History comes home

Valentine-from-William-WP-to-Catherine-TL-(C)-Redbridge-Museum© Redbridge Museum

Redbridge Museum will open a new permanent exhibition later this year exploring 200,000 years of local history. In the seventh of a series of articles, Museum Officer Nishat Alam looks at some of the items on show

In this article, I’m revisiting the stately Wanstead House, once part of what is now Wanstead Park and whose wealthy owner I wrote about some months ago. This time, I’m skipping forward in time to the Regency era of the early 1800s to look at the story of one of its later owners, Catherine Tylney-Long.

Catherine was born in 1789 in Draycot, Wiltshire, where she spent her early life. She was a descendant of Sir Richard Child, 1st Earl Tylney, who had rebuilt Wanstead House 100 years earlier. In 1805, she inherited the estate as part of the Tylney-Long fortune, amounting to over £200,000 (around £20m today). She became the wealthiest heiress in the country.

Catherine’s new status attracted many eligible suitors, including the Duke of Clarence, who later became King William IV. In the end, she fell for William Wellesley Pole, a nephew of the Duke of Wellington. He was handsome, fashionable and well connected. Catherine adored William, although it was clear to others he was trouble. Although William was charming and of noble birth, he had a reputation as a rake, addicted to gambling and womanising. But despite warnings about his improper behaviour, Catherine was in love. She learned who he really was through his many scandals but remained smitten. The two exchanged love letters, many of which are now in the collections at Redbridge Museum and Heritage Centre, like the Valentine’s card from William pictured here. 

The marriage in 1812 ultimately led to Catherine’s downfall and the end of Wanstead House. In their pre-nuptial agreement, William had gained control of over half of Catherine’s inheritance, including her properties, and was legally entitled to her earnings. 

Stories about William and Catherine’s lavish wedding and extravagant lifestyle appeared in gossip columns, a sign of success for the celebrity couple. William’s career also flourished when he became an MP. Yet he was still partying and gambling, squandering away Catherine’s fortune. The family travelled across Europe where William could avoid his creditors, and it was from Naples in 1823 that he sold Wanstead House for demolition for only £10,000 to ease his debts. He eventually abandoned a humiliated Catherine and their children in pursuit of a married woman. 

Catherine separated from William and returned to Draycot without him in 1824, resolving to “assert [her] rights” when he threatened to remove the children from her. Burdened by stress, her health deteriorated until she died in 1825, aged 35. 

Personal stories like Catherine’s – about the people behind the borough’s houses, shops and institutions – will be explored in the new Redbridge Museum, re-opening later this year.

Redbridge Museum is located on Clements Road, Ilford. Visit wnstd.com/rm

To complete a survey on what else should go on display, visit wnstd.com/rms