Romance of London: The Bluestocking and the Sweeps’ Holiday

Romance of London: Strange Stories, Scenes And Remarkable Person of the Great Town in 3 Volumes

John Timbs

John Timbs (1801-1875), who also wrote as Horace Welby, was an English author and aficionado of antiquities. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he was apprenticed at 16 to a druggist and printer, where he soon showed great literary promise. At 19, he began to write for Monthly Magazine, and a year later he was made secretary to the magazine’s proprietor and there began his career as a writer, editor, and antiquarian.

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Montague House, Portman Square

Montague House, Portman Square

Elizabeth Montague’s Bluestocking Parties

At the north-west angle of Portman Square is Montague House, built for Mrs. Elizabeth Montague, authoress of the Vindication of Shakespeare against Voltaire. She had often been a guest at the second Lord Oxford’s, the resort of Pope and his contemporaries; she was the intimate friend of Pulteney and Littleton; and she survived to entertain Johnson, Goldsmith, Burke, and Reynolds, to their respective deaths. Dr. Beattie was among her visitors; and Mrs. Carter, the translator of Epictetus, was her intimate friend, correspondent, and visitor. At Montague House Mrs. Montague had her blue stocking parties; and here she gave on the first of May, “Sweeps’ Holiday,” which originated in the discovery among the fraternity of chimney-sweeps, of the eccentric Edward Wortley Montague, ‘son of the famous Lady Mary Wortley Montague, by her husband, Edward Wortley.’

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with Her Son Edward. Lady Mary was the first to bring smallpox inoculation to Western medicine after her experiences in the Ottoman Empire.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with Her Son Edward. Lady Mary was the first to bring smallpox inoculation to Western medicine after her experiences in the Ottoman Empire.

Edward Wortley Montague

This hopeful boy was born at Wharncliffe Lodge, in Yorkshire, about the year 1714; he was sent to Westminster School, whence he ran away, and was more than a year apprentice to a fisherman at Blackwall; he was sent back to Westminster, again ran away, and bound himself to the master of an Oporto vessel, a Quaker, from whom he escaped immediately on landing. In one of these flights, he changed clothes with a chimney-sweep, and for some time followed that occupation. After a long and anxious search, he was discovered by his friends, and restored to his parents, on the first of May, at the family mansion in Portman Square.


A 1775 portrait of Edward Wortley Montagu by Matthew William Peters

He had also served an apprenticeship among a traveling troop of showmen, who were distinguished by their skill in horsemanship; then worked in the fields in Holland as a day-laborer; next hired himself as a postillion; he then assumed the attire of an abbot, and passed for one at Rome. He next then passed for a Lutheran preacher at Hamburg, and was universally popular! He subsequently embraced the Mahomedan religion, and conformed to all Turkish habits, even to chewing opium and sitting cross-legged on the floor! With the Hebrew, Arabic, the Persian, and the Chadic he was as well acquainted as his native tongue. He at one time returned to England, and acted more comformably to his rank, and was returned as a member in two successive parliaments… But Montague’s profuse expenses soon compelled him to quit his native country, and he again assumed his wandering habits, and eventually died at Padua, at the age of sixty-two years.

The First of May: A Day for Chimney Sweeps

CHIMNEY SWEEP. A chimney sweep and his young helper. Line engraving, English, 18th century.

CHIMNEY SWEEP. A chimney sweep and his young helper. Line engraving, English, 18th century.

To commemorate the restoration of the truant to his family, in the grounds attached to Montague House, his relative, Mrs. Elizabeth Montague, for many years feasted the chimney-sweeps of London, on the first of May, with roast-beef and plum-pudding, “so that they might enjoy one happy day in the year.” And this special treat is said to have given rise to the general sweeps’ holiday. Mrs. Montague died in the year 1800, in her 80th year.

Portrait of Elizabeth_Montagu (1718-1800) by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784) in 1762

Portrait of Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800) by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784) in 1762


Incidentally, chimney sweeps’ cancer is the first industrially-related cancer to be found (1775).


In honor of Sweeps’ Holiday:

Name any works of art, literature, movies, etc. that prominently feature chimney sweeps.


Romance of London Series

  1. Romance of London: The Lord Mayor’s Fool… and a Dessert
  2. Romance of London: Carlton House and the Regency
  3. Romance of London: The Championship at George IV’s Coronation
  4. Romance of London: Mrs. Cornelys at Carlisle House
  5. Romance of London: The Bottle Conjuror
  6. Romance of London: Bartholomew Fair
  7. Romance of London: The May Fair and the Strong Woman
  8. Romance of London: Nancy Dawson, the Hornpipe Dancer
  9. Romance of London: Milkmaids on May-Day
  10. Romance of London: Lord Stowell’s Love of Sight-seeing
  11. Romance of London: The Mermaid Hoax
  12. Romance of London: The Bluestocking and the Sweeps’ Holiday
  13. Romance of London: Comments on Hogarth’s “Industries and Idle Apprentices”
  14. Romance of London: The Lansdowne Family
  15. Romance of London: St. Margaret’s Painted Window at Westminster
  16. Romance of London: Montague House and the British Museum
  17. Romance of London: The Bursting of the South Sea Bubble
  18. Romance of London: The Thames Tunnel
  19. Romance of London: Sir William Petty and the Lansdowne Family
  20. Romance of London: Marlborough House and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
  21. Romance of London: The Duke of Newcastle’s Eccentricities
  22. Romance of London: Voltaire in London
  23. Romance of London: The Crossing Sweeper
  24. Romance of London: Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s Fear of Assassination
  25. Romance of London: Samuel Rogers, the Banker Poet
  26. Romance of London: The Eccentricities of Lord Byron
  27. Romance of London: A London Recluse

8 thoughts on “Romance of London: The Bluestocking and the Sweeps’ Holiday

  1. I love your pieces of information. The only thing I knew about May Day was dancing around the May Pole. What fun to learn that ii was also a day for chimney sweeps!


  2. Wonderful post! And wow don’t quiz me on it but a long time ago when I was on a Dickon’s kick my mom read Water Baby to me ( I think it was Water Baby) but it had a chimney sweep boy who drowned and turned into a water baby. That is also all I really remember about it 😦 and it made me sad.


  3. I enjoyed reading about May Day and the chimney sweeps. I also liked reading about how Edward kept running away and trying different occupations. I wish I could do that!


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