Monday, February 28, 2011

Intrepid Women: Lady Harriet Acland

Monday, February 28, 2011
Susan reporting:

One of the best parts of this blog for us is how we have the chance to "meet" readers around the world. Recently we were contacted by Gwen Yarker, a fellow Nerdy History Girl at heart, who is also exhibition curator of the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester.

The museum is currently hosting an exhibition of 70 extraordinary portraits called Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County. Included in the exhibition will be works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Romney, William Hogarth, and many others. Since most of our readers (including us, alas) won't be able to travel to Dorset, Gwen generously offered to share one of the paintings from the exhibition with us.

The charming portrait, left, shows Lady Elizabeth Fox-Strangways (1773-1844), eldest daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester, standing beside her older cousin, Elizabeth Kitty Acland (1772-1813), known as Kitty. The picture is representative of the new fashion for representing children as children, informally and comfortably dressed, rather than as stiff-laced, miniature adults. They probably sat for Dorset-born artist Thomas Beach (1738-1806) in 1777, at the Ilchesters' family home Redlynch, in Somerset. During this period, the Ilchesters were caring for Kitty while her parents were away in North America.

Kitty was the only daughter of Major John Dyke Acland, 7th Baronet. (1746-1778) and Lady (Christian) Harriet Caroline Fox-Strangways Acland (1749-1815), and it is Lady Harriet who is our Intrepid Woman. Colonel Acland was a major in the 20th foot, fighting in the American War of Independence. Unwilling to be left behind in England, Lady Harriet sailed to join her husband with her mother, a valet, lady's maid, and a dog. Obviously Lady Harriet was no ordinary camp wife; as she followed her husband's expeditions, she kept a detailed diary recording her impressions of the American landscape and native customs that was later published.

But Lady Harriet is best remembered today for her role in a far more dramatic event. In October 1777, Colonel Acland was badly wounded and taken prisoner by the Americans at the second Battle of Saratoga (Bemis Heights.) At once the pregnant Lady Harriet decided to go to him. Accompanied by her maid, a military chaplain, and Acland's valet, she crossed the Hudson River in an open boat and made her way into enemy territory. While there are varying accounts of her night-time crossing, all agree that she was treated courteously by American General Horatio Gates, and permitted to join her husband in captivity to nurse him. The Aclands were released and allowed to return to England (and to their daughter Kitty) in January, 1778, with Lady Harriet still nursing her convalescing husband. Their son John was born on the voyage.

After such perilous adventure, Lady Harriet and Colonel Acland deserved a long and happy life together. Unfortunately, Colonel Acland died later in 1778 from complications after a duel – fought in defense of the American cause.

The dramatic story of Lady Harriet's loyalty and courage made her a much-praised heroine to 18th c. England. Artist Robert Pollard painted his version of her river crossing (right), which he later turned into a popular print. We're guessing that, in real life, the intrepid Lady Harriet and her little party had enough sense not to stand upright with a too-large flag in a too-small boat to challenge the enemy's armed sentries.

Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County continues through 30 April 2011. If you're fortunate enough to be able to visit, here is more information about the show.  Many thanks to Gwen Yarker for all her assistance with this post!

(And as a minor note, proving once again that everything in history really is linked together: Kitty Acland married Henry George Herbert, 2nd Earl of Carnarvon, in 1796. Their son, the 3rd Earl, is responsible for building the family's country house, Highclere Castle – the grand house that stars in the PBS series, Downton Abbey.)

Above left: Lady Elizabeth Theresa Fox-Strangways and Elizabeth Kitty Acland, by Thomas Beach (1738-1806) oil on canvas, 1777. Private collection. Photograph courtesy of Dorset County Museum.
Above right: Lady Harriet Ackland, intaglio print, drawn & engraved by Robert Pollard, London, 1784, Library of Congress.


Anonymous said...

well, isn't it a small world.
wow, i would really love to see that house now.

fenifur said...

I recently saw these when my lovely bf took me to Dorchester for valentines and we went to the Vintage Valentine's fair at the Museum - I have to say it's one of, if not THE best county museum I've ever been to - puts the one where I live to shame!
Definitely worth a trip :)
Also, it's one of the only museums I've ever been to where you can actually OPEN those little drawers in the display cabinet and find things, usually they're locked shut!

ILoveVersailles said...

What an inspiring lady! You never hear much about the Tories during the Revolution. But can you imagine her heartbreak after rescuing her husband and caring for him only to lose him because of a duel? Madness.

Jenny Girl said...

What a sassy woman, but I guess she would have to be to follow her husband to the wilds of the colonies. Great post as always ladies :)

Jennifer R-M said...

There seem to be some discrepancies in the info about Lady Harriet Acland, cousin of Prime Minister Fox. There is no record of her mother, Lady Ilchester, sailing to North America with the Burgoyne campaign. Some sources say there were two little Acland girls that stayed with their grandparents while their parents were with the army. Their son, Lord John Acland was born in NYC, Jan 1778. Then they sailed back to England. The Major, reputedly a hard drinker with a fiery temper, died of pneumonia after catching a chill while dueling. The Aclands stayed at the home of Gen. & Mrs Philip Schuyler in Albany, NY, for 2 monthes while recouperating from his injuries. For more info about the Acland's adventures go to:

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

A little late replying, but I wanted to check with Ms. Yarker at the Dorchester County Museum before I did.

I suspect because Lady Acland's devotion to her husband made for such an extraordinary and popular story that there are many versions floating about, both in the 18th and 19th centuries. The version that I've used here is the one presented with the portrait of the two little girls, above, in the Museum's current exhibition, which is based on information drawn from Lady Acland's journal.

It's fascinating to me how "gentlemanly" warfare could be in the 18th c., with such kindness shown to the enemy and his wife....

Unknown said...

This is such an old post and i dont expect a response i have researching the story and just love how it brings out the romance in history. I also feel as that now more then ever stories of empowering women need to brought more into the light. Especially in todays America...

Norm said...

What a beautiful post! I love stories like this. Women are strong and beyond capable and it's important to share that with the world. Thank you so much.

Adirondackcountrygal said...

I live in the town of Saratoga and have been to the battlefield many times! I have never heard this story before and find it fascinating. The Saratoga National Battlefield is actually featuring her story this month on their FB page!

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