Sir John Lade, 2nd Baronet (1 August 1759 – 10 February 1838) was a prominent member of Regency society, notable as an owner and breeder of racehorses, as an accomplished driver, associated with Samuel Johnson’s circle, and one of George IV’s closest friends. At the time he caused some sensation both because of the extent of his debts.
Sir John Lade managed the Prince’s racing stable and was renown for his tendency to dress and speak like a groom. Lade married the notorious “Letty,” a woman who began her life as a servant in a brothel and who at one time was the mistress of “Sixteen-String Jack,” a highwayman who was sent to the gallows in 1774. Lady Letitia Lade was also said to have been the mistress of the Duke of York and to have acted as procuress for Prince George.
He was born the posthumous child of the first Baronet, also named John. His mother was the sister of the brewer and MP Henry Thrale. He inherited from his father a vast fortune, also founded in brewing.
According to Abraham Hayward, Samuel Johnson was consulted regularly on his upbringing; unfortunately Dr. Johnson had no very high opinion of the boy’s intellect. His original advice to Henry’s sister, Lady Lade, was “Endeavour, Madam, to procure him knowledge; for really ignorance to a rich man is like fat to a sick sheep, it only serves to call the rooks about him.” However, as Lade grew up, Dr. Johnson found himself disappointed; so much so that Hester Thrale reports that when Sir John asked Johnson for advice on whether he should marry, the reply came as:
On his attaining the age of twenty-one, he received control of his vast fortune. The event moved Dr. Johnson to write his poem “One-and-twenty”: which began:
Long-expected one-and-twenty/Ling’ring year, at length is flown/Pride and pleasure, pomp and plenty/Great Sir John, are now your own./ Loosen’d from the minor’s tether,/Free to mortgage or to sell.Wild as wind, and light as feather/Bid the sons of thrift farewell…..Lavish of your grandsire’s guineas/Show the spirit of an heir.
The poem, which ended with a – presumably satirical – reminder to “scorn the counsel” of “the guardian friend”, proved both prophetic and influential; the former in anticipating Sir John’s career, and the latter in influencing A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.
Sir John swiftly proved Dr. Johnson right by losing large amounts of money at the races and at gambling; however, he simultaneously developed a reputation as a remarkable judge of horseflesh. Particularly notable in retrospect was his discovery and ownership of the horse Medley, a grey which was one of the first thoroughbreds to be imported into America, and “the most important horse of the last quarter of the eighteenth century.” His colours, which unlike most others were piebald or “harlequin” were a familiar sight at races throughout the British isles.
Criticised for spending so much time in the stables and at race-meetings, Lade clearly did not help matters by dressing in riding clothes at all times – with many capes – and carrying a whip everywhere. According to the dandy Thomas Raikes, his “ambition was to imitate the groom in dress and in language”. Raikes reports:
“I once heard him asking a friend on Egham racecourse to come home and dine. ‘I can give you a trout spotted all over like a coach-dog, a fillet of veal as white as alablaster (sic), a pantaloon cutlet, and plenty of pancakes – so help me!’ “
As possibly the finest horseman and driver of his time (in honour of which he was nicknamed ‘Jehu’), he was a leading light, and one of the founding members, of the ‘Four-Horse Club’ – also known as the “Four in Hand Club,” after the number of horses’ reins held in one hand. His slapdash style of dressing gave rise to the simple knot for which the Club is remembered. He himself famously drove a team of six greys, except when he sat up with the Regent in place of the latter’s coachman, driving six matched bays on the road from Brighton to London.
His fondness for the track and for driving, as well as for gambling caused him to wager vast sums of money on horses as well as on inconsequential feats of skill; he once bet a thousand guineas on one such performance against the Duke of Queensberry. The money was incidental, however, as he was equally willing to wager trifling sums on some absurdity: he once bet Lord Cholmondeley that he could carry him on his back, from opposite the Brighton Pavilion twice round the Old Steine that faced it. Most of the bets revolved around feats of skill: he “would back himself to drive the off-wheels of his phaeton over a sixpence, and once for a bet successfully took a four-in-hand round Tattersall’s Yard at Hyde Park Corner.” Tattersall’s cramped premises were in fact inextricably linked to Lade’s social pre-eminence, the phrase he used to describe “settling-up” day at Tattersall’s, when debts for the quarter were paid – “Black Monday” – has passed into the language as a descriptor for a day when fortunes are lost.
Letitia Derby (or Smith, the sources are unclear) was a woman of unclear origins who, prior to being discovered by the royal circle, was fairly definitely a member of the working class in the Drury Lane district, and possibly a servant in a brothel. Subsequently she befriended and was probably the mistress of “Sixteen String Jack” Rann. After that notorious highwayman was hanged in 1774, she became the mistress of the Duke of York. Soon enough, however, her looks – and her seat on a horse and skills as a driver – attracted Lade’s attention and they were married, after a long affair and in spite of familial disapproval, in 1787. It is conjectured that Lade and Rann knew each other well, as Rann patronised races and had once been coachman of Hester Thrales’s sister.
Letitia Lade was a great favourite with the Regent and his set; she was more than willing to join in the culture of excess that they were infamous for, and once wagered on herself in a driving-contest at – scandalously – the Newmarket races; and also once bet five hundred guineas on an eight-mile race against another woman She took after her husband in dress and demeanour, and eventually overtook him: her casual use of profanity was so “overwhelming”, in fact, that it came to be acceptable to say of someone using particularly strong language that “he swears like Letty Lade.” She is the subject of a famous equestrian portrait by Stubbs in the Royal Collection, that was commissioned by the Regent to hand in his chambers; Lade and she were also the subject of a well-known pair of portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds that now hang in the National Gallery.
As Johnson predicted in verse on the day of Sir John’s majority, gambling, racing, women and moneylenders eventually combined to ensure that little remained of the once-remarkable Lade fortune. So much so that he spent some time in a debtor’s prison; subsequently Lade was forced to accept the Regent’s generosity, and received a pension of three (later four, then five) hundred pounds a year as George’s “driving tutor”; to save face, the money was made out to the name of “the Rev. Dr. Tolly.”
Lade’s marriage and his debt, together with his disdain for the conventions of society caused him to be generally disreputable. Many of the stories of snubs that the Regent received on behalf of his friends centre around Lade, and most of them appear to have been delivered by the redoubtable Lord Thurlow, a friend of George III.
The Lades, like so many leaders of Regency society, eventually faded from the scene when their money ran out and George IV was crowned and grew preoccupied with affairs of state. Letitia died in 1825, and is buried at St Mary’s, Staines. Lade, who lived quietly on his stud farm in Sussex, continued to receive his pension, though it tended to be a near-run thing on each change of reign; his relative Dorothy Nevill, the writer and horticulturist, wrote of him that “my poor crazy cousin” was dependent on the kindness of a court functionary and on hints dropped in suitable ears; Victoria, when a young girl fresh to the throne, records in her diaries that she discovered that she was paying “a Sir John Lade, one of George IV’s intimates.”