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date: 10 August 2020

Holland House setfree

(act. 1797–1845)
  • C. J. Wright

Holland House set (act. 1797–1845), was a brilliant circle of whig politicians and men of letters which flourished around Henry Richard Fox, third Baron Holland, and his remarkable wife, Elizabeth Vassall Fox, Lady Holland, at their magnificent Jacobean mansion at Kensington, two miles west of Marble Arch. Holland House itself played a significant role in the development of the set. It was built c.1605 for Sir Walter Cope, father-in-law of Henry Rich, first earl of Holland, from whose descendants it was purchased by Holland's grandfather, Henry Fox, first Baron Holland. The family title, though nominally referring to Lincolnshire, was, in fact, derived from the London house.

The Foxes were a new family and Holland was singular for a member of his class in possessing no country seat until inheriting Ampthill in Bedfordshire in 1818 from his uncle, John Fitzpatrick, second earl of Upper Ossory. Winterslow, the Wiltshire house of his father, Stephen Fox, the second baron, had been destroyed by fire in 1774, shortly before Holland succeeded to the title, aged only one, and had never been rebuilt. In fact, he disliked country life and his concentration on political and intellectual pursuits, which his wife determined to provide for him, was the impetus for the set. The Hollands took up residence in the house after their marriage in July 1797. The first entries in their dinner books date from May 1799 (BL, Add. MS 51950). When the set was already well established, Emily Eden observed, in May 1833,

Lady Holland has certainly organised a good system of society—ten people every day at dinner, and a few in the evening, and there is always an author for the good of one's mind, and a doctor to prevent one's dropping down dead, and the rest are people who know each other well, and have the same politics.

Swinton, 44

The presiding genius of the set was Holland's uncle and mentor, the whig statesman Charles James Fox. Following Fox's death in 1806, Holland dedicated himself to keeping his uncle's memory and influence alive. After the Napoleonic wars a cast of the monumental statue of the statesman by Sir Richard Westmacott was erected in the entrance hall of the house. Some of the earliest members of the set were Fox's old friends, General Richard FitzPatrick, Lord Robert Spencer (1747–1831), Lord John Townshend (1757–1833), James Maitland, eighth earl of Lauderdale, Sir Robert Adair, and James Hare. Others were Eton or Oxford friends of Holland such as George Howard, sixth earl of Carlisle, Robert ‘Bobus’ Percy Smith, John Hookham Frere (despite his toryism), and Lord Archibald Hamilton. Though open to anyone of talent, the core of the set—as radicals and Benthamites were apt to observe of the whigs in general—was markedly aristocratic in character. Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, third marquess of Lansdowne, was Holland's first cousin, and John Russell, sixth duke of Bedford, the father of Lord John Russell, later first Earl Russell, his second. The Richmonds, Leinsters, Sutherlands, and Carlisles were also kinsmen, while the other great whig families such as the Cavendishes, Fitzwilliams, and Spencers were frequent guests and Charles Grey, second Earl Grey, was one of Holland's closest friends.

It was only natural that many members of the set, including such acute observers of the political scene as Charles Cavendish Fulke Greville and Thomas Creevey, should also belong to Brooks's, the whig club in St James's Street. Indeed, for lengthy periods the existence of the set gave coherence to the ramshackle organization of the whig party. George Ponsonby, leader of the party in the Commons, 1808–17, and his successor George Tierney, leader, 1817–21, received support and encouragement from Holland and his circle. However, whig divisions were also reflected. The Grenvilles were only semi-detached members, while the erratic Henry Peter Brougham, first Baron Brougham and Vaux, absented himself for many years. The whig split of 1827, when Holland and Lansdowne supported Canning and Goderich to the consternation of Grey and others, might have caused a serious rift in the set had it not proved so short-lived. After the whigs came into office in the 1830s, under Grey and then, from 1834, William Lamb, second Viscount Melbourne, cabinet dinners were frequently held at Holland House and the set became a focus of government and diplomacy.

The whig hostility to religious disabilities meant that both nonconformists and Roman Catholics looked to Holland House for support, but with rare exceptions, such as Charles Howard, eleventh duke of Norfolk, who had, in fact, conformed to Anglicanism, and Sir Edward Charles Blount, few belonged to the set itself. However, the lengthy struggle for Catholic emancipation, finally achieved in 1829, and family links—Lord Edward Fitzgerald had been the cousin of Holland's father—led to many liberal Irish being members. The Fitzgeralds and Petty-Fitzmaurices were close relatives but among other great ascendancy families the Ponsonbys, represented by Frederick Ponsonby, third earl of Bessborough, and his son John William Ponsonby, Viscount Duncannon (later fourth earl of Bessborough), were prominent in the set, as later was Thomas Spring Rice, first Baron Monteagle. Henry Grattan, the leading Irish statesman of his day, also belonged to the circle, as did William Conyngham Plunket, first Baron Plunket, and John Philpot Curran.

In an age which witnessed growing religious fervour, whether evangelical, tractarian, or even Irvingite, the core of the set remained mostly committed to the ideals of the Enlightenment, and its interest in piety was purely political. As Greville remarked, 'Everybody knew that … [Holland] House was sceptical … they went on as if there was no such thing as religion' (Greville Memoirs, 5.87). Indeed, the Scot John Allen (1771–1843), originally engaged by Holland as a doctor but soon his indispensable confidant, was an avowed atheist. However, at a period when the Church of England was predominantly tory, the set provided a rare haven for clerical whigs. Samuel Parr, the ‘whig Dr Johnson’, was an honoured guest and the wit and controversialist Sydney Smith, the brother of ‘Bobus’, a habitué. There was widespread regret that when they finally came to power the whigs lacked the courage to make him a bishop, although Holland himself kept lists of liberal clergymen for preferment. Edward Maltby, a protégé of Parr, and Philip Nicholas Shuttleworth, tutor to Holland's son Henry, were both given sees. The rising religious seriousness and enthusiasm of his younger whig friends, such as John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp (later third Earl Spencer), Charles William Wentworth Fitzwilliam, Viscount Milton (later fifth Earl Fitzwilliam), George William Frederick Howard, Viscount Morpeth (later seventh earl of Carlisle), and Henry George Grey, Viscount Howick (later third Earl Grey), was viewed by Holland with the same puzzled amusement he reserved for the piety of his aunts, Elizabeth Armitstead, the wife of Charles James Fox, and Lady Upper Ossory, both women who had enjoyed dubious pasts.

The set's interest in literature—the library at Holland House was extensive and well used—embraced the classics, the Renaissance, and the Augustan period. The glamour of the house was enhanced by its association with the essayist and statesman Joseph Addison, who had lived and died there. Its attitude to contemporary writing was more problematic. The playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan was also a leading whig politician, though after his death his family remained welcome, not least his granddaughter, the poet Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton. John Allen established the set's close links with the young Scottish whigs around Francis Jeffrey, Lord Jeffrey, and the Edinburgh Review, of whom Francis Horner became a particular favourite. One consequence was a savage attack on Holland and his circle by George Gordon Noel Byron, sixth Baron Byron, in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) but, such was the poet's fame, a reconciliation took place and Byron was soon welcomed into the set. Attempts to recruit Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth were largely frustrated by geography and politics, though the Hollands were prepared to investigate Dickens, despite disapproving of his popular subject matter, not least his satire on the relationship of Lord Melbourne and Mrs Norton in Pickwick Papers. Holland's favourite poet was George Crabbe. The 'cockney school' of John Keats, James Henry Leigh Hunt, and William Hazlitt appears to have been disregarded on social grounds. Of the poets who were admitted, Thomas Moore, a pensioner of Lansdowne, and Thomas Campbell both felt patronage was too akin to being patronized. Much more at home was Samuel Rogers, heir to a banking fortune. The set was also seasoned with a good number of wits and characters, not least Henry Luttrell, Richard ‘Conversation’ Sharp, John Whishaw (1764/5–1840), and William Arden, second Baron Alvanley (1789–1849).

The circle's connection with historians was more firmly grounded and was chiefly motivated by politics. Fox himself had begun writing what might have served as a historical justification of the whig party from the revolution of 1688 onwards, the fragment printed by Holland in 1808 as A History of the Early Part of the Reign of James the Second. Holland himself intended to publish his uncle's life and papers. On his death, this task, eventually accomplished by Lord John Russell, was taken over by John Allen. Sir James Mackintosh, who was working on a history of England since the revolution, actually lived for lengthy periods both at Holland House and Ampthill. Unfortunately his labours never approached completion and it was left to a younger recruit to the set, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron Macaulay, to establish what later became known as ‘the whig interpretation of history’. Another whig historian, Henry Hallam, was a frequent guest and the Hollands even reached out to George Grote, a radical whose liberal interpretation of classical Greek history was later to supplant the tory views of John Mitford. Philip Henry Stanhope, Lord Mahon (later fifth Earl Stanhope), well known as a historian in his own day, was welcome despite his conservative politics. Antiquaries and medievalists such as Sir Francis Palgrave were also members of the set.

The Hollands and their friends had a strong interest in continental politics. Lord and Lady Holland knew France well and had lived for several years in Spain, whose literature Holland helped introduce to Britain. Accordingly Holland House became a mecca for distinguished visitors, such as Mme de Staël, and foreign scholars, as well as a refuge for liberal exiles of all sorts. The most famous was probably the Italian poet Ugo Foscolo. Some, such as Guiseppe Binda and Joseph Blanco White, the most unwilling tutor of Holland's son, Henry, were found a role in the house itself. Others, like Sir Anthony Panizzi and Felipe Bauza, received help and encouragement. Few of the set would have followed the Hollands in their notorious sympathy for Napoleon though all welcomed the establishment of the July monarchy in France in 1830. The new king of the French, Louis Philippe, was a long-standing friend of the Hollands. He had first dined with them in June 1802. Talleyrand, French ambassador in London, 1830–34, was an even older acquaintance: Holland had known him since 1791. It was, consequently, only natural for Talleyrand and his successors to become intimates of the house. Holland's uncritical support for France, which he saw as a bulwark of liberalism against the despotism of Austria and Russia, led to increasingly sharp disagreements in cabinet, which came to a climax in 1840 when Holland and his colleague George William Frederick Villiers, fourth earl of Clarendon, tried unsuccessfully to resist the hard line against French policy in the Near East actively pursued by the foreign secretary, Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston. However, these very real disagreements barely rippled the surface of the set.

Lord Holland died unexpectedly on 22 October 1840 after only a day's illness; his widow wrote in the dinner book 'This wretched day closes all the happiness Refinement and hospitality within the walls of Holland House' (BL, Add. MS 51957, fol. 68). It was effectively the end of the set as a political force, though as a social circle it survived until the death of Lady Holland herself in 1845. Usually seen as the nearest approach to a continental 'salon' ever known in Britain, it was celebrated across Europe. Its strengths and weaknesses reflected the personalities of Lord and Lady Holland themselves. The latter's hypochondria accounted for the plethora of medical men, while her preference for male company partly explained the relatively small role played by women. Notable exceptions were Emily Mary Temple, Viscountess Palmerston, and her sister-in-law, Lady Caroline Lamb. Lady Caroline quarrelled with Lady Holland and satirized Holland House in Glenarvon (1816). Although the fame of the set was never to be equalled, later generations of the Fox and Fox-Strangways families continued to entertain at Holland House until the outbreak of the Second World War. On the night of 27–8 September 1940 the house was gutted by German incendiary bombs. After the war much of the surviving structure was demolished and the grounds turned into a public park.


  • papers of the third Lord and Lady Holland, BL, Holland House MSS, Add. MSS 51520–51957
  • The Greville memoirs, 1814–1860, ed. L. Strachey and R. Fulford, 8 vols. (1938)
  • Earl of Ilchester [G. S. Holland Fox-Strangways], The home of the Hollands, 1605–1820 (1937)
  • Lord Holland [H. R. V. Fox] and J. Allen, The Holland House diaries, 1831–1840, ed. A. D. Kriegel (1977)
  • Earl of Ilchester [G. S. Holland Fox-Strangways], Chronicles of Holland House, 1820–1900 (1937)
  • L. Mitchell, Holland House (1980)
  • Princess Marie Liechtenstein, Holland House, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1874)
  • L. Sanders, The Holland House circle (1908)
  • D. Hudson, Holland House in Kensington (1967)
  • Mrs J. R. Swinton, A sketch of the life of Georgiana, Lady de Ros (1893)
British Library, London