To-morrow is my birthday – that is to say, at twelve o’ the clock, midnight, i.e. in twelve minutes, I shall have completed thirty and three years of age!!!! – and I go to my bed with a heaviness of heart at having lived so long, and to so little purpose.
Today is Lord B’s 228th birthday and even though he shuffled off this mortal planet many years ago – I can still enjoy a large slice or three of this delicious cake in his honour!
Despite Byron’s enduring fame, the circumstances of his birth were far from auspicious for he was born on Tuesday January 22 1788 in a rented apartment on the first floor above a shop in Holles Street in Cavendish Square London to Catherine Gordon Byron, who as a lone young mother had no family nearby for emotional and financial support.
I want money to be sent me while in Town and I must have it as if Mr. Byron gets it it will be thrown away in some foolish way or other and I shall be obliged to apply for more… I will live as cheap as I can but it was impossible till now as there was a great many expences that could not be avoided… my little boy is to be named George dont show Mr. Byron this...
Catherine Gordon Byron
Byron’s father was the dashing and financially reckless John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron and as there was no debtor’s amnesty on a Tuesday, he was unable to be with his wife lest he be seized for debt and hauled off to prison.
Notwithstanding your writing to Mr. Leslie to furnish Mrs. Byron with money, he has not done it, and she has not any to go with… she was brought to bed of a Son on Monday last & is far from well. I beg you will write once more by this day’s post.
John Gordon Byron
Catherine’s financial advisors in Edinburgh who had been concerned for her plight for some time had arranged for legal representation for her in London through John Hanson, a solicitor from Chancery Lane and Hanson’s wife was able to recommend a male accoucheur to assist with the birth, a fashionable practice at that time.
The presence of a male accoucheur is interesting in the light of Byron’s later claims about his mother’s “false delicacy” during his birth which he believed had resulted in the deformity of his right foot.
Byron’s birth was apparently a long and difficult affair and he was born with the caul or veil over his head which is a thin, flimsy membrane that protects the foetus and in childbirth is seen as a shimmery coating of the head and face.
Throughout history, the appearance of the caul has been considered a good omen and a protection against drowning and as such it was not uncommon for a caul to be sold to a sailor as a lucky talisman.
In the first recorded sale of a ‘Byron relic’, Catherine’s nurse Mrs Mills sold Byron’s caul to Captain James Hanson of the Royal Navy who was also the brother of John Hanson.
Whether Byron’s caul could be considered a lucky talisman is debatable for Captain Hanson and his crew on board the HMS Brazen were to perish as the ship ran to ground upon the rocks of Newhaven on Sunday January 26 1800 and the memorial of which can be discovered in the grounds of St Michael’s Church in Newhaven.
Well, Byron did once facetiously remark to his friend James ‘Bold’ Webster Wedderburn that his name “would almost damn any thing or creature”!
My young brother was also born with the caul over his face and my mother admitted to being alarmed when she first saw him and she can recall the midwife telling her that he had been born “lucky”.
Fourteen years later my brother was to survive a horrific road accident and despite his life-changing injuries; both physical and psychological, he remains a vital and wonderful person and I consider myself lucky that he is still with us!
However, let’s return to the tale of the ‘Birthday Boy’s’ arrival into this world some 228 years ago and although the modest abode in Holles Street has long since disappeared, there is to be found a commemorative plaque on the wall of the John Lewis store which runs adjacent to Oxford Street.
And so – you want to come to London – it is a damned place to be sure – but the only place in the world for fun
In one busy October the Polite Tourist paid another visit to the “damned place” in search of the Lord Byron Green Plaque and I would like to tell you that it was easy to locate this newly unveiled and wonderful new plaque – however, when IS anything easy with Byron?
As I walked up and down Holles Street in search of the damned thing that was displayed on the wall of the John Lewis store, I became increasingly aware that during the course of my futile search, I was also now attracting the suspicious glances of my fellow pedestrians. Perhaps they thought I was casing the joint!
Eventually, a bus inspector took pity on me and after reassuring himself that I meant him no harm, he became my ‘search buddy’ and so off we walked – again!
As we continued our search in Holles Street, he told me that he had been aware that there had been “some sort of ceremony” there earlier that month but he confessed to having witnessed nothing of any significance and “any ways, who was this Byron?”
And so with the daylight vanishing as fast as my hope; I thanked him for his help and excused myself, quickly!
Salvation appeared in the form of a John Lewis window designer who literally crashed into me as I continued my futile walk along Holles Street and having graciously accepted her sincere apologies and although she didn’t know where the plaque was situated; she was delighted to take a break from designing the sparkly scenes of festivity and promptly marched me inside the store.
As I crossed the threshold of the store I felt as if I had walked into one of the circles of Dante’s Inferno.
Imagine the scene if you will of a confined space that is heaving with people who are all jostling about. Their baskets are piled dangerously high with shopping and as the inane Christmas music blares out, their faces grow increasingly red from the excessive heat and the long queues and I should add that there is also a total absence of the spirit of goodwill.
The window dresser having brought me into this hell then promptly disappeared in search of someone who would definitely know where the Byron plaque was.
By now I could care less…
As I stood rooted on the spot afraid to move less I become a victim or more likely, a perpetrator of ‘store rage’, I waited as patiently as I could with the assistance of the odd minute or two of transcendental meditation.
Eventually, the window dresser reappeared with a look of relief on her face and for the first time in my life I was delighted to find myself being marched out of a store.
We came upon Holles Street, a few steps to my left and voilà, there it was!
As I photographed the elusive plaque in the fading light, I had to laugh at the appropriateness of the quotation used:
And as it was for Catherine Gordon Byron in that year of 1788, I was also rather pleased to leave Holles Street behind!
… the money Mr. Leslie gave me is not sufficient to clear all my expenses but I will let you know exactly what I shall want in a few days and what I will want to keep me in London for two months longer…
I would not have taken one till I had known Mr. Byron’s plans but the time I must leave this is on Sunday and I could not get any for a shorter time and none so cheap…
Catherine Gordon Byron
And yes, I confess that today, I did go in search of a large plate and ONE dessert fork after the photo shoot with Lord B’s cake, however, I was not the first to enjoy tucking into this gloriously sickly confection…
In Search of Byron in England and Scotland A Guide Book Anne Fleming (Old Forge Press & Ditchling Press Ltd 1988)
My Amiable Mamma A Biography of Mrs. Catherine Gordon Byron, Megan Boyes (J.M. Tatler & Son Ltd 1991)