Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749-1800)
Intelligent, attractive and rich. During the eighteenth-century, Mary Eleanor Bowes became one of the most sought after ladies in London's high society. While her poor judgement in her choice of husbands resulted in tragedy and pain, her life was purposeful in more ways than one.
Mary Eleanor, was George Bowes’ only child. George doted on Mary Eleanor, employing tutors for her education including languages, the arts and writing. An honour only bestowed on sons at this time.
Later in life, with her first marriage to the 9th Earl of Strathmore over and her estate and wealth back intact, Mary Eleanor was free to explore her passion for botany.
During the mid-eighteenth century, plant collecting had become increasingly fashionable and returning from a far off place with an exotic specimen was a real coup.
Mary Eleanor broadened her social circles and became well acquainted with two well-known natural scientists (then natural philosophers) and socialised with Joseph Banks, Captain Cook’s botanist on board the Endeavour.
She went on to commission plant collector William Paterson to journey to South Africa where he would explore and search for rare and new species. Subsequently we know that seeds from his four pioneering explorations of the Cape ended up at Gibside. Unfortunately, no specimens survive.
While Mary Eleanor’s love for botany is the reason for Gibside’s gardens today, she was never able to realise her potential as a natural historian in her own right.
If it wasn’t for her personal choices and tragedies in her life, Mary Eleanor, once described by surgeon and family doctor Jesse Foot as ‘the most intelligent female botanist of the age,’ (The Lives of Andrew Robinson Bowes Esq and the Countess of Strathmore, 1810) may have realised her potential as a natural historian and been entered into the history books for her contributions to the natural sciences.
However, it wasn’t to be and she triumphed in a much more important way. She succeeded in being the first woman to secure a divorce and keep her land.