Harriet the Entwisle Duchess


A Regency Romance!

I was recently browsing old English newspapers online, when I came across a story in an 1880 issue of The Newcastle Courant about a Mrs Entwisle’s daughter who was “Born to be a Duchess”.

The future Mrs Entwisle was born in 1752 near the Irish city of Cork. We don’t know her father’s surname, just that he was a plot-farmer scratching a bare existence from the soil. He kept a pig and lived in a cabin. Young Sarah had no education but is said to have been ‘industrious, clever, ambitious, designing, warm-hearted, jealous, passionate, abusive, and friendly but a fiery demon when thwarted’. Quite a mixture!

She became a dressmaker in Dublin where a rather flash gentleman, who described himself as ‘Lieut. Matthew Mellon, of the Madras Native Infantry, on sick leave in Ireland’, fell in love with Sarah. He is said to have ‘declared his pedigree to be traceable to the Kings of Ireland’ with ‘estates too numerous for recital’. Sarah was charmed and after a short courtship, a sort of broomstick marriage was arranged for January 1777, shortly before the lieutenant was due to return to Madras. Two months afterwards he sailed for India, with a promise to send for his new wife but, no more was heard from him! The name of Mellon was not in the army lists but Mrs Mellon always proclaimed him to be high-born, and ‘the son of a lord!’

Baby Harriet was born in London on the 11th of November, 1777 in a small street near the Palace of Lambeth. Her mother had the good luck to meet a Mr Kena, an Irishman who owned a theatre company and needed a dresser for a tour of England and Wales. She became a seamstress who turned old clothes into new ones by re-dyeing and turning, ‘with tinsel additions’. The theatrical performances took place in barns, sheds, or other dilapidated buildings. The scenery was usually begged or borrowed and the stage was rough boards raised a few feet on bales of straw. Entry price ranged from two-pence to one shilling but, when ready cash was scarce, the manager and his troupe gladly accepted donations in kind – scraps of bacon, bones, vegetables, dried crusts or anything convertible into broth.

In this troupe, there was an 18 year old professional musician called Entwisle, who played what he called a ‘Cremona’ violin and was the leader of Kena’s orchestra. In 1782 Entwisle and ‘Mrs Mellon’ became man and wife. There was some romance and mystery about Entwisle’s parentage. He was said to come from a good Lancashire family, with the prospect of falling heir to £10,000 per annum, but the rightful owners stupidly kept possession of the estate. Could this be an embellishment on the story of the Entwistle fortune?

Sarah Mellon's marriage
Sarah Mellon’s marriage

The new family travelled on foot from theatre to theatre, carrying little Harriet and the large Cremona violin. Entwisle taught music, dancing and deportment, though he was thought ‘too daft’ to teach drama!

1782 was an important year. Young Harriet made her debut at Ulverston in a pantomime, and a gipsy fortune-teller predicted that ‘Harriott would live to be a duchess’, and that ‘teeming wealth would be her portion’. However, the Entwisles continued to live in cheap lodging-houses until they became able to take a furnished room with ‘three chairs, one table, a shakedown, and a few utensils for cooking’.

Harriet as Volante
Harriet as Volante c1800

Harriet’s life continued to be an uphill struggle. She had a rudimentary education in snatches from poor teachers who her parents were often unable to pay until, when she was about 18, she met the playwright Sheridan. He urged her to try her luck on the London stage, giving her introductions to theatres in Drury Lane. She, or rather her parents, followed Sheridan’s advice. Although the Entwisles were driven into serious financial straits for a time, during the season of 1795, Harriet became a favourite of the crowds and was hailed as one of the best of the rising generation of comic actresses.

Harriet marries a rich, old man

Harriet Mellon portrait
Harriet Mellon portrait by Sir William Beechey

It must have been about the year 1810 whilst touring in Cheltenham, that she was first introduced to Thomas Coutts, a rich septuagenarian who was ‘taking the Cheltenham waters’ for his health. He saw and admired Harriet whilst she was walking with her mother on the Parade and became a frequent visitor at Mrs Entwisle’s lodgings, and introduced his daughters – Lady Guildford and Lady Burdett – to the now-famous actress and her mother. On returning to London they continued to meet and Harriet and her mother were frequent visitors at the great Coutts banking house in the Strand.

Coutts’s wife was an invalid with mental health problems. In January 1815 she died, and her husband at once proposed marriage to Harriet. At first she was strongly inclined to reject him but at length she accepted and her marriage was celebrated privately at St Pancras Church and appeared in the Times of the 2nd of March. She retired from the stage and, in spite of the recent death of the first Mrs Coutts, his family seem to have approved of the new bride.

Marriage certificate 1815
Marriage certificate 1815

Within a few months, Harriet, once an 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 took especial notice of the new debutante at St. James’s Palace.

She also provided a home at Holly Lodge, Highgate, to her mother, Sarah Entwisle, until her death, aged 55, in May 1815. Her ‘unthrifty and reckless’ stepfather, Thomas Entwisle died in June 1819 aged 63. His later years were made happy by her care and generosity, which gave him the possession of a cottage on the Thames and a comfortable annuity as postmaster at Cheltenham where she later erected marble tablets to them both.

For seven years she was the popular hostess at dinner parties at Coutts’s house at Stratton Street, London. It ended when Coutts died in 1822.

How to become a duchess!

Not long after her husband’s death, she began to visit Edinburgh where she met with a mixed reception. At one time Sir Walter Scott, the novelist, went out of his way to rebuke some of those who, after accepting her hospitality at Edinburgh, would give her the ‘cold shoulder’ elsewhere.

She was a guest at Scott’s house in 1825, when the young Duke of St. Albans fell for her and Sir Walter did his best to bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion. ‘If the Duke marries her, he wrote, ‘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.’

As well as making sure her relatives were well cared for, she seems to have taken to her new status as Duchess like a duck to water. At Holly Lodge in Highgate, London she befriended many literary celebrities. Southey and Wordsworth both visited her at her hotel at Ambleside. She entertained at Holly Lodge, both as Mrs Coutts and as Duchess, and on one occasion entertained at least four Royal Dukes at her dinner table. Coutts had left her some £1,800,000 which she kept in trust for the Coutts family and left to them in her will.

Harriet, the Entwisle duchess who had married a famous banker and a Duke, 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. Albans.

Eileen Cowen, Editor

??? I’ve not been able to trace the ancestry of this Thomas Entwisle and wonder whether any of our members have come across him during their researches.

[From Twissle Times, September 2014]

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