One of the most intriguing figures you’ll encounter on my Pioneering Women Walk is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Though not to be confused with the Lady Mary of Downton Abbey, this Lady Mary was equally as captivating. Known for her audacious spirit, she dared to inoculate her children against smallpox, a move initially dismissed as reckless. Yet it was her venture into the labyrinthine world of 18th-century financial markets that makes her truly captivating.
Breaking Boundaries: Lady Mary in the Investment World
In an era where women could hardly maintain bank accounts, let alone invest, the financial markets presented an unregulated sphere of influence that was hard to resist. For women like Lady Mary, and others who faced financial constraints such as widows, this was often their sole chance at financial independence.
The Role of Coffee Houses: Not Just for Sipping Coffee
The coffee houses of 18th-century London were worlds away from the cafés we know today. Instead of a comforting atmosphere filled with the aroma of roasted beans, these were clandestine spaces where financial prospects and rumours were as frequently exchanged as coffee. As women were generally not permitted entry—unless they were proprietors or selling goods—that did not deter them from seeking financial opportunities.
The Allure of the South Sea Company
When government-backed shares in the South Sea Company were on offer, Lady Mary, along with her contemporaries Henrietta Howard and Lady Molesworth, was enticed. For a moment, they believed they were on the cusp of securing significant returns on their investments. Everything seemed promising until Lady Mary found herself cornered by an unwanted admirer.
A Tangled Web: Lady Mary and Remond
A Frenchman named Remond began pressuring Lady Mary to acquire Government shares on his behalf. Despite his romantic overtures, which Lady Mary did not reciprocate, she reluctantly agreed. After all, her advisor was Alexander Pope, a man also keen on a profitable return.
The Fall of the House of Cards
By the summer of 1720, investments in the South Sea Company had skyrocketed. Yet, as with most ventures promising rapid wealth, this bubble burst. By November, the shares had plummeted, rendering them practically worthless.
The Consequences: From Financial Ruin to Social Scandal
Despite this, Remond was adamant that Lady Mary had duped him and demanded his money back. Threatening to expose her to her husband, who held a significant diplomatic role, Lady Mary found herself cornered into a perilous situation. Eventually, out of options, she confessed everything to her husband, who was, understandably, not amused.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a complex woman living in a complicated time. From her medical insights to her financial escapades, she was a woman far ahead of her era. Her life serves as a fascinating lens through which we can explore the limitations and possibilities for women in 18th-century London. For those intrigued to learn more about such pioneering women, consider joining me on my guided tour which you can find at London Guided Walks.
Would you like to discover more about Lady Mary and other trailblazing women who defied the social norms of their time? Join me, Bex, on my Pioneering Women Walk for an educational and enjoyable stroll through London’s rich history.