Many families keep letters from famous people, and the Bankes family are no exception. The recently re-catalogued albums at DHC are fascinating – if there were portraits of the writers on the walls, this would rival the National Portrait Gallery! In a short visit I handled original letters written by three British monarchs, as well as many others from eminent statesmen whose careers spanned three centuries. Some are ordinary, routine acknowledgements of invitations or “thank you” letters from extra-ordinary men and women, but others offer intriguing insights. One such, from King George III, looks totally different from any of the others; written with a broad nib practically dripping ink onto the page, it reveals his failing eyesight. Within a few months of writing it he was too blind to handle his own correspondence. The fact that he refers to “loss of sight” makes it all the more poignant.
Ernest, Duke of Cumberland to King George III
Before we look at the letter held in the Bankes Archive, lets take a look at the previous letter. Prince Ernest, Duke of Cumberland and son of George III, writes to his father on the 12th December 1804 of his own eye problems; he had lost the sight of his left eye and been left “shockingly scarred” by a battle wound at Tournai ten years earlier. ‘…My own sufferings with my eyes make me the more desirous to assist in alleviating those of my fellow creatures who are not like myself blessed with the means of attempting to preserve one of the greatest and most precious gifts of the Almighty, SIGHT.’ He urges his father to support an enclosed plan which ‘will give it sufficient weight to be immediately undertaken with success,’ modestly hopes that ‘the Almighty [will make him] the humble instrument towards the relief of a thousand distressed beings.’ He also hopes Sir Jonathan Wathen Phipps/Waller (often known as Phipps or ‘Phippy’) ‘who has attended me assiduously over the years’ will have ‘the credit of becoming the promoter of this charity…’. This letter was reprinted in A. Aspinall’s The Later Correspondence of George III, and Ruth Hayward’s Phippy (2014).
It seems the idea of an eye hospital starts with Phipps. He had been appointed oculist to the Royal Household in April 1796, but he was in serious competition with John Taylor, the third generation of that name to be Royal Oculists since 1736. Not having the temerity to approach George III personally, Phippy put his case to Ernest, stressing the sufferings of troops serving in Egypt. Many had returned blinded by trachoma, a painful type of conjunctivitis spread by flies: ‘the soldiers and sailors, from their being more confined together, have been the greatest sufferers’.
King George III to Ernest, Duke of Cumberland
The letter held in the Bankes Archive, written two days later on the 14th December, 1804, shows King George III’s response to Ernest. ‘The humane plan you sent me yesterday which has been drawn up by Mr Phipps the Oculist meets with my thorough concurrence. I desire to be named Patron of this necessary Institution and I will certainly be an Annual Benefactor to so useful an Establishment … the loss of sight is the most grievous as it renders the Unhappy Object in a constant state of dependence on others.’ (D-BKL/H/Q/49) This positive reply was all that Phipps could have hoped for, and The Royal Infirmary for Diseases of the Eye was subsequently founded. The King’s thick, inky handwriting hints towards his failing eyesight, brought on by bilateral cataracts.
How did this letter get into the Bankes Archive?
There are two theories about how this document came to the Bankes. It is possible that the letter came from Georgina Nugent (1799-1875), wife of George Bankes (1787-1856), who is believed to be the illegitimate daughter of Prince Ernest. Perhaps the Prince of Wales gave the letter to her mother Charlotte Nugent, who collected royal signatures. Another explanation is that Prince Ernest gave it to a collector, who would have then sold the letter on to one of the Bankes.
Author: Roger Lane