Thursday, February 28, 2019

Dresser to the Queen: Miss Marianne Skerrett

By Lauren Gilbert

In the television series VICTORIA, Mr. Francatelli had a relationship and married Nancy Skerrett, known as Mrs. Skerrett, who was the Queen’s dresser. She was a young woman with a sketchy past who tragically died young. In real life, Miss Marianne Skerrett rose to be the Queen’s principle dresser, and was with Queen Victoria for twenty-five years. You can see multiple images of Miss Skerrett on the Royal Collections Trust Website. One can be found HERE.

Miss Skerrett was born about 1793 in London; she was baptized in St Martin-in-the-Fields. Her parents were Walter Frye Skerrett and Albinia Mathias Skerrett. Walter had links to the West Indies (including Antigua, Barbados, Bermuda, Montserrat and what is now Guyana), and was a slave owner. He was born in 1762, possibly in Liverpool. By 1791, he was in London where he married Albinia Mathias in that year in St.-Martin-in-the-Fields Church. Albinia, who had been born about 1760, was a friend of Charlotte Burney (a sister of author Fanny Burney).


Interior of St. Martin-In-The-Fields 1810 (Plate 79 of MICROCOSM OF LONDON by Thomas Rowlandson)

There are indications that Mr. Skerrett had been a colonel in the British Army during the Peninsular Wars, and that he was mentioned in William Francis Napier in his HISTORY OF THE WAR IN THE PENINSULA. However, in Napier’s book, the colonel in question is named only as “Colonel Skerrett”, and there is no indication of Walter Frye Skerrett or a W. F. Skerrett or even W. Skerrett in the London Gazette or other sources that military appointments, promotions etc. are mentioned. (It seems likely that the Colonel Skerrett in Napier’s book was actually John Skerrett. There are a couple of other Skerretts who made rank as well.) It seems unlikely that Walter Frye Skerrett served in the British Army. However, records indicate he was very active in litigation as there are numerous court cases in which he was involved relating to business matters in the West Indies. It appears he may have owned a business in London, as one of these cases refers potential litigants to his representatives in the West Indies or to W. F. Skerrett and Co. in London. Walter Frye Skerrett died January 27, 1828.

Marianne was the older daughter born to Walter and Albinia. A second daughter, Henrietta, was born in London about 1796. So far, I have found no information about Miss Skerrett’s childhood or youth, including her education. However, it is reasonable to assume that it was respectable, and that she received some form of education. Multiple descriptions of Marianne indicate she was intelligent, well-read, and fluent in multiple languages (Danish, French and German). Additionally, artist John Callcott Horsley, in his RECOLLECTIONS OF A ROYAL ACADEMICIAN, described Marianne Skerrett as small (under five feet tall), thin, plain and a devout Christian.

In 1837, at approximately age 44, Marianne Skerrett was appointed head dresser with the care of jewelry. Data indicates that Laura Petty FitzMaurice, Marchioness of Lansdowne (principal Lady of the Bedchamber from August 1837 to September 1838) recommended Miss Skerrett to the queen. (There are indications that the Lansdowne family was also known to the Burney family.) This appointment put Marianne Skerrett in the Queen’s household at the time of Victoria’s coronation on June 28, 1838, so (in her capacity as head dresser with the care of jewelry) it is very likely that Miss Skerrett would have been involved in the preparations for that event.

Queen Victoria in Coronation Robes 1838 by George Hayter

Marianne Skerrett became head dresser and wardrobe woman. Available information suggests she was in that position about 1841. Her duties included ordering the Queen’s clothes and accessories, maintaining the wardrobe accounts, supervising hairdressers, seamstresses and others involved with the Queen’s wardrobe and appearance. In September of 1842, when Victoria’s former governess Baroness Louise Lehzen finally retired from the Queen’s household and left for Germany, Miss Skerrett took on some of Lehzen’s duties in addition to her own.

These additional duties included acting as a personal secretary to the Queen, in that Miss Skerrett wrote to tradesmen, commissioned artists and engravers, responded to solicitations for assistance from former servants, paid the bills incurred for creating and maintaining the Queen’s wardrobe, and wrote recommendations for other dressers and maids, all on the Queen’s behalf. Miss Skerrett may also have written some of the Queen’s personal correspondence to various family members on Victoria’s behalf. She also assisted Victoria with her etchings. In the years that Miss Skerrett was in Victoria’s household, she became a fixture on whom the Queen and other members of the household relied to get things done.

On February 1, 1847, Miss Skerrett even testified at court against a man named Francis Olifieres who had been indicted for stealing jewelry in 1845, in the course of which theft he alleged a connection to the royal household. Miss Skerrett’s brief testimony established that Mr. Olifieres had had one commission for the royal household in 1842, had had no interview with the Queen and had not been employed in the royal household. After other testimony, Mr. Olifieres was determined to be guilty and sentenced to be transported.

The time finally came when Marianne Skerrett was ready to resume life outside of the royal household. She retired from the Queen’s service in 1862 at the age of 69, and was given a pension of 70 pounds. She went to live with her sister in Marylebone in London, where she apparently lived until her death July 29, 1887. During her retirement, she remained in contact with Queen Victoria through letters and visits. Aged about 94 years at her death, Miss Skerrett left an estate valued at over 5000 pounds, and a will which was probated on October 8, 1887. She left Queen Victoria a painting by William Hogarth called The Popple and Ashley Families, which was a painting of a Bermuda family that showed Miss Skerrett’s grandmother as a child. This painting is still part of the royal collection and you can see it HERE.

Sources include:
Troide, Lars E. and Cook, Stewart J. THE EARLY JOURNALS AND LETTERS OF FANNY BURNEY Vol. V, 1782-1783. 2012: McGill-Queen’s University Press.  P. 256. (Reference can be viewed in preview on Google Books HERE.)

Georgian Papers Programme.  “Introducing the Georgian Goodies Series” (date posted and author not shown).  HERE

GoogleBooks.  THE GENTLEMAN'S MAGAZINE (London, England) Vol 143 (The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle From January to June 1828 Volume XCVIII by Sylvanus Urban, Gentleman.  1828: London, England.) P. 188. HERE;  Horsley, John Callcutt, R.A.  RECOLLECTIONS OF A ROYAL ACADEMICIAN.  Mrs. Edmund Helps, editor. 1903: E. P. Dutton and Company, New York.  Pp. 126-131.  HERE; Napier, William Francis Patrick.  HISTORY OF THE WAR IN THE PENINSULA and In the South of France from the year 1807 to the year 1814. 1836:  David Christy, Oxford.  HERE

Gov.UK  Find A Will.  Here. (Select Wills and Probate 1858-1996 and put in Surname Skerrett, Year of death 1887.)  

OldBaileyOnline. Old Bailey Proceedings. 1st February 1847.  HERE

The Gazette Official Public Record. HERE

The National Archives.  Discovery. Annual Army Lists, 1700-1799 and 1800-1899.  HERE

University College London. LEGACIES OF BRITISH SLAVE-OWNERSHIP. “Walter Frye Skerrett, Profile and Legacies Summary 1762-1828.”  (No author or post date shown.) HERE

Unofficial Royalty.  “Marianne Skerrett” by Susan Flantzer.  Posted October 9, 2018.  HERE

Image of Miss Skerrett:  Royal Collections Trust.  Photograph of a full-length portrait of Miss Marianne Skerrett, Albumen print, RCIN 2906440.  HERE; Copyright information HERE 

Wikimedia Commons Images:
St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Public Domain) HERE
Victoria in Coronation Robes (Public Domain) HERE

A special thank you to Dr. Jacqueline Reiter, who steered me to the London Gazette and the Annual Army lists at the National Archives regarding Walter Frye Skerrett’s Army service.  She was also gracious enough to check data in her own possession.   

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Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel.  A long-time member of the  Jane Austen Society of North America and life-long reader of history and historical novels, she has a Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in Art History.  She lives in Florida with her husband, where she is working on her second novel A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, to be released this year and the research for a biography.  Visit her website HERE for more information.

4 comments:

  1. Absolutely fascinating. This the kind of lovely nuts and bolts information that flesh out a historical novel. A character who, if she did not exist, the author would have to invent...but she did! What an enormous responsibility she had and for so long too! Thank you for posting.

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for commenting.

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  2. Interesting indeed. One can understand, though, how for fictional purposes in 'Victoria' it was thought a good idea to embellish rather lavishly.

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  3. Glad you found it interesting. I appreciate your comment.

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