On 31 March 1905 an extraordinary woman died at Coates Castle in Sussex, aged 92. Although she had been widowed since 1885, Louisa Jane, the first Duchess of Abercorn, was not going to let advancing years and the loss of a husband interfere with the rest of her life. She may have outlived her close friend, Queen Victoria, by four years, but she was unlikely to be lonely.
Ten of her fourteen children were still alive and had also been productive: at her death she had approximately 169 living descendants. Her son Ernest said she was ‘the one golden link that held together some 50 families scattered here and there about the United Kingdom.’
The Duchess was the great-great-great-great grandmother of Princes William and Harry. That she founded such a dynasty in the conditions of the Victorian era, seldom any respecter of privilege, was remarkable. Today’s Duchess of Abercorn OBE, whose husband is the 5th Duke and Louisa’s great-great grandson, chose her as her favourite predecessor for my book Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain.
She was born Lady Louisa Jane Russell in July 1812 to John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, and his second wife, Lady Georgiana ‘Georgy’ Gordon, a daughter of the 4th Duke of Gordon. Both were very family-orientated. The ancestral seat of the Dukes of Bedford was Woburn Abbey, where Louisa was christened and where the family lived when they were not at their Devon or London estates. At Woburn, a room was permanently fitted up like a theatre. Every winter Georgy and the children performed, often joined by a leading comic actor. Louisa loved taking the lead roles and retained a sweet singing voice all her life.
She had also inherited Georgy’s beauty. On New Year’s Day 1824 twelve-year-old Louisa and her siblings attended a children’s ball given by George IV at Brighton Pavilion. Another guest wrote that the King was ‘engrossed with the Bedford children’. The King praised Louisa’s solo performance of the Spanish shawl dance and asked if he could do anything for her. She promptly requested ham sandwiches and a glass of port wine negus, which the King obediently fetched himself.
No wonder she captured the attention of the young James Hamilton, 2nd Marquess of Abercorn. The fact that his family were staunchly Tory, in direct opposition to the mighty Russell Whigs, did not affect matters; they were married on 25 October 1832 at Gordon Castle in Scotland. Louisa was 20, James 21.
James had inherited the Abercorn estates in England and Ireland. Louisa loved country life, so Baronscourt in Co. Tyrone suited her well. Children came along quickly and regularly. Deeply religious, Louisa was part of the early Evangelical movement in England, which believed that large families were pleasing to God. Their first child, Harriet, was born in 1834, their fourteenth and last, Ernest, in 1858. To cope with their growing family, James extended Baronscourt and bought a Sussex estate by the sea.
Given the expense it was just as well James’s career was in the ascendancy. In 1844, he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Donegal, a post he would hold until his death. A position as Privy Counsellor followed in 1846, when he was also appointed Groom of the Stole to Prince Albert. Louisa meanwhile became a close friend and confidante to Queen Victoria, who in 1841 wanted to make her Mistress of the Robes. It was the highest position a lady could hold at court and traditionally the only one held by a duchess. However, as Louisa was a marchioness, Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel declined to approve her appointment.
Such was the relationship between the Abercorn family and the Royal Family that, when Victoria and Albert made their first visit to the Scottish Highlands in 1847, they stayed for ten days at Ardverikie, the
shooting lodge which James had built.
The visit was not without stress for the hostess. When Louisa prompted her son, Lord Claud, aged four to bow to Her Majesty, he was still so cross that he had been required to give up his room for the royal children that he stood on his head instead.
Then Victoria decided to give a Ball. There was no time for dresses for Louisa’s daughters to be sent from London, so she had gowns made up from the drawing room curtains. An excellent raconteur with a great sense of humour, she probably recounted these incidents later with much gusto.
Louisa and Victoria frequently corresponded. Coincidentally in April 1853 they both gave birth within days of each other. Prince Leopold was delivered safely, but Louisa’s twelfth child, Cosmo, died. These sensitive matters were surely discussed between the two mothers; such was the personal nature of the letters that in her will, Louisa stipulated that they must never be published.
The Abercorns’ life changed in 1866 when James was appointed Lord Lieutenant or Viceroy, of Ireland, during a troubled period. With their youngest children, they moved to Dublin. For most of the year, they lived in the Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park, and from January to March at Dublin Castle where, as Lord and Lady Lieutenant, they were obliged to entertain.
Their first year was difficult and dangerous. Disaffection had grown among radical Irish nationalists who opposed British rule and the Lodge was given special security. In March 1867 the Fenian uprising began, and a plot was discovered to capture the Lodge and take the children hostage. Three of them, convalescing there after measles, were urgently returned to the Castle, where the gates were shut for the first time in living memory.
But Louisa was determined to set an example and show they were not afraid. She drove with James through Dublin’s poorest quarters without any special security. Her courage was widely praised, as was that of the constabulary who defended their barracks against attack. In the 21st century a descendant of the Chief Constable would write proudly about the day the Marchioness of Abercorn awarded his great-grandfather a medal for bravery.
If Louisa turned to her faith during that time, she would need it again in November 1867 when their son Ronald died, aged 18. But life had to go on. In April 1868 she and James entertained the Prince and Princess of Wales at Dublin Castle; the Prince publically praised James for performing his role so well. It was fitting that in August that year he was created first Duke of Abercorn. Now The Queen’s letters to Louisa addressed her warmly as ‘Dearest Duchess’.
But testing times followed. Ten days later Louisa and six of their children narrowly missed death in the Abergele train disaster, still remembered today. As their train approached Abergele, loaded with passengers for the ferry to Ireland, it collided with waggons from a goods train left on the line. The explosion incinerated all 33 passengers in the front carriages. Fortunately Louise and the children were sitting at the back. Then two daughters died: in 1871 Beatrix, after giving birth to her 13th child, and in 1874, Katherine.
It was too much. Louisa suffered a severe breakdown. With The Queen’s permission their remaining unmarried daughter took her mother’s place as Lady Lieutenant while Louisa convalesced. Life became easier when the Duke resigned in 1876; not only was he ready to go, his move would also help bring closure to a scandal known as The Aylesford Affair, in which their daughter Albertha was an innocent victim. Now Baronscourt became their permanent country residence and there was time for family life again.
Louisa was very much the matriarch in the wider sense, too, regularly visiting their tenants and neighbours, and delivering clothes she had knitted for newborn babies. For sick residents she prepared a mixture called ‘Her Grace’s Bottle’, comprising ginger, red lavender and whisky, and listened closely to everyone’s news.
Even after celebrating their golden wedding, the couple regularly sang duets, played chess together, and enjoyed holding dances. Louisa was 73 when James died in 1885, but on moving to Coates Castle her health and energy were still extraordinary. She visited her neighbours as she had done in Ireland and enjoyed fishing with her footman. In her 80s she demonstrated to a great-grandson how to walk on stilts. At 90 she attended the coronation of Edward VII and Alexandra, and until that age attended all her descendants’ weddings, including that of Albertha’s son, the future Duke of Marlborough, to the American Consuelo Vandebilt. Louisa’s daughters made aristocratic marriages; one became Duchess of Buccleuch and was appointed Mistress of the Robes by Victoria, the position she had wanted to give Louisa.
When Louisa died, having lived through five reigns, her descendants included current and future dukes and earls, and a future marquis. A great-granddaughter born in her lifetime was Lady Cynthia Hamilton, who would become the grandmother of Lady Diana Spencer. Princes William and Harry can look back to Louisa with pride.
Jane Dismore is the author of Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (pub. Sept. 2014 by Blink Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing).
You can read our Desk Editor’s book review of Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain here.
© Jane Dismore March 2015
Photo Credit: By Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons