Tale of ill-fated couple who led Wanstead House to ruin told in new book
- Credit: Archant
A palatial manor looms over a wooded landscape, its elegance reflected in the sparkling lake below.
This scene contrasts starkly with the picture of Wanstead Park today, with a portico and ruined grotto the only reminders that its sprawling manor ever existed.
Today, all that remains of Wanstead House is the Temple – a garden feature dating back to the 18th century – and the grotto.
But, at the height of its glamour, the mansion was home to Regency England’s most sensational couple, who followed a lavish life of excess until it all fell apart.
The story of William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley and his wife Catherine’s catastrophic marriage could have come from the heart of fiction itself, but it has been meticulously researched by Geraldine Roberts for her first book.
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The Angel and the Cad is the result of a 10-year labour of love for the South Woodford author.
The 47-year-old said: “I spent my childhood walking on the Wanstead Flats and riding my bike around to Wanstead Park.
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“I think everyone who walks in the park knows the story of this heiress and her traumatic life and I became intrigued by her.
“When I found her private letters at Redbridge archive, I was gripped by them.
“I researched more and discovered she had been involved in a landmark court case.
“It is just a wonderful story.”
The non-fiction title, which began as a hobby for Geraldine, centres on the “Cad”, William, nicknamed “Mr Long Pole” because of his insatiable appetite for other women, and the “Angel”, Catherine Tylney-Long.
Believed to be the first text focusing on Catherine as opposed to William, The Angel and the Cad tells how the heiress, thought to have been the richest woman in England at the time, caught the eye of William, Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV.
But she chose in 1812 to marry William Wellesley-Pole, the dashing nephew of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo 300 years ago.
Geraldine said: “Catherine was the most famous heiress, beautiful and accomplished.
“She chose to marry for love rather than status, which was very unusual for the time.”
The couple held lavish parties at Wanstead House, which Catherine inherited after the death of her father, and they were one of the country’s first celebrity couples.
But their union was not to be a happy one, with William’s philandering and gambling, the couple’s time in exile and the unprecedented court case which saw Catherine fight to keep their children away from him, resulting in a “victory for women’s rights”.
When 35-year-old Catherine died of a stomach ailment in 1825, Wanstead House had been reduced to rubble, demolished by William a year earlier in a fruitless attempt to settle his huge debts.
Despite William’s obvious flaws, Geraldine does feel some sympathy for him.
She said: “Obviously people around here really don’t like him very much, but I find it difficult to hate him, because I read his letters and I have seen Catherine’s view of him – she adored him.
“It is quite sad really, at the time they lost the house he had started to rein himself in. But it was too late.
“William certainly liked the lifestyle Catherine gave him, but I do think he cared about her.”
The tale of the Tylney-Longs casts Catherine as a helpless victim, but Geraldine hopes her book will give readers an insight into her strengths.
“I really admire Catherine”, the author said. “She has a tragic story and made bad choices, but I tried to show more than that.
“We should remember her for her courage.”
The first Wanstead House was built in the 1550s by Richard Rich, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, and was thought to be the largest house in Essex.
The manor passed on to subsequent owners, including Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, and Sir Josiah Child, East India Company governor.
Wanstead House was demolished in 1715 by Sir Richard Child, who built a huge mansion more befitting the fashions of the time.
Sir Richard created the lake system and he and his successors shaped the grounds into some of the most acclaimed gardens in England.
After Catherine inherited the estate, and married William, the manor became a beacon for high society.
Geraldine said: “It was the place to go and to be seen.
“I would say it was similar in size to Buckingham Palace.
“Everyone loved it and they threw amazing parties.
“Now to look around Wanstead Park and to know that it is all gone is very sad.
“I think that is what the people of Wanstead really feel.
“You wonder, if Catherine had married the future king, would it have been standing today?
“I really hope this book will help people see what was going on in a wider context.”