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Why the Countess of Holderness was the Queen of Smugglers

Mary Darcy, Countess of Holderness by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1745. National Museums in Berlin, Museum of Prints and Drawings/Volker-H. Schneider.
Mary Darcy, Countess of Holderness by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1745. National Museums in Berlin, Museum of Prints and Drawings/Volker-H. Schneider.

Towards the end of July 1764, the Earl and Countess of Holderness were returning to England after several years spent living in mainland Europe. The countess was a Dutch noblewoman, born Mary Doublet. Twenty-one years earlier, at The Hague, she had married the very well-connected Robert Darcy, 4th Earl of Holderness. The couple’s one surviving child was a daughter named Amelia, ten years of age at the time of their return. Arriving at Calais, the family chartered a barque (a sailing vessel with three or more masts) for themselves and their extensive luggage. All their household items and furniture were following on behind.

The voyage across the Channel would take around five or six hours even in good conditions and that summer the weather had been terrible, with rain and thunderstorms. When the winds were favourable, they set off and at last, the white cliffs of Dover came into view. When the barque sailed into the port, however, customs officials stopped the men unloading the cargo. The trunks of clothes belonging to the earl and countess were opened and searched.

Great British Life: Robert Darcy, Earl of Holderness by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1740-1750. National Museums in Berlin, Museum of Prints and Drawings/Volker-H. Schneider.Robert Darcy, Earl of Holderness by Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1740-1750. National Museums in Berlin, Museum of Prints and Drawings/Volker-H. Schneider.

At the time, there were strict rules in place to protect the domestic textile industry, particularly the Spitalfields silk manufacturers. It was illegal to import foreign silks. Indian chintz and cotton, with their bright and bold floral painted patterns, were also banned and could not be imported or sold. High society tended to ignore the restrictions; aristocratic ladies craved these fabrics and assumed their rank would allow them to pass through customs without suspicion.

As Lady Holderness was about to find out, though, this was not always the case and if contraband was discovered, the penalties were harsh. It wasn’t just one or two gowns that she attempted to smuggle into the country, either. Her luggage contained over a hundred! There were embroidered and brocaded French and Italian-wrought silk sackback dresses, petticoats, and Indian silk and chintz fabric. Some of the latter was cut, ready to be sewn. Added to this were the earl’s embroidered waistcoats. Almost everything was seized and confiscated, and the earl and countess were left with little more clothing than the items they had worn to cross the Channel.

Great British Life: Meet According to the Countess’s diary, her friend Lady Mary Coke (shown here) joined her on a visit to smugglers’ houses, during which they were able to check out the latest batch of ill-gotten gains [engraving by James McArdell after Allan Ramsay.Meet According to the Countess’s diary, her friend Lady Mary Coke (shown here) joined her on a visit to smugglers’ houses, during which they were able to check out the latest batch of ill-gotten gains [engraving by James McArdell after Allan Ramsay.

The nobility was horrified by the turn of events. Most of them, as they travelled between England and France, brought some illicit fabrics back with them. However, they took care to be discreet, smuggling only one or two items at a time. The countess, with her impressive hoard, had alerted the authorities to the fact that the upper echelons of society should come under investigation. Baroness Holland commented, ‘Lady Holderness has done us all great mischief – indeed the officers are so exceeding strict just now, ‘tis a bad time to attempt getting anything from abroad’. Lady Mary Coke, a close friend, wrote to an acquaintance complaining that, ‘since the seizure of Lord and Lady Holderness’s baggage, everything that can be is taken from everybody.’

The effect was long-lasting. In 1769, Horace Walpole, an inveterate gossip, was in Paris despairing of outwitting the revenue men because, since her ladyship had, ‘invaded the customs house with a hundred and fourteen gowns… the ports are so guarded, that not a soul but a smuggler can smuggle anything into England.’

Lady Holderness paid good heed to Walpole’s words. A year after the escapade at Dover, and despite falling foul of the customs house, her husband was appointed Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. It was a lucrative position, and the Earl of Holderness held it from 1765 until his death. The Cinque Ports comprise a historic group of coastal towns, Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, New Romney, and Hastings. The appointment meant that Lord and Lady Holderness could use Walmer Castle as their official residence, and the earl was also made the Governor of Dover Castle.

Great British Life: A View of the Castle and Town of Dover by James Mason after George Lambert, 1762A View of the Castle and Town of Dover by James Mason after George Lambert, 1762

Despite her fabulous wealth, the countess took full advantage of this remarkable development. The earl’s new responsibilities gave the perfect cover for smuggling exploits, and her friends appreciated the subterfuge and ingenuity. Lady Mary Coke came to stay at Walmer Castle in 1768. She recorded in her diary entry for June 17 that, after breakfast, she walked to Deal with Lady Holderness. There, the countess took Lady Mary to the houses of three men (known smugglers!) who imported Indian goods, including silks, muslin, and tea. The muslin, Lady Mary recorded with glee, was half the price she would expect to pay in London.

It was around this time that Mary, Countess of Holderness, acquired her unofficial title: the Queen of Smugglers. Even true royalty may have used her dubious services. In 1770, the countess was appointed one of the Ladies of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte, wife to King George III. It was a prestigious position and may indicate that the ladies of the royal court took full advantage of Mary’s nefarious contacts. She continued to smuggle dresses and fabrics and it wasn’t long before she was caught out once more.

The countess was widowed in May 1778. Her daughter, Amelia (married to the Marquess of Carmarthen), succeeded to her father’s lesser titles, becoming the 12th Baroness Darcy de Knayth and 9th Baroness Conyers in her own right, as well as the Marchioness of Carmarthen. Amelia and her mother would appear at court later in the year and needed suitably extravagant dresses for the occasion. Somewhat predictably, Mary decided to smuggle a dress into the country. However, she now lacked the protection her husband’s status as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Governor of Dover Castle had given her. Once again, her baggage was seized at Dover and searched. This time, the customs officials found what was described in the accompanying newspaper reports as ‘a superb court dress, belonging to a lady of quality.’ It was made from white spotted satin, embroidered with gold and white thread and pearls, and decorated with metallic foil-wrapped thread of various colours. It was so wonderful that spectators gathered, wanting to see it. This, it seems, was Mary’s intended dress.

Also included in the latest haul were trimmings, gloves, and pieces of silk, one of which was meant to be made up into Amelia’s court dress. Alas, it was all taken away and marks the end of Mary’s criminal career.

Great British Life: The sort of gorgeous gown the Countess would have been smuggling Blue silk and cotton robe & la Francaise, French, 1760s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.The sort of gorgeous gown the Countess would have been smuggling Blue silk and cotton robe & la Francaise, French, 1760s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In December 1778, Lady Holderness’ daughter, Amelia, ended her marriage by running away with Captain John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron. Once divorced, Amelia married Byron and had three children with him, including a daughter, Augusta. Amelia died in 1784, and ‘Mad Jack’ married again. By his second wife, he became the father of the poet Lord Byron.

Mary lived into the beginning of the 19th century, but her old age was beset by illness. She developed breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy in around 1799 and, once recovered, continued her duties as Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte. In 1800, Mary, Countess of Holderness, presented her 17-year-old granddaughter, Augusta, at court. By the following year, the cancer had returned, affecting Mary’s jaw. She died in October 1801.

There have long been rumours that Augusta and her half-brother, Lord Byron, fell in love when they met as adults. The unconventional Queen of Smugglers was, therefore, the head of three generations of women who flouted society’s rules.

About the author

Joanne Major is the author, and co-author, of six historical nonfiction books. The Queen of Smugglers is an adaptation of one of the stories to be found in All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth Century by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden. It is out now in hardback (RRP £25) and paperback (RRP £16.99) and can be purchased via pen-and-sword.co.uk and all usual retailers.

Great British Life: All Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth Century by Joanne Major and Sarah MurdenAll Things Georgian: Tales from the Long Eighteenth Century by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden



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