Making Harmonious Music: Mary Laura Egerton (1845-1913)

Taking an intriguing book inscription as a starting point, Corey Estensen uses archival traces to bring forward new stories about women’s lives.

There are days when doing historical research is terribly frustrating: when every avenue pursued results in a dead end, and you begin to wonder why on Earth you chose to do this. Then there are the days when hunches work out, a nugget of information surfaces and you have a eureka moment which illuminates the sunny uplands. You encounter something about the past which no-one else has come upon. It feels wonderful! Recently I had one of those days – I put a name, and a life, to a face in a photograph, and began to relate a long-forgotten story.

While cataloguing some books at NT Tatton Park, I came across one which combined words and music, The Psalter with the canticles and hymns of the Church, pointed for chanting and set to appropriate chants, by the Reverend Sir Frederick Arthur Gore Ousley. It was well-used, with some annotation to the bars of music, and it bore an ownership inscription on the flyleaf:

Signature of Mary Laura Egerton from 1870.
Ownership signature in the Tatton Park Psalter. Image: author’s own.

It reminded me of an unidentified image I had seen elsewhere in the archives – of a young woman, seated at a harmonium. Harmoniums were small, portable organs, with the wind generated by foot pedals pumping air into bellows. Invented in the 1840s, they rapidly became an integral part of taking music, particularly religious music, to the masses. They were often used in workhouses for services, and I had mentally made a note of the photograph as something I might use for a talk on music in social history.

Black and white image of a young woman seated at a harmonium. Her hair is tied back and she looks out at the audience. She has one hand on the harmonium.
A young woman seated at a harmonium. Image courtesy of NT Tatton Park Archives.

Encountering the music book made me reconsider it. Perhaps the owner of the psalter, and the sitter, were the same? The book dated from around 1870, and the clothing in the photo placed it to roughly the same time. Tatton Park had its own parish church, and by the 1880s, a private chapel too: perfect places for a gentlewoman to perform. The great problem would be how to prove a connection, and how to discover who the woman was?

Researching the lives women lived – even upper-class ones, from well-documented families – is strewn with difficulty. It was common for girls to be left off lists of children, even to famous or titled parents. In aristocratic family trees it was always the boys who came first, for they would inherit; but girls, unless they married well, were superfluous. Families in the nineteenth century were often very large, with a high mortality rate. The same children’s names were recycled even within the same generation, as siblings died; and there was little standardisation of name spellings, or even the order in which Christian names were used. 

In addition to all those difficulties in tracing a life, there was also the problem that many well-born men and women actively discarded the name they were christened by. Someone baptised as, let’s say, Eleanor Elizabeth Anne, actually went by the name of Marcia, when writing letters to her friends and family. It’s all terribly confusing! 

In aristocratic family trees it was always the boys who came first, for they would inherit; but girls, unless they married well, were superfluous.

The name ‘Mary’ was very common in the nineteenth century – and in the Egerton family of Tatton Park, it was endemic. There were literally dozens of Marys; so many that I recalled one sad lady who used to sign the Visitor Book as ‘Mary VII’ – literally, as the seventh Mary in her branch of the family. The ubiquity of her name meant that I never did discover who she was. Use of a second Christian name could prove useful in identification; but in the signature I had, the only part that was legible was “Mary” and “Egerton”. The part in between could be read a variety of ways –initials? An abbreviation? Was it a “H”, or an “S”, or a “W”?

Thus, without much hope of success, I began to trawl through the very long list of Mary Egertons who were alive in the period 1850 – 1890. In The Library of Nineteenth Century Photography, an online image database, I  came across a photograph of two young women entitled ‘Lucy and Mary Egerton’. This was an image I had encountered before, as Lucy Egerton had gone on to marry the Lincolnshire MP Edward Stanhope, and had been a visitor to Tatton; she was also a fairly close relation, being a granddaughter of Tatton’s owner in the period 1806 – 1853. This image didn’t identify which girl was Lucy and which was Mary – presumably because they didn’t know – but something caught my attention about the girl on the right. She had the same receding chin and chipmunk cheeks of my harmonium player. Was this my Mary?

The image library identified the pair as “probably” Lucy Constance Egerton and Mary Laura Egerton, daughters of the Reverend Thomas Egerton (1809- 1847). The description gave Mary’s birth date as 1842, and described her as living in Yorkshire; but when I investigated the census returns using that date, hundreds of Mary Egertons popped up, yet none that would match her. By a process of elimination and sheer obstinate determination, I discovered that the  wrong date of birth was quoted. This is such a common feature of online biographical information – incorrect data is constantly passed around and repeated. Mary was in fact born in 1845; and once I knew that, and could access census data, I started to discover much more about her. All of this started to look very promising! 

Mary’s father was born at Tatton Park and had moved to Shropshire to become Rector of Middle Wallop. Having a father in the Church would certainly add credence to the idea that Mary would have learned to play the organ – but the problem was, her father died in 1847, when Mary was only two years old. Thomas had in fact returned to Tatton Park to die, having been seriously affected by catching scarlet fever while working as a minister among the sick. Scarlet fever, considered a mild childhood illness now, was a virulent killer virus then. Mary’s mother Charlotte never married again – judging by the grand houses the family moved between, she had no financial need to – but she did move back to her home county of Yorkshire. My records of Tatton Park’s guest lists 1884 – 1909 show that Mary Laura, and her wider family, continued to visit Tatton regularly after her father’s death. The last date I have for a visit from her was in June 1905.

Having traced Mary Laura through moves to Ruyton Hall, Shropshire, Aldwarke Hall in Ecclesfield, Bagshot Park in Surrey and Whitwell Hall in North Yorkshire, I finally traced her to Cliff House in Terrington, Yorkshire. After her mother died in 1894, Mary Laura finally bought a home of her own; and it was here, in a local history society article on the village of Terrington, that I finally found what I was looking for: that Mary Laura was musical, and that she played the organ!

“Mary was closely involved in the musical life of the village […] Rector Samuel Winbush records in his diary that, on one occasion, when he went to lunch at Cliff Hall, Miss Egerton played her organ”.

Terrington Archives, ‘Owners of Cliff Hall, Terrington – Mary Egerton 1899 to 1913’.

When Mary Laura died in 1913, an organ was presented to Terrington Church in memory of her, by her surviving sister Georgiana.

An organ from Terrington Church.
Terrington Church Organ. Image courtesy of Dave Webster, Flickr

Mary Laura didn’t just leave her book behind at Tatton – she also left, tucked inside, a hand-written copy of the playlist to one of her performances there.

Image of a manuscript playlist from Mary Laura's music book. The playlist is in Mary Laura's own hand and in pencil.
Mary Laura’s playlist. Image: author’s own.

At a time when any career for an upper-class woman was deeply discouraged, Mary Laura still managed to “perform” her music, in the only setting permitted to her: the churches and private chapels of country livings and Estates. I’ve really enjoyed allowing her to ‘play’ for us again!

Corey Estensen is a PhD researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University working towards a thesis on the WW1 career of Maurice, 4th Baron Egerton of Tatton; she also works part-time at NT Tatton Park, and are currently cataloguing books which to date have not been entered onto the National Trust’s database.

Power & Patriarchy is generously supported by: