Elizabeth Cobbold’s Poetic Parties

A young Elizabeth Cobbold, captured by an artist unknown Picture: The Cobbold Family History Trust – Credit: Archant

Elizabeth Cobbold was a British writer, poet, geologist, philanthropist and patron of the arts born in 1767.

Mrs. Cobbold, in one of her poetical epistles to a friend, thus most characteristically describes herself:

A botanist one day, or grave antiquarian,
Next morning a sempstress, or abecedarian;
Now making a frock, and now marring a picture,
Next conning a deep philosophical lecture;
At night at the play, or assisting to kill
The time of the idlers with whist or quadrille;
In cares or amusements still taking a part, 
Though science and friendship are nearest my heart.

She was a leading light in the social and intellectual life of Ipswich, Suffolk UK. From 1806 Cobbold was known for her annual St. Valentine Day Ball and elaborate “lottery” cards which had poetic verses written by herself which she published in 1813 and 1814. The verses were attached to cleverly cut paper and it has been said that the skill of the cutting exceeded the quality of the poetry.

Elizabeth also served as the inspiration behind Mrs Leo Hunter who is “a lady of literary pretensions and dotes on poetry” and hostess of a grand costume breakfast in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers.

Her St Valentine’s Day gatherings were the social event of the year. They were held initially at a Cobbold house called The Cliff, by the River Orwell beginning in 1806. Later parties were further out of town, at the family’s Holywells mansion in Ipswich, Suffolk UK.

A pen and ink illustration of Holywells, Ipswich, taken from Elizabeth Cobbold’s scrapbook, 1820 Picture: The Cobbold Family History Trust – Credit: Archant

For these occasions, Mrs. Cobbold designed, composed, and executed, with great taste and elegance, a collection of delicate paper-cut St Valentine’s cards for unmarried guests. Each card she inscribed with an original verse. The event became a mainstay of the social calendar, continuing for 20 years. Each card was cut from a doubled piece of paper so that there were two copies of each. “At the end of the Ball, all the ones for girls were put in one hat and all the ones for boys were put in another. Each person drew out a picture and the boy and girl who drew the same picture were officially a St. Valentine’s couple, decided by fate.”

Twas not Cecilia’s notes alone
That from the seraph circled throne
Drew choirs of blessed angels down
But ’twas her heart with feeling fraught
Her tender love, her heavenly thought
That such celestial inmates brought
To you such mental concord given
Such sweet affection, spirits even
Must make your earthly home a heaven

In consequence of the anxiety expressed by many of Mrs. Cobbold’s friends to possess copies of her Valentines, she in 1813 and 1814, printed them for private circulation as Cliff Valentines (Cliff being the name of her house in Ipswich); and on the presentation of a copy to a noble Earl in the vicinity of Ipswich, his Lordship inserted in the blank page the following complimentary verses:

A Valentine of adverse fate,
Still anxious for a willing mate,
Into this book once took a peep
In hope some benefit to reap,
At least to search with eager eyes,
The likeliest way to gain a prize;
Encourag’d by the courteous strain
He read, admir’d, and read again;
The graces lead him through the page,
The muses too his mind engage,
Announcing in attraction’s name
A welcome to the festive game,
Held on this spot, where every year
Hope and her jocund nymphs appear,
And from her train of thronging fair
Not one is banish’d but despair;
Wealth, wit and beauty here combine
To celebrate Saint Valentine,
By which this coveted retreat
Displays Elysium compleat;
Enraptur’d with the painted bliss,
He cries, explain the cause of this,
What Goddess here so chaste resides,
And with such attic taste presides?
Under what Star auspicious teems
The soil with such Pierian streams?
At Cliff, declare on whose account,
Parnassus rears another mount?
Quoth Truth, “’tis Cobbold here is Queen,
Her genius forms the classic scene.”

Visit the The Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, and Devotional Ephemera at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Long form articles:




Elizabeth Cobbold Georgian Polymath

By Adele Mallen, 2019

Published by The Cobbold Family History Trust

ISBN 9780993211713


Elizabeth 1767-1824 Cobbold

Published by Wentworth Press, United States (2016)

ISBN 10: 1372954090 ISBN 13: 9781372954092

The Pickwick Papers (Classics)

Dickens, Charles

Published by Bantam Classics (1983)

ISBN 10: 0553211234 ISBN 13: 9780553211238

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