How Did Debrett’s Come By The Information Listed in “The New Peerage”?

I had an author friend send me an email question recently. She wanted to know if a man (her hero) had been married for some time, how well known would the marriage be to others in Society? Could he go about without anyone knowing? (Definitely a interesting plot point)

Today, Debrett’s is a professional coaching (meaning instructional) company, publisher, and authority on etiquette and behaviour. It was founded in 1769 with the publication of the first edition of The New Peerage. The company takes its name from its founder, John Debrett. 

John Debrett (8 January 1753 – 15 November 1822) was the London-born son of Jean Louys de Bret, a French cook of Huguenot extraction and his wife Rachel Panchaud. As a boy of thirteen, John Debrett was apprenticed to a Piccadilly bookseller and publisher, Robert Davis. He remained there until 1780, when he moved across Piccadilly to work for John Almon, bookseller and stationer. John Almon edited and published his first edition of The New Peerage in 1769 and went on to produce at least three further editions. By 1790, he had passed the editorship on to John Debrett who, in 1802, put his name to the two small volumes that made up The Correct Peerage of England, Scotland and Ireland. Despite twice being declared bankrupt, Debrett continued as a bookseller and editor of the Peerage; the last edition edited by him was the 15th edition, which was published in 1823. He was found dead at his lodgings on 15 November 1822, and was buried at St James’s Church, Piccadilly. [Debrett’s]

Now, back to the question at hand: During the early 1800’s, did Debrett’s list marriages?  Would others know of a person’s marriage, even if he does not mention it?

Debrett gathered the published information for his volumes from the deaths, births, and marriage columns in the newspaper and from  announcements sent to it; therefore, if no one reported the marriage, the information would not automatically be included. The 1802 Debrett’s did not, for example, know that Lord Byron had died in 1798. Upon his death, the barony passed to Byron’s cousin George Anson Byron, a career naval officer. The poet we know as Lord Byron, George Gordon Noel, sixth Baron Byron, was born on 22 January 1788 in London. His father died when he was three, with the result that he inherited his title from his great uncle in 1798. (BBC History)

The second part of my friend’s question dealt with how to address the hero, as he also had a military commission. 

The answer is rather simple: The hero could be addressed by whichever designation he prefers:  Captain Lord So-and-so or just Lord So-and-so.

From Debrett’s 1816 we find …  

If an officer has a title, or a courtesy title or style, he is addressed in the opening of a letter and in speech in exactly the same way as any other title-holder. It should be noted, however, that some titled officers prefer to be addressed by their Service rank.

If Admiral Sir Guy Jones expresses his preference to be addressed ‘Dear Admiral Jones’ instead of ‘Dear Sir Guy’, this should, of course, be observed.

On an envelope the service rank appears before the title, except in the case of ‘His Excellency’.

The one aspect of Debrett’s that has to be taken into account (in the historical sense as far as authoring historical novels goes), is that Debrett’s has updated its etiquette in relation to modern day rules of engagement. Take mediaeval and early post mediaeval forms of address – verbal and written – and one can see a differing theme in respect of titles. After all, a prince was referred to as “his grace,” so, too, monarchs who were also referred to as Sire/Majesty, et al.  Slowly changes came about as mediaeval squires (servants) seemingly vanished somewhere along the way and county squires (landowners) who had their own servants are the only reference to squires. What a turn-around in social standing that is?

Prior, during, and post the English Civil Wars and stretching to the Georgian era, names came before title, and in many aristocratic circles remained, thus, until the reign of William IV & the Victorian era, i.e. Charles Standish, Duke of Wherever. Letters were  addressed to the duke by fellow aristocrats as “Charles Balderdash, The Duke of Wherever.” Whilst lesser persons in society (knowing their place) would address a letter to “The Duke of Wherever,” and head the letter with “Dear Duke.” On the other hand, in private letters between aristocrats, one may address the duke as “Dear Balderdash,” and if close or related another may use, “Dear Charles,” or plain “Charles.”

By the Georgian era Squires (county gentlemen) had become magistrates wielding lesser judicial power than county court circuit judges, but nonetheless, these squire magistrates were greatly feared by poachers and livestock rustlers. I do not think I need to enlighten my readers as to why that was so, except local knowledge added greatly to a squire’s intelligence networking. What other interesting aspects of Historical Britain post English Civil Wars strikes a note with you?


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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