Thursday, January 28, 2016

History in the Streets: London

I hate London and I wish I were out of it.”

So wrote Lady Katherine Cochrane in one of her letters to her husband – she was apparently living in lodgings while her husband, Lord Thomas Cochrane, headed up the Greek navy in the nation’s bid for independence. When the bother of town became too much, her ladyship habitually took to the quiet of the Kent countryside. 

While I could appreciate Kate’s sentiments, I could not share them as I strolled the streets of London one quiet morning in October. I had dashed by bus, Tube, and foot from the edge of Hampstead Heath to make a pilgrimage to Regent’s Park. This had, after all, been Kate’s neighborhood.

Hanover Lodge, Regent's Park, London, 1827. Villa designed by architect John Nash.

She lived in the London of mad King George, and Beau Brummel, and Lord Byron and Caroline Lamb. This was the London of the fictitious Dashwood sisters, and where the unfortunate Lydia Bennett presumably lost her virtue to George Wickham. 

Though no such figures lurked about that Saturday morning, I could easily enough imagine them. London has the charm of being able to keep the past visible alongside the present. Regent’s Park itself was a product of that very era, named for the bon vivant Prince Regent, George Augustus Frederick, and originally envisioned an aristocratic enclave, with a palace for the prince and several villas for his friends.

No palace materialized from these grand schemes, but some of the villas did – Hanover Lodge among them. Here Kate and Thomas settled in 1833 with their two youngest children, several servants, and eventually, a pony. 

Regent's Park Canal. Regent's Park, London.

It is a magnificent setting. The waters of the Canal are quiet. A few plucky blackberries cling to briars along the pathway. The trees still have their leaves, and the air is warm enough that I loosen my jacket. London seems to have forgotten this corner of its boroughs, for I pass only a handful of joggers. It is as close to solitude as one may get in a city of millions.

I follow the path as far as I dare, though it is not the worry of walking too far alone in a foreign city that pulls me back, but the consciousness that a train that will take me to my next destination, Edinburgh, will be leaving King’s Cross station in a few hours, and I must be on it. I reluctantly leave the Park, and my window into the past, behind.

P.S. After returning to the States, I learned that Hanover Lodge is once again a private residence – this time, purchased by a shadowy Russian billionaire.

Letter held at the National Records of Scotland, GD233/13/6/1/3/8 (2). Cochrane, Katherine Barnes. 2 May, n.d.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Sifting the Historical Record

In my previous post, I introduced Katherine (aka Kate) Barnes Cochrane, intrepid traveler and mother of five, whose remarkable adventures are, in my humble opinion, enough to make her a candidate for inclusion on Badass of the Week. But tracking Kate across the pages of history requires luck, patience, and a good bit of metaphorical digging.  To my knowledge, no biography has ever been written about her. To get to know this woman – to unearth the “facts” of her life, to discover her voice – I turned to her paper trail.

Historical research isn’t just finding the right records – it’s knowing where to look. Google searches often turned up dead ends, or offered leads that didn’t seem entirely credible. One site, and even her headstone, suggest that Kate was born in 1796, making her just 16 years old when she married Thomas!

I was willing to bet that she was young, but not that young. 1794 seems a likelier year. She would then be about 18 when she wed Thomas in the summer of 1812. As for the month and date of her birthday, a letter from her husband offers a tantalizing hint. He writes, in a letter dated 12 October 1816, “Many happy returns to the day to my lovely Kate.” The greeting is often used for birthdays, and offers the best clue I’ve come across for Kate’s actual birth date.

According to Burke’s Peerage, Kate’s father, Thomas Barnes, lived in Romford, Essex. It seems likely that Kate spent her childhood in that town, connected to London via good coach roads and home to many thriving industries, including brewing and weaving. After her father died, Kate lived in the care of her aunt, a Mrs. Jackson. 

Portman Square, London, 1813.

While in her late teens, Kate resided in London with her aunt near the posh Portman Square neighborhood. A letter written during Kate’s adulthood suggests that her education was not all that she would have wished: How much more happy should I have been had I been brought up under the eye of a fond Mother, rather than by relations who only felt for me in the moment of childhood and left me to battle in ignorance and poverty my growing years.

It was in London that she met Thomas, and after several refusals, finally accepted his offer of marriage. Less than two years after their marriage, Thomas was convicted in a criminal case and sent to the King’s Bench prison. Kate remained in London with their infant son, visiting Thomas whenever she could and writing frequent letters.

Upon Thomas’ release and commission with the Chilean navy, Kate traveled with her husband throughout South America. Later, she also lived in several locations in Europe. Eventually, at some time during the 1830s, the couple separated. Kate moved to France, where she resided for a time in Paris (on the Champs Elysees!), and also in the seaside town of Boulogne.

Katherine Cochrane – by now Countess of Dundonald - died in France in 1865. Upon further investigation, I found that her body was brought back to England and buried in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin, Speldhurst, in Kent. (Her husband is interred at Westminster Abbey.)

Headstone of Katherine Cochrane, Countess of Dundonald. St. Mary the Virgin, Speldhurst, Kent.

Kent happens to be the location of my graduate studies at the University of Kent, but ironically, I did not learn of Kate’s story until I was on the wrong side of the pond. But I had been close, and like many good mysteries, it was only a matter of time until the clues unfolded.

First letter held at the National Records of Scotland, GD233/13/6/1/1/3. Cochrane, Thomas. 12 October 1816.

Second letter held at the National Records of Scotland, GD233/13/6/1/3/8 (2).  Cochrane, Katherine Barnes. 1828.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Enter Kate Cochrane

A secret elopement. Intrigues in South America. A knife fight with a would-be assassin. Crawls across rope bridges in the Andes. A four-month sea voyage with a teething infant.

Such adventures, one might think, would make a woman famous, especially if she undertook them all 200 years ago, when a woman’s chances of attempting even one such feat were considerably more circumscribed.

Kate Cochrane did them all.

I came across her accidentally – and I confess, through reading about her husband. (If you’ve ever seen the film Master and Commander, you’ve met one of Lord Thomas Cochrane’s literary counterparts in the figure of Jack Aubrey.) Kate is mentioned in one article as “a beautiful orphan, nearly twenty years his junior.” Reading further, I discovered that the couple had six children over the course of their marriage, and that Kate routinely crossed the Atlantic to accompany her husband on his naval campaigns.

Hot damn, I thought. Who is this woman? And why haven’t I heard about her until now?

Portrait of Katherine Cochrane, Countess of Dundonald, and her daughter Elizabeth.

Part of the reason, I think, is that historical records on Kate have serious gaps. For example, we don’t know what year she was born, or who her mother was (leading to speculation among some Cochrane biographers that she was illegitimate.) Her father died while Kate was young, and she spent her later childhood and teen years in the care of relatives.

Furthermore, with a larger-than-life figure like Thomas Cochrane for a husband – radical MP, eventual Earl of Dundonald, and author of multiple books, including two autobiographies – it is understandable, though unfortunate, that Kate’s story had been subsumed within her husband’s colorful career.

Toni Morrison once said this: “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”

So I started writing. And researching. And writing some more. I traveled to England and Scotland, retracing some of Kate’s time there. I walked the London neighborhood where she and Thomas eventually settled. I read some of Kate’s surviving letters, miraculously preserved in Scottish archives, and took a bus through Fife to see the Cochrane family home that Thomas and Kate visited in the autumn of 1825.

I’m still writing – still journeying, for writing is a journey – and finding the voice to tell of Kate’s adventures. Kate, like all of us, is more than the sum of her parts. More to come.