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‘Patronage’ - Sounds Historic But Still Alive

Australians have been entertained recently by the contortions of the Labor Party as they attempt to shoehorn one of their “privileged” white female leaders from an affluent seaside suburb into a “safe” labour working class constituency in the west of Sydney. In the process they displaced a local Vietnamese female candidate who had been the pick of the constituency party. It has caused an uproar and divided the party. So much for “diversity” and the right of local people to pick their MP! Patronage is evidently still alive if not as well as it once was!

Image: Aristocratic ladies knew how to be effective patrons. Three 18C Ladies by Joshua Reynolds with thanks

‘Patronage’ in History

Patronage was the way to advancement in the eighteenth century just as education is most often viewed as the way to get ahead in the current culture. To modern sensibilities, Patronage sounds like corruption. And indeed it was – and still is. It hasn’t entirely disappeared, though it is thankfully weaker now. We still rely on connections or we dispense Patronage to those we favour. We call up a “friend” to recommend someone’s son or daughter for a job, knowing full well that they will earn extra consideration as a result of the intervention. We exchange favours and think of it as reciprocity.

As a historical author who believes in being as accurate as possible, I researched the impacts of patronage on people’s lives for Nelson’s Folly.

At a time when wealth and power in England was highly concentrated in a few families of great wealth and influence, Patronage was central. If you had a Patron you could get a good job, meet the right spouse or obtain a commission in the military. You could get a seat in Parliament and get a title. Ultimately you could get control of sufficient Patronage yourself to make you a person of wealth and influence.

If you wanted to work for the government, you needed someone with the power to appoint or recommend you. Civil Service examinations were not introduced until the nineteenth century was well under way. The army relied on patronage for almost all its officers.

Navy Rejects Patronage

By contrast the navy was more open to raw talent. Battleships were valuable - costly to replace - so you needed someone who knew how to sail and fight them. Non Commission officers took care of operating the ship but you needed Commission officers in charge who knew seamanship as well as fighting. So it was possible to get a position on a fighting ship without Patronage if you had a good track record.

Nevertheless, it was still necessary to have a sea going appointment and enter under the correct conditions in the first place. The answer was to go to sea as young as possible and to join a ship whose Captain was your patron. This had two advantages: you learned seamanship young enough to become good at it, and you could get on the promotion escalator at a young age and be appointed to more senior ranks early – as promotion depended on seniority together with Patronage and Performance.

Nelson’s Patronage

When Horatio went to sea in 1793 he took his step son Josiah, who was then thirteen, with him. By the time Josiah was nineteen he was Captain of a frigate with over three hundred men under him. Hoste, later a successful frigate captain, was another beneficiary of Horatio’s Patronage and was a captain’s servant on Agamemnon at the age of ten. He made Captain in his early twenties. His joining Agamemnon was a deal between Horatio and Mr Coke, later the Earl of Leicester, who was a local grandee and owner of the “living” (the parish church) occupied by Horatio’s father, Reverend Edmund Nelson. Horatio could hardly say no to his request, although Coke had to pay for young Hoste’s expenses.

Image: Midshipman Henry William Baynton

aged 13 by Thomas Hickey c1780

Horatio was himself the beneficiary of Patronage from many important people and cultivated them carefully. Prominent among these were his uncles on his mother’s side who worked at the Admiralty and Navy Board but he was also a beneficiary of Patronage from Viscount Hood and from his friendship with the Duke of Clarence -the brother of George III, later King William IV.

Women’s role as Patrons

What about women? Their lives were far more circumscribed by custom of the day and for them marriage was the best source of advancement - as anyone who has read the books of Jane Austen will affirm. They depended on their family connections to secure a “good” marriage, namely a marriage to someone of wealth and afterwards they relied on their husband for their influence. But they too would be cultivated as possible Patrons - to put in a good word at the right time and right place. When Fanny lived in Bath, young naval officers called on her regularly. No doubt they brought her up to date on everything they knew about Horatio’s movements and in return she might mention their names to Horatio next time she wrote a letter.

The great aristocratic ladies of London Society wielded Patronage with great skill. If they didn’t like you they wouldn’t invite you to their dinners and you would never make the “A” List. Lady Spencer, wife of the First Lord of the Admiralty, was a powerful person. As a matter of course she didn’t invite any wives of sea captains to her house. But she made an exception for Fanny. No doubt this was a valuable entrée to Society for Fanny who would then have been eligible for other social invitations. She would put this to good use by keeping Horatio up to date. Keeping your fingers on the pulse of London Society might be crucial when it was decided whether you should be admitted to the nobility and at what level. At one point, the King wanted to reward Horatio with money rather than a peerage after the Battle of the Nile. Horatio’s “Patrons” in London, especially Lord Spencer, prevailed on the King to change his mind.’

The Decline of Patronage

Eventually, as the nineteenth century brought reform and greater equality in English society and an education and a job that paid a salary became more common, Patronage declined. The decline and fall of the great aristocratic families as their lands depreciated in value and industry offered alternative ways to become rich, meant Patronage became less and less needed. Eventually reform aimed at the more blatant corruption swept away the remnants of what was once the only way to advance. The “old school tie” has survived to the present day but that is now under pressure as a means to advance.

Today we look at Horatio’s world and we see his rise as a consequence of his skill in battle and great personal courage. If we shade the picture with what we know about ever-present Patronage system we understand something else was involved as well. It was who you knew as well as well as what you did which made a difference in getting to the top of the Navy. However, in his heroic death Horatio contributed to the decline of Patronage. It became part of the culture of the Royal Navy that “doing your duty” was of first importance.

Fanny too helped undermine the Patronage system. By resisting Horatio’s shameful pressure to accept his mistress into their marriage, as was common at that time, Fanny paid a high price - living as a single woman for the rest of her life. But her example of being faithful to her beliefs was noticed by Society. Its leaders continued to support her.

Historic but Still Alive

From the perspective of the twenty-first century this might seem to be academic. The transition of our society and its culture to the egalitarianism of the present seems to be natural. But it was not. The decline of eighteenth century-style Patronage necessitated a complete change in values and an acceptance of a new way of living which would have been unthinkable in Horatio and Fanny’s day. In many areas of our society this has been achieved. Judging from this week’s controversy in Cabramatta, there is still some way to go.

Image: SMH ‘A blow-in’: Kristina Keneally contest divides opinion in Cabramatta

Nelson’s Folly by Oliver Greeves is available in hard copy or on kindle at and other online book stores or at The Constant Reader Bookshop in Mosman and Crows Nest.

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