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Harriet Mellon, Duchess of St. Albans

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     Among the ten or twelve ladies who have been raised from the stage to wear coronets, few names stand forth more pleasantly than that of Harriet Mellon.  Some eighty-five years ago that lady was taking the town by storm by her performance of Volante in 'The Honeymoon,' at Drury Lane Theatre; and, as it was in the year in which the Battle of Waterloo was fought that she quitted the stage, she must have been a her zenith just at the same time with the great Napoleon.
     It is not known who was her father, though probably she had one, and it has been said that he was a chimney-sweep at Sheffield; her mother. a Mrs. Entwisle, was a celebrity in her day upon the provincial stage; and little Harriet first saw the light on the 11th of November, 1777, in a small street near the Archiepiscopal Palace of Lambeth. It is possible that her father may have been a certain Lieutenant Mellon of the Madras Army, who came, saw, and conquered her charming mother, and who, having married her on  ‘Twelfth Day,' 1777, sailed from Portsmouth for India in the following March, and was never heard of afterwards; and it is equally possible that the said Lieutenant Mellon was a 'nobleman in disguise.' This was a mystery constantly alluded to but never cleared up by her mother, who was a native of the county Cork, and of peasant extraction, and who probably had paid a visit to the 'blarney stone' in her childhood. What is known is that when her little Harriet was two or three years old she took as her second husband a certain Mr. Entwisle (over whose parentage, too, there hung an air of romance and mystery as well), and that the husband and wife used to make the provincial circuits from theater to theater on foot, carrying by turns little Harriet and a large Cremona violin. Mr. Entwisle does not seem to have been remarkable in any way either as an actor or as a man; and he contributed nothing to the prospects of his wife and his step-child, although we must do him the justice to say that he was both fond and proud of her.
     When very young indeed, Harriet was the inmate of a fine castle, where she recollected handsome staircases, fine pictures, and ladies in gay attire, by whom she was petted and fondled; and when in her mature years, as Mrs. Coutts, she went as a visitor to that same castle, she at once recalled it as one of the haunts of her early childhood. Her mother, a woman of high spirit and passionate temper, appears to have treated her as a child with great severity, and even harshness; but this she repaid only by kindness and substantial acts of benefit, a long catalogue of which may be found in the life of the Duchess, by Mrs. Cornwall Baron Wilson.
     It would be tedious and unprofitable to give here a detailed list of the various provincial stages on which young Harriet Mellon had appeared before she was eighteen. But when she was about that age she had been brought into contact with Sheridan, who first saw her at Stafford, and who urged her to come to town and try her fortunes on a more ambitious stage, promising her that he would give her introductions which would ensure her an engagement at Drury Lane. She, or rather her parents, followed Sheridan's advice. Though they were driven into serious straits for a time in the metropolis, yet luck came in its own good time, and during the season of 1795 she made her debut on ill, boards of 'Old Drury,' as Lydia Languish. It was not, however, her fate to take the town by storm, as some have done before her and after her; in fact, it was only by gradual steps that she rose to become a favorite either in the town or in the country; but before the commencement of the present century her name was in everybody's mouth as one of the best of the rising generation of comic actresses. Mrs. Siddons knew her and admired her; and so did the stars of lesser magnitude who revolved around that center of theatrical attraction.
     It must have been about the year 1810 that she was first introduced, whilst on a professional tour at Cheltenham, to the gentleman whose acquaintance most largely influenced tire rest of her life. Mr. Thomas Coutts was well known as a rich septuagenarian, who was ‘taking the Cheltenham waters' for his health. He saw and admired Miss Mellon whilst she was walking with her mother on the Parade; and one evening he sent her an order for a box, with five guineas as an enclosure. These guineas she always regarded with religious, not to say superstitious, reverence, as five pieces of luck, and treasured them to her dying day. Mr. Coutts forthwith became a frequent visitor at Mrs. Entwisle's lodgings, and introduced his daughters--Lady Guildford and Lady Burdett--to the reigning and accomplished actress and her mother. On returning to London the intimacy was kept up; and Miss Mellon and her mother were equally constant and acceptable visitors at the great banking house in the Strand, of which Mr. Coutts was the head.
     It happened that at this time Mrs. Coutts was an invalid; her mind was overcast by mental disease: she rarely appeared at table, and if she did her memory played her lamentable tricks. On one occasion she asked the Duke of Clarence, afterwards William IV, if he were not the father of his Majesty King George III.
     In the first month of 1815 old Mrs. Coutts exchanged this life for a better one, and her husband at once offered his hand, thus released, to the charming actress, who had been his daughters' friend, and in whom he thought he should himself find a true friend and a kind nurse in his declining years. At first Miss Mellon was strongly inclined to reject the offer, on account of the disparity of age; but at length she yielded to the importunity of one of Mr. Coutts's oldest friends and advisers, and her marriage was celebrated privately at St. Pancras Church, in the following month, the ceremony being performed by a Mr. Champneys. The union was publicly notified in the Tines of the 2nd of March. She had retired from the stage at the time of their union. That, in spite of the recent death of the first Mrs. Coutts, his family did not disapprove of the new bride may be inferred from the fact that not very many months had passed by before Harriet Mellon, once the actress, and now the wife of the richest untitled commoner in the land, was presented at Court by her own step-daughter, Lady Guildford. The Prince Regent and the other members of the Royal circle, it was observed, took especial notice of the new debutante at St. James's Palace.
     During the seven years that she presided over Mr. Coutts's dinner table and drawing-room at Stratton Street few hostesses excelled her in the highest qualities of tact, kindness, forethought, and courtesy. She seemed in a manner born to the situation. But all this ended at Mr. Coutts's death in 1822, which left her once more at her own disposal. Mrs. Coutts, both as the banker's wife and as his widow, paid frequent visits to Edinburgh; and the good people of our `Northern Athens' were not slow in accepting invitations to her parties, and then abusing her. But even this did not chill her kindly feelings or set a limit to her invitations. Sir Walter Scott went out of his way to rebuke some of those who, after accepting her hospitality at Edinburgh, would give her the ‘cold shoulder' at Abbotsford. She was a guest at that house in 1825, when the young Duke of St. Alban's was pressing his suit vigorously with the amiable and wealthy relict; and it is certain that Sir Walter did his best to bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion. ‘If the Duke marries her,' he writes, ' he insures an immense fortune: and if she marries him, she has the front rank. If he marries a woman older than himself by twenty years, she marries a man younger in wit by twenty degrees. I do not think he will dilapidate her fortune: he seems good and gentle. I do not think she will abuse his softness of disposition-shall I say? or of heart.'
When she had risen by her second marriage to the highest point of her ambition, the unthinking world expected to see vulgar display and bad taste in her dress, her style of living, and her equipages; but in all this they were grievously disappointed; and her assumption of the strawberry leaves led to no alteration in externals. The coach of his Grace of St. Alban's was in no way more dashing from the wealth which she had brought into the house of Beauclerk. These may be trifles to the eye and ear, but they bespoke the good sense of the Duchess.
     At the coronation of William IV. and Queen Adelaide in 1831, her Grace was seated with the other ladies of ducal rank on the front seat on the floor of the transept. Just before the anointing of the Queen a sealed packet was presented to her; the three Duchesses on one side of her, and the next Duchess on the other side then rose to hold the canopy over Her Majesty, leaving her Grace of St. Alban's seated and passed over. The incident made not the slightest impression upon her, nor did the color come into her cheek at what many ladies would have looked on as an affront.
     The Duchess, however, had her little weaknesses, not to say superstitions; and she was so afraid of ghosts that she always had a maidservant to keep watch in her chamber at night. From her youth she cherished a belief that the dead visited the living in the shape of birds. On her death-bed she received her stepdaughter, Lady Guildford, calmly and placidly remarked, ' I am so happy to-day, because your father's spirit is breathing upon me, as he promised; he has taken the shape of a little bird, singing at my window, just as he said he would come back if he could.'  In the hope that such a belief would be realized, she often throw out food to the birds, and opened the windows of her boudoir at Holly Lodge that they might come inside.
     In spite of the grandeur and state of receptions in Stratton Street, it was in Holly Lodge, Highgate, the country spot where she had fixed her home as Miss Mellon, that she still especially delighted. There she had the sight of green trees and of flowers and the song of birds to cheer her; and to these she returned with a sense of relief when the pleasures of the London season fatigued and oppressed her. Here, in spite of her marriage, she gave a home for a few months to her mother, till that mother was called away by the hand of death, and afterwards to her unthrifty and reckless stepfather, whose later years were made happy by her care and her generosity, which gave him the possession of a cottage on the Thames and a comfortable annuity. To the relations of Mr. Coutts's former wife, who were in poor circumstances, she was equally, indeed, even more, liberal; for it was calculated that in the seventeen years after she became Mr. Coitus's widow, her donations to them amounted to several thousand pounds. Indeed, the sum total mentioned by Mrs. Wilson would scarcely be believed, even if the last ' 0' were struck off. And this is the woman whom some of those who had sought to hang upon the skirt-tails of the wealthy banker, maligned as unprincipled and dishonest both in her lifetime and after her death!
     Sir Walter Scott, was not the only literary celebrity whom the Duchess of St. Alban's reckoned in her list of friends.  Southey and Wordsworth both visited her at her hotel at Ambleside, and Samuel Rogers was one of her most frequent guests at Highgate. She also entertained at Holly Lodge, both as Mrs. Coutts and as Duchess, the best society; and on one occasion at least four Royal Dukes sat down at her dinner table. I say `her' table advisedly; for holly Lodge was not settled on her by Mr. Coutts or by the Duke of St. Alban's, but had been purchased by her out of her own earrings when she was plain Harriet Mellon.  To that horse, as I have said, she was much and its walks, its terraces, its sbrubberies, and its internal arrangements all bespeak the taste of its first gentle mistress. She was particularly fond of the room in which Mr. Coutts had breathed his last, on account of its fender and sacred memories. ‘Let me die in the room in which Mr. Coutts died,' was one of her last requests when she found herself near the end.
     Mr. Coutts, at his decease in 1822, had left her in round figures some £1,800,000: but this she regarded so far as a trust and not a gift, that she did not hand it over, as she had the right and power to do, and as most ladies in her place would have done, to the Duke of St. Albans and his relatives, the Beauclerks, who certainly were not rich for the 'collaterals' of a ducal house. On the contrary, she resolved that the money should go back to the descendants of him from whose hands it came to her; and, accordingly, when her will was read it was found that she had bequeathed it to one of the daughters of Mr. Coutts's younger child, Lady Burdett, coupled with the instruction that she should take the additional name of the banker of the Strand. To her also she bequeathed both Holly Lodge and the house in Stratton Street and whatever interest she owned in Coutts's bank. That lady is now Lady Burdett-Coutts, thanks partly to the kindness and goodness of the Duchess.
     Of Harriet Mellon's early days the pleasantest record is perhaps her fine mezzotint portrait as Volante in  ‘The Honeymoon,' which is engraved as a frontispiece to her memoirs by Mrs. C. Baron Wilson. ' Well do we remember,' writes a well-known author, the exquisite archness and rich sunlight of her brilliant features, now, alas?  extinguished in the dark tomb.' He speaks of her truth and justice in all her dealings; of her kindness and liberality to tradesmen and humble dependants; and of the generous impulses which she obeyed when she bestowed a part of her great wealth on those who needed it. Mrs. Wilson goes further still, and commends her piety, her charity, and her truth as highly as her wit. This life, it should here be stated, was written owing to the non-appearance, of two biographies-the one distinctly hostile and offensive and the other perhaps too partial and eulogistic, but thoroughly authentic-which were announced for publication shortly after her Grace's death, but neither of which actually appeared. It only remains to add that the duchess died at her house in Stratton Street, Piccadilly, on the 6th of August, 1837, and was buried at Redbourne, near Brigg, Lincolnshire, the seat of her second husband, the Duke of St. Alban's.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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