Despite those ironic smiles of people who say it, money really doesn’t bring happiness; if you don’t believe it meet a woman who had every opportunity to check that claim. Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, one of the richest heiresses of her time. Later on she was also called “The Unhappy Countess”, and for a very good reason. Her life story could be a canvass of a fascinating novel but let’s face it, such a novel would be also a tragedy.
Mary was born in Upper Brook Street in Mayfair, London. She was the daughter and heiress of Sir George Bowes, a coal magnate and one of the most successful Georgian businessmen; his youthful reputation for aggressive business tactics earned him the nickname ‘The Count’ from one rival, while another called him ‘the Csar’. His only daughter was named Mary Eleanor in homage to her own mother and that of her father’s beloved first wife, Eleanor Verney, who died prematurely in 1724.
Mary’s childhood home was at Gibside, in County Durham. Her father died when Mary was 11 years old, and left her a vast fortune (estimated at between £600,000, more than £80 milion today, and £1,040,000 so around £150m ), which he had built up through control of a cartel of coal-mine owners. At a stroke, Mary became the wealthiest heiress in Britain, perhaps even in all of Europe. At that time the importance of coal was comparable to today’s oil – it was needed everywhere and the demand was increasing rapidly. The little coal princess overnight became also one of the most marriageable girls available in Britain. She could literally pick and choose and she did it for some period of time. Actually daughters blessed with large dowries were often deemed more valuable in the competitive Georgian marriage market than sons. Aristocratic mothers fell over themselves to secure a daughter from a wealthy middle-class family for their needy heirs. Accordingly, Mary was adored, courted, flirted with and coveted from a very early age, being a real magnet for eligible bachelors from the finest families. It suited her perfectly well.
For some time she encouraged the attentions of Campbell Scott, younger brother of the Duke of Buccleuch as well as of John Stuart, the self-styled Lord Mountstuart, eldest son of Lord Bute (the Prime Minister), before becoming engaged at the age of 16 to John Lyon, the 9th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. The proposal by John Lyon, was accepted by Mary Eleanor’s mother in 1765, but the legal negotiations over the marriage settlement lasted for a year and a half. One aspect which needed considerable time was the requirement laid down in George Bowes’ will that Mary Eleanor’s husband should assume the surname Bowes. This the Earl did by Act of Parliament and thereafter he and the children of the marriage were always known by the name Bowes.
Their wedding was a lavish fairy tale production – no holds barred. Mary Eleanor’s trousseau cost £3,000 – a small fortune in itself. In addition she was given by her mother a diamond stomacher which cost £10,000 and other diamonds costing £7,000. She was also gifted a green landau, a blue post coach and a stone-coloured chaise so she could travel in style wherever she went, coordinating her means of transport with her dresses. The Earl and Countess spent their honeymoon at St. Paul’s Walden Bury and at Gibside, her home turf. A life of seamless extravagance was supposed to be secured for them from the very start. Apart from the use of the property at Gibside, Streatlam and St. Paul’s Walden Bury, the Earl and Countess were assigned by Mrs. Bowes the lease of a town house in London at 40 Grosvenor Square.
It seemed the couple simply had to be happy – they were rich, young and good-looking. I bet in every his-fic romance they would be insanely pleased with themselves and their situation in life. After all the 9th Earl of Strathmore was famous for his appearance; he was known as “the beautiful Lord Strathmore” and Mary wasn’t ugly either, short but nicely curved where it counted, with luxuriant dark brown hair, her biggest asset, and a fair, rosy complexion. However the character of the young husband soon proved to be a challenge. Jesse Foot, a surgeon who became entangled with the life of the Earl, the Countess and her second husband too, described him posthumously in those words:
„The late Earl of Strathmore was not calculated to make even a good learned woman a pleasing husband. His Lordship’s pursuits were always innocent and without the smallest guile, but they were not those of science or any other splendid quality. A sincere friend, a hearty Scotchman and a good bottle companion were points of his character.”
The 9th Earl was, then, a typical example of an aristocrat: honest if not simple, upright, maybe even a bit stiff, and not too intellectual. Horace Walpole called him ‘rustic’. Mary Eleanor Bowes, although significantly younger, was a very different type of person; she had been greatly indulged by her father and educated to an uncommonly high standard. She was interested in botanical studies and in art; in 1769 had published a poetical drama entitled ‘The Siege of Jerusalem’ and her own poems were praised in the circle of her friends.
Happy or not so happy, they had five children, John (who became the 10th Earl), George, Thomas, Maria Jane and Anna Maria. Then a miracle happened. A few years into the marriage, the Earl contracted tuberculosis and his health weakened significantly probably also disrupted further by untreated syphilis. Dissatisfied with her husband’s increasing lack of robustness and alleged inattention, the young countess took lovers to entertain herself. Her luck was still holding- on 7 March 1776, Lord Strathmore died at sea while on a voyage to Lisbon, Portugal, in a last attempt to recover his health.
Mary Eleanor did not receive the news until 6th April when she was delivered the last letter from her husband. Lord Strathmore, aware that he was dying , tried to advice his young wife in a sincere although not exactly affectionate manner. To be honest he sounded more as if he was her father or guardian, not her husband and lover. The management of Mary Eleanor’s great inheritance was his particular concern. He wrote:
“I would advise you most earnestly to appoint some person you can confide in, to fix with your sons’ trustees for a certain sum payable quarterly or half yearly as you shall approve. 1 do not mean that you should receive less than the value of the Estate, that the person you employ will naturally take care of; but that you will know for certain what you have to receive, and be free from imposition of Steward, the plague of repairs and many troubles attending to management of a large Estate.”
Not bad for a simple guy, don’t you think?
Another point of advice made by him perhaps reveals the difference in temperament and interests of the two the best:
“I will say nothing of your extreme rage for literary fame. I think your own understanding, when matured, will convince you of the futility of the pursuit”
The financial concern was valid; the couple’s combined extravagance meant that the countess was left with debts totalling £145,000 upon the Earl’s death. While the sum was staggering, her fortune far exceeded the figure and she had little trouble discharging these debts. As a widow, she also regained control of her fortune, centred on the mines and farms around her childhood home of Gibside in County Durham. It was also not surprising that she should marry again soon after she became free to do so. What was surprising was the person whom she chose to marry. On 17th January 1777 the Countess of Strathmore married Andrew Robinson Stoney, henceforth known as Stoney Bowes. The bridegroom, a nobody, was brought to a church on stretchers and wasn’t supposed to live longer than several days.
Who was that man? He came to Newcastle around 1770, as a poor ensign in the 4th Regiment of Foot, freshly widowed. His first wife was the daughter of William Newton of Burnopfield. Like the father of Mary Eleanor, the Newtons had made a great deal of money in the coal trade, and lived at first in a house at Dyke Heads. Stoney is said to have persuaded Miss Newton to elope with him and small wonder he was in such a hurry – Miss Newton’s fortune was £30,000. They were married at St Andrew’s Church, Newcastle, by the Rev Nathaniel Ellison. This lady died leaving no issue, having, according to common report, endured much suffering at the hands of her husband. After her death, Lieutenant Stoney began to have designs on the hand of Mary Eleanor, the young merry widow enjoying a rather dubious reputation of being a tad too free with her favours.
After the death of her husband the Earl, Eleanor lived at Chelsea, where she had extensive conservatories and vineries. Here she was paid attention to by a gentleman just returned from India, George Gray. He was handsome, had similar tastes to her own, and she might probably have married him, had not Stoney come on to the scene. The situation was straight from an adult romance: at that time Mary was pregnant again by her new lover and decided to carry the pregnancy to full term, contrary to her previous ones which ended in abortions. What’s more Gray was already her official fiancé which, in that period, was almost as binding as marriage itself. How to woo such a woman and make her change her mind? In order to persuade the lady Stoney decided to employ a very sly, even brilliant trick.
The Morning Post was then the fashionable society paper. In this paper several articles appeared from time to time insinuating that the young widow was not leading her life so innocently as to meet with the approval of the more rigorous moralists of the times. The correspondence led to a duel being fought between the editor of the paper and Lieutenant Stoney as the champion of the Countess. The gallantry of the Lieutenant who was allegedly mortally wounded, was rewarded by the Countess marrying him four days later. It transpired, however, that Stoney himself had sent the articles reflecting on the Countess, and had also written those defending her. The duel was a sham, and an understanding existed all the time between the editor and Stoney which throws quite a different light on the affair. No matter, the end was secured and Stoney had become the husband of the Countess of Strathmore, residing at Gibside.
The expensive living of Andrew Stoney Bowes soon forced him to leave Gibside, he had very soon all but bankrupted Eleanor except for her shrewd investments prior to her second marriage. Luckily, Mary Eleanor had heeded her first husband’s dying advice and had conveyed all the real and personal estate in which she enjoyed a life interest under the terms of her father’s will to two trustees, to be held upon trust during her life whether she remained a widow or remarried. Stoney was so desperate for money, he had even cut down much valuable timber to sell, but no one would buy from him.
What’s more, a sadistic psychopath that he was, he began to treat the Countess as he had treated his former wife. He pinched, slapped and hit her, using a cane or his own sword. He was controlling all her correspondence. She couldn’t eat anything unless it was approved by him and he often made her drink milk which Mary detested as it made her ill. She could go out only in the presence of servants employed by Stoney and her every move and word was immediately reported to her husband. As a result Mary Eleanor turned into the total opposite of her former self – she wore rags because her husband didn’t allow her to buy anything new, she was often hungry, beaten, sore and unhappy. To add insult to injury she had to lie through her teeth about fresh cuts and bruises ‘adorning’ her body and face because every complaint was only ‘rewarded’ with more lashes and bruises. In public Stoney often forbade his wife to speak any other words than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or he made her behave rudely. That’s how he was creating a completely false image of Mary Eleanor as a woman who needed a firm guidance, was irresponsible, almost fatally clumsy and often simply out of her mind. Jessé Foot, Stoney’s two-faced friend and biographer, described her altered state with uncharacteristic poignancy. Convulsive sideways movements of her lower jaw mirrored Mary’s mental anguish. She was half-deaf from blows, and could barely speak. Still it wasn’t enough for Stoney. In order to obtain more influence over the Countess, Bowes took away one of her daughters by Lord Strathmore to Paris. This was the Lady Anna Maria, afterwards the wife of Colonel Jessop. But the young lady, being a ward in Chancery, was brought back by the Court.
The following year, 1785, changed everything. The Countess finally managed to get an ally in her own household in a form of Mary Morgan, her new maid. After seeking legal advice, Morgan recruited a small band of other maids prepared to do something for their mistress. With their help Mary Eleanor fled from her husband’s custody, and began divorce proceedings. Mind you, after eight years of physical and mental abuse she had to wage a real war to get her freedom and her money back. The British judicial system hardly favoured divorce proceedings started by a wife and, as you can imagine, Stoney Bowes tried every trick in his books to make it impossible. He even hired some lowlife to abduct Mary and carried her off to the north country, threatening to rape and kill her if she didn’t stop the divorce. Mary Eleanor was gaggeg and carried around the countryside on horseback in one of the coldest spells of an unusually cold winter. Although Stoney Bowes was eventually arrested and Mary rescued such an experience left her physically and mentally scarred and most probably shortened her lifespan significantly. Many people were surprised she survived at all.
Stoney Bowes and his accomplices were found guilty of conspiracy to abduct Mary and he was sentenced to three years in prison. Meanwhile, the divorce case reached the trial stage at the High Court of Delegates. In an interim judgment, Stoney lost the battle to retain control of the Bowes fortune during the pendency of the case. The divorce case itself remained pending until Mary died in 1800, at which point it became infructuous. Stoney Bowes was released from prison upon Mary’s death, and unsuccessfully attempted to have her will invalidated, the cheeky sod. After he lost that case, he was sued by his own lawyers for their expenses. Unable to pay these debts, he came under prison jurisdiction (in that era, bankruptcy was punished with prison), although he lived outside the prison walls with his mistress, another woman he manipulated into serving his needs, Mary ‘Polly’ Sutton. He died on 16 June 1810.
Riches, beauty, wit, and an excellent education bought Mary Eleanor Bowes anything but liberty. Nothing could save her from the fate of legal nonentity that she shared with every other married woman of her time. Neither could anything spare her the merciless scrutiny of a celebrity-obsessed press that flourished on scandal, and judged the countess author of her own woes. Years later Mary wrote a prototype misery memoir, recalling the tortures she endured, including a horrific abduction. Her second husband proved to be the downfall of her ambitions and dreams.
- Wedlock by Wendy Moore