It sounds like something from a bad romantic fiction. It’s the 1850s, and Henry the 7th Earl of Stamford, handsome, rich and powerful, heir to several estates scattered across the country, meets and pursues the beautiful Kitty Cocks. Kitty is not only a commoner but…wait for it…a bareback rider in a circus. Cast Keira Knightly and you’ve got yourself a Hollywood blockbuster in the making. Stick it on pen and paper, and it’d give Catherine Cookson a run for her money in historical improbability. But, it is most definitely a true and documented fact.
Kitty Cocks: She probably didn’t do much bareback riding in that garb!
Now, it was all very well for a gentleman to have his little flights of fancy, his bit on the side. The 1850s were, after all, a time of broadening horizons and Imperial conquests. But Henry married her. He brought his new wife back to the family’s stately home, the grand Dunham Massey in Cheshire; surrounded by art, fine clothes, and, of course, the state bed! Such riches Kitty had not known.
Henry the 7th Earl of Stamford: Great beard.
You can see Kitty’s Green Silk Room today, fabulously restored in the best of high Victorian taste at Dunham, now owned by the National Trust (click here). No expense was spared to make over the rooms to welcome the new bride. But as in any romantic plot, there had to be a twist. Local society was so scandalised that they snubbed poor Kitty, turning their backs on her at the Knutsford Races and refusing to pay any calls on the newlyweds. Reportedly furious, Henry packed their bags and fled to Enville, the Stamford estate in Staffordshire. It was 50 years before the family would return to Dunham.
The Green Silk Room at Dunham Massey: Enough to make you ‘green with envy’?
When it comes to class, crossing the boundaries has always been a taboo, but scandal is useful for historians. It provides stories that entertain, much like a soap opera. But perhaps more importantly, gossip can serve to gives measure of how ‘society’ thinks; a testing ground for progress. As for Henry’s family, they surely had to be a little relieved. Kitty, with all her sequinned allure, was, after all, his second wife. His first? The cleaner at his college digs.