Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Selwyn, George Augustus (1719-1791)
SELWYN, GEORGE AUGUSTUS (1719–1791), wit and politician, was born on 11 Aug. 1719. His father, Colonel John Selwyn of Matson, near Gloucester (son of Major-General William Selwyn, governor of Jamaica in 1703–4), had been an aide-de-camp to Marlborough, was M.P. for Gloucester from 1734 to 1747, and treasurer of Queen Caroline's pensions; he died on 6 Nov. 1751. George inherited his wit from his mother Mary, a daughter of General Farrington, a vivacious beauty, and a woman of the bedchamber to Queen Caroline. It was at her house in Cleveland Court, St. James's, that occurred the scuffle between Walpole and Townshend, which was the original of the quarrel scene between Peachum and Lockit in the ‘Beggar's Opera.’ She died on 6 Nov. 1777, aged 86 (cf. Hervey, Memoirs; Walpole, Correspondence, ed. Cunningham, vol. i. passim). Selwyn was the contemporary of Gray and Horace Walpole at Eton, and matriculated from Hart Hall (afterwards Hertford College), Oxford, on 1 Feb. 1738–9. A short residence at the university was followed by the grand tour, but Selwyn returned to Oxford in 1744, and was rusticated in the following year for a reputed insult to the Christian religion; he contended that the freak (of employing a chalice at a wine party) was merely a satire on the doctrines taught by the church of Rome. Having been forbidden to approach within five miles of the university, he took his name off the books to avoid expulsion (Selwyn and his Contemporaries, i. 86). Already, before twenty-one, he had been appointed to the sinecures of clerk of the irons and surveyor of the meltings of the mint, the work being performed by deputy, and his sole labour consisted in dining weekly at the public expense. But his pay and the allowance from his father only brought him a total income of 220l. a year.
In 1747 he was returned to parliament for the family borough of Ludgershall, of which he became the proprietor on the death of his father on 6 Nov. 1751; his elder brother John, M.P. for Whitchurch, had died of a polypus in the heart on 27 June 1751. He also succeeded to the estate and mansion of Matson and to influence which enabled him to sit for the city of Gloucester from 1754 to 1780, while he could nominate two members for Ludgershall. In parliament he was not merely silent, but nearly always asleep, except when taking part in a division. He voted with the court party, and was rewarded with the further sinecure of registrar of the court of chancery in Barbados, and paymaster of the works, with a large salary. The latter office was abolished in 1782, but Selwyn was appointed by Pitt in the following year to the equally lucrative position of surveyor-general of the works.
Though Selwyn, like Calcraft, was a silent member of parliament, he was a noted conversationist in the clubs and the author of witticisms which set the tables in a roar. He was elected to White's in 1744, and his name was attached to the Jockey Club resolutions of 1767. He was fond of play and, it is said, of women. Walpole relates that the demureness with which Selwyn uttered a good thing gave zest to it, but the savour of such of his jests as survive has long been lost. Perhaps the cleverest of his recorded remarks was that made to Walpole, who had said that the system of politics under George III was the same as that under his grandfather, George II, and that there was nothing new under the sun. Selwyn added, ‘nor under the grandson.’ In play he had better fortune than many of his associates, and was not beggared. There is no foundation for the story which Wraxall has recorded, that Selwyn joined with Lord Bessborough in 1780 in hindering Sheridan's election at Brooks's Club. Lord Bessborough was not a member of the club till two years after Sheridan's election.
Selwyn's fondness for seeing corpses and criminals and for attending executions was the subject of frequent comment during his lifetime, but it was warmly disputed by intimate friends like Dr. Warner and Philip Thicknesse (Gent. Mag. 1791, i. 299, ii. 705). Warner declared that his really distinguishing trait was
Social wit which, never kindling strife,
Blazed in the small sweet courtesies of life.
After suffering several years from gout and dropsy, Selwyn died at his house in Cleveland Court, St. James's, on 25 Jan. 1791. A portrait of Selwyn by Reynolds (along with Frederick, fifth earl of Carlisle) is in the Carlisle collection. There is a well-known portrait of him (also by Reynolds), along with Richard Edgecumbe and ‘Gilly’ Williams. Both are reproduced in the ‘History of White's Club.’
Selwyn was unmarried. His fondness for children was, however, extreme. He adopted a girl named Maria Fagniani, of whom the Marchesa Fagniani was the mother, and who married, in 1798, Francis Charles, third marquis of Hertford [see under Seymour, Francis Ingram, second Marquis of Hertford], and died at a very advanced age at Paris on 2 March 1856. A dispute between the Duke of Queensberry and Selwyn as to the paternity of the girl was never settled. Both Selwyn and the Duke of Queensberry left her large sums at their deaths.
[Jesse's Selwyn and his Contemporaries; Hayward's Essays, i. 149–208; S. Parnell Kerr's George Selwyn and the Wits, 1909; Black's Jockey Club, pp. 131–3; Liechtenstein's Holland House; Wheatley and Cunningham's London; Gent. Mag. 1791, i. 94, 183, 299.]