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The Amazing LIfe of Lady Cathcart

The Amazing LIfe of Lady Cathcart

By mudswimmer

For most holidaymakers, a visit to Ireland should be an unforgettable experience, and that is certainly the description Lady Elizabeth Cathcart would have used to describe her first, and last, visit to its shores back in 1746.

Born in 1691, the daughter of a London brewer, Elizabeth Malyn was described as ‘a picture of youth, health, beauty, and modesty’ by one of her many ardent admirers. Her first marriage was to James Fleet, the son of the Lord Mayor of London. When he died in 1733, leaving her Tewin Water, a large mansion in the county of Hertfordshire, she married her next-door neighbour, Colonel Sabine, a brother of the governor of Gibraltar. This second union lasted six years, and, on the death of Colonel Sabine, she married Lord Cathcart, a governor of Londonderry and commander of the British forces in America. He died, a year later, of endemic fever whilst leading an unsuccessful military expedition in the West Indies. Confiding to a close friend, Lady Cathcart said that her first marriage had been to please her parents, her second for money, and her third for a title. Indeed, she declared, if she married a fourth time, it would be for love.

In 1745, on a visit to Bath, she met Colonel Hugh Maguire, a dashing, handsome, officer in the service of the Queen of Hungary, and a descendant of the Maguires of Tempo in County Fermanagh. He was not at all discouraged by the fifteen-year gap in their ages, and she readily accepted his proposal of marriage. It must have been true love, for just prior to meeting Maguire, who was a catholic, she had contributed £200 to an anti-popery society. Ever charming and attentive, he willingly agreed to her choice of an amusing inscription within the wedding ring: “If I survive, I will have five”. This, of course, referred to husbands rather than children for she was then 55 years of age. From the events, which follow, however, she was not encouraged to fulfil this resolution.

Having returned from the honeymoon to Tewin Water, she soon discovered that she had made a dreadful mistake. Hugh Maguire was passionately in love, but only with her fortune. He seized all the money on which he could lay his hands, and then demanded the deeds of the property. Lady Cathcart, however, managed to hide these in a compartment behind a secret door in one of her favourite rooms. She also concealed items of jewellery by plaiting some into her hair and quilting others into her petticoats. Then, one warm September morning, while they were out for a coach ride, Maguire informed her that they would not be returning home, but that they were on the high road to Holyhead bound for Ireland.

At Tewin Water, there was consternation at their disappearance. In his diary, her gardener noted that two geese had been prepared that day for her Ladyship and the Colonel. Rather than see the lunch go to waste, the servants had sat down and helped themselves. Well, wouldn’t we all? A day or two later, some of the Colonel’s men appeared and stripped the house of many fixtures and fittings. An attorney was despatched with a writ of Habeas Corpus and he overtook the couple at an inn in Chester. Maguire, however, had one of his mistresses impersonate Lady Cathcart and inform the attorney that she was going to Ireland of her own free will. He also arranged for three men to follow the attorney and to steal the writ. With their tracks safely covered, the Maguires crossed the sea to Ireland.

Maguire had property at Castle Nugent in Co Longford and it is more than likely that he held Lady Cathcart there while she was forced to alter her will making him the main benefactor “in acknowledgement of the tender and affectionate regard which he has always shown for her”. This will was executed in Dublin in October 1746. After that, their journey continued northwards to Tempo, a small hamlet in Co. Fermanagh, to a large house on an estate, which Maguire had purchased from his brother with the help of money, procured from Lady Cathcart. Upon her arrival at Tempo, she was confined to a ‘barrack’ or large guest room and there she remained for almost twenty years being allowed only the bare necessities of life. Though people in the neighbourhood knew of her incarceration, they also knew that Colonel Maguire was a notorious duellist and had a short fuse. It was better to leave things as they were. There were regular dinner parties and balls, to which all, except the lady of the manor, were invited. According to Maria Edgeworth, who researched the events in some detail and whose novel Castle Rackrent (1800) has a chapter based loosely on Lady Cathcart’s experiences, “it was his regular custom to send a servant with his compliments to Lady Cathcart informing her that the company had the honour to drink her ladyship’s health, and begging to know whether there was anything at the table she would wish to have sent to her, the man regularly coming back with Lady Cathcart’s compliments and thanks; she had everything she wanted, and she had the honour to drink the company’s health.”

Back in England, life went on much the same. Under instructions from Maguire, an agent was appointed to let the house and estate at Tewin, and a succession of gamekeepers were registered in the local court. Widowed three times, it was assumed that her ladyship had gone abroad to forget the past and start a new life.

As the years passed by, Hugh Maguire tried everything he could to discover the whereabouts of her jewels and the deeds of Tewin Water, but without success. Lady Cathcart had managed to transfer her jewels to the safe keeping of a local woman, Mrs Johnson, whom she rewarded generously in later years. In February 1766, Maguire fell sick; made a will in March, and was dead by April. His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine merely reads “Lieut-Col. Hugh MacGuire”, and there is no cause or place of death. Some said he was killed in a duel and was brought home on a handcart. Others said that having forced Lady Cathcart to reveal where she had hidden her deeds, he travelled to Tewin Water to remove them. Whilst attempting to force the rusty lock of the secret compartment with a knife, he stabbed his hand, causing lockjaw from which he later died in agony.

Whether he died from duelling, tetanus, or a social disease, we shall never know. Generous to a fault, he willed Lady Cathcart the money she had ‘lent’ him to purchase the estate at Tempo, and all her possessions, the majority of which he had long since disposed of. Lady Cathcart was given the fatal, but happy news, and was released from her long imprisonment. It is said that she was found with scarcely any clothes to cover her. She wore a red wig; looked terrified, and said that she hardly knew one human being from another. Despite her condition, she soon recovered and, wasting little or no time on fond farewells, left for Scotland. Travelling down to London, she was met by her tenants and local villagers. They removed the horses from her carriage and dragged it in triumph all the way home to Tewin - a distance of fifteen miles. Having recovered her property through the courts, she devoted the rest of her life to visiting the sick and helping the poor. There are various accounts of her regular attendances at local balls and assemblies where she danced until she was nearly 90 with ‘all the sprightliness and gaiety of a young woman.’ Of an evening, she would sit by her window watching the sunset through an avenue of noble beech trees and announce ‘Oh, this has been a good day.”

She died in her ninety-eighth year, leaving her wealth to charities and servants. A great crowd attended her funeral and everyone received ‘silk hat-bands and gloves, followed by a sumptuous entertainment’. Today, the ruins of Maguire’s house may be found by a small lough in the demesne at Tempo, but there is no trace of his Longford estate in the lush pastures of Castle Nugent. In England, the mansion at Tewin lies silent and empty. It is said that Lady Cathcart occasionally haunts her favourite room, unlocks the secret door and inspects something in the deep recess behind it.

Something or someone?

Tony Crowley (c) 2000

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9 Apr, 2011
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