Lady Henry Somerset of Eastnor Castle

PUBLISHED: 17:26 21 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:51 20 February 2013

Portrait of Lady Henry Somerset by G F Watts, by kind permission of James Hervey-Bathurst, Eastnor Castle collection. Image supplied by Photographic Survey, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Portrait of Lady Henry Somerset by G F Watts, by kind permission of James Hervey-Bathurst, Eastnor Castle collection. Image supplied by Photographic Survey, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Lady Henry Somerset of Eastnor Castle scandalised Victorian society but by 1913 the philanthropist and temperance campaigner was voted the woman Londoners would like to see as the first female Prime Minister

Herefordshiresforgotten heroine

Lady Henry Somerset of Eastnor Castle scandalised Victorian society but by 1913 the philanthropist and temperance campaigner was voted the woman Londoners would like to see as the first female Prime Minister. Ros Black who has written a new biography tells her story

In her day, Lady Henry Somerset was compared to Florence Nightingale. In 1913 she topped a poll of readers of the London Evening News as the person they would most like as the first female Prime Minister. Yet today, few people have heard of her.

The story of her life is fascinating; the list of her achievements long and varied. She overcame the sorrow of an unhappy marriage to become a leading social reformer, a powerful orator who could pack halls around Britain and throughout America. She promoted womens issues long before feminism became fashionable. Much of what she said 120 years ago, about the perils of drink and drugs, is still pertinent today.

Isabel Caroline Somers Cock, born 1851, was the eldest daughter of Charles, 3rd Earl Somers, of Eastnor Castle. Her mother, Virginia, was one of the seven Pattle sisters or Pattledom as a wit of the time described this bevy of talented and attractive women. The family owned great swathes of land in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, as well as most of the town of Reigate in Surrey, where they had a fine country house, Reigate Priory. The least salubrious of their landholdings was Somers Town, in the St Pancras area of London.

In 1872, as a shy 20-year-old, Isobel married Lord Henry Somerset, second son of the Duke of Beaufort. A glittering life of aristocratic pleasures seemed to lie ahead of her. But her hopes of a happy marriage and a large family were dashed within days of her society wedding.

When her husband told her that he wanted them to lead separate lives, she wondered what on earth she had done wrong. For a brief period marital relations were resumed and Lady Henry conceived a son, nicknamed Somey. But Isabel could not turn a blind eye to her husbands behaviour. At one stage she thought he must have a mistress, but in fact Lord Henry was homosexual, at at time when homosexuality was not just frowned upon, it was a crime.

It took Lady Henry several difficult years to escape from the marriage. But in challenging her husband, Comptroller of the Queens Household and a protg of Disraeli, for custody of their son, she flouted all the social conventions of the period. She may have won the court case, but it was a hollow victory as she was the one then shunned by society. She had invented a new sin, something only mentioned in the Bible and gentlemen did not want their wives associating with her.

For several years, Isabel nursed her hurt pride, living primarily at Reigate Priory. Following the death of her father, she moved back to Eastnor where she started to visit the sick and needy. Distressed by the alcohol-fuelled squalor of Ledburys Bye Street, she set up a mission and encouraged people to sign the Total Abstinence Pledge. She led by example and took the pledge herself. All the cellars at Eastnor were emptied; the Somers Arms became a Temperance Hotel.

In 1890 Lady Henry became President of the British Womens Temperance Association and set about expanding its remit, refusing to be the titled figurehead some people had thought they were electing.
When not on the campaign trail, arguing for the restriction of opening hours rather than the full prohibition favoured by her American colleagues, she preferred to offer practical help. She set up homes in both Eastnor and Reigate where young girls could be trained for domestic service. She established a settlement in the East End of London, before launching her most ambitious and innovative project a farm colony for inebriate women at Duxhurst, just three miles south of her own
Reigate home.

Duxhurst was the Priory clinic of its day, where fine ladies went to the manor house for rehab. But it also offered homes to the destitute and those who would otherwise have been sent to jail. There was a special Nest for the children, who flourished in the healthy rural environment.
Lady Henry was also talented artistically, a very competent sculptor and potter, a writer of poetry, fiction and many thousands of newspaper columns. She designed and fashioned the panels on the drinking fountain on Eastnor village green, as well as a seat in the corner of the churchyard. The chapel in Eastnor Castle, which she and her sister Adeline dedicated to their father, reflects the depths of her religious beliefs and her love of imagery and beautiful ornamentation.

A lady of strong principles, she never shirked from doing what she believed to be right, even where this made her unpopular. When she died, rich and poor alike felt they had lost a true friend.

Before her death in 1921, Lady Henry had passed over responsibility for Eastnor and the Herefordshire and Worcestershire estates to her cousin, Arthur, who went on to become Governor of Victoria, Australia and Chief Scout of the British Empire. Arthurs grandson, James Hervey-Bathurst, is the current owner of Eastnor Castle.

Ros Black is married with two adult daughters and lives in Reigate, Surrey. Since taking early retirement in 2007 she has concentrated on hobbies, including writing and social history. I enjoy uncovering the human stories behind historical events, she says.

Discovering Lady Henry
By Ros Black

As a resident of Reigate myself, I was used to seeing street names like Eastnor Road and Somers Road, without ever stopping to question their significance. Then in September 2007, I took advantage of a Heritage Open Day to visit Reigate Priory, which is now a school. It was the start of a wonderful journey which has taken me not only to parts of Surrey which I never knew existed, but also introduced me to the beautiful countryside of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. James Hervey-Bathurst kindly allowed me access to the archives of Eastnor Castle where many of Lady Henrys papers have been preserved. Her great grandson, the present Duke of Beaufort, has also been most supportive. It has been a real privilege to discover the story of this amazing lady.

A Talent for Humanity the life and work of Lady Henry Somerset is available from Ledbury Books and Maps; The Three Counties Bookshop in Ledbury; Eastnor Castle gift shop or from Amazon.


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