In August 1875 the Gardeners’ Chronicle reported ‘some English Seedling Roses of considerable promise’(1) had been sent to them by Stamford horticulturalist Thomas Laxton. One he had named Lady Isabel Cecil after Isabella Georgiana Katherine Cecil of Burghley House. The rose was described as ‘a small, neat, citron-tinted Tea Rose, becoming almost white – a pretty flower and nicely scented and one which may some day, when better established, prove useful.’(1)
Whether it was ever marketed commercially we do not know, what we do know is something of the life of Lady Isabel – an aristocrat who ‘married beneath herself.’
Born at Burghley on 15 August 1853, Isabella (known as Isabel and named for her paternal grandmother, Isabella Poyntz) was one of nine siblings, the third child and eldest daughter of William Alleyne Cecil, third Marquess of Exeter, and his wife Georgiana (née Pakenham).
Tongues were set wagging in 1884 when Isabel announced her engagement to Doncaster barrister and rector’s son, William Henry Thomas, for despite William’s Eton education and Isabel being past the flush of youth, he was considered a plebeian match for the daughter of one of England’s most aristocratic houses.
It seems likely William's prospective wealth is what persuaded Lord Exeter to give his consent. William was heir to his great-uncle, Richard Heber Wrightson, and set to inherit Cusworth Hall and its considerable Yorkshire
Stamford Corporation organised a subscription fund for a wedding gift, stipulating that no contribution should exceed 10s 6d. They raised nearly £100 and a deputation led by the mayor travelled to the Cecils’ London house at 6 Hereford Gardens to present Lady Isabel with a gold collarette with locket, a silver salver and a silver tea-kettle.
The wedding took place at St Thomas’s church, Portman Square, London on 7 August 1884 in ‘a quiet, simple but very well-attended service.’(2) The bridegroom’s father, Rev Charles E Thomas, officiated, assisted by the Rev A Webster, Vicar of Stamford St Martin’s and chaplain to the Cecils. The bride wore ivory brocatelle trimmed with Brussels lace and a tiara of five diamond stars – a gift from her new husband. The orange blossom sprays in her hair and bouquet of ‘choice white flowers’ came from Burghley and were almost certainly personally selected by head gardener Richard Gilbert.
The couple started their married life at Warmsworth Hall, a South Yorkshire grace-and-favour residence which William would eventually inherit. Lady Isabel’s presence in Doncaster reportedly aroused jealousy within the local country house set because no-one else came from such a high-ranking family. William and Isabel's son, Robert Cecil (named for his mother’s family), was born four years later, followed by daughter Barbara Isabella Georgiana in 1890.
Lady Isabel Battie-Wrightson
In 1891 William inherited his great-uncle’s estates and changed his surname by royal licence from Thomas to Battie-Wrightson. The family moved to Cusworth Hall, where they lived happily until April 1903 when William collapsed and died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 47.
Lady Isabel was plunged into grief. To add to her woes,
only five days after William’s funeral she received a court summons from her brother-in-law, Charles Freeman Thomas, who sought to evict Isabel and her children from Cusworth without notice. Charles claimed that according to a deed of settlement, Isabel’s son Robert was ineligible to inherit Cusworth as he had not attained his majority. After a protracted legal battle on fifteen-year-old Robert's behalf, an out-of-court settlement was reached, with Isabel paying Charles £20,000 for the right to remain at Cusworth. She made many improvements to the house and estate and was renowned for the annual Christmas fancy dress parties she threw for the estate workers and their families. Isabel
ordered costumes for them from Harrods and gave every estate worker’s child a gold sovereign.
When Robert’s 21st birthday finally arrived they celebrated in style and Isabel commissioned her beloved Harrods to supply an enormous feast for the estate workers and tenants and for 35 local shopkeepers and small-business men. With his coming-of-age, Robert inherited not only Cusworth but extensive lands in Yorkshire and County Durham, properties in London, a seaside winter home at St Leonard’s-on-Sea and securities and investments abroad.
Once her children had grown Lady Isabel returned to Stamford, settling in Wothorpe, and at the outbreak of WWI she paid to convert her home into a 14-bed convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers and sailors, styling herself Commandant of the Wothorpe Villa Hospital. Lady Isabel’s involvement in war work gave her a new purpose in life. She became a keen supporter of the Red Cross and in the summer of 1917 organised a fête which raised over £400 for the organisation.
Lady Isabel (centre) outside her Wothorpe convalescent hospital.
That October Lady Isabel caught a chill which developed into pneumonia and she died two days later at home in Wothorpe Villas. Her body was taken to Doncaster and she was interred alongside her husband in the family vault at Warmsworth. The news of Lady Isabel’s death was received with great sadness at Cusworth Hall and in Cusworth village.
The value of Isabel's estate was placed at £272,679.
Yet despite a considerable inheritance from his mother,
Isabel’s son Robert sadly let Cusworth fall into a decline from which it never recovered. He died without children after being forced to sell off most of the family land and property and leaving his sister crippled by death duties.
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
(1) The Gardeners' Chronicle 7 Aug 1875. Kind courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library www.biodiversityheritage.org
(2) The British Newspaper Archive © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. All Rights Reserved.
With thanks to Heritage Doncaster for information about Lady
Isabel's life at Cusworth Hall.
Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018