A haunting among ruins
The story goes that amongst the ruins of the now long forgotten stately home of Wanstead House, the lonely ghost of a wretched heiress wanders unable to rest. A tragic figure who either committed suicide or died from a broken heart. She walks the estate mourning her life and the love she held for a man who was never worthy of her.
The often seen ghost has long been reputed to be that of Catherine Tylney-Long, the last owner of Wanstead House. Although the haunting conjures up the traditional, romantic image of a doomed love affair, the little known story of the actual life and death of Catherine Tylney-Pole, an heiress, whose hand was once sought by all the most eligible men in the kingdom is even more poignant.
One of the grandest houses of its age
The Child family first leased the estate of Wanstead Park in 1667, owning it outright from 1678. Richard Child, first Viscount Castlemaine and later Earl Tylney of Castlemaine replaced the old house with an immense Palladian mansion and laid the foundations for the gardens. The house designed by Colen Campbell became famous in Essex for “the grandeur of its architecture, its commanding position, and the beauty of its surroundings”1. Sometime around 1731, Richard Child commissioned Hogarth to produce a conversation piece. Entitled “An Assembly at Wanstead House 1728-1731”, the painting of the sumptuous long ballroom was used as a vehicle to flaunt Child’s wealth with expensive sculptures, marble work, furniture and tapestries all visible in the top half of the painting.
Later generations embellished, developed and beautified the gardens, employing the most skilled and eminent landscape gardeners of the day.
“Wanstead house…is a large and magnificent structure, standing in an extensive park, and surrounded with gardens and pleasure grounds…The prospects from several of the apartments are extremely beautiful, and include a very extensive part of the surrounding country.”2
The importance of the park today is confirmed by its Grade II listed status with Dr Simon Thurley of English Heritage writing that it is “of immense importance, being one of the most significant Parks in England”.3
“The Pocket Venus”
James Long inherited Wanstead Park from his Uncle, Earl Tylney and took the family name. He had four children with his second wife Catherine Sydney Windsor. Sir James Long-Tylney died two months after the birth of his only son, also called James. James died shortly before his eleventh birthday and the Tylney and Long estates passed to his eldest sister, the 16-year-old Catherine. An acknowledged beauty of diminutive stature “pocket Venus” with a lovely, pious and gentle nature, it seems becoming an heiress was the worst thing that ever happened to her.
Recognised as the richest commoner in the kingdom with estimates of her wealth ranging from the ridiculous one million pound mark to the more sensible £300,000, not surprisingly, Catherine suddenly saw herself at the centre of a lot of male attention. Her popularity was parodied using lines from Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield “Man wants but little here below, But wants that little long”4. On her début a paper reported “Lady Catherine Tylney-Long commenced her career in the fashionable world on Monday night in Grosvenor square with a splendid ball. Her ladyship possesses an immense fortune”5. It was reputed that whenever she drove around the park, she was accompanied by a bevy of suitors who rode around her carriage as guards around a king. Her most ardent admirers included Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates, an eccentric who was considered the vainest man of his day and the Duke of Clarence, whose proposal Catherine turned down, afraid that he was only after her money. Possibly fear of fortune hunters was the reason that Catherine did not marry until she was 22. Unfortunately when she did, she made a terrible mistake and in the end chose the sort of man she had tried so hard to avoid.
Enter William Wellesley-Pole
Born in Ireland to one of the most eminent families in the kingdom, his uncle being none other than the Duke of Wellington, William was reported to have been a wild, difficult child, resistant to any attempts to educate him. In his mid-teens he ran up considerable debts. His family bought him a commission in the army which he seems to have promptly resigned (possibly due to his inability to listen to authority) and decided to go into politics. A failure in this too and after losing a lot of money into the bargain, William decided the only answer to his problems was to marry an heiress and so unlucky for her, he set his sights on Catherine Tylney-Pole. William proposed to Catherine seven times, why she finally changed her mind is not really known as it appears that the decision was made against her better judgement and in spite of her mother’s concerns. Maybe he just wore down her defences, maybe in the end she succumbed to his dubious charms or maybe his powerful family put pressure on her to accept. One story following the tradition of all the best romantic fiction relates that it was only after she learnt that he had fought a duel in her name, possibly in her mind proving the verity of his feelings that she finally agreed to marry him. The groom forgetting the wedding ring seems with hindsight to bode ill for their future but on the 14 March 1812 at St James’s in London with the bride wearing a wedding outfit of real Brussels’ point lace and a necklace worth 25,000 guineas, she became Catherine Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley and he secured a life’s interest in his wife’s estate.
Although at the beginning they seemed happy, it was not long before William went back to his dissipated ways and scandalous rumours started to surface. The couple decided that Wanstead House needed modernising and begun an extravagant and expensive refurbishment which as one paper reported
“is fitting up Wanstead House in a style of magnificence exceeding even Carlton House“ 6
It was also reported that William entertained with lavish parties from which his wife was excluded and magnificent suppers after the opera, gambled outrageously, hosted extravagant stag hunts and spread sovereigns around field workers like confetti.
Failed expensive political campaigns did even more damage to their finances and in a bid to generate more funds William mortgaged the marriage settlement trust which included Wanstead House and its contents. In just over ten years, William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley had run through his wife’s immense fortune. With a debt of £250,000, William ever ready to shirk responsibility claimed
“I found that I had been robbed to an enormous amount by the person who had the control and management of my large expenditure at Wanstead for upwards of three years” 7
The only recourse the family had to escape their debtors was to flee to the continent.
Whilst abroad William unsurprisingly did not have a sudden crisis of conscience instead his behaviour towards his wife continued to worsen. In Italy he became involved with Helen Paterson-Blight, the wife of an ailing captain of the Coldstream Guards and the protégé and according to rumours started by William himself, the natural daughter of the Duke of Wellington. Forced to leave her family and home, made destitute and now humiliated by William, Catherine tried to mitigate any further disgrace by buying off her rival. Failing, Catherine gave up and returned to England with her four children to seek a permanent separation from her husband.
The end of Wanstead House
In order to pay their debts, Catherine had no choice but to put the Wanstead Estate up for sale. First the contents were auctioned and when the house itself failed to generate any interest after 32 days, it was pulled down and the timber and fabric sold. A house which had cost £360,000 to build in the end sold for just £10,000.
“The highest ornament of the age”
In 1825, in order to protect her children and prevent them from ever suffering at the hands of their father again, Catherine made them Wards in Chancery and started divorce proceedings. A few months later, Catherine fell ill, fearing again for her children’s future security she changed her will in favour of them, disinheriting her husband. Her dying wish was that they should never see their father again. She died at the age of 35 years on the 12 September 1825 at the family’s seat of Draycott where she was buried.
Her family and friends believed that her death was hastened by the fear of losing her children and her husband’s harassment. There is a strong possibility that she was suffering from an inflammation of the bowels caused by a venereal disease, a final parting gift from William!
A number of obituaries were published on her passing. The tragedy of her life and death seemed to saddened society. She was called “one of the highest ornaments of the age in which she lived”8 and Sir George Dallas writing a beautiful epitaph in her memory praised her beauty, piety and virtue, “Few of her sex ever commenced life with more brilliant, prospects, or closed it under a darker cloud”9. It was Bell’s Life for Sporting which pithily summed up her life, “Let her fate be a warning to all of her sex, who blessed with affluence, think the buzzing throng which surround them have hearts, when, in fact they have none”10.
The death of a scoundrel
William fell even further into debt after being sued in 1827 by the Captain Thomas Bligh for criminal conversation with his wife. Bligh was awarded damages in the amount of £6000 and filed for divorce. William married Harriet but soon fell into his old habits, frittering away her fortune, having affairs and leaving her destitute (records reveal that in 1847 she was claiming poor relief). Vilified in the press and cast out by his family, denied the rights of a father and excluded from society, William spent the last three decades in poverty and obscurity. He died in 1857 in cheap lodgings of heart failure at the age of 69 whilst eating a boiled egg. A newspaper obituary notice had no qualms about talking ill of the dead,
“A spendthrift, a profligate, and gambler in his youth, he became a debauchee in his manhood…Redeemed by no single virtue, adorned by no single grace, his life has gone out without a flicker of repentance”11
A final thought
The only remains which survive of the palatial house and magnificent gardens are a building known as The Temple and the Wanstead Grotto. Built in the mid-18th century, the grotto as part of an overall design for the gardens, the aim of which was to create the illusion of a romantic and ethereal world. The main chamber of the grotto was used as a boathouse which opened directly onto the lake. In 1884 it was destroyed by a fire and only a small part survived.
Maybe to some extent Catherine did die of a broken heart but if her ghost does wander the park and grotto she does so not out of grief for her husband but out of sadness for a promising life that went so tragically wrong and the part she played in the destruction of her beautiful ancestral home.
1 A description of Wanstead House and its park in 1819,
2 The New British Traveller (1819)
3 Welcome to the Friends of Wanstead Parklands
4 The Lady Victoria Tylney Long Wellesley: A memoir,
5 Wanstead Park
6 The Owners of Wanstead Park: Part 10 1784-1825
7 The Owners of Wanstead Park: Part 10 1784-1825
8 The Lady Victoria Tylney Long Wellesley: A memoir
9 Beaux of the Regency
10 Earls before Swine
11 The Morning Chronicle, 4 July 1857
Friends of Wanstead Parklands, http://www.wansteadpark.org.uk
The New British Traveller (1819), James Dugdale
Beaux of the Regency, Lewis Melville
A description of Wanstead House and its park in 1819, http://www.wansteadpark.org.uk/hist/a-description-of-wanstead-house-and-its-park-in-1819/
The Lady Victoria Tylney Long Wellesley: A memoir, www.archive.org/stream/ladyvictoriatyln00barrich/ladyvictoriatyln00barrich_djvu.text
Earls before Swine, www.marylebone.journal.com/history/earls-before-swine
The Owners of Wanstead Park: Part 10 1784-1825, www.wansteadpark.org.uk