How did young Elizabeth Gibbons born in Jamaica about 1704 come to be known as the “Queen of Hell “?
She was the only surviving child of William Gibbons and his wife Deborah Favell, and consequently heir to his plantations of Dry River and Bay Marazy in Vere, jointly known as Gibbons. At the age of about sixteen she was married to James Lawes, eldest son of Sir Nicholas Lawes who was Governor of Jamaica.
Sir Nicholas had come to Jamaica as a young boy his parents having suffered under Cromwell, and had built up a huge fortune. He introduced the growing of coffee to Jamaica, set up the first printing press, and married five widows (in succession I hasten to add). No children survived from the first three marriages but James and Temple Lawes were the sons of his fourth wife Susannah Temple who had previously been married to Samuel Bernard. His youngest surviving daughter was Judith Maria who married Simon Luttrell, Lord Carhampton.
By all accounts at a time when the Jamaican Assembly was a hotbed of rivalry, in frequent opposition to interference from Whitehall, and suffering from the problems of absenteeism and the sudden deaths of colonists, James Lawes was a difficult man to deal with. The Duke of Portland wrote that he left “nothing untry’d to create trouble”, complained of his unconventional behaviour and said that he would not allow his wife to pay any compliment to or visit the Governor’s wife. Either James reformed or he learned to play politics more effectively, for after a visit to England in 1732 he was appointed Lieutenant Governor as deputy to Sir Robert Hunter.
However Jamaica claimed him as yet another early death and his widow created an elaborate marble monument for him at the church of St Andrew, Halfway Tree, with the following inscription (translated from Latin):
Nearby are placed the remains of the Honourable James Lawes: he was the first-born son of Sir Nicholas Lawes, the Governor of this Island, by his wife Susannah Temple: He married Elizabeth, the only daughter and heiress of William Gibbons, Esq; then in early manhood, when barely thirty-six years of age, he obtained almost the highest position of distinction among his countrymen, being appointed Lieutenant Governor by Royal warrant; but before he entered on his duties, in the prime of life – alas – he died on 4th January 1733.
In him we lose an upright and honoured citizen, a faithful and industrious friend, and most affectionate husband, a man who was just and kind to all, and distinguished by the lustre of genuine religion. His wife, who survived him, had this monument erected to perpetuate the memory of a beloved husband.
Even allowing for conventional sentiments honouring the dead, there is nothing in this to suggest that it was anything other than a very happy marriage. There appear to have been no children, or at any rate no surviving children, and at some point in the next decade Elizabeth left Jamaica for good.
Nine years later on the 25th of December 1742 the widowed Elizabeth married William the Eighth Earl of Home (pronounced Hume). Curiously within eight weeks on the 24th of February 1743 he left her. There is apparently no record of why. It seems likely that he was some years younger than Elizabeth, and not impossible that she consented to a marriage of convenience to protect a young man whose sexual preferences lay with his own sex. If they had a blazing row it has not been recorded, and she remained on good terms with his family, remembering some of them in her Will.
William had been commissioned in the second Regiment of Dragoon Guards in 1732 and had fought against the Jacobites at Prestonpans in 1745. After leaving his wife he continued to pursue his military career. In 1750 he became colonel of the 48th (Northamptonshire) Regiment of Foot and in 1752 he became colonel of the 29th Regiment of Foot. In 1757 he was made Governor of Gibraltar and in 1759 he was promoted to Lieutenant General. He died at Gibralter on the 28th of April 1761.
Having acquired the title of the Countess of Home, and continuing to enjoy the wealth from her Jamaican estates, Elizabeth moved to a large house on the south side of Portman Square. However in spite of owning this recently built mansion, in 1773 she then proceeded to commission Robert Adam to build a particularly grand house on a very large plot on the north side of Portman Square and moved into it three years later. There she entertained lavishly, particularly the friends of the Duke of Cumberland and his wife Ann Luttrell, daughter of her sister-in-law Judith Maria Lawes.
Ann Luttrell, already a widow at twenty-eight was described as having “the most amorous eyes in the world and eyelashes a yard long; coquette beyond measure, artful as Cleopatra and completely mistress of her passions”, in other words in the eyes of the writer Horace Walpole, a gold digger. Lady Louisa Stuart called her vulgar, noisy, indelicate and intrepid. It may be the rumbustuous reputation of Ann’s sister Elizabeth, and Ann’s reputation for coarse language that contributed to Elizabeth Gibbons’ title as “Queen of Hell”. The name was bestowed on her by Elizabeth Montagu, wealthy bluestocking and coal heiress, who herself built the grand Montagu House on Portman Square and whose parties seem to have been of a rather different character from Elizabeth Gibbons’, excluding as they did either card playing or strong drink!
On the 16th of January 1784 twelve year-old Matthew Allen Lee wrote to his brother Richard Lee, who was in Hamburg, “the Dowager Lady Hume died the day before yesterday and left the great house in Portman Square with almost all her fortune to Billy Gale Mr Farquhar’s Ward who is lately gone to Jamaica, expects about 13 thousand pounds in Legacies.”
Billy, or William, Gale was at that time under age and only distantly related to Elizabeth Gibbons who was herself, in the manner of the Jamaican colonists of the period, related to half the most prominent island families.
The residuary legatee in the event of William’s death without children (as indeed happened) was Peter Dixon. William and Peter had a grandmother in common – Gibbons Morant who had married first Jonathan Gale and then Peter Sargeant. The most likely explanation for the connection of all of these to Elizabeth Gibbons is the marriage of John Morant (father of Gibbons Morant) to a sister of William Gibbons – but as this would have taken place some time in the 1690s in Jamaica I have not so far found a record to prove it.
If this seems complicated that’s because it is, and it is absolutely typical of researches into 18th-century Jamaica. Intermarriage between the main planter families, remarriages following the death of a partner and the desire to consolidate estates and keep them in family hands are all exemplified here.
As for why Elizabeth decided to build a second house on Portman square when she had a perfectly good one already, it seems likely that she was building it deliberately to house two very large full length portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland painted by Gainsborough. Adam’s drawings for the design of the house show space for the two portraits either side of a large fireplace in the upstairs ‘Capital Room’. In her Will Elizabeth offered to leave the portraits to the Lord Mayor of London for display in the Mansion House, with the proviso that if the Cumberlands requested it they should have the pictures back. There is no evidence the pictures ever hung in the Mansion House, and they are now in the Royal Collection. The Cumberlands were not flavour of the month with the King at the time and it may be that the City of London felt it politic not to accept pictures of one of the King’s sons who had married against his wishes and to his great displeasure.
The house was clearly very splendid and is described by its present occupants as Robert Adam’s finest surviving London town house .
“The interior is conceived as a series of grand reception rooms, beginning with a typically austere hall, leading to one of the most breathtaking “tour de forces” in European architecture; Adam’s Imperial staircase, which rises through the entire height of the house to a glass dome, revealing the sky above.
On the ground floor are the Front Parlour and Eating Room, the latter being decorated with symbolic paintings of banquets and the harvest by Zucchi, the husband of artist Angelica Kauffman. On the first floor is a series of ‘Parade Rooms’ featuring the Ante-room, the Music Room, the Great Drawing Room and finally, one of the most original rooms in England, the Countess’s Etruscan State Bedroom, whose pagan decorations derive from the excavations of Pompeii.”
For someone who had gained the title “Queen of Hell”, even if only in the popular press, Elizabeth seems to have taken great care not to forget any one of her friends, relations or servants in her Will. If she was indeed eccentric and outspoken, she was also kind and considerate in her many bequests and attempted to ensure that her Jamaican estates would be left to someone who would remain resident there.
 Lesley Lewis, Elizabeth Countess of Home, her House in Portman Square,The Burlington Magazine, Vol.109, No.773, August 1967, pp.443-453.
Photograph of Home House Dome By Rictor Norton & David Allen from London, United Kingdom (38 Home House) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons