The Lure of the Exotic



In September 1740 George Anson set sail on what would become a round the world voyage. The intention behind this major expedition was to attack, and even capture, Spanish possessions in the South Atlantic. The squadron, led by Commodore Anson’s “Centurion”, consisted of eight ships and 1854 men. Only 188 of the crew returned. With such a loss of life the voyage could be seen as a disaster, but on the way Anson captured a Spanish treasure ship “Nuestra Señora de Covadonga”. In the 18th century, and into the 19th, according to the laws of Prize Money, officers and crew kept a proportion of their takings from captured enemy vessels. As a result Anson earned around £91,000. The seamen received a proportionately smaller amount, but even so it their rewards were equivalent to £20 or a year’s wages.


Though George’s voyage had been studied and written about over the years, including in a bestselling book immediately after his return, no one has previously noticed that Thomas set sail with his brother on the Centurion. He had no intention of going with him in pursuit of the Spanish. He was, in effect, hitching a lift as the first part of his own voyage round the Mediterranean. Thomas parted from George and the Centurion at Cape Finisterre and continued his journey on a succession of other Royal Navy ships.

This expedition began only seven months after the death of Lord Scarbrough, who had shot himself on January 29th 1740 (New Style). Considering the overwhelming sense of guilt that anyone would feel after such an experience it seems reasonable to suggest that this voyage may have been influenced by Scarbrough’s death. Could it have been a way of escaping the weight of guilt? It was certainly not a holiday. Was it usual for a tourist to travel round the Mediterranean in navy ships – and at a time of war?


Or was this journey, in some way, on official business?


George had been in North Carolina for some years before being given command of this expedition, so he had not yet become closely involved in the world of politics in London. Thomas’s political connections are mysterious. He became a very unenthusiastic MP for Lichfield in 1747, but what were his political activities in his earlier years? With the family connections with the Earl of Macclesfield and the life-long connection with Philip Yorke, Earl of Hardwicke and his family, there were opportunities to become involved with machinations at the highest level of power – and yet the most important person in the political world which Thomas can be directly linked to at this stage is Lord Scarbrough, whose most interesting activity was in the disputes between the king and his son, Frederick, Prince of Wales.


Could Thomas’s political connections have been more concerned with the circle around the Prince, a focus for whiggish hopes?



There is a small leather pocket book in the Staffordshire Record Office which contains the barest of notes of his journey. (1) This is one of the very few documents in Thomas Anson’s own handwriting. By chance there are also letters from the merchant Francis Congreve, a member of a Staffordshire family, who met Thomas in Cairo. Thomas’s own notes give only dates of arrival at various ports, apart from some partly cryptic instruction on the first page.

Mr M to answer my Bills I draw upon him

Mr Lascelles Demd to be discharged at my Return if not disc’g by Mr Mytton.

Mill(?) has orders to pay 75(£?) yearly of demd by a certain person purs.(?)


(Staffordshire Archives. Anson Papers. D615/P(S)/2/4


Mr Mytton is Thomas’s long term friend James Mytton, with whom he travelled to Spa in the 1720s, to Paris in 1748 and who was regularly at  Shugborough in the 1750s. Whatever the nature of their relationship, it seems Mytton was, in some way, Anson’s business manager while he was away.

Mr Lascelles could be Henry Lascelles (1690-1753), one of an extensive Yorkshire family, who made a fortune through Barbados plantations and the slave trade. “To be discharged” suggests a loan from Thomas to Mr Lascelles that Thomas intended to cancel.

“Mr Mill?” is very hard to read and most likely is another reference to Mr Mytton. But who is the “certain person” who is to be paid £75 a year – a considerable amount of money in 1740, worth £8,600 today?

There is something odd here, and the air of mystery darkens if there is a connection between the voyage and the death of Lord Scarbrough.

One could ask who was supposed to see this note? The diary was, presumably, one he took with him, so the note seems to have been written as reminder to himself or as a sketch for a letter to his agents at home.

The only substantial piece of writing in the diary is less mysterious and suggests a practical purpose for the journey. It may be copied from a book or from notes from a gardener. It consists of instructions for the preservation of plants:

Many sorts of Roots of Plants may with very little trouble be so ordered as to grow again when brought over & set tho’ after a long voyage, particularly those that are Bulbous, tuberous & Fleshy. Such as ye Roots of Tulips, of Lillies, Crocus’s. Onions, Garlicks, Squills, anemones, Potatos, yawns etc. These & all like Roots may be sent as early & safely as seeds if taken up out of ye Ground, & laid to dry till ye Ships come away & then only put in very dry Moss, Coton or Sand. Seeds to be well dry’d before put up & afterwards kept dry.




This is the earliest evidence of what must have become one of Thomas’s principal interests – gardening and botany. Though the landscape of Shugborough may be more memorable for its buildings, those follies were probably only a small part of an integrated landscape in which exotic planting was just as important. Later Thomas’s library would have a fine collection of books on foreign plants and several of his friends in later life, including Benjamin Stillingfleet and Thomas Pennant, were botanists.

Other travellers to the Middle East in the years just before this came back, like Dr Pocock, with ancient relics and artefacts, including a mummy. Presumably Anson came back with seeds and roots. This peaceful purpose contrasts dramatically with the motive for George Anson’s voyage. It is certainly strange that Thomas should have set off to look for exotic blooms at a time when travel in the region was extremely dangerous and English trade in the Levant was suffering as a result. Perhaps this personal interest was secondary to some other, unknown, purpose.

The details of the journey are minimal.

On September 13th 1740 he “came into Spithead from Torbay”, presumably on board the Centurion. The fleet gathered there and sailed on September 18th.

On 29th September Thomas:


parted with Capt Anson about ten of ye Morning. 44 ½ Cape Finisterre being Se by E abt 45 leagues.


Thomas travelled on a series of Royal Navy ships, but there were pauses on land, including four days at Lisbon, sailing from there on October 7th, and 5 days on Gibraltar.

On November 20th Thomas “went on board the Roseby” which took him to Alexandria and up the Nile to Cairo where he arrived on December 5th.


Francis Congreve wrote from Cairo to his brother William in Minorca on 2ndJanuary 1740/1. Thomas had left Cairo on 5th December according to his notes, though Congreve dated a letter to his brother, which he gave to Thomas to deliver, the 8th December.


As the whole time of Mr Anson’s stay here has been nothing but hurry I am sure his goodness will excuse any deficit or omission on my part in not abandoning myself entirely to his services which his merit deserved had he made a longer stay or I been more leisure.


(Congreve letters. Staffordshire Archives.  D1057/M/G/)



Congreve was unable to act as a guide to a possibly unexpected guest:

I am sorry I could not, from the hurry of business which a ship from home always brings with her, attend him constantly in visiting of Curiositys of the Place.




It is great pity that Thomas made no notes at all about the curiosities he saw. He could hardly have avoided the pyramids.

Congreve later wrote to his brother, eager for news from Minorca.

I have not received any of your favours, my last was at 8 Dec by Mr Anson, who is gone to Aleppo, & promised to deliver my letter& a small bundle of Coffee for you to Capt Vincent of the St Albans Man of War who no doubt calls at Port Mahon with the Turkey Convoy.




The coffee that Thomas took to Minorca took a long time to arrive as it was only on July 4th 1741 that Congreve was able to write to his brother:


I am glad you had rec’d the Coffee by Mr Anson.




On 28th January Congreve wrote to his brother:


I had a very civil letter from Mr Anson in Cyprus, whence he was to depart the next day to Aleppo.




Thomas’s log notes that he arrived at Cyprus, via Alexandria and Rosetta on December 25th. He stayed there until January 8th when he made a two-week voyage to Scanderon, (Iskanderun, once Alexandretta) on the Turkish coast, from where he was to make an overland journey to Aleppo. It is hard to know why it should have taken two weeks to travel from Cyprus to Iskanderun, but there are no intervening ports of call in the log.


He set out for Aleppo from “Scanderon” and arrived on January 26th for a three week stay. Aleppo was one of the three principal bases of the Levant Company, with Smyrna and Constantinople. It was one of the largest and most ancient cities in the Ottoman Empire, with a wealth of spectacular buildings and a population mixed races and faiths.


The notebook implies that Thomas returned to England, after delivering the package of coffee to Minorca, in the Spring of 1741, and yet, as will appear, one of his own letters implies that he had been out of the country until the December of that year.



There is a small cache of correspondence in the Anson papers between Thomas and James Mytton dating from December 1741. This includes the only known letters from Mytton. The survival of this group of documents highlights the absence of any other letters from Mytton, who seems to have been involved in Thomas’s business interests, and of any personal correspondence of Thomas Anson other than the letters from his brother and sister-in-law and correspondence concerning his collecting and business dealings with James “Athenian” Stuart in the 1760s.


This small collection of letters has survived because it recorded a piece of financial business concerning George Anson’s property in North Carolina. As George was away on his voyage, and as Thomas had also been out of the country, Mr Mytton had read the communication from Benjamin Whittaker, the Solicitor General of North Carolina, and passed it on to Thomas once Thomas was safely home.


The Carolina business appears to have concerned payment for properties and associated taxes.


These are business communications, but they contain small clues about Thomas’s life at the time, and his relationship with Mytton.



Thomas’s reply to Benjamin Whittaker, dated December 21st 1741, apologises for the delay in dealing with the matter:


I was not in England when the letter you favoured me with dated 31st October 1741 arrived. I staid a fortnight in London where my own affairs call me very seldom…”


(Staffordshire Archives D615/P(S)/1/6/43 and following)


Thomas was writing form what he called “Shutborrow Manor”. By the end of the 1740s it had been transformed into Shugborough.


Thomas’s voyage through the entire length of the Mediterranean had lasted over a year.


The sections of Mytton’s letters which are not about the Carolina business are deliberately mysterious –


“The person arrived from Bath…”


There was an appointment


“…to meet him and our Tower St acquaintance to talk over the affair.”


“The affair” had something to do with shipping. Some ships had taken on more provisions than had been required. There seems to have been a suggestion of a fraud.


…ugly difficulties


And yet the whole thing seems to have been unintentional. They all


…agreed to meet tomorrow at Mead’s.


In another letter Mytton says


…I was unfortunately abroad when Mr Clements called…


(This presumably means simply “out” rather than out of the country.) Mr Clements had brought…


…the enclosed bill upon Mr Hanbury.


Anson and Mytton were engaged in some kind of trade.


…the gum affair will turn out ill…


And what is this?


I have received two hampers of about 5 doz each from Portsmouth…Mr Eddoes writes that the weather is too severe to venture the rest…I have taken the best I can and wrapped it well in straw…


The answer is most likely to be wine or spirits. There is no doubt that Anson’s friend was James Mytton. He signs himself “J Mytton” and some years later Elizabeth Anson makes a comment about Mr Mytton’s problems with his almshouses. These were the Houblon almshouses for which James Mytton became responsible after the death of his great aunt.


James Mytton’s older brother was a wine-merchant, William Mytton. William died in 1746 leaving James the head of the family, and responsible for the up-bringing of his nephew, John Mytton, later an art collector and member of the Society of Dilettanti.

Could it be that James and Thomas Anson were involved in William’s business?


According to a Mytton family web-page James had begun in trade, having been apprenticed to the cloth dealer Josiah Diston in 1713.





These few surviving letters from Mytton to Anson are valuable for these hints of an aspect of Thomas’s life that is otherwise unknown, and for raising unanswered questions. Was this trade connected with the trips to the Levant and the Mediterranean? Did Thomas ever practise in the legal profession?

There are a few more personal details which give the impression that Mytton was more than a business manager.


He writes


I am to thank you for some excellent venison. I gave part of it to my sister Pennant and the rest to Richmond where it will be very acceptable. A chearfull Christmas and many happy years to you all.


“My sister Pennant” was the mother of naturalist, Thomas Pennant. Mytton’s London address is given as Bow Street, but his home was in Richmond, where his great-aunt Susannah Houblon, lived at Ellerker House.


Thomas describes Mytton to Benjamin Whittaker in North Carolina as “our particular friend”. Mytton signs one of his letters to Thomas with


I am ever & most affectionately yours, J Mytton






Thomas Anson had been a very rare tourist in 1734, on the trip which took him to Smyrna and Tenedos, and probably other unknown destinations. A few adventurous, or simply reckless, travellers had followed him a few years later, notably Lord Sandwich and Francis Dashwood.

Sandwich and Dashwood became the leaders of two London clubs for travellers to these exotic places, the Egyptian Society and the Divan Club. Thomas Anson was an active member of both, in contrast to his apparent lack of activity in the Society of Dilettanti. Though these clubs included adventurers and more serious scholars and antiquarians, Thomas’s trip predated those of any of the other members.

John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), had travelled in the Levant between 1738 and 1739, returning to England at the age of only 21. His journey was far more than a young man’s grand tour. Most gentlemen went no further than Italy to get their experience of the world. Sandwich was an extraordinary adventurer, and a he was always a man of great energy and enthusiasm.

Sandwich was an important figure in George Anson’s career after the Commodore returned from his circumnavigation. From 1744 Sandwich and Anson worked together at the Admiralty. From 1748 Sandwich was First Lord of the Admiralty until he was sacked by Lord Newcastle who suspected him of having more loyalty to his rival, the Duke of Bedford.

It is intriguing that Sandwich’s association with Thomas predates his association with George.

Sandwich started the short-lived Egyptian Society in 1741.


(The most detailed source for the Egyptian Society and Divan Club is by Rachel Finnegan,The Divan Club 1744-46, EJOS IX, 2006, No 9 1-86 ISSN 0928-6802, available on: http://www2.let.uu.nl/Solis/anpt/ejos/pdf9/Finnegan-V06.pd)


On 11th December he and his three other founder members, Dr Pococke, Dr Perry and the Danish explorer Capt. Norden, invited the antiquarian William Stukeley to join them as an Associate Member of the new society.


The four founders had all travelled to Egypt. Stukeley was not well travelled, but he was a man with a passion for antiquity, constantly developing his theories about ancient civilisations, their religious beliefs and their archaeological remains.

Stukeley was particularly interested in the Druids, or his interpretation of Ancient British culture, an interest he shared with Dr Pococke. Other members drawn into the Egyptian Society included the Duke of Montagu and Martin Folkes.

William Stukeley had certainly known Folkes for a long time. In 1720 he had written disapprovingly of an invitation from Folkes and William Jones to a meeting of an “Infidel Club.”

Lord Sandwich was elected as Sheik, and the secretary, known as Reis Effendi was Jeremiah Milles until replaced by his cousin Dr Pococke.

The Egyptian Society was founded near the time that Thomas Anson had returned from his Mediterranean, which had included his visit to Cairo, but he did not become a member until a few months later.


Thomas Anson was proposed for membership to the Society on 2nd April 1742, “as having been in Egypt”. His signature is in the minute book in the British Library.

In fact, while there is no evidence that Thomas had any interest in the Society of Dilettanti he is recorded as attending meetings of both the Egyptian Society and the Divan Club.

The Egyptian Club may have enjoyed exotic titles for its officers and perhaps an element of dressing up (in which the Divan Club certainly did indulge) but there was also a serious interest in antiquities. In view of Thomas’s own interest in medals in his later life it is interesting that medals formed a particular interest in the Egyptian Society, with Martin Folkes being given a responsibility for inspecting Egyptian medals and part of the business of the Society was the engraving and printing of a catalogue of them. Dr Pocock “shewed the design of a copper plate for the series of Egyptian medals” at the meeting on 2nd April 1742 at which Thomas Anson was proposed for membership.


A feature of Egyptian Club meetings was a symbolic sistrum, the rattle held in representations of Isis. At one of the earliest meetings, in January 1741/2, Stukeley gave an impromptu lecture on the meaning of this Egyptian rattle.

(Stuart Piggott, William Stukeley. An eighteenth-century antiquary (Revised Edition) (Thames & Hudson 1985)

This meeting took place before Thomas was elected a member. Stukeley, at that time, was living in Stamford, Lincolnshire, where he had the living of All Saints, so he was rarely in London. He may not have met Thomas Anson. Isis, though, with her rattle, appeared a few years later in the Drawing Room at Shugborough.

The last meeting of the Club was 16th April 1743 by which time the Divan Club was already active.


The Divan Club was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood, who had also been one of the founder members of the Society of Dilettanti. He had travelled to Smyrna and Constantinople in 1738-9.

Membership was limited to people who had travelled “in the Sultan’s dominions”, the area ruled by Turkey, which would therefore be open to a wider range of travellers than the Egyptian Society.

Dashwood had his portrait painted by Knapton in fancy dress, as “Il faquir Dashwood Pasha” in about 1745.

The presence of Sir Francis Dashwood and the element of fancy dress might suggest that the Divan Club was another excuse for a party, and getting drunk, as Horace Walpole claimed was the principal purpose of the Society of Dilettanti. There might have been an element of that, but it does appear that the members had a serious interest in travel.

Thomas did not sign up to the Divan Club until two years after the end of the Egyptian Society. He was elected on 1st March 1745 and attended seven meetings, acting once as “Reis effendi” or secretary.


His brother George Anson was also a member at the very end of the Club’s existence. He was proposed by Lord Sandwich and elected to the Divan Club 31st January 1746. He only attended three meetings.


Among other members were Richard Owen Cambridge (whose father had been a “Turkey merchant”), a satirical poet and a friend of Thomas until his death, and a “Mr Wright” who may have been the architect Thomas Wright, though it is hard to imagine that Wright would have been very keen to travel as far as the Sultan’s Dominions. He suffered from sea sickness and his journeys by sea had been fairly disastrous.

Both the Egyptian Society and Divan Club were short lived, but they did bring together people who had an interest in both the contemporary world of the Ottoman Empire and ancient Egypt.

The last meeting of the Divan Club was held on 25 May 1746. Only three members attended.

There is no evidence that Thomas Anson was involved with Sir Francis Dashwood’s more riotous activities at Medmenham or West Wycombe caves.