Southwark, London, 5 March 1790
Denied all contact with her mother for the past five years, twelve-year-old Mary could hardly believe the news. All her life she had been hidden away. Born in secrecy, a source of bitterness to her bullying father as she grew up, she had borne silent witness to her mother’s cries when she was beaten and to her father’s grunts as he seduced or raped the maids in the nursery where she slept. At six she had been despatched to boarding school and left there while Bowes took her stepsister Anna to France. When her mother fled a year later Mary had been seized by Bowes and removed to a secret location in the care of his stooge Eliza Stephens. And even after Bowes had disowned her as his daughter and exposed her illegitimacy to the world by publicising her mother’s ‘Confessions’, he had kept her close. Now her life was about to change.
Ever since Mary Eleanor had escaped in February 1785, Bowes had bluntly refused her any access to or news of her two youngest children. While he publicly bemoaned the fact that Mary had left him with ‘two poor little helpless Children’ he vindictively deprived them of any communication with their mother. In this, of course, he was entirely within his rights since eighteenth-century law gave fathers absolute control over their children up to the age of twenty-one. Unless separating couples signed a private agreement which specified a right to custody or access, mothers had no recourse in law to see their children - and even then such clauses were sometimes overruled by the courts. So although Bowes was serving a three-year sentence for abduction and had been found guilty of cruelty and adultery, he was acting in full accordance with the law when keeping young William incarcerated in his prison quarters and little Mary under careful guard. Naturally he had no particular interest in William or Mary themselves - any more than he cared about the ever-growing brood of illegitimate children he continued to father. Their value was simply as a bargaining tool with their mother; they were, quite literally, hostages to fortune.
Nevertheless, despite the centuries of legal precedent and the sorry experiences of countless grieving mothers, Mary Eleanor was now resolved to win back her children. Approaches by her lawyers during the several stages of the divorce had come to nothing; Bowes had adamantly refused to relinquish any hold on his charges. But gradually, after her legal victories in 1789, Mary had begun to win a number of important figures to her cause.
First and foremost, her eldest son, the twenty-year-old Lord Strathmore, had pledged to reunite the family. A sensible and sensitive young man, who had spent several years abroad with his regiment, the earl had grown increasingly close to his mother; after a visit from the Continent in early 1789, she had noted plaintively in her scrapbook, ‘my son did come over for 10 days, just to see me.’1 No doubt remembering his own lonely childhood, when he returned to England on army leave that summer, John lent his weight to his mother’s battle to regain William and Mary. As well as the stoical James Farrer, championing her legal business as ever, Mary had won the support of the influential magistrate Sir Sampson Wright. Having succeeded his former boss, Sir John Fielding, as magistrate of the famous Bow Street police office, Wright was a justice of the peace for Middlesex, Essex and Surrey. Even Thomas Lyon, her oldest adversary, now condescended to help her claim. And crucially, that autumn, Mary had secured the help of one of Bowes’s most loyal collaborators.
Once Mary’s closest confidante, later her fiercest critic, the treacherous Eliza Stephens had not hesitated to testify to the illegitimacy and secret birth of the little girl with whose welfare she had been entrusted from the age of seven. In the wake of Bowes’s court defeats, however, which jeopardised the £200 annuity she had received since leaving the family in 1778, she had evidently surmised that her best interests lay elsewhere. Secretly meeting with Mary and Lord Strathmore at her home in Plympton, Devon, Eliza had been persuaded with the help of a generous donation to divulge vital information about little Mary and her whereabouts. So Mary gleaned that her daughter was being held in a private school, run by a certain Mrs Gilbert, in the hamlet of Newington, just a stone’s throw from Bowes’s prison quarters in Southwark. Since the neighbourhood boasted four prisons, whose inmates were commonly given leave to frequent the abundant local taverns, as well as the Magdalen Hospital for prostitutes, Bowes had evidently not chosen the school for its salubrious surroundings. Rather it allowed him to maintain a rigorous watch on his daughter and her visitors. Vigilantly guarded, Mary was permitted to see only Bowes, her little brother William on occasional excursions from his prison home, and an older sister of Eliza’s referred to as Mrs Baddiley. Her holidays were spent with Eliza in more peaceful environs, if no less degenerate company, in Devon. But now that Bowes no longer received sufficient income to pay her school fees, little Mary’s future seemed uncertain.
In a series of fawning letters sent covertly to Mary Eleanor from October 1789, Eliza voiced her dread that Bowes might discover her betrayal and then remove Mary to ‘where perhaps neither of us might be able to discover her’. Agreeing nonetheless to act as go-between, Eliza hoped that ‘Happier Prospects’ were in store for her former charge. Writing again two months later, Eliza reported that Mary was well and declared, ‘our wishes for your getting Possession of both your Children, are more earnest than I can express.’ A few weeks later, having ominously heard no further news from young Mary, Eliza hoped that she would stay safe at her school in Newington ‘till the happy Period which will I trust restore her to her Mother’. The New Year brought new information as Eliza forwarded several letters from little Mary which revealed that she had spent the Christmas holidays at school, ‘& not in Scenes of Wretchedness & Impropriety’, by which Eliza apparently referred to Bowes’s prison rather than her own pastoral abode. But with the half-year’s school bill expected imminently, the child’s prospects were in the balance.
By the end of January 1790, Bowes was decidedly feeling the pinch. Saddled with costs from his various lawsuits, alimony payments due to Mary and claims for backdated rents and profits from her estate, he appeared before the Court of Delegates pleading his inability to pay the divorce suit costs due to his responsibilities to his two children. If forced to pay, he argued, not only would he remain ‘a Prisoner for Life’ but his children would ‘with himself be reduced to very great distress if not absolute Want’.2 There was an obvious solution to this predicament, as Mary was quick to point out, assuring the court in person that she was ‘now willing to receive the said two Children and will at all times hereafter be ready to receive, maintain, Cloathe and Educate the said two Children in a suitable and proper manner’. With no jurisdiction over child custody, the judges simply confirmed that Bowes must pay. When he still refused, with more than £500 outstanding, on 5 February 1790 he was excommunicated for contempt of court.3 On news of the order reaching Newcastle, the city’s former MP was solemnly denounced from the pulpit of St Nicholas’s Church by the curate John Ellison, son of the Reverend Nathaniel Ellison who had married Bowes to Hannah Newton twenty-two years earlier.
Unable to pay for the children’s upkeep or settle his debts, and therefore condemned to remain in prison, Bowes’s grip on William and Mary seemed increasingly weak, as Eliza noted. ‘I should imagine that the last decision relative to the Costs of Suit must produce such consequences as must remove every fear of a party being ever at liberty to again give us any cause of apprehension,’ she wrote to Mary Eleanor in February, adding, ‘His Declaration of inability to maintain them must surely accelerate the restoration of both your Children to you.’ By early March, Mary had secured the consent of Sir Sampson Wright and Thomas Lyon to stand as trustees with Lord Strathmore in settling £5,000 each on William and Mary if they could be made wards of Chancery. Unable to finalise the agreement until the earl’s twenty-first birthday, just a month away, she remained on tenterhooks. As James Farrer briefed counsel for a hearing to determine wardship with Lord Chancellor Kenyon - no friend to separated women - Mary urged him to cite Bowes’s lifestyle and stress that ‘he is not only a Prisoner for Cruell & illegal Acts, but is living in public Infamy continually Inebriated, surrounded with prostituted Women, which in its best representation must be a horrid Scene for an Innocent Mind’.4 Yet since such considerations had rarely given the courts pause for thought in previous cases, Mary decided to take the law into her own hands. Playing Bowes at his own game, she had resolved to seize her daughter from her hiding place in south London. With the city’s leading magistrate on her side, and the child’s keeper, Mrs Gilbert, won over to her mission, Mary laid plans to bring her daughter home.
Told on 5 March, at her school in Newington, that she was to be reunited with her mother the very next day, young Mary was ecstatic. The touching letter that she wrote, the first communication with her mother for more than five years, survives to this day. ‘My Dear Mama’, she began, ‘It is with the greatest satisfaction I understand that you will be glad to hear from me. It is so long a Time since I have had the Happiness of either seeing or hearing from you, that I cannot express the Joy it was to me to be informed by my Lady Wright of my turn of Fortune in being now I hope under your Protection. When I parted from you I was much too young to know the loss of a Mother. I am sensible of the duty and affection I owe to you and my Brother.’5 With no hint of resentment at her mother having left her behind, Mary added: ‘I long very much to see you and hope there is nothing now more wanting to complete my happiness.’ Loyally she did not forget to mention: ‘I am sure you will be very glad to see my dear little Brother William indeed he is a very fine Boy.’ And despite the five years’ absence, she assured her mother, ‘I have not forgot any place where I spent my Infancy and I believe I could find my way over one half of Paulswalden and Gibside Houses &c.’
It was an emotional reunion. So flustered that she could barely manage the usual pleasantries with Thomas Lacey, Mary later apologised that her ‘flurry’ was ‘nothing but the circumstance of being restored to the sight of a long lost Child could excuse’.6 But it was still a highly risky manoeuvre. Immediately discovering the breach in his security, Bowes obtained a habeas corpus writ demanding Mary surrender her daughter. She in turn urged her lawyers to press Lord Kenyon to ‘grant a protection for the child, on acct. of her age, & sex, till proper Trustees can be appointed’.7 All depended on the anticipated hearing in Chancery.
By 13 April, when Lord Strathmore celebrated his twenty-first birthday and inherited his late father’s estate, the younger children’s futures remained unclear. With snow heavy on the ground at Gibside, tenants and staff caroused in the great hall into the night, consuming vast quantities of rum, port, ale and punch as they toasted the young earl’s health. Celebrating more soberly at her recovered home of St Paul’s Walden Bury, Mary set in motion a legal settlement under the terms of her re-established prenuptial deed to hand the remaining estate to her eldest son. Having regained control of her fortune less than a year earlier, she planned to give it up in order to place it out of Bowes’s reach for good. Hurrying Farrer to conclude the agreement she hoped that, ‘afterwards you & my Son will have leisure to consult together upon the steps to be taken by the latter to finally crush all Mr Stoney’s Hopes’.8
Five months later the settlement was finalised and ‘in Consideration of the Love and Affection which the said Countess beareth to her Son’ Mary transferred the Gibside and Streatlam estate to the earl in return for a £2,000 pension and future allowances totalling £10,000 for William and Mary.9His hopes duly ‘crushed’, Bowes had no alternative but to relinquish his claim to the children and they were finally free to live with their mother. For William, now eight, it was literally the end of a prison sentence since he had spent most of the past three years in jail with his father. In this he was not alone; numerous children were brought up in the King’s Bench or Fleet prisons in desperate conditions during the eighteenth century. His education directed by the prostitutes, mistresses and debtors of Bowes’s acquaintance, the move to his mother’s instructive care and spacious home would require some adjustment. For Mary, now thirteen, the ordeal she had endured had apparently left no deleterious effects. The sunny, curly-haired infant on whom her mother had doted had grown into a sensible and dutiful young girl but her cheerful good nature and lively spirits remained as buoyant as ever.
Her last major legal victory, and in some ways the most significant, Mary’s triumph in regaining her children, albeit through male trustees, was remarkable for its time. Only in the most extreme circumstances, when deemed to have exceptionally depraved morals or irreligious views, did fathers ever lose custody of their children. In 1765, for example, Chancery had enforced a private settlement awarding Lady Anne Boteler custody of her daughter Elizabeth following extreme abuse against both of them; at one point Sir Oliver had threatened to drop his daughter down a stairwell.10Likewise, in 1817, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley would be denied custody of his children - by Bowes’s former crony Lord Eldon - after their mother’s death for fear that his atheism would lead to ‘immoral and vicious’ conduct.
These remained isolated examples, however, and Mary’s success did not prove a turning point. While mothers had enjoyed limited progress in asserting their right to access to their children under the liberal regime of Lord Mansfield, the next fifty years would see a crackdown led by the arch conservative forces of Lords Eldon, Kenyon and Ellenborough. Only a sustained campaign by the author Caroline Norton, herself denied access to her three children by their abusive father, would ultimately lead to reform. In 1839 the Infant Custody Act gave courts discretion for the first time to award custody of children under seven to their mothers, although this was still denied to wives found guilty of adultery. In 1873 this discretion was extended to children up to sixteen and the adultery rule abolished. But it would be 1925 before mothers and fathers were viewed equally in custody battles. It was little wonder, therefore, that at the end of the eighteenth century, when pregnant with her first child, Mary Wollstonecraft would write to her lover: ‘Considering the care and anxiety a woman must have about a child before it comes into the world, it seems to me, by a natural right, to belong to her . . . but it is sufficient for man to condescend to get a child, in order to claim it. - A man is a tyrant!’
Finally free to govern her own life with a modest but independent income, Mary now devoted herself to the seven children she had variously neglected or been separated from in their early years. The suffering she had endured had evidently given her the maturity and compassion to value her children in a way she had not as a young mother. In some ways it was too late for the five children of her first marriage. Effectively they had been failed by Mary in their infancy when she had ignored her sons and favoured her daughters; after they had come under the harsh rule of their guardians and were denied all but the briefest of interludes with their mother, they had been failed by the prevailing legal and social mores. But although she could never replace those lost years, Mary did now try her best to mend the fractured bonds.
Rebellious Anna would remain the most distant. Having failed to learn from her mother’s mistakes, her hasty Gretna Green marriage soon proved unhappy. Her debt-ridden lawyer would die young and leave her with two small daughters, Anna Maria and Susan, to bring up alone. Although she patched up her past differences with Mary their relationship would always be fraught; at one point a friend would report that, ‘Lady Anne Jessup [sic] & her family have been staying some time with her mother, but they have had a fall out, so Lord Strathmore has taken them all to him.’11Her elder sister Maria, having adhered closely to the rules of social etiquette as defined by the Lyons, had married rather more conventionally shortly after her twenty-first birthday in May 1789 to a well-heeled army officer, Captain Barrington Price.12 She too would have two daughters named, with customary Georgian lack of imagination, Maria and Anne.
With both her eldest girls now married and starting their own families, Mary lavished her maternal pride on her three Strathmore boys. Making up for her lack of interest when they were little, she fondly followed their various careers by pasting news cuttings into her album. Finally released from the stranglehold of frugal Uncle Thomas, and now a wealthy aristocrat in his own right, the tenth earl rose to his new responsibilities. A kindly and generous head of the family, John welcomed his two half-siblings into the fold and applied himself to healing old rifts and circumventing new ones, as his intervention in the tiff between Mary and Anna would reveal. A diligent landlord, he took possession of Gibside and threw himself into restoring the buildings and grounds which his grandfather had so lovingly crafted. The woods having been devastated by Bowes, the earl immediately began replanting. One bill for 1790 reveals an order for 1,000 young oaks, 16,500 oak saplings and 5,000 elm seedlings.13 The Gothic buildings and glasshouses having been neglected or vandalised by Bowes, the earl initiated renovations. Shutters were replaced in Mary’s greenhouse, frames fixed in her hothouse, the banqueting house was whitewashed and the time-worn figure of Lady Liberty on top of the great column was restored once more to her gilded glory. The earl would even complete the chapel which had been abandoned at George Bowes’s death thirty years previously and re-establish the stud his grandfather had once maintained at Streatlam. At Glamis, he was no less active. All work at the castle having been halted on the death of the ninth earl in 1776, the planned new west wing remained half-built and the grounds overgrown. Immediately, John drew up plans for renovations and embarked on a lengthy programme of rebuilding and repairs. Yet he would visit his Scottish seat only rarely - for the earl’s thoughts were soon preoccupied by events closer to home.
If he had inherited the good looks of his father and the good taste of his grandfather, the tenth earl also possessed the impulsiveness and passion of his mother in her youth. Invited in early 1791 to a theatrical evening at Seaton Delaval, the magnificent home of Lord Delaval on a wild stretch of the Northumberland coast, 21-year-old John fell in love with the earl’s youngest and favourite daughter, Sarah.14 Six years his senior, golden-haired Sarah Hussey Delaval had married her father’s friend, the second Earl of Tyrconnel, when she was just sixteen and the earl, recently divorced from his first wife, twenty-nine. Having provided the earl with two children, the young Countess of Tyrconnel had been indulged by her accommodating husband and encouraged by her doting father to conduct an affair with Frederick, Duke of York. Lord Delaval had even bought his daughter Claremont House near the duke’s home at Weybridge so that the Tyrconnels could live hand in glove with the prince’s household.
In an age notorious for scandal and eccentricity, the Delavals were a class apart. Devoted to amateur dramatics, Sarah’s profligate uncle Francis had once hired Drury Lane theatre to stage a family performance for which the House of Commons adjourned early so that MPs could enjoy the spectacle. Later running his own private theatre he persuaded his friend, the playwright Samuel Foote, to undertake an ill-advised stunt on horseback in which poor Foote lost a leg. Sarah’s father, who had assumed the family estate in return for settling Francis’s debts, had only recently taken a sixteen-year-old mistress following the death of his wife. And Sarah, known in the family as ‘Hussey’, had reputedly once appeared at dinner on a hot day naked to the waist.
Stunningly beautiful, with white-gold hair which fell in voluminous curls to her waist, 27-year-old Sarah had just ended her affair with the duke, whose marriage had been arranged with a Prussian princess, with a very public renunciation. Having persuaded her father to stage Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent at Seaton Delaval, Sarah gave a virtuoso performance as the unfaithful wife atoning for her adultery by killing herself. Taken to a performance by his friend, the travel writer Henry Swinburne, Lord Strathmore was bewitched. When Swinburne returned to the north-east a few weeks later he was somewhat peeved to discover ‘that my introduction of Lord Strathmore at Seaton Delaval had been followed up, and that he was now completely domicilié with the family’. Meeting this extended family for supper in Newcastle, Swinburne wrote: ‘I was rather surprised to see the intimacy which had struck up so suddenly; and a fine scene between Lady Tyrconnel and Lord Strathmore afforded me great amusement.’ Ruefully he added: ‘The poor man is desperately smitten.’ With little talent for subtlety, the family next staged Othello with Lord Tyrconnel in the lead role, his wife as Desdemona and Lord Strathmore playing Cassio, the loyal friend suspected of an affair with the Moor’s wife.
Captivated by the alluring Lady Tyrconnel and befriended by her broad-minded husband, Lord Strathmore became absorbed into the family’s pleasure-seeking schedule, becoming a regular racing companion for the earl by day and a regular bedtime companion for his wife by night. Inevitably, before the year was out, the young earl found himself the butt of gossip writers and satirists. In December The Bon Ton Magazine reported that Lady Tyrconnel had left her husband to live with Lord Strathmore at Gibside. That same month, a cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank, entitled ‘A Strath Spey or New Highland Reel as Danced at Seaton D-l’, depicted Lord Tyrconnel bursting in on his wife as Lord Strathmore hides beneath her bed. Upsetting a chamber pot over a portrait of the Duke of York, the young earl explains his indiscretion in mock Scottish dialect by reference to his mother’s colourful past with the words: ‘My Mither did sa before me.’
Passing no judgement on her son as he embarked on his own tragic journey, Mary kept track of his increasingly indiscreet travels around the country with the Tyrconnels in her scrapbook. The summer of 1791 had seen the threesome visiting the Lakes while December found Lady Tyrconnel in Northumberland; in January 1792 the theatre season had resumed at Seaton Delaval with the entire family performing The Fair Penitent and Othello.15 As Lord Strathmore chased his mother down the bumpy road of society scandal, George and Thomas followed somewhat more staidly in his and their father’s footsteps to Pembroke College, Cambridge.16 As soon as George reached twenty-one, in November 1792, Mary handed him ownership of St Paul’s Walden Bury and took for herself a quiet country house, Purbrook Park, near Portsmouth. Writing a poem in honour of George’s birthday, she hoped his future would bring ‘a loving Wife, a faithful friend,/and Children who may fondly pay to you/That filial tribute which is justly due’.17
For Mary, domestic contentment now ran personal ambition into a poor second place. This was the first time since her brief widowhood that she was truly at liberty to indulge her twin passions of botany and literature, as well as to enj oy the social whirl, witty conversation and male admiration that she had so loved as a girl. Yet although she composed a few poems, tended her museum, painted occasional flower pictures and corresponded with friends, she would never fulfil her original literary or scientific potential nor fully enter society again. A poignant little note in her album in 1791 recorded that, ‘In sept I heard but did not see a paragraph about my being at Weymouth & in favour with their Majesties there.’ 18 For all that the royal couple might deign to notice her on their seaside jaunt, Mary’s high-profile divorce and the irreparable damage her reputation had suffered ensured that she could never regain her place within society. There would be no more routs or assemblies, no more lovers or suitors. And with her wealth now safely in the hands of the next generation, she was finally free from fortune hunters too.
Having ardently maintained his attentions throughout Mary’s kidnap ordeal and subsequent courtroom dramas, Captain Farrer had faded from the scene. Whether the revelations about his marriage had tarnished Mary’s interest or the adventurer had simply decided to seek his fortune elsewhere, in December 1790 the captain resumed his position at the helm of the True Briton and set sail for Madras.19 On his return, in 1792, he paused in Britain long enough to sue his wife successfully in the ecclesiastical court for separation on the grounds of her adultery; after a further two-year absence at sea he would win a full divorce in the House of Lords in 1796. In any case, even if the captain would eventually free himself from his marital ties sufficiently to marry again, Mary Eleanor would never be granted that privilege; while Bowes was alive, she was not permitted to remarry. Her captain having disappeared over the horizon, there would be nobody to replace him. Instead, Mary relished the quiet triumph of her newfound independence in the carefree company of her two youngest children, her indispensable companion Mary Morgan, a small band of faithful servants and an assortment of pets. In her last portrait, painted by an unknown artist in the grounds of St Paul’s Walden Bury in 1791, she stands relaxed and smiling wearing an elaborate gown and sporting an improbably tall hairstyle, with a favourite dog at her feet and a flowering sprig in her hand.20 Yet if Mary hoped to fade quietly from public scrutiny, Bowes would make sure that she did not.
Losing his liberty, his income and his children had done nothing to improve Bowes’s temper. Since losing his claim to Mary’s fortune, he had sunk into a ‘complete state of despondency’, according to Foot, still pandering to his patient’s pretended ailments.21 The final divorce decision had been ‘another deadly blow’ and he had then been ‘stunned with the thunder of excommunication’, the surgeon recorded. Yet for all his genuine or feigned melancholy, Bowes still commanded the best room in the prison where he divided his time between corrupting vulnerable young women and enticing gullible young attorneys into continuing his legal battles.
Having abandoned Mary Gowland shortly after she had given birth to his latest offspring, Bowes had soon found a new target for his lust. The teenage daughter of a fellow prisoner, who happened to own a considerable estate, Mary or ‘Polly’ Sutton had caught Bowes’s eye when she visited her father. Applying his customary seduction technique, he charmed his prey with flattery and presents. When Polly fell ill with a fever, he sent Foot to tend her; the surgeon found her ‘feeding a pigeon with split peas out of her mouth’ and described her as ‘a girl of perfect symmetry, fair, lively, and innocent’. Making no attempt to preserve Polly’s innocence by warning her of her admirer’s depravity, Foot observed silently as Bowes duly seduced the girl and brought her to live with him in jail. If his treatment of Mary had made Bowes notorious, his most pitiful victim must surely have been young Polly whose voice would never be heard. Hiring a room for her, to which Bowes alone had a key, he kept Polly confined day and night; she was, effectively, the prisoner of a prisoner. In her lonely cell, she bore Bowes five children, all of whom shared her confinement. Never permitted to attend the dinners Bowes threw for fellow inmates, she lived the life of a recluse. Occasionally Foot caught a glimpse of her, when Bowes called him to treat one of the children, but found it impossible to speak to her since ‘Bowes was always present, hurried the visit as much as possible, locked the door, and took the key in his pocket’. Polly, who would remain with Bowes for the rest of his life, effectively became his third wife and was treated accordingly - subject to extreme domestic violence and blatant infidelity. But Bowes had not yet forgotten his second wife.
Sustained only by his army half-pay and a paltry income from his Irish property but with mounting debts and more mouths to feed, Bowes was desperate to raise funds. With his usual flair for media exploitation, in April 1793 he published in full Mary’s ‘Confessions’. Reproduced from the original lodged at Doctors’ Commons six years earlier, The Confessions of the Countess of Strathmore sold for 2s 6d. Parading Mary’s ‘crimes’ and ‘imprudencies’ for public titillation once again, Bowes’s marketing campaign dug up the names of a host of other characters who would no doubt have preferred their roles in the Bowes drama to have been forgotten. An advertisement in The Star announced that the book promised ‘many curious Particulars’ on a cast of notables including the Duke of Buccleuch, Charles Fox, Joseph Planta and Thomas Lyon.22
Refusing to rise to the bait, Mary inserted notices in London and regional newspapers attempting to draw a line under the entire sorrowful episode. ‘Having too long trespassed on the Public relative to matters in which I reluctantly intrude myself upon them,’ she wrote, ‘I shall take leave of Mr Bowes and his productions for ever; not thinking it necessary, in future, to take the least notice of any subject which may be introduced into print, either by himself, or through any other channel he may think proper to employ.’23 She stayed true to her word. But although Mary tried her utmost to ignore the fresh reminder of her past indiscretions, publication of the unexpurgated ‘Confessions’ fostered an image of her as a licentious, extravagant and flighty fool with which she would be branded for posterity.
For her daughter Mary, who reached sixteen in 1793, the timing could not have been worse. Her illegitimacy and clandestine birth exposed again at the very moment that she was ready to make her debut on the London scene most probably scuppered her chances in the marriage market for good. Young Mary had gone to stay with a family friend, called Mrs Ogilvy, in fashionable Chelsea for the winter season of 1793-4; although her mother eschewed the gossip-driven metropolitan social life, she evidently did not want to deprive her daughter of her introduction into society. The artist Joseph Farington bumped into the debutante at a dance in April 1794 and recorded in his diary: ‘Miss Bowes, a daughter of Lady Strathmore by Mr Bowes, came with Mrs Ogleby [sic] of Chelsea, with whom she resides.’24 Yet while she would continue to enjoy a party well into her old age, Mary would never marry.
Studiously avoiding city revels and society gossip as incredulous readers pored over her past, Mary Eleanor absorbed her days with her pets and her poems at Purbrook Park. Her eclectic collection of animals included numerous cats and dogs, a donkey, a talking parrot and a tame robin named ‘Bob’ that lived uncaged in her bedroom. With Morgan as her amanuensis, she composed poetry on mundane domestic issues and topical current affairs, ranging from a ditty on Mrs Ogilvy’s four kittens to a translation into poetry of Thomas Erskine’s speech defending Thomas Paine.25 In early 1794 she struck up a poetical correspondence with Katherine Bentley, whose daughter shared lodgings with young Mary in town, which continued in verse for the next eighteen months. While Mary regaled her new literary friend with news of her family, her animals and her health, Mrs Bentley responded with titbits on their daughters and city affairs - all in light-hearted doggerel. Detached from society, Mary acknowledged her increasing estrangement from contemporary life. Confessing that she no longer took any interest in fashion, she declared: ‘How eccentric I am you can’t think,/(How wide from the Bulk of Mankind,)/At many Great faults you must wink,/And some virtues I trust you will find.’ Instead of binding curls, Mary revealed, her maid was now kept busy binding manuscripts.
Evidently the strain of her past torments was still being felt, exacerbated by a serious coach accident the previous year in which Mary had lost three teeth, Morgan had been badly hurt and a fellow passenger had been killed.26 Apologising to Mrs Bentley for her indisposition, Mary revealed in April 1794 that her legs were so painful that, ‘I seldom can Walk’. And in an affecting description of the long-term consequences of her abuse, she wrote: ‘I fear you would shrink/Could you only once think/What Object you’ll meet with in me;/Who, tho’ not very old,/Am by Blows & by Cold,/More batter’d than Ships come from Sea./Some years ‘twas my potion/to sail on an Ocean/Of Horrors, of Tears, & of Grief,/When I lost my Main-mast/But was landed at last/Too late, though, I found for relief.’
That summer, as Europe was engulfed in war and her sons George and Thomas both enlisted in the army, Mary moved temporarily back to St Paul’s Walden Bury where she was joined by ‘my Girls’ - most probably Mary and Anna. In September Mrs Bentley came to stay, although their lyrical exchange continued throughout the visit and carried on after Mrs Bentley returned to London. When the whole household was stricken by sickness in December, Mary’s physicians feared she would not recover but by Christmas she was sufficiently restored to embrace the New Year with a cheery: ‘Let gay ninety-five with fresh garlands be crown’d.’
Reliving the past trials she had suffered at St Paul’s Walden Bury and elsewhere, Mary now embarked on a ‘narrative’ which described in more than three hundred pages of harrowing detail the barbarities she had suffered during her marriage and abduction. Prefaced with a warning that the events she related were ‘so uncommon as to stagger the belief of Posterity’, she may have intended the text for publication, perhaps as a counterpoint to the ‘Confessions’. Finishing her narrative in February 1795, as she packed to move one last time, Mary looked forward to ‘a period not very distant, when I have the best prospect of being able to seat myself in some pleasant and cheerful retirement for the remainder of my days, in the Enjoyment of every Comfort, and amusement, a rational Being can desire, and with a most consummate Contempt for all those airy, and what perhaps may be justly stiled those vicious Bubbles, which the Fools and Rogues of the present age, agree to decorate with the false name of Pleasure’. After a summer spell in seaside lodgings, Mary moved that autumn into Stourfield House, a rambling mansion on a remote country estate bordering the Hampshire coast, where she hoped she would find the peace that she craved.
Built in 1766 as the country seat of a wealthy barrister, Stourfield House suited Mary’s purposes perfectly. Sitting on a small rise about half a mile from the beach, with a fine view of Christchurch Harbour nearly three miles to the south-east, the house was sheltered by a plantation of trees.27Bounded by the sea to the south, the River Stour to the east, the estate stretched twelve miles northwards across farmland and heath towards the chalk hills of Dorset and the fringes of the New Forest in the distance. An isolated and romantic spot, almost impregnable to unwelcome visitors and remote from prying neighbours, it proved ideal. Here, Mary told one friend, she could feel ‘as if she were out of the world’.
Arriving in her coach in October 1795, accompanied by her daughters Anna and Mary, her friend Mary Morgan and her establishment of servants, Mary caused something of a stir in the usually uneventful life of the quiet neighbourhood. Inevitably, her reputation had preceded her. Mary Dale, the wife of a tenant farmer, Henry Dale, was already aware that Mary had suffered ‘great trials’ on account of her ‘very cruel and unkind husband’. Cut off from friends and family in London and Durham, Mary had few visitors. Her sons came occasionally; Anna sometimes stayed with her girls. But with her beloved daughter Mary by her side, Morgan as her companion and a brood of dogs at her feet, she needed no further company. Although she remained aloof from the local gentry, Mary won hearts and minds among the country folk for her generosity, making firm friends with the Dales and distributing soup among the poor several times a week.
Yet Mary had scarcely settled into her coastal idyll before her newfound serenity was shattered. After indifferent health for several months, on 17 January 1796, Mary Morgan died, aged just forty-six. She was buried in the Lady Chapel of Christchurch Priory where Mary erected a memorial to the ‘Heroic Qualities’, the ‘Cool, deliberate Courage’ and the ‘matchless persevering Friendship’ of the faithful maid who had rescued her from the depths of misery.28 According to Mrs Dale, Mary ‘never could get over’ Morgan’s death, ‘it seemed to press so heavy on her mind’.
Further distress arrived that October when Mary heard that Bowes was launching a fresh legal assault. Living ‘out of the world’ just like Mary, though not through choice, Bowes fretted over his depleted finances and his claim to Mary’s former fortune. Changing his attorneys as often as he changed his mistresses, he now appealed to the House of Lords against the Chancery decision on the prenuptial deed. It took the peers little time to affirm the Chancery verdict at which point they made clear their disdain by charging Bowes £150 costs and issuing a vituperative indictment of his challenge. Remarking that every step he had taken to acquire his marital rights had been ‘grossly fraudulent’, the law lords asserted: ‘That if it be possible to conceive the Husband, of all others, who ought the least to be permitted to question any such Dispositions made by a Wife, the Appellant is that Husband.’29
Merely emboldened by their contempt, in December Bowes concocted a new suit to Chancery based on another supposed deed of revocation which, apparently, he had just remembered that Mary had signed in November 1781 in front of a witness who was conveniently now dead. This deed, which Bowes had subsequently lost, entitled him to a third of two farms in County Durham, or so he claimed. Ludicrous as his case might seem, inevitably the challenge involved further legal wrangling, renewed witness statements and more anxiety for Mary. Struggling to remember where she was on the days in question, Mary despaired that many of her former witnesses - including poor Morgan - were now dead. Keen to avoid a trip to London on account of ‘my deranged finances & present bad health’, she hoped the case would quickly be quashed.30 Incredibly, the arguments would rumble on for a further ten years. Hinging on a legal loophole concerning a codicil to George Bowes’s will, the case was referred in 1798 to the King’s Bench, which found in Bowes’s favour. An appeal by Mary and Lord Strathmore to the House of Lords the following year failed so that once again Bowes had his hands on a share of Mary’s fortune and a claim to unpaid rent. Ultimately, when Bowes reasserted his claim to the farms - Lord Strathmore having ignored the outcome - the case would come before the Court of Common Pleas in 1807 when the entire story of the sham duel would be thrashed out once more and Bowes’s suit finally dismissed.
Her peace of mind fractured by Bowes’s tireless legal challenges, her health still scarred by his years of abuse and her spirits sapped by the loss of her companion, Mary was becoming increasingly frail and eccentric. Lavishing attention on her many dogs, Mary ensured that each had its own bed and was treated to a hot dinner every day. When one went missing in 1798, she circulated handbills offering £10 reward. The poor animal was found dead on the heath by Farmer Dale and was tenderly carried back to the house in a basket. When Dale declined the reward - ‘because of the great kindness she had always shown his wife and himself’ - Mary insisted that he take refreshments at the house whenever he wished. From that point on she frequently ordered her servants to take a cooked dinner and beer to the farmer when she saw him working in the fields nearby. And for all her strange ways, the farmer’s son, Richard Dale, insisted, ‘no person could be more respected and beloved than Lady Strathmore’.
That same year Mary was reported to be so ill that doctors despaired of her survival; one newspaper reported that she had been ‘given over by her Physicians’.31 Although she confounded the doctors, she was becoming increasingly preoccupied with her health. Her spirits depressed, she began inviting Mary Dale to the house for frequent discussions about the arrangements for her funeral. In 1799, she asked the Dales and her gardener, George White, to witness amendments to her will. The dawn of the new century brought no improvement, and on 28 April 1800, at Stourfield House, Mary died. Her final illness unrecorded, her cause of death would remain unknown, though her weakened health would have left her easy prey to any number of the period’s lethal contagious diseases. She was just fifty-one years old. Days later Richard Dale, an observant boy of five, watched in wonder as the horse-drawn hearse bearing Mary’s body, followed by three mourning coaches containing her grieving family, clattered slowly down the winding drive to begin the long journey to London.
Mary was buried, at her own request, in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, close to the graves of Chaucer, Spenser and Dryden, on 10 May.32 If she could not achieve greatness as a poet in life, she would dwell with great poets in death. Curiously, for someone who had suffered two wretched marriages, she was buried - at her own wish - in the magnificent jewelled wedding dress she had worn for her first marriage at the age of eighteen. One further request, by far the most fitting, was never carried out. In her will Mary had asked for a statue to be erected at her grave. Although she had grown up under the gaze of Lady Liberty on top of her majestic column, it was not a statue to liberty but the blindfolded figure of Justice that Mary desired to stand guard at her tomb. Having lost and regained her freedom in the most extraordinary circumstances over the course of her remarkable lifetime, few could have set a higher price on the value of liberty. And yet, as she was well aware, it was only through the fundamental principles of justice that her liberty had finally been secured.
In the Age of Enlightenment, when brilliant thinkers and daring innovators, both men and women, were rightly revered, Mary Eleanor Bowes had the potential to achieve great things. Having been born into wealth, blessed with the best education of the day and, encouraged by her progressive father, grown up confident and ambitious, she could have won acclaim as a talented writer and linguist, an accomplished botanist or a prominent scientific patron. But if her personal aspirations were stifled by her first husband, they were strangled by the next.
Instead, Mary Eleanor achieved something of much more significant and far-reaching importance. After suffering eight years of barely imaginable brutality, which reduced her to a petrified and cowed spectre of her former self, Mary somehow found the strength to embark on an audacious counter-attack. Despite having once enjoyed the position of Britain’s richest heiress, for all that she had married into the aristocracy, she could rely on neither money nor connections in her struggle. And yet through sheer tenacity and courage, and the kindness of those on the bottom rungs of the Georgian social scale, Mary successfully pitted her wits not only against one of history’s vilest husbands but also the might of the entire legal and religious establishment. At a time when women enjoyed pitifully few rights in law, either in marriage or in general, Mary Eleanor Bowes won an unprecedented series of victories, amounting to a remarkable triumph, which would stand as a beacon of hope to inspire writers and encourage campaigners in the continuing battle for reform.
Unjustly, although she had well and truly outsmarted him, Mary was outlived by Andrew Robinson Bowes. His unpaid debts, including the alimony he never paid to Mary or her descendants, meant that he would remain under the jurisdiction of the King’s Bench, spending the last twenty-two years of his life a prisoner. But following Mary’s death he was allowed to live outside the prison walls, in the area surrounding the jail known as ‘the rules’. And so, with the long-suffering Polly, their two girls and three boys, and a straggle of mangy cats and dogs, Bowes took a house in London Road, close by the jail. Investing his remaining time in evading the lawyers and tradesmen to whom he owed money, Bowes perfected his customary deceit in feigning illness - pretending to suffer fits, loss of memory and deafness - and dressed himself and his offspring in rags. According to Foot, Bowes insisted that the children never wore shoes or stockings. As he refused even to buy a broom to keep the house clean, his daughters had to go down on their knees to collect the dust with their hands.
Despite living outside the prison walls - the family moved to a second house in Lambeth Road by 1807 - Bowes continued to treat Polly as his personal prisoner. He kept her locked in a room, denied her all visitors and allowed her only one meal a day. And so it came as a surprise to Foot, calling at the house on 10 January 1810, when Polly answered the door for the first time in her life. Inside he found Bowes in bed, for once genuinely ill. With his family crowded around him, Foot learned that Bowes’s will left all his worldly goods to William Johnstone Bowes, his only legitimate son. It was only after the pleas of his children, his attorney and Foot himself, that Bowes was finally persuaded to grant Polly a measly £100 a year.33
Six days later, on 16 January 1810, Bowes died. He was buried in the vault of the nearby St George’s Church, where he would spend eternity within the prison rules. His chief apologist during life, his chief mourner in death, Foot dolefully followed Bowes’s coffin to its resting place. Yet just two years later the surgeon published an excoriating exposé of his erstwhile patron’s life in which he cheerfully proclaimed: ‘He was a villain to the backbone!’ Relating the epic tale of his friend’s trickery, violence, sexual assaults and depravity, Foot concluded: ‘To sum up his character in a few words, he was cowardly, insidious, hypocritical, tyrannic, mean, violent, selfish, jealous, revengeful, inhuman and savage, without a countervailing quality.’
None of Mary’s children enjoyed particularly fulfilling lives or found lasting happiness in marriage. William, the youngest, joined the navy and survived one naval disaster, becoming icebound in the Elbe on the Proserpine in 1799, only to perish in another, at the age of twenty-four, when a storm wrecked the Blenheim off the coast of Madagascar in 1807.34 His half-sister Mary settled in Bath and though she never married, she retained her mischievous humour and happy-go-lucky nature to the last, becoming a favourite aunt to her nieces and nephew. She died in 1855, aged seventy-eight.
Maria, the giggling toddler who had once charmed Thomas Gray, lived comfortably in Gloucestershire with her family, but died in 1806 at just thirty-eight. Her brother George died the same year, aged thirty-five, after being married only eighteen months, and since he left no heirs St Paul’s Walden Bury descended to younger brother Thomas. George’s widow, Mary, and Maria’s widower, now Colonel Price, consoled each other in their grief by getting married in 1811.35 Thomas fared better, marrying three times and outliving two of his wives but also his only child. Headstrong Anna, herself a widow after her husband’s early death, lived with her two girls at Bird Hill House, a lodge on the Gibside estate. Never marrying again, she died in 1832, aged sixty-one. But, least lucky of all in marriage, the tenth earl achieved only one day of marital bliss.
Unperturbed by society gossip, John and the beautiful Sarah had remained inseparable yet powerless to cement their union. While their families condoned their affair as long as it remained covert, any move to make the relationship public or legal was immediately frowned upon. So the devoted pair continued to live in perfect harmony out of wedlock. When Sarah began to exhibit the tell-tale signs of tuberculosis, John spared no expense in bringing the best doctors to Gibside. Sadly, nothing the Georgian medical fraternity had to offer could help Sarah and she died in October 1800, aged thirty-seven, with her lover at her side. Having lost his mother and his lover within six months, the distraught earl arranged Sarah’s long hair, painted her face, dressed her in lace and adorned her with jewels then accompanied her body for burial in Westminster Abbey.36
It would be nine more years before Lord Strathmore could face another entanglement. Confounding social conventions once again, he fell for Mary Milner, a 22-year-old maid who worked at his Yorkshire hunting lodge, Wemmergill Hall.37 Living together at Streatlam Castle, the earl treated Mary as his wife and when she gave birth to their son, baptised John Bowes, in 1811, he instantly acknowledged him as his heir. With his health precarious, the earl married Mary on 2 July 1820 in a last-minute effort to legitimise their son. The following day Lord Strathmore died. Yet although John Bowes duly inherited Gibside and Streatlam, by virtue of his father’s will, his claim to the Strathmore title and Scottish estate was immediately challenged by his father’s younger brother, Thomas. Backed by the redoubtable James Farrer, John’s claim was based on the principle in Scottish law that his parents’ marriage legitimised him retrospectively. Yet Uncle Thomas, as sharp as his namesake, successfully argued in the House of Lords the following year that since the tenth earl had not lived in Scotland his son must abide by the English principle that, despite his parents’ marriage, he remained illegitimate. So Thomas, Mary Eleanor’s third son, became the eleventh Earl of Strathmore, the great-great-grandfather of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, the late Queen Mother.38
It was John Bowes, however, who maintained the Bowes family estate and upheld the family traditions, ultimately creating a remarkable legacy, the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle, to house his fine art collection along with Mary’s botanical cabinet. It was also John Bowes who continued Mary’s literary connections. In the summer of 1841 he invited a friend, the young writer William Makepeace Thackeray, to stay at Streatlam Castle.39 Hearing the story of John’s grandmother, imprisoned in the castle by her husband more than fifty years earlier, Thackeray was entranced. Here was the perfect subject for a book. Soon afterwards Thackeray began writing his first significant work of fiction, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, which spun the tale of a wily, brutish and philandering Irish soldier who was ultimately outwitted by the titled heiress he had duped into wedlock. An outlandishly fantastical story, only the truth could be more astonishing.