A Marriage of Science and Poetry

Remembering the Riggs Millers

There are at least two married couples commemorated by separate memorial tablets in the Abbey; Sir John and Lady Anna Riggs Miller are one. Sir John’s is by the door to the clergy vestry in the south choir aisle; his wife’s is on the north side of the sanctuary – larger and more elaborate and ornate.

Sir John shares his memorial with two other members of his family – his son (the second baronet) and his mother-in-law. He was born ‘John Miller’ and only adopted the dual surname when he married Anna Riggs. In 1760, at the age of 16 after eight years at Eton College, he joined the army, working his way up from Cornet in the light-dragoons to Captain in the 113th Foot, and serving in Germany and France. This was a somewhat surprising choice of career as he had already been admitted to the Middle Temple (1757) and he matriculated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1761, though he never graduated.  He retired from the army in 1763 (the end of the Seven Years’ War) and married in August 1765.

The combination of Anna’s fortune and the income from the Miller family estates in County Clare in Ireland enabled Sir John (he was ennobled on 24 August 1778) to build a fine mansion at Batheaston.

The Poetry

Anna came from an Anglo-Irish family; her paternal grandfather – Edward Riggs of Riggsdale in County Cork – was a commissioner of revenue and a privy councilor in Ireland; he was the source of the family’s inherited wealth, to which her father added as commissioner of customs in London, the city of Anna’s birth. She and her husband toured Italy in 1770-71 before taking up residence in the new villa in Batheaston where they instituted a fortnightly literary salon to which Anna invited all the men and women of letters in Bath.  While the Riggs Millers were in Italy, they had acquired an antique vase or urn that had been excavated at Frascati in 1759. It became famous, for during the salons at Batheaston, guests were invited to place an original poem into it; a committee used to select the best three, whose authors were then crowned by Lady Miller with wreaths of myrtle. Several volumes of such poems were published in quick succession between 1775 and 1781, though Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole were both extremely scornful of the result.  It is likely that the practice of placing poems in the urn inspired the design of her memorial, as the vase continued to be used for many years after Lady Miller’s death in 1781. One of the successful poets, Anne Seward, composed the verses inscribed on her memorial. Sad to say, their quality as poetry leaves much to be desired. Indeed, we can only surmise that they were dictated to the sculptor, who was patently unable to make sense of them.  

The third stanza is addressed to any sensitive passer by reading the marble: 

Are Truth and Genius, Love and Pity thine? 

With lib’ral Charity and Faith sincere? 

Then rest thy wand’ring Step beneath this Shrine; 

And greet a kindred Spirit hov’ring here. 

 Except that the sculptor misunderstood the last word and carved “hear”, which he was subsequently obliged to attempt to change, as those who get close to the monument can clearly see! 

The Science

John was MP for Newport (Cornwall) from 1784-1790 and as a result of his interest in science, he proposed to the House of Commons (on 5 February 1790) that the British system of weights and measures should be reformed. News of this suggestion reached Talleyrand in France who was considering a similar move. The French government proposed collaboration on the project but their British counterparts rebuffed the proposal and the French later went ahead on their own. Sir John hoped to maintain interest in the reform but parliament was dissolved later that same year and he was not re-elected.

John After Anna

Sir John had been widowed before his parliamentary career began – Anna died “at the Hot Wells of Bristol” on 24 June 1781. Only in September 1795 did Sir John re-marry: Jane, the second Lady Riggs Miller, was the widow of Sir Thomas Davenport MP who had died in 1786. They had no children, whereas John and Anna had both a son (named on his father’s memorial tablet) and a daughter.

Text taken from The Friends of Bath Abbey Annual Report 2022 – Jeremy Key-Pugh.

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