Mad Lord Adolphus, Lady Susan
& Bertie’s Baby

“Between drink and his natural tendency to madness
there is a sad prospect for poor Susan…”


In the spring of 1860 London high society was all-agog with rumour and gossip. Even Queen Victoria, who privately loved tittle-tattle but never admitted to it, could not resist being drawn into the saga of mad Lord Adolphus Vane-Tempest and his poor wife Susan. The couple’s runaway marriage in April that year had already caused a scandal; within a month of it, Lord Adolphus’s long-rumoured madness had surfaced and there was talk, the Queen told her daughter Vicky in Prussia, that he had been ‘shut up’.

A Life of Wealth and Privilege

But how had it come to this? Adolphus, a Crimean War hero and Member of Parliament was the spoilt son of one of the legendary and most terrifying grandes dames of London society, Frances Anne, 3rd Lady Londonderry. She was the widow of the distinguished Charles William Stewart, the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, a hero of the Peninsular War.

Adolphus had been born in 1825 into great wealth and privilege at Holderness House, the Londonderry mansion on Park Lane. His mother, Frances Anne Vane-Tempest had brought to her marriage in 1819 a substantial stake in the landowning and coal-mining wealth of County Durham, to which she was sole heiress, in the process uniting the prodigious family wealth of the Vanes and the Tempests with the title and County Antrim estates of the Stewarts of Londonderry. Adolphus was the fourth of their six children but always Frances’s favourite and her most indulged child. He grew up between London and the family seat, Wynyard Hall, a grand mansion in County Durham.

After being educated at Eton he joined the Scots Fusilier Guards in 1843 and was promoted to Captain by 1849. But even as a young man he had had a reputation for a reckless personality and in January 1850 caused his elder brother Lord Vane to go blind in one eye, as the result of a rebound from his gun when out shooting. Indeed, his own father Lord Londonderry washed his hands of his reprobate son, appalled at his gambling and dissolute behaviour. His greatest objection was a pathological disgust for Adolphus’s ‘execrable habit of cigars’ and he duly reduced his allowance, saying that Adolphus’s smoking encouraged drinking and ‘entirely unfits the young mind for any intellectual exertion’.

The Crimean War

By the time the Crimean War broke out in 1854, Adolphus had seen army service in Greece and India and was known among his fellow officers as ‘Dolly Vane’. In 1852 he had had been elected MP for the City of Durham but was unseated six months later due to accusations of vote rigging and bribery by his political agent. However, when his elder brother George moved up to the House of Lords on their father’s death in April 1854 he returned to Parliament representing Durham North. He remained in the seat until his death but obtained leave of absence to join his regiment in Crimea the following year.

That winter of 1854–5, along with his men, Adolphus endured the horrors of a Crimean winter and wrote long angry letters home to his mother about the deplorable conditions and suffering of his men from lack of food, shelter and adequate medical care. Frances Anne, in high dudgeon, repeated all this to her friend, politician Benjamin Disraeli. Adolphus, she told him, was in despair about the government’s appalling lack of care of Britain’s ‘heroic wreck of an army’. His closely written letters to his mother, some of them twenty pages long, survive today in the County Durham record office but are yet to be transcribed and published.

Adolphus’s increasingly ‘eccentric behaviour’

Adolphus returned home in May 1856 but it was clear that the war had deeply affected his already unstable mental state. One might today wonder whether his then euphemistically described ‘eccentric behaviour’ was in fact a manifestation of PTSD, for his mental decline accelerated after the war and at the end of 1857 he suffered some kind of nervous breakdown when he was taken ill with a ‘rush of blood to the head and fainting’. Nevertheless he remained an MP and in moments of clarity between bouts of heavy drinking made important contributions in Parliament to the postwar debate on the care and welfare of soldiers in the British Army. He also lobbied for reform of army pensions for war- wounded veterans and gave a series of lectures on the war at the Durham Athenaeum that were, the press reported, ‘condemnatory of Lord Raglan and the Staff in general’. In 1859 Adolphus retired from the Scots Guards as a Lieutenant Colonel and in July 1860 took command of the 3rd (Sunderland) Durham Rifle Volunteer Battalion.

Society Beauty, Lady Susan Charlotte Catherine Pelham-Clinton

During his lifetime, Lord Londonderry had thought that the best cure for his son’s bad habits would be to settle down with ‘a good amiable girl’. But Adolphus remained unmarried until in 1858 when he met and fell in love with Lady Susan Pelham-Clinton, who had recently been one of the bridesmaids at the wedding of Vicky, Princess Royal to the Crown Prince of Prussia. Aged twenty and fourteen years his junior Susan was already well known in London society – ‘a beautiful woman with most brilliant black hair’– and was a daughter of the 5th Duke of Newcastle, a prominent government minister. Her family had however been stained by the scandal of her mother having run off to Italy in 1850 with her lover, and being summarily divorced by the Duke. When it was discovered that Susan had become amorously involved with Lord Adolphus, and knowing of his dissolute reputation and erratic behaviour, the Duke did all he could to prevent it developing.

The Duke even wrote to Lady Londonderry, trying to shame her for pushing such an unwise marriage that he knew could be hazardous for his daughter. He appealed to her as a mother, Lord Clarendon told a friend, asking ‘whether her son was of a character or in a condition to promote the happiness of any girl and whether she [Lady L] ought to be seeking to sacrifice his daughter to him’.

An Ill-judged Elopement

Lady Londonderry refused to listen, convinced that marriage was just what her darling son needed to put him right; for her part, Susan would not entertain the rumours about Adolophus’s mental instability and begged to be allowed to marry him. But three times the Duke refused his permission; Frances Anne tried hard to persuade him to relent as she could not bear to witness her son’s utter misery but the duke was adamant. The more intransigent he became the more the willful Susan was determined to marry Adolphus and continued to meet him in secret.

The Adolphus–Susan Scandal

Queen Victoria could not contain herself over this delicious scandal, writing to Vicky two days later that her bridesmaid Lady Susan had ‘gone and married Lord Adolphus Vane, who drinks and has twice been shut up for delirium tremens’. She did not hold out any hopes for her: ‘between drink and his natural tendency to madness there is a sad prospect for poor Susan.’

Lady Susan was, however, ecstatic and considered herself ‘the happiest of women’, wrote Lord Clarendon, who in contrast thought her ‘among the most foolish’. For Susan’s father had made no marriage settlement on her, which meant that ‘if that fellow dies in one of his fits she may find herself on the pave[ment] unless her father took her back.’ Sure enough, early in May 1860, word was out that ‘Adolphus Vane has gone mad again’. In one of his rages he had thrown a decanter and knives and forks at Lady Susan, who had been forced to take refuge with Lady Vane- Tempest, wife of the 5th Marquess. Worse than that, gossiped Queen Victoria, ‘her brother Lord Lincoln urged her to do this awful act’ – i.e. marry Adolphus – because Henry, who was addicted to gambling, had debts with him. ‘Can anything be more monstrous!?’

Adolphus appears to have been quickly packed off to a private mental hospital in Queen Street, Edinburgh soon after attacking Susan; meanwhile Lady Londonderry was already complaining about her daughter-in-law’s ‘extravagances and debts’, which she Frances Anne was having to cover – Susan having no money of her own.

A Battered Wife

By February 1861 Adolphus had recovered sufficiently to attend his brother-in-law Henry, Lord Lincoln’s wedding in Paris. Here he went on a bender drinking himself senseless on claret, brandy and liqueurs, visited brothels and once more spiralled out of control. He became extremely violent and got into a fight at the Café Anglais, upon which the Paris police arrested him. No sooner had the family bailed him out than back in London, at Stevens’s Hotel in New Bond Street, Adolphus appears to have suffered another manic episode and once more turned violent toward Susan. It took four men to pin him down and cart him to a house in St John’s Wood. As a result of the trauma of this attack, Susan suffered a miscarriage. She was by now heavily dosing herself with opium on a regular basis to calm her nerves.

Adolphus does not appear to have been confined for long, for in early March 1861 the papers reported that he had been arrested for being ‘very excited and violent’ in London, when he had ‘persisted in standing in the middle of Coventry Street, stopping horses, broughams and cabs that were passing, until a crowd of five hundred people were collected’. It took several men to cart him off, struggling and spitting, to the magistrate at Marlborough Street Court, where – against a barrage of foot stamping, singing, whistling and other exhibitionism from Adolphus – the magistrate ordered him to be taken to Clerkenwell House of Detention, pending a medical examination.

Frances Anne, as ever, came to her son’s rescue and wangled his release within days into a private mental institution where he was confined in a padded room. Lady Susan was forced to go and live with her hostile mother-in-law at Holderness House. But Frances Anne quickly decamped to her preferred home at Seaham on the Durham coast; the two women corresponded by telegram only.

A Visit to The American Civil War

A few months later, and out of the blue, Adolphus turned up in the United States during the Civil War, where his presence was confirmed by Times war correspondent William Howard Russell. According to the press, Adolphus travelled there ‘for his health’ but rumours later circulated that he had obtained a position in the Federal Army as an Adjutant General, under the name ‘Captain Stewart’. This may possibly have been a confusion of Aldophus with his younger brother Ernest – himself no stranger to scandal and bad behaviour and who had been dismissed from the army for Conduct Unbecoming. Ernest had also gone out to the Civil War, and served for a while in the 1st Washington Cavalry as ADC to General Stone, under the name ‘Captain Charles Stewart’, when he was present at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.

A story in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle related that Adolphus had gone ‘with the object of working round the Federal lines and getting into the seceding States’ to assess the situation. He had returned to England after four months, ‘impressed with the idea that the South cannot be subjugated’ and as a vocal supporter of the Confederate cause. However, his support for it in a subsequent parliamentary debate was marred because he ‘was so inebriated that he swayed back and forth while slurring his speech and nearly fell over the back of the bench in front of others’.

An Ignominious End

Not long after her husband’s return to England Lady Susan became pregnant and a son Francis Adolphus was born in January 1863. Barely a week later, Adolphus suffered another serious mental relapse. The family feared for Susan and the baby’s safety. She by now was very ill and in a state of nervous collapse; during one of Adolphus’s subsequent manic fits he ‘tossed his baby to the ceiling’ and attacked Susan. Once again it took several men to restrain him and he was again confined.

Eighteen months later Adolphus was dead. On 11 June 1864 Lord Stanley noted in his journal

Adolphus Vane was yesterday found dead in his bed … he being in confinement as insane at the time. His death is a benefit to everyone, including himself. Hereditary madness predisposed him to drink, and drinking brought out the madness. He had intervals of sanity, which made him only the more dangerous to his family. Lord Londonderry [Frederick, 4th Marquess] is mad: Lord Vane [George, Adolphus’s brother and 5th Marquess] is odd, and drinks heavily: one of his children is an idiot: …. it would seem the family are doomed.

Queen Victoria Revels in the Gossip

Queen Victoria hastened to pass on the news to Vicky in Berlin: ‘poor Susan Vane’s dreadful husband died quite suddenly last Saturday – I believe in a struggle with his four keepers when he burst a vein in his throat.’ According to one paper, Lady Susan ‘was in hysterics for upwards of 40 hours’. There was no will and she was left penniless. Mercifully she was bequeathed an annuity of £500 when Lady Londonderry, who never recovered from her loss, died six months later.

So what was the precise nature of Adolphus’s manic behaviour? Was it hereditary madness, or schizophrenia; or, as seems more likely, delirium tremens brought on by chronic alcoholism. Rumours of hereditary madness in the Londonderry family had lingered ever since the suicide in 1822 of Lord Londonderry’s half-brother, Lord Castlereagh after displaying fits of paranoia. Adolphus’s older half brother Frederick, the 4th Marquess of Londonderry (by Charles Stewart’s first wife) was also diagnosed with mental illness in the summer of 1862 (the result of tertiary syphilis contracted in the brothels of London during his misspent youth) and confined long-term to a private mental institution – White Rock Pavilion in Hastings – where he died in 1872.


The Prince of Wales Comforts the Grieving Widow

In April 1866 false rumours circulated that the widowed Susan was about to get married again – to James Colborne, 2nd Baron Seaton, who had lost his wife in 1863, but this was quickly scotched. By now she had begun to rebuild her life and was seen at the Royal Italian Opera in Covent Garden and at various high society gatherings honoured by the presence of Bertie, the Prince of Wales and his wife Alexandra. At some point she began receiving sympathy calls at her Regency terraced home in Chapel Street, Belgravia from Bertie, whom she knew through her friendship with his sister Vicky. As one Bertie biographer, Stanley Weinbtraub, put it, by 1867 the Prince of Wales was ‘consoling her between the sheets’. Over the course of the next three years, the very vulnerable Lady Susan was one of Bertie’s occasional mistresses.

She was already about five or six months pregnant when she finally plucked up the courage, in the autumn of 1871 to write and tell him of her terrible predicament, having wished to save him from any ‘annoyance’. She had even tried to abort the child. By this time Bertie had moved on, and callously refused to see her. Worse, he blamed her for not telling him sooner, and demanded that she have an abortion. ‘Too late and too dangerous’ was Susan’s brave response to him, after she was visited, at Bertie’s insistence, by his Surgeon-in-Ordinary, Oscar Clayton. Clayton, a Harley Street society doctor (and probably discreet abortionist), could see that the pregnancy was too far advanced.

Lady Susan’s Secret Pregnancy

Seeing her terrible distress, a friend of Susan’s, Mrs Harriet Whatman, tried her best to intercede and wrote to Bertie on her behalf beseeching him to help her financially – say to the tune of £250 – for Susan was in desperate straits, without money and without friends, bar Harriet, who were privy to her secret. More pointedly Susan herself wrote to Bertie that she needed money in order not just to cover her expenses but also to ‘buy the discretion of servants’ so that she could protect her ‘sad secret’.

Susan meanwhile needed to rent a house where she could give birth away from public scrutiny. She could not understand why, when Bertie was in London, he had not gone to visit her. ‘What have I done to offend you?,’ she pleaded. She begged him to come and see her but to his shame Bertie ignored her plaintive letters and left it to his private secretary Francis Knollys. She never received a word of support or sympathy from the prince. One wonders how many people had to be paid off, for the scandal appears not to have percolated down to the press. No doubt the powers that be at Windsor – namely Knollys – ensured that it was hushed up and it is possible that even Queen Victoria did not know of Lady Susan’s misfortune.

The Lost Child

Lady Susan went to sit out her pregnancy at a rented house at 26 Wellington Crescent in Ramsgate, where she may have given birth in December of 1871. Afterwards she became very unwell for some time and Dr Clayton visited her. She was grovellingly grateful to him for being ‘most kind in coming to look after me’. But we know nothing of the fate of her baby: when and where exactly it was born, its sex (some say it was a boy), or whether it was even given a name. Its birth, if registered, may well have been under a pseudonym; whether it survived seems unlikely.

Did any members of the Londonderry family find out about Bertie’s baby; or Susan’s Pelham-Clinton relatives? Did her maid, 22-year-old Mary Turner, recorded at Chapel Street with her on census night, 2 April 1871, know her secret? And could the child have been passed off as hers? For in a letter Susan alluded to ‘my little maid’s event will be about the same time as my own’, suggesting she had a contingency plan in place. The record is silent unfortunately, but Lady Susan’s baby remains the only known illegitimate child fathered by the Prince of Wales whose existence is acknowledged in the written record. Historian Giles St Aubyn first revealed it in a biography of Bertie in 1979 when he obtained access to her letters.

What is particularly poignant and curious about this story is that, despite King Edward, as he then was, ordering the destruction of all his private papers on his death, those received from Lady Susan were, for some reason, carefully preserved and survive in the Royal Archives.

Refuge – and belated acclaim – in France

After the birth, Susan returned to her home at 20 Chapel Street and never said a word. At some point she removed herself entirely from English society, where perhaps there were lingering rumours – to France, where she seems to have enjoyed something of a revival in her social position. The French press noted her presence at a ball held by Empress Eugénie in Paris in 1869, as did the Durham County Advertiser, which gushed that Lady Susan – ‘about whom all the French were raving as usual’ – danced with the Emperor, Louis Napoleon. ‘Dressed in black, and with a crescent à la Diana on her head, this representative of British beauty, which is not to be beaten in any ball-room in any capital of Europe, looked splendid, and was admired accordingly.’ During these final years Susan seems to have divided her time between Paris and the fashionable resort of Trouville on the Normandy coast. But, sadly, she died there prematurely, aged only 36 of rheumatic fever on 6 September 1875. Out of misplaced loyalty, she had taken the secret of her lost baby to the grave in order to protect the worthless and undeserving Prince of Wales. Is it possible, though, that Susan had gone to Trouville in faint hope of crossing paths again with Bertie and rekindling his affections? Trouville was somewhere he often went on yachting excursions. He was certainly there in August 1872.

Lady Susan’s final years may well have been sad and lonely, marred by ill health and clouded by the opiates to which she had become addicted. There is no word on her after the summer of 1869 until the brief press announcement of her death in September 1871. Her body was brought back to England where she was buried, alongside Adolphus, on 15 September in the Londonderry mausoleum at St Mary’s Long Newton, County Durham.

Another Pelham-Clinton Scandal

There is a final twist to this sad and sorry story, for in the midst of Lady Susan’s difficulties, the Pelham-Clinton family was involved in another scandal when, in 1870 her brother Arthur, who was Liberal MP for Newark, was embroiled in the Fanny and Stella scandal. This came to court when two gay friends Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park who enjoyed cross dressing, and took the great risk of going out in public dressed as women, were arraigned on charges of committing an unnatural offence and accused of sodomy. Drawn into the scandal were other homosexual friends in their circle including Susan’s brother, Arthur Pelham-Clinton, who had been in a relationship with Boulton.

However, the trial was postponed for a year, during which time Arthur went into hiding as ‘Captain Gray’ at an inn at Lymington near Chichester, where he spent most of his time fishing. Here he apparently contracted scarlet fever, and died aged 30 on 18 June 1870. It is said that the doctors were bribed to say this to cover up his suicide, Clinton being unable to face the forthcoming trial. Rather too conveniently perhaps, Arthur’s body was immediately sealed in a lead coffin due to the ‘risk of infection’. Was this a ruse to fake his death? More recently Fanny and Stella biographer Neil McKenna has suggested that possibly Arthur was spirited away to France. Perhaps he hid out at Trouville? If so, is it remotely possible that Susan joined her brother there after losing her baby and that she did not die alone and utterly forgotten?

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