Ross Poldark scandalised Cornish society by marrying his scullery maid, the daughter of a miner. His real-life equivalent was Sir John St Aubyn, born in 1758. John succeeded to the family estates at Clowance in west Cornwall and at Devonport in 1772.
Although rarely living on his Cornish estate, preferring houses in Essex and Hertfordshire, John dutifully served as Sheriff of Cornwall and then became a Member of Parliament. Over the years he represented Truro, Penryn and Helston. Not that his political career was marked by any great achievements, as Sir John never actually bothered to speak in the Commons.
Nonetheless, he was a keen mineralogist, as were many Cornish gentry in Cornwall’s mining boom, a patron of the arts, in particular befriending and sponsoring John Opie, the most prominent Cornish artist of the time. None of this prevented him from leading a colourful private life. John was attracted to the opposite sex and, before the age of 21, had ‘formed a connection’ with an Italian woman. He had a child by her while spending three years in France on an extended Grand Tour.
Later, he conducted long-distance relationships with not one, but two Cornish women. One was Martha Nicholls, daughter of a landscape gardener and the other Juliana Vinicombe of Marazion. Martha bore him seven illegitimate children and Juliana another eight, before he did the decent thing and married Juliana in 1822, aged 64. (She was 11 years younger.)
Sir John eventually passed away in 1839 at 81, a good age for the time. He was one of the last of the more buccaneering Cornish squirearchy who apparently cared little about reputation or gossip.
Sir John is one of the characters who will make an appearance in my forthcoming book, The Real World of Poldark: an insider’s guide, which will be published before the end of March.