Lord Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby (1752 – 1834)
by Paula Gerrard

Lord Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, came from one of the most influential families in Lancashire. In Surrey, he owned the Oaks, a mansion in Carshalton. He married Lady Elizabeth Hamilton in 1774. The marriage was unhappy. The Countess, among other things, objected to her husband holding cock fights in the drawing room. They had three children before the unhappy Elizabeth found consolation with the womanizing Duke of Dorset. She must have hoped that Derby would divorce her, leaving her to marry again. He refused, and banned her from seeing her children. She died, lonely and isolated, in 1797.

Angelica Kaufmann, ca 1766. ‘Edward Smith Stanley (1752–1834), Twelfth Earl of Derby, Elizabeth, Countess of Derby (Lady Elizabeth Hamilton, 1753–1797), and Their Son (Edward Smith Stanley, 1775–1851)’. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Earl had taken a companion, the Irish actress Elizabeth Farren, marrying her one week after the death of his wife. Gillray produced a print on the occasion, showing the bride; - “A Coronet! ... ah, it must be mine, now, there’s nobody left to hinder!”

Sir Thomas Larence, 1790. ‘Elizabeth Farren (born about 1759, died 1829), Later Countess of Derby’. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
James Gillray, 20 March 1797. ‘Contemplations upon a Coronet’, NPG D12604

Derby’s passion was for bloodsports, racing and gambling. In 1824 the Lancashire Gazette praised him as a Master of Staghounds, the owner of 3000 fighting cocks, and a promoter of horse racing. In 1778 the Earl and his friends planned a race for fillies at Epsom the following year. It was a great success. The race was christened the Oaks, after Derby’s house. After the first Oaks in 1779, someone suggested organising a different race the next year. One of the guests was Sir Charles Bunbury, and there is a story that Derby and Bunbury tossed a coin to decide who named it. Derby won, and so the first Derby was held in 1780.

As the event grew, so did the festivities. William Powell Frith painted “The Derby Day” in 1856-58, showing the excitement of the meeting, with acrobats, entertainers – and cheats.

Derby’s political career had been uninspiring, and his support of the arts unremarkable. But his impact upon popular culture has been immense. Every time the Derby is run, the name recalls the colourful career of the 12th Earl of Derby.

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