Letters of George Selwyn: A selection from the collection in the Museum of Writing (with annotations by collector Alan Cole)
Exhibit Contents:


1. From George, 1st Lord Lyttleton.

2. From Rev John ‘Orator’ Henley.

3. From Lord Leveson Gower.

4. From Madame A.C. Perronet.

5. From George James (‘Gilly’)Williams..

6. From J. Sargent.

7. From Lady Ossory.

8. From Madame La Marquise de Stainville.

9. From Charles Townshend, n.d..

10. From George Selwyn

11. From George Selwyn

12. From the Earl of Egremont

13. From Maria Gunning

14. From Monsieur Dunon

15. From Mr. Rogers

16. From Sir Charles Bunbury

17. From Lady Diana Spencer

18. From Lady Diana Spencer

19. From Maria Gunning

Exhibit Home

The Letters from a Collector's Point of View:

The first items for my collection were a Parker51 fountain pen that I purchased with my first salary, a manuscript repaired with earlier ones and a letter purported to have been written by the secretary of Charles Dickens. In fact the latter turned out to have been written by Dickens and my luck in buying interesting items continued from then on.

During my lunch-break whilst working for a French bank in the City (London) in the late 50s, early 60s, I used to go to an auction house, since bought out by Sotheby's, where I purchased a number of individual letters and the odd manuscript. One day I was looking at an autograph album begun in the late 18thC containing pages of autograph letters and a few relevant envelopes, pre-stamped and stamped, sold together with two later albums. A dealer saw me and said that he was interested in the stamped envelopes, but not the rest and wondered if we could go 50/50 on the purchase up to an agreed amount. I thought about it for one nanosecond and said Yes. He went to the auction and won the bid. £50 at the time. He got half a dozen envelopes that he had removed before I had looked at it closely and for £25 I got around six hundred letters including Nelson, Dickens, Tennyson, all the royal family from George 1 to Victoria and her children plus many famous political, military, religious and literary figures from 1680 to 1860 and the George Selwyn archive.

I reckoned that I had the better choice, until I heard that on the envelopes were an unknown Mauritius deep-blue, two pence Post Office stamp of 1847 and a rare blue Woodblock Cape of Good Hope stamp; the first is now worth millions! Mind you, he did leave one Cape of Good Hope triangular that is now in a friend's collection.

The album was begun by Augusta, a god-daughter of the 4th Earl of Carnarvon. Many of the titled class collected autographs and the majority had a visitor's book that they passed around at conversazziones and soirées to impress their visitors.

Apart from the National archives and a couple of other public collections, this is the most comprehensive gathering of Selwyn correspondence. He is a fascinating person and I am still on the lookout for more such material.

Some of the letters were a little difficult to translate due to the writing, either faded or illegible, the grammar and the variety of spellings. If any reader finds any errors, please let me know and I will willingly correct them

Alan Cole



George Augustus Selwyn was a Wit and acknowledged leader of society who, it was said, had "divided the empire of the fashionable world with Lord Chesterfield." He was born in London in 1719, the son of Colonel John Selwyn one-time Aide-de-Camp to the Duke of Marlborough and later Treasurer to Queen Caroline. George's mother was herself known for her remarkable wit combined with talent and beauty. Their family seat was Matson, a country house overlooking the City of Gloucester, but George did not set his eyes on it until he was in his twenties as most of his early life was spent at his father's address in Cleveland Court, St James's in London.

Selwyn was educated at Eton where he first met Horace Walpole, a lifelong friend, and the poet Gray. He matriculated at Hart Hall Oxford in 1739 and the following year he obtained the post of Clerk of the Irons and Surveyor of the Meltings at the Mint, thanks to his father's influence. His duties were performed by a deputy, as was customary in those days, and his knowledge of the Mint was acquired at the weekly dinners there, for which the country paid him handsomely.

In 1745 Selwyn was expelled from Oxford for a performance which the dignitaries held to be "a profanation of the most sacred act of the Christian religion." Although the net income from his two sinecures and his father's allowance only amounted to about £220 a year, he was a leading member of Society both in London and in Paris. In fact, in his early days, he was better known in Paris and, thanks to his association with the infamous Madame du Deffand, was noticed by the Queen of Louis XV so as to give rise to scandal.

On the untimely deaths of his father and elder brother in 1751 Selwyn inherited the family property. Three years later he became Member of Parliament for the City of Gloucester, a seat which he held for twenty-six years. This position enabled him to nominate the two members for Ludgershall in Wiltshire, which added £9,000 to his fortune. Although Selwyn had a seat in Parliament for nearly fifty years, he hardly ever made a speech and whenever possible escaped when others were making theirs. A friend was just entering the House in time to meet Selwyn hurrying out. "Is the House up?", enquired his friend. "No," replied Selwyn, "but Burke is!" He tended to fall asleep during debates, as did his leader Lord North, and when he was not asleep he kept the House amused by snoring in unison with his sonorous leader.

He was appointed Paymaster of Works in 1755, a lucrative post that he held for seventeen years. Despite his official duties he still spent much time in Paris and whilst there received invitations from all the leaders of Society, including the Duc de Choiseul, Duc d'Orleans, Comtesse de Bentheim, and the Duc de Polignac, who passes on the "mille compliments du Marechal Richelieu."

Selwyn's wit seems to have been so spontaneous as not to have survived other than in anecdotes related in letters between his friends. Once when entering White's club he saw James Jeffries winning at piquet against the Postmaster General, Sir Everard Fawkener, and exclaimed, "Look there is Jeffries robbing the mail!" When asked by his friend Lady Coventry whether he admired a new dress covered with silver spangles as large as shillings, he answered, "It looks like change for a guinea."

Selwyn was fascinated by executions and on a day when a namesake of his great friend the famous Charles James Fox was to be hanged at Tyburn, on being asked whether he was going to attend, he replied, "No. I make a point of never frequenting rehearsals." He once journeyed to Paris for the express purpose of seeing Damien broken on the wheel. On arrival he was unable to get close enough for a good view. He protested, explaining that he had come all the way from London to witness the event and was asked if he was an executioner. He said that he was not, he was an fan. Immediately a path to the front was cleared for him with one of the officials calling out, "Faites place pour monsieur; il est Anglais et un amateur!" ["Make way for the gentleman; he is English and an enthusiast!"]. As a final example of his renowned morbid pleasure in charnel houses and corpses, his old friend Lord Holland whilst lying on his death-bed said, "The next time Mr Selwyn calls, show him up. If I am alive, I shall be delighted to see him; and if I am dead, he will be delighted to see me."

George Selwyn died in 1791, in time to see his beloved France in turmoil and bloody revolution. Much of the blood spilled was that of many of his correspondents; the Duc d'Orleans outlived him by two years and was guillotined in 1793 with Marie-Antoinette, and the Duc de Choiseul followed the same path on 4th May 1794. In the light of events, the last paragraph of Madame Du Deffand's letter to an English correspondent dated "Paris le 16 Avril 1768, in my private collection, in which she talks of the communion of Voltaire 'an atheist, is all the more poignant, when you consider it was written only twenty-one years before the storming of the Bastille. "Adieu mon chère Monsieur, Je désire de vous revoir mais Je ne m' en flatte guères; nous sommes si froid, si indolent, que nous devons parôitre bien ennuyeux a ceux de votre Nation, qui sont accoutumés aux troubles et a l'agitation" [Farewell my dear sir, I wish to see you again but I do not hold out much hope; we are so cold, so indolent, that we must appear boring to those of your Nation, who are so accustomed to disorder and revolution."]

Biographical notes compiled by Alan Cole.

Alan Cole, bio note: After having worked in a French bank in the UK and France, graduated as a mature student in Early/Middle English & Early/Middle French - most of which I have forgotten other than bits of Beowulf that flit around my mind. Obsessed about all aspects of writing and travel, closely followed by photography and archaeology. My collection of writing-related items has become the Museum of Writing Research Collection in the IES, University of London in 2010. I was fortunate to be allowed to design and convene the first ever complete university MA courses on the history of writing and I teach regularly for the LRBS and PSS. I have talked and written widely on writing, travel, international trade and John Ruskin.