A true story of scandal, shipwreck, family discord and madness
In 1851 the mansion was purchased by Charles Tayleur, the owner of two iron foundries. He had worked with George and Robert Stephenson building locomotives and became hugely wealthy during the Industrial Revolution. While he was living at the mansion, then called Hampton House, his company built a massive iron clipper called RMS Tayleur. Despite being advertised as the largest, safest, most comfortable ship afloat, it was wrecked on its maiden voyage with enormous loss of life. Charles Tayleur died shortly afterwards.
The house was inherited by his son, William Houlbrooke Tayleur. He had divorced his wife Emma just a few years before, after her scandalous affair with the son of the Duke of Richmond. Divorce in the 1850s was a difficult and expensive business, and a woman lost her reputation irretrievably if she was sent away in such disgrace. Emma’s son was declared illegitimate, and she died a year later, aged 36.
William remarried, and when I discovered that there had been tension between his new wife and the children of his first marriage, I became even more interested in their lives. An unkind stepmother was a subject I was well-qualified to write about. (To read My Story click here.) William’s eldest son, Charles, was twelve years old when his mother was forced to leave the family – I was just the same age when I lost my own mother. The circumstances were very different, but I felt enormous sympathy for him and his brothers.
William and his second wife, Mary Ellen, had only been living at Hampton House for four years when tragedy struck yet again. William suddenly lost his sanity and became “a lunatic”, as the Victorians would say. His wife had to make difficult decisions about how he should be cared for. Although the doctors would have expected him to die within a short period of time, William lived on, hopelessly insane, for twenty long years. The family bickered over the riches of the estate, and when he eventually died there was a court case with the children of the second marriage opposing the children of the first.
When I was reading through the family papers it struck me that some of the protagonists were completely silent. Emma was never given the chance to defend herself; and William, locked away as a shameful secret, was never heard either. I have tried in this novel to give them all a voice again.
Why did William Houlbrooke Tayleur go mad?
What happened to the child that William refused to acknowledge as his son?
What choices did Mary Ellen have for the care of her mentally ill husband?
What were conditions like for such patients in the 1850s and 1860s?