London History – those powdered eyebrows

She was one of the greatest swindlers of the 18th century. She “owned” the mighty Whig politician Charles James Fox. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

I grant you, this one is a case of taking up where we left off a couple of days ago when we touched down briefly on John Gay’s early Georgian poem, Trivia – and what it and its fellows said about London sharpers.

So, yes, a case of taking up where we left off. But I just couldn’t resist it.

Today’s entrant ticks all the boxes. It’s very London. It’s quirky. It’s novel – it’s about someone you won’t have heard of. But I guarantee you, you won’t forget her, once you’ve made her acquaintance. It’s fun. It’s a pinprick in the balloon of pomposity. It’s got one weird, wonderful, unforgettable detail that stands for – encapsulates – the whole splendid saga.

That would be those eyebrows. Those thick, black, bushy eyebrows. Those thick, black, bushy powdered eyebrows after our heroine cast her spell on the owner of those – in their original state – thick, black, bushy eyebrows.

Ok, let’s start introducing our dramatis personae. A round of applause please for the great Charles James Fox. That pompous ass, Charles James Fox. And oh my God, is Charles James Fox fun to guide. There’s a wonderful statue of him in Bloomsbury Square. 

Charles James Fox – he was born in 1749 and died in 1806 – Charles James Fox was a Whig politician whose life and career – his excesses, his carryings-on make Boris Johnson’s misbehaviour at its most operatic seem mild and timorous and restrained in comparison. 

Charles James Fox’s father, Henry Fox – the Stanley Johnson to his son and heir – was also a politician. A politician accused of embezzling huge amounts of public money while acting as paymaster-general.

Henry Fox indulged his offspring to the Nth degree. Today, we’d probably say he spoiled the child something rotten. There was never so much as a scintilla of discipline in that child’s upbringing. No restraint ever on his son’s whims and desires. Tantrums weren’t just tolerated, they were approved. State papers could be thrown onto the fire, watches destroyed, garden walls built or demolished with no sanctions or punishment meted out.

The boy was given a substantial amount of money with which to gamble and the ever-indulgent father arranged for him to lose his virginity to a certain Madame de Quallens. 

Well, you get the idea. 

And given that the child is the father to the man, I think you probably can guess how the end product turned out. 

Charles James Fox was the greatest gambler in an age of off-the-scale gambling. His winnings and losses – there were a lot more of the latter than the former – his winnings and losses were on a heroic scale. On one occasion his father had to settle a £120,000 gambling debt. That would be well over 20 million pounds in today’s money. 

And the gambling was just the bit of the iceberg that was out of the water. There was – putting it mildly – immoderate drinking, slovenliness, overeating, slothfulness. George III, who had the most wayward son of the period, regarded Charles James Fox as beyond morality and as the prince of Wales’s tutor in debauchery.

Ok, got a bead on Charles Fox?

Here’s the finishing touch.

Charles James Fox had dark, swarthy features and was extremely hirsute. At his birth his father had likened him to a monkey. He had a rounded face, dominated by luxuriant eyebrows. His political party, the Whigs – oh, and I should add here that a major failing in his political leadership was his inability to impose authority on others, particularly if they were young. It was always a maxim of Charles James Fox that ‘he did not like to discourage the young ones’. Anyway, back to that face and its luxuriant eyebrows. Fox’s party, the Whigs, lived by nicknames and his was The Eyebrow.

Now, dear listener, I’m going to make a recommendation here. What I strongly suggest you do is pause this podcast in a minute and look up the Karel Anton Hickel 1794 portrait of Charles James Fox. You’ll find it right at the top of the Charles James Fox Wikipedia entry. 

It’ll get “The Eyebrow’s” eyebrows prominently into your visual in-tray. 

It might be more visual information than you wanted. 

But now here’s the thing – here’s that one weird, wonderful, unforgettable detail that stands for – encapsulates – the whole splendid saga that is our subject (and indeed our heroine) for this Today in London History podcast.

That one weird, wonderful, unforgettable detail is you have to imagine that giant of his political age – let alone Georgian London’s gambling tables – you have to imagine Charles James Fox powdering those eyebrows.

Confession here. When I’m in Bloomsbury Square – when I’m guiding my Bloomsbury Walk, I look at that statue and all I can see is those great, shaggy, powdered eyebrows. Like gorged, albino leeches, sunning themselves on the slopes of that swarthy, unshaven face. Having themselves a bloated holiday on the escarpments of a Georgian Santorini of a countenance. And you know, there’s also the thought of the powder losing its hold, coming off like reverse mascara running down a sweaty face. 

Anyway, that’s just our scene-setter. Let’s meet our heroine. Please give a warm welcome to Elizabeth Harriet Grieve. Mrs. Grieve. Swindler par excellence. Mrs. Grieve – and, yes, she was a Londoner – Mrs. Grieve didn’t just dupe tradesmen. She also did for that Right Honourable Spendthrift Charles James Fox. She owned him.

When he was a Lord of the Treasury and desperately in debt – when wasn’t he desperately in debt? – Mrs Grieve promised to arrange a lucrative marriage between Charles James Fox and Miss Celia Phipps, a fictitious West Indian heiress. An aside here: you see how clever she was. She picked up immediately on his Achilles heel, his weak spot. 

Anyway, Mrs Grieve cautioned Charles James Fox that Miss Phipps could not tolerate a dark-complexioned man. Charles James Fox did the only sensible thing in the circumstances, he powdered his eyebrows. 

Mrs Grieve played Fox. When the fictitious Miss Phipps finally arrived in England – the whole thing, the heiress, her arrival was of course a fabrication – anyway when the fictitious Miss Phipps finally arrived in England Mrs Grieve let some line out on her catch by telling Fox that Celia had smallpox and wouldn’t be able to see him until she was better. All of this was part of a much larger game. She advanced Fox a loan of £300 on condition that his carriage would often be parked just outside her door. Horace Walpole got it immediately. He saw what she was playing at. He said, “she paid herself by his chariot standing frequently at her door, which served to impose on her more vulgar dupes.”  In which connection, she also put it about that she was the cousin of the prime minister, Lord North. And that the Duke of Grafton was also her relative.

Well, people were taken in. They were dazzled by her connections, by that chariot at her door. She defrauded her victims by telling them that she would use her influence to procure for them important government posts. This was in return for the fairly handsome advance – needed, she said, to grease the right palms to secure for her dupes those remunerative government positions. 

Well, it caught up with her in the end of course. I say “of course” – but we all know, alas, that there are all too many instances of this kind of malfeasance in that day and in ours that go unpunished. They get away with it.

Mrs. Elizabeth Grieve didn’t get away with it. The law caught up with her. And on this day – October 27th – 1774 – she was tried at Middlesex quarter sessions. Apparently, in her defence, she produced a letter Charles James Fox had written her. The letter – the court record tells us – “excited great laughter in Court.”

She was found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. In January 1775 they shipped her out from St Katherine’s Dock. Shipped her out to Virginia. What an interesting time for her to pitch up on those shores.

Two other things about Elizabeth Grieve. You have to admire her pluck. This woman had a pair. It turns out she’d already been transported once. That was in the early 1770s. That was for thieving and pawning 33 shirts and eight waistcoats of her lodger Colonel Edward Hamilton. Apparently she tried to feed him a lamentable story that the 41 garments had fallen into the fire and gone up in flames. What did go up in flames was her husband’s house. She arsoned it in 1768. I’d give anything to know more about that episode. We know her husband, John, was a Captain in the Navy. And we know his house was in South Park Street – right there in the most fashionable neighbourhood in London. You know Thackeray’s anti-heroine Becky Sharp in his great novel Vanity Fair. Mrs. Grieve was a flesh and blood Becky Sharp.

But I love how the membranes here between reality and fiction are so permeable. Celia was a fictitious West Indian heiress but those powdered eyebrows weren’t fictitious. Nor was Celia’s husband-to-be to which they were attached. And the play that was written about Mrs Grieve – The Cozeners – it was put on the Theatre Royal Haymarket and had a 21-night-run – well, life and art intermingling, that’s the same matter of those permeable membranes. The play was called The Cozeners – old word, to cozen means to cheat – and the character modelled on Mrs Grieve was named Mrs Fleece ‘em.

I’m tempted to say you can’t keep a good woman down but I think maybe that should be revised to, you can’t keep a big talent down. And that’s by way of saying, just a few years later – 1782 – Mrs Grieve was back and at it again. She must have served out her second term of transportation and come home. Maybe she was on her uppers. She wasn’t in toniest Mayfair this time. She was in East Smithfield. She tried to defraud her landlady at the Cooper’s Arms. She was committed by Justice Wilmot. And that’s the last we hear of Mrs Fleece ‘em. The swindler par excellence Mrs Elizabeth Grieve. She fades away. But those powdered eyebrows are with us forever.

And a Today in London recommendation: bearing in mind the years that Mrs Grieve was in Virginia – the second half of that all-important decade, the 1770s – well, a visit to Ben Franklin’s House in Craven Street is surely in order. Its history. But also the “Georgian features” of the building. Couldn’t be a better fit. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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