“The Beloved of Black Jack Needham”
As light relief from all the decluttering I am going to let you into a family scandal. We have a discovered a relation on our mother, Rachel Hall’s, maternal side that – until recently – none of us knew anything about.
I strongly suspect that the facts had been kept a deep and shameful secret by the family and that my mother simply had not been told herself, not that she was trying to keep this scandalous family skeleton locked in the cupboard.
Our daughter Ruthie first chanced upon the scandal several years ago when she came across a mausoleum in Twickenham dedicated to ‘Priscilla, the beloved of Francis Jack, Earl of Kilmore”. We have since discovered a bit more.
Our relation’s name is Priscilla Hoste. (My mother’s mother’s family were Hostes, my brother John’s third name is Hoste.)
Priscilla was one of six children. Her parents were Lady Harriet Walpole and Captain Sir William Hoste (1780-1828). Sir William, the son of Dixon Hoste, rector of Godwick and Tittleshall in Norfolk came from a long line of Hostes; they were originally Huguenots who had come over in the 17th century, and who had established themselves very respectably in Norfolk as minor gentry, naval officers, clergymen and missionaries.
Sir William was one of the great frigate captains of the Napoleonic wars. He took part in six major actions including the capture of a heavily fortified port. He kept diaries and several books have been written about him. However, these days he is probably best remembered as one of Lord Nelson’s much-admired proteges, although he wasn’t at Trafalgar because – perhaps fortunately for him – he had been sent at the time to present gifts to the Dey of Algiers.
That is all very well and good…Sir William Hoste was obviously a brave and successful naval officer but he and his wife, Lady Harriet, showed alarmingly poor judgement as parents when it came to choosing a suitable guardian for their children. Their choice was Francis “Black Jack” Needham, 12th Viscount Kilmorey (pronounced Kilmurray), an eccentric with a well known and thoroughly dubious reputation. No doubt he was very charming; he was also extremely rich.
Sir William died – of ill-health and not in battle – in 1828 and as arranged Lord Kilmorey became guardian for their six children, including Priscilla who was then aged 10. I can’t find anything about his wife’s role in the children’s lives at this stage, whether she remained as the main carer or whether Lord Kilmorey immediately took an active role, day by day, as guardian, or whether he undertook his duties at a more distant legal level.
However, at whatever level the relationship was not so distant that when Priscilla was twenty and he was in his 50s, he eloped with her. They fled abroad, apparently leaving no trace at all. It is amusing that his family motto apparently is nunc aut numquam (now or never)…
Society was seriously scandalised, particularly his own family and not least his current wife and sons. Even in these more liberal days people would be shocked, and probably not only by the fact he was nearly three times her age.
They eventually returned and a year later, in 1844, Priscilla and Lord Kilmorey – known as Black Jack – had a son, Charles Needham. Charles, being illegitimate, would never have been able to inherit his father’s title.
Charles later married and had two daughters, one of whom was Violet Needham apparently a successful novelist although I have not (yet) read any of her books. She started writing when in her sixties, and turned out a number of popular children’s books.
Meanwhile, her grandmother, poor Priscilla, died very young of heart disease and was buried by her grief-stricken lover in a mausoleum dedicated to “Priscilla, the beloved of Francis Jack, Earl of Kilmorey”.
John found an interesting short video by one Tony Lewis about the mausoleum. Inside there is a marble relief showing Black Jack and his son Charles grieving beside Priscilla’s deathbed. It is rather hauntingly beautiful.
The mausoleum had cost the inconsolable Earl about £30,000 to build. Goodness knows what that sum equates to these days. It is opened to visitors for a short spell every September. London OpenCity day this year is September 17th and 18th and we hope to go and see the mausoleum for ourselves. If you’re interested you’ll find a bit more information here.
I cannot find any portraits of Priscilla, nor any information other than these bare facts. I cannot help wondering how she felt, eloping with her guardian, a very much older friend of her father’s who was undeniably besotted with her, and living as his mistress. Was she happy? Or was her heart disease brought on by her strange and undoubtedly lonely situation?
This is a mystery waiting to be unravelled. If you know any more than I do, please let us know. We are intrigued.