Sunday, 30 May 2010

Lady Henry Somerset's story - and a society scandal

The most famous female owner of Reigate Priory
is Lady Henry Somerset, and her name is associated locally with the restoration of some Victorian garden features in Priory Park. Numerous roads in Reigate and Redhill commemorate her family names and properties; various buildings were constructed or altered on her instructions. Her cottage dower-house, now known as Makepeace, was built right beside the magnificent Park Lane gated entrance, a beautiful and more befitting replacement for the old workhouse which formerly stood there, since royalty and VIPs would be visiting from this side of town rather than the former Bell Street entrance. Only one small memorial to Lady Henry Somerset is present in Reigate: an un-named sundial on the Priory's south wall bears the image of a duck and a child. This is a reminder of the village of Duxhurst which she created a few miles away near Horley - now barely a memory.

Much less well known are the good works that Lady Henry Somerset did throughout her life. Her artistic and literary achievements have been largely forgotten. A gifted orator, she had become world famous pioneering the Temperance Movement. She established Duxhurst as a countryside home for inebriate women. Her love of children was legendary. Yet the terrible time she had as a newly married heiress and young mother was almost unspeakable, and for a while she was ostracised from London Society. For over a century, the story told was simply that Lord Henry had been found in the embrace of a footman, so husband and wife separated and he went to live overseas. Well, as we found out a few years ago, that was a euphemistic understatement ... the Press would have had a 'field day' if they had uncovered the truth.

This is what happened. It was in November 2003 that I was able to take my parents Audrey and Denis Ward to Lady Henry Somerset's ancestral home of Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire. Together, we spent five days studying her archives in the private dining room along with Douglas Sylvanus-Davis, the archivist.

It was here at Eastnor Castle that we made some astonishing finds. One by one, we examined the boxes of papers tied up with faded red ribbon.
Then, just as one of Eastnor Castle's cats snuggled up close in one of those cardboard box lids, I suddenly came across a handwritten document from early 1878. Here were pages and pages which gave a shocking account of events and Henry Somerset's appalling behaviour with his homosexual friends in their sumptuous London home. Isabel was distraught, especially about the influence this might have on her one and only child.

Evidently this document was a first draft for her lawyers in the custody battle. It had been written so painfully by Lady Henry Somerset that it took all three of us with our heads together to work out exactly what some of the writing said. We realised straight away, that here was a great responsibility if the record was going to be set straight for posterity, whilst respecting the dignity of those aristocratic families. After all, Lord Henry Somerset was a son of the 8th Duke of Beaufort, whereas Isabel was the eldest daughter and heiress of the 3rd Earl Somers. Her younger sister Adeline was the Duchess of Bedford at Woburn.

Sadly since that revelation in 2003, my parents and I have not had the energy or resources to publish another book ourselves, especially a biography of Lady Henry Somerset. So it was a great relief in 2009 when local author Ros Black took up the gauntlet and followed up this amazing story from my mother's collection of historic material and our notes from the archive about her heroine. The outcome is the newly published book, "A Talent For Humanity - the life and work of Lady Henry Somerset".

It is very readable and well-produced small paperback with some excellent colour illustrations. Each chapter contains eye-opening detail, for example, I had no idea that Lord Henry had effectively threatened his wife with a knife: 'el cuchillo'. Not surprisingly, there is no photograph or painting of him - just an illustration of one of the songs he was famous for.

The book is priced at £9.99.

To me, it is disappointing that my discoveries in the archives at Eastnor Castle have not been acknowledged.

In view of Lady Henry Somerset's aristocratic heritage and marriage into the Beaufort family - the highest of British nobility - plus her tremendous love of the arts and the quietness of open space and nature, I wonder if her story will eventually be portrayed on the wide screen, in full colour and with a suitably big budget. Her fame and influence extended around the world through her lectures and writing, and there are lessons to be learned from her pioneering humanitarian work.

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