Though the exact date is unknown, it was two centuries ago, in 1814, that the infamous and notorious Sir John Lade was released from debtor’s prison, where he had spent several months. Though he had been heir to an enormous fortune in his youth, Sir John Lade had managed to burn through it over the course of a wild and unconventional life. Eventually, he was unable to continue putting off his creditors, and they had him incarcerated for his many debts. But despite his reckless life, Lade had made a number of loyal friends, and they were able to convince one of the most powerful men in the country to come to his aid.
Sir John Lade’s path to prison . . .
Baby John was the second Baronet Lade from the moment of his birth, in August of 1759, since his father, the first Baronet, died before he was born. He also inherited his father’s vast fortune, derived from the brewing industry. His uncle, the MP Henry Thrale, was also a wealthy brewer, whose wife was the diarist and patron of the arts, Hester Thrale. John’s mother, Henry Thrale’s sister, regularly sought advice in the raising of her son from a family friend, Dr. Samuel Johnson, the noted, if rather eccentric, man of letters. Though Dr. Johnson held a very low opinion of the young man’s intellectual powers, he advised Lady Lade to endeavour to provide her son with a sound education. She attempted to do so, but young John disappointed both his mother and the famous lexicographer. He was a very poor student and never took advantage of the education which was provided for him.
When he attained his majority at the age of twenty-one, Sir John Lade also gained full control of his enormous fortune. This event inspired Dr. Johnson to write a poem, To Sir John Lade, on His Coming of Age, in which he predicted a sorry end for the young man. It is certain that Sir John Lade took full advantage of his wealth as soon as it was in his power to do so. Gambling was one of his favorite pastimes, though he never ignored women or alcoholic beverages. But his primary interest was always horses.
Sir John soon gained a reputation as a knowledgeable judge of fine horses. He also became a noted whip and was so expert with the reins that he was considered by many to be the finest driver and horseman in all of England. He earned the nickname Jehu for his driving skill. Lade was also one of the founders of the famous Four-in-Hand Club, though he is reputed to have regularly driven a team of six matched greys. It was not long before he attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales, also an avid horseman. They became such good friends that Lade was seen from time to time driving the Prince’s prized six-horse hitch of matched bays along the London to Brighton road, with the Prince on the box beside him.
However, it was not enough for Sir John Lade to drive with the skill of the best of the Royal Mail coachmen. He also chose to dress like them, wearing the garb of a typical mail coachman, or riding clothes, almost all of the time, even in formal social settings. It is also said that he carried a whip nearly everywhere he went. Part of his practical, if rather negligent, style of dressing was the simple knot in which he typically tied his cravat. That knot was copied by the members of the Four-in-Hand club and came to be known as the Four-in-Hand knot. Perhaps ironically, that same knot is still used today by many men when they tie their neckties, usually to be worn with a suit. There were other horse-mad gentlemen who came to ape Sir John Lade’s style of dressing, but few of them went as far as he did to emulate the top coachmen. Lade also had his front teeth filed, as many of them did, so that he could mimic the special loud whistle they could make through the spaces in their teeth. Only a few other gentlemen of the time went so far as to have their own teeth filed like Sir John.
Lade definitely enjoyed driving teams of horses, but he was very interested in racehorses as well. He was aquatinted with the notorious Irishman, Dennis O’Kelley, the owner of the famous racehorse, Eclipse. Sir John also bought and sold a number of racehorses himself. Perhaps the most notable was Medley, a handsome grey stallion who won eleven plate races and two match races while he was owned by Sir John. When Medley’s racing career was over, Lade sold him to Richard Tattersall, the famous horse dealer. Tattersall sold Medley on to a breeder in Virginia, after the ban on the importation of English horses had been lifted in the United States. The grey stallion, who could trace his bloodline back to the Godolphin Arabian through both his sire and his dam, went on to become one of the most important sires in America in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Unfortunately for Sir John Lade, though he did have a good eye for prime horseflesh, he was not always so wise when it came to betting on horse races. He often lost large sums at race meetings. Initially, Lade’s vast fortune could cover his gambling losses and he continued to bet heavily with little concern for the financial outcomes.
Horse races were not the only events on which Sir John Lade was willing to lay a wager. He bet on just about anything which took his fancy, especially if it involved a demonstration of his own skill. He bet on his ability to drive the off-side (left) wheels of his phaeton over a six pence piece. On another occasion, he wagered that he could drive a full four-in-hand rig and team around the confined space of Tattersall’s sales yard at Hyde Park Corner. One day in Brighton, Sir John bet he could carry the tall and burley Lord Cholmondley on his back, from a mark opposite the Royal Pavilion, twice around the Steine. But at the appointed time, Lade demanded that Cholmondley strip off before he attempted to carry him. Cholmondley refused to remove his clothes, but Lade replied that he had only engaged to carry Cholmondley, but not his clothes and again demanded that he strip. Several ladies had heard of the planned feat of the small man carrying the large one and were in attendance as spectators. After some argument, Cholmondley, unwilling to be seen naked in public, particularly in front of a group of ladies, conceded the bet to Lade. This particular wager became the subject of multiple lewd caricatures.
Though Sir John won a large percentage of his many bets, he did not win all of the them. And most of his wagers were for substantial sums. He usually settled his debts once each quarter on Monday, at Tattersall’s. Lade came to refer to those days as "Black Monday." There was also another drain on his resources. Sir John married the equally notorious Letitia Derby, who had been the mistress of the infamous highwayman, "Sixteen String Jack" Rann until he was captured and hung. She was later under the protection of the Duke of York, until she was introduced to Sir John Lade. She enjoyed riding and driving as much as Lade, and eventually they were married. They were two of a kind, and Lady Lade laid as many wagers as did her husband. They had both become great favorites with the Prince Regent and they regularly traveled in exalted social circles, not an inexpensive way to live. Sir John had also begun dabbling in the promotion of theatrical productions, few of which were successful.
Inevitably, Lade’s spendthrift lifestyle caught up with him, and in 1814, his many creditors had him committed to King’s Bench debtors prison. Even though he had been imprisoned for debt, Lade still had enough money to be allowed "the liberty of the rules." That is, he was allowed to live in one of the houses outside the main prison, but adjacent to it. By the terms of the prison marshal, as a "ruler," he was forbidden from entering any taverns or theatres, but otherwise, he could live a relatively normal life, though travel was restricted. Lady Lade was loyal to her husband and she took up residence with him in his rooms near the prison. Sir John and Lady Lade were regularly visited by their friends. In addition, they made the acquaintance of several other prominent debtors, including Lady Emma Hamilton and Mr. William Taylor, the manager of the Opera House. Apparently, these gatherings could become quite exuberant, fueled by the generous consumption of wine. It is reported that one evening, after too much drinking, Mr. Taylor tried to take advantage of Lady Lade. Not a woman to tolerate any attempt on her person, Lady Lade doused him with the contents of a boiling kettle. This had the desired effect of "cooling" him down and bringing him to his senses. There is no record Taylor ever again tried to take such liberties with Lady Lade.
Lady Lade was free to come and go as she pleased, but she would not desert her husband. Though the Lades’ life was nowhere near as uncomfortable and unpleasant as was that of the regular inmates of King’s Bench Prison, it did not allow them the complete freedom to which they were accustomed. After a few months, the novelty, such as it was, had worn off and they became increasingly eager to regain their freedom. Several of their wealthier friends contributed to the payment of the bulk of Sir John’s debts. They also urged the Prince Regent to come to the aid of his long-time friend. Sir John and Lady Lade were two of the Regent’s most disreputable friends, and perhaps because of that, he made the effort to help them. Once Lade was freed from King’s Bench late in 1814, he was made the Regent’s official driving tutor, with a salary of £300 per year. Either to save face for Lade, or to hide the expense from the government, the bank drafts were made out to the "Reverend Dr. Tolly."
Once they left debtors prison, the Lades did significantly curtail their extravagant lifestyle. Though they still attended several race meetings each year, there were no longer any enormous wagers laid. They began to spend more time on Lade’s stud farm in Sussex and less time in London or Brighton with others of the Carlton House set, which helped to reduce their expenses. By the time the Regency came to a close and George IV had become king, they were seldom seen in London. Over the years, George remained loyal to them, though they no longer spent much time with him, and, as king, his time was consumed with affairs of state. He not only continued their annual pension, but he raised it to £400 and eventually to £500. Lady Lade passed away in 1825, during the reign of George IV. But her husband lived on, mostly at his stud farm, until 1838. Remarkably, both William IV and Queen Victoria continued paying his pension, so he was able to live fairly comfortably in his retirement.
So, in 1814, two centuries ago this year, the wild lifestyle of Lord and Lady Lade came to a rather abrupt end. The pair spent several months in the rules of King’s Bench Prison, before they were freed by the efforts of their friends. They were able to survive after their release on a pension provided to them by the Prince Regent, which he continued to the end of their lives. They may have had some small income from the stud farm which Sir John had inherited from his father, but it would not have been enough to support them, even after they began to economize. Despite his wild and disreputable lifestyle, Sir John Lade lived to the ripe old age of seventy-nine years.
That same year, 1814, also marked the beginning of the gradual decline of the heyday of the Regency rake. Beau Brummell had already fallen out with the Regent and would flee England a little over a year later to escape his many debts. Within the next few years, other rakes would be confined to debtors prisons or retire to the country on lengthy "repairing leases" due to their heavy debts and/or failing health. A few were happily married and had settled into lives of harmonious domesticity. And somehow, the next generation of rakes were just not as rakish or flamboyant as those who had come of age before the Regency began.