From Strolling Player to Banker-Duchess

Joan Perkin tells the rags-to-riches story of Harriet Mellon, the actress who married the banker Thomas Coutts.

After Georgiana, ‘the People’s Duchess’ (of Devonshire) died in l805, the next ‘femme de scandale’ to be targetted by the gutter press was Harriot Mellon, actress, banker and duchess. Harriot was cartooned mercilessly by Cruikshank and others, first as the fabulously rich mistress, wife and widow of Thomas Coutts, the royal banker, and, later, as a big fat melon nursing her baby duke on her ample lap. She was satirised by Disraeli as Mrs Millions in Vivian Gray, and died one of the richest women in Britain. Yet she had begun life as the (almost certainly) illegitimate child of strolling players, who in the 1770s were regarded as rogues and vagabonds, liable to be thrown into the House of Correction.

Harriot Mellon’s was one of the most astonishing success stories of the Regency period, especially in that time of male chauvinism and women’s subordination. She rose from the lowest depths of society to become a star of the London theatre. She became the mistress and later the wife of one of the country’s richest bankers. As a widow she was the senior partner in Coutts Bank, lending money to the royal dukes and George IV. Finally, she married the Duke of St Albans, a direct descendant of Charles II. Even after her death her vast fortune survived for nearly half a century to do good to Victorian London and its poorest citizens.

Until the twentieth century, acting was one of the few ways in which women could make an honest fortune. A few women like Jane Austen and Harriet Martineau made money by writing, but for real wealth and fame, from the Restoration onwards when women first trod the boards, there was nothing to beat the stage. Actresses were generally regarded as little better than prostitutes, which some of them were, but many remained virtuous and some made splendid marriages.

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