I was lured into reading about the melodramatic and unhappy life of Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749–1800), by the National Trust, who said, on its website on Gibside, one of her many homes, that she was a botanist. Further investigation revealed that she had been carefully educated, in botany among other subjects, by her father, George Bowes, coal magnate and MP (1701–60) who had built the spectacular landscape gardens at Gibside, but that once she became, by his death, probably the richest heiress in Britain, she had rather less time for this interest.
Born in 1749, she was taken to London by her mother after her father’s death, and in her teenage years had a rather easy-going aunt as a chaperone. This was unfortunate, since she seems to have been a fairly dedicated flirt, having had several crushes before falling in love at the age of sixteen with the ninth earl of Strathmore and Kingshorne, known as ‘the beautiful earl’. Her mother, whom Mary Eleanor always felt to be severe and distant towards her, was opposed to the match, on three grounds – too many in-laws; a ‘disorder’ in the family; and Strathmore’s being a Scot.
Unfortunately, ignoring the ‘disorder’ (which presumably refers to a taint of insanity, and which Mary Eleanor denounced as ‘spite’), as an only child herself, she rather liked the idea of a large family, and naively assumed that they would be nice to her; and (fatally, as it later turned out), she believed that she preferred the Scots and Irish to the English. She told her mother that she would not marry without her consent, but would not marry at all if she could not have Strathmore, and her mother fell for this easy stratagem. Even more unfortunately, during the eighteen months in which the marriage settlement was hammered out (inter alia, Strathmore had to add ‘Bowes’ to the family name of ‘Lyon’), Mary Eleanor increasingly felt that her engagement had been an impetuous mistake.
There was nothing wrong with the earl – except that he was not interested in anything much, and did not have the force of character to deal with an intelligent, well educated, but extremely headstrong teenager. And Mary Eleanor was, as she herself said, both too proud and too weak to call the whole thing off. The marriage took place at St George’s, Hanover Square (fashionable among the aristocracy then as now), on 24 February 1767, Mary Eleanor’s eighteenth birthday: her new husband was thirty.
Ostensibly, at least, all began well: and, during the period 1769–73, Mary Eleanor gave birth to three boys and two girls (all, she later stressed, by her husband). But there were fractures in the marriage from an early stage: she pursued her botany, but her husband took no interest: her in-laws were not the happy family she had them assumed to; and her husband’s favourite brother took to insulting her in public. She unwisely responded with mild flirtations with young men of her acquaintance, usually her social inferiors, and when her husband (who was in poor health – probably tuberculosis) visited Bath and Bristol for long periods on doctors’ advice, she stayed in London, in the social whirl.
In the spring of 1775, she began to take notice of a Mr George Gray (or Grey), apparently from India (though his origins are murky), and, at about the time of her husband’s voyage to Portugal in 1776 in a last desperate attempt to recover his health, they became lovers.
Strathmore died at sea on 7 March 1776. He left his widow a scorching letter, ‘freely forgiving’ all her ‘liberties and follies’, including her preference of her daughters over her sons, and her malicious tongue. He was also concerned about the management of her estate: ‘… a dead man can have no interest to mislead, a living man may’. It is not clear whether he knew of Gray, by whom Mary Eleanor was by now pregnant (she had an abortion) …
Strathmore had died massively in debt, and his widow was also spending freely (albeit in the context of a massive fortune). Encouraged by Mrs Parish, who had been her governess and in her widowhood acted as her ‘lady companion’, she renewed her botanical studies, buying a house in Chelsea for which she built conservatories and a hothouse, and commissioning William Paterson (1755–1810), to collect plants for his on his voyages, especially to South Africa.
This connection may have been enabled by Daniel Solander, pupil of Linnaeus, and friend and colleague of Sir Joseph Banks, whom she knew through Mrs Parish (née Planta), whose brother Joseph was an under-librarian at the British Museum and a colleague of Solander there.
According to Ralph Arnold, who published a biography of the countess in 1957*, Solander and Planta, along with the latter’s sister Eliza, were a corrupting influence on her, bringing with them a whole crowd of undesirable parasites and hangers-on – which is certainly a new insight upon two apparent pillars of museum respectability.
At this point, the countess still, it seems, was planning to marry Mr Gray: pregnant again (after a second abortion), she was to go abroad with him, get married, and return to England with a baby as to whose age there was no need to be particular. However, either by the machinations of her coterie, or purely by chance, she came into the sights of Andrew Robinson Stoney (1747–1810) a soldier from an Irish gentry family, who made a career out of using his charm to batten on rich, susceptible women, seizing their fortunes (at a time when, of course, unless a legal settlement had been made (as at the time of Mary Eleanor’s first marriage), a woman’s property became her husband’s upon marriage), and then treating them with remarkable cruelty.
His first victim was Hannah Newton, a twenty-year-old heiress from County Durham. He had discovered that her late father had tried to protect her by requiring that any future husband must have at least £50 per year income, and that any interest in her fortune would die with her unless she had had a son. Elopement would not have worked, as the whole fortune would have been lost, so Stoney exerted the utmost pressure on his family to raise £50, and having done so, married Hannah, and returned to his regiment (and a life of debauchery). Having compelled her to settle £5,000 on him if she died childless, he alternately neglected her, beat her and starved her, until, after several earlier still-births, she died in childbirth along with her baby.
Next, Stoney tried Anne Massingberd, of Ormsby Hall in Lincolnshire, but, discovering in the nick of time that she was not as rich as she was thought to be, abandoned her, and turned his attentions to the dowager countess of Strathmore, still among the richest women in England. His campaign was calculated in the extreme: Mary Eleanor was semi-engaged to George Gray by now, but he managed to insinuate his way into her household, suborn her friends and send his older rival packing.
He apparently arranged in advance for a fortune-teller she was visiting to inform her that she would marry an Irishman rather than a man from India; he later seems to have planted a series of scandalous stories, both attacking and defending her behaviour, in the Morning Post and other newspapers; and finally he staged a completely fake duel, ‘defending her honour’, with the editor of the Post, his co-conspirator, after which, allegedly dying of his wounds, he received her promise to marry him. He recovered startlingly quickly, and they were married in St James’s, Piccadilly, on 17 January 1777, after which he adopted the name of Stoney Bowes (while his wife continued to be countess of Strathmore).
At the time, she was pregnant by Gray, and had also (a few days before the wedding), executed two deeds which put her entire fortune into the hands of trustees, and thus not under the control of her husband. Stoney Bowes seems to have been less bothered about the impending child than he was about the money, and almost immediately began a campaign of bullying, threats and actual violence against his new bride which lasted for the next nine years.
As well as attacking her physically, he compelled her to sell the Chelsea house (with her plant collections); he felled timber on a huge scale at Gibside (though since his right to do so was unclear, nobody would buy it from him) and dispossessed the tenants there.
He attempted to kidnap her two daughters, and forced her to go with him to France against her will; and – when she eventually took him to court, and it became clear that he was likely to lose – he kidnapped her in London and dragged her north in the depth of winter, trying to evade pursuit by criss-crossing the country, until she was eventually rescued by a group of local people near Darlington alerted by the hue and cry.
Stoney Bowes was arrested and taken to the King’s Bench prison, where for a time he lived quite comfortably (while either seducing or raping anything in a skirt, apparently), but one by one he lost all the complicated, slow-moving cases taken out against him by his wife (and also those counter-cases he had taken out against her), despite his efforts to appear put-upon, more sinned against than sinning, and physically ill when he appeared in court (he had deliberately made himself sick with ipecacuanha).
He never got out of the King’s Bench (being quite unable to pay the fines imposed by the courts), and as his money ran out, so did his comforts. He was held inside the prison until 1800, when he was released to live in a nearby house ‘under prison rules’, with his latest mistress and their children. He died in January 1810, in debt and quite unlamented, trying almost to the last to extract more money from his own family. Jesse Foot (1744–1826), a surgeon (though also an all-round nasty piece of work, it appears), who had known him for over thirty years, and in 1810 published The Lives of Andrew Robinson Bowes, Esq., and the Countess of Strathmore, written from thirty-three years’ professional attendance, from Letters and other well-authenticated Documents, which (however unreliable) has been the starting point for all subsequent biographies of the couple, said of Bowes that ‘he was cowardly, insidious, hypocritical, tyrannic, mean, violent, selfish, jealous, revengeful, inhuman and savage, without a single countervailing quality’.
As for Mary Eleanor, after recovering from the effects of her abduction, she lived quietly, latterly at Purbrook Park in Hampshire, which she had bought for herself after selling her life interest in Gibside and Streatlam Castle to her eldest son, the tenth earl of Strathmore, and giving St Paul’s Walden Bury to her second son, George.
She seems to have spent her time at Purbrook (where she was attended by Mrs Morgan, the devoted maid who had stood by her during the nightmare of the Stoney Bowes regime), looking after her dogs. (It is not clear whether she rekindled her earlier passion for botany.) She died in 1800, and was buried (in her wedding dress – which one?) in Westminster Abbey. Her epitaph reads: ‘In memory of the Right Honourable Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, only child of George Bowes Esq. of Streatlam Castle, and of Gibside, in the county of Durham, who died 28th April 1800, aged 51 years.’
As a postscript to this extraordinary melodrama, the tenth earl’s son, John Bowes (1811–85), was born out of wedlock, and could not inherit the Strathmore title, but was left his father’s properties, including Gibside and Streatlam, estates in Yorkshire and the coal business, all of which he used to make an even greater fortune. (His friend Thackeray based the character of his amoral Irishman Barry Lyndon on Stoney Bowes.) With his wife, a French actress, John Bowes began to collect art, and eventually built the Bowes Museum, to house their possessions and make them available to the public, near Barnard Castle, which was famous for this wonderful collection long before it recently became the world centre of optometric attention.
*A more recent biography of the countess is Wendy Moore’s 2009 Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore.