Biographies & Memoirs

012

9

An Artful Intriguing Woman

London, May 1784

Since the moment she was born, servants had played a vital and pervasive role in Mary Eleanor’s life. As a baby she had been handed to a wet-nurse to be breastfed, as an infant she had been washed, dressed, fed and entertained by servants. Growing up she had her own maid who tended to her every need and her own footman who stood behind her chair at meals. And when she married at eighteen she had taken command of a taskforce of housekeepers, butlers, footmen, cooks, maids, gardeners and grooms who supplied the family’s every whim with military-like efficiency. Omnipresent from first light to lights out, Mary’s welfare and happiness had always been dependent on servants. Yet from the moment that she had married Andrew Robinson Stoney, she had learned not to place her trust in any of them. All hired and paid by Bowes, all subject to his orders, they had little alternative but to conform to his totalitarian regime. So the male servants acted as Bowes’s pimps and spies, while the women servants had either been coerced into becoming his concubines or were terrified of suffering his wrath. Although they were all well aware of the abuse and deprivations their mistress suffered - they heard her screams from behind locked doors, saw her black eyes and cut lips, served up her meagre portions at meal-times - they were powerless to help. While some - like Susanna Church, the maid who smuggled chicken to Mary when she was ill, and Dorothy Stephenson, who comforted Mary when she had been beaten - were sympathetic to her plight, they were simply too young, too poor and too ill-educated to offer any practical aid. Mary Morgan was different.

After the fiasco of his efforts to find a new maid for Mary among London’s plentiful prostitute community and his own sizeable coterie of mistresses, Bowes had departed from his usual rigorous control over the appointment of household staff. Distracted by his risible campaign to retain his Newcastle seat, he had instead ordered his chaplain, the Reverend Henry Reynett, to procure a suitable new maid. It was a decision Bowes would deeply regret. With due concern for his master’s soul as well as for his own reputation, Reynett had succeeded in locating a mature and experienced maid who came with impeccable references from a string of respectable families. Interviewed in April by the chaplain’s wife, Mary Reynett, in a more conventional manner than most previous applicants, Mary Morgan was duly appointed, worked her notice and arrived at 48 Grosvenor Square on 18 May.

Aged thirty-three, just two years younger than Mary, Morgan was an educated, intelligent and conscientious woman who prided herself on the responsible positions she had held within influential families in Georgian high society. A widow with her own small private income, Morgan had entered service four years previously, probably from necessity after her husband’s death. No stranger to the political arena, she had initially worked as a lady’s maid to one of the five daughters of Sir John Wrottesley, the respected MP for Staffordshire, at his house in Bloomsbury Square. Equally at home in the field of finance, two years later she had obtained work with the eminent banker Henry Hoare, owner of Hoare’s Bank in Fleet Street. There she had remained for a year, before lastly obtaining a post with the elderly Frances Sackville, or Lady Sackville as she styled herself, the sister of the Duchess of Bedford, at her home in George Street, just a few minutes’ walk from her new position in Grosvenor Square. Calm, practical, devoutly religious and with a strong sense of propriety, Morgan arrived to meet her new mistress for the first time on that May morning as the spring flowers bloomed in the verdant square. Shrewdly weighing up the situation in the Bowes household, she formed an immediate affinity with her nervous and downtrodden namesake. For her part, Mary Eleanor was surprised and relieved to discover that her husband had appointed, albeit inadvertently, ‘a proper person’ with an ‘excellent character’.1 But Morgan had scarcely time to unpack her bags before she was thrown headlong into the family’s latest drama.

Having squandered his chances for political preferment, lost his opportunity for a peerage and bungled his plot to marry off his sister, Bowes was casting around for a fresh scheme in his perpetual quest to augment his fortune and his status. Pestered on the one hand by his numerous creditors, and on the other by his many mistresses who demanded financial aid to maintain his various illegitimate children, Bowes felt besieged on all sides. His gaze soon fell on Mary’s teenage daughters, sixteen-year-old Lady Maria Jane and thirteen-year-old Lady Anna Maria. Plump, pretty, accomplished and, most importantly, soon to command generous fortunes, the girls were rapidly approaching marriageable age. Calculating that he might secure a share of this potential wealth by engineering useful matches, Bowes laid plans to lure the girls within his control. But with an uncanny ability to predict the wily workings of Bowes’s ever-active mind, Uncle Thomas was already one step ahead.

Having ensured that the Strathmore heir, the fifteen-year-old earl, was safe in Edinburgh, at arm’s length from Bowes and Mary both in terms of distance and affections, Thomas Lyon had maintained a close watch over George and Thomas at their school in Neasden. Earlier in May, at Gibside after the election charade, Mary had begged Lyon to let her visit John in Edinburgh and see the younger boys who were staying with their uncle for the coming Whitsun holidays.2 Airily, Lyon had informed her that since John had already begun his vacation it was ‘impossible to say’ where he was, while George and Thomas had no free time to see her since they had to be ‘in readiness’ to return to London any day. Growing increasingly depressed by her isolation from her children, Mary retorted: ‘It must seem incredible to the World in General that one who is himself a father and whose own interest should teach him to promote the duty and affection of children towards Parents endeavours on the contrary to estrange their hearts from a Mother after having for years been deprived of the happiness of seeing my Sons.’ Quite confident that the Georgian world would see nothing in the least out of the ordinary in denying a mother access to her children, Lyon knew that the safety of his two nieces was rather trickier to guarantee.

Having long insisted that the girls were not permitted to stay with their mother overnight, Lyon had recently added the stipulation that Mary could only see Maria with a trusted third party present. Inhibited from a normal fond relationship with her daughter by the constant surveillance of a hawk-eyed aunt or governess, Mary had protested at ‘too severe a restraint upon the affections of a Mother’. In truth, it was already too late; seven years of such restrictions had had their desired effect. Having spent scant time with her mother since early childhood and with any lingering affections poisoned by the Strathmore clan, Maria already felt a stronger bond with her socially acceptable and morally upright Lyon kin than with her troublesome mother and disreputable stepfather. Nevertheless, Lyon had remained apprehensive over Maria’s safety and so as she neared sixteen in December 1783 he had moved her from her boarding school in Queen’s Square to live with her aunt, Lady Anne Simpson, in Harley Street. Anxious to find her niche in Georgian society, Maria had immediately felt at ease with her charming and clever aunt whose home was a favourite refuge for the rebellious sons of George III.3 Meanwhile, Anna Maria - as high-spirited and precocious as her sister was conformist and compliant - had remained under the watchful eyes of her teachers, Mrs Carlile and Mrs Este, at the Queen’s Square school where she had recently been joined by her half-sister Mary.

Devoted to her lively youngest daughter, who was now six, Mary Eleanor had endeavoured to provide little Mary with the privileged education she herself had enjoyed. Snatching as much time with her as her husband’s demands and restrictions would allow, she had set Mary to work at her lessons from an early age, her unruly curls falling over her books just like the young Mary Eleanor’s. In the opinion of the chaplain’s wife, Mrs Reynett, which seemingly carried some weight with her employer, this was far too demanding for a child of six and she had accordingly advised Bowes to send his young daughter away to school.4 Ignoring his wife’s tearful protests, Bowes had despatched little Mary to Queen’s Square at some point before the April election, quite probably surmising that her presence in the school would also provide him with convenient excuses to visit. A few weeks later, a homesick Mary had written a poignant letter to her mother imploring to be allowed home for the coming Whitsun holidays. ‘My Dear Mama,’ she began, ‘I hope this will find you quite recoverd and my dear Papa and Brother very well and as I wish much to see all my friends I hope my dear Papa and Mama will not disapprove of my spending the Whitsuntide Holidays with them.’5 Dutifully conveying her sister Anna’s respects, Mary entreated: ‘We break up the 27 of this month and as almost all the Ladies are to go Home I think Papa and you will not object to my having the same pleasure.’ But ‘Papa’ was entirely indifferent to the child’s pleasures for it was not little Mary’s holiday arrangements but those of her two sisters that were uppermost in his mind. And so on 21 May, a full six days before the school holidays began and only three days after the arrival of Mary Morgan, Bowes moved to unroll his latest scheme.

Forcing Mary Eleanor to play her allotted role in his intrigue, Bowes demanded that she write two letters - one to Mrs Carlile and Mrs Este in Queen’s Square, the other to Lady Anne Simpson in Harley Street - asking to say farewell to her daughters the following day in Grosvenor Square on the pretext that the family was leaving to spend the holiday in Bath.6 Early the next day, on 22 May, the Reverend and Mrs Reynett set off from the house and returned with Anna, gleeful at an early escape from her lessons while her half-sister Mary was kept hard at her studies. A short while later Maria arrived in the company of Eleanor Ord, Lady Anne’s sister-in-law, who had been carefully briefed to maintain a close guard on her charge. Arriving in Grosvenor Square, a cautious Maria spotted her sister at an upstairs window and immediately warned Mrs Ord of her misgivings. Shown into the drawing room, Maria and Mrs Ord were met by Mary Eleanor who, after a few pleasantries, casually invited her daughter into her dressing room to read a letter from the young Lord Strathmore. Patiently waiting for Maria to return, Mrs Ord became agitated when she failed to reappear and the servants declined to find her. As she realised the folly of letting Maria out of her sight - and no doubt fearing the rancour of Thomas Lyon should her precious charge disappear - Mrs Ord insisted on being shown to the dressing room. Finding the door locked, the frantic Mrs Ord became thoroughly alarmed when she was handed a letter, in Mary’s handwriting, which coolly explained that she and Bowes had decided to detain Maria until they could put their case for increased access to the children to the Lord Chancellor. Well aware of the plodding pace at which Chancery generally moved, since her husband was a Master, or official, of that court, the doughty Mrs Ord demanded a chair and insisted on sitting outside the dressing-room door until the hostage was returned. And when she heard Maria yell from within, she called back: ‘Maria! I shall not quit the house till you come to me.’

Mrs Ord’s admirable perseverance paid off, or at least Bowes soon tired of his eldest stepdaughter’s truculence. Although he had probably viewed Maria, being the elder and therefore more eligible daughter, as his main quarry he had doubtless already surmised that she would present him with far more trouble than her pliable younger sister, who was evidently more susceptible to his charms. Obviously viewing the whole escapade as a welcome reprieve from the tedium of boarding school, Anna proved a distinctly more willing captive. It was not long, therefore, before the door opened and a fraught Maria emerged in the company of William Davis, the financial go-between who was never far from Bowes’s moneymaking scams.

Discovering that their coach had been sent away, Maria and Mrs Ord fled the house on foot, hurrying through the congested West End streets to take refuge with nearby friends. As Maria revealed that Bowes and her mother had attempted to persuade the two sisters to quit their guardians and live with them instead, Mrs Ord despatched an urgent message to her husband to summon help. Despite Mrs Ord’s quick-thinking it was too late for Anna. By the time the guardians gained leave to petition Chancery to return the girl five days later she was already far away.7 For no sooner had Mrs Ord and Maria departed than Bowes had bundled Anna, Mary and a handful of servants into a hackney carriage and hurtled east out of London on the road towards Dover bound for France.

A perilous 22-mile journey in a wooden boat at the mercy of winds and tides did little to deter innumerable British travellers from crossing the English Channel to France every year, whether embarking on the grand tour, pursuing business on the Continent or simply beginning a family holiday.8The voyage from Dover to Calais, usually in the regular ‘packet’ which transported the mail, could take as little as three hours in a calm sea with benevolent winds or as many as twelve if the boat was becalmed or carried off course. Lady Harriet Spencer, the future Lady Bessborough, betrayed an eleven-year-old’s excitement at the anticipation of her family’s jaunt to Europe when she made the crossing with her sister and brother in 1772. ‘We were all wrap’d up in blankets and put into the little boat which rowed out to sea to the ship at one o’clock in the morning,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘We got to Calais before nine.’ Older but no less enthusiastic, the Devon-based traveller Jane Parminter boasted a ‘charming passage’ of three hours during which she was ‘sick twice but [it] did not spoil my enjoyment’ when she made the voyage in 1784. Landing, eventually, in Calais many British tourists were disgruntled at their gruff reception by French customs officials who peremptorily seized and searched their bags for contraband before they were free to seek accommodation at one of the town’s two inns. Most, like the novelist Laurence Sterne, arriving in 1762, opted for the Hôtel d’Angleterre, run by the obliging Pierre Quillacq, who had gained riches and minor celebrity status since featuring as Monsieur Dessein in Sterne’s comical A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, published six years later.9 After a night’s rest and a breakfast of coffee and rolls, the majority of cross-Channel travellers set out early the following morning, either paying for a seat in the stage coach or hiring a chaise from the hotel coach yard, on the long straight road for Paris.

Entering through one of the stately gates into the capital’s narrow streets, visitors were universally struck by the density of the crowds impeding the progress of carriages, carts and sedan chairs. Although well-paved in comparison with London’s rutted and mired roads, the Parisian thoroughfares provided no pavements as refuge for pedestrians. And while London boasted nearly twice the population of Paris by the late eighteenth century - nearly one million compared to the French capital’s five hundred thousand or so residents - the crowds milling through the confined streets under towering apartments could still feel oppressive. ‘There are infinite Swarms of inhabitants,’ grumbled the poet Thomas Gray, the late Earl of Strathmore’s tutor, ‘& more Coaches than Men.’10 Accustomed as they were to the extremes of poverty and wealth rubbing shoulders on London streets, British visitors were shocked at the even sharper contrasts in Paris. Gawping at the opulent palaces of the nobility, the elegant townhouses of the bourgeoisie and the luxury goods such as porcelain, glassware and tapestries on show in the new Parisian factories, newcomers could not fail to notice the hungry faces of the tax-burdened poor. Pronouncing the humdrum city food shops as the ‘poorest gloomy Dungeons’, the Reverend William Cole noted robins, larks and stinking ‘carrion’ on sale in the markets.11 A guidebook of 1784 observed wryly: ‘Poverty and narrowness of circumstances soon meet an experienced eye.’

Nevertheless, the glaring iniquities did little to quell the tourists’ appetites for the city’s sumptuous cuisine, abundance of entertainments and opportunities for sightseeing. No trip to Paris could be complete without taking in a play or opera at the numerous theatres, promenading in the Tuileries, and, of course, visiting Versailles to watch members of the royal family going about their daily lives blithely ignorant of the approaching storm just five years ahead. Indeed, with memories of London’s frightening anti-Catholic riots of 1780 still fresh, one French writer could confidently predict: ‘Any attempt at sedition here would be nipped in the bud; Paris need never fear an outbreak such as Lord George Gordon recently led in London’.12

For Mary Eleanor, fluent in French, a connoisseur of the arts and a patron of science, the prospect of a trip to Paris, unquestionably the cultural and scientific capital of Enlightenment Europe, in the spring of 1784 should have promised a sensory and intellectual delight. Hostilities with France over the American War of Independence had ceased the previous year and the resulting French national debt which would ultimately precipitate state crisis had yet to be fully felt. In the lull between war and revolution, therefore, British visitors could be assured of a warm Gallic welcome. But fleeing England with a thirteen-year-old ward of Chancery stowed away, as fugitives from British justice and her husband’s creditors, the journey ahead held little joy for Mary.

In his haste to leave Grosvenor Square, Bowes had left his tangled finances in the hands of William Davis, his loyal agent, and his two-year-old son in the care of Dorothy, his reluctant mistress who was now three months pregnant. Fearful for her future, Dorothy had already confided in her mistress that the expected baby was Bowes’s child. Little Mary, pining alone in her Queen’s Square boarding school as the holidays approached, had been all but forgotten. Mary Eleanor was in no position to help either of them. Bereft at leaving her two youngest children, befuddled by her enforced role in Bowes’s latest ploy, she barely knew her own mind. She had been ill repeatedly since the start of the year, suffering debilitating pains in her legs which Bowes assured the doctors were caused by anxiety at missing her children but were almost certainly due to the violence and distress caused by him. On the day of their departure Bowes had pinched her left arm so severely, as punishment for not playing her part in the deception to his satisfaction, that her upper arm from shoulder to elbow had been left black and blue.13 As she headed for the coast, in anxiety and pain, she was as much a captive as her teenage daughter, albeit one far less willing.

After spending the night in Dover, the little party crossed the Channel in an open boat hired by Bowes, rather than the busy packet favoured by most travellers, doubtless to avoid being detected by fellow passengers. Safely landed in Calais, where Bowes knew the British legal authorities had no jurisdiction, he could afford to be a little less circumspect. There he took rooms, almost certainly in the popular Hôtel d’Angleterre, for Bowes would refer to its famous proprietor by his pseudonym Monsieur Dessein in later correspondence. And it was on that first night in Calais, as she helped Mary prepare for bed, that Mary Morgan first began to uncover the truth behind her new mistress’s wretched demeanour. Since the elaborate gowns worn by fashionable eighteenth-century women generally came in several sections held together with pins, it was literally impossible to dress and undress without assistance. As she unpinned and removed the sleeves, bodice and skirt of her mistress’s tattered gown, Morgan’s eyes fell on a ‘large black mark as large as the Palm of [my] hand’ between Mary’s left elbow and shoulder.14 When Morgan asked her mistress how the bruise had been caused, Mary swiftly replied that she had bumped herself in the carriage on the way to Dover. Remembering that her mistress had sat on the right side of the carriage for the journey, Morgan kept her suspicions to herself.

As the family sped through the open countryside towards Paris with the carriage blinds fastened to keep out inquisitive stares, Morgan noticed Bowes slyly kicking and pinching Mary whenever he thought nobody was watching. If Mary made a comment, Bowes contradicted her, when she pulled down the blinds to look at the passing farmland he immediately drew them up, and throughout the journey he ‘treated her upon all occasions with the greatest indignity possible’.

Once the party arrived in bustling Paris, Bowes took a suite of rooms in the Hôtel de Luxembourg in the fashionable Faubourg Saint-Germain - the ‘politest part of the Town’ according to an earlier visitor.15 Long popular with British tourists, the hotel had provided hospitality to both Gray and Walpole on their Parisian jaunt in 1739 and to Lord Chesterfield, the late Earl of Strathmore’s guardian, two years later. But the opulent surroundings only furnished a new stage for what Morgan would later describe as ‘one continued scene of abuse, insult and cruelty’. When Bowes summoned Mary to his bedroom, which adjoined that which Mary Eleanor shared with Anna, Morgan almost invariably heard ‘Slaps or Blows’ followed by the sounds of Mary crying or screaming. Helping Mary undress for bed each night, Morgan noted that her flesh was ‘seldom free from bruises upon her face, neck, or arms’. Yet to all Morgan’s inquiries, Mary maintained a steadfast silence. She well knew, as Bowes had warned her on numerous occasions, that he would beat her ‘most unmercifully’ if he ever found that she had confided in one of the servants. Meanwhile, Bowes assumed his customary pose as the indulgent husband sorely tried by his obstinate wife - a myth which fooled the gullible Anna if not the observant Morgan.

Settling into his comfortable rooms at the Hôtel de Luxembourg, Bowes bombarded William Davis in London with instructions on the conducting of his legal battle to retain his grip on Anna. Having committed the grave offence of abducting a ward of Chancery under the noses of her guardians, Bowes knew that not only could Anna be seized the moment they set foot back on British soil but also that he could be arrested and possibly imprisoned for contempt of court. It was imperative, therefore, that he not only develop a plausible case for abducting Anna but also - should his pleadings fail - be able to exonerate himself from all blame. His paper trail of letters to Davis, which crossed the Channel in the trusty packet throughout the summer, would provide a lasting testament to the extraordinary gymnastics of his nimble mind. Dictated by Bowes to Mary, they would faithfully be reproduced by Foot as a powerful example of the ‘masterpiece of villainy’ of which Bowes was capable.16 Seemingly concerned only for the happiness of his dear wife, Bowes portrayed himself as an innocent pawn caught up in Mary’s obsessive campaign to regain custody of her five eldest children. Declaring himself perfectly willing to comply with whatever the law decreed, and return to England immediately if required, he insisted that it was Mary Eleanor who refused to yield up her daughter.

On the receiving end of this deluge of excuses and procrastinations, the hapless Davis was expected to mastermind Bowes’s crusade for justice. Prior to leaving, Bowes had also instructed his lawyer friends, John Scott and John Lee, to champion his case. Both popularly known as ‘Jack’ and both MPs - albeit now on opposite sides of the floor - the two high-flying barristers had first met during Bowes’s 1777 by-election campaign when they had won their spurs contesting the result.17 Newcastle-born Scott, the youngest son of a coal agent, had attracted local scandal when he eloped with a city beauty, Bessie Surtees, in 1772; after working with Bowes during the by-election, the pair had become regular drinking chums. Now carving out a successful career at the bar in Chancery, Scott had shrewdly switched political allegiances to support William Pitt. He would shortly be appointed Solicitor General within Pitt’s administration and would ultimately become Lord Chancellor, as Lord Eldon, the top legal officer in England. Destined to become the longest-serving holder of that post, Scott would preside over some of the court’s longest-running cases, mercilessly lampooned in Dickens’s Bleak House. Lee, the youngest son of a Leeds cloth merchant, was a fiery radical and dissenter who had defended John Wilkes and served as Solicitor General and Attorney General under Fox. Coarse, outspoken and hard-drinking, his liberal tendencies extended only so far: in 1783 ‘Honest Jack’ had unsuccessfully defended the owners of the slave ship Zong when they were accused of throwing 133 sick captives overboard in order to claim insurance money. Ambitious, industrious and ruthless as they were, the two Jacks were nevertheless taking on one of their most challenging briefs in defending their fugitive friend.

Having presented their bill to reclaim Anna to Chancery on 27 May, it was nearly two weeks later, on 9 June, that the two guardians, Thomas Lyon and David Erskine, were given leave to argue their case before the Lord Chancellor, Baron Thurlow.18 The petition, as usual, was presented in the names of the children, including Anna, ranged against their mother and Bowes. Relating the sorry tale of Anna’s abduction and the attempted kidnap of Maria, the petition described how an increasingly desperate Mrs Carlile had scoured the West End attempting to discover the whereabouts of her pupil when she had failed to return to school that evening. Refused any information by Bowes’s servants and William Davis, who were all bound to secrecy, the guardians had only discovered Anna’s fate when Lady Anne Simpson received a letter from her niece posted in Calais several days later. Inured as they were to Bowes’s ploys, the family had been so aghast at this latest turn of events that Maria now declared herself willing to attend court in person and to testify against her mother and stepfather. Nicknamed ‘Tiger’ for his ferocity in court, Lord Thurlow lost no time in ordering that Mary and Bowes should bring back Anna and defend their actions in court, while also demanding that William Davis and Mary Reynett should explain their role in the affair.

Having embroiled his friends as accessories to his misdeeds while he remained at a safe distance in Paris, Bowes pronounced himself ‘very satisfied’ with the outcome of the preliminary hearing.19 Studiously maintaining the myth that he was a mere bystander in Mary’s bid to regain her children, his next letter assured Davis that he was determined to return to England but issued the proviso that, ‘I am equally resolved to permit Lady S- and her daughter to do exactly as their own wishes may happen to dictate.’ He added: ‘They wish, I believe, to remain in their present asylum.’

For Mary, if not for Anna, remaining in Paris certainly resembled life in an asylum, although not the tranquil sanctuary that Bowes had invoked. Even as Bowes forced her to write letters pleading his concern for her wellbeing, he subjected her to ‘unequalled’ cruelty.20 Anxious to avoid being recognised, he beat her several times for failing to pull her bonnet far forward enough to conceal her face and on one occasion he pinched her for not standing behind Anna when watching a public firework display. When visiting their friends, the physician John Scott and his wife, whom Bowes had summoned to keep them company in Paris, Mary unthinkingly removed her cloak, revealing her tattered gown with gaping holes beneath the arms. Marching her to a quiet spot in the Luxembourg gardens, Bowes scolded and pinched her for half an hour before almost tearing one of her diamond earrings out of her ear.

Equally determined that Mary should enjoy none of the cultural or intellectual treats that Paris had to offer, Bowes forbade her from visiting any of the famous sights, conversing in French or studying the native botany. ‘Having incautiously mentioned that one of my chief delights in France would be picking up any curious plants which might fall my way, Mr Bowes gave me the strictest orders never to pull them,’ she would write. ‘[B]ut as we were walking through a Vineyard at l’Etoile, near Paris, I perceived so very curious a flower within my reach, that as I thought he was too earnest in discourse to observe me, I snatched at, and slipped it into my pocket, however not unnoticed for Mr Bowes instantly said “What is that you have got, shew me.” I did, upon which he flung it away, and whispering some abusive language, gave me a sly pinch on my arm.’

While Mary Morgan quietly observed each fresh assault and noted the marks on her mistress’s flesh each night, Mary Eleanor contrived to suffer Bowes’s brutality in silence. But towards the end of June, his abuse reached extremes that would have far-reaching consequences.

Alone in her hotel room, Mary was drawing back the curtains to look down on the coach yard below when Bowes walked in.21 Enraged that she should expose herself to view, he flew at her with his fists, punching, kicking and pushing her around the bedroom. He then seized her ear and wrung it so hard, with his nails digging into the flesh of her neck, that blood started pouring from the wound. As blood soaked into Mary’s neckerchief and gown, Bowes attempted to staunch the flow with his own handkerchief. It took two handkerchiefs and a towel to stop the bleeding. Sick with pain and sobbing, Mary leaned against a chest of drawers as Bowes opened the door and yelled for Morgan. Summoned from the adjoining room, Morgan was horrified as she took in her mistress sobbing uncontrollably, the blood-soaked handkerchiefs and the bloody towel strewn on the floor. But far from suggesting she offer solace to her mistress, Bowes angrily instructed Morgan always to place a chair against the door because ‘that woman’ - pointing at Mary - ‘can take no care of herself’. Mary, he declared, had let the wind slam the door causing her to run a pin through her ear. Well accustomed by now to Bowes’s violence and Mary’s lame excuses, Morgan was incredulous. Observing the torn flesh behind Mary’s ear, which looked ‘very unlike any Wound made with a Pin’, she was convinced that Bowes had clawed at the skin with his own nails.

This time, when Morgan later pressed her about the incident, Mary Eleanor finally confessed the truth: it was Bowes who had caused all her bruises, black eyes, scratches and cuts with his sustained campaign of violence. Swearing Morgan to secrecy, Mary had taken what was probably the most crucial step of her life. Although the ill-treatment continued, she finally had an ally.

If Mary’s maid now fully appreciated her misery, her own daughter was seemingly indifferent. Sharing a room with her mother in the close confines of the hotel suite, Anna frequently heard and on occasions witnessed her stepfather beating her mother. When Bowes abused Mary at length in the Luxembourg gardens, Anna had watched the entire performance; she would later admit that she frequently heard her mother scream and saw her cry during her time in Paris.22 And yet, having just turned fourteen, a naive and impressionable adolescent, Anna had plainly fallen for the Bowes magic. Relishing her role at the centre of the family drama, flattered by the attentions of the stepfather who had whisked her away from the dullness of boarding school life, she was in thrall to Bowes. Still handsome at thirty-seven, impeccably dressed and as silkily manipulative as ever, Bowes filled the vacuum left by the father she barely remembered and presented a welcome antidote to her severe and puritanical uncle. While in Paris, she would later say, her stepfather bought her expensive gowns, engaged the best tutors for her lessons and in short ‘did all in his power’ to make her happy. So when Bowes scolded her mother for wearing tattered clothing, complained of her clumsiness or admonished her for being too familiar with the servants, Anna placidly swallowed the charade. Indeed, she would later argue, if her mother had only followed her husband’s instructions more carefully ‘they might all have lived more happily than they did’. But not only did Anna condone Bowes’s cruelty, she was even emboldened to emulate him, treating her mother with contempt and callousness. The friction led to fierce arguments, which Bowes eagerly fanned by supporting Anna and admonishing Mary for treating her daughter too harshly. Mary herself would later accuse Bowes of prevailing upon Anna to ‘treat me almost as ill as you did’.23

Precisely how far the alliance between Bowes and Anna extended is unclear. Although Bowes had evidently plotted to marry Anna to a wealthy suitor in France, it is plausible that his thoughts may even have turned to acquiring a second Bowes heiress for himself. After all, his own claim to fortune lasted only for the duration of Mary’s lifetime which - under his bullying regime - might not be overlong. Certainly Anna’s school teachers would later refer obliquely to her having ‘erred’ during her time in France, while her mother would express a desire to ‘avoid exposing my Daughter’ to unwelcome scandal. Most tellingly, Bowes’s own sister would write to Mary with the words: ‘Your account of your unnatural Daughter (as you justly stile her) indeed strikes us all with horror. Can they be so base? God Almighty reform them.’24 And while her uncle harried his lawyers to secure her rescue, Anna seemed in no particular hurry to return.

By early August, when Bowes still defied the Lord Chancellor’s order to surrender Anna, the guardians had applied to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carmarthen, to help procure Anna’s release through the French courts. Determined to thwart this fresh assault, Bowes tellingly complained that the guardians had ‘represented the child as taken off under thirteen years of age, for the purpose of getting her married to some improper person, UNKNOWN TO THEM.’25 While this was undoubtedly Bowes’s plan, he knew he could count on his friends in England loyally fulfilling their roles when the case came up for its full hearing in Chancery. On the day Scott and Lee turned in bravura performances, insisting that Mary Eleanor was the chief instigator of the plot and Bowes merely her assistant, pleading the case with, in Foot’s words, ‘their eyes brimful of tears’. Their lachrymose appeal was lost on Tiger Thurlow, who summarily rejected their case, censured the spineless Davis and charged him with bringing Anna back from France within six weeks.

Receiving news of the outcome in Paris, Bowes submissively vowed that he was ‘ready to attend the wishes of the Chancellor’ and even, magnanimously, to ‘confess I assisted Lady S—in the execution of this affair’. Promising to meet Davis in Calais, he apologised for having been ‘the involuntary cause of the troubles you have lately experienced’. But he continued: ‘As to our immediate return, no man ever took greater pains than I have done to convince Lady S—and her daughter of the propriety of that step. But it is not in my power to succeed, without extracting from their minds their dread of what may follow, by the death of my wife, and equally her daughter, their affections are so much interwoven.’

Throughout August and early September Bowes dangled his friend on a string, promising to meet him in Calais, then in Lille and then, after Davis had wearily trekked from one French city to the next, pleading that illness had prevented him leaving Paris after all. While Davis traversed northern France on his friend’s wild goose chase, Bowes idled his days away by sampling the pleasures of the French metropolis - in Mary’s words he ‘satiated all vices (beyond all bounds)’.26 Doubtless this entailed excursions to Paris’s saucy boulevard shows and its numerous brothels although Bowes now set his sights on a more intense relationship with a certain fashionable woman about town. Since Bowes could not speak French, he instructed Mary to translate a letter of seduction he had drafted. When she refused, on the grounds this constituted ‘such an indignity as I believe never any wife was exposed to’, he not only beat her but threatened to place her youngest daughter Mary ‘where I should never see her again’. Grossly humiliated, she copied the letter into French including Bowes’s supplication that ‘my fortune, which is more than ample, and every thing honourable which I can confer, shall be for ever devoted to your service and happiness’.

With time running out, as Bowes knew he must return to face his accusers and his creditors, in early September he ordered Mary to begin writing a ‘Book of Errors’. In the same literary mould as the ‘Confessions’ which he had wrung out of Mary six years earlier, the Book of Errors was intended as a catalogue of Mary’s daily offences. It began:

Septr. 2d - not being able to sleep I got up at five O’Clock in the Morning, and was found by Mr Bowes in the powdering closet to my Bedroom, sitting near the window (writing a comparison between a Frenchman and an Englishman) with only my petticoat and Bedgown on.

For this gross infringement of Bowes’s rules, as well as for feeding some bread to a donkey, Mary was ‘severely beaten about the head and lower part of the face’. Her litany of supposed misconduct continued in a similar vein. On 5 September, when Bowes entertained guests to dinner in their hotel suite, Mary committed the sin of eating some chicken instead of waiting for the vegetables which Bowes had earlier insisted were all his fickle wife would eat. For this she was beaten and confined to her room for several days.

It was a heartfelt relief for Mary when at last the party packed their bags on 13 September and departed Paris. Downtrodden and oppressed like the ragged paupers that she passed in the Parisian streets, she was as much a victim of absolute rule as they were. Arriving in Lille, Bowes was maddened to find that his friend Davis had given up his vigil and had left for England. Insisting that Davis return to meet them in Calais, Bowes urged him to bring clear legal instructions to persuade Mary to give up Anna, otherwise, he warned sinisterly, ‘I may as well put a dagger in their breasts’.27 But even when Davis scurried back across the Channel to find the family holed up in the Hôtel d’Angleterre, Bowes kept Mary confined for two further days while dolefully informing Davis that she refused to see him. Although she was now desperate to return to England, Mary was still forced to act out her part in Bowes’s French farce by pretending to faint in terror when Davis was finally granted an interview. At that point, Davis would later recall, Bowes climbed on to the bed beside Mary and wept floods of tears as he attempted to persuade her to relinquish her daughter. The performance so affected Davis that he postponed the home voyage - retrieving the family’s baggage from the boat hired for their return - and even offered to remain in France with them for years if necessary, to allow a resolution to be negotiated with the guardians.28 Finally on 30 September, more than four months after absconding with Anna, the group embarked for Dover.

If the guardians heaved a sigh of relief at the imminent reunion with their fourteen-year-old ward, they were sadly optimistic. Arriving back in London on 2 October, Bowes installed the party in the Royal Hotel in Pall Mall rather than return to Grosvenor Square where he knew he would be expected. Determined to evade both his legal and financial pursuers, after a single night in London Bowes took the family on the run again, this time heading north. On a fleeting visit to Grosvenor Square the evening before their departure, Mary barely had time to collect a few clothes and embrace her young son, now an energetic two-and-a-half year-old handful for the weary Dorothy who was eight months pregnant. Having been left without money or credit, and frightened that Bowes might harm her or her child, Dorothy begged Mary to lend her sufficient money to return home to her parents. But as she had been refused so much as a shilling by Bowes since the beginning of the year, Mary sorrowfully confessed that she could offer no help. Dorothy’s fears for her own safety were not assuaged when Bowes stormed into the bedroom, shouted at Mary for wasting time, and - unaware that he was being observed - attempted to cram her into a closet while punching, kicking and cursing her. Finally noticing Dorothy, he executed a brisk about-turn and began yelling at Mary: ‘God damn you, you bitch! Why don’t you come out of the Closet.’29

Leaving an anxious Dorothy and the compliant Reynetts in charge of Grosvenor Square, Bowes laid low with Mary and Anna at St Paul’s Walden Bury for a few days before continuing north to the fashionable spa town of Buxton where they arrived on 9 October. Although he had no compunction in dragging Mary away from her two youngest children, and was apparently indifferent to seeing them, Bowes remained determined to win the battle for Mary to regain access to her five eldest children. So although he was already in contempt of court for refusing to surrender Anna - and his lawless escapades had effectively estranged Mary from Anna’s siblings - he ordered his legal team to continue the custody battle. Meanwhile, he lured the pliable Anna deeper into his web, to the point of encouraging her to collude with his cruelty to her mother.

On their first evening in Buxton, Bowes was dictating another letter to Mary while Anna occupied herself in the same room. Suddenly impatient that Mary was writing too slowly, he snatched a candlestick and - in front of Anna - brought the flame to Mary’s face, scorching her twice.30Next he picked up Mary’s pen and thrust the nib into her tongue before punching her on the cheek with his clenched fist. When Mary undressed for bed that night in the room she shared with Anna, both Mary Morgan and Ann Parkes, a housemaid, remarked on the raw burns on her face. As she was warming the bed, Parkes noticed that her mistress’s face was ‘black in two or three places and swelled on one side with marks thereon bearing the appearance of her Ladyship’s said Face having been burned with a Candle’. At the same time Morgan observed that Mary’s face bore two or three ‘very sore’ burn marks where wax had adhered and that ‘one side of her face appeared swelled and greatly bruised’. Before Mary had a chance to explain the injuries, Anna briskly told them to ‘observe how her Mama had been burning her face’. It was not the first time that Anna would cover for her stepfather.

Unable to delay surrendering Anna any longer, after a brief detour to Streatlam Castle, Bowes turned the party towards London at the beginning of November. Before returning Anna to school, however, there was more pressing business to attend to. Conscious that his pleadings to Chancery as a responsible stepfather would appear somewhat less plausible should a teenage mistress with a story of rape and an illegitimate child surface, Bowes made arrangements for Dorothy’s lying-in. An old hand by now at organising clandestine births, Bowes called on Susannah Sunderland, a widow he knew, at her house - almost certainly a brothel - around the corner from Grosvenor Square.31 Spinning the familiar yarn that he was helping a married friend who had carelessly made his servant pregnant, Bowes promised to pay Mrs Sunderland handsomely for her discretion. That evening he returned with Dorothy, whose delivery was imminent, and assured the girl that he would provide for her and the child. Bowes then engaged a man-midwife called Richard Thompson to deliver Dorothy’s baby. She gave birth on 10 November to a daughter. True to form, Bowes would fail to return, leaving Dorothy destitute and Mrs Sunderland fuming. Informed by Dorothy, as if she had not already guessed, that Bowes himself was the father of the unfortunate infant, the doughty widow promptly strode round to his house and demanded cash. Confronted on his own doorstep, in full view of his nosy aristocratic neighbours, Bowes branded Mrs Sunderland ‘a foolish ignorant Woman’ then marched her back to her lodgings where he abused and kicked Dorothy for her indiscretion. Having no alternative for now but to remain at the brothel, Dorothy would not forget her ill-treatment.

Obsessively pursuing his cause through Chancery, Bowes had little time to consider the latest addition to his illegitimate brood. After delivering Anna, at last, to her school in Queen’s Square on 9 November and returning to visit her the following day Bowes began formulating plans for his next theatrical venture. Determined not to relinquish his hold over Anna, Bowes took Mary to visit her again on 11 November and on their return exclaimed: ‘By God she is gone, did you not observe how coldly she behaved to us to day.’32 Whipping himself up into an apparent frenzy, he rashly declared that he would kidnap Anna again, with an armed gang if need be, and fly to France that very night. After Mary’s protestations, and a hasty visit to his ready accomplice Davis, the French plan was abruptly dropped in favour of a new and decidedly more sinister design.

Calling once more upon Mary’s acting skills, Bowes coolly instructed her that she must take laudanum in a faked suicide attempt, supposedly in despair at being kept from Anna, in order to persuade the guardians to let her see the children. Widely prescribed by Georgian physicians to dull the pain of innumerable ailments and almost as widely enjoyed by Georgian pleasure-seekers in search of temporary amnesia, laudanum was freely available from apothecary shops. Lord Strathmore had consumed substantial quantities of the drug, essentially opium dissolved in alcohol, in the final stages of his tuberculosis; the writers Thomas de Quincy and Percy Bysshe Shelley would find inspiration in its embrace. But with pharmaceutical measurement in its infancy, overdoses of laudanum - both accidental and intentional - were commonplace and often fatal. The author Mary Wollstonecraft would attempt suicide by downing laudanum in 1795; she later wrote notes describing a similar episode for her unfinished novel, Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman.33 Mary herself must have gazed many times on the final scene in Hogarth’s series Marriage A-la-Mode, hanging on the walls at Gibside, in which the heroine consumes laudanum on hearing that her lover is condemned to die following a duel. Not surprisingly, given the general ignorance over dosage and effect, Mary expressed herself reluctant to fall in with Bowes’s latest ploy. But after the usual threats of physical injury and separation from her youngest children, she assented.

Having despatched a servant to procure the laudanum Mary took to her bed. On the following morning, 12 November, Bowes stood at her bedside and poured almost the entire contents of the phial of medicine into a large glass mixed with a tiny amount of water. Given that the maximum recommended dose was two grains - about 120 mg - of opium dissolved in alcohol to produce 40 drops - roughly 2.5 ml or half a teaspoon - of laudanum, Mary felt understandably anxious.34 ‘Perhaps there is a further design in this than you have acquainted me with,’ she told him, ‘but I fear not to die, for I have long been weary of life, and if you will promise me to take care of Mary, I will drink it off.’ Assuring her that the dosage would not be fatal, Bowes lifted the glass to her lips and poured the poison down her throat.

Once Bowes had scuttled away, Mary dutifully acted out the prepared scene by calling for Mrs Reynett and announcing her suicide bid. Running shrieking from the room the clergyman’s wife fetched both Mary Morgan, who was distraught to see her mistress sinking into unconsciousness, and Bowes, who immediately affected tears. Only the swift arrival of John Hunter, her trusted surgeon, and Richard Warren, physician to the King, saved Mary from almost certain death. Even though the pair immediately administered an emetic to make her vomit, Mary languished in her drug-induced stupor for the next four days. For once allowed the luxury of drinking tea, on doctors’ orders, she was nevertheless warned by Bowes to turn down the delicacies he showily sent her from his own table; when he caught her eating a slice of bread and butter he pulled her ears.

At least the deception achieved its desired - or stated - aim, for Dr Warren now persuaded Thomas Lyon to let Mary see her young sons. Ushered into the darkened sickroom under strict escort, her son Thomas, now eleven, and George, nearly thirteen, were granted half an hour at her bedside. Having not seen their mother for a full four years, the sight of the pale, gaunt face and the frail figure prostrate in the bed must have come as a heavy shock. Their sister Maria, who had recently assumed the surname Bowes Lyon in a clear indication of her loyalties, pointedly stayed away. But on the fourth day of Mary’s recovery, Anna, the supposed target of the entire charade, was finally brought to visit by an exceedingly grudging Mrs Carlile. Understandably wary of being fooled again, the school teacher accused Mary of feigning her illness and her tears; yet inexplicably leaving Anna alone for a few minutes, she immediately found that her charge had been locked in the bedroom. Impervious to the hysterical Mrs Carlile’s protests, Bowes kept Anna captive overnight and swore that she would never return to the school again. Only the arrival the following day of Thomas Lyon, in a rare confrontation with his courtroom adversaries, restored Anna to her tutors - if not to her senses.

Curiously, since she was the least likely to comfort her mother and the most vulnerable to Bowes’s malign influence, Anna was now the only one of the Strathmore heirs with whom Mary was allowed contact. Whether Lyon was keen to present himself in a reasonable light to Chancery or had simply decided that the wilful teenager was a lost cause, he apparently sanctioned regular visits, including overnight stays, by Anna to Grosvenor Square. All four other children were effectively lost. A stranger to her two young sons, despised by their elder sister, Mary was heartbroken to discover that John, now fifteen, also refused to see her. Having completed his Scottish schooling, the tenth earl had been admitted to his father’s old college of Pembroke at the beginning of November.35 A tall and good-looking youth in his father’s image, he had decked himself out in a new velvet suit with a ‘fine Round Hat’ embellished with a silver buckle for the start of the autumn term. But when Mary journeyed to Cambridge at the end of November and sent a note asking to meet him, he returned her letter unopened. Since the young earl was not only the titular head of the family but the chief petitioner of the Chancery suit against her, she should scarcely have been surprised.

In reality, while she was forced to support Bowes’s mission to obtain custody of the children, Mary had long since concluded that it was in her children’s best interests to keep them as far as possible from his clutches. Powerless to exert her own will, however, she dutifully signed a hundred-page affidavit detailing her thwarted efforts to see the children and the distress she suffered from their loss in a poignant testimony for Chancery.36 When she ended her statement on 16 December with the assertion that unless she could see her children more often, ‘a period will soon be put to her Existance’, she genuinely believed that her death was imminent.

Having stealthily cultivated the notion that Mary was liable to die of a broken heart or kill herself in grief at being deprived of her children, Bowes had set the stage for the inevitable next act in his drama. His inducement to take laudanum and his unremitting cruelty now convinced Mary that he was bent on murdering her or confining her for life. His first wife, after all, had lasted only eight years. Bowes had threatened before in rages of passion to kill her if she failed to comply with his will but now the oaths became cold and calculating statements of intent. After warning Mary on several occasions that he planned to shut her away in an asylum, in December he handed her a letter explicitly detailing this aim.37 Mary knew it was no idle threat.

Throughout the eighteenth century husbands had successfully shut away disobedient or inconvenient wives in private asylums or country houses and often won the backing of the Georgian courts.38 One aristocrat who suspected his wife of having an affair with his brother, locked her up in 1744 in a remote Irish mansion where she died, still a captive, thirty years later. Successive court rulings made plain that husbands were entitled to confine or restrain wives who were deemed to be behaving badly through extravagance or lewdness. The only legal route for challenging such imprisonment was for family or friends to obtain a writ of habeas corpus from the King’s Bench court. Lady Mary Coke had been kept a prisoner by her lascivious husband for six months in 1749 before her mother secured her release by obtaining such a writ. Eight years later the notorious Earl Ferrers kept his wife, Mary Meredith, a captive in his Leicestershire mansion until her brother rescued her through the same legal process; she had a lucky escape, for three years later Ferrers was hanged for murdering his steward.

For those husbands who eschewed the role of jailor themselves, private madhouses were popular places of confinement. Until regulation in 1774 there was no requirement for potential inmates to show the slightest indication of lunacy before incarceration, possibly for life, and no inspection of the often squalid premises. Three women who had been confined at different times by their husbands in one asylum in Chelsea were all later declared to be perfectly sane. Although the 1774 Act for Regulating Private Madhouses required that inmates could only be confined on a doctor’s signature, there was no shortage of corrupt medical practitioners willing to diagnose a wife’s insanity for a generous fee. One woman who was released from a madhouse in Newcastle told the court that the asylum’s inspectors were her husband’s friends. And while the habeas corpusroute remained the only way for confined women to secure their freedom, husbands would continue to lock away unwanted wives in asylums or country piles until the late-nineteenth century. Well aware that Bowes’s written declaration might constitute crucial evidence for the future, Mary entrusted his letter to Anna. She never saw it again.

While Mary would have been the first to point out that confinement in an asylum would make little material difference to her daily life with Bowes - ‘not having permission even to walk down stairs without asking his leave’ - she genuinely feared that he intended to murder her. Having already demonstrated his ability to achieve that end through assisted suicide if not brute force, he now had a pecuniary motive too. Calmly informing her that he had accumulated so many annuities and insurances on her life that he would be better off if she were dead, he revealed that he had yet another rich heiress in his sights.39 So when Bowes threatened to strangle Mary towards the end of 1784 she had every reason to believe he would carry out his aim. At the same time he told her that if his own life was ever in doubt, ‘he would send for me, and shoot me through the head’. Mary Morgan now became convinced that her mistress’s life was in danger. Few days passed, she would later testify, without her apprehension that Bowes would murder his wife.40

Growing reckless for her safety, submissive to her torture, as the year drew to a close Mary sank into her most dejected and desperate state yet. In a permanent condition of dread and confusion, she could barely hear from the continual beatings about her ears and scarcely walk from the recurring pains in her legs. Her face bruised, her teeth shaken, her head swollen, she rarely passed a day without pain. As Foot, with his professional if not sympathic eye, would put it: ‘Mind and body jointly submitted to receive the pressure which Bowes, like a MANGLE, daily rolled upon them, and both were grievously collapsed. ’41 Yet at the darkest point of the year, when London was cloaked in fog and snow, a tiny flicker of hope kindled into life.

With no friends of her own circle or family members she could rely on, Mary freely confided her sufferings and her fears in Mary Morgan. Appalled at her employer’s conduct and grieved by her mistress’s misery, the upright and law-abiding maid had become Mary’s closest friend. Since returning from France, Mary had also taken the housemaid, Ann Parkes, into her confidence and when a new maid, Ann Dixon, joined the household that December, she too was quickly initiated into the circle of sympathisers. Blithely unaware of the groundswell of support for Mary below stairs, at the end of December Bowes appointed Susanna Church, the kitchen maid he had dismissed the previous year for smuggling chicken to Mary, back to her old job. These four women, among the least regarded and least influential members of Georgian society, would prove themselves Mary’s firmest allies and her truest friends. Offering Mary their comfort in her wretchedness, they even lent her money from their meagre wages to pay for essentials and gave her cast-off underwear and stockings when hers were in tatters. One further addition to the Grosvenor Square household that December would be critical in turning around Mary’s fortunes. George Walker, the former footman who had been sacked for ‘taking familiarities’ with his mistress in 1777, was secreted in the house by Bowes in a typically contrived scheme to prevent him from being subpoenaed to give evidence for Thomas Lyon in Chancery. Snatching a hurried moment with her erstwhile confidante, Mary asked Walker whether he still possessed her copy of the prenuptial deed that she had signed before marrying Bowes.42 When Walker assured her that he did, Mary begged him to keep it safe.

Emboldened by Walker’s revelation, encouraged by her servants’ support, as the New Year dawned Mary began to entertain an almost unconscionable idea. When Bowes glibly announced in January that he intended to take both Mary and Anna abroad if the Chancery suit floundered, Mary knew that she had to act quickly. Once abroad she was certain he would kill her while she could only speculate on Anna’s likely fate. As Bowes showed signs of growing irritation with Mary Morgan, she feared her friend would be dismissed any day and realised that time was running out. His suspicions aroused by the defiant maid who was seemingly immune to his oily charms, Bowes would later describe Morgan as ‘an Artful Intriguing Woman’.43 At the end of January, when Bowes flew into a fury because Mary had invited Mrs Reynett to visit with her dog, Mary knew there was no more time to lose. ‘He told me to kneel and I thought he was going to kill me,’ Mary later wrote, ‘but he only made me kiss a book and swear not to do the same again or he would strangle me.’ On her knees, frantic with terror, Mary made a momentous decision. Once she was alone with her most trusted aide, she implored Mary Morgan to help her escape.44

At first Morgan was aghast at Mary’s plea and urged her to reconsider. Only too accustomed to her master’s vengeance, she knew that helping her mistress could have grave consequences for both of them. But when she realised that Mary was determined on her course, and ‘knowing how very unhappy her said Ladyship was while she lived in the same House with Mr Bowes’, Morgan consented. Shrewdly, she advised Mary to find out whether the law could offer her any protection before fleeing impetuously. It was crucial advice. But since the only lawyers that Mary knew were deep in Bowes’s pocket, Morgan herself offered to consult a barrister, named Charles Shuter, who was the brother-in-law of a woman she knew. Urged on by Mary, and at immense risk to herself, on 30 January Morgan crept out of the house for a secret rendezvous with Shuter. Somewhat perturbed at this rather irregular mode of correspondence with a prospective client, the barrister duly assured Morgan that her mistress should qualify for legal protection provided she could furnish evidence of her ill-treatment. Well aware of Georgian sensibilities, he felt obliged to point out that this legal opinion should in no way be taken as ‘encouragement’ to Lady Strathmore to leave her husband. Morgan hurried back to Mary with the news. She made no attempt to persuade her mistress to escape, the maid would later insist, but accepted that ‘a great degree of Confidence was placed in her for Honesty and Integrity’.

In the genteel reception rooms above stairs at Grosvenor Square Bowes entertained his drinking companions and dinner guests as usual, happily oblivious to the whispered conversations and mounting tension below stairs.

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