Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Treasures of Guildhall Library – the library of London History

 by Isabelle Chevallot

In the six hundred years since it was first established there have been several incarnations of Guildhall Library. The first library at Guildhall was founded around 1425, under the terms of the will of Richard Whittington ‘a rich and pious merchant’ who served as Lord Mayor of London. In English folklore, Richard or ‘Dick’ Whittington became a legend, reportedly rising from poverty by making his fortune through the sale of his cat to a rat-infested country and for centuries he has been immortalised in pantomime. However, Whittington did not come from a poor background. He made his fortune as a mercer and then from making loans, including to the king, which provided financial profits, together with access to the royal ear and a position of influence.

Richard Whittington pictured with a skull

When Richard Whittington died in March 1423, he left his entire fortune to charity and the City. Some of this money was used to found a library to serve the college of priests at Guildhall. There is no surviving catalogue of the contents of this collection, but it is logical to conclude that it was a library of theological books.

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In his ‘A Survey of London Written in the Year 1598’ pictured above, John Stow describes a "fair and large library, furnished with books, pertaining to the Guildhall and college". He tells us that during the reign of Edward VI (around 1549) the whole collection was 'sent for' by the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset. The books were loaded on to carts and taken away but were not returned. It is probable that the Duke 'borrowed' the books to furnish Somerset House, his new palace on the Strand.

The Duke of Somerset

Only one book from the original collection has found its way back to Guildhall Library, a 13th century copy of Petrus de Riga's Aurora, a metrical Latin version of the Bible pictured below.

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The Corporation does not appear to have attempted to recover the library from the acquisitive Duke and there was a gap of around 300 years until another library was formed.

Here is one other work which may be a survivor of the original library, a fourteenth century copy of the Chronicles of France pictured below.


We think this may have been held in the original collection because there is a record in the City Archives of a manuscript copy of the Chronicles having been returned to Guildhall in 1516 after having been a ‘long tyme in the keping of’ Robert Fabyan. 

There is no record of Guildhall Library acquiring a copy of the Chronicles, so it is fair to assume that this copy is one and the same. It also seems likely that some marginalia in this volume is in the hand of Robert Fabyan. 

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In 1828 a small library was opened for use initially only by members of the Corporation.  There were only 1700 volumes in the library at this time but as the library grew so did its membership, with tickets being granted to literary men as well as Members.

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This small library increased in size and importance and eventually outgrew its accommodation, and a new building was planned to the East of Guildhall and into Basinghall Street.  The Corporation and Common Council decided that from now on access to its books should be made available to the public free of charge.

The new library building was designed by Horace Jones (the City architect) and opened to the general public in 1873.  

By then the library contained about 60,000 volumes of works covering the history of London, its architecture, topography, its suburbs and a large collection of early printed plays connected with the city.  

It is this building which is now called ‘The Old Library’ and the office of the Guildhall Librarian is now the Chief Commoner’s parlour.

Around 25 000 volumes were lost in the Second World War, on 29th-30th December 1940, through the destruction of some of the library’s storerooms, but the damage to the library building itself was not extensive. However, the area around Guildhall was devastated by the bombing and for the second time in its 600-year history the hall itself had lost its roof - the first time had been during the Great Fire of 1666.  

After the war, the library continued to grow and flourish, expanding into the Guildhall crypt for some much-needed extra stack space. 

The image above shows the ‘Old Library’, as it is now called, depicted shortly before its closure and the layout had changed little in the 100 years of its existence.

As part of the post-war Guildhall reconstruction scheme, the Corporation decided to develop the West Wing and incorporate a new modern library.  The present Guildhall Library, in the West Wing of Guildhall, opened on 21 October 1974. It was designed by the architects Sir Giles Scott, Son and Partners, it ranged over five floors, two of which were purpose built for the storage of the now vast printed books and manuscript collections. 

Guildhall Library today

Guildhall Library is the Library of London History.  Our core collection covers London and its history and is the largest collection in the world devoted to the history of a single city. We hold over 200,000 titles dating from the 15th to the 21st centuries including books, pamphlets, periodicals, trade directories and poll books. The collection covers all aspects of life in London, past and present, its trade, people and buildings and the whole of London, in addition to the City. 

The library holds internationally renowned collections of books on family and local history, wine and food, Samuel Pepys, John Wilkes and Thomas More, business and parliamentary history, poll books plus the libraries of the Clock Makers', Gardeners' and Fletchers' Companies, the Antiquarian Horological Society, Gresham College and the Charles Lamb Society.

Archive collections include the archives of 80 City livery companies, the Lloyd's Marine Collection and the London Stock Exchange.

While it is impossible to do justice to Guildhall Library’s collections in a single blog post, I shall highlight some of our more iconic treasures.

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The jewel in our crown pictured above is our copy of Shakespeare’s 1st folio: Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies which was published in November 1623 around seven years after his death. It is the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays – containing 36 plays. By the year of his death, only 18 of his 37 plays had been published.  Eighteen plays appeared for the first time in the First Folio, and these included - As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Tempest and Twelfth Night. Without the First Folio these would likely have been lost. No substantial manuscripts of Shakespeare’s work survive.

Many copies lack this iconic title page, which would have been removed due to its value, to be sold or displayed.


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In 1891 the Parish Clerks deposited the London Bills of Mortality at Guildhall Library. The earliest printed bills in the collection date from the late 16th century, with a virtually complete run from 1664  to the middle of the 19th Century. 

The Bills of Mortality record the number of deaths each week and provide a statistical record of disease in London. They began to be produced after an outbreak of plague in 1592 (although there are a few earlier instances). From 1603, after another outbreak, they were made on a weekly basis, with the view to giving authorities and inhabitants full information as to the increases or decreases in the number of deaths.


The Parish Clerks collected and published the information every week. The printed bills were distributed on Thursdays at a subscription charge of a penny a sheet or 4 shillings per annum. They were delivered to the King and the Lord Mayor first by 8 am and then went on sale at 10am.

 The Bills of Mortality allow historians to trace the relentless march of the Great Plague, week by week and parish by parish as it progressed across the City. They show that September 1665 was the worst month for deaths from plague which reached 7165 for the week 12th – 19th September.


At this time the bills were edged with a border adorned with skull and crossbones, skeletons and implements of burial. At the top the inscription Memento Mori meaning ‘remember you will die’ sits beneath a winged hourglass representing the flight of time.


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From 1629 The Bills of Mortality included information about the cause of death with a summary count of those killed by named ‘diseases and casualties’. These covered a wide range of illnesses some of which are readily identifiable to us today some which are not. 

For the week shown here in addition to the 4237 individuals who died of plague, other diseases we would recognise include consumption and jaundice. 

For sudden violent deaths more details about the circumstances are often provided - as seen here: Broke her skull by a fall in the street at St Mary Woolchurch.

There are some diseases you may not recognise such as Tissick, which caused nine deaths and probably refers to tuberculosis or consumption and Rising of the Lights, which caused 18 deaths. The lights are likely to be lungs and Rising of the Lights would have referred to croup or pleurisy. Those who died as a result of fright, grief and ‘suddenly’ are also recorded.

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Another important item in our London collection is this first edition copy of 'The city & country purchaser & builder' by Stephen Primatt, printed in 1667, a year after the Fire of London had devastated some 430 acres, destroying over 13,000 houses, 87 churches, and 52 livery company halls in the City.

While the rebuilding programme led by Wren and Hooke would re-establish the public face of London, there was also a massive need for private redevelopment and Primatt’s was the first treatise issued in response to these private efforts. It is the first and also the most important book about the rebuilding of the houses and shops of London. It is also ‘the first work in English on building valuation, measurements and prices’.


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Guildhall Library holds first edition copies of 'Microcosm of London' commissioned by Rudolph Ackermann and published 1808-10. It contains aquatint plates covering all the well-known public buildings of London at the time. From the elegant ladies of Sadler’s Wells to the brawling fish wives at Billingsgate Market, shown in this image, all of London life is captured. Thomas Rowlandson – a caricaturist, watercolourist, draughtsman and engraver – supplied the figures, while Augustus Pugin drew the architect.

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Pictured above, is from a book of hand-coloured engravings depicting the costume worn by the children of each charity school in London taking part in the anniversary service at St Paul’s Cathedral, to draw attention to the plight of the children and raise money. Dating from around 1805, it consists of 5 plates of hand-coloured engravings by John Page. There are 124 children each depicted in the distinctive uniforms which were a feature of the charity schools. 

Guildhall Library is a public library and open to all. For more information about visiting:

The library has a varied programme of events the majority of which are free and can also be accessed online.

Images Copyright of Guildhall Library, City of London.


For the past twelve years Isabelle Chevallot has worked as a librarian at Guildhall Library where she presents talks, runs workshops, leads discussion groups and even organises Regency Balls to engage people in history. Her debut historical fiction medieval adventure novel The Song and the Sword is due to be published on 29th September 2022 in ebook, paperback and audiobook format. For more information:

The Song and the Sword - Kindle edition by Chevallot, Isabelle . Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @


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Sunday, September 4, 2022

The Marriage Drama of Frances Vane Stewart, 3rd Marchioness of Londonderry

  By Lauren Gilbert

Lady Frances Anne Emily Vane-Tempest, Marchioness of Londonderry (1800-1865) and her Son George Henry Robert Charles William Vane-Tempest, Viscount Seaham, later 5th Marquess of Londonderry (1821-1884) by Thomas Lawrence, public domain

The Hon. Frances Anne Vane Tempest was born January 17, 1800, in St. James’s Square, London. Frances Anne was admired and respected for her successes as a political and a society hostess, her business acumen, and her position in society. She capably ran estates in England and Ireland, and was known for being strong minded. Her background certainly prepared her to think for herself, to trust her own judgment, and to stand her ground. Her parents were fascinating people in their own rights.

Her father was Sir Henry Vane-Tempest of Long Newton, County Durham, 2nd Bearonet. He was born with the last name of Vane, and added Tempest by royal patent, after he inherited his late maternal uncle John Tempest’s estates in County Durham and Wynyard in 1793. This inheritance made him very wealthy, as the estates included significant coal mines. His uncle’s will required that the name Tempest be adopted. He replaced his uncle as M.P. for the City of Durham 1794-1800 and for County Durham 1807-1813. Also a sportsman, he owned a successful racing stable, including a horse named Hambletonian. (Henry gambled, and won, 3000 pounds on this horse to win at Newmarket in March 1799.) Sir Henry had a bad reputation as womaniser, and was known for having a bad temper. Henry Vane-Tempest’s father died in 1794, and he inherited the title, becoming 2nd Baronet. He had one sibling, his sister Frances, who married Michael Angelo Taylor, M. P. for the City of Durham. Frances’s marriage to Mr. Taylor caused an estrangement, but brother and sister eventually reconciled. Sir Henry also had an illegitimate son, named John, born about 1792, who apparently remained in County Durham. In April 1799, he married Anne Catherine McDonnell, Countess of Antrim.

Anne Catherine MacDonnell was born in 1775 in County Durham to Randal MacDonnell, 6th Earl of Antrim and 1st Marquis of Antrim and Viscount Dunluce, and his wife Letitia Morres. The Marquis and his lady left no sons. When he died in 1791, the Marquisate became extinct. However, the Earldom had a remainder which allowed it to pass on to daughters if there were no sons. As the eldest surviving daughter, Anne Catherine became Countess of Antrim and Viscountess Dunluce in her own right. She also inherited significant property in Northern Ireland. She met Sir Henry when she was about 18 years old, and her family tried to discourage the match, to no avail. Lady Anne and Sir Henry were married at her home in Hanover Square, London.

Although it seemed a good match, both being young, good looking and wealthy, unfortunately, it was not. Sir Henry was bad tempered and neglectful; both were extravagant and fond of partying. Lady Anne and Sir Henry alienated her family, and Lady Anne did not like Sir Henry’s sister, Frances Taylor, who visited frequently. Frances Anne, the only surviving child of the marriage, was born at Sir Henry’s estate of Long Newton, in County Durham. According to her own account, her parents were by turns neglectful and harsh, leaving her to form a close attachment to her aunt Mrs. Taylor, who was kind and paid attention to her. She also became scheming and independent.

Frances Anne was allowed to visit her aunt and formed a friendship with her half-brother. Sir Henry at least showed her affection, gave her money, and wrote his daughter affectionate notes when she was away. She formed a great attachment to him, although she and her mother never seemed to become close. Sir Henry’s death on August 1, 1813, was a serious blow to Frances Anne. She was 13 years old and a significant heiress.

The power structure changed. Frances Anne was now the owner of her father’s estates. Her father’s will left Frances Anne to the joint guardianship of her mother and her aunt. Her mother kept her own fortune and inherited personal property from Sir Henry, as well. Disagreements between Lady Anne and Mrs. Taylor flared up, and the result was that Frances Anne became a Ward in Chancery. Before leaving Wynyard, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor made sure that Frances Anne understood her position fully, and incited Frances Anne to oppose her mother. Frances Anne also had a temper and quarrelled with her mother. After a quarrel, in the heat of her anger, Frances Anne wrote to her aunt appealing for rescue. She was then about 14 years old. Her aunt responded by appealing to the Count of Chancery. The Countess of Antrim and Mrs. Taylor duly pursued the case in London.

In the process of the case, the Countess of Antrim consulted with John Beckett, Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. Mr. Beckett, a friend of the late Sir Henry, offered her advice and (apparently) a flirtation. During this period, because no one could seem to handle her, Frances Anne was set up, in the care of her governess Mrs. Cade, in her own establishment, a house in Portman Square, London. Frances Anne, who was basically on her own, without effective supervision, made the acquaintance of Mr. Beckett’s younger brother, Edmund, who was about 24 and engaged to be married. Thus, drama began.

Frances Anne and Edmund began a relationship where they spent time together during the days and engaged in a clandestine correspondence. He even gave her a ring. This situation lasted about 4 months until Mrs. Cade came across their correspondence. Unbelievably, neither her mother nor her governess, nor Edmund’s brother (nor apparently Edmund’s betrothed) noticed this very shocking situation until this point. Frances had to give back the ring he had given her and his letters; Edmund returned the letters she had written to him. The whole affair remarkably seemed to have occurred without notice by society, and did not generate a scandal.

Marriage was an unavoidable issue for a major heiress of the time, and Frances Anne was no exception, despite her youth. Even though she was a minor and had guardians, she had no hesitation in speaking for herself and turned down more than one proposal. She was looking forward to being presented at court at age 17, but this plan was derailed by a marriage, this time by her mother. The Countess of Antrim remarried on June 27, 1817, to a singer named Edmund Phelps. She had met Mr. Phelps approximately a month or so previously. A wedding after such a brief acquaintance would have been surprising enough, but Mr. Phelps was a singer, a man of no fortune or connections of his own. The fact that he took his wife’s name, MacDonnell, afterwards did little to mask the state of affairs. Frances Anne did not attend, and the marriage was considered undignified, to say the least. Frances Anne’s presentation was postponed until 1818.

The newspapers reported Frances Anne’s presentation at court in February 1818. The Queen held a drawing room for the celebration of her birthday, which was attended by the Prince Regent and other members of the royal family. Frances Anne was presented by her mother, the Countess of Antrim. Following her presentation, she no was longer under her governess’s watch and, at 18, was maturing into a woman of some stature. Her mother and her aunt took her about to different society events. (Not together; they each accompanied her to separate events.) According to her biography, written by Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry, based on Frances Anne’s memoir, she met Lord Charles Stewart at her mother’s home early in February 1818.

Lord Charles Stewart was over 20 years older than she, a widower with a son, and she was not overly impressed, even though he was related to the Foreign Secretary, and was serving as Ambassador to Austria. Despite the slow start, she saw more of him at her mother’s home and at court. Mrs. Taylor did not care for the connection for various reasons, but the Countess of Antrim was completely supportive. As Frances Anne and Lord Charles saw more of each other, they became attached, and, in April of 1818, she accepted his proposal, without discussing the matter with either her mother or aunt. Although the Countess of Antrim approved, her aunt and uncle Mr. and Mrs. Taylor were quite angry. As one of her guardians, with Frances Anne being a ward in Chancery, Mrs. Taylor was not a force to be ignored.

The Countess of Antrim requested that the Lord Chancellor’s Court refer her daughter’s case to a Master to determine an appropriate settlement for daughter in relation to her impending marriage to Lord Stewart. Her mother’s petition was reported in the newspapers, including The Commercial Chronicle (London) of Saturday, April 25, 1818. Mrs. Taylor responded with a request of her own, asking that the Countess of Antrim denied contact with her daughter unless Frances Anne was accompanied by her governess. She accused the countess of promoting the match without the consent of either the Court or the co-guardian. She also included a memo detailing her reasons for opposing the marriage of Frances Anne and Lord Charles Stewart. Mrs. Taylor’s petition was also widely reported in great detail. The fireworks began, especially after the Lord Chancellor granted the injunction requiring that no one see Frances Anne without her governess being present.

Mrs. Taylor’s reasons for disapproving of the marriage included the facts that she considered Lord Stewart to be after Frances for her money, that he was too old for her, that he had a bad reputation, that insanity ran in his family, that his title would descend to his son by his previous marriage and Frances’s children would be disadvantaged, and that the marriage was improper for her. As the case went on, Lord Stewart refuted her charges. Although Frances’s fortune surpassed his, he had a respectable fortune and income of his own; he was willing to make settlements for Frances and any children; in his capacity as a soldier and ambassador, he was not a man of ill repute (although he had acquired a reputation of a ladies’ man and a drinker); the charge of insanity in his family was not proved. (He could not refute the age difference.)

The case went on for some months, and the Master ruled that the marriage would not be improper; it might not be the most advantageous marriage, but Lord Stewart had successfully established his situation, and Mr. and Mrs. Taylor had presented no evidence supporting Mrs. Taylor’s claims. In July 1818, although the Lord Chancellor sympathised with Mrs. Taylor, and had talked to Frances Anne himself, he felt he could not overrule the Master’s report, and found the marriage to be not improper. He commented specifically on Frances Anne’s determination to proceed with the marriage. He did, however stipulate that the couple could not celebrate the marriage until after the appeal to the House of Lords was resolved. (Data indicates that there was nothing preventing the settlement negotiations during the appeal.) Mrs. Taylor expressed her determination to appeal. Interestingly, newspaper reports indicate that a house was taken in Putney for Frances Anne and her governess Mrs. Cade in August. Lord Stewart returned to Vienna, where he indicated he planned to stay until the appeal was finished.

Newspaper accounts in November 1818 show that Frances Anne and Mrs. Cade were still in Putney. In January 1819, the Countess of Antrim was not yet in London, but Frances Anne had returned to London and was living in Norfolk Street. Although Mrs. Taylor had expressed her intent to appeal, newspaper accounts indicate she had apparently failed to pursue it vigorously, as the court questioned her about her intentions and ultimately dismissed the application in late January 1819. The Countess of Antrim held a dinner where she entertained Lord Stewart, Frances Anne and others at her home in Bruton Street in mid-February. Mrs. Taylor did try again to have the marriage blocked, but was unsuccessful. In late March 1819, the Order of Restraint preventing their marriage was finally discharged.

Lord Charles and Frances Anne were finally married at her mother’s house in Bruton Street, by special licence, on April 3, 1819. In accordance with Sir Henry’s will, Lord Charles Stewart and his wife took the last name of Vane by Royal Warrant. The entire affair was a cause célèbre. The case was covered extensively by newspapers across the United Kingdom and abroad. A romantic poem, called THE COUNTESS OF CARRICK, dedicated to Frances Anne by name, was widely advertised for sale in February 1819. The whole situation effectively destroyed her relationship with her aunt and uncle. The circumstances had to have been intensely uncomfortable and embarrassing for the couple themselves and their extended family, to have so much attention focused on such personal matters.

Charles William Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry (1778-1854) by James Godsell Middleton, photo by BotMultiChill, July 5, 2020-public domain

Fortunately, the couple enjoyed a long and prosperous marriage and had 6 children. She became a noted hostess. They purchased properties, including Holdernesse House (later renamed Londonderry House) in London and Seaham Hall in County Durham. Upon the suicide of Lord Charles’s half-brother in 1822, Charles became the 3rd Marquis of Londonderry. Subsequently, he was also granted the titles Earl Vane and Viscount Seaham, both of which were remaindered to heirs from his marriage to Frances Anne (an answer to Mrs. Taylor’s concern). They expanded the coal industry on their estates and developed a port at Seaham to facilitate shipping. Already quite affluent, they became even wealthier. Frances Anne was quite interested and active in these concerns and, before Charles died, their family was among the wealthiest in the UK. When Charles died in 1854, the title of Marquis of Londonderry went to his oldest son Frederick by his first wife, and the titles of Earl Vane and Viscount Seaham to his son George, his oldest son with Frances Anne. She ran the businesses herself. Sadly, Frederick died without an heir and Frances Anne’s son George became the 5th Marquis of Londonderry. Frances Anne died on January 20, 1865, at Seaham.

Sources include:

FRANCES ANNE The Life and Times of Frances Anne Marchioness of Londonderry and her husband Charles Third Marquess of Londonderry, by Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry, D. B. E. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd. 1958.

THE LADIES OF LONDONDERRY Women and Political Patronage, by Diane Urquhart. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020 (1st published by I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. in 2007).

Christening record: City of West Minster Archives, Westminster Baptisms, transcriptions, via FindMyPast showing birthdate January 17, 1800, and baptism date February 14, 1800, in St. James, Piccadilly, Parish.

Marriage Record: Westminster, London, England, Church of England Marriages and Bans, 1754-1935; St. George, Hanover Square, 1798-1802, p. 132 of 616, showing marriage by special license at the home in Bruton Street by special license on the 3rd day of April 1819, via Ancestry .

Various newspaper articles from multiple cities, via BritishNewspaperArchive , including THE GLOBE, Friday, February 27, 1818, p. 2, London, England, one of many which covered her presentation; COMMERCIAL CHRONICLE, Saturday, April 25, 1818, p. 4, London, England, among those which discussed her mother’s petition regarding a settlement; BELL’S WEEKLY MESSENGER, April 26, 1818, p. 6-7, London, England, one of those which addressed Mrs. Taylor’s counter petition; BALDWIN’S WEEKLY JOURNAL, Saturday, July 18, 1818, p. 3, London, England which discussed the judgement; THE DURHAM COUNTY ADVERTISER, Saturday, August 29, 1818, p. 2, which mentioned her sojourn in Putney; MORNING POST, Saturday, February 6, 1819, p. 2, London, England, which contained the advertisement for THE COUNTESS OF CARRICK; EXETER FLYING POST, Thursday, April 9, 1819, p. 4, Devon, England, one of those which reported that the order of restraint was lifted; and the SUSSEX ADVERTISER, Monday, April 12, 1819, p. 4, Sussex, England, among the many which reported their wedding. THE LONDON GAZETTE, published May 26, 1819, issue: 17480, p. 906, found at TheGazette, reported the name change to Vane (as did other papers).

Images: Wikimedia Commons

Lauren Gilbert is fascinated with English literature and history, particularly the Regency era.  Lauren has a BA degree in liberal arts English and Art History.  A long-time member of JASNA, she delivered a breakout session at the Annual General Meeting in 2001.  She was keynote speaker for Jane Austen Fest in Mt Dora, FL in 2022.  A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT is her second novel.  Her essays appear in both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. Her current project is a non-fiction book for Pen & Sword Books Ltd.  Visit her Amazon Author Page, her Facebook author page or  her website for more information.  

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Iona, Clan Donald and the Cathedral of the Isles

by Regan Walker

The Isle of Iona is a very special place as anyone who has been there can tell you. A small isle that lies about a mile off the west coast of the larger Isle of Mull in the Scottish Hebrides, Iona has a long and illustrious history. Today is it a tourist destination and the faithful make pilgrimages to its shores and its Abbey Church. I have walked the white sand beaches, felt the constant breeze on my face and experienced the tranquility that characterizes this sacred place.

Iona Beach
Photo by Robert Guthrie, Wiki Commons

Surrounded by turquoise water, the rocky shores of the isle must have called to the early Irish missionary monks, Oran and Columba, who came here in 563 to establish a monastery from which they could evangelize the Picts. It was here the Book of Kells was originally created before it was taken to Ireland for safety.

Oran was the first monk to be buried on the isle and the small stone chapel, “St Oran’s Chapel”, was erected over his grave. Beginning with Somerled in the 12th century, the chapel became the burial chamber of the Lords of the Isles. He was the progenitor of Clan Donald. In my story of his descendant, Angus Og Macdonald, you can experience the ceremony to bury his father, Angus Mor, the Lord of the Isles.

St. Oran's Chapel
Photo by August Schwerdfege

The graveyard, Reilig Odhrain, named in Oran’s honor, that surrounded St Oran’s Chapel, became the burial place of various isle chieftains as well as Norse, Scottish and Irish kings. The tall carved crosses that stand before the chapel and the abbey are each dedicated to a saint. The hereditary master masons on Iona were famous for their stone carving.

St. Martin's Cross
Photo by Regan Walker

The most magnificent structures on the isle are the Abbey and the Abbey Church, hewn out of red stone and restored as you see them today. The pictures are my own.

Iona Abbey Church
Photo by Regan Walker

The church is a medieval masterpiece but today the inside looks nothing like it would have at the time of my story when the stones were painted with brilliant colors and the abbey lined with colorful tiles.

Inside the Abbey Church
Photo by Regan Walker

Ian Ross Macdonnell, author of Clan Donald and Iona Abbey: 1200-1500, with whom I consulted for my story, helped me to understand that Iona Abbey and the Abbey Church (the “Cathedral of the Isles”), are Clan Donald’s legacy. They stand as monuments to the faith of its chiefs who protected and maintained them for centuries. When a chief of Clan Donald, a Lord of the Isles, died, all the clans in the Isles came to Iona to honor him in death and to observe the ceremony that lasted eight days.

The Abbey Church
Photo by Regan Walker


Regan Walker is an award-winning author of historical fiction set in the Regency, Georgian and Medieval eras. Her newest venture, The Clan Donald Saga, spans several centuries and tells the stories of the great sea lords, the Lords of the Isles, who plied the waters of the Hebrides in their galleys, ruling the western Highlands and the Isles for four hundred years. She has made several trips to Scotland as a part of her research. Regan lives in San Diego with her dog “Cody”, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, who walks with her on the beach early every morning.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon – Haute Couturiere and Entrepreneur

by Tessa Arlen

In 1893 a thirty-year-old woman wakes up one morning to discover that her alcoholic and spendthrift husband has run off—again, this time with a pantomime dancer. There is no money in the bank and even if there were women in 1893 rarely had their own bank accounts, or access to their husband’s. The rent on her fashionable house, just off Berkley Square, is due next month, but she has no idea who their landlord is: that was again something husbands and fathers took care of.

Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon (nee Wallace)

Lucy Wallace is a hair away from destitution: a single mother with a five year old daughter and only an aging mother and a temperamental sister, Elinor, to turn to. Lucy’s worst dilemma is that she has not been educated to earn a living. Of course, she can read and write, and her embroidery and needlework are enviably fine, but beyond becoming a governess or a paid companion she has nothing to offer the world that will result in a salary large enough to keep them. She is a perfect example of a woman from the genteel class of 19th century Britain.

The dressmakers of London

But Lucy has the beginning of a plan to earn money…it is a brave one and luckily she is not worldly enough to realize that the competition to design and make dresses is desperate in London. Thousands of modistes and milliners open and close shops all over the city every day.

In that moment she decides that she must divorce her husband—she can only obtain a divorce for desertion. Cruelty, incompatibility or stealing their wives’ money are not grounds for divorce in 1893. When women married their property and children belonged to the husband. Lucy is not so naïve that she does not knows that the social stigma will cost more than her solicitor’s fees. She won’t let herself think about the friends who will cut her, or point her out with pity as “That woman . . .” But divorce is the final hurdle to her freedom and however distasteful and frightening the divorce court is, she has no choice—if her husband returns he will drink away any money she has managed to make.

She lies in bed and calculates how far she can stretch the frugal sum she has put by from her dress allowance and her pin money. She can just about keep going until her business venture, if she dares to call it that, takes off.

Seamstresses at work in an atelier 1910

She must not let fear paralyze her. She throws back the bedclothes and gets out of bed: the first thing she must do is give her servants notice. As she says goodbye to women who have cooked, cleaned and cared for her for ten years, she cannot bring herself to fire the sixteen-year-old scullery maid, a workhouse orphan taken on only two weeks earlier. There is something about the girl that appeals to Lucy, and she is not so desparate that she must turn a young girl out on the street to starve? They are in the same boat!

Her mother is appalled about the divorce, but even more horrified that Lucy is thinking of going into ‘trade’. Her sister, married to a rich man, is determined that Lucy will make a go of a dressmaking business: after all Lucy’s doll’s clothes, made from scraps of silk and lace, were the envy of their childhood playmates! Elinor reassures her sister that success will be hers: Lucy has a flair for color, and eye for line and style—and anyway she has no choice but to succeed. Elinor has rich friends, and surely the more sophisticated of them won’t bat an eyelash about an unsavory divorce. Elinor promises that her rich husband will vouch for her credit.

The embellished skirt of a Lucile dress 1906

Gradually Lucy Wallace builds her clientele. It is slow going but she begins to succeed. Rich and titled women flock to her tiny little house and sip tea in her cramped drawing room as they wait for fittings for morning, afternoon, and evening dresses. They all agree that Lucy Wallace’s gowns are superbly original and for what is more than half the price of a Paris model! And there are no dreadful Channel crossings to be made, or the irritation of dealing with the patronizing attitude of the great fashion salons on the Rue de la Paix. Charles Frederick Worth is such a dreadful old snob, and it is impossible to get an appointment with Jacques Doucet these days.

The great fashion houses of Rue de la Paix, Paris

Lucy is helped by her scullery maid, the young orphan from the workhouse with a quick mind, deft hands and an aptitude for organization and arithmetic. Together the two women work long hours, taking on seamstresses, embroiders, and tailors as business grows.

There are set-backs: many of them. Cash flow is a nightmare, and Lucy has no skill as a businesswoman: the aristocracy are terrifyingly offhand about paying their bills on time, or in some cases ever. Silk merchants will not extend credit to single women; skilled workwomen are expensive and Lucy refuses to take advantage of cheap piecework labor (women making parts of a garment in their homes for starvation wages).

Piecework from home involved the whole family--for starvation wages

The dining room is her atelier; the drawing room full to overflowing with clients waiting for a fitting in the morning room; the three attic rooms house seamstresses. They moved to upmarket Hanover Square and to the luxury of space enough for fitting rooms galore!

The fashions change rapidly and to become a top designer Lucy can’t simply copy Paris models, she must be innovative, original and create her own look. Lucy’s label “Lucile” becomes known for its informality, its joie de vivre and its vibrant colors. She is fresh, daring and discovers that she has a flair for publicity.

Detail of one of Lucile's dresses

Lucy’s clients are ladies of fashion from a new generation: they are young society hostesses; stage actresses; women of title and means—even their husband’s mistresses patronize Lucy’s salon.  Lady Brook the Countess of Warwick, the Prince of Wales’s new mistress never pays for a single gown, but she reigns supreme in the sophisticated Marlborough Set where no woman would dream of wearing the same dress twice to a grand occasion. Mrs. Cynthia Asquith, the Prime Minister’s wife, brings her avant garde literary friends to be dressed by Lucy; The famous Westend stage actress Ellen Terry insists her costumes are designed by Lucy, and even Victoria Eugenie Julia Ena of Battenberg the Queen of Spain sends her maid over to make an appointment to consult with Lucy when her majesty is in London.

Bodice detail of a dress Lucy named "Happiness"

Lucy’s natural ability to listen to what her clients want and her tact to advise on what would actually suit them are among her greatest gifts. She creates what she calls Dresses of Emotion, each designed for its individual wearer. She gives her favorite gowns names: Passion Flower’s First Kiss; The Sigh of Lips Unsatisfied, and A Dream of Endless Summer. She also develops a talent for publicity! 

Lucile Ltd. is one of the first fashion houses in London to introduce their new season’s models in a live mannequin show.

As a new century dawns Lucy is ready to prise women out of hard, unforgiving whalebone corsetry and into softer more alluring and female lines—her silky lingerie is displayed in the Rose Room of her new Hanover Square salon, on a bed once slept in by Louis XIV mistress the Marquise de Montespan.

Lucile was the first fashion house in London to introduce the new season's models in a live mannequin parade

When Lucy marries Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, society is willing to accept that Lucy has reached the pinnacle of success. She may not be presented at court because she is a divorcee, and worst of all in trade, but she can, and does, open a fashion house in New York, Chicago and with unashamed audacity in Paris.

Truly, could life be more perfect? Lucy Duff Gordon has become one of the most sought after haute couturières of the early 1900s, but as history has taught us: change is constant. On one bitterly cold night in April 1912 a catastrophe of such magnitude occurs and changes the course of Lucy Duff Gordon’s life forever. And once again she must rise above social ostracization and public humiliation to find a way out of this dilemma to save not only her business, but her marriage.


Tessa Arlen writes historical fiction when she is not toiling away in her garden. She is the author of the Edwardian mystery series: Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson; the Woman of World War II mystery series. Poppy Redfern. And two standalone historical novels: In Royal Service to the Queen and A Dress of Violet Taffeta.