Sunday, 1 April 2007


In a former number of this journal (XVI/2) Mr Jan van der Merwe gave some account of a lady named Beatrice Gurney, apparently from information obtained from a descendant. His intention seems to have been to entertain our readers with a light-hearted piece which it certainly did and evidently did not involve any research in depth. As the subject is of some interest it seems worthwhile to explore it more fully and to correct a few seemingly wrong suppositions in the former article. As far as possible I reproduce verbatim parts of it which are relevant to the present study.

Mr Van der Merwe writes of Sir Walter Gurney's 'alleged adoption of a five-year old girl named Beatrice shortly before his emigration to the Cape'. This girl, according to a descendant, was the illegitimate child of Queen Victoria's daughter Beatrice and of General Charles Gordon of Khartoum fame. He says that the couple had taken a liking to each other in the late eighteen-seventies shortly before the general's departure on his last expedition. The child was 'dumped' with full grand-parental authority (that is, the authority of Queen Victoria) on Walter Gurney shortly before he left for the Cape.

The author goes on to say that Walter was a kinsman of the Gurneys of Earlham whose estate neighboured closely upon the Prince of Wales' home at Sandringham. In the region of 1875 Prince Louis of Battenberg embarked upon an affair with Mrs Lillie Langtry who in due course had a child. The infant is said to have been born at Sandringham (though whether born to the Princess or to Mrs Langtry is not clear from the article) and baptised there in about April I87i as the child of Battenberg and Langtry. She was named Beatrice after her godmother and Gordon was the godfather. Mr van der Merwe adds that Mrs Langtry was latcr taken over by the Prince of Wales and is said to have had a child by him also.

The whole story seemed so extraordinary that I wrote to its author and later to Miss Rosemary Wilhelmi (who was thought by hcr mother to have provided the information) to ask if there was any supporting evidence. Such might include a Sandringham baptismal certificate, documents or letters from any of the four possible parents, photographs of Beatrice which showed any likeness to them, gifts from them, and so on. I did not receive any reply from Mr van der Merwe but I did have kindly replies from Mrs Wilhelmi, in which she made no claims to her mother's romantic birth and could give only one reference to General Gordon (which I will discuss later), and from Miss Wilhelmi. The latter planned to consult cousins in England but I heard no more: either they did not reply or they could give no further information. In default, therefore, of any corroborating evidence I must confess that the legend does seem to have a good many weak points.

The Princess and the General Princess Beatrice would have been 18 years old in 1875 and Gordon no less than 52. rather a wide age gap for lovers. And Queen Victoria kept a very strict watch on all her daughters (none of whom is known to have had extramarital affairs) and most of all on Beatrice whom she hardly let out of her sight. The Queen disapproved of the loose morals of the Prince of Wales and would seldom have al10wed the Princess to stay at Sandringham. If Beatrice did manage to have an affair with Gordon there were plenty of people at court who would soon have informed the Queen. I have consulted a number of biographies of Gordon and these do not show that the couple ever met. Nor do they show that the earnest and religious Gordon was a friend of the Prince of Wales or that he ever visited the raffish menage at Sandringham. And he left England for the last time, not in the late 1870s as has been suggested above but in 1884. It is even more unlikely that Beatrice was having a liaison with him then as she was by that date engaged to Prince Louis of Battenberg's brother Prince Henry, whom she married in the following year.

The Gurneys -Mr van der Merwe writes that Walter Gurney 'was a kinsman of the Gurneys of Earlham whose property neighboured closely' on Sandringham. In her book Friends and Relations (London, 1980) Verily Anderson gives a family tree with a great many Gurneys on it but none of Walter's family, so these can have been only very distant relatives of the Gurneys of Earlham. (They may be listed in David Gurney's Record of the House ofGournay (sic) (London, 18481858) but I have been unable to trace a copy of this work.) The Earlham family were of the wealthy landed class and unlikely to have had any contacts with Walter's family who were middle-class professional people in London. Moreover, the Earlham Gurneys were an extremely religious set who would have had nothing to do with the riotous folk at Sandringham. And, finally, so far from Earlham Hall 'closely neighbouring' Sandringham, it was some 45 miles away, a considerable distance in days when roads were rough and there were no cars. So the selection of Walter to adopt the child baptised at Sandringham can have been in no way through the Gurneys of Earlham.

Prince Louis and Lillie Langtry Before discussing the affair of Prince Louis and Lillie Langtry a further combination of parents can be disposed of, namely Louis and Beatrice, who were in fact in love early in 1878 and hoped to marry. But the Queen forbade the marriage and her vigilance would certainly have prevented any affair.

Could Beatrice Gurney have been the issue of Mrs Langtry and either Prince Louis or the Prince of Wales, for whom Louis could have been covering up? In her autobiography Lillie Langtry mentioned no children at all. The authors of several books on her say that she never had more than one child and this has been confirmed to me by the editors of both Burke and Debrett. Prince Louis began an affair with her in about January 1879 when he found he had no chance of marrying Princess Beatrice and Mrs Langtry gave birth to a daugh ter on 8 March 1881. The place of birth is not known but Paris or Biarritz (a favourite resort of the Prince of Wales and his set, which included Prince Louis) or Jersey (Lillie's home island) have been suggested. Normally British subjects whose children are born abroad register them at Somerset House but this birth was never recorded there. Itis said that Lillie and Prince Louis wanted to marry but the Prince of Wales would not release her. Mr Van der Merwe says that she was taken over by Wales'. But in fact she had been his mistress for several years and when her affair with Prince Louis was over she simply returned to Wales. And she was apparently still associating with him during her liaison with Louis. This is borne out by the story she used to tell of an intimate dinner party the three of them had at Newmarket. They discussed in light-hearted vein which of the men was the father of her daughter and tossed a coin. Louis won the toss and was declared the father.

The only known child of Lillie Langtry was given the names of Jeanne Marie but was later always known as Jean. She lived with Lillie and her husband Colonel Langtry and was considered to be her daughter. Her story is very well documented and she cannot in any way be confused with Beatrice Gurney. And neither she nor Beatrice can have been baptised at Sandringham in 1877 as the present vicar informs me that there is not a single entry for that year in his register of baptisms.

The adoption of Beatrice Gurney -Beatrice was described as of full age when she married in 1900, which means that she was born not later than 1879. And the gentleman who administered her estate told me that she was 85 when she died in February 1963, which would put her birth in 1877 or early 1878. Mr van der Merwe says that she was adopted by Walter Gurney at the age of five. He was 'shortly to depart for the Cape' and would presumably have taken her with him. Butin fact Walter came out in 1880 when Beatrice would have been only about two. He was himself only 27 years old and apparently unmarried. It is unlikely that the child's mother would have handed her over at such a tender age to a young bachelor who had no means of looking after her and was about to leave for a distant country where he had not yet secured any employment. Adoption, moreover, is a legal process and the British authorities would surely never have sanctioned such an adoption.

Walter Gurney married a lady named Sarah Elizabeth Grunow at St Andrew's Church in London. I could not trace the date of the marriage but would suggest -and this is no more than a guess that it was in about 1882, which would be two years or so after he had obtained secure employment in Cape Town. Mrs Wilhelmi told me that Beatrice was sent out alone on a ship to Cape Town for adoption when she was five and this again suggests a date around 1882. Mrs Wilhelmi never heard her mother refer to her parentage. She did, however, add one fact which might connect Beatrice with General Gordon though not with Princess Beatrice. The girl travelled to England at the age of 14 and a fellow passenger gave her an embroidered purse with Gordon on it and was told that was her father's name. But, even if correct, this statement takes us no further than the possibility that her father was a man with the surname or possibly only the first name of Gordon.

Beatrice grown up--The facts of Beatrice's adult life, at any rate, are well established. She was, for instance, an accomplished musician who served as organist in the Anglican churches of Wynberg and Bout Bay and played the piano at concerts. lIer adoptive father had bought a cottage at Hout Bay and, as this village was in the parish of Constantia, she was married in Christ Church, Constantia, on 18 October 1900. The rector Frederick Bullen Moore conducted the ceremony and entered it as No 219 in his register. The witnesses who signed the register were Walter Gurney and his wife, a Mr Sidney Stephen and the rector's wife Evelyn Moore.

The bridegroom was Anthony Francis Gurney who seems likely to have been a distant cousin. Details of his family and himself are given in Burke's Landed Gentry. He was the second son of Sir Somerville Arthur Gurney of North Runcton Hall. This estate lay only a few miles west of Sandringham and its owners may well have been in the royal set there but there is nothing to show that they had anything more to do with organising the adoption of Beatrice than the Earlham Gurneys did. Anthony was born on 5 August 1864 and at the time of his marriage was in command of H.M.S. Widgeon at Simon's Town. He died at Lyndhurst in Hampshire on 30 August 1909, leaving a son and two daughters. The son spent most of his life in England while the daughters lived with their mother in this country where they both married.

Beatrice in later life -Beatrice evidently thought the name Gordon was in some way relevant to her for she published a book under the pen name of Beatrice Gordon. This was a collection of poems which A. II. Stockwell brought out in London in 1919. The volume was priced at 2J6d and contained 34 poems, one addressed to each of her three children but none with any South African relevance. A copy entered the South African Library on 18 August 1919. It is unlikely that the library ordered a copy of this unknown author's work as soon as it came out. This copy was probably presented by Walter Gurney and it was probably he who wrote the explanatory word Gurney in pencil under the name Gordon on the title page. There is also a copy in the British Library, indexed under Gordon.

Beatrice remarried on 7June 1932, her second husband being Leonard Clarence Brandreth Hughes of The Landing, Belvidere, Knysna. Hughes was later a tobacco farmer in Rhodesia and died in 1951. Beatrice's final union was with George Arthur Ward of the British South Africa Police in Umtali. Ward died in 1960 and Beatrice herself in Stutterheim on 25 February 1963.

Walter Gurney retired as Controller and Auditor-General of the Union of South Africa and was knighted on 18 February in the next year. He died on 7 January 1924, leaving his papers to a brother whose son William Brodie Gurney died in 1981, after which the papers were presented to the Hout Bay Museum. Although they are quite extensive they shed no light at all on the origins of Beatrice Gurney.

R. R. Langham-Carter

Nou wonder ‘n mens: wat is die werklike feite. Sy bly ‘n “Lady of Mystery”


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