Thursday, April 24, 2014

Wives in the Shadow (2) - the other Ladies Swettenham

Lady Swettenham #2 (second wife of Sir Frank) is another elusive woman. She was born Vera Seton Gordon in 1890. Her first husband, Captain John Neil Guthrie, was killed during WW1 and, after living with him for many years, she finally married Sir Frank in 1939.

The 40-year age difference must have been a challenge even if Sir Frank continued to be an active and "witty raconteur" well into old age. Given his treatment of Lady #1, he was no doubt extremely controlling too. With the exception of some fuzzy wedding photographs taken outside Caxton Hall at the time of her marriage, there is nothing easily accessible that shows what she looked like. (See Straits Times archives here.)

After her death in 1970, some of her fashionable beachwear found its way into the collections at the Victoria & Albert Museum (all images copyright V&A)

Was Lady Vera just a shallow society gal at heart, content to be an accessory to a rich and powerful husband - a lower-status Duchess of Windsor? Or was there more substance to her? With little on the public record, it is impossible to say.

The third Lady Swettenham was born Mary Emily Copeland at Kibblestone Hall in Staffordshire in 1875, a descendant of famous families connected with the potteries, her mother a Wedgewood.

She was the sister-in-law of the obnoxious Sir Frank, and again the much younger wife of Sir James Alexander Swettenham, a man who put his foot in it well and good when he was the Governor of Jamaica and caused a diplomatic incident in upsetting the Americans who had arrived on that island in the wake of a massive earthquake in 1907 with the intention of helping out. Described by an observer as "nervous, irascible, stubborn and prone to fly off on a tangent", Sir Alexander saw it as bad manners for them to barge in without being formally invited, or perhaps he thought it was an excuse for some form of invasion in disguise. In any case, he gave them a frosty reception and the Americans took umbrage. Sir Alexander was hauled over the diplomatic coals. [This extraordinary episode is detailed in my other blog Digging the Dust.]

Lady Mary, however, gained better attention by helping out with the injured and homeless after the massive earthquake and rated highly with the Americans compared to her husband.
Lincoln County Leader April 26, 1907
Sir Alexander retired shortly after this fracas and from what little there is to be found on him, for the rest of his life he flitted between England, the South of France and Jamaica where they continued to live for much of the time. He died in a clinic in Switzerland in 1933.

Although factual reports are hard to find, apparently Lady Mary continued to be involved in hospitals and nursing, especially during the First World War. She outlived her husband and died in 1953 in the world-famous Empress Hotel at Victoria, British Columbia where she had lived for some years. 

This report of their marriage 1905 in the Straits Times shows that Sir James changed the date to avoid a solar eclipse as perhaps he thought it would cast a shadow over their marriage! There are more photographs of Lady Mary Swettenham in the National PortraitGallery, but they are not available to view online.

As with Ladies #1 and #2, Lady #3 had no children. With the insanity case against Lady #1 being brought initially as a result of her getting pregnant to another man, one has to wonder if both men had a fertility problem or there is some other reason for their lack of progeny. 

Given that Lady #3 was around 30 when she married a stuff-shirt man twice her age it was hardly likely to be a passionate love match and one can speculate as to her motivations. It was not at all unusual for middle-aged prominent men to marry in order to disguise sexual orientation or for women to go into such arrangements as a guarantee of future financial security for themselves. As her husband's British Probate astonishingly shows a measly five hundred odd pounds left to her in his Estate, one wonders if Lady Mary had to rely on her potteries family resources to get by for the next twenty years of her life.

Since my previous post on Lady Swettenham #1, I have found this interesting article - with a hitherto unseen photo - about her in another American newspaper of August 12, 1903

Note she is described as a "clever Englishwoman" and there is nothing in the slightest to give any hint of her impending insanity in the report .

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