The topic presented to the society this month was Mary Eleanor Bowes – The greatest heiress of the North.
Our speaker was Anthony Atkinson. He portrayed a woman who lived an exceptional and incredible life. She was the only child of George Bowes, born to his second wife Mary in 1749. His first and much-loved wife Eleanor, had tragically died after two months of marriage. He was 23 at the time and she was 14, the legal age of marriage being 12.
He married his second wife 19 years later, who came with a large dowry. His daughter was given his first wife’s name as well as that of her mother and was doted on. He ensured she had an excellent education and she excelled in her studies, which included Greek, Latin, music and science.
She developed a lifelong interest in botany. She was precocious, wilful and overindulged. They lived in a mansion in Gibside, the fruits of coal mining developments. The gardens there are the result of her fascination with plants.
Mary was born into a very wealthy family. Her father died when she was 11, and he left her an immense fortune, which he had built up through mine ownership and price control of coal. She inherited vast amounts of land, mines, horse breeding stables and many valuable paintings. The estate was kept in trust until she was 18, which was when she married John Lyon who was the 9th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. She was described as being short and stocky, and she wore a 12inch wig to add height.
Her father’s wish stipulated the surname Bowes would be continued, thus resulting in the combined names of Bowes-Lyon. She had five children within six years of marriage but she left the children with governesses and went to live in Grosvenor Square, London.
The couple spent very extravagantly but shared no interests. Her husband spent much of his time restoring his family seat at Glamis Castle in Scotland. He contracted TB and was increasingly frail and inattentive. He died at sea en route for Portugal. Meanwhile she had many lovers. The massive debts which they had accrued were easily dealt with, and as a widow, she regained control of her fortune.
She then had an affair with George Gray and became pregnant a number of times and underwent abortions. He had made and lost a fortune working for the East India Company. When she became pregnant once more, she finally agreed to marry him but while engaged, she left him to marry Andrew Stoney in 1777, seduced by this charming, devious man who tricked her into marriage by feigning a duel in her honour and appearing to be mortally injured in order to gain her sympathy.
Having married he miraculously recovered. He had been required to take the family name of Bowes and he therefore became known as Stoney Bowes. When he found she had safeguarded her wealth by a prenuptial agreement, he abused her both mentally and physically for eight years.
She had two more children, the first probably was by George Gray. She was stabbed, beaten, starved and locked up and forced to entertain prostitutes. He threatened to have her put in an asylum and to have her killed.
With the help of her maids she escaped in 1785 and initiated divorce proceedings which at that time were unheard of. The scandalous situation was of national interest. He kidnapped her with the help of accomplices and took her up north but was eventually apprehended and arrested.
As her many affairs became public, sympathy for her waned. He was sentenced to three years in prison, and the divorce case was still pending when she died. Unable to pay his debts to lawyers, he went to debtors’ prison where he stayed until his death. The term “stoney broke” is attributed to him.
She later retired to Stourfield House in Hampshire where she lived until her death at the age of 51. Two of her children lived with her there, having been reconciled. The other children rarely visited. She died in 1800 and is buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey, wearing, it is said, a superb bridal dress. Mary Eleanor Bowes was the great great, great, grandmother of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother. His lively talk was appreciated by a large audience.
The last session will be in May when members will visit Thirlestane Castle in the Boarders in Scotland. Our new season of talks will begin on September 21.