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Fortune's Many Houses

A Victorian Visionary, a Noble Scottish Family, and a Lost Inheritance

About The Book

A unique and fascinating look at Victorian society through the remarkable lives of an enlightened and philanthropic aristocratic couple, the Marquess and Marchioness of Aberdeen, who tried to change the world for the better but paid a heavy price. This is a true tale of love and loss, fortune and misfortune.

In the late 19th century, John and Ishbel Gordon, the Marquess and Marchioness of Aberdeen, were the couple who seemed to have it all: a fortune that ran into the tens of millions, a magnificent stately home in Scotland surrounded by one of Europe’s largest estates, a townhouse in London’s most fashionable square, cattle ranches in Texas and British Columbia, and the governorships of Ireland and Canada where they lived like royalty.

Together they won praise for their work as social reformers and pioneers of women’s rights, and enjoyed friendships with many of the most prominent figures of the age, from Britain’s Prime Ministers to Oliver Wendell-Holmes and P.T. Barnum and Queen Victoria herself. Yet by the time they died in the 1930s, this gilded couple’s luck had long since run out: they had faced family tragedies, scandal through their unwitting involvement in one of the “crimes of the century” and, most catastrophically of all, they had lost both their fortune and their lands.

This fascinating family quest for the reason for their dramatic downfall is also a moving and colorful exploration of society in Victorian Britain and North America and an inspirational feast for history lovers.


Chapter 1: A House by a Brook 1 A House by a Brook
The stream that gave its name to Upper Brook Street rose in the shade of a mulberry tree in the garden of No. 29, the house where Ishbel was born. This Georgian gentleman’s residence stood on the corner of Park Lane in Mayfair, which in 1857, as now, was one of the most fashionable parts of London. Ishbel, in her rather syrupy memoirs, called it “a comfy old house,” but this description belies its grandeur and that of its previous owners, who included a duke, an earl, a count, a dowager countess, a baron, a baronet, and enough Members of Parliament to have filled a bench in the newly rebuilt chamber of the House of Commons.

No. 29 stood on the western edge of what had once been a large country estate that, in 1677, had come into the hands of a family from Cheshire, the Grosvenors, as the dowry of a twelve-year-old heiress called Mary Davies. John Phillips, the carpenter who built the house, began work in the 1720s during the construction boom triggered when the Grosvenors finally decided to enter the property market, but he does not seem to have got round to finishing the job until 1746. Over the century that followed, the house was altered and extended several times before it was bought by Ishbel’s father, Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, three years before her birth.

In later life, Ishbel remembered this, her first home, with great affection. It had a frontage of forty-six feet onto Upper Brook Street and extended back to Wood’s Mews, where the horses were stabled and the carriages housed. The mulberry tree in the garden had been planted specially for her, as a place to breed silkworms. Inside, there was a nursery with curtains of “flowered blue chintz presided over by a darling little old nurse with silvery curls and pink cheeks,” a “Tent Room” with tall windows overlooking the garden, and a “spacious front hall” where the “kindly, portly” under-butler sat in “one of those enormous black leather ‘porter’s chairs’ studded with brass nails,” poised to open the door to callers.

The chair proved a useful bolt-hole for the three-and-a-half-year-old Ishbel, who had been forbidden to learn to read too young, “as it was supposed this would excite my brain too much.” But under its enveloping black hood, she later confessed to her parents, she secretly learned the rudiments of spelling by looking at books of fairy tales, emerging from its depths to ask “one and another of the household what this and that word meant.”

Soon enough, she graduated to the schoolroom, where Mlle. Binggeli from Switzerland, “very much a type of the old-fashioned family governess—very precise and particular,” held sway. There, Ishbel learned to write (“always a bugbear to me”) and, like every well-bred Victorian young lady, to knit for the poor. Irksome though it seemed at the time, she later saw this early introduction to good works, the first of countless in a lifetime devoted to them, as an important part of her education:

For my knitting, I was placed in a high baby chair, with a bar across to prevent my getting down or falling out, and I was set to knit garters and cuffs for a set time, with the supposed object of teaching me to sit quiet.

The grand saloons where the grown-ups sat amidst their father’s burgeoning collection of Old Masters and rare Wedgwood ceramics were out of bounds to boisterous children, but Ishbel and her elder sister Mary were sometimes allowed to escape from the nursery and play in their mother’s boudoir. It was there that one of those unforgettable childhood “tragedies” occurred, when Ishbel’s dolly’s tea set was swept to the floor by the flounces of an aunt’s dress, causing, as she put it, “a ghastly wreck.” The tea set was made of Sèvres porcelain: this was a family of means.

To all outward appearances, Ishbel’s father, Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, had been born, in 1820, with the shiniest of silver spoons in his mouth. His father, Edward, was Queen Victoria’s bank manager and had become fabulously rich as a senior partner at Coutts & Co., reigning over its imposing premises at 59 Strand until he was ninety-two. He also found time to help establish the London Zoo and to enjoy the life of a country squire at Greenlands, a mansion set in parkland on the banks of the River Thames. But Edward had eleven children, and Dudley, the youngest of his three boys, assumed that he would have to make his own way in the world in an era when the eldest son stood to inherit most of his father’s worldly goods.I

Dudley got off to a rocky start, for he found that there was no room for him at Coutts. Perhaps it was his ill-concealed lack of interest in the charms of his cousin, the future “richest heiress in all England,” Angela Burdett-Coutts,II that stymied his application for the job; but it is also clear, in retrospect, that the partners at the bank underestimated both his acumen and his ambition. They deemed the young man to be “totally unacquainted with business habits.” But Dudley, who was, according to an obituary, always conscious of “how difficult it would be for fortune seriously to injure him,” shrugged off this small obstacle on the road to riches and, like the canny businessman that he actually was, looked for an opportunity elsewhere.

He found it at the Horseshoe Brewery in London’s Tottenham Court Road,III the showpiece of the Meux family, a long-established but troubled brewing dynasty. Fortunately for Dudley, its founder, Richard Meux, did have sons who were “totally unacquainted with business habits.” Soon after they had taken over the management of the family’s main brewery, the Griffin, in the aptly named Liquorpond Road in Clerkenwell in the 1760s, the three brothers fell out. As things went from bad to worse, the eldest, also called Richard, was pronounced insane. Then Henry, the middle son, was revealed in a court case to have been embezzling funds from the company’s coffers: he had pocketed at least £163,000. He had also been running a secret distillery with a rogue named James Deady, right under the noses of his fellow directors.

The judge ordered the sale of the Griffin—whereupon the shameless Henry immediately used his ill-gotten gains to buy the Horseshoe Brewery. But things went no better there. One October night in 1814, George Crick, Meux’s storehouse clerk, heard a loud crash. The hoops of a vat containing more than three and a half thousand gallons of porter had, according to an astonished eyewitness, “given way as completely as if a quart pot had been turned up on the table.” A wall of the brewhouse was swept away as a tsunami of beer rushed into the surrounding streets. Eight women and children from the slums nearby were drowned, suffocated by fumes, or, as one reporter put it, “poisoned by drunkenness.” The jury at the inquest into what became known as the “Great London Beer Flood” decided that they had met their deaths “casually, accidentally, and by misfortune.”IV

For a time, the business struggled: not only had beer worth £23,000 flowed off down the streets, but the brewery’s scrupulous accountants had already paid the £7,000 duty owed on it. Yet somehow Henry Meux’s reputation survived unscathed: so much so, that a few years later, a useful relation, the Lord Chancellor Lord Brougham, arranged for him to be granted a baronetcy. Henry promptly retired to a former royal estate in Hertfordshire.

Henry’s son, the second Sir Henry, was made of less stern stuff: indeed, he was rumored to visit the brewery only four times a year, on the days when the profits were shared out. The gossips said that he was too fond of country sports and “the pleasures of the table” to dirty his hands with the business of making beer or even with politics, although he had somehow managed to get elected to Parliament.

By the time Ishbel was born on March 14, 1857, Marjoribanks and another partner, Richard Berridge, an entrepreneur who, with 160,152 acres to his name, was reputed to be Ireland’s greatest landowner, had taken over the management of the Horseshoe Brewery. They were joined by a distinguished judge, William Arabin, Sir Henry’s brother-in-law: his job was to protect Henry’s interests, because the Second Baronet’s behavior had become increasingly erratic.V He had begun to talk nonsense, although this, and other weird aspects of his demeanor, did not seem to disqualify him from remaining an MP. But when he managed to wound six people during a shoot in 1856, he was finally taken to court and declared insane.

This seems to have had no effect whatsoever on the brewery’s profits. When Henry eventually died in 1883, he left “upwards of £605,000,” about £40,000,000 in today’s money.VI His partners’ coffers, it is safe to assume, were filling at a similarly spectacular rate, and Marjoribanks, who did even better than Sir Henry and left the equivalent of £50,000,000 a decade later, could well afford to set up home in some style.

Brewers loved Upper Brook Street, not least because it was a long way from their breweries. Marjoribanks’s neighbors included the “insane” Sir Henry Meux at No. 41, and later, at the same address, Octavius Coope, who, with his brother George and partner Edward Ind, produced beer at a safe distance from their elegant retreats in London, at Romford, Essex, and Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire.

The street was also the London home of many of the leading lights of Victorian high society. Thanks to his father’s job at Coutts and his mother’s own rather more exotic pedigree—she was the daughter of a banker and merchant whose family had fled France after the revolution to make their fortune in India—Marjoribanks had long moved in its upper echelons. In 1848, he burnished both his social and political credentials by marrying Isabel Hogg, the eldest of the fourteen children of Sir James Weir Hogg, deputy chairman of the East India Company and possessor of great wealth accumulated from running a law firm in Calcutta. The newspapers reported that the wedding at St. George’s, Hanover Square, had been celebrated “in the presence of a numerous circle of the nobility,” and that it had been followed by a “sumptuous déjeuner” at the “family mansion in Grosvenor-square.”

Nine months later, almost to the day, Isabel dutifully provided her husband with a son and heir, Edward; and then, the following September, with a daughter, Polly, or Mary Georgiana, as she was formally known. Edward and Polly were playmates, with little time, Ishbel later remembered, for their younger brothers and sisters:

My elder brother, Edward, was eight years older than myself, and therefore to all intents and purposes I saw but little of him till he was grown up, for he was always away at school, or with tutors, or travelling, and when at home during holidays was out shooting or deer stalking all the time.

My sister Mary… came next—a year and a quarter younger than Edward, and six and a half years older than me. Till she came outVII at eighteen, we used to be dressed alike, and rode together and used the same schoolroom, but the difference in age necessarily prevented our having common interests.

Ishbel was closest to Stewart, born in 1852. Although he was almost five years older than her, she looked upon “Stewtie” as “my own particular brother”:

It was he who gave me two of those much-loved fairy books; it was he who used to come up to the nursery to teach me to draw; it was he who intervened if play became too rough.

But by 1857, the harsh realities of Victorian life had begun to cast dark shadows over the glamorous and successful family at 29 Upper Brook Street. Annie, the Marjoribanks’ fourth child, had lived for barely a year, and although Ishbel’s birth seven months after her death was duly celebrated, the mood in the house had changed. And the gloom intensified when, in January 1864, eleven-year-old Stewart died suddenly of scarlet fever at school in Brighton. Ishbel was only six, but seventy years later, the shock and pain of Stewart’s death seemed as raw to her as ever:

I remember the blank misery of those days and the questioning in my heart as to the right of the others to mourn as they did when it was I who was the one who had lost far more than any one else—my own particular brother and protector.

Even as a toddler, she seems to have sensed the cheerless atmosphere and the unrelenting sadness of her parents. Her dead sister seemed ever present. Annie’s portrait, displayed as reverently as an icon in her mother’s dressing room, prompted unsettling thoughts: it “made her the angel of the family to us and heaven a reality, for was not Annie there?” And Stewtie’s death had dealt her father an even more bitter blow, one from which he never recovered.

The births of two more brothers did little to raise Ishbel’s spirits:

There were two more boys, Coutts and Archie, three or four years younger than me, who seemed to occupy a separate division of the family in early years, having their own nursery governess and separate schoolroom till they went to school, and afterwards their own tutor in the holidays.… I always regarded them as another generation which had to be mothered.

Many years later and thousands of miles from No. 29, Ishbel proved true to her word, but in her early childhood she had to find her friends outside, among the other inhabitants of the street. The crossing-sweeper was one of her favorites. Another was a “white-haired park keeper… who entered very heartily into my efforts to put salt on the sparrows’ tails.” There were games of Tom Tiddler’s Ground and Puss in the Corner in the garden and rides on her black pony Filbert, supervised by Ballard the coachman who often found himself enlisted “to play the part of a highway robber” in wild chases “over all sorts of rough places, across fords, and over ditches, and so forth.”

Ishbel’s picture of her solitary childhood, however, is more romantic than true, for Dudley’s ward, Henry Meux Jr., the son of the “mad” Second Baronet, had joined the household. His father, who, it is now thought, was suffering from syphilis, had become incapacitated, and his mother had deserted him while she enjoyed a long and drunken odyssey through Europe. The children’s first meeting took place in a railway carriage at Euston Station before the family set off on a journey to Scotland in the summer of 1865:

We eyed one another silently for some time, and then I ventured, ‘How old are you?’ ‘Eight,’ was the laconic reply. ‘That is strange—I am eight too.’ ‘Do you collect butterflies and moths?’ Wonderful to say, I had hit on my contemporary’s special hobby, and so, much to the amusement of our elders, we were found presently in close confab over the habits and haunts of ‘Peacock’ and ‘Brown Argus’ and ‘Sulphur’ butterflies.… The ice was fairly broken, and this common pursuit was to be a great bond in the years that were to come.VIII

Her parents’ marriage was under strain. The couple had always seemed incompatible. Isabel was pious and gave herself airs: she claimed “an unbroken descent from Edward I, King of England.” Dudley was self-indulgent, extravagant, and crafty, a man on the make who was said to have had little time for ethics in his relentless pursuit of profit. The house in Upper Grosvenor Street echoed with their rows.

The real problem seems to have been Dudley’s volcanic temper, which, according to his granddaughter Marjorie, “grew more frequent and unrestrained,” especially after the death of Stewart who, Ishbel remembered, “dared to laugh and joke when he was cross and the rest of us slunk away.”

In “The Mother’s Anger with her children,” a curious story written when she was seven, Ishbel was surely drawing upon her own experience of parental fury:

Four children was round the rose singing: ‘O beautiful rose, why do thee not close thy leaves?’… At this point in the song their mother pounced out and said, very angrily, to her children who were trembling with fright and anxiety: ‘Come in, children; you ought to be in bed long ago!!’ ‘Mamma, Mamma,’ said the poor children, half weeping, ‘we did not know the time, Mamma, don’t be angry with us, we will rush into the house this minute.’

Her father’s outbursts disturbed Ishbel:

Few would guess the desperate miseries of those years, how the terror hanging over me, the fear of always being wrong, the conviction that I was too naughty, and ugly, and ‘potato-nosed’ to be cared for, have ever followed me.

She cast herself as her “adored mother’s protector,” but when Isabel became seriously ill with rheumatic fever, Ishbel was unnerved by the confusion she felt:

I thought that to me was given the mission of saving her from some dreadful fate. Yet I learned to pray for her death, so miserable did my father’s tempers make her life seem even to a child. And now as the fever rose and the doctors warned me there could be no hope, how I thanked God that the misery was over for her.

Though her prayers went unanswered and her mother survived, Ishbel, made ever more anxious by her father’s behavior, took out her frustration on her governesses, particularly Mlle. Binggeli’s successor, “another Swiss instructress.” The schoolroom became a battleground:

I am sure that I must have been a terrible trial to that poor lady, for I never seemed to do anything right, whilst she was in command, and I found myself in perpetual disgrace.

But eventually the “secret voices” that urged Ishbel on “became less and less frequent,” and when “yet another Swiss lady took over the reins of the schoolroom,” they fell silent.

Yet no clue of Ishbel’s fear of her father emerges from the loving, playful letters that she wrote to him throughout her childhood. One, from Ramsgate, where she was on holiday, ends:

With much love to all. Believe me my dear naughty Diddlems,

Ever your affectionate and dutiful daughter

Ishbel M. Marjoribanks.

Often, they were mischievous, sometimes conspiratorial:

My dear Papa,

I am writing to you to-night because I don’t want Madame to have anything to do with me and my letters, my reason is because I like to do it all alone.

I am very sorry you are not coming tomorrow and I still hope to see a galloping coach come up with you and my brothers.

Are you feeling well my dear darling Papa? I wish I could see bright weather come in our country. You are very kind to send me your message. I pray you thank aunt Laura for her kisses.

Goodbye my dear Papa and I hope you will come home soon to your affectionate little

Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks.

Another pressure weighed upon her, albeit a little less heavily. Financially and socially, the Marjoribanks family was on the up, and throughout their childhoods, Ishbel and her siblings had to endure the success stories of their Coutts, Hogg, and Marjoribanks ancestors. Ishbel took them to heart and later remembered how “an abiding terror of bringing the name of my parents and their forbears into disgrace by my inadequacy to rise to the level of their attainments” hung over her childhood.

Quite who those forbears were was the subject of some controversy among genealogists at the time—Dudley Marjoribanks was suspected of “improving” the family tree—but Ishbel was unconcerned by such niceties. Predictably, she identified with a supposed ancestor named Grizel Cochrane and loved to tell the tale of how this “notable Scottish heroine,” a “tall, handsome girl of eighteen,” saved her father from execution by disguising herself as a highwayman. “Clad in a coarse jerkin and riding breeches, with a loose cloak thrown around her, and a hat drawn over her face, pistols at her belt, and a staff in her hand,” she twice waylaid the messengers carrying her father’s death warrants as they rode north from London to Edinburgh, where he faced execution for his part in an insurrection. This brave and cunning plan, Ishbel explained admiringly, won Grizel’s family enough time to win a pardon for her by “some means or other.”

Another tale that caught her imagination was of her maternal grandparents’ escape from France after the revolution; on hearing it, she resolved to work harder at her French. In fact, she had little choice, since the children’s daily regime at 29 Upper Brook Street was already “pretty severe”:

My mother did not believe in holidays, and no holidays did we have, not even the regulation Saturday half-holiday, nor summer holidays, the only exceptions being whole holidays on the birthdays of the children when at home.

And when the governess took time off, Ishbel’s mother hired another to stand in for her:

So it was an hour and a half’s walk in the morning, and an hour and a half’s ride in the afternoon, and the rest of the day mapped out in work.… Those free hours out riding were salvation for us, and it was well that my mother should have made them a necessary item in our daily regime.

But there was a place for this anxious little girl to escape to. Like other Victorians flush with the new money of the Industrial Revolution, Dudley Marjoribanks had discovered the sporting delights of the Highlands of Scotland. There, amidst the rugged splendor of Glen Affric, he had built an extraordinary mansion. Of all Ishbel’s houses, this was the one that meant the most to her; the one to which she compared all others; the one she harked back to all her life; but it was also the one that sowed the toxic seeds of her financial downfall.

About The Author

Photograph by Anke Addy

Simon Welfare has had a long career as a television producer, working on a variety of programs, including the Mysterious World series with science writer Arthur C. Clarke. He lives in Scotland, married to the great-granddaughter of the first Marquess and Marchioness of Aberdeen, the subjects of his first biography Fortune’s Many Houses.

Why We Love It

“‘The Victorian John and Yoko’ (Air Mail) exhaust one of the world’s great fortunes while doing good, and along the way they cross paths with everyone from Queen Victoria to Granny, the world’s oldest sea anemone. Plus very amusing footnotes.”

—Trish T., VP, Executive Editor, on Fortune’s Many Houses

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (April 1, 2021)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982128623

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Raves and Reviews

"The Victorian John and Yoko...Simon Welfare spins out the do-good couple's saga with brio and warmth...a teeming portrait of the era."

– Air Mail

"This is a wonderfully written, meticulous account, at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking, of a well-intentioned, charitable couple's journey on the Road to Ruin."

– Julian Fellowes, creator of "Downton Abbey"

“With the feel of a real-life Brideshead Revisited, full of towering good deeds and devastating miscalculations, Fortune’s Many Houses is a fantastic fusion of biography and memoir. At its heart, Simon Welfare has placed his extraordinary family story of an aristocratic heroine who dazzled British high society while attempting to make the world a better - and kinder - place.”

– Gareth Russell, author of Young and Damned and Fair and The Ship of Dreams

“The riveting tale of how one of Victorian Britain’s golden couples rose to pre-eminence then lost everything. Ishbel and Johnny Aberdeen were on intimate terms with many of the key figures of the age, and their story is an extraordinary window into Victorian society. Theirs is a story so rich and absorbing it reads like fiction"

– Neil Oliver, author of Wisdom of the Ancients


– Country Life

"I enjoyed every word of this is a wonderful, run-along on wheels read, an always engaging account of the efforts of a gallant couple to change, if not actually save the world."

– The Irish Catholic

"A vibrant portrait of British society through his animated, well-informed dual biography....A fresh, engaging cultural history of the rich doing good."

– Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"A vibrant, rich, and dynamic historical portrait" drawn from an invaluable insider viewpoint."

– Booklist

"These imperfect do-gooders make for entertaining company."

– Publishers Weekly

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