On the way in to work this morning I managed to catch a few minutes of In Our Time on Radio 4 with Melvyn Bragg talking with experts about Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold published in 1824. My ears pricked up when I heard them mention Byron’s involvement with the Holland House Set. Well I do know a little bit about Charles James Fox, the Whig statesman who grew up at Holland House. He was the youngest son of Henry, 1st Baron Holland and Caroline, eldest daughter of the 2nd Duke of Richmond. They were well known for the tendency to spoil their sons, allowing them to mingle freely with public figures of the day who regularly dined at Holland House, the family home in Kensington. After the death of Henry in 1774, his eldest son, Stephen inherited the title for just a few months before he too died, leaving his only son, Henry to become 3rd Baron at the age of one.
It is he, Henry Richard Fox and his wife Elisabeth Vassall Fox who surrounding themselves with Whig politicians and well known writers of the day and loosely formed what became known as the Holland House Set, which was active between 1797-1845. The genius at the centre was of course Henry’s uncle, the brilliant orator and statesman, Charles James Fox. After his death in 1806, Henry felt it imperitive to keep alive the influence and memoryof his uncle. Some of the first members were Fox’s old friends, General Richard Fitzpatrick, Sir Robert Adair and James Hare. These were followed by Holland’s Eton and Oxford friends including George Howard, 6th Earl of Carlisle and Lord Archibald Hamilton. Though open to anyone with talent it is quite clear that most were aristoctratic and included the Richmonds, Leinsters, Carlisles and Sutherlands to whom he was related as well as the great whig families, the Spencers, Cavendishes and Fitzwilliams. Most were also members of Brooks, the whig club in St James’s. After the whigs came into office in the 1830’s many cabinet dinners were held at Holland House and it became the focus of government.
As well as politics there was also great interest in literature. Classical, Renaissance and Augustan was preferred to more contemporary work which mostly received short shrift. This led to bitter criticism of the set by George Gordon Noel Byron, 6th Baron Byron in English Bards & Scottish Reviewers in 1809. But the fame surrounding Byron was such that he was soon welcomed! Attempts to woo Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth were frustrated by both geography and politics.
As a political force the set really came to an end upon the unexpected death of Holland in 1840 but continued as a social circle until the death of his wife in 1845. It had been renowned in this country and throughout Europe considered to be on a par with the ‘salon’! Very few women were invited to join the set possibly as a consequence of Lady Holland’s influence. However two well-known women of the age were included; Emily Mary Temple, Viscountess Palmerston and her sister-in-law Caroline Lamb who satirised Holland House in Glenarvon in 1816 after she had fallen out with Lady Holland.
The set was never to be equalled, though the later Fox’s and Fox-Strangways’ continued to entertain right up until the Second World War when sadly in 1940 the house was gutted by German incendiary bombs.