On inheriting Gibside in 1722, George Bowes (1701 - 1760) quickly took to his role as estate and coal-mine owner with enthusiasm. He cemeted relationships with local coal merchants and ensured a deal that would benefit them all.
Mary Eleanor, born to George Bowes’ second wife, was his only child and became one of the most talked about and sought after ladies in London’s high society. However, poor judgement in her choice of husbands eventually led to her near ruin and Gibside’s downfall.
With an inherited fortune of between £80m and £150m in today’s money, Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749–1800) was said to be the wealthiest heiress in Georgian England. She was doted on by her father who, until his death, employed tutors for her in languages, the arts, and writing, and ensured she received the sort of education usually only bestowed on sons at that time.
Under the watch of Mary Eleanor’s second and cruel husband, Andrew "Stoney" Robinson Bowes (1747–1810) Gibside fell into decline; he ran up debts, sold off much of the estate’s timber and neglected the buildings.
All the while keeping Mary Eleanor a prisoner in the Hall and forbidding her to visit her beloved greenhouses. And by the early decades of the 20th century the family had all but abandoned the estate. Following their marriage in 1777, Stoney ‘began to treat me with the upmost indignity’ revealed Mary Eleanor towards the end of her life.
Several years passed before the divorce was granted, during which time Mary Eleanor suffered much hardship and had her name slurred in the press by court journalists salivating over every scandalous statement. And then, in November 1786, Stoney Bowes abducted his estranged wife before finally being captured and arrested.
Part of Mary Eleanor’s legacy is that her divorce case paved the way for reform of English divorce and custody laws.
A decade of abandonment and destruction during the Stoney Bowes terror years left the pleasure grounds overgrown and its buildings in a poor state. But Gibside’s fortunes were about to turn.
Mary Eleanor's son John Bowes, the 10th Earl of Strathmore (1769–1820) recorded accounts for 1790 showing that the young landlord ordered 17,500 young oak trees, 5,000 elm seedlings, three dwarf peaches (perhaps for the new peach house he planned) and several hundred other saplings.
The figure at the top of the Column to Liberty was re-gilded, shutters were put up in his mother’s beloved Green House and the Banqueting House interior was white-washed. Bowes also constructed farm buildings and a new hot house, and substantially restructured Gibside Hall.
The 10th Earl’s short life was marred by the early death of his love interest, Sarah, Lady Tyrconnell of Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (now also National Trust).
He eventually married his mistress Mary Milner, a housemaid, in 1820, nine years after the birth of their son, John, and one day before the Earl died.
John Bowes (1811–1885), Mary's illegitimate child, didn’t inherit the Strathmore title, but he did become landlord to the Bowes’ estates in England. Though he lived in France, Bowes maintained his interest in his northern property, making small repairs and, it is presumed, planting the trees on the Avenue (the oldest dates to this period).
In fact, a lot of new trees were planted across the estate at the time, including deodar cedar and monkey puzzle. But estate records reveal that the ‘remaining household furniture, oil paintings, horses, cattle, poultry, chariot, carts, harnesses, plants, implements &.c.’ were sold at auction in spring 1874.
Gibside’s demise continued through the 20th century as more of the estate was broken up and sold. The elegant urns that once graced the balustrade of Mary Eleanor’s Green House were removed and re-sited at the Bowes-Lyons principal seat at Glamis Castle.
One by one, most buildings were deliberately dismantled or allowed to decay; the north-east corner of Gibside Hall was blown up. The Forestry Commission leased the woods and sold some of the last remaining old broadleaved trees dating from the reign of King George II, replacing them with commercial conifers.
After taking on the upkeep of the Chapel, the Trust then became responsible for the Avenue and later the ruined Hall and Green House. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that visitors began to trickle into the grounds. At that time, most of the paths were still overgrown but not any more...
By the early 1990s, the idea of reassembling the fragmented grounds as one unified estate became a real possibility. Acquisitions continued into the 21st century with Cut Thorn Farm and the Stables coming under our wing.
Now, we continue to manage the estate and continue to tell George and Mary Eleanor Bowes' story. Take a stroll to the stunning Palladian Chapel for a step back in time. When you're ready to venture elsewhere, the views out across the Avenue and to the Column of Liberty are quite something and are sure to stop you in your tracks - here, George Bowes would have exercised his Derby winning horses.
We'd highly recommend the best-selling book, Wedlock, which is all about Gibside's story.