Inspired by your’s truly’s writing on the above subj. in The Hindu, ye ed of Madras Musings, aka S Muthiah and known to close followers as The Chief, requested that I write in greater detail for his paper. And so here is the first part.
“A date has been fixed for the hearing of the suit for divorce brought by Lady Connemara against her husband, Lord Connemara, Governor of Madras,” reported the Tararalgon Record of Victoria, Australia, on March 1, 1890. By then, ‘The Connemara Divorce’ had become a permanent headline story in most newspapers across the world. Who would have imagined that what was once considered a brilliant match would come to this?
Born on June 11, 1827 as the third son of the 5th Earl of Mayo, the Hon. Robert Bourke qualified in law and had a successful career as a barrister. In 1863, he married Lady Susan Georgiana Broun-Ramsay, eldest daughter of the 1st Marquess of Dalhousie who, when Governor-General of India, had applied the doctrine of lapse with ruthless efficiency. She was also the grand-daughter of the Marquis of Tweeddale who was Governor of Madras in 1842-48. The Hon. Robert Bourke’s elder brother, the 6th Earl of Mayo, would also become Viceroy and Governor-General of India in 1869, only to fall victim to an assassin’s knife in the Andamans.
Robert Bourke entered the House of Commons in 1868 as a Conservative member. He was appointed Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in 1874 when Benjamin Disraeli became Prime Minister for the second time. He relinquished the post in 1880 only to be reappointed in 1885 when the Lord Salisbury administration was sworn in. The next year he was made Governor of Madras. It was generally believed that this was a step in the direction of greater things.
Arriving in Madras, the Hon. Robert Bourke proved to be a hard worker. He personally oversaw famine relief measures in Ganjam, lobbied with the Government in England to extend the Madras Railway along the east coast up to Waltair and interested himself in civic works in the city. The drainage of George Town was a pet project. In 1887, the year he was made Baron Connemara, he took the unprecedented step of entertaining at Government House the delegates of the Indian National Congress, then holding their annual session in Madras. The papers of the time praised the Governor for his tact, kindliness, industry and caution. He was known to be a tireless traveller, going up and down the vast Presidency repeatedly, his faithful secretary (later Sir) J.D. Rees in tow.
But there were whispers that all was not well in Government House. Lady Connemara, it was rumoured, had not taken well to India. She complained of the mosquitoes and the heat. Above all, she could rarely sleep without the help of sleeping draughts. Even before leaving England, her health was not good. Indeed it had never been the same since the time when, shortly after marriage, Lord Connemara had come down with ulceration in his mouth. She soon suffered from the same complaint and contemplated going to the Continent for a cure when her husband brought her a medicine that helped her recover. But she had remained sickly ever since.
At Government House, the duties of the hostess were more or less taken over by Lady Eva Quinn, Lord Connemara’s niece. She was married to Captain Quinn of the 17th Lancers, who had been appointed ADC to the Governor. It was said that Lady Connemara, rather than being grateful to Lady Eva for helping her out, felt that her official position was being taken over by the younger woman. She suspected her husband of taking an undue interest in Lady Eva. There were other rumours as well. “Losing his head with the greatness of his position,” went an analysis in the New York World (28.11.1890), “he began a career of moral licentiousness that was the scandal of the little Governmental court, to the disgrace of English representation.” Whatever that meant, Lady Connemara was not so much bothered with it as she was with his Lordship’s closeness to Lady Eva.
Matters came to a head in 1888, when the Connemaras retired to Ootacamund for the hot weather. Lady Connemara insisted that Lady Eva could not be a guest at any of the gubernatorial houses and, so, was lodged in Coonoor. The Quinns decided it was time to return to England, and Capt. Quinn resigned his commission. In October the Governor’s household moved back to Madras, Lady Connemara remaining in Ooty, tended by Surgeon Major Briggs. Back in Madras, Lord Connemara, overlooking his promise to his wife, permitted Lady Eva to spend her last few days in India in Government House. He needed a woman there anyway, for the house was overflowing with guests, several being members of the British aristocracy, among them the Earl and Countess of Jersey.
What happened next is best given in Lady Jersey’s own words (Fifty One Years of Victorian Life): “Shortly after our arrival, Lady Connemara, who had been staying at Ootacamund, arrived at Government House, accompanied by the doctor and one of the staff. The following day she migrated to an hotel just as a large dinner party was arriving and we had to conceal her absence on the plea of indisposition.” Newspaper reports had it that Lady Connemara had drawn up a paper listing out her demands as preconditions for her staying on in Government House. When Lord Connemara refused, she had no option but to move, Surgeon Major Briggs arranging her accommodation at the hotel and helping her to shift.
The Quinns having left for England, Lord Connemara had to request the Jerseys to stay back so that Lady Jersey could help in taking care of the house guests. Among them were Sir Harry Prendergast of Baroda and his daughters. The absence of Lady Connemara was concealed so skilfully that most thought she was ill and confined to her rooms. Fortunately, as Lady Jersey recollected, the servants knew no English and did not communicate with the guests.
Eight days and several imploring letters later, Lady Connemara returned. But it was only for a brief while. During her stay in Government House, she discovered the true nature of her illness. Her condition, Dr Briggs explained, was of a nature that could have been transmitted only by a wayward husband who was infected himself. That decided Lady Connemara. It was back to the hotel and from there to England in March 1889.
Left behind, Lord Connemara continued with what was considered by The Madras Mail to be a “bright epoch in the annals of British administration.” The foundation stone for the Madras High Court was laid in 1889 and, a year later, work commenced on the Connemara Public Library. Shortly thereafter, a market in Chintadripet was named after the Governor. But the storm clouds were gathering for, in early 1890, Lady Connemara, much against the wishes of her family and Queen Victoria, filed for divorce.
To be concluded…