lthough the 3rd Duke of Sutherland was exceedingly wealthy and his marriage was twice rumoured to be at breakdown point, no divorce eventuated. Both times, his extramarital affairs were the issue, and gentlemanliness along with the possibility that collusion would be revealed would not have allowed him to ask his wife to fabricate a lover. Duchess Annie, married to him since 1849, faced both a legal and a royal problem in responding to her husband’s behaviour. The legal problem was probably the lesser of the two. She would have had to add some other unseemly or shameful claim to that of his infidelity. Desertion might have been a possibility, but the house in Torquay had been bought for her as a retreat from the marriage, not for the Duke. The Duke might also have been reluctant: Duchess Annie had, like other Sutherland wives before her, brought considerable wealth and property to consolidate family fortunes.
The royal problem was that the Sutherland family was very close to the Queen (their London home was next door to Buckingham Palace). The 3rd Duke’s mother had been a long-lasting and favourite Mistress of the Robes, and his aunt and wife had followed in the role for lesser periods. His children had played with the Queen’s children and his nephew had married one of her daughters. Years before, Queen Victoria had, in her pleasure at the Sutherland marriage, bestowed the title of Countess of Cromartie on Duchess Annie in her own right with her properties and title passing to her second son.
As a devout Protestant and Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith, Queen Victoria took her responsibilities very seriously indeed. The secularisation of divorce was irrelevant to her. Her Majesty would not receive divorcees, on whatever grounds the marriage had ended. Lacking her approval, they would be excluded from polite society. On one occasion (1874), Duchess Annie raised the question of whether the Queen might receive Effie Millais, whose unconsummated marriage to John Ruskin had been annulled before her remarriage to the fashionable painter. The Queen responded that receiving the lady would cause “remarks of every kind and sort which would be much more injurious to the Lady than her not being received,” adding “you should advise Mrs. Millais in her own interest to say no more about it.”
Her attempt to gain an audience for Effie Millais, which the queen considered a faux pas, may have been the reason Queen Victoria called Annie “a foolish, injudicious little woman”, a problem when Stafford “did not live as a Duke ought” (Hibbert 2007, 73). Nonetheless, the duchess remained an intimate of the Queen, who might have seen her as a source of information about the actions of the Prince of Wales, a close friend of the Duke of Sutherland.
During the 1870s, there the popular press increasingly covered marital infidelities, several of which came dangerously close to the Queen because they touched on the Prince of Wales. The Nonconformist William Stead, a precursor of writers for modern tabloids who preached that only righteousness could preserve the moral power of Britain, wrote about the scandals of the rich and famous.
Three high profile divorce cases of the era are of relevance
n 1876, a major scandal involved the Prince of Wales, Lady Edith Aylesford, the Marquis of Blandford and his younger brother, Randolph Churchill. With Disraeli’s help, members of the Churchill family moved to Ireland, and Lady Edith and her Marquis lived in exile in Paris.
In 1886, Sir Charles Dilke was named as co-respondent in a divorce case. Dilke had frequently been at the same improper supper parties as the Prince of Wales (Paget 1923, 342). The Court granted a divorce but dismissed the case against Dilke, which effectively meant that a wife’s confession to her husband was evidence of her guilt, but not that of the co-respondent.
Also that year, Lady Gertrude Campbell started divorce proceedings, on the grounds that Lord Colin had knowingly infected her with syphilis and had had sex with a housemaid (Jordan 2010). Lord Colin was a nephew of the 3rd Duke’s. It was his brother who had married one of Queen Victoria’s daughters. His counter-accusation involved four men, all of them within the Prince of Wales’s networks, all based on ‘what the butler saw’. Lady Gertrude failed to obtain a divorce because there was no reliable evidence.
The 3rd Duke of Sutherland, the Duchess, and Mrs. Blair
he 3rd Duke of Sutherland had long been raffish, the Queen’s ‘bête noire’ (Ridley 2013,151). In the late 1850s, he had long kept a mistress, Miss Annie Gilbert. Upper class lovers were expected to leave England to live as they pleased; remaining visible in London society was a different matter altogether (Frost 2008). As the scandal grew, the Duchess-Countess threatened separation, Stafford dropped Miss Gilbert (publicly at least), and his friend, Lord Dufferin, helped out. Behind the scenes, Stafford retained Miss Gilbert, and wrote encouraging Dufferin to contact her with the words, “you are everything that is kind and good and I am just the contrary” (Ridley 2013, 376). Any further love affairs are unknown until, at some point in the 1870s, the Duke met Mrs. Blair.
In the meantime, the Duchess had, possibly out of distress at her failing marriage or at the death of their eldest boy, George, at the age of eight in 1858, turned to religion. Lady Paget, when she first met her in 1874, found her rather “royal” and vain, and concluded that she was happy neither as wife nor mother. Morning and evening the Duchess would read guests prayers of her own composition (Paget 1923, 289–92). Lady Paget also mentioned that the whole family appeared to be at war with one another, and the only bright light was Florence, the Duke’s favourite daughter. In 1875, Lady Barker complained to her dinner neighbour about how frequently the Duchess had her attend religious revival meetings–she found the mix of “religious fervour with the most intense toadyism horribly disgusting” (Hare 1900).
This was the year that the Prince of Wales invited his favourite duke to accompany him on his tour of India. Queen Victoria objected. The Prince defended him as a close friend who always spoke his mind. His clinching argument was that to withdraw the invitation, he would be obliged to mention that this was the Queen’s wish. The Queen relented: given that the party included journalists William Howard Russell (as the Prince’s confidant and private secretary) and Archibald Forbes (from The Times), any reports could be tightly controlled.
The Duke’s friendship with the Prince remained strong for a few more years, but seems to have collapsed, in England at least, at the time of, or not long after, this report:
In Court circles it is known that the Duke of Sutherland is the Prince of Wales (that is, putting his ideas into practical effect), and the Duchess of Sutherland is the Queen (that is, one of her most trusted attendants) (Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, 12 Jan. 1877).
By 1878, the Duchess had a separate home in Torquay, and, two years later, a report of the Prince of Wales staying overnight at Trentham had an apologetic tone: “He simply made this friendly visit a break upon his journey” (Staffordshire Sentinel, 25 Dec. 1880). Everyone knew that the Queen was not happy with the Duke. However, she did continue to see his wife. Echoing the Queen’s disapproval, Lady Paget refused to stay with the Sutherlands at Dunrobin Castle once the Duke had hosted Mrs. Blair there, and only relented once to please the Duchess (Paget 1923, 360).
Meanwhile, the Duke began a series of lengthy cruises on his steam yacht in the North Sea, the Baltic, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. He was often accompanied by unnamed congenial friends, amongst whose number was Mrs. Blair. In the winter cruise of 1886/7, the yacht put in at various places in Florida, not just to visit Edison who had installed an electric generator on his estate, but also Tarpon Springs. Here, Mrs. Blair bought land and organised the building of a home for herself and the Duke, Sutherland Grange.
Later that same year, a major scandal ripped through the upper echelons of society concerning Mrs. Blair. She had stayed at the Duke’s side at Trentham Hall when he was thought to be dying. According to the values of the day, her presence was an improper and unforgivable insult:
After the return of the Duke to England from the sea trip in the southern waters of the United States he was taken with a severe illness, and for a time his life was despaired of. No little comment was made because, notwithstanding the Duke’s dangerous illness, the Duchess and her daughter remained quietly at Torquay, and even his sons, the Marquis of Stafford and Lord Tarbat, kept away from their father’s sick bed. The excuse given for this conduct on the part of the ducal family was the presence at the Duke’s bedside of Mrs. Blair, who had been quartered at the country seat for some time previous to his illness. She refused to leave the Duke during his illness, and she was supported by his Grace, and when once she wavered in her determination he entreated her to remain. At length, however, when the doctors’ bulletins announced that the Duke’s illness had taken so critical a turn that it was very doubtful if he would be able to live, and the physicians considered it to be their duty to make a final appeal to the Duchess to visit her husband on what they considered his death-bed, the Duchess gave way, and journeyed down to Trentham, accompanied by her two sons and her daughter, Lady Alexandra, and her daughter-in-law, Lady Stafford. Within a few hours after the arrival of the family, the Duke improved so rapidly that immediate danger was past. A terrible scene, it has been reported, then took place between the injured wife and her children on the one side and the intruding lady on the other. The Duke supported Mrs. Blair, and she refused to leave the mansion. This caused the final estrangement between the Duke and his wife. […] The result of the treatment on the part of the Duchess, it is said, caused the Duke to lose his head and his heart. (Wellington Journal, 9 Mar. 1889.)
The Queen, who was indignant over the insult to which her favourite had been subjected, at once telegraphed to Torquay to her “Proud Annie,” as she affectionately called her former Mistress of the Robes, expressing the deepest sympathy and condolence at the painful and distressing shock she had suffered at the Duke’s hands. (Wells Journal, 10 Jan. 1889.) In fact, Mrs. Blair’s diary, the only personal document of hers to survive in family hands, has no mention of a catfight, or of any trouble. Given that she freely recorded other quarrels, it looks like the press exaggerated her response to what was a very awkward situation. However, after this demonstration of their adulterous liaison, the Duke and Mrs. Blair could not expect to be received in polite society again.
The Duchess of Sutherland died at the end of the following year, having tried, but failed, to join the Duke on his cruise to the Caribbean. Her death set in train a juggernaut of difficulties for the Duke, but most particularly for Mrs. Blair. The Duke’s inability to divorce when his marriage had broken down was the source of their public disgrace, not, as it was seen at the time, Mrs. Blair’s faux pas of staying at his side when he was ill. Becoming his second wife did nothing to alleviate the controversy; in fact, it increased it.
- The Origins of Victorian Divorce Law
- Could the Circumstances of Mary, Dowager Duchess of Sutherland, have been an Inspiration for Two of Wildes Social Comedies?
Frost, Ginger. Living in Sin: Cohabiting as Husband and Wife in Nineteenth-Century England. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2008.
Hare, Augustus. The Story of My Life. Vol. 4. London: George Allen, 1900.
Hibbert, Christopher. Disraeli: The Victorian Dandy Who became Prime Minister. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Kha, Henry. “The Reform of English Divorce Law: 1857-1937.” Unpublished PhD Thesis. Brisbane: University of Queensland, 2017.
Layton, Catherine. The Life and Times of Mary, Dowager Duchess of Sutherland: Power Play. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Married Women’s Property and Divorce in the 19th Century, July 25, 2010 [Womenshistorynetwork.Org]
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Last modified 28 March 2018