Background and early life
Sarah Sophia Fane was born on 4 March 1785. She was the daughter of John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland and his first wife, with whom he had eloped in 1782, Sarah Anne Child. Sarah Anne’s father had died in the same year, and rather than see his fortune fall into the Westmorland line, he had settled his estate so that it would pass over Sarah Anne and be inherited by her child. Thus Sarah Sophia was from birth a very substantial heiress, and on her 21st birthday in 1806 inherited an annual income of around £60,000, as well as her grandfather’s estate at Osterley Park, Middlesex.
Sarah Sophia used her looks, wealth and forthrightness to great effect and was a well known hostess and social figure. She entertained regularly at her houses at 38 Berkeley Square, London; Osterley Park, Middlesex; and Middleton Park, Oxfordshire.
In her youth Sarah Sophia was considered a great beauty, and attracted much attention from portrait painters of the day. Mrs (Anne) Mee included her in a series of miniature portraits of fashionable beauties commissioned by the Prince Regent in 1814, and when the picture was rejected by the Prince, the poet Lord Byron composed for her a ‘condolatory address’. Sarah Sophia was a supporter of Byron during his difficulties in 1814-5, and offered him refuge at Middleton Park.
She was one of the Lady Patronesses of the highly exclusive Almack's Assembly Rooms at St James, London. Almack’s, founded in 1765, was one of the first clubs to admit both men and women. As one of the 6 or 7 Lady Patronesses on the governing committee, Sarah Sophia exerted great influence in Regency society.
She also had definite political views and did not shy away from expressing them. For many years she supported the Whig party and openly championed the cause of Queen Caroline when George IV sought to divorce her. By the end of the 1820s she was aligned with the Tory party, becoming a great supporter of the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel. Her eldest son, George, married Julia, Peel's daughter. She opposed the Great Reform Bill in 1832.
Sarah Sophia is said to have inspired several characters in Victorian fiction, including Lady Augusta in Lady Caroline Lamb's Glenarvon (1816), Lady St Julians in Benjamin Disraeli's Coningsby (1844) and Sybil (1845), and Zenobia in Disraeli’s Endymion (1880). In response to the unflattering portrayal in Glenarvon, she had Lamb excluded from Almack’s.
Sarah Sophia’s influence declined in the 1840s, particularly after Lady Emily Cowper, fellow Almack’s patroness and one of her great rivals on the social scene, married Prime Minister Lord Palmerston in 1839.
In 1793, when Sarah Sophia was eight years old, both her mother and her grandmother died. Sarah Sophia was left the senior partner of Child & Co, the family bank, although she was unable to act in her own right until her 21st birthday.
In 1806, when she turned 21, the bank’s custom of annually ‘casting up the shop’ (balancing the books) was moved from 2 October to 4 March, Sarah Sophia’s birthday. From then on, she received a share of the bank’s profits.
Unusually, she did not relinquish her responsibility at the bank to men. She attended fairly regularly at the bank’s Fleet Street premises, reviewed the profit and loss accounts and intervened on such matters as staff salaries and membership of the partnership.
On 23 May 1804 Sarah Sophia married George Villiers, Viscount Villiers, later 5th Earl of Jersey. He added the surname Child to his own by royal licence in 1812.
The couple had eight children, of whom seven survived into adulthood:
- George Augustus Frederick (1808-59)
- Augustus John (1810-47)
- Frederick William (1815-71)
- Francis John Robert (1819-62)
- Sarah Frederica Caroline (1822-53)
- Clementina Augustus Wellington (1824-58)
- Adela Corisande Maria (1828-60)
- George Child-Villiers died on 3 October 1859.
Within weeks, the couple’s eldest son also died, and his son – Sarah Sophia’s grandson – thereby succeeded to the Jersey title, becoming 7th Earl of Jersey. Sarah Sophia continued to entertain after her husband’s death, receiving visitors most evenings into the 1860s. She also took an interest in the condition of those who lived on the family estates in Oxfordshire, where she set up schools for the benefit of the tenants and labourers.
Sarah Sophia Child-Villiers died on 26 January 1867 at 38 Berkeley Square. She was buried with her husband at Middleton Stoney, Oxfordshire.
After her death Henry Greville (1801-72), who had known Sarah Sophia for more than 50 years, reflected in his diary that:
‘Few women have played a more brilliant part in society, or have commanded more homage, than Lady Jersey … It was her great zest and gaiety, rather than her cleverness, which constituted her power of attracting remarkable men, many of whom I have seen listen with the greatest complacency to what they would have considered to be egregious nonsense had it emanated from less charming lips.’
- ‘Sarah Sophia Child-Villiers’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- P Clarke, The First House in the City (Priv. pub., London, 1973)
- Viscountess Enfield, ed., Leaves from the Diary of Henry Greville (London, Smith, Elder, 1883) 4 February 1867
- FJS Lewis, In the Family Way (1986)
- FG Hilton Price, The Marygold by Temple Bar (Priv. pub., 1902)
- KD Reynolds, Aristocratic Women and Political Society in Victorian Britain (1998)