Monday, December 12, 2011

The Lady St Johns of Lydiard - Ellen Rose St John

Ellen St John visited Lydiard Park for her father's funeral.  Whether this was the one and only time she ever saw her ancestral home remains unknown. In fact most of Ellen’s life is something of a mystery, living as she did on the periphery of St John family life.



Ellen’s life was shrouded in secrecy and even she once commented that she never knew her exact birth date. Difficult to locate on the Victorian census returns, Ellen could have become a mere footnote in the St John family history if it were not for a handful of letters that escaped the monumental clear out conducted by her half brother Vernon 6th Lord Bolingbroke, who donated 2½ tons of paper to the wartime salvage effort.

Ellen Rose was the only surviving child born to Ellen Medex and Henry Mildmay St John, 5th Lord Bolingbroke, during a clandestine relationship which lasted over 30 years.

Despite Henry’s later protestations, it appears unlikely that he ever married Ellen Medex. However, following her death in 1885 she was buried in Highgate Cemetery where Henry declared her to be ‘Ellen, Viscountess Bolingbroke.’



Ellen Rose was born in 1863. Her parent’s nomadic lifestyle under various pseudonyms makes it difficult to locate the family on the 1871 and 1881 census records.

However, the 1891 census returns reveal that Ellen Rosie St John aged 29, occupied four rooms at 39 Cornwall Road close to Waterloo Station, where she lived with her companion Minnie Breton on an income of private means, most probably money left to her by her mother.

At the time of the 1911 census Ellen had moved to the suburbs, a six roomed flat at 11 Babington Road, Streatham where she lived with her maid, Minnie Leonard.

By the 1930s Ellen, then in her late sixties, lived in a rented house at 13 Malvern Road, Thornton Heath, Surrey.

She appears to have owned another property that she rented out, meanwhile living in rented accommodation where she also let out several rooms.

Acting on behalf of the widowed Lady Bolingbroke, Harold Dale at H. Bevir & Son, long term solicitors to the St. John family, was the unfortunate recipient of Ellen’s letters, nine of which are held at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.

“I am writing this to ask you if Lady Bolingbroke is still at Lydiard as I have written to her & as she has not answered my letters I am wondering if she received them,” Ellen wrote to Harold Dale, at his Wootton Bassett office.

“She always sent me my rent etc through Mr Goodwyn & I have not had any cheque this month (due 11th). I don’t think he can realize what that means to me. I have not anything of my own & my mother’s money – which was not much was spent was little as everything was so expensive.”

While Mary, Lady Bolingbroke continued to battle the financial consequences of the extravagances of previous generations of St. Johns, her stepdaughter similarly suffered from the excesses of her ancestors’ lifestyles.

In 1922 Vernon Henry St. John, Ellen’s half brother, petitioned the government that he should be summoned to Parliament by the name and style of Viscount Bolingbroke, Viscount Saint John, Baron Saint John of Lydiard Tregoze, and Baron Saint John of Battersea.

The subsequent hearing received extensive press coverage and exposed the details of his father’s, Henry Mildmay, love affairs and subterfuge.

The successful petition enabled Vernon to take his seat in the House of Lords but for Ellen the outcome was less satisfactory.

Tainted by her father’s conduct and with her own illegitimate birth revealed, Ellen wrote to Harold Dale that “I have been here 30 years & the case in the House of Lords simply ruined me here as people have never been the same to me.”

In a letter dated July 3, 1930 Harold Dale outlines the full extent of the financial situation at Lydiard in an attempt to offer Ellen an explanation why he is unable to pay her an allowance. “I am really awfully sorry for you, and do appreciate the position you are in – but Lady Bolingbroke is in exactly the same position, and has no income whatever.

“She also does not know what to do, and she has such heavy expenses in connection with the house and there is nothing to meet them with.

“The position with regard to the future is still in the balance and a great deal depends upon whether any further sales of land take place.

“At the moment the mortgagees will require the whole income and Lady Bolingbroke is powerless in the matter.

“It is a most terrible situation for you.”

Perhaps still unappreciative of the real situation and revealing a little of her father’s autocratic attitude, Ellen replied:



“I cannot understand how it is that Lydiard has got into that terrible state. Lady Bolingbroke could let part of the house & people bring their own servants. That, would bring her a little.”

With the help of Harold Dale, Ellen applied for financial assistance from a variety of philanthropic societies, including the Guild of Aid for Gentlepeople.

“The Society you were kind enough to write to thought the case was not a suitable one so I managed to get a little from another society not permanent unfortunately,” Ellen informed him.

Following the unsuccessful application to the Guild of Aid for Gentlepeople, Ellen again appealed to the beleaguered Harold Dale.

“I hope you will not think me a terrible nuisance – I really don’t know how to go on & I do really dread the winter under these conditions.

“If you could manage to get ever so little a month it would be such a help to keep me going.”

Wracked with worry an exasperated Ellen wrote again:  “What do you think I can exist upon? The Vicar & Dr. think it a most cruel and dreadful thing not to send me anything.”

Ellen possibly had some contact with the extended St John family, or perhaps she refers to her Medex relatives when she writes – “the family cannot believe such a thing. Father not being on friendly terms with them, had made it bad for me.”

On December 23, 1931 Mary, Lady Bolingbroke wrote to Harold Dale, “ I am enclosing a cheque for five pounds made out to you as I think it advisable it should be sent to her [Ellen] from you.”

Sadly, Ellen’s eventual rescue came at the expense of Mary’s death in 1940. In her will dated 1902 Mary’s first bequest was an annuity of £100 per annum to Ellen St John. In 1940 Ellen was herself 77 years old and in failing health. Her last address in 1942 was 58 Derby Road, Croydon where she rented two rooms. She died at the Mayday Hospital, Croydon in March of that year.

Ellen’s rooms contained very little furniture and were left in a terrible state according to her landlady where “mice jump out of the drawers.” Among her effects were several silver plated items and a model of a Chinese Junk in a glass case, which was described as being ‘very pretty.’

Ellen died owing £14 14s rent. Anxious to locate anything of value, Vernon was informed that the silver plated items were in the possession of the Local Authorities and would be sold to go towards the rent arrears.

Unlike Lady Bolingbroke whose funeral two years previously was attended by family, friends, tenants and estate workers at the parish church in Lydiard Park, Ellen was laid to rest, not in the St. John family vault, but in grave number 20642 plot F.5 in Croydon Cemetery, Mitcham Road.

It seems unlikely anyone other than the funeral director attended Ellen’s burial.

Images - Ellen Rose St John, Ellen Medex and Lady Mary in old age are published courtesy of Lydiard House and Park

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Lady St Johns of Lydiard - Mary Howard

The story of Lord and Lady Bolingbroke’s first meeting is the stuff of romantic fiction.

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