George Stanhope, 6th Earl of Chesterfield (1805-1866), was the quintessential sporting Regency dandy who was one of the most successful racehorse owners of his class. The Earl served as Master of the Buckhounds from 1834-5 in the reign of King William IV but this largely ceremonial appointment was the sum of his public service other than his appointment as a Privy Counsellor and status as popular courtier to successive monarchs from George IV to Queen Victoria.
Born in the year of the Battle of Trafalgar, the Earl inherited his title aged ten. He showed great propensity for sport at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford that would dominate his adult life. A newspaper report about the Earl’s character in the Derby Mercury in 1860 said of him ‘succeeding to a vast fortune and the accumulation of a long minority, under careful trustees, there was none to prevent his Lordship from indulging those tastes for the turf, the chase and the road which seemed born with him and which have since given him such a conspicuous position among the sporting noblemen of the age’.
Balancing its evident pride in the Earl’s reputation as man of the turf the Mercury went on to say ‘at that period unfortunately there were greater facilities for getting rid of money than ever exist at the present time and with youth at the helm and pleasure at the prow Lord Chesterfield may be said to have launched his barque (boat) in waters which had shipwrecked the fortunes of older and more experienced pilots’.
Though Lord Chesterfield’s thoroughbreds never won with sufficient frequency to pay for his stables, he had an instinct for buying bloodstock and his horses did win classic races such as the St Ledger, the Oaks and the Grand National some several times over. In 1830 the Earl married the Hon Anna Weld Forrester who bore him a son and a daughter. The daughter, Lady Evelyn Stanhope, would marry the heir to the Earl of Carnarvon and the match would have grave ramifications for Chesterfield’s estates after his death.
Lord Chesterfield’s family seat in Derbyshire, Bretby Hall, was built in 1630 but had been demolished by the Earl’s father who replaced it in 1812 with the crenelated mock Gothic castle that survives today. The London townhouse, Chesterfield House, was built by the 4th Earl in the 1740s and until its demolition in 1937 was one of Mayfair’s grandest mansions and the first to be decorated in the Rococo style. Panels salvaged from an anteroom at Chesterfield House are displayed in the Bowes Museum in County Durham who presented a Henry Poole & Co exhibition in 2014.
The Earl’s horse racing, gambling and roistering days reached their peak in the 1830s when he was a popular and generous Master of the Buckhounds. He owned two yachts, kept fifty hunters on the Bretby estate and was said to have lost nearly half his fortune by his thirtieth birthday. He was a friend of the flamboyant Count D’Orsay (a latter-day Beau Brummell) who joined his party at the beaux’ Bond Street hotel the Clarendon in 1835 to give a last tally-ho to the outgoing Master of the Buckhounds. D’Orsay drew one of the most famous portraits of the 6th Earl.
In 1840 the Earl of Chesterfield resolved to give up his life as a swell Mayfair man about town and retire to Bretby where he constructed a two-mile gallop to exercise his horses. He appears to have given up Chesterfield House to a series of tenants and appointed a more modest townhouse on Grosvenor Street as the family’s London home. Lord Chesterfield was to die on the steps of his Grosvenor Street townhouse in 1866.
In an obituary reproduced in the Pall Mall Gazette, the Earl was remembered as ‘a great favourite in society, his generous disposition endearing him to his intimate friends. On his estates there could not be a more popular landlord…A kinder hearted man never breathed than the late Lord Chesterfield, who embodied all the high minded qualities of a nobleman with the finest attributes of a sportsman’.
The obituary takes not speaking ill of the dead to another extreme: ‘like his brother-in-law the late General Hanson he was never known to say a harsh word of a human being; and of him it may be said an unkind remark was never uttered. In whatever society he was cast he always preserved the same agreeable manner and the same droll sense of humour, while his judgment on all particular topics of the day was governed by sound common sense, as well as by a rigid sense of honour’.
It was remarked that ten days before his death the 6th Earl of Chesterfield was as handsome and agile as he had been twenty-five years previous ‘wending his way to Tattersall’s looking scarcely a day older than when he won the St Ledger with Don John and the Oaks with Industry’. The unmarried 7th Earl survived his father by five years and indirectly played a part in the rehabilitation of the dissolute Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) whose popularity had reached a nadir by 1870.
In 1871 the Earl and the heir were guests at a house party in Londesborough Lodge, Scarborough, and both fell dangerously ill. The Prince and the Earl of Chesterfield had contracted typhoid fever – blamed on vapours from the drains – from which the Earl died. The Prince of Wales recovered at Sandringham House though the nation was prepared for his death. The nation rejoiced led by Queen Victoria – whose husband the Prince Consort had died of typhoid fever – who attended a service of thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral.
With the death of the childless Earl, Bretby Hall passed to his mother the 6th Earl’s widow. When she died the estates went to her eldest grandson the future 5th Earl of Carnarvon. Carnarvon, also a Henry Poole & Co customer, sold-off Bretby to finance his excavations in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings that would lead to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. After the death of the 13th Earl of Chesterfield in 1967 the title became extinct.