25 Jul 2023

The Big Red Book

The historic origins of Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage are owed to William Dugdale, a passionate genealogist and researcher, who had spent time “attending the late King Charles the Firft (of Bleffed Memory) in His Garifon at Oxford”. He spent three years, from 1643–46, in Oxford with the King, where he dedicated himself to the task of exploiting the resources of the Bodleian Library and chronicling the ranks of the British aristocracy, their heredity and genealogy.

His original compendious work was published in 1685 by Abel Roper, John Martin and Henry Herringham. A new edition of the Peerage and Baronetage, based on Dugdale’s research, was published by Arthur Collins in 1709, but in later editions his meticulous research was somewhat undermined by the editors’ tendency to flatter and pay court to their subjects, and various inaccuracies were recorded (these were meticulously eliminated from the late 18th century onward).

John Almon, a Piccadilly-based bookseller and publisher, took over Arthur Collins’s work after his death and, in 1769, he published the The New Peerage, a two-volume, pocket-sized, leather-bound set, which had been much updated and improved. Almon engaged the services of John Debrett (born 1753), the son of French immigrants who had been apprenticed to another Piccadilly bookseller, Robert Davis, at the age of thirteen. He set about his task of meticulously checking and verifying the contents of the book and worked with a keen eye. In 1780 he became Almon’s partner, and when he retired in 1781, John Debrett took over his business, publishing the first edition in his own name in 1784: Printed for W Owen in Fleet Street; L Davis in Holborn; and J Debrett, successor to Mr Almon, opposite Burlington House in Piccadilly

John Debrett had arrived on the literary scene at a time when books, journals and publishing were a flourishing aspect of London society. Various booksellers attracted dedicated political followings (Almon’s was a Whig meeting-place) and the hotly debated topics of the day – from the rights of man to revolution, religious dissent, imperial expansion and political reform – were the inspiration for an outpouring of publications and interest in the printed world. Significant works published by John Debrett during the tumultuous 1790s include: Journal of the Voyage to new South Wales by John White, Surgeon General to the Settlement (1790); History of the French Revolution, by J P Rabaut St Etienne (1792); Plan of the New Constitution for the United States of America (1792); A Short History of the East India Company, by Francis Russell (1793).

In 1794 John Debrett advertised ‘‘The POCKET PEERAGE of ENGLAND, SCOTLAND and IRELAND; containing the Defcent and Prefent State of every Noble Family; with the Extinct, Forfeited, and Dormant Titles of the three Kingdoms. Alfo, General and Particular INDEXES, with the Arms emblazoned and the Mottoes tranflated. In 2 vols, price 9s, in boards.’ By 1802 John Debrett, with his shop at 180 Piccadilly, had become a well-respected and notable London bookseller, and in that year he brought out a new edition of Almon’s Guide to the Peerage. His name was now sufficiently recognisable for it to be entitled Debretts Peerage.

What was the primary purpose of Debrett’s book? On the face of it, it was an exercise in genealogy, a thoroughly researched and minutely detailed examination of the bloodlines of the aristocracy, and therefore a directory of the powerbrokers, landowners and wealthy elite who dominated British society. An entry in Debrett (as it was dubbed) was a validation of rank and dignity. Social intercourse was predicated on rigidly defined notions of status, and protocol was dictated by the notion of precedence, a strictly defined pecking order that reflected the ascending order of dignity of aristocratic ranks, which underpinned all social interactions, from official events to placement at the dining table. Debrett was therefore an invaluable reference tool for anyone who went out into society, and particularly for anyone who aspired to be a successful and respected host or public figure.

Debrett was the first (although others would follow suit) to publish a volume dedicated solely to the recording of baronets when, in 1800, the first edition of Debrett’s Baronetage was published. Undoubtedly some individuals whose family ties and heredity gave them an entrée into the Baronetage, were somewhat over-inflated by notion of their own blue-blooded credentials and Jane Austen enjoys satirising the social aspirations and self-importance of the baronet, Sir Walter Elliott in Persuasion (1817), which makes a reference to this first edition of the Baronetage:

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.”

Austen notes that he ponders the “limited remnant of the earliest patent” and the “endless creations of the last century”, a reference to the fact that Debrett, with its regular updates and amendments kept meticulous track of the vagaries of inheritance, the perils of dormant titles, the creation of new titles, the forming of advantageous alliances, the births and deaths, and the intricate web of connections that bound the upper classes together. The book sent despatches from the upper echelons of society and was relied upon as a reliable and indispensable source of information.

Inevitably, when marriage was seen as an effective way of acquiring social rank (and indeed many aspirants were dismissed as “social climbers”), it was imperative for ambitious parents to be well-informed about the attributes of potential suitors. Undoubtedly, they would have frequently leafed through the pages of Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage when their daughters came out in society and would have eagerly combed the entries relating to the young gentlemen their daughters encountered at balls and soirees. This process worked both ways, and families of inveterate bachelors were probably equally scrupulous when it came to vetting young ladies. In the words of Oscar Wilde, in The Portrait of Dorian Grey:

“Well, we must look out for a suitable match for him. I shall go through Debrett carefully to-night and draw out a list of all the eligible young ladies.”

Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage has been published continuously, though not always at regular intervals, since the late 18th century. A succession of editors, many of them closely involved with the College of Arms, kept the flame alight in the 19th century, through the auspices of various publishers. A knightage section was added in 1865 and remained part of the volume until 1973.

In the 20th century, there were just five editors: Arthur George Maynard Hesilrige; Cyril Hankinson; Patrick Wykeham Montague-Smith; and, as joint editors, Charles Kidd and David Williamson. In the 21st century Debrett’s acquired its first female editor, Wendy Bosberry-Scott, and in 2021 the venerable red book finally went exclusively online, where it is continuously updated.

Over the past 200 years ago society has undergone extraordinary changes and the Peerage & Baronetage has reflected these transformations, including expanding to include illegitimate children, adopted children, same-sex marriages and civil partnerships. The large number of life peers that now populate the House of Lords have also found their way to Debrett’s pages and every new creation is meticulously recorded, following a tradition of research and scholarship that dates to the 17th and 18th centuries.

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