What Lady Blanche Did for Love
By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
In the month of February, our thoughts turn to Valentine’s Day and romance. What could be more romantic than a bit of history, wealth, travel and of course, a young couple falling in love?
The Gainsborough family of England had it all: money, title, a vast estate and a secure future. It had been that way for generations, since the 1600’s when the Noel family obtained the Earldom title.
But one of the Gainsborough’s - Lady Blanche - gave it all up to move to the United States and a life much different than what she had known as a child and young woman. She endured a lot over her lifetime, but the question is why?
The answer, as for many who willingly change their life circumstances, was love. Her story started in England but ended thousands of miles away, in the remote Conway, NH area, although it seems the most unlikely of places for a titled lady to settle in the 1800s when roads were not good and travel difficult.
Lady Blanche Elizabeth Mary Annunciata Noel was born on March 25, 1845 at Exton Hall in England. She was the daughter of the second Earl of Gainsborough and Lady Ida Harriet Augusta Hay.
The family’s wealth meant the Earl and his wife traveled in the same circles as the country’s nobility. Indeed, Queen Victoria was the godmother of little Blanche.
One of the advantages of all that wealth was convenience. While those less fortunate walked to church or rode in a horse-drawn wagon or cart, the Earl and his family attended services right on their property. (At that time, the wealthy often had chapels on their elegant estates.)
It was in the estate’s Catholic church that young Blanche met Irish commoner and organist Thomas Murphy. Hired as a music teacher for young Blanche, it did not take long for romance to blossom between teacher and pupil. In fact, the attraction may have been instantaneous. Blanche was said to have been charming, with a charismatic personality and long, golden/brown hair.
Along with teaching music to Blanche, Thomas served as the organist at the estate’s chapel. Blanche had musical talent and was part of the chapel choir. In an article in The Granite Monthly titled “The Story of the Lady Blanche”, Mrs. Ellen McRoberts Mason wrote that Thomas was said to be extremely talented as a musician. That alone was probably a great attraction for Blanche.
Such a match would have been frowned upon due to the differences in their social standing, but perhaps Blanche’s father eventually gave in to a marriage between his daughter and a commoner. Other stories claim the couple eloped. Whatever the truth, it can be assumed Lady Blanche was about to step into a very different world from the one she had known. Thomas was not wealthy and worked for his living. It is unknown what support the young couple received from Blanche’s father.
While Blanche found Thomas hard to resist — he was said to be educated, talented and very charming — how that charm held up when the couple made a difficult seven-week Atlantic ocean crossing to reach America is not known, but Blanche later wrote that the trip was taxing.
Arriving in New York with little resources, Blanche and Thomas first tried their luck in the city, but eventually moved to New Rochelle where Thomas found work as an organist.
Then, in the 1870s, Thomas got a job at a Conway, NH area boys’ school at a place called Three Elms. He taught music and French and Blanche, a well-educated lady, filled in for her husband when needed.
Perhaps the work history of Thomas was erratic, because after his contract ended, the couple moved from the area, but eventually returned. Blanche was said to love the Conway area with its woods, mountains and flowers which might have reminded her of Exton, her childhood home in England.
Although she was no longer the wealthy lady of privilege, Blanche saw the plight of the rural poor in the area and did all she could to help. Most likely Blanche had seen her mother tend to the welfare of servants who worked on the family estate; she now echoed that interest in the welfare of her neighbors.
She visited the sick, gave Christmas gifts to poor neighbors, and hosted meals for local children. (Although Thomas and Blanche had no children, they were very fond of the young people in the area.)
According to Cardinal Manning, who was well aware of her generosity, “The love of the people of Exton (her home in England) toward her expresses what I meant in saying that her heart and sympathies were always with the poor, with their homes and with their state.”
Possibly looking for a genteel way to contribute to her husband’s finances, Blanche discovered she had a talent for writing and began to submit articles for publication. Her writing was skilled and showed a high degree of intelligence, reflecting her early education. And she respected and befriended those in the Conway area; although they were of vastly different life circumstances and education, she admired their hard-working lifestyles and may have written about all she observed.
What was her husband doing in all this time? They lived in the Conway-area community and Blanche found a footing by reaching out to others and becoming a beloved resident. Likely, Thomas found work as a music teacher and the couple stayed together.
In a marriage fraught with poverty and hard work, Blanche seems to have been willing to put up with a lot for love. Although she willingly left her life of wealth in England, their circumstances may have been made more difficult because the life and work of a musician such as Thomas was uncertain and jobs tended to come and go.
Blanche was the bright light in the lives of her neighbors and the community, as well as in her husband’s life. Sadly, she died suddenly and unexpectedly while only in her 30s in March of 1881 after catching a cold which turned into a more serious illness. Her body was returned to England, where she was laid to rest beside her mother in the family plot on the Earl’s estate.
Thomas grieved for his wife, and his life was probably difficult without her positive personality and support. The Earl of Gainsborough lived just a few years after the passing of Blanche, but while he was alive he gave Thomas an annuity. Thomas moved from the home he shared with Blanche and resided with friends in the Conway village area, unable to bear living in their former home without his wife. He never remarried and according to the Granite Monthly article, “revered her memory with a loyalty rare among men.”
On a trip to Maine in the summer of 1890, Thomas became ill and died suddenly. He had made his own mark upon the Conway area by bringing classical music to the isolated part of NH. In his own way, he was as admired as Lady Blanche.
Although Blanche and Thomas’ love story took place many years ago, it is one that continues to fascinate, offering wealth, titles, romance and evidence of what one woman was willing to sacrifice for love.