Hester Maria "Queeney" Thrale

  • Posted on: 20 September 2009
  • By: David Thrale

Hester Maria Thrale in 1781 by Sir Joshua Reynolds
First-born, Hester Maria was born in Southwark on 17th September 1764, and christened at St Saviour's Church1 by Rev James Evans on 24 September 1764. She was named after her grandmother Hester Maria Salusbury Cotton. Her godparents were grandmother Hester Maria Salusbury Cotton, aunt Susanna Nesbitt and 5 year old cousin Sir John Lade.

Nicknamed Queeney. Sometimes she was affectionately called 'Nig', 'Niggy', 'Tit', 'Birdey'2 or 'Hetty'. Dr Samuel Johnson affectionately called her 'Sweeting' and gave her a cabinet for the storage of curios. Samuel Johnson was devoted to Queeney and referred to her in a 1771 letter as "Sweet, dear, pretty, little Miss". Johnson followed Queeney's life with affectionate interest and anxious concern.

Queeney was subject of Beryl Bainbridge's excellent book, According to Queeney.


She is also characterised as being a child prodigy, and was immensely tutored. Aged four, Queeney was already studying the dramatic structures of the Iliad. She studied Italian.

Hester Lynch Thrale wrote…

Doctor Johnson has undertaken to teach my eldest Daughter Latin and has actually undertaken & begun his Work. Fanny Burney, Author of Evelina is to learn with her of the same Master— Mr Thrale3 says it is better to teach each of them than a Thousand pounds added to their Fortune. Dear Creatures! How earnestly do I wish them Success! they love one another and will improve by studying together—what a Master they have too! Happy Rogues!—

Hester Maria Thrale and Belle by Zoffany 1766

In 1776 Queeney wrote her first verses. In July 1779 Hester Lynch Thrale wrote in Thraliana
Queeney produced a mock-solemn covenant, headed “;Streatham December the 8th at night, 1774”;, signed by Hester with her full name and her seal, and witnessed by “;Sam. Johnson, LL.D.”; and “;Hester Lynch Thrale”;, in which she promises to work for two full hours at her Italian every day as Mr. Barretti shall instruct her.

And I promise further, that, whether I am in good humour or out of humour, I will be in earnest and very attentive to my lesson, as if I were in the very best humour, nor will I look about me with a vacant and weary countenance, so that the said Mr. Barretti (alias Taskmaster) shall have no reason, no, not the least shadow of a reason to complain of my disattention, unwillin[gn]ness, and reluctance._

Baretti left Streatham a month later.

She is known to have studied Hebrew from around 1798, and on 21 June 1805, she wrote to her mother that she would never to have dared to learn Hebrew if she had not been told that…

the Illeterate and Itinerant Preachers of Methodism up & down, all study Hebrew, to torment the clergy.


On Queeney's 16th birthday in 1780, her mother wrote in Thraliana…

It is this day given me by God to see my first born offspring, my dear Hester,—sixteen Years old— virtuous in Heart, prudent in Behaviour, pleasing in Person, & accomplished in Knowledge. What more would I have! & yet I often catch myself complaining.—Oh God forgive my foolish repining Spirit; and give me Grace to be thankful for, & to enjoy the Blessings I do not deserve. We always have a Dance on her Birthday for the Servants, and they shall have it this Year too—in spite of past Sorrows. Mr Johnson's Birthday is the next day to hers, & we keep them together, &. fill the Summer House with Food, Fiddles &c, today being Sunday, the Balls must be tomorrow & Tuesday. Sure nothing will ever happen that will keep me from rejoycing on the 17: & 18 : of September, the Birthdays of my Daughter & my Friend.,—.

On Queeney's 17th birthday in 1781, her mother wrote in Thraliana …

Oh Lord accept my grateful and Heartfelt Thanks for having lived to see her attain this proximity to Womanhood, & permanent Duration. She is however still delicate in her Health I think, & mightily tormanted with Worms.
Hester Maria Thrale 1781 aged 17

Queeney's cabinet

On 17 September 1803, Hester Lynch Thrale wrote…

Here is Miss Thrale's Birthday come round again, the weather beautiful, & I hope my heart grateful for having lived to see my eldest child 39 years old—& just now not unkind at all—She has written once or twice this year, & in the last Letters some Compassion was exprss'd fo Mr Piozzi's Sufferings—They are indeed very great—Well! God bless her, & him.


Her mother's entries in her diary indicate that they did not get along and that Queeney bore little affection for her mother.

Hester Maria was described as smart and shy but cold and proud. Both Queeney and Hester were dear close friends with Fanny Burney.

Hester and Queeney Thrale in 1777/8 by Sir Joshua Reynolds

On 1 January 1782 her mother wrote in Thraliana _…

I was reading something of Swift one Day & commending him as a Writer—I cannot endure Swift replied my eldest Daughter … every thing of his seems to be Froth I think, and that Froth is dirty. She is a prudent Child indeed, I would wish to consult her on every occasion: so much sound Judgment, so little Vanity, such proper Notions of this World, & such Aspiration after a better have I yet never seen in a Creature of her Age: The Marquis of Caermarthen son to the present Duke of Leeds, & elder Brother to. I this Cuckoldly Marquis4, appeared to me to be the Person most resembling her for Perfections of Body & Mind:—beautiful, pious, wise and well accomplished was the late Lord Caermarthen. Hester is however deficient enough in the petite morale: not caressing, not even attentively polite; never appearing pleased either with herself or Companions, She will not I fancy be a sought-for Character.

Hester Maria Thrale portrait in 1822 after Saunders


Admiral George Keith Elphinstone by George Sanders
Queeney first met Viscount Admiral George Keith of Elphinstone in 1796, and they were much later married on 10 January 1808. Queeney was 44 at the time. They lived in Tulliallan Castle, and had a London home at 110 Piccadilly. Keith is said to have made more in prize-money than any other naval officer. Queeney was Keith's second wife.

Hester Lynch Thrale wrote of Admiral Elphinstone in her Thraliana in November 1796 - even though she could not have known that she was writing of her future son-in-law Admiral George Keith Elphinstone who was responsible for trapping the Dutch Fleet in Saldanha Bay on 19 August 1796. She wrote…

Our capture of the whole Dutch Fleet at once without firing a Gun is a great event indeed.

Again she wrote on 7 October 1804

Good News! great News! we have got at the French & drubb'd them heartily:.

Again the victory was Lord Keith's, this time over the French fleet in Boulogne harbour between 2 and 3 October 1804.


They had one child, a daughter the Hon. Georgina Augusta Henrietta Keith.

Georgina was married twice. Firstly, to the Hon. Augustus John Villiers, son of the Earl of Jersey, and secondly to Lord William Godolphin Osborne, brother of the eighth Duke of Leeds. Georgina was the last direct descendant of Henry Thrale, as she died childless in 1892.


In 1832, together with her other sisters, she founded the Thrale Almshouses.


Queeney lived the longest of the children, to age 92, dying on 31 March 1857 at home: 110 Picadilly, London W1.


She was buried in the Keith family mausoleum at Overton Kirkyard, Tulliallan, Fife, Scotland.


I am a fifth year student of English Language and Literature at the University of Leiden, The Netherlands and I am writing my thesis about epistolary formulas in the letters addressed to Hester Maria Thrale, better known as Queeney.

Epistolary formulas are the way that Queeney and her correspondents began their letters to each other (Dear Sir/ Madam etc.) [opening formulas] and how they ended them. e.g., a variant of Your (most) obedient humble servant [closing formulas].

For my research I am not only interested in Queeney's correspondents (I have a copy of The Queeney Letters and Johnson and Queeney both edited by the Marquis of Lansdowne), but also in the letters which she wrote herself and which unfortunately have never been published.

I have already been in touch with the John Rylands Library in Manchester which has a number of her letters. Do you know any other libraries who still have letters of her? (I have already found out about the letters written by Queeney to Fanny Burney which are in the British Library).

Karlijn Navest

David Thrale's picture

Firstly I should warn you that I am not a scholar of 18th century English. My interest is as a very amateur family historian. I have a few books on the subject and have read round the subject. There are other scholars who will no doubt know more. I'll try and mention these as you may like to contact them for a more knowledgeable reply!!

Mary Hyde's book The Thrales of Streatham Park mentions that letters from Queeney are kept at Bowood. Also the Hyde Collection in Somerville New Jersey has lots of original manuscripts.

You might also try the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth who have the K M Evans Thrale-Piozzi-Salusbury papers.

Finally try contacting Jack Lynch Assistant Professor of English.

I'm sure that the British Library will be able to give you some good information about locating original manuscripts.

Good luck!

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