Women’s history at Mount Stewart
Find out how the women of Mount Stewart shaped history throughout the centuries using leadership, influence and discussion. Discover how 200,000 women were inspired to sign the Declaration of The Solemn League and Covenant in 1912. And, how conversations with the War Office encouraged 26,000 women to enlist in The Women’s Legion. Learn more about notable leadership that even led to the presentation in the newly constituted Order of the British Empire.
On an elevated position on the east staircase hall hangs a large half-length 18th century oil painting of a woman, looking at all that surrounds her. The painting depicts a likeness of Mary Cowan, daughter of Alderman John Cowan of Londonderry, who in 1737 married her cousin, Alexander Stewart of Stewart’s Court, Ballylawn in County Donegal.
A large inheritance
The marriage would propel the Stewarts into the upper reaches of the landed classes in Ireland, Mary had inherited a large fortune from her unmarried and childless brother, Sir Robert Cowan, Governor of Bombay. On the banks of Strangford Lough the glorious Mount Pleasant demesne, now known as Mount Stewart, would become the family seat of the Stewarts.
Improved social standing
Not only was the family’s economic position bolstered by Mary Cowan’s marriage settlement, but their social standing in Britain and Ireland rocketed in an unprecedented scale. Mary had also brought to Mount Stewart a collection of Cowan family china. This enormous suite of 59 items bearing the Cowan armorial on each piece would remain central to the family’s collection and due to its position in the hall acts as a reminder of the wealth brought to the family home .
Theresa, Marchioness of Londonderry
Oil painting on canvas, Theresa Susey Helen Talbot, Marchioness of Londonderry (1855 -1919) by John Singer Sargent, RA (Florence 1856 - London 1925)
Theresa, Marchioness of Londonderry
Theresa was daughter of Lord Shrewsbury, premiere Earl of Ireland, and with blood connections to most of the great Anglo-Irish families she could take a leading role amongst the Irish elite.
A diplomatic position
Theresa and her husband took on the challenging and expensive Viceregal responsibilities for Ireland. The choice of them in the position was a diplomatic one as a means of Ireland being governed by one of its own.
The London Society
Like her husband, Theresa was an ardent Tory and Unionist and every bit as politically charged as he was. Theresa was well placed as the socio-political leader of London Society to place a focus on the Irish debate and to attempt to foster closer relations with Britain.
An entertaining space
Theresa would also host house parties for the royal family, prominent members of the aristocracy, leading politicians and members of the press as a means of uniting Britain and Ireland. She did what she could to make Mount Stewart a more welcoming space for entertaining than it had been previously.
In 1903, she used her significant influence to secure a royal visit when King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra and Princess Victoria came to stay, with the Mount Stewart guest book recording the sentiments of Queen Alexandra as a most lovely hospitable place’.
An influential approach
During the first two decades of the 20th century, Theresa continued to use Mount Stewart as a means of highlighting the Unionist cause. Drawing on her supremacy within this socio-political setting she could make influential guests feel at ease in her circle. Her beliefs also inspired over 200,000 women to publicly sign the Declaration of The Solemn League and Covenant in 1912.
Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry.
A half-length portrait painting of Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry, in her uniform as head of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, later known as the Women's Legion.
Edith, Lady Londonderry
Just over 105 years ago, Edith, Lady Londonderry addressed a meeting in Londonderry House to announce the formation of the Women’s Legion. As Lady Castlereagh, she had already been Commander in Chief of the Women’s Volunteer Reserve (WVR). The WVR was an organisation joined by many women from the higher classes and was an unlikely mix of feminists and women who would not normally have mixed with such diverse social types.
The motor transport section
Edith thought that the Women’s Legion should be an umbrella organisation with a number of sections including agriculture, motor transport and gas. The motor transport section was successfully set up in London during 1915. It provided squads of 22 women led by a head driver with 10 drivers and garage washers working directly for the Army Service Corps.
Merging with the army
In 1916 the motor section and military cookery section came under direct command of the Army. Lady Londonderry used all her connections in the War Office to achieve this ground-breaking move. She skilfully used her connections in The Ark to gain approval from politicians and the military. The Ark was a group of people who met regularly at Edith’s home in London to escape the ravages of war and seek lighthearted company.
40,000 women in the legion
In Jan 1917 the Army Council appealed for 1,000 women to join the Women’s Legion. An incredible 26,000 women enlisted. This increased the overall numbers to 40,000 women. Her leadership was recognized in 1917 when she was honoured with Dame Commander DBE in the newly constituted Order of the British Empire.
Explore the historic house and wander through the elegant rooms to discover a much-loved family home, filled with magnificent portraits and personal treasures.
Home to the Londonderry family for generations, uncover the stories of the people who lived and worked at Mount Stewart
Discover how we uncovered the original sandstone floor in Central Hall which dates back to the 1840s, as part of a major restoration project at Mount Stewart.