Recent tabloid stories about public figures remind me there is nothing new under the sun. In the late 1820s the lord chancellor, Edinburgh-born Henry Brougham, supporter of the abolition of slavery,  found himself the victim of long-term blackmail by the courtesan Harriet Wilson. Described as ‘the ugliest man of the present century next to Liston and Lord Carlyle’, Brougham gave his name to both a pair of plaid trousers and a four-wheeled  carriage. He was one for what my mother used to call ‘light ladies’.

The free-thinking author Harriet Martineau had no time for him at all: ‘He wears a black stock or collar and it is so wide that you see a dirty coloured handkerchief under, tied tight round his neck’. She thought him ‘vain, selfish, low in morals and unrestrained in temper’. Just the sort of lord chancellor one looks for then. Perhaps Ms Martineau is being unfair. One portrait of him shows a rather handsome Byronic man, but in Punch cartoons he was regularly drawn as a crow or Othello.

It was not only light ladies he chased. One evening, as a guest of the Duchess of Bedford he ‘romped so familiarly with the ladies that, to be revenged on him, they stole the Great Seal and hid it in a tea chest’.

It was when Harriet Wilson decided to publish her memoirs that she wrote to Brougham  from Paris suggesting that, if he wished his name to be omitted, £40 per annum (the first to be paid in advance) would do nicely and should be sent forthwith.

‘If [the money] does not arrive at no 14 Rue du Colysée à Paris Faubourg St Honoré I shall apply to Lady Brougham directly sending her a copy of this letter,’ she added. ‘Should that lady not object to the publication of her husband’s adultery – B-lting etc. then why should I?’

The cheque was in the post, so to speak.

Brougham then met the even more disastrous Lola Montez. But that is for another time.

James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor