Cassandra, Countess of Rosse (1851-1921) – a profile of her life on the centenary of her death. By Graham Sykes

 

During the summer of 1908 the 4th Earl and Countess of Rosse made their customary journey to London in order to enjoy the society ‘season.’  Sadly, this was to be their final visit together, for although the sixty-seven-year-old Earl had been in declining health for some time, soon after they returned to Birr Castle his condition began to deteriorate markedly, so much so that by Saturday 29 August he could no longer be rallied.  He died later that same evening, with his wife present to the end. 

What would the future hold for the dowager Countess of Rosse?  She had been mistress of Birr Castle for almost four decades, having arrived in Ireland newly-married when barely eighteen years-of-age in 1870.  In common with her mother-in-law, Mary Rosse (née Field), Frances Cassandra Harvey Hawke had come from a wealthy Yorkshire family, being the only child of the 4th Baron Hawke of Towton.  She too had inherited property from her father – two country estates, the largest being Womersley – which naturally brought with them a measure of responsibility.  However, the Earl had quickly allayed any local fears that the couple might be lured away to England.  At a banquet held in his honour at the then Dooly’s Royal Arms Hotel shortly after their honeymoon, he reassured the assembled dignitaries of his firm intention to remain among them.  A successful marriage requires both parties to adjust to their changed circumstances, but the Earl’s pledge meant that Cassandra’s life was destined to undergo by far the more radical transformation.  Although not yet formally ‘out’ in society, she would be required to settle in a country about which she initially understood very little and find her place within an entirely new social circle.

Arrival at Birr, 1870

Upon the arrival of the young countess the news that her predecessor had resolved to take her leave of Birr Castle was received with general disappointment in the town.  Mary Rosse had been a familiar and popular figure for many years, not least for her instrumental role in providing work for local men during the Great Famine.  Moreover, the practical skills she had acquired in the diverse fields of iron working, astronomy and photography were at the same time both unconventional and pioneering for a woman at the time.  By contrast, under her governess at Womersley Hall, Cassandra had learned only what was generally viewed as desirable for a young gentlewoman.  She was undoubtedly an astute scholar who possessed an excellent memory and a keen eye for detail, yet her own accomplishments were more typically epitomised by her fine needlework and in the speaking of fluent French.  She naturally supported her husband in his scientific work but played no part in it herself, choosing instead to pursue her own interests, especially those in music and amateur theatre, which were destined to leave their own very different mark upon the town of Birr.  The provision of a building appropriate for such activities resulted in the formal opening of Oxmantown Hall in January 1889, and although Cassandra never appeared among its players she both sang at charity events and appeared in historical costume for Fancy Dress Balls and tableaux vivants.  Meanwhile the visitors’ books kept at Birr Castle record the house parties at which she assembled enthusiastic amateur performers from among her friends and neighbours, each of which was drawn to a conclusion by the public performance of a play they had rehearsed together over several days.  During their teenage years her three children therefore experienced a family home that was the very centre of vibrant social activity and frequently the spectacular setting for balls, parties and bazaars that were all carefully organised and managed by their mother.

Contemporary newspaper accounts of the society events held at Birr Castle nevertheless provide a limited basis for any assessment of Cassandra’s character.  Fortunately, due to the fact that she had made her home many miles distant from her own Yorkshire estates, letters written to her steward in Womersley show how deeply she remained involved in matters other landowners may have preferred to delegate.  While the rural economy gradually recovered from the damaging effects of Britain’s agricultural depression, she was careful to uphold high standards on her estate.  She demanded that all her tenants be of good character and took care to meet them in person during her visits to England.  The local knowledge she acquired in this way subsequently made it possible for her to micro-manage everyday matters in Yorkshire even while she was at home in Ireland.  At her direction, whole families were moved between her most suitable properties as they grew or decreased in size.  Financial assistance was provided for those requiring medical treatment, including £2/10/0 for a ‘proper supporting instrument’ for a young girl’s back.  She continued her support of the village school, although the major refurbishment of Womersley Parish Church would incur by far the greatest expenditure.  During the mid-1890s she commissioned the eminent architect G.F. Bodley to fashion an imposing interior that stands testimony to her religious conviction to the present day.  Cassandra was not prepared to enjoy the benefits of status and privilege without investing in the Womersley community, although by nature she was very like her father, the 4th Baron Hawke, who largely avoided the limelight and preferred to conduct his affairs in a manner as low-key as it was conscientious. 

(L – Cassandra, seated with dog, in a ‘tableau vivante’ on the steps of Birr Castle. R -Cassandra with eldest son, ‘Occie’, later 5th Earl of Rosse.)

Return to Womersley, 1908

After succeeding to the Rosse title, the 5th Earl resigned his commission in the Irish Guards to take up residence in Birr Castle with his wife, Frances Lois (née Lister-Kaye), and their (then) two children.  At this point his mother followed the example formerly set by Mary Rosse in allowing the young couple to make the Castle their own, electing to return to England and to settle permanently at Womersley Hall.  She was then fifty-seven years of age.  Any memories of Cassandra passed down in Womersley today largely date from this later period of her life, when tenants would often see her driving out in her horse and carriage to visit the farms and cottages around the estate (apparently she never saw fit to own a car).  The surviving perception of Cassandra is very much that of a watchful and well-informed matriarch who maintained a firm control over village affairs.  This is not without foundation, for – other than a small amount of church property – she owned every farm, every home and over 4000 acres of land, giving her a considerable influence that she was unafraid to exercise.  She would even make her presence felt among those merely travelling the highways, challenging any stranger she encountered as to who they were, where they were going and upon what business.

Cassandra at Womersley, her permanent home following the death of her husband, the 4th Earl of Rosse in 1908.

Unshakeable as Cassandra’s commitment towards her Yorkshire estates was to prove, she had not turned her back upon Irish causes.  The Marchioness of Londonderry had found her assistance invaluable in helping to resuscitate Irish cottage industry, and cottagers living in and around the Rosse estate in Birr had already benefitted to the tune of thousands of pounds.  Cassandra had no intention of abandoning this charitable effort.  From her home in Womersley she now travelled widely across England in support of the Irish Industries Association, regularly appearing as a stallholder at its fundraising events.

Meanwhile, her personal interests and pastimes steadily began to have a greater influence within the Womersley community.  In 1904 her continuing love of theatre had encouraged her to convert the disused malt kilns that lay in the centre of the village into a building appropriate for public gatherings and entertainment.  After she had returned to live in Womersley Hall this new facility was put to more regular use.   Her house parties gave friends and neighbours the opportunity to enjoy the shooting in Womersley Park, combined with the daily rehearsal of a play.  Just as at Birr Castle, each of these events culminated in at least one public performance, staged for the benefit of a charitable cause such as the village school, the local dispensary, or the cricket club.  These ‘amateur theatricals’ were an annual feature of life on the estate until the outbreak of the Great War, beyond which the building she had provided continued to play a central part in the social life of the community by acting as the village hall.    

St Martin’s

Invaluable as that building was to become, it was upon the parish church that Cassandra lavished her greatest attention.  Ever since Bodley’s refurbishment of the chancel she had continued to make ‘improvements’, adding further stained glass to the windows in the nave and installing a bespoke clock with chimes that marked every quarter-hour for the benefit of everyone living and working across the estate.  In order to enhance the quality of the accompaniment during worship, she now engaged August Gern to upgrade the organ originally donated by her father.  Cassandra had seen the benefits brought by electricity at Birr Castle many years earlier (an ‘electric’ ball was held there as early as 1888) and therefore saw to it that a generator was installed at Womersley Hall in 1911.  As St. Martin’s occupied the adjacent land, she then arranged for the supply to be used to power the bellows of the new organ and to replace the lighting that had previously been supplied by oil lamps strategically positioned among the pews.  It would be decades before a public electricity supply reached the village beyond. 

Bodley’s chancel refurbishment of St Martin’s

In terms of the relationship between St. Martin’s and the wider Church of England, Cassandra’s personal tastes – along with those of her parents – positioned St. Martin’s at the very forefront of the Anglo-Catholic revival.  In addition to Bodley’s magnificent rood screen, the richly decorated chancel provided tangible evidence of this deep commitment.  Its elevated stone altar bore an impressive silver crucifix and candlesticks so lofty that even the tallest of churchwardens required a douter over a metre in length to reach their lights.  Somewhat unusually, she had ordered that the east window be entirely removed and relocated in the south transept, adding instead an imposing woven dossal flanked by patterned drapes which thereby obscured some two-thirds of the east wall.  Moreover, where the plaster work remained on view, it was colourfully painted in a bold, sinuous pattern.  The worship itself was choral, the singing led by a robed choir, while the vicar was able to choose from a variety of richly embroidered vestments, several of which were of some antiquity and recently imported from the continent.  Fortunately, by the time Cassandra returned to Womersley the fierce debate over the place of ‘ritualism’ within the Established Church had been somewhat defused following a Royal Commission, meaning that many aspects of worship favoured by Anglo-Catholics could now be legitimately incorporated into practice within parish churches across the country.  However, this was not before St. Martin’s had attracted the unwelcome attention of John Kensit and several members of the Protestant Truth Society.  Their ‘raid’ in the spring of 1900 had seen the silver crucifixes she provided for both altars removed from the church, along with four carved wooden figures that formed part of Bodley’s substantial rood screen.  Despite their weight and size, each was carried aloft over the several miles to a local railway station as a publicity exercise staged to expose the Archbishop of York for tolerating such idolatry within his province.  However, as luck would have it, the train they intended to catch was delayed and the guilty band were apprehended by a policeman who had given chase on a bicycle.  In the meantime, Cassandra (who was visiting Womersley at the time) was informed of the theft and subsequently joined the pursuit in her carriage, finally reclaiming the items from the stationmaster undamaged and overseeing their reinstatement in St. Martin’s Church.        

Latter years at Womersley Hall

The reminiscences of a kitchen maid, Eleanor Wharton, recorded and transcribed when she was in her 80s, offer a unique insight into Cassandra’s life during the years prior to the outbreak of the Great War.  Above all this was a period of great contrasts at Womersley Hall.  Whenever a play was planned during the winter months, maids and valets would enter the rear of the house in an apparent stream, each brought along to attend upon their master or mistress while they were house guests.  Indeed, the maid had never seen so many morning trays laden with tea, milk and sugar.  She recalled ruefully that the countess did ‘plenty’ of entertaining, with few occasions placing more demands upon the household staff than the theatricals and summer garden parties.  However, at other times, if Cassandra was not absent in London or staying with friends, much of her day in Womersley was spent in relative solitude.  Eleanor generally found her life in service quite hard and admitted that her mistress could be ‘one for finding fault’ with the work of her servants, but on a personal level found her very ‘nice to talk to.’  When she had been away from home she would occasionally return with presents for them such as ‘crucifixes and all that.’  Even half a century later the maid kept and treasured one such gift, ‘a lovely picture’ of ‘the mother and child.’   She was also sufficiently positive about her experiences under the countess to empathise with her position.  She confessed that, ‘sometimes I used to feel sorry for her, poor old soul ….. all alone and on a big estate and that.’  She added, ‘They’re not any happier than what we are you know.’

Due to her role in the kitchen, the maid was better placed than almost anyone to know that Cassandra was already ‘kind of dieting’ for medical reasons.  When the house was full of guests there might be a box ordered from Harrods for the purpose, but normally the Hall was kept well supplied with fresh produce from the home farm.  Cassandra’s meals were nevertheless surprisingly simple.  By the time she reached the age of 60 the cook ‘couldn’t give her just anything’ and even dinner would comprise of a just a pork cutlet or a piece of chicken.  Sunday was the only day she would have roast meat because she ‘hadn’t to eat beef’ due to her rheumatism, although she might also have a boiled egg when she returned from church.  Breakfast was routinely just one thick slice of toast ‘cut into finger lengths and put in the toast rack’.  On such a restricted diet, it is hardly surprising that Cassandra often claimed to be growing tired of her food, despite the best efforts of her cook.  Ironically, in such circumstances the servants found themselves better fed than their mistress, causing Cassandra’s younger son, Geoffrey, to refer to them as ‘the beefeaters’ because they ate so much.   

The Great War

The beginning of the Great War brought an abrupt end to the pattern of life established at Womersley Hall in the six years since Cassandra’s return.  There were to be no more house parties assembled for the Badsworth Hunt Ball in January or the Doncaster St. Leger in September.  The annual productions in the village hall also ceased, never to be revived.  Instead, while men began to leave the estate in order to enlist, Cassandra herself took on new responsibilities.    Under the auspices of Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild, Womersley Park began to serve as one of its regional collection depots.  Donations of the clothing and linen needed by troops recovering from their injuries were received, sorted and briefly stored at the Hall before being issued to auxiliary hospitals throughout the West Riding of Yorkshire.  Altogether, some 22,500 items were handled in this way.  For her part, Cassandra was characteristically meticulous in ensuring that only ‘perfect work’ was sent on, earning her particular praise for the ‘energy and determination’ with which she maintained the quality of the consignments dispatched from the district. 

Sadly, for fourteen families living on the estate, the death of a loved one on the Western Front brought the anguish of bereavement.  In this they shared a bond with the countess who was herself no stranger to such grief.  In addition to losing two of her nephews, Cassandra was to learn that her eldest son, William Edward, 5th Earl of Rosse, had received a severe shrapnel wound to the head while serving with the Irish Guards in 1915.  Despite subsequently showing some signs of recovery during his recuperation at Birr Castle he frequently suffered dreadful pain and never fully regained his speech.  Three years would pass before he finally succumbed to the effects of his injury.  As all families felt their loss equally, the Earl’s name was not positioned at the head of the Womersley war memorial as might have been justified by his military rank or his social position as heir to the estate.   Instead it appears among those of his mother’s late tenants, which are inscribed alphabetically.

War of Independence

While the 4th Earl was alive, he and Cassandra had made the journey between Birr and Yorkshire a great many times. However, whether it was due to the ongoing war, personal infirmity, concern over unrest in Ireland or a sheer reluctance to revisit the home they had shared together, she chose not to travel to her son’s funeral and sent a simple message of condolence to her daughter-in-law instead.  So far as her health was concerned, she was said to have been ‘greatly weakened’ by a serious illness suffered during the early years of the war.  Moreover, through her friends she had also kept herself informed about Irish affairs.  Later, as the struggle to end British rule continued, she shared some of that news in letters written to her teenage grandson, then studying at Eton.  Signing herself ‘Grannie Rosse’, she told him of Lord Castletown being ‘stopped and robbed of his gun’ and the ‘bad treatment’ that Lord and Lady Bandon – frequent visitors to Birr Castle during her time there – had received at the hands of ‘those ruffians.’  This was not the Ireland that she remembered. 

A new chapter was set to open in Irish history, but Cassandra was never to learn the outcome of the ongoing negotiations over the Anglo-Irish Treaty.  Three weeks before agreement was finally reached in London she had attended both the morning and evening Sunday services in St. Martin’s church, as was her regular custom.  A few days later she was confined to Womersley Hall by ‘a chill and bronchitis’, although then developed the pneumonia that would finally claim her life, shortly before midnight on Friday 9 December.  She was 70 years old.  Four days later, her coffin of unpolished oak was borne into the church by estate workers through ‘a huge concourse of mourners’ and placed before the altar, now draped with crêpe.  Outside, the estate gardeners had decked the family vault with ferns, mosses and holly.  There, Frances Cassandra Parsons, Countess of Rosse, was finally laid to rest within sight of Womersley Hall and alongside the graves of her father and mother.    

Graham Sykes was brought up in West Yorkshire, trained as a teacher in Worcester and then gained a master’s degree in British history from the University of Leeds.  He moved into Womersley village with his wife, Alison, in 1989. Since his retirement as a History teacher and examiner, he has pursued his interest in local history and now divides his time between Womersley and the seaside town of Filey.  He is a frequent visitor to Birr Castle where he consults the Rosse Papers as part of his research into the history of Womersley and the Harvey Hawke estate.