© Cheryl Bolen
What a strange eventful life has mine been, from a poor little player child, with just food and clothes to cover me, dependent on a very precarious profession, without talent or a friend in the world – first the wife of the best, the most perfect being that ever breathed …and now the wife of a Duke! You must write my life… my true history written by the author of Waverley”
The passage above was written in 1827 by the Duchess of St. Albans to Sir Walter Scott shortly after her marriage to the 9th Duke of St. Albans, a man 23 years her junior.
How did a 50-year-old former actress attract so lofty a peer? It’s a good guess that her enormous fortune dazzled him.
How, then, did an actress at a minor London theatre become one of the wealthiest women in the British Isles?
Harriet Mellon (1777-1837) was nearing forty when she attracted the attention of the enormously wealthy banker Thomas Coutts (1735-1822) while acting at the Duke Street Theatre. She was noted for her beauty and was painted by George Romney and Sir Thomas Lawrence.
Coutts married her soon after his first wife died in 1815. This husband whom she described as “the most perfect being that ever breathed” was eighty.
Coutts had founded Coutts & Co., the royal bank, and he enjoyed close relationships with the highest ranking families and officials in the land. Both his first wife, Elizabeth Starkey, formerly in service at his brother’s house, and Harriet would have been considered beneath him, but such lack of consequence was apparently not of significance.
His three daughters—with encouragement from their father—were more cognizant of rank when selecting their mates. His eldest daughter, Susan, married the 3rd Earl of Guilford; daughter Frances married the 1st Marquess of Bute; and Sophia married Sir Francis Burdett.
When Coutts died seven years after marrying Harriet, he left his entire fortune to her. She hosted parties at her townhouse at 78 Piccadilly, her lodge four miles away in Highgate, and her place in Brighton.
Five years after she was widowed, she married the Duke of St. Albans.
When she died ten years later, she left the bulk of her fortune to a granddaughter of her first husband, the youngest daughter of Sir Francis Burdett. Harriet paid homage to her first husband in stipulating that her heiress adopt the name Angela Burdett-Coutts.—Cheryl’s newest book, the runaway bride story Oh What a (Wedding) Night, Book 3 in the Brazen Brides series, releases April 19.