English Actress and Duchess of Bolton
Born c.1708 Died 1760
Born about the year 1708, her father is known to have been a naval lieutenant by the name of Berwick who made thereafter made himself scarce, and shortly after her birth her mother married a Mr Fenton who ran a coffee house at Charing Cross in London. It was the coffee house that was to provide Lavinia with her first opportunity to perform in public, when she used to entertain the clientele by singing songs from the popular shows of the day. Although she does not appear to have been regarded as especially pretty, she had a good figure and a better voice, and such was the quality of her singing that she was soon encouraged to pursue a career on the stage.
In 1726 she made her first formal stage appearance as 'Monimia' at the Haymarket in Thomas Otway's Orphans, before going on to further success at the Lincoln's Inn Fields theatre where she appeared in a production of The Beaux Stratagem. On the 29th January 1728 she took the part of 'Polly Peachum' in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, and made such a success of the part that she was soon the most talked about person in London. Known to her legion of fans as 'Pretty Polly', she soon required a bodyguard to escort her home ever night. Mezzontints of her portrait became widely available, and the fashionable ladies of the age sported fans printed with her songs. A quick and dirty biography of her life was published and William Hogarth was moved to come and paint her as she peformed on the stage. (One of his paintings of Lavinia later being acquired by the National Gallery in 1884 for the sum of 800 guineas.)
However within six months of her debut as 'Polly Peachum', Lavinia played the part for the sixty-second and last time on the 19th June 1728 and announced her retirement from the theatre at the age of twenty. The reason why Lavinia chose to abandon her acting career was simply that she had received a better offer (at least according to Jonathan Swift) of a salary of £400 a year to become the mistress of Charles Powlett, 3rd Duke of Bolton, which was a considerable advance on the thirty shillings a week she had been getting to appear in The Beggar's Opera. For the next twenty-three years they lived together as man and wife, or at least as man and mistress, during which time she bore him three sons.
Eventually the Duke's lawful wife died on the 20th September 1751 and Charles Powlett lost little time in doing the 'decent thing' and exactly a month later on the 20th October he married Lavinia at Aix en Provence. Whilst the marriage transformed Lavinia from being a mere mistress to the status of the Duchess of Bolton it did not of course, alter the illegitimate status of their children, so that when the Duke died on the 26th August 1754, the title passed elsewhere rather than to any of the three sons named Charles, Percy and Horatio Armand that she bore him. Although the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica claims that the "three children all died young", the Chambers Book of Days states that one son "a clergyman, was living in 1809".
Lavinia outlived her husband and died at West Combe Park in Kent on the 24th January 1760 and was buried at Greenwich. She was merely the first of a series of English actresses who found themselves a husband from the ranks of the peerage.
- Chambers' Book of Days:May 4th
- William Hogarth: The Beggar's Opera, III, xi 1729
- George Edward Cokayne, Vicary Gibbs, et al, The Complete Peerage (St Catherine's Press, 1910-1959)
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for FENTON, LAVINIA