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Reflections: the remarkable life of Mary Anne Theresa Symonds

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THIS is a story where several quite disparate threads coalesce in a single place and that place is Newlands in the parish of Milford. It also occurred at a critical time in our nation’s history – the first few decades of the 19th century.

Intimately involved is the naval family of Symonds, when Mary Anne Theresa Symonds (1784-1850), in hindsight, emerges as the hub on which so much was to turn.

But first we need to consider the first vital thread in the person of Admiral the Honourable Sir William Cornwallis (1744-1819) who had a long dedicated career in the Royal Navy.

He was a courageous and commanding figure and served in many actions in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and after a number of successful actions in the latter he was posted to home waters in the 1790s, specifically taking the role as commander of the Channel Fleet which covered the whole Channel from the Straits of Dover through to the waters around Finisterre, at the junction with the Bay of Biscay.

It comes as a shock to find such a successful and admired officer subjected to a court martial for disobedience brought about when given the oversight of the fleet ordered to sail from Portsmouth to the West Indies. His ship, the Royal Sovereign, was damaged in a collision with one of the transport vessels in the convoy and returned to harbour for repair.

A portrait by Daniel Gardner of Admiral Sir William Cornwallis (Image: National Maritime Museum)
A portrait by Daniel Gardner of Admiral Sir William Cornwallis (Image: National Maritime Museum)

Cornwallis was ordered to continue in a frigate, a very much smaller vessel, and he refused to do so, claiming that his health, which he described as “precarious”, would be adversely affected by travelling in such craft.

In the court he faced no fewer than nine admirals plus the judge advocate. Cornwallis eloquently and clearly made his defence and was acquitted and in 1801 took up command of the Channel Fleet soon scoring a major tactical advantage by blocking the French naval base at Brest.

Following that success he was given leave, seizing that as an opportunity to search for a retirement home and ended up by selecting and purchasing a large thatched farmhouse with 60 acres at Newlands in Milford parish from Sir John Hadley D’Oyly.

Mary Anne Theresa and John Whitby

Important in our story is the role of another successful naval officer, Capt. John Whitby (1774-1806) who, at an early stage in his career, was appointed to serve under Admiral Cornwallis rising to become his flag officer.

They struck up a close personal friendship and even before Cornwallis retired in 1806 he invited Whitby to visit him at Newlands and it appears that whilst there he met Mary Anne Theresa Symonds (from henceforth we shall call her Theresa to conform with the name used at the time), a younger sister of Captain, later Admiral, Thomas Edward Symonds who, at the time, was either staying or perhaps even in residence in the area.

Whatever the case, she too visited Newlands and there met the rather handsome young captain, John Whitby. The pair formed a close romantic relationship concluding in their marriage. Whitby was regarded by Cornwallis as his son and Theresa consequently became his ‘daughter’.

The couple came to live, by invitation at Newlands. There they had a daughter, Theresa John Cornwallis Whitby, born 1st May 1804 (known rather confusingly as Theresa Whitby until she married Frederick West), who became a surrogate granddaughter for Admiral William Cornwallis.

Newlands in 1832 rebuilt under the direction of Theresa Whitby after a fire
Newlands in 1832 rebuilt under the direction of Theresa Whitby after a fire

Sadly, her father John Whitby became fatally ill whilst serving on board ship and returned to his wife and home at Newlands where he died in 1806. His little girl became a great favourite of the Admiral and undoubtedly enjoyed a charmed life in the house and its delightful gardens.

The death of Whitby was a heavy blow to Admiral Cornwallis but he derived much joy from the company and companionship of his widow, Theresa, and their little daughter. He made the most life at Newlands and enjoyed the pleasures of undemanding country living.

The description given by James Ralfe in his The Naval Biography of Great Britain, published in 1828, is worth quoting: “He was never less alone than when alone...he was so little desirous of bustle that, returning to Newlands it had been observed of him that he must find it very dull and lonely, he replied ‘The cabbages in the garden are sufficient amusement for me.’”

He passed the management of estate into the hands of 20-year old Theresa, authorised with a legal power of attorney, who quickly and efficiently proved herself more than capable of estate management.

In the years following her widowhood she extended the estate by purchasing successively the manors of Milford Barnes, Milford Montague and, later, Milford Baddesley, ending up by adding about 1,400 acres in Milford and 500 in Hordle. It is easy to see why Daisy, Princess of Pless, (Theresa’s great-granddaughter, 1873-1943) described her as a “remarkable woman.”

When Admiral Cornwallis died in 1819 he left the Newlands estate, in addition to a sizeable cash bequest, to Theresa to be held in trust for her daughter being then too young to inherit directly.

Another thread to explore in which Theresa Whitby was deeply involved was the matter of the Touzi twins, Les Jumelles, brought as rescued orphans from San Domingo in Hispaniola in the West Indies to England.

The story of Les Jumelles

Theresa’s brother, Capt Thomas Edward Symonds, had taken an active part in the siege of the island at the time of the French wars and one of the French Lieutenants, Francois Touzi, was engaged in its defence against the British naval blockade but, during the long-drawn out siege by the Spanish he was killed, his wife having died earlier, leaving three children including the twins, Lucinde and Zébeé, who in due course Symonds brought back to England on board HMS Tweed.

They were only about 11 years old at the time and in an autobiography they wrote in 1822 (mostly by Lucinde, I think) they described their long passage to England as being “tempestuous.”

A portrait of Lucinde and Zébeé Touzi by William Egley (1798-1870)
A portrait of Lucinde and Zébeé Touzi by William Egley (1798-1870)

It is evident that during the voyage Symonds became enamoured by little Lucinde and on arrival in the Channel he headed his vessel to Hurst Castle and brought her to anchor in the sheltered waters adjoining the castle to the north.

He then sent a message to his sisters, Theresa and Juliana, at the time both living at Newlands, to come and collect the twin girls and the day following their arrival they were rowed up to the landing stage at Keyhaven to find awaiting them the Symonds girls who were to convey them to Newlands which for several succeeding years became their home.

Meanwhile, Captain Thomas Symonds returned to service but had set his eyes on the local area as his home when it came to retirement. In due course he bought an area of land on the south side of Rope Hill in Boldre and their erected a rather fine marine villa which he named after his ship Tweed (often afterwards called either Tweed Hill or Tweedside).

This gave him the opportunity to thoroughly renew his friendship with the Touzi girls at Newlands where his love of Lucinde evidently soon blossomed into full courtship leading to their first marriage on 11th March 1815 at Fareham, shortly after which they set up home together in the newly completed Tweed.

His sister Theresa, I think, thought the age difference of around 17 years made the union somehow improper and consequently seems to have fallen out with her brother and for a number of years they were estranged.

Theresa and the silkworms

With Newlands entirely at her disposal, Theresa was able to pursue her own interests which included the rearing of silkworms for the purpose of developing a silk weaving industry in Milford, presumably centred on the house and its outbuildings.

It is difficult to know now where her inspiration came from. Lyme Regis and Sherborne in Dorset from the mid-18th century had active and, at times, highly successful silk weaving looms but their silk thread was mainly imported from European sources.

Theresa seemed determined to go that one step further and produce silk directly from the cocoons of the silkworm. This pursuit revealed that she had a strong scientific bent and she took her investigations to considerable depth, including some in-depth correspondence with Charles Darwin over the development of different species of silkworm. She also wrote a small book, A Manual for Rearing Silkworms in Britain (her only publication).

In order to supply sufficient food for the worms she had to import mulberry trees, 100 standard trees and 1,000 small plants from Turin which were planted at Newlands. This demonstrated her enthusiasm for looking always beyond the superficial tourist interests of the Grand Tour to examine trade and the workforces engaged.

She had to engage a young French woman to demonstrate the processes of collecting the silk thread and spinning it to make it accessible to the looms. Evidently this was successful for we learn that Theresa employed many Milford girls and women and was ensured of success when Queen Victoria gracefully accepted a 20-yard length of beautiful woven red and gold brocade (a process actually carried out at a mill in Manchester) of the highest quality.

Various people have written about Theresa and the silk industry but the best account still is probably that by Agatha Harris of Milford in the Occasional Magazine for the Historical Society published in 1917.

Meanwhile, she continued to pursue and develop her considerable artistic skills, with watercolours and fine pencil sketches and installed a lithographic printing press at Newlands were she produced a number of lithographic prints of her own drawings.

Interestingly, she recorded the progress of the demolition of Hordle’s ancient parish church in 1830 with a series of drawings some of which she engraved as lithographic prints. A collection of these drawings is deposited in the Hampshire Record Office.

She actively supported education, especially for poor girls, in the parish of Milford and was renowned for her care and compassion, but as one looks at her life it comes as no surprise to learn that she was also somewhat imperious. As Diana Coldicott observes: “It seems likely that it was during the last twenty years or so of her life that she tended to become autocratic and overbearing, at least to her tenants, so that the image of the formidable Mrs Whitby arose.

"Quite probably she may have had an innately dominant personality which would naturally have been enhanced by the exercise of almost unlimited power within her own small kingdom.”

Mary Trehearne, in her splendid article on the making of Mrs Whitby, comments that she “is often described as ‘formidable’ and was indeed overbearing in later years.”

Her brother, Thomas Edward Symonds, purchased land on the east side of Hordle Lane and there erected a large marine villa which was named Yeatton House in which his wife Lucinde and their surviving family lived. The house still stands and remains as a connection with the significant naval family of Symonds.

The family’s grave is in Boldre churchyard and there are buried both Thomas Edward and Lucinde and four of their ten children. Theresa Whitby is buried in Milford close to both Admiral Cornwallis and her husband John Whitby and has a rather fine carved monument in the church erected by her daughter.

I recommend to readers the most recent Occasional Magazine of the Milford-on-Sea Historical Record Society (2019) which is dedicated to the bi-centenary of Admiral Cornwallis’s death it is very well illustrated and contains a number of well-written articles providing context and background to that which is written here.

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