While riding across his estate one day, the titled gentleman’s horse cast a shoe. Later, at the village smithy he meets the blacksmith’s daughter with whom he immediately falls head over heels in love. The couple defy their critics and despite a yawning difference in both age and status, they marry and live happily ever after.
Only it wasn’t quite like that, but it would be nearly twenty years before the whole story was made public.
Mary Emily Elizabeth Howard was born on January 31, 1859 in the neighbouring village of Lydiard Millicent, the eldest child of Robert Howard, gardener, carter and sometime blacksmith, and his wife Susanna the daughter of Robert Hiscock, gamekeeper at Lydiard Park.
Mary was no stranger to Lydiard House and the illustrious St John family. The Hiscock’s were long serving gamekeepers on the estate and at the time of the 1871 census Mary was living with her grandparents at Brook Cottage.
It was surprising that Henry, 5th Viscount Bolingbroke took so long to notice the pretty young woman who grew up on his estate, but then he had other things on his mind.
Henry Mildmay was born in 1820. Described as an ‘eccentric’ child, he grew up to be something of a recluse with a very secretive personality. Although somewhat lacking in the management of his estate, Henry was fiercely protective of his heritage and, as it proved, was prepared to go to any lengths to safeguard it.
Aged thirty-one, Henry succeeded to the titles of 5th Viscount Bolingbroke, Viscount St. John, Baron St. John of Lydiard Tregoze and Baron St. John of Battersea on the death of his father in 1851.
Soon after his succession Henry made a rare visit to London and while staying with friends at Blackheath he was introduced to seventeen-year-old Ellen Medex.
Within a few days of this meeting, Henry proposed marriage, but thwarted by Ellen’s sister, Madame Bischoff, the couple eloped to Holland.
Despite Henry’s subsequent protests to prove otherwise and with no evidence of any marriage certificate, it appears extremely doubtful the couple ever wed. Ellen had a son who died at birth and a daughter, Ellen Rose born in 1863.
Henry and Ellen led a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, spending several years living abroad. On their return to London they lived at various addresses under the alias Mr and Mrs Morgan, but apparently never returned to Henry’s mansion house at Lydiard Park.
Ellen died in 1885 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery, her coffin plate inscribed ‘Ellen, Viscountess Bolingbroke.’ After Ellen’s death Henry assumed the mantle of grieving widower, but all was not as Henry would have liked the London society gossips to believe.
Some years earlier, leaving Ellen and their daughter in London, Henry had returned to Lydiard Park where the fateful horseshoe incident apparently occurred. After several visits to the blacksmith, Henry suggested that Mary move up to Lydiard House - as his housekeeper. He then proceeded to set up home with Mary, not at Lydiard House but at an address in nearby Bath where the couple lived as Mr and Mrs Wilson.
By 1882 Henry’s complicated domestic arrangements included a London address with Ellen and his daughter, Lydiard House where he stayed with Mary acting as his housekeeper and Bath where Mary, alias Mrs Wilson, gave birth to a son later that same year.
After Ellen’s death, by which time Mary had given birth to a second son, Henry’s thoughts turned to his inheritance and he set about rewriting history through the pages of Debretts, publishers of the definitive guide to the peerage. Updating his details, Henry sent the publishers a new entry – ‘Married Ellen, daughter of G.W. Medex esq of Brussels. She died 1885 Sons Henry Mildmay born 1880, Charles born 1883.’
The editor, although unconvinced, made some alterations to Henry’s entry, much to his Lordship’s displeasure.
‘I regret to see in this year’s Spring Edition that my late wife’s surname has been omitted, and that she is described as ‘the daughter of Mr. – ‘ a wrong and harmful description. I also find that there is no mention made of my children. I am quite sure you would not wish these omissions to appear again,’ Henry wrote.
The editor requested a copy of Henry’s marriage certificate and his son’s birth certificates to set the record straight but Henry refused to produce the documents.
The debate continued and by late 1893 Henry was arguing – ‘My certificates remain in my possession. I am surprised you should not have chosen to accept my information.’
The argument had become even more convoluted as on January 5, 1893 the 72-year-old Henry Mildmay married Mary Emily Elizabeth Howard aged 32 at Bath Register Office.
The couple’s only legitimate son, Vernon was born in 1896 but Mary was still forbidden to reveal her true identity or acknowledge the existence of her three sons. Henry and Mary continued to live in Bath as Mr and Mrs Wilson and on their occasional visits to Lydiard the boys remained behind in the care of a nurse while Mary resumed her role as housekeeper.
However even this story itself has recently been challenged. The details of photographs taken at Lydiard and once thought to have been of Vernon have been re examined and it is now thought that the boy pictured with Mary and Henry is is one of their elder sons. Vernon was just three years old when his father died and the boy in the photograph is considerably older.
Henry died on November 7, 1899. Following the service at St. Mary’s Church, Henry’s solicitor handed the following statement to two journalists who had attended the funeral. – The late Viscount married late in life, and leaves a widow and son, the Hon. Vernon Henry St. John who succeeds to the title of Viscount Bolingbroke. The announcements made in some quarters that Canon St. John is heir have been made from want of knowledge of the true circumstances.
Mary assumed her duties as Lady Bolingbroke with the help of her cousin Edward Hiscock whom she created Estate Manager. From all accounts she was a kind, approachable woman who took her obligations as Lady of the Manor seriously, despite the not inconsiderable financial constraints placed upon her.
In 1920, with the estate mortgaged to the hilt and the once elegant mansion house in desperate need of repair, Mary sold off 1,000 acres of farmland. By the 1930s a large part of Lydiard House was uninhabitable, with the four-poster beds holding up the ceilings in some rooms and holes in the roof.
A second property sale followed in March 1930 when the local press announced that ‘for economic reasons Lady Bolingbroke decided to dispose of her estate at Lydiard.’ Described as one of the largest sales held in Swindon for many years it was reported that - ‘attractive offers have been received for the purchase of the estate as a whole, but it was Lady Bolingbroke’s desire that her tenants should have an opportunity of securing their holdings.’
Mary spent the last years of her life bedridden in a smallish room overlooking the church path where, it was said, she was able to see people coming and going to church on Sundays.
Lady Bolingbroke died on February 22 1940 and was buried alongside her husband in the new vault in the churchyard at St Mary's, Lydiard Tregoze. Mourners included her three sons, Edward Hiscock and the tenants and estate workers with whom she had grown up.
Among the floral tributes were cards signed ‘In affectionate remembrance, from all at Windmill Farm’ and ‘With loving sympathy from children and teachers at Lydiard Tregoze School.’
Mary’s death marked the beginning of the end of the St. John inheritance at Lydiard Park. Her will, unaltered since she made it in 1902, left the estate to be held in trust for her son Vernon, naming her solicitor and Edward Hiscock as trustees.
The St John property in Wiltshire and London had long since gone to pay for the dissolute excesses of previous generations.
In 1943 the remaining farms and land in the two parishes of Lydiard Tregoze and Lydiard Millicent were sold. Finally the mansion house and 147 acres of parkland were bought by Swindon Corporation.
Images of Lady Mary with parasol, Ellen Medex and Lady Mary with Henry and one of their two elder sons are published courtesy of Lydiard Park