The irrepressible Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater
PUBLISHED: 14:09 01 April 2020 | UPDATED: 13:24 03 April 2020
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A celebrated eccentric, academic and bon viveur, the eighth Earl of Bridgewater, who is buried at Little Gaddesden near the family seat of Ashridge House, left England for an often surreal existence in Paris. On the 260th anniversary of his birth this month, Peter Smith explores his intriguing life
A remarkable sight for Parisians at the end of the 18th century was that of a grand carriage setting out along the rue Saint-Honoré carrying several dogs reclining on silk cushions. When the carriage reached the large public park, the Bois de Boulogne, the dogs were given their daily exercise, and should the weather become inclement, their minders trotted alongside them with umbrellas.
The animals belonged to Francis Henry Egerton, eighth Earl of Bridgewater who was buried in Little Gaddesden in Hertfordshire, near his ancestral stately home, Ashridge.
Educated at Eton and Oxford, the earl forsook life in England to live with his dogs and cats in the French capital - purchasing a luxurous hotel at 335 rue Saint-Honoré, which he renamed Hotel Egerton. Just why he left the family mansion and its vast grounds in Hertfordshire is something of a mystery. While some of his friends said it was due to poor health, there were rumours that the impending birth of an illegitimate child may have been the real reason for his emmigration. His close friends were surprised at his decision to relocate to Paris though, as he regularly spoke of his ‘abiding hatred’ for the place.
Once there, however, his eccentricities flourished - with his dogs treated very well indeed, some said better than most humans. Each evening they were dressed for dinner by their personal footmen with handmade leather boots on their feet and linen napkins round their necks. They were seated at a table and expected to behave as any gentleman would, that is, ‘with decency and decorum’ as their meal was served on silver dishes.
On one occasion the behaviour of his two favourite dogs, Bijou and Biche, did not conform to their master’s high standards.
‘The blackguards have deceived me,’ thundered Egerton as he called for his tailor. ‘I have treated them like gentlemen and they have behaved like rascals. Take their measure, they shall wear for eight days the yellow coats and knee breeches of my valets and shall stay in the ante-room and be deprived of the honour of seeing me for a week.’
The earl’s eccentricities included a passion for his own footwear as well as for his dogs’. He wore a different pair every day of the year. Each evening, that day’s footwear was taken off and placed neatly beside those worn the previous day. Eventually, a whole room was filled with row upon row, all in correct date order and left in exactly the same state as when he took them off. This, he claimed, enabled him to calculate the date and, also, by the amount of mud and dust on each pair, to check what the weather had been like on any particular day. It never seemed to have occurred to him that keeping a diary would perhaps have been simpler and have taken up considerably less floor space.
Despite his outlandishness, Egerton was certainly no upper class twit. He was a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. Along with his dogs and boots, his great love was literature and his considerable fortune enabled him to obtain any volume. If he ever borrowed a book, it was returned in great style, placed in his carriage and escorted by four footmen in magnificent livery to the home of its often surprised owner.
In France it was said that he would only hold conversations in Latin because he never managed to master the intricacies of the French language. Yet, he had some of Milton’s works translated into French for the benefit of those in his adopted country and also ammassed an important collection of manuscripts on French and Italian literature. He was a prodigious author in his own right, writing 20 books, several of them on the Bridgewater genealogy.
A predecessor, the third Earl of Bridgewater, built the Bridgewater canal near Manchester to transport coal from his mines - creating the forerunner of the British canal system - and Egerton wrote a pamphlet urging the French to build a similar mode of transport for goods.
Few people got the better of Egerton, not even Napoleon Bonaparte. When Paris was in the process of being redesigned to meet the emperor’s vision, many streets were altered. But when Napoleon’s men arrived near the Hotel Egerton with the intention of altering the layout of the area, they were quickly sent packing. Later, when the Duke of Saxe-Coburg attempted to requisition the Hotel Egerton, he was met by Egerton himself along with 30 servants, all armed and ready to resist by force if required. Saxe-Coburg backed down.
One summer, Egerton decided that the whole household should move out of Paris to the country for a few months. For several weeks, his servants were engaged in packing all that was required. On the day of departure, no less than 16 luggage carriages and 30 servants on horseback left rue Saint-Honoré led by the earl and his dogs.
But before the day was out his neighbours were amazed to see the grand procession return. The party had stopped for lunch to find the quality of the food and service had not come up to the earl’s expectations. He decided he would be better off back at home with all its accompanying comforts.
One thing Egerton did miss from his homeland was the sport of hunting. In his usual grand and unabashed style he overcame this by importing an English huntsman, a pack of English hounds and an English fox. He then organised miniature hunts in the grounds of his hotel, fully decked out in his hunting pink.
The French accepted his strange behaviour, believing it to be nothing more than the normal activity of an English aristocrat. However, in later years, some didn’t take kindly to his stocking the grounds with partridge and pigeon and firing of shotguns for a spot of game shooting.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, given his obsessions, that the earl never married. When he died in February 1829 he left most of his estate to academic or charitable organisations. His collection of manuscripts, along with £12,000 to ensure they would be properly cared for, went to the British Museum where they remain today. Another £8,000 went to the Royal Society for the composing and publishing of essays on the theme The Goodness of God as manifested in the Creation. The eight works, encompassing a wide range of sciences, are known as the Bridgewater Treatises.
Egerton’s will, written four years before his death, also decreed that his house in Paris should be run as if he were still alive for two months after his death. In addition, each servant was to receive a morning suit, cocked hat and three pairs of the best worsted stockings.
The body of the 72-year old was brought back to England and buried in the family chapel at Saint Peter and Saint Paul church. His monument, constructed to his own design, shows a woman with a dolphin at her feet, an elephant at her side and a stork behind. The significance of the woman and the figures remains with the earl, as does why he didn’t include any of his beloved booted dogs.