It is an evening in May1870 and we are in the company of one 'Azamut-Batuk' who is gathering material for his publication, 'A little book about Great Britain', that will appear later in the same year.
In fact we are with Nicolas Leon Thieblin who wrote for the Pall Mall Gazette under the pseudonym of the 'Turk' and his article was first published in that newspaper on Friday the 13th of May under the title 'A Meeting at Stafford House'.
Stafford House was home to the Duke & Duchess of Sutherland and was the most valuable private house in London. We know it today as Lancaster House, home to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and the change of name occurred when it was bought in 1912 by a son of the county of Lancashire who had made himself a rather large fortune out of soap. His name, by the way, was William Hesketh Lever.
But I digress and we must return to the event that brought our 'Turk' to the 'palace' (as Queen Victoria is alleged to have described it when making a comparison with her own meagre residence in London) which was a meeting of the 'Gentlewoman's Self-Help Institute' attended, as noted by Thieblin, by such men as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Mr Gladstone, the Prime Minister.
The Institute (to which I can find no further reference) had eight Patrons but it is the two who head the list that interest me the most; the Duchess of Sutherland and the Dowager Countess of Dunmore who had been a widow for almost a quater-of-a-century. . At this point I should make it clear that this Duchess of Sutherland was Anne Hay-Mackenzie and wife of the 3rd Duke of Sutherland. It was his Grandfather, the 1st Duke, who, with the encouragement of his wife (Elizabeth, Duchess of Sutherland, who inherited her title at the age of one) had been responsible for the appalling Clearances of Sutherland. The Duchess of Sutherland who wrote on The Revival Of Home Industries for The Land Magazine in 1899 was Millicent, the 3rd Duke and Anne's daughter-in-law, whose husband the 4th Duke had inherited the title in 1892.
The aim of the Institute was to '...seek to place within the reach of educated ladies, widows, and daughters of clergymen, barristers, military and naval officers, and professional men, who may have been reduced from easy circumstances to narrow means, an opportunity of turning their natural or acquired abilities to account.' To this end it had acquired premises at Bessborough Gardens in Pimlico '...for the reception and sale of articles produced by ladies in reduced circumstances. These rooms are now crowded with a great variety of articles of every description — oil paintings, drawings, modelled waxwork, guipure and other lace, wool-work, embroidery, baby-clothes, and plain work of all sorts.' It was an upper-class craft sale!
I say 'upper-class' because 'Any lady wishing to become a working member has to furnish two references as to respectability, certifying to her being a gentlewoman by birth and education, which will be laid before the ladies' committee by the lady superintendent, Mrs. Howard, and, if approved, the lady so applying will be required to procure a nomination from a subscriber to the Institute, when she will become eligible to partake of the benefits of the institution in any way most advantageous to herself.' A 'subscriber' paid a guinea a year (or donated ten guineas for life membership) to secure the right to nominate one of these ladies. They could pay multiples of these amounts and nominate more ladies accordingly.
I mentioned that this was the sole reference to the Institute that I could find however in 'Webster's Royal Red Book, or Court & Fashionable Register, 1897' is listed the 'Gentlewoman's Self-Help Society' at 20-22 Maddox Street, London. Whether or not this was related to the Institute of 1870 I cannot say but it is interesting to note the existence of, and therefore a perceived need for, this similar-sounding organisation some 27 years after that May meeting in palatial Stafford House.