Friday, May 27, 2011

Carrier Pigeons, the Rothchilds and Jane Austen

One of the great stories about Waterloo is the communication system that the Rothchilds used. Because of it, they received word about the victory first. There were some stories that they profited from this but apparently they go straight to Whitehall with the news. But until yesterday, I didn't know anything about the people who supplied the communications. It was done by a system of carrier pigeons run through a firm called Latham,Rice and Co who were also in banking. The senior partner, surprise, surprise was a woman --Sarah Rice. Sarah apparently made a lot of money personally from supplying the info.
Sarah inherited the senior partnership of the firm from her husband who got his start in the East India Company as a captain. Apparently if successful, the captain could clear about £10k per voyage. In order to secure Sarah's hand (she was an heiress with connections to Samsonware) he brought his ship into the Dover harbour and gave a ball. He won his bet and got the girl. He didn't bother to insure his ships. He made sure that they were copper-bottomed for use in the tropics. Her husband died 1797. Sarah then took over and ran the firm until 1811 when her  younger son became the senior partner but continued to retain an active interest until she died in 1842.
She is perhaps better known to history as one of the potential inspirations for Fanny Price's disagreeable aunt Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park. Sarah's eldest son Henry took holy orders and married Lucy Lefroy. Jane Austen who consider Henry a pleasant boy with bright eyes wanted his mother to enable him to settle at a certain curacy Deane. She didn't. Sarah settle him at  another one instead -- Great Hollands in Essex. Jane might not have liked having her will crossed and took revenge in this way. Who knows.
Henry as was his wont quickly sold the house as he was in debt and lived there as a tenant. Sarah did not trust his money skills, although she was scrupulously fair in doling up the money -- dividing the wealth between her profligate elder son who chose not to go into the family business, and the younger one who did. Henry had his money left to him in trust in her will and was constantly going into debt. He regularly sent his mother begging letters for more money.Apparently he liked to gamble. She could have the inspiration for Mrs Norris but that isn't to say that she was exactly like the character. Jane Austen had an unique outlook on certain aspects of her life. It is always  in the point of view.
The younger son Edward married Jane Austen's niece -- Elizabeth Knight. Jane's brother Edward had been adopted by the Knights.  Edward Royds Rice went into parliament and prospered.
Interestingly, Sarah specified that after Henry's death, his sole surviving daughter would get the bulk of his inheritance, again just the interest but that it was to go to her alone for her sole use and not for the debt of her husband or any husband she happened to marry. Sarah was obviously aware of the problem of married women not having any property to call their own.
Given that there are stories that Sarah 'persuaded' the Duke of Wellington  to re-sight a gun battery as she didn't like the sight or the sound of the guns and the Duke complied very speedily, I suspect she was not a woman to be crossed. I also suspect that she knew her own mind and was scarily formidable. She had a reputation as being pain-stakingly honest. Towards the end of her life, letters addressed simply Mrs Rice, Dover reached her.
In short she was a successful businesswoman and not to be lightly crossed.  And I had no idea that she existed until I read Women Who Made Money.
 Successful Regency businesswomen were less rare than one might think. Actually as far as I can tell, there were more successful Regency businesswomen than there were late Victorian/Edwardian. This could be because of limited liability companies. The heroine of the book which was just accepted was a Regency businesswoman but I find the whole thing fascinating.


Nell Dixon said...

It is fascinating stuff. The Black Country area where I live is renowned for having many businesses in the past which were owned and run by women. These were iron, steel and chain making businesses. the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath were a formidable group and not to be lightly crossed.

Frances Clarke said...

I love the links you've unearthed here:)