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Chapter 6
The Middletons 1838–1914

Standing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in the dwindling hours of the balmy evening of 28 June 1838, Queen Victoria watched the fireworks in Green Park and reflected on her day. She had been woken at 4 a.m. by the sounds of guns in the park, crowds gathering, soldiers marching and bands setting up in anticipation of her long-awaited coronation at Westminster Abbey, which was greeted by deafening cheers from the crowds.

Wearing an 8-ft velvet and ermine train and holding an orb in her left hand and a sceptre in her right, she walked regally out of the abbey at 4.30 p.m., having been crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, for the procession back to the palace. ‘I really cannot say how proud I feel to be the Queen of such a nation,’ the 19-year-old monarch wrote in her diary afterwards. ‘The enthusiasm, affection and loyalty were really touching. I shall ever remember this day as the proudest day of my life.’

Two hundred miles north of the palace, in the industrial town of Leeds, Kate’s great-great-great-grandfather William Middleton, a solicitor, probably read about the coronation in the local newspaper while having breakfast with his new wife, Mary. The couple had been married for four months and had set up home in a terraced house on the outskirts of the town, where they brought up their large family. On Coronation Day, Mary was already pregnant with their eldest son, Kate’s great-great-grandfather John, although it is unlikely that she would have known yet that she was with child. Her son would grow up in very different surroundings from the Harrisons and the Goldsmiths.

Unlike Kate’s other ancestors, William, the 30-year-old son of a joiner and cabinetmaker from Wakefield, a small town 15 miles south of Leeds, was educated and trained in a profession. He had moved to the larger town after qualifying as a solicitor and was now wealthy enough to provide for a family.

It was in Leeds that he had met and fallen in love with 27-year-old Mary Ward. William would have been considered her social better – she was the daughter of a milliner who lived on Briggate, the town’s main thoroughfare, running from the newly opened Corn Exchange to the River Aire – but she was a young woman who seems to have been determined to make something of herself.

In those days, Leeds was a thriving town. It had flourished from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and workers poured into the factories, mills and workshops. Coal was brought into the town centre by steam trains from Middleton Colliery and the streets were lit with gas lamps. There was a courthouse, a prison and a bank. But behind the elegant timber-fronted façade of Briggate, which was one of the oldest streets in Leeds, home to rich merchants and coaching inns, were narrow alleyways and courtyards crowded with back-to-back cottages and workshops. Conditions were squalid and insanitary, as there was no proper drainage or sewerage, and there was terrible pollution. Cholera was rife and there was a high death rate. Body snatchers ransacked cemeteries and rioting was common. Dickens described it as ‘the beastliest place, one of the nastiest I know’.

While Mary was well acquainted with the less salubrious areas of Leeds, her husband could afford to offer her a better lifestyle than her father had been able to provide. So, after they got married, they moved northwards, settling in a house in St George’s Terrace, a street on the outskirts of the town.

It was there that John – Kate’s great-great-grandfather – was born on Valentine’s Day 1839, almost a year to the day since his parents had got married. Over the next decade, the couple went on to have another seven children – Edwin, Anne, Leonard, Arthur, Robert, Charles and Margaret. All their children were scholars, a rarity in Victorian England, where most people were uneducated and illiterate, but not surprising for the offspring of a professional man.

As he became more successful, William craved a house that befitted his new social status and decided to move to the wealthy suburb of Gledhow, just east of the village of Chapel Allerton, which was fast becoming a popular retreat for the middle classes. Gledhow Valley, a strip of unspoiled woodland through which a stream runs into a lake, is now a conservation area. By 1851, the family had moved into Gledhow Grange, a substantial house in Lidgett Lane, which ran northwards out of the heart of the village.

Down the road was the magnificent seventeenth-century Gledhow Hall, now a listed building, which was built on monastic land once owned by Elizabeth I and was the subject of a painting by J.M.W. Turner. When the Middletons moved to the area, Gledhow Hall was owned by Thomas Benyon, 50, a flax mill proprietor who employed 652 flax spinners and linen, canvas and sailcloth manufacturers. He and his wife Anne, 36, lived in great luxury, with 13 servants including a butler, housekeeper, lady’s maid, two housemaids, cook, kitchen maid, laundry maid, footman, coachman, governess and two nursery maids. The couple had bought the Hall after their marriage in 1835, a lavish affair for which Anne wore a £140 dress – a staggering £11,000 in today’s money – and the cake weighed 335 lb. They had five sons and daughters – Jane, thirteen in 1851, Anne, twelve, Mary, nine, William, eight, and Joseph, seven – who were roughly the same age as the Middleton children, and the families became close friends. They were devastated when Mary died as a result of a perforated stomach ulcer in 1854.

Four years later, there was great excitement in the village when Queen Victoria came to Leeds to open the new town hall, designed by Cuthbert Broderick, the architect of a series of imposing public buildings in the city centre. Little did William Middleton realise how closely the paths of his and the Queen’s descendants would one day cross.

Sadly, the Middleton siblings’ idyllic childhood was brought to an end on 15 June 1859, when their mother Mary died at the age of 48 after a short illness that left her with an obstructed bowel and peritonitis, a blood infection that was untreatable in the days before penicillin. John had yet to reach his 21st birthday; his youngest sister, Margaret, was just nine. Mary was buried three days after her death in the graveyard of St Matthew’s Church, Chapel Allerton, leaving the family bereft and rudderless.

Unable to care for eight children on his own, William cast around for another wife. Within two years, he had married his sister-in-law, Sarah Ward, who was twelve years younger than him, and she had moved into the family home, becoming stepmother to his brood. The couple were comfortable enough to have two servants: a cook and a housemaid.

Two years later, his eldest son John, who was 24 years old and, like his father before him, had qualified as a solicitor, found himself a wife and moved out of home. A chip off the old block, he too married a woman of a lower social class, Mary Asquith, 23, the daughter of a cloth finisher who had been brought up, as his mother had been, in the crowded workshops off Briggate. The couple wed on 27 August 1863, at the parish church in Leeds, and moved to their own home in Potternewton, two miles south of Gledhow. In 1865, their happiness was crowned by the birth of their first child, Gilbert. Having given birth to their son and heir, Mary went on to have two daughters, olive, in 1870, and Ellen, in 1872.

The union of the Middleton and Asquith families was compounded the following year when John’s younger sister Anne, by then 31 years old, a spinster by the standards of the age and unlikely to find a husband, fell in love with Mary’s younger brother John, a cloth finisher like his father. They got married at the same church as their siblings on 22 October 1873. But the family’s wealth and stature could not shield them from tragedy, and less than five months after they got married, on 16 March 1874, John, Anne’s husband and Mary’s brother, died of scarlet fever at home in Cumberland Road, Headingley, and she was forced to move back home to her father and stepmother.

By then, William and Sarah had moved down the road to Hawkhills, a sprawling mansion in Gledhow Lane, Chapel Allerton. Sadly, it has since been demolished, although the gateposts and lodge still remain. They socialised with the upper echelons of Leeds society, people such as Sir John Barran, an innovative entrepreneur in the fabric industry, who introduced the use of the bandsaw in fabric cutting, having been inspired by its use in the manufacture of wood veneers. A Justice of the Peace, Lord Mayor of Leeds and later Liberal MP, he lived 500 yards down the road in Chapel Allerton Hall, set in 41 acres of parkland, which he mortgaged to buy Roundhay Park for the people of Leeds. He is commemorated by a drinking fountain, presented by him, in the centre of the park.

The Middletons also knew James Kitson, who ran the Monkbridge Iron and Steel Company with his brother Frederick. He moved into Gledhow Hall in 1878. There was great excitement in the village when he married his second wife, Mary, in 1881. James, who was president of the Leeds Liberal Association, organised the campaign for Gladstone’s re-election to Parliament in 1880, and Sarah and William may well have met the Prime Minister at the Hall. Husband and wife were both dead by the time of James’s greatest triumphs. He was created a baronet in 1886, elected as a Liberal MP in 1892 and became Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1896. The Middletons would no doubt have been thrilled to hear about the visit Kitson received in 1902 from the former prime minister the Earl of Rosebery, who was escorted to Gledhow Hall by 200 torchbearers.

While the couple enjoyed their retirement, their son John was working his way up the career ladder. He and his wife Mary moved into a house on the Leeds Road in Far Headingley, a village three miles west of Potternewton. The road ran from Leeds to otley, where the furniture maker Thomas Chippendale grew up, and in Victorian times the area was a magnet for prosperous, middle-class families. It was there that John and Mary brought up their increasing brood. William, named after his grandfather, was born in 1874; twins Caroline and Gertrude arrived in 1876; and Kate’s great-grandfather Richard Noel, known as Noel, was born on Christmas Day 1878. Their eighth child and youngest daughter, Margaret, was born in 1880.

A gifted solicitor, John handled all the legal work for the flourishing Leeds Permanent Benefit Building Society, and his hard work was soon rewarded. In 1881, he was appointed vice president of the Leeds Law Society, becoming president in 1882, a role he held for two years. In 1883, he was also elected an extraordinary member of the council of the Incorporated Law Society.

William lived just long enough to see his son’s achievements but spent the last months of his life paralysed as a result of a brain disorder. He died on 21 December 1884, at the age of 77 – a good age in those days – leaving his family to celebrate Christmas without him. After what must have been a miserable winter, his widow Sarah followed him to the grave just three months later, fracturing her skull when she was thrown from her carriage. She died of a brain bleed at home at Hawkhills on 3 April 1885, having suffered from concussion.

Despite his father and stepmother’s deaths, John did not ease up on the workload. As well as becoming head of the family firm, he began to develop into a leading figure in Leeds society, founding the Leeds and County Conservative Club and acting as an election agent for Tory parliamentary candidate Richard Dawson in 1885 and 1886. He and Mary split their time between their four-storey bow-fronted townhouse in Hyde Terrace, Leeds, near the family firm, and their new country home, Fairfield, in Far Headingley. Both houses were crammed full of antiques, oil paintings, silver and crystal.

Less than three years after his father’s death, John too was summoned to a higher bar. He had been suffering from angina, probably brought on by the stress of work and his parents’ deaths. He died at home in Far Headingley on 16 July 1887, a month after Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, at 48 years of age. He is buried in the family vault at Chapel Allerton cemetery. His obituary in the Law Times, dated 6 August 1887, stated: ‘His death, which was comparatively sudden, was hastened, if not occasioned by the strain of a five days’ trial in London on a matter concerning the Leeds estate.’

After John’s death, his widow Mary and her children moved into Hyde Terrace, but their mother barely outlived their father. She died two years later, on 22 September 1889, of typhoid fever and a pulmonary embolism, while staying in a cottage in the fishing village of Filey, near Scarborough, 70 miles away. Thus, two generations of the same family were extinguished within seven years.

Kate’s great-grandfather Noel was only ten years old when he became an orphan, but he was not penniless. His mother Mary, having inherited nearly £5,000 from her husband, left £13,627 in her will – the equivalent of £6.7 million today – meaning that her children would be able to be educated privately and live the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. Noel also inherited a family heirloom, a sapphire ring, which he cherished.

In the 1891 census, his oldest brother, Gilbert, by then a 24-year-old solicitor, was listed as resident in a boarding house in Filey, with William, an engineering student, and his sisters. Noel, who would have been 12, was in lodgings in Bilton-cumHarrogate, 15 miles north of Leeds. It is not known whether the rest of the family was living in Filey while Noel attended school in Harrogate or if they were just on holiday.

At that time, the spa town of Harrogate was one of the fashionable places to be seen. It was popular with the English aristocracy, and nobility from across Europe came to bathe in its waters. Samson Fox, the great-grandfather of actor Edward Fox, was mayor of the town for three successive years, 1889–92 (a feat not achieved since), and one of its great philanthropists. He lived in the magnificent Grove House estate, where Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales, was a regular visitor. During the period, the future Edward VII’s mistress Lillie Langtry performed in The School for Scandal at the Promenade Inn theatre, the D’oyly Carte opera Company had a season there and oscar Wilde gave a lecture on dress.

On 26 January 1892, the family came together when Gilbert got married to Alice Margaret Joy, a spinster two years his senior, but the reunion was short-lived. By now 13 years old, Noel was sent to the boys’ public school Clifton College, in Bristol, as a boarder. Alumni included Field Marshal Haig and artist Roger Fry, and Noel was in the same year as Edwin Samuel Montagu, the Jewish Liberal politician who was appointed Secretary of State for India towards the end of the First World War.

After Clifton, the lure of home proved great and Noel moved back to the North, going to Leeds University before, following in the family tradition, he became an articled clerk. He lived with his four older unmarried sisters, olive, Ellen, and twins Caroline and Gertrude, and three servants, in the family home they had inherited from their parents in Hyde Terrace. Gertrude was very religious and artistically gifted; she drew illuminated manuscripts and embroidered altar cloths.

The family spent many holidays together in Filey, where tragedy struck once again. One summer, when Noel was 20, they went for a walk along Filey Brigg, a rocky promontory that juts out 1,600 metres into the sea. When they got back to the shore, they were devastated to discover that Margaret, the youngest, who was 18 at the time, had disappeared. Her body was never discovered and the family returned to Leeds haunted by her death.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Noel worked his way up from articled clerk to solicitor (he qualified in 1903 when he was 25 years old) and began to mingle with the great and good of Leeds. He could often be found in London, at his Mayfair club, the Albemarle, where oscar Wilde had been accused of sodomy by the Marquess of Queensberry at the turn of the previous century. Just before the start of the First World War, he bought a house in the village of Roundhay. There, his path crossed that of the beautiful olive Lupton, who came from one of Leeds’ richest and most illustrious families. It was a union that would bring Noel untold success and riches, and lead his descendants to the gates of Buckingham Palace.



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