Not many people have heard of “Duchess Blair” in the 21st century, but if you had been around in late Victorian Britain her name and her fame would have been well known to you. The imprisonment in 1893 of Mary, Duchess of Sutherland was met by British society with astonishment and was treated as the biggest scandal of the decade if not the century. As such it surprises me that this woman is not better known today, perhaps when Julian Fellowes needs a new project after Downton Abbey he might take some inspiration from the life this Jailbird Duchess.
Mary was born in 1848, the daughter of Rev. Richard Michell and his wife Amelia Blair. They lived in Oxford where her father was Principle of Hertford College in later years. Mary was the fifth child born of eight, and the youngest daughter. Her father was a successful private tutor and later went on to become the first principal of Hertford College. Although her origins as a daughter of the manse were in no way impoverished they were fairly humble, certainly a million miles from the world of wealth and privilege she would know later in life. Little is known of Mary’s early years, and it is not until 1872 when she marries that life events begin to be recorded in the papers and magazines of the time.
Her marriage in 1872 was to a man 14 years her senior, Arthur Kindersley Blair, a Captain in the 71st Highland Light Infantry. She gave birth to their first child in 1873, named after his father, baby Arthur died the next year. The couple had another child in 1876, a daughter this time, Irene Mary Blair, Irene went on to marry an Austrian count and is known to have travelled to New York on board RMS Olympic, Titanic’s more successful sister ship.
Captain Blair had managed to survive serving in the British Army in the Colonial Service during the time of the Indian Mutiny, but he managed to get himself shot in the midst of a pheasant shoot in October 1883 in Pitlochry. The newspapers from around the time were all throwing up differing theories as the exact circumstances of the his death. Some said that he was a dependant of the George, 3rd Duke of Sutherland, and the married Duke had taken a liking to his wife Mary. Caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of being beholden to the Duke, and hating seeing that his wife was getting cosy with him he decided to take his own life. Other papers were less sensationalist and claimed that he had been careless whilst handling his gun and shot himself. Again there were other papers which ventured as far as to say that the Duke had accidently shot Captain Blair.
Whatever the truth behind her husband’s death, it was not long before Mary was quite openly the mistress of the 3rd Duke of Sutherland. The Duke’s wife, Anne, Duchess of Sutherland and Countess of Cromartie was still living but relations between the two had been strained for some time. The intrusion of this new woman into the marriage was a step to far for Duchess Anne who instigated proceedings for a divorce. This was only stopped by the personal intervention of Queen Victoria, who was a close personal friend of the Duchess. Although divorce was off the cards the Duke grew further distant from his wife and closer to Mary, which caused friction between the Duke and his children too.
In the autumn of 1887 whilst staying at his estate in Staffordshire, Trentham Hall, the Duke became gravely ill; Mary firmly planted herself at his bedside and nursed him herself. This was greatly appreciated by the Duke, but the doctors thought that he was going to die imminently so they sent for his family to be with him also. By the time that Duchess Anne arrived with her children in tow the danger had passed and the Duke was feeling slightly better. Mary refused to leave the Duke’s side, and this led to an almighty scene with the wife and the mistress bawling at one another as to who should leave. The Duke decided to back Mary, and so the Duchess left that same day with the children. Their eldest son, Cromartie was present and he never really forgave his father for choosing the common mistress over his mother.
Mary’s life underwent a transformation which she could almost certainly never have imagined in her younger years at the manse. She was now exposed to a world of luxury and excess which would be quite beyond the comprehension of the average man on the street in Victorian Britain. The Duke of Sutherland held over 1.4 million acres of land in Great Britain alone, 1.1 million of those acres being in Scotland. The only man in Europe who owned more land than the Duke of Sutherland was Tsar of Russia. To put it in perspective he had three times as much land as the country of Bahrain, it’s no wonder that he was known by contemporaries as the, “Prince amongst Dukes”.
In terms of homes available to him, well he was not short of choice in that department, Dunrobin Castle in Sutherland, which his own father had tripled in size around 1850 with the help of Sir Charles Barry, the same architect that rebuilt the Houses of Parliament in London. Trentham Hall, again rebuilt by the Duke’s father and Barry a vast Italianate Palace, which was the family’s seat in Staffordshire, England. Barry was used again after to transform Cliveden in Buckinghamshire into an Italianate mansion in 1851, the Duke’s 3rd country seat. There were several lesser country houses too, and what can only be described as a ‘palace’ just off The Mall in London. Stafford House was the Duke’s home when in town, over the garden wall is Clarence House, which you may have heard of, it’s where the Prince of Wales lives today and it is considerably more modest in both size and décor when compared to Stafford House. A couple of hundred yards in the other direction was Buckingham Palace, and it is indeed the closest house to the Palace, so the Duke had the honour of being Queen Victoria’s next door neighbour.
If there were such things as private jets in those days you can be sure that the Duke would have had one, but being a Victorian he had to settle for the 19th century equivalents, for travelling on land, a private train, which would stop at his private train station which he had constructed at Dunrobin Castle, for travelling over water, a private yacht Sans Peur, which translates to Fearless, the motto of the Clan Sutherland.
The measure of all this wealth was summed up neatly in a concise article which appeared in many of the newspapers in 1888. The article listed the richest men in the world. The Duke of Sutherland was ranked 10th in the world, with a fortune estimated at £6,000,000 and an annual income of £300,000. Comparing these values to average earnings in 2012 means that the Duke would be worth over £2.5 billion in today’s terms, with annual earnings of £126 million, in an age where taxes for the super-rich were more lenient.
In 1897 the Duke became severely ill again. His doctors told him that he must Winter abroad and as he had been almost everywhere else he decided to take his ocean going yacht, Sans Peur out to the Far East.
Mary travelled incognito under the name of “Lady Clare”, and if anybody in foreign climes should inquire as to their relationship she was supposed to be the widow of one of the Duke’s family members. Mary’s brother seems to have been happy with his sister’s relationship with the Duke because they were both invited to stay with Richard Michell and his wife at their house near Madras when they stopped in India. Richard being a lawyer at the Madras bar during the 1880’s he had found love and married one of the daughters of a colonial civil servant. Having a British Duke to stay would have added a certain social cachet to the Michell’s amongst the colonial establishment.
The Duke and “Lady Clare” were also entertained by many British Governors along the way and received an invitation to visit the Sultan of Jahore. They decided to skip visiting the Sultan of Jahore until the return leg of their journey; instead they pushed onwards to Singapore and then on to their main destination of Bangkok, by which time the Duke’s health was much improved and was able to fully enjoy his time in the Siamese capital.
Upon arrival in Bangkok, the yacht was met by Mary’s eldest brother, Edward Michell, who had been appointed in 1885 to be legal advisor to the King of Siam. It seems that her generation the family were able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and escape their more ordinary roots.
Whilst in Bangkok, the Duke and his party were given the exclusive use of one of the King’s private residences. Mary was taken by her brother to be presented to the King Chulalongkorn, who was delighted to meet her and she was invited to dine with the Duke at the King’s palace the next day. There were three women at the banquet, all of them Europeans, and these were the very first European women to ever dine with the Siamese sovereign and she was taken into dinner by Prince Devan, the King’s finance minister.
Upon their return to the Great Britain later in 1888 the Duke’s wife Duchess Anne became very ill. This did nothing to deter the Duke from heading off travelling again, this time he and Mary took the yacht over to the Atlantic to the United States where the Duke owned a large estate in Tampa, Florida known as Sutherland Manor. Duchess Anne died at Stafford House in London on the 25th of November 1888. Her husband did not attend the funeral as he was still in the US with Mary. None of this was doing any favours for the Duke’s relationship with his children.
They remained in Florida for some months and on the 4th of March 1889 the Duke married Mary and in doing so flouted the conventions set by society in terms of an appropriate period of mourning. It was thought by some that the Duke and his new Duchess, Duchess Blair as she became known would steer well clear of Britain from now on and remain in the Florida for the rest of their lives.
This was not their way however and so home they came in the April of 1889. They had to live fairly quietly whilst in London as although a Duke can usually be rehabilitated into the best company after a long absence simply by being a Duke, there was no such guarantees for a wife who was not from amongst the upper set. Any dreams that Mary entertained of being a grand hostess of balls and parties attended by royalty, nobility and millionaires from all over Europe, as previous Duchesses of Sutherland had been were soon forgotten. The best society wanted nothing to do with her; that is those who were secure enough in their positions in society that they were not afraid to offend her husband the Duke. It must be remembered that Queen Victoria was a personal friend of the Duke’s first wife, and Victoria was not known for forgiveness, so most of society would have been aware that to suddenly accept Mary into their circle would have deeply annoyed the Queen. Most of London society was ambitious for advancement and a Queen can kill dead those dreams with a few spent breaths, simply Mary had no chance of breaking in to this world.
This lifestyle of extreme luxury in isolation continued only for a few years, because on the 21st of September 1892 the Duke suddenly became gravely ill whilst staying at Dunrobin Castle and he died on the evening of the 22nd. His funeral took place at Trentham, where the family had their vault, although his coffin was put into the ground rather than the vault at his own request.
Cromartie, now 4th Duke of Sutherland expected to take control of the family’s vast fortune without question; that was the way these things worked. The curveball was thrown at this idea when it came to the reading of the late Duke’s will.
In the will, the late Duke had left to his wife, £150,000 (£59,000,000 in 2012) to be paid within 12 months of his death, and annuity of £9,000 (£3,500,000 in 2012) from his UK estates, the lease of Tittensor Chase for 21 years, one of the Duke’s English estates, an large quantity of furniture, plate, jewellery and paintings, one of which was Landseer’s “The Fatal Duel”, she was to have the use of the family’s diamond collection for life, all of the late Duke’s shares in various collieries were to be kept in trust for the Duchess during her lifetime, the Duchess was also to receive the absolute ownership of the Sideway Estate, neighbouring the Trentham Estate.
Cromartie with the backing of his family decided to contest his father’s will in court in order to have the provisions made to Duchess Blair to be vastly reduced. And it was during these proceedings that the Duchess made her disastrous error of judgement. Whilst in Stafford House she removed some of her late husband’s papers and then threw them on the fire.
When she was questioned about these actions in court she simply answered that it was a letter from the late Duke to her, and he would have wanted it destroyed. This did not wash with the judges in the probate division at the High Court of Justice and they subsequently found her in contempt of court, sentenced to pay a fine of £250 and be committed to prison for a term of six weeks. There was speculation in the press that she would be let off the hook because it was seen as inconceivable that a Duchess would be locked away for such an offence, but the sentence was indeed carried out.
As soon as the court order was delivered, the Duchess’s personal friends went to her and removed her from the court precincts and drove her to Holloway Prison in her own carriage. In the jail she was allowed to furnish her own cell and provide her own food, she was not however allowed to be waited upon by her own servants.
She was initially deeply affected by the passing of the sentence and was quite ill when she first went into prison, but she did reconcile to the fact that she was only there for six weeks and she had been kept separate from the other prisoners. Her mother and her brothers, who once again lived in England, were allowed to go and visit her.
Released at the end of May 1893 she headed straight out of London for her house at Windsor, The Willows. Friends of hers who sympathised with her presented her with a silver casket containing £250, to cover the cost of the fine, not because she was unable to pay it, but to show how indignant they felt at the harsh sentence meted out to the Duchess.
Although she was out of prison, the legal proceedings were to drag on over the matter of the 3rd Duke’s will. The matter was supposed to be the cause celebre of the 1894, however no sooner had the case gotten properly underway than both sides of the argument agreed to make a settlement. The Duchess was to give up all her claims in return for £500,000 (£191 million in 2012) plus the Duke was to build her a home of her own in Ross-shire, Carbisdale Castle which was completed in 1917. Also in the settlement she secured ownership of the Sutherland estate in Florida, which could not be considered as the property of new Duke as it had only been purchased in 1887 by his father. And with her fortune she purchased 45 Belgrave Square in the heart of London as her new townhouse.
Unfortunately Duchess Blair never really got to enjoy Carbisdale because she died in 1912. One of the interesting things about the castle is that its tallest part is a clock tower, only three sides of the tower have a clock-face, and one of the sides was left blank. Why? It is the side which faces towards Dunrobin Castle, and it is intended to signify the fact that she would not give her stepson the time of day.
Before she died in 1912 she had one further marriage to make a third. This time it was to Sir Albert Kaye Rollit, an MP sitting in the House of Commons for South Islington. The wedding took place in London in November 1896. He was to outlive her by 10 years and they were to have no children.
They lived fairly quietly, apart from one incident in October 1898 when in France the couple were travelling with friends to Paris from Calais by train and at some point before the train had left the Gard du Nord it is thought that the Duchess’s Jewellery case was targeted and stolen. The jewels in the case were worth around £30,000 (£10.8 million in 2012). The jewels were never recovered; thankfully this was her last major misfortune in a life with many highs and lows. After this she settled down into her later years to live more quietly and taking part in society only really at its fringes opening the occasional charity bazaar here and there.
She separated from her third husband a few years before she died by a mutual agreement. It was whilst staying at Leeds on the 25th of June 1912 that she died of a short illness. She left an estate valued at £470,000 (£153 million in 2012). Almost all of it to her daughter the Countess of Bunba as she was by marriage, but smaller sums of money to her surviving husband and her siblings, death duties alone totalled £60,000 (almost £20 million in 2012).
In her will she stated that she wanted to be buried alongside the Duke at the family vault at Trentham, and so it was, her third husband and her own siblings held the funeral at Trentham and she was buried under the same headstone as the 3rd Duke.
Since that day Duchess Blair has faded from memory. The girl from humble origins who wins the heart of one of the world’s richest men, vilified in the eyes of the world as the wicked stepmother who exerted undue influence over her dying husband to leave her more than her fair share in his will. Sent to prison for a misdemeanour for six weeks would have killed the spirit of a lesser woman in her position, but she sorts out her life, takes a fortune from the Sutherland family and finds love again, only for that love to let her down in the end. Truly a life full of all the twists and turns needed for a good period drama, so maybe one day she will be resurrected by some clever film maker or novelist.
Until then one of the best ways to get close to her story is to go and stay a few nights in her castle. Carbisdale is these days a youth hostel like no other, and it is open during the summer months for tours also. Well worth the visit just to see the scenery and the house that Jailbird Duchess had built out of spite for her stepson.
Thanks for reading,