A Biography of Julia Prinsep Stephen by Marion Dell.
© CC BY-NC-SA unless otherwise stated; image copyrights are listed in the credits and they are not licensed for re-use.
Julia: The end of her happiness (1870)
Julia was pregnant with her third child when her idyllic marriage to Herbert came to an abrupt end. He died suddenly while they were staying with Julia’s sister, Adeline Vaughan, and her husband Henry at their home, Upton Castle in Pembrokeshire.
Henry and Adeline Vaughan at Upton Castle
Julia’s sister, Adeline, had married Henry Halford Vaughan in 1856. They lived in Hampstead, near Julia and their parents, where the first five of their six children were born.1 In 1867 Henry decided to move his family from London to Upton Castle, in Wales, about four miles from the county town of Pembroke. They had possibly heard of the castle through connections with the owner, Captain Tasker-Evans, who shared Adeline’s Indian background. He was a nabob who, like many others, returned rich enough from his position in the East India Company to buy and renovate the castle and estate.
There are many reasons why Henry might have wanted to make such a radical move. It was certainly more convenient for his work as Clerk of Assize on the South Wales Circuit. He was also becoming tired of the bustle of London life and finding it increasingly expensive in his slightly straightened circumstances and with a growing family. Henry had surprisingly resigned his prestigious position as first Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford in 1858. He was appointed by the Prime Minister, Palmerston, to be a member of the Royal Commission examining the state of public schools, but his once very promising future seemed to be eluding him.
Henry had tried a number of ventures for financial and academic advancement, but all to no avail. Everything seemed to be going wrong for him. He had lost money in railway shares and turned to journalism as a source of income, but he was an academic writer, not a journalist. His always weak health became worse and in addition he was suffering with depression and severe insomnia.
Upton’s great attraction, for Henry, was its location. It is in a stunning position, on high ground at the head of a wooded valley with a stream which runs down to the Carew River and the wide estuary of Milford Haven. It is peaceful and sheltered from winds, and the estuary benefits from the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. It seemed ideal for Henry. It would be good for his health and give him the tranquillity and seclusion he felt he needed for his work. It was the perfect place to complete his ambitious philosophical treatise on the origin of moral ideas which he had already been working on for some 30 years. Henry and Adeline moved to Upton Castle in 1867 and remained there until their deaths.
Adeline was a loyal and devoted wife but this move took her and the children away from the supportive family network of her mother, her aunts and her sisters. Henry was almost sixty when they moved, but she was only 32. The change from London society and the bustle and gaiety of Little Holland House, and the constant visits to and from family and friends, must have been a huge adjustment.
Upton Castle was built in the thirteenth century. By the time the Vaughans leased it, the only remains of the original castle were a ruined gateway, three towers, some turrets and battlements and a great hall with a huge fireplace. Not long before the Vaughans moved in the owner, John Tasker Evans, had carried out major renovations and alterations, adding a new doorway and two new wings to the Norman ruins. The resulting house was hardly beautiful or elegant, but it did have a picturesque, gothic charm and must have appealed to the children and to Henry Vaughan’s sense of history.
The Vaughans, according to the twenty-one year lease,2 were to have ‘by admeasurements 66 acres and 19 perches or thereabouts’, at a rent of £132.10.0d a year. As well as the house there were extensive gardens, an orchard, a hop garden, numerous different pastures, arable land and woodland. The Vaughans also had the ‘exclusive use and enjoyment of the chapel on the said premises for burial in the interior thereof.’3
Henry loved the landscapes around the castle and decided to reinvent himself as a country gentleman, buying himself ‘a good strong velveteen shooting jacket with old fashioned pockets holding a little game and buttoning up to the chin’4 in order to look the part. However his dilatory attempts at farming were largely unsuccessful. He was not cut out for this active outdoor life. Increasingly he retired to his study where he surrounded himself with books. In the evenings he loved to play the violin to his adoring family.
Julia and Herbert’s visit
Julia and Herbert visited the Vaughans at Upton in September 1870. Adeline’s mother, Mia Jackson, had stayed the previous year but for Julia and Herbert this was probably a first visit and an eagerly awaited happy occasion. Though Adeline received almost daily letters from her mother, sisters and friends, she must have been starved of real companionship in an isolated castle in a very small parish. For financial reasons the Vaughans did not keep a carriage of their own and if they wanted to pay calls or go to the railway station four miles distant, a landau and pair of horses had to be ordered from Pembroke for the journey. It was something which had to be carefully planned and only for particular occasions.
Starved of society, Adeline would have relished the opportunity to catch up on all the London gossip and family news with her sister. Julia, heavily pregnant with her third child, would have enjoyed the quiet life style, resting in the sheltered walled garden or orchard. The sisters could relax leisurely together. Adeline had four domestic servants to run the house as well as a nursemaid and gardener.5 Julia would have taken her maid and nursemaid with her. George, then two and a half, and Stella, fifteen months, had their older cousins to play with. Augusta was nine, Margaret seven and William five. They were all able to celebrate Millicent’s fourth birthday together on September 16th. There were woodland walks, a river and pools for them all to explore. Paths meandered down to the estuary where they could paddle and swim in the warm water, or watch the ducks and flocks of birds on the mud flats at low tide.
Henry and Herbert were not close, but they shared a background in the law and had a number of friends and acquaintances in common. Both were good conversationalists. Henry would no doubt have enjoyed showing off his estate to Herbert, who loved walking and the outdoors.
Herbert Duckworth’s death
On the evening of Sunday 18th September this happy family gathering suddenly turned into a nightmare disaster. Herbert was seized with excruciating cramp like pains in his stomach. Isolated as they were it would have been difficult to get expert medical help quickly. A messenger would have had to ride on horseback. Two doctors did arrive but were unable to relieve the pain. Julia remained alone with Herbert as he struggled for his life, drifting into unconsciousness. Her concern was to shield him from the knowledge of what she was sure was his coming death.
He did not know we were to part and that is such a comfort to me. I dreaded that he might see or feel through me what my heart felt was to come but the bodily pain was sharp and the struggle for life at the end which he did not know was for life prevented his being even conscious that I was there.6
Herbert died the following day aged only 37 years old.
Julia’s calmness in a crisis, her practical skills, and her over-riding concern for others despite her own grief, is clear. She had stopped herself breaking down in order to spare Herbert more suffering. She wanted to spare her children, not allowing them to see their dead father so that they would remember him only for ‘his own sweet brightness’. She was thinking too of his family. She had sent a telegram to Herbert’s brother, William Arthur Duckworth, when Herbert first became seriously ill. He alerted the rest of the family. Then she had to send a following one, stating that ‘the worst has come’ and ‘he was spared much suffering.’7
William Arthur immediately set off for Upton Castle, as did his sister Minna and their father and step-mother, William and Margaret Duckworth. Julia’s parents, John and Mia Jackson arrived. A heart-broken Julia discussed funeral arrangements with Herbert’s family, agreeing that it should be at their home, Orchardleigh, near Frome in Somerset. Uncharacteristically, Henry Vaughan distracted George and Stella by playing with them and the other children.
Herbert’s body was taken by carriage to Pembroke and then train to Trowbridge. William Arthur took charge of all arrangements relieving Julia, and Herbert’s elderly parents. He arranged for a plain hearse to take the coffin from the train to Orchardleigh.
Dr Jackson, Herbert’s sister Minna, two nurses and George and Stella arrived from Bath at 7.00. Julia and her mother arrived in a separate carriage shortly afterwards, their groom who was new having missed his way from the station. Then Julia’s other sister Mary and her husband Herbert Fisher arrived.
William Arthur recorded that Julia was wonderfully composed. He gave her the key to the morning room where he had had Herbert’s coffin taken. A cross of red and white roses was laid upon it alongside a photograph of Julia. Julia kissed the lid. Later William Arthur held a short service in the dining room for the family and servants.
The funeral was at 4.30 the following day, September 25th. William Arthur conducted his brother’s funeral service, as he had Herbert’s and Julia’s marriage service. The heavy lead coffin, with Julia holding on to it behind, was carried through the hall at Orchardleigh in the presence of all the servants, all with their black arm and hat bands. Sixteen men who worked on the estate then carried it more than a mile to Lullington Parish Church. A brougham took Julia, Minna, Mary and Herbert Fisher. Other carriages took William and Margaret Duckworth, John and Mia Jackson, and Henry and Adeline Vaughan. It was a long service, not over until 6.30, during which, William Arthur recorded, ‘Julia had her hands on the coffin looking up to heaven, quite beautiful’. The coffin was then interred in the Duckworth family vault in the churchyard.
When Herbert’s father, William, had renovated the Church and built the family vault in 1862, he could not have foreseen that its first occupant would be not himself, but his son.
In the evening Julia was remarkably composed. She came down to dinner and afterwards chatted to William Arthur, Minna, and her mother. She showed them some of the condolence letters which were already flooding in to her.
William Arthur then had to return home hurriedly. At 3.00a.m. he was woken by his wife Ena, in labour. He gave her chloroform and their son, to be called Arthur Campbell Duckworth, was born at 4.00am. That morning in Puttenham the church bells rang out and the servants and whole village rejoiced. In spite of all her distress, Julia was conscious enough of her duty to send them a congratulatory letter to the house where she and Herbert had begun their honeymoon.8
Stories of Herbert’s death
Herbert’s death is usually described as being totally unexpected, but Leslie Stephen records that his health had in fact been causing concern, at least to his father, William, earlier that year. In going through family papers for his own memoir he says,
I find a letter (dated 19 May 1870) from Duckworth’s father to Dr. Jackson. Old Mr. Duckworth says that he is anxious about his son’s health, asks Dr. Jackson’s opinion, and says that, if life in London should disagree with Herbert, he is prepared to increase his allowance so that he may give up his profession, live in the country and find occupation as a magistrate.9
Herbert’s father did increase Herbert’s allowance that July, but Herbert seems to have made no plans to leave London and the law. It is possible that Julia was also aware of Herbert’s ill health, and it contributed to her unusual anxiety whenever he was away from her. On one occasion Leslie Stephen described how he and his wife Minny, along with Julia, Minna Duckworth and Mary Fisher had made up a party to go rowing on the river Thames at Kingston. Julia became totally distraught when Herbert was late joining them, but he had only missed the train he planned to get.10
The death certificate gives pelvic peritonitis as the cause of death. This inflammation of the peritoneum, the tissue lining the abdomen, can be caused by infection from a ruptured appendix, stomach ulcer, perforated colon or diverticulitis. Peritonitis is a life-threatening emergency which needs prompt medical attention. Julia herself had described the condition in precise and correct medical terms, typical of a doctor’s daughter. She told William Arthur that the cause of Herbert’s death was ‘a rupture of the bladder or peritonitis, probably tubercles showing consumption on the peritoneum or covering of the bowels’.
Nevertheless, stories began to circulate about Herbert’s death, fuelled by the suddenness and the unusual isolated location. They became more and more romanticised and exaggerated. Leslie Stephen recorded that Herbert,
made some little effort, gathering a fig, I believe, from a lofty bough; and this, as was afterwards supposed, caused the bursting of a previously unsuspected abscess.’11
Virginia Woolf added to her father’s poetic description of ‘a lofty bough’ by romantically claiming that Herbert, ‘stretched to pick a fig for my mother’. 12
Contemporary newspaper accounts give no mention of picking a fig for Julia, but prosaically state that,
while carrying one of his children upstairs [Herbert] sustained an internal rupture and died in the course of a few hours.13
Virginia Woolf also claimed to have been told by Stella Duckworth that Julia ‘used to lie upon his grave at Orchardleigh’.14 Virginia had never been to Orchardleigh and was unaware that Herbert was not buried in a grave there, but in the family vault at Lullington, not a place it would be easy to lie upon, especially seven months pregnant. In any case Julia remained there only briefly before returning to London. However this version has been repeated uncritically and embroidered upon by many later biographers, leading to stories of Julia as a romantic, wilting, ‘weeping widow’, rather than of her as grief-stricken, but a pragmatic, resilient, doctor’s daughter.
A broken-hearted Julia was left, aged only twenty-four years old, with two children and heavily pregnant with her third child. She went with her parents to stay at their home, Saxonbury but wanted to be in the home she had shared with Herbert, surrounded by his things, for the birth of her baby. Gerald de L’Etang Duckworth was born on October 29th, in the Duckworth family London house, 38 Bryanston Square, just six weeks after his father’s death.
She and her children were looked after and supported by her own large, close, family and also by the Duckworths, especially Herbert’s father, William, and brother, William Arthur. On 18th November she wrote to tell her father in law, whom she called ‘dearest grandpapa’ about the name which she and Herbert had chosen for the coming child, the previous summer: Gerald de L’Etang Duckworth. He was thriving but she regrets that she cannot do as much for him as she did for her other children. She also says that she prefers not to have a headstone for Herbert as it ‘looks so cold’.
William Duckworth replied straight away telling her that he and Margaret liked the name which he had ‘added to the pedigree’, the family tree which he kept. They also agreed about the headstone. Instead there is a memorial to Herbert on the wall in Lullington Church.
William immediately wanted to relieve any anxieties Julia might have about money and security. In his will, Herbert bequeathed her the whole of his estate and personal effects. In addition William settled £60,000 on her and the children and urged her to continue to live in the London house, which she did for some time before buying a house of her own.
Julia never recovered from the trauma of this period of her life. It changed her looks, her dress and her whole demeanour. But she was practical, strong and resourceful. She had to concern herself with her new baby and her two young children who were suffering their own shock and distress. She wrote to a friend:
The children in time will be comforts. Now I can only see that I neglect them being unable to do for them what I have always done and Georgie has not been at all well. He feels in an unconscious sort of way his loss and kept saying Where’s Georgie’s Papa – why for lie in bed.15
Life went on around her. In November, William Arthur was back at Orchardleigh, where he and his father walked across the estate to see the family vault. Anny Thackeray was also visiting, and amused them with her accounts of Julia’s aunt’s, Julia Margaret Cameron’s, eccentricities.
Later that month William Arthur also visited Julia in London. She had her parents staying with her, and George and Stella playing around her. Julia showed him condolence letters and photographs of Herbert, and a watercolour of him by a Miss Needham when he was two.
At the beginning of December Julia heard of the much longed for birth of a daughter for her friends Leslie and Minny Stephen, to be called Laura Makepeace Stephen.
That year she did not go to Orchardleigh for Christmas. She was swamped in grief and in addition suffering the pain of toothache and the effects of the laughing gas used for the tooth extraction.
Her whole life was changed. She never came out of mourning. Fashions for mourning were carefully regulated in polite middle and upper class society in the Victorian period. During the first period, lasting two and a half years, a widow was expected to wear dull black fabrics – bombazine or matt crepe, nothing shiny like silk. Widows were to wear a white cap indoors and a black bonnet outside. After this widows continued to wear black but could choose silk or figured fabrics with some decoration. Jewellery should still be black, especially jet, and not shiny. Gradually half-mourning could be worn consisting of more fashionable shapes and trimmings in greys or lavender. Eventually a widow, especially a young woman who might marry again, could resume her usual clothing. Julia never renounced her full mourning dress.
She later explained to Leslie Stephen,
I was only 24 when it all seemed a shipwreck, and I knew that I had to live on and on, and the only thing to be done was to be as cheerful as I could and do as much as I could and think as little. And so I got deadened. I had all along felt that if it had been possible for me to be myself, it would have been better for me individually; and that I could have got more real life out of the wreck if I had broken down more. But there was Baby to be thought of and everyone around me urging me to keep up, and I could never be alone which sometimes was such torture. So that by degrees I felt that though I was more cheerful and content than most people, I was more changed.16
The next year Julia began by seeking refuge with her beloved aunt Julia Margaret Cameron at her home in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight.
From: A Vision of Beauty: A Biography of Julia Prinsep Stephen by Marion Dell. © CC BY-NC-SA unless otherwise stated; image copyrights are listed in the credits and they are not licensed for re-use.
Acknowledgements and sources
Thanks to the Archivist, David Llewellyn, and his wonderful team at the Pembrokeshire Archives who were so welcoming and willing to share their local knowledge. Photographs of Upton Castle and Chapel are courtesy of Pembrokeshire Archives and Local Studies, part of Pembrokeshire County Council.
My grateful thanks to Stephen and Prue Barlow, current owners of Upton Castle, for sharing their knowledge of the castle’s history, allowing me to wander in their beautiful gardens, and to photograph the castle and grounds.
DAL – My grateful thanks to the late Hon. Katharine Duckworth, and to Sarah Munro and Harriet Grafin von Einsiedel, for allowing me to see and copy letters, photographs and other material from the amazing Duckworth family scrapbook when it was at Dalingridge, and to use it here. This scrapbook is now part of the Duckworth archive in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
WAD – William Arthur Duckworth. I am grateful to the staff at the Somerset County Record office in Taunton, for helping me locate all their extensive holdings about Duckworth family history, estate records and photographs. The many diaries of the Reverend W A Duckworth (DD/DU/184-194) have been especially useful.
- Adeline Vaughan with her daughter Augusta. Photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. http://fannycornforth.blogspot.com/2018/10/the-trouble-with-mary-pinnock.html (accessed 25.09.2023).
- Henry Halford Vaughan. Carte de Visite. Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Licensed for Creative Commons use.
- Upton Castle c.1870. Taken from ‘Photographs in South Wales’ by Mr Charles Smith Allen, published Tenby 1871. © Pembrokeshire Record Office.
- The Estuary of the Carew river from the grounds of Upton Castle. Author’s own photograph.
- The new wings to Upton Castle c.1870. Taken from ‘Photographs in South Wales’ by Mr Charles Smith Allen, published Tenby 1871. © Pembrokeshire Record Office.
- The Chapel c.1870. Taken from ‘Photographs in South Wales’ by Mr Charles Smith Allen, published Tenby 1871. © Pembrokeshire Record Office.
- The Duckworth family vault at Lullington Church. Author’s own photograph.
- Lullington Church. Photograph courtesy of Sheila Wilkinson.
- Letter from Julia to Herbert’s father, William Duckworth. © Somerset Record Office.
- The memorial to Herbert Duckworth in Lullington Church. Photograph courtesy of Sheila Wilkinson.
- Julia in mourning, holding the young Gerald. Photograph by Oscar Rejlander. Leslie Stephen photograph album, 34i, Mortimer Rare Book Collection, ©Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, Massachusetts.
- The young Herbert Duckworth – watercolour by Miss Needham. DAL.
- Julia in mourning. Leslie Stephen photograph album, 34k, Mortimer Rare Book Collection, ©Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, Massachusetts.
Full publishing details can be found in the Bibliography.
MB Alan Bell (ed.) Sir Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book.
Sketch Jeanne Schulkind (ed.) Virginia Woolf A Sketch of the Past.
- See Chapter 7. Their first child, Henry Beauchamp Vaughan was baptised on December 12th 1857 at St Mary’s Hendon, but died very young.
- The lease was signed by John Tasker Evans and on behalf of his nephew Charles then serving with the 10th Infantry at King William’s Town, Cape of Good Hope, and Henry Halford Vaughan on May 1st 1867. It is now in Pembroke Record Office.
- The chapel is grade 1 listed and was restored in 1978. A Time Team investigation in 2012 confirmed that it pre-dated the castle.
- Bill E.G.W., A Study of Henry Halford Vaughan 1811-1885 217.
- Census return for 1871.
- Letter 3 October 1870, from Julia at Saxonbury to her friend Mrs Vivian. Duckworth Family Book.
- WAD Unless otherwise stated, the details of Herbert’s illness, death and funeral are from William Arthur Duckworth’s unpublished diaries, now lodged at Somerset County Record Office (DD/DU/184-194).
- See Chapter 9 for William Arthur Duckworth and Puttenham Rectory.
- MB 40.
- MB 38-9.
- MB 39.
- Sketch 89.
- The Frome Times Wednesday September 28 and The Somerset and Wiltshire Journal Saturday October 1st.
- Sketch 90.
- Letter 3 October 1870, from Julia at Saxonbury to her friend Mrs Vivian .DAL.
- MB 40.