Laura BELL was born at Glenavy, Co. Antrim, but there is an argument about the date of her birth. It was either in 1829 or 1832 and she was of a fairly prosperous family whose roots were well in the ground. Her father Robert H. Bell, of Glenconway, near Glenavy, was a bailiff on the Irish Estates of the Marquis of Hertford. This fact has given rise to some speculation about her actual antecedents. There are those who claim she was a natural daughter of the Third Marquis, and that he either arranged with Robert H. Bell to accept her as his own daughter, or alternatively, he seduced Laura's mother and forced Bell into marriage with her. These are, or course, idle speculations and so far there has been nothing in writing to confirm them, but then the Seymour family were notorious for covering up their tracts particularly if it was anything to their discredit.
Much of this speculation stems from this fact. In one of my earlier talks to this Society I referred to the growth of billiard rooms in the great houses of England. It was done to afford amusement to the Prince of Wales who was very fond of billiards as a pastime and he expected a billiard room in any house he visited. As he was continuously on the trot from one country house to another, a billiards room became the thing to have in one's castle or mansion; it was taken as a sign that Royalty had visited the place - a status symbol just as the television aerial in the early days of that medium outside a home was a similar symbol. It was not unknown for families who could not really afford to have a television to get the aerial erected which was an indication to the world that they were as good as their neighbours the Jones.
So with the billiard rooms in the country houses of England in the Victoria era. And Hertford House in London was no exception to the general rule. There was a billiard room there (it is now Gallery X of the Wallace Collection containing paintings of the 14th to the 17th centuries, mainly from the schools of Northern Italy) and the sole picture in it was a portrait of Laura Bell, possibly by the artist Girard. It can still be admired in the Wallace Collection, but what was a portrait of Laura Bell doing in the billiard room of Hertford House? Apart from the fact that a pretty woman might inspire the players to even greater endeavours, there seems no apparent reason why Laura's portrait should be there. So far as the records go she does not appear to have had any association whatever with either the 4th Marquess (who spent most of his time in Paris anyway) nor with Sir Richard Wallace, whose name has never been linked with any demi-monde. It is a mystery to which no answer is obvious but it has given rise to the speculations I have outlined.
Laura Bell was also the model for the famous portrait entitled "The Nun", I think by Millais. If ever you see this portrait and look upon it you will know you are gazing at the beautiful features of Laura Bell, the girl from Glenavy.
Her childhood over, Laura in the 'forties of last century got employment in a Belfast store as a shop girl. It is likely that she lived in the store because the larger emporiums provided living accommodation for the shop girls; We do not know what Belfast store it was, but it would appear that she was in the Mourning Department. You will recall that when I spoke to you ,a year or two ago I referred to this feature of general stores 75 or 100 years ago. In every large drapery establishment there was one of these departments where the bereaved in the family- for at least six months after the death and then in the next six months the black could be relieved by certain light grey adornments like lace, or belts and sometimes stockings. A great trade was done in this mourning business. It reached its climax in Queen Victoria's reign with the death of her Prince Consort husband in 1861. She was to wear widow's weeds to the end of her long life, and she thus strengthened the mourning fashion, which continued until the Great War. After that conflict it began to fade until today it no longer exists.
It is said that Laura combined a selective prostitution on the side to supplement her income, and from this after-hours' activity she accumulated a useful sum of money. She decided to transfer her allegiance to Dublin, then the centre of much elegance and high living as the capital city of Ireland and the seat of its Government. This brought a wide variety of people to Dublin, and it was amongst this type of man that Laura hoped to develop her skills as a prospective courtesan.
She was still in her teens when she went to Dublin which if we accept her year of birth as 1829 would make the year of her transfer to Dublin 1847 or 1848.
A girl as attractive as Laura was, would not be long until she was noticed and, indeed, she caused quite a stir in that city. She bought herself a barouche-a four-wheeled horsedrawn carriage with collapsible half hood. She needed some such equipment to project herself amongst the promising clientele in Dublin, and while a barouche was not the Rolls Royce of that stately age of horse and carriage it might be classed as the Princess class. Laura would appear to have done quite well for herself in the short time she was a shop girl in Belfast.
Naturally she was soon the talk of the town and all the young bloods were out on her trail when ever it was known she was riding abroad or was in the Phoenix Park. One of her conquests was the famous doctor and antiquarian, William Wilde, the father of the playwright, Oscar Wilde, whom from his very early years in practice in Dublin developed an insatiable appetite for young ladies. As his years progressed so his passion became fiercer for younger and younger girls. Laura's youthful beauty fascinated him and she gave him her favours - at a price. It was just one of these young girls who was his patient which brought about the ruin of William Wilde in his old age but he had had a long run for his money.
Dublin was but a step along the road. London was
Laura's goal; she was soon to get there, and although she returned to
Glenavy on one occasion, henceforth her career took its unusual shape in
the Empire's capital.
Here a word about Laura's profession in the mid-Victorian era. We are apt to think of the English people at that time as highly religious, flocking to their churches on Sunday, which they filled to overflowing in a way that is unknown today, for religion had a firm hold on the hearts and minds of many. The era produced some of the greatest evangelists known in English history - Spurgeon in his citadel at Elephant and Castle, William Booth campaigning and preaching amongst the poor in the East End of London, Moody and Sanky from America, and so on. But it was really the newly-created middle-class which the industrial Revolution had made if not wealthy at any rate comfortably off who created this legend of religiosity. The aristocrats followed the form they had adopted for centuries and from amongst the working classes there flowed almost like a torrent, women ready to offer themselves as prostitutes to Dukes and Earls alike for a certain price. The Victorian era was not all it seemed to be for even in those middle-class circles which created what is known to history as the English Nonconformist conscience there were to be found those who under cover of darkness forgot their religious and moral ties in the pursuit of eroticism. Henry Mayhew, a noted social worker in 1862 produced a volume based on his investigations into the conditions of the labouring and poor classes of London. He produced a figure of 80,000 prostitutes at that time in the city of London, and the Lancet, which also gave some earnest considerations to this question, stated that one house in every 60 in London was a brothel and there was a labour force of 80,000 to keep them in business! Mayhew also provides the interesting information that the number of disorderly prostitutes in custody had risen from 2,502 in 1850 to 3,735 in 1860.
However, the piece of information which interests us most in our study of this lass from Glenavy is Mayhew's assessment of the prostitute profession. He divided it into three categories. The first was the high-class kept women (some of whom became famous) with their villas, carriages and gorgeous clothes, the mistresses of successive or simultaneous rich gentlemen; the second included the women who rented rooms and maintained themselves, or tried to, in the areas surrounding Piccadilly and who paraded in certain of the streets in that part of London "rustling in silks and satins and waving in laces" as one writer so graphically put it. The third category were the brothel dwellers and older, worn-out women who plied their wares on the footpaths and side streets of London.
It was to the first category that Laura belonged as also did Lily Langtry, whose career we have been following recently on television. The most famous of these highly rated courtesans was known Catherine Walters, who was born in Liverpool and who became internationally known by her pet name of "Skittles". She studied Laura's career in London for Laura was some years her senior and benefited as a result. The picturesque life of "Skittles" has little association with the career of Laura Bell for their paths do not seem to have crossed, but one or two incidents in her career might be interesting and relevant. Like Lily Langtry she was for a time the mistress of King Edward V11 when he was Prince of Wales and he often visited her house in South Street in the West End of London which was delightfully furnished. It had been provided for her by a succession of lovers and here "Skittles" was to die in 1920. The great romance of her life was with Lord Hartington, one of the Devonshire family and a leading Whig who with Gladstone fashioned the modern Liberal Party which was in power in England almost continuously from 1846 until 1874 when Disraeli won his great victory at the polls and thus formed the first Tory administration with an overall majority in the House of Commons since Peel's Government of 1841.
Harrington was high in the counsels of the Liberal Party but when the first Irish Home Rule Bill was presented to the Commons by Gladstone in 1886 he and a number of other Liberals, henceforth to be known as the Liberal-Unionists, declined to support the Bill which was defeated on its Second Reading by a majority of 90. It was only when Hartington in 1894, by then the eighth Duke of Devonshire, accepted office in Lord Salisbury's famous administration that the Liberal-Unionists disappeared within the Tory Party. He died at Cannes in 1908. "The Duke" as he was subsequently called, wielded enormous influence in the country and was one of the most popular figures in Britain. People were amused at his lethargic manner and were quite happy to believe the story that he actually yawned when making his maiden speech in the House of Commons. With singular perspicacity Disraeli remarked to a neighbour "That young man will go far". As indeed he did.
In his Commons days the eighth Duke was known as "Harty-Tarty". He first met "Skittles" when he was a young man and for a time she was his mistress. As a result he arranged for her to have £2,000 a year from the Devonshire Estate which was acknowledged by the family as a debt of honour, for on "Harty-Tarty's" death they decided the bounty must continue to be paid and it was until the death of "Skittles" herself.
"Harty-Tarty" had another mistress in the side wings and she watched with astuteness the developing liaison between her lover and "Skittles". She had some very potent weapons with which to fight this battle, the first of which was her high place in society. Lottie, Duchess of Manchester, was a formidable opponent in this struggle for the soul and body of a man as famous as Lord Hartington. Against her "Skittles" had little chance. Lottie snared him away from her and back to herself. He remained faithful to her as his mistress until the fullness of time the Duchess was given relief by death from her marriage tie with the Duke (whom she is supposed never to have loved) and on 16th August, 1892 she married her lover of many years, now the 8th Duke of Devonshire. It will be recalled that the Manchester family owned the Tandragee estate here in Northern Ireland from which they derived the greater part of their wealth. Another to whom "Skittles" was mistress for a time was Louis Napoleon of France, but then he was one of the outstanding roues of the Victorian days and few attractive women were safe when he was around. Laura Bell was another on whom he showered his favours.
Let us now see how the subject of this
talk fared in her early days in London. First, she found employment - in
Jay's General Mourning House in Regent Street. It was remarked that
nowhere might a young girl look more demure and innocent than in such a
setting of darkness and sadness. Certainly one as pretty as Laura
scintillated in such surrounding and this establishment was to play an
important part in her life as we shall see.
She did not waste all her talents and beauty in a mourning parlour. There was much else for one like her to do. If she was to make her mark in the highly competitive field of demi-monde then she had to be about her business. Dublin had provided her with a tidy sum of money and she invested some of this in a smart little phaeton - a light four wheeled open carriage usually drawn by two horses. Laura's were white in colour.
One observer of the scene had left us this delightful picture of Laura Bell:
"It was Laura Bell's aim to cut a dash and this she certainly succeeded in doing. She had a small doll-like face, piquant and provocative, big blue eyes, a strawberry-and-cream complexion, cascades of glorious golden hair, the most shapely pair of shoulders in London, and a soft and persuasive voice. She was, in short, well armed for her attack upon male susceptibility. Hyde Park she adopted as her show-room wherein to display her charms and in Hyde Park when she went riding or driving she invariably caused a sensation. She drove daily in the park with a 'tiger' (a youthful page in a waist coat of black and yellow stripes and a tall cockaded hat) sitting up proudly behind her, whose function was to help her alight and stand at the horses' head after she had done so".
Rotten Row in Hyde Park was the place where all the toffs and swells rode their horses, as we saw recently from the Lily Langtry series, and anyone who was anyone was to be seen there. Laura had one great skill which few women like her possessed -she was a fine horsewoman who could command the most spirited horses and bring them tightly under control. In this she had no superior in Rotten Row. No doubt this was something she learned on her father's farm in Glenavy because the horse in those days was the power house on the farm.
Says another writer of those days:
"She had a rare flair for showmanship and it was her custom, when visiting the Opera, to delay her entrance until the last minute and then to sweep in with the grace and assurance of a prima donna, which invariably caused every eye in the house to be fixed upon her. She was quick-witted, intelligent and eloquent and persuasive talker who could command an audience in whatever company she found herself".
We get another glimpse of the striking Laura from the pen of Sir William Hardman, a kind of Pepys of Victorian times. He had been called to the Bar in 1852 and was Chairman of Surrey Quarter Sessions from 1865 to 1890. From 1872 until he died in 1890 he was Editor of the Morning Post, an ultra Tory Journal, and had been Mayor of Kingston-on-Thames for a period. He surveyed the London scene with a critical eye and as the Editor of a national paper he had insights into affairs usually withheld from others. His diary was really a series of letters written over years without any thought of publication to a Cambridge University friend who had gone to Australia. The recipient kept the letters and after Hardman's death they were edited and produced in 1923 under the title of "The Letters and Memoirs of Sir William Hardman, M.A., F.R.G.S." His eagle-eye missed very little in the social and political life of London.
As a `boy about town' he wrote, "I remember several notorious Hetaerae being pointed out to me as they rode in spanking style in the Row and were driven in open Landaus or charioteered themselves about Hyde Park in the season. The most memorable of these was Laura Bell. Clearly I do call to mind Laura's pretty, doll-like face, her big eyes, not ignorant of an artistic touch that added a lustre to their natural brilliance and her quick, vivacious glances as she sat in an open phaeton, vivaciously talking with a variety of men, all swells of the period, of course, at the corner of the drive near the Achilles statue, while her smart little `tiger' stood at the horses' head. What strange stories I used to hear of her recklessness, her prodigality, her luxury and her cleverness".
A great deal of this applies to the time after she left Jays in Regent Street, but it was because she was working there that she scored her first and one of her greatest triumphs. He was Jung Bahadoor of Nepal and he entered Jay's General Mourning House for some item of black and fell, hook, line and sinker for the beautiful girl who served him. (In parenthesis those who heard me speak on the life of Sir Richard Wallace two years who will recall that a like experience befell him. He visited one of these establishments in Paris and succumbed to the charms of the lady who served. She became his mistress for 24 years and the father of his only son. Only on the death of the 4th Marquess of Hertford did he marry the woman with whom he had lived for so long).
Laura made the most of this heaven-sent opportunity and it established her amongst the leading demi-mondes of her day. From this time onwards she never looked back.
Jung Bahadoor was born in Nepal on 18th June 1817
and was heir to position of Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of
that kingdom. Unlike Western Countries, these positions were inherited
from father to son and only when the family died out or the heir was not
interested did they pass to another family. Bahadoor was heir to great
wealth as well.
At this time the British Government were greatly interested in everything concerning Nepal and they were trying by diplomatic means to establish a kind of buffer state between the Dominion of India and Russia, then as now the enfant terrible of international politics. Their eye fell on Jung Bahadoor, a well educated and athletic young man, who was obviously going to play an important part in his country's future and was well worth cultivating. It seemed good politics and a safe insurance for the future to win his respect, his confidence and his gratitude. So he was invited to visit England as a guest of the Government (which was in the event to prove rather costly). Thus it was he came to land at Southampton on 25th May, 1850 not so very long after Laura Bell had reached London in the dual role of shop girl in mourning and a demi-monde.
Bahadoor's biographer (his son incidentally) tells how his father was feted by the India Office and invitations began to pour in from the flower of London society. Various kinds of entertainment were laid on for the visiting Prince and so many wanted to welcome this latest lion of London society to their homes that it became something of a problem for the distinguished visitor to keep so many engagements.
At first Bahadoor was unable to visit the Queen because of her accouchement through the birth of the Duke of Connaught, her second son and third child, but on the termination of her confinement a court drawing room afternoon was held at St. James Palace for Bahadoor on the afternoon of 19th June. A further piece of evidence of the importance that attached to this foreign envoy was that he was a guest of the Royal Family at the christening of the new Prince on 22nd June. He was also received by such distinguished people as the Prince Consort, the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell and the Duke of Wellington. Clearly the British Government was out to win this pleasant young man to their side in the struggle which was hotting up in Asiatic politics.
Bahadoor, who incidentally was twice married, despite all the pressure of his public and society engagements, found time to visit Jay's establishment very early in his visit, and Laura had no hesitation in accepting his advances. It is likely that that was the last Jay's saw of their bright shop girl. The young Nepalese envoy soon became her slave and lover. If she asked for the sky he got it for her! Laura found herself possessed of a fine house in Wilton Crescent in the very heart of Belgravia, the territory of the titled and enobied, close to Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly and Hyde Park. Everything she wanted by way of clothes, jewels and other treasures were laid willingly at her feet. Soon she was acknowledged as a wealthy young woman and she but 21 years of age. One writer of that age claims that in the short time that Laura was the mistress of Bahadoor she deprived her besotted, infatuated but foolish lover of a quarter of a million pounds. But the India Office, learning of the amazing outlay on a 21 year aid lass of her character, instead of holding up their hands in horror and hurrying the young man out of the land before he ruined himself and his country, actually later reimbursed him for his outlay on the golden-haired Laura, and no doubt in time they counted it money well spent in the programme of maintaining the warmth of British-Nepalese relations.
For Laura it was all too brief for it ended in August of the year it had begun - three short months and a quarter of a million pounds. One wonders now much she would have transferred to herself if it had lasted, say, a year. It is possible, or course, that in writing about this romance between a Nepalese Prince and a London shop girl some of the writers like Hardman inclined to exaggeration, for a sum of £250,000 in the matter of 90 days would take some beating in the history of the courtesans.
It was from this association that what Sir William Hardman has described as a picturesque story was told and indeed has been printed since in a number of forms. Before returning to Nepal the Prince, so runs the story, gave the lovely Laura a ring with a promise that if she ever desired his aid or services he would carry out her commands on receiving them with the ring as a token. No doubt so bewitched and fascinated was this young man with her that he might have made some gesture of the sort though in the cold light of reason when he had left these shores for home he no doubt regretted such a foolish commitment and decided to forget it.
There are two much publicised versions of what
happened next. One is that when the Indian Mutiny broke out in 1857
Laura sought an audience of the Prince of Wales and told him the story.
On his advice and with his aid, the ring was despatched to Jung Bahadoor
with a letter reminding him of his pledge in his amorous past and
begging him in view of that fond memory of happy days in London to grant
her one boom-to cast in his lot with the cause of England, which he did.
Because of her achievement it is said that King Edward VII "never
failed to show what gratitude he could to the lady who placed her
reputation at the service of her country".
Says Sir William:
"It is a touching romance, but there is unfortunately one weak spot in it. In 1857 the Prince of Wales was scarcely sixteen years of age and the rigid scheme of education he was then enduring under the supervision of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort certainly did not provide facilities for audiences with ladies of Laura Bell's order who desired to relate tender confidences of their unregenerate days".
The other version is that Laura herself made the approach to the India Office and that it was that Government Department which made overtures to the Nepalese Prince and through it the ring was able to swing the pro-English Bahadoor behind the British effort to overthrow the mutineers.
The whole thing seems a fanciful and patently untrue tale. The records in the museum of the India Office in London reveal that in May, 1857 "a few days after the first outbreak" in the Mutiny on hearing of it Jung Bahadoor offered the whole military resources of Nepal to the British Government in India. Thus Laura had very little time indeed to get that ring halfway round the world to her former lover for these were the days of journeys round the Cape and poor communications across India to Nepal. Even today it might take more than three days to get a package or a letter from London to Katmandu.
The offer made by Bahadoor was accepted on the spot by the British General and Bahadoor moved his forces to the frontier with India ready to march in support of the British when he received the word. But at this stage the Governor of India, Lord Canning declined the aid because he thought the presence of Nepalese troops arrayed against the native Indians would merely exacerbate a precarious situation particularly in regard to those other native chiefs and princes who to date had stood aloof. Says Bahadoor's biographer,
"He was surprised and he was heard to remark that he did not understand how England could expect to govern India with such agents".
As the situation deteriorated Lord Canning changed his mind and by the end of the following month was almost imploring Bahadoor to help his beleaguered forces now stretched to their utmost. Bahadoor hesitated no longer. On 2nd July six regiments of infantry were dispatched and one of the first achievements of the Nepalese infantry was the re-capture of Lucknow. Bahadoor resigned the premiership of his country to concentrate on being its Commander-in-Chief and led his men into battle. He proved eminently successful in handling his men in support of the British forces. Lord Canning thanked him personally for his help in defeating the mutineers and he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath. In 1873 he became a Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Star of India on its foundation.
He remained true to the British connection all his days. The British had no more loyal ally anywhere in the world and how much this was because of Laura Bell and what she meant to him for those splendid three months in 1850 in London is anyone's guess. From this time, too, began the close association of the Ghurka regiments with the British Army of which they have, been an integral part. Even today they constitute regiments of our Army and Nepal still provides the men to man them. If Laura had any influence on her erstwhile lover so that the Ghurkas were incorporated in the British Army, then the British Government might well think that quarter of a million which they refunded to Bagadoor after his expensive dalliance with the golden haired beauty was money well spent.
I hardly think, however, that this justifies in any way the claim of a writer on a book in Ireland in which he asserted that General John Nicholson should be removed from his statue in Market Square and the lovely Laura placed on the plinth in his stead as the other person from this district who had a close association with the Indian Mutiny and who served the British Crown in a much more valuable way than did the hero of Delhi.
As a result of this liaison with Bahadoor, Laura did not lack admirers once he had left for home. From this time she entered fully into category one of the profession and she never lacked an escort. She lived in luxury in her house in Wilton Crescent and one of her admirers was a soldier by the name of Thistlethwayte whose mistress she became. When he went off to the Crimea War he left her in charge of his brother, Captain August Frederick Thistlethwayte, who was a man of some substance and of good breeding, for he was the grandson of Henry Bathurst, Bishop of Norwich and a relative of Earl Bathurst. In due time Laura insisted on Marriage with her protector after his brother was killed in the Crimea. They lived at 15 Grosvenor Square which was a commodious dwelling and in addition Thistlethwayte had an estate in Ross-shire in Scotland where each summer he organised shooting parties for his friends.
The marriage was not a particularly happy one, for
Laura proved as extravagant after her marriage as she had been before
and on several occasions her husband had notices published in the public
Press saying he would not in future be responsible for his wife's debts.
None of this in the least deterred the profligate Laura. The marriage
was in 1853 and lasted until 1887 when something of a sensation was
created by the manner of the death of the husband. He was obviously an
eccentric gentleman of uncertain habits. One of his most remarkable was
that when he wanted his valet instead of summoning him by the
traditional method of ringing a bell, he fired a revolver shot through
the ceiling. On9th August, 1887, he was the victim of a mysterious
accident. He was found shot in his bedroom and it was assumed that he
had accidentally shot himself while attempting to summon the valet.
Laura was now a wealthy woman possessed of a fine London house and a Scottish estate. She had also developed into one of the leading evangelists of the day. How the conversion from what Hardman described her as the Queen of London whoredom to a stirring evangelist came about is not clear yet, but some who knew her attributed it to, above all things, the parsimoniousness of her husband. By the 'sixties she had emerged as a fervent and eloquent preacher.
It is now that William Ewart Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of Britain, enters our story. Just what he got up to in his associations with the prostitutes of London of the street walker class is not easy to say. Those who were his political enemies interpreted it in its worst light; those who were his admirers and followers accepted what he himself said of it - it was an effort to win them away from immoral ways to a nobler and Christian fife. To achieve this he did not even deign to leave 10 Downing Street of an evening and wander amongst these denizens of the streets, talking to them, pleading with them, and even bringing them home to tea. He often maintained that even the prostitute was only waiting to be saved, a belief which was fully justified in the case of Laura Bell. The reformation of this well-known courtesan was as sensational as anything she had ever accomplished in her life before. There were those who forecast that it would not last; that soon she would be back to her old ways, but they were wrong.
How she came to meet Gladstone is not recorded, but it was probably in one of London's drawing rooms because after her marriage despite her past, Laura moved in high society circles. Thereafter there developed a friendship between these two which was to last until Laura's death, a friendship in which the gracious Mrs. Gladstone was joined.
We get a fascinating view of Laura as an evangelist in the memoirs of Lady St. Helier who when she was young lived a great part of the year with an uncle and aunt in Rossshire where Thistlethwayte had his estate. She revealed that when Thistlethwayte and his wife first came to the Scottish Highlands they were not received because of her notorious past, but then one day, after much persuasion but with certain reluctance, Lady Ashburton, Lady St. Helier's aunt, agreed to receive Mrs. Thistlethwayte. Lady St. Helier reveals how they as children were sent out of the house when the time came for the visit because Mrs. T. was someone who ought not to be coming to the house and the children must not meet her lest she might contaminate them. But Laura was not anything if she was not a woman of great personal charm and soon not only Lady Ashburton but all the county people of Ross-shire were eating out of her hand.
Lady St. Helier also tells us of the sensation caused throughout the countryside when it was announced that Mrs. T. would conduct a revival service in the little Free Church building near the home of the Ashburtons. At first the meetings were not well attended but curiosity eventually got the upper hand and the crowds started to flock to hear this woman evangelist. Here is Lady St. Helier's picturesque description of Laura as a preacher.
"The internal surroundings of the church did not lend themselves to any emotional effect, but Mrs. T. beautifully dressed, and standing at the end of the building so that all the light which entered through the small windows was thrown on her, illuminating the spot where she stood, poured out an impassioned address, eloquent and effective. She spoke with great facility, and with a good deal of emotion in her voice, and with an evident air of sincerity and personal conviction. This added to the remains of very great beauty, an influence largely increased by her great generosity to the poor people, made a vast impression in her congregation, and after the first meetings she succeeded in producing all the effects of other revival preachers, and many conversions were supposed to have been the result of her ministrations".
Her success amongst the rural folk of Ross-shire encouraged her to try out her talents in a larger centre of population and she chose the town of Dingwall, but here she ran up against the stern opposition of the Free Church minister and the elders of the kirk, who did their best by their presence at her meetings to interrupt the proceedings so that though the crowds gathered to hear her the meetings were disjointed and rowdy affairs, and she had to admit defeat after two of them. There were those who felt that she had received a raw deal and rushed to her support in the columns of the Inverness Courier and replies from the Free Church minister and others were printed. One was from Laura herself and here it is:
"Dear Sir, you will favour the cause of truth by kindly stating in your next report that I have not appeared in any pulpit here. At the request of many I have, through grace, humbly declared the plan of salvation by faith in a risen Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ my object being to enlighten the poor and not the rich. Dr. Beggs and Mr. Kennedy are both ignorant as to what the true Church of Christ is founded upon. It certainly is not bricks and mortar but living stones bought with the precious blood of a Lamb without a blemish".
And she finished off her letter with this signature:
"A sinner saved by grace through faith in the Lamb of God - L. Thistlethwayte."
We have another word picture of Mrs. T. at this time, again from the pen of Lady St. Helier:
"She was a very striking looking woman, and the large black mantilla which covered her masses of golden hair, the magnificent jewels she wore round her neck, and the flashing rings on her hands with which she gesticulated, added to the soft tones of a very beautiful voice and made a great impression on those who listened to her".
The anonymous author of Fifty Years of London Society described Mrs. T. thus:
"Her intellectual capacity was almost phenomenal and to this was added a very poetical imagination. Her appearance on the platform of the Polytechnic was a realisation of beauty and art. Mrs. Thistlethwayte was not much inferior to Spurgeon".
One who heard her preach at the Polytechnic in 1874 wrote of her:
"One notes the lustre of her beautiful eyes only surpassed by the sparkling of an array of large diamond rings which adorned her fingers as she raised them in eloquent exhortation to follow the road that alone leads to salvation".
Mrs. Thistlethwayte made her home in Grosvenor Square the headquarters of her mission and to her evangelical tea parties, which became famous in London society circles, came many godly men and women, including Gladstone and his wife. Gladstone remained on very confidential terms with her and after his Government lost power and he was in opposition again, it was at Mrs. Thistlethwayte's house that he and Mrs. G. stayed while they were in London. She also placed at his disposal her carriage and pair and, indeed, she often in person drove the Liberal statesman to many of his meetings and returned for him when they were over. No cloud overshadowed this friendship as it is evident from the fact that when the Old Man decided in 1892 that the time had come for him to retire from the Premiership she was told in confidence of his decision before even the Queen was informed.
Following the death of her husband in 1887, Laura gave up the lease of the Grosvenor Square house and moved to a cottage in Hampstead where the Gladstones remained her faithful friends and visited her frequently as well as staying with her. Right to the end she preached to large crowds, for she was always assured of an enthusiastic audience. She died in 1894 and she was buried in her husband's family vault in Paddington Green Cemetery in London where her grave can still be inspected. She lies beside her husband and her mother-in-law, the Bishop's daughter.
After her death amongst her possessions was found a large collection of letters written to her by Mr. Gladstone. Today these are housed in the Gladstone Library and Museum at Hawarden in North Wales, the country house of the Gladstone family. So far as I know they have never been studied and so an interesting task awaits some historian for I am sure these letters will reveal to us something more of the character of this amazing woman who first shocked London with her lovely shoulders and her cascading golden hair and went on to rouse the capital to religious fervour with her evangelism and her eloquence. Little wonder that Sir William Hardman, recalling her early life and conversion remarked, "But I have lived almost long enough to cease to wonder at anything, save great scientific discoveries".
(This paper was the basis of a talk to the Historical Society in Lisburn in the month of February, 1978 and deals briefly with the story of this Glenavy woman. In the diaries of Victorian England there are numerous other references to her and her life but this paper contains some of the most striking which grouped together point to a remarkable person of strong character and great powers of persuasion.
The paper was delivered by Mr. J. F. Burns, of Belfast, who from 1930 until 1943 was the Editor of the defunct Lisburn Standard and who during those years was a resident of the town.)