by Ros Black
Somerset (nee Isabel Caroline Somers Cocks) was the daughter of the 3rd
Earl Somers, owner of Reigate Priory from 1852-1883. Despite her aristocratic
background, she was a social pioneer, devoting much of her later life
to the care of inebriate women.
Lord Henry Somerset, 2nd son of the Duke of Beaufort, master of Badminton.
Sadly the marriage was very unhappy, for Lord Henry was gay. When Isabel
challenged him in court for the custody of their young son, she caused
outrage in high society. Homosexuality at that time was a crime and Lord
Henry was Comptroller of the Queen's Household. Convention decreed that
a wife should have turned a blind eye to such behaviour. But not Isabel!
She was granted
custody of her son, and retreated for several years to the peace and seclusion
of Reigate Priory, whilst her husband, from whom she never divorced, withdrew
was deeply religious. After her father's death, she made Eastnor Castle,
near Ledbury, her main home as this was also part of the Somers estates.
It was in Ledbury that she first became involved with the Temperance Movement,
a growing body of opinion seeking to curb liquor sales. Isabel saw for
herself the squalor and degradation caused by alcohol and drug abuse.
She was not afraid to visit the slums of Ledbury's Bye Street or London's
She took the
Total Abstinence Pledge herself and banned liquor from the Priory and
Eastnor. She accepted the presidency of the British Women's Temperance
Association, a role she embraced with such enthusiasm that she became
famed as a powerful orator and packed halls both throughout Britain and
America. She became close friends with the American temperance leader,
Frances Willard and the 2 women went on many campaigns together.
became involved in many of the social issues of the time, including women's
suffrage, child cruelty and labour rights. She was however a great realist.
She knew alcohol was never likely to be banned in this country, so she
advocated restricting opening hours and the right for local councils to
withdraw licences. She never blamed the people who had fallen prey to
the curse of drink. Instead she looked to solve the problems that had
caused them to turn to drink in the first place.
Her most ambitious
project was the creation of a Farm Colony for Inebriate Women at Duxhurst,
just south of Reigate. In this rural location, she housed grand ladies,
middle class women and the poor and destitute - for she recognised that
alcoholism was no respecter of class. The ladies lived in the Manor house.
Often these were the celebrities of their time, checking in for rehab
much as they do today in other clinics.
Those who could
afford it paid towards their keep but many were referred by the authorities
and, in due course, several of the cottages were licensed to take patients
under the new Inebriates Act, as an alternative to prison.
Lady Henry created a real village with charming cottages around a village
green, a hospital, a recreation hall, chapel and a children's home, the
"Nest". She promoted the idea of occupational therapy, bringing
in a Lady Gardener to show the patients how to grow and harvest vegetables
and flowers. There was a dairy farm and other industries, including weaving,
basket making and pottery. The church was at the heart of the community.
Lady Henry believed that once physical welfare had been addressed the
women needed to find inner strength through God so as to be able to resist
temptation when they returned to their previous lives.
had her own "cottage" (actually a very substantial thatched
house) on the site and spent most of her later years personally working
with the patients, usually wearing a simple nurse's uniform.
The 'cottage' at Duxhurst
(courtesy of the current owner)
through many changes, even during Lady Henry's time, and there was never
enough money to do all that she would have liked. She put considerable
time and effort into raising funds, even writing a book "Beauty for
Ashes" to promote the scheme. During the First World War the manor
house was commandeered as a Red Cross Hospital. Britain now had other
priorities and the patients were disbursed across the country. The children's
home remained, although it effectively became a home for illegitimate
Today the Duxhurst
village no longer exists. Few original buildings remain and sadly those
who benefited from the project's care have passed away. Just a few broken
gravestones hidden in tangled undergrowth are all that is left of the
splendid church. How sad it is that there is no lasting memorial to Lady
Henry's work here in Reigate.
you are interested in Lady Henry Somerset see below for information about
a new DVD.
by local author Ros Black. Ros's books can be ordered here.