Mrs. Montagu and the Chimney Sweeps

Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu

From The Days Before Yesterday by Lord Frederic Hamilton (1856)

"The story of Mrs. Montagu is well known. The large house standing in a garden at the corner of Portman Square and Gloucester Place was built for Mrs. Montagu by James Wyatt at the end of the eighteenth century, and the adjoining Montague Street and Montagu Square derive their names from her. Somehow Mrs. Montagu’s only son got kidnapped, and all attempts to recover the child failed. Time went on, and he was regarded as dead. On a certain 1st of May the sweeps arrived to clean Mrs. Montagu’s chimneys, and a climbing-boy was sent up to his horrible task. . . he lost his way in the network of flues and emerged in a different room to the one he had started from. Something in the aspect of the room struck a half-familiar, half-forgotten chord in his brain. He turned the handle of the door to the next room and found a lady seated there. Then he remembered. Filthy and soot-stained as he was, the little sweep flung himself into the arms of the beautiful lady with a cry of “Mother!” Mrs. Montagu had found her lost son.

"In gratitude for the recovery of her son, Mrs. Montagu entertained every climbing-boy in London at dinner on the anniversary of her son’s return and arranged that they should have a holiday on that day. At her death she left a legacy to continue the treat. Such, at least, is the story as I have always heard it."

Montagu House

Edwin Beresford Chancellor must have heard almost the same tale, for he writes in The History of the Squares of London: Topographical and Historical -

"Mrs. Montagu was one whose amiable character was almost better pleased in making happy those who were not invariably happy; and the feast to the chimney sweeps which she annually, on the 1st May, gave in the grounds of Montagu House, is an xemplification of this pleasant characteristic. That the sweeps — at that time, if not a dirtier, chimney-sweeping was a very much more terrifying, and often dangerous calling to its younger members — might enjoy one day of pure happiness in the year, she regaled them with beef and plum-pudding and gave them the run of her fine garden at Montagu House. There is a tradition that the origin of the idea was the kidnapping of a young Montagu — some say the son of Lady Mary Wortley — by chimney sweeps and his accidental return to his family, by a sweep employed to clean the chimneys of the house from which the child had many years before been stolen. If this be correct, the fraternity, had it been composed of logical minds, might well have deduced from such a return for such an act, almost an incentive to fresh depredations on the youthful offspring of their patrons."

The staircase at Montagu House

Beresford's take on the story is closer to the truth in the tale - if any truth there be - since Elizabeth's own son, John, born in 1743, died suddenly when he was about a year old and therefore could not have been later either lost or kidnapped. She had no other children. A leader of English society, Elizabeth Robinson was born at York on the 2nd of October 1720. In 1742 she married Charles Montagu, cousin of Edward Wortley Montagu and son of the Earl of Sandwich -- a wealthy man, considerably her senior. Thanks to her, his Mayfair house became the social center of intellectual society in London, and her breakfast parties and evening conversationes gained for her from her admirers the title of "The Madame du Deffand of the English capital." When her husband died in 1775, Mrs. Montagu inherited a considerable fortune and large estates, in the management of which she proved shrewd. In 1781 she built Sandleford Priory, near Newbury. Elizabeth Montagu died on the 25th of August 1800.