The motives of those who visited Leamington Priors during the early years of its expansion were many and varied. Some came in the expectation of improved health from taking the waters and many others arrived to indulge themselves on the hunting field or to immerse themselves in the social round of fashionable balls and banquets on offer to society’s upper echelons. A number of aristocratic families became regular visitors and according to Bissett, an early chronicler, two of them took houses for the season and later made their permanent home in the village spa. With the benefit of hindsight we can speculate on the reasons that might have brought them to Leamington Priors in the first decade of the nineteenth century
John Russell, sixth Duke of Bedford came with his family and entourage in 1808 exchanging albeit temporarily, the splendours of Woburn Abbey for the extensive building site that was Leamington Priors. Apart from a flair for politics, the Russells also had considerable business acumen, an aptitude not always displayed by the aristocracy. In today’s vocabulary John Russell would best be described as a property developer and the streets around Covent Garden in London are testament to his influence in that sphere. Having heard of the exciting plans for the expansion of Leamington, his Grace doubtless decided that he and his family might profitably gain from getting a bit of the action. As in other developing spa towns, entrepreneurs were attracted by the likely financial gains that could be made in their expansion.
Within a few years members of the Russell family owned property in Leamington and were engaged in a number of local businesses. They had set up a private bank and owned property on The Parade which was sold and became the Bedford Hotel, the first in the new town. Some of the Russells became architects, one became Town Surveyor and owner of the Bath Hotel and the coaching business operated from there, another was in business as an auctioneer. In a quiet and unobtrusive way the Russell family made a huge contribution to the life of Leamington in the early years. Although few people are aware of it, their close association lives on in the names of Russell Street/Terrace, Bedford Street, Tavistock Street and the old Covent Garden market. When Messrs Burgis and Colbourne set up their department store on the Parade it was named the Bedford Stores.
Jane Duchess of Gordon was a frequent visitor to Leamington in the early 1800’s and had a modest house built which still stands just off Russell Terrace at the rear of George Street. The seventeen year old Jane Maxwell married Alexander Gordon, fourth Duke of Gordon in 1767, he was 24. She was by all accounts a strikingly beautiful woman and a strong character and destined to become one of the most celebrated women in Scottish history. She entertained on a lavish scale at their Morayshire home Gordon Castle which the Duke enlarged to be one of the largest houses every built north of the border. It was in her drawing room there that Robbie Burns first read his poetry to Edinburgh society and she became his chief sponsor.
Jane Gordon was active in Tory politics and was at the heart of the social centre of the party and a close friend of Prime Minister William Pitt. During the French Revolutionary Wars it is recorded that the Duke of Gordon had great difficulty in raising recruits for his regiment, the Gordon Highlanders. The Duchess took it upon herself to drum up men for enlistment and she did this in a singular way. She rode out to country fairs wearing her version of the Highlander’s uniform and a large feathered hat, offering to kiss any man who took the King’s shilling and joined the regiment. She held the King’s shilling between her teeth and by such extraordinary means almost a thousand highlanders were recruited in no time at all.In 1787 the Duke and Duchess moved to London, renting houses in Downing Street, Pall Mall and St James’ Square, but by then the Duke openly kept a mistress at Gordon Castle and within two years he and Jane were estranged and their marriage effectively at an end. In her later years Jane Gordon became depressed and increasingly eccentric, leading a rather wandering and homeless existence and living mainly in hotels. Her Grace’s stay in Leamington was the source of many anecdotes.
It is said that one Sunday she was late for church at the old All Saints and finding every pew full and being unwilling to disturb the congregation, she quietly took up position on the bottom step of the stairs leading up to the singer’s gallery and remained there for the rest of the service. It was at Poultney’s Hotel in Piccadilly that she died in 1812 surrounded by her four daughters and surviving son. Her considerable efforts to find suitable husbands for her daughters saw three of them married to Dukes and the other to a Marquis. By a strange coincidence, her younger daughter Georgina had married John Russell the sixth Duke of Bedford mentioned in this article. Perhaps this family connection may account for Jane Gordon’s presence in Leamington? We will never know.
Alan Griffin 2013