I’m participating in Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors Challenge. This is week 43 of 52 and I’m not giving up now, or rather I mean the writing prompt is “Quite the Character.”
Gertrude Barbara Rich Collier Tennant.
She was the wife of my 4x Great-Uncle, Charles Tennant.
Gertrude was born in County Galway in Ireland on November 9th, 1819. Her parents found themselves “in this wild and remote spot by accident, having been driven ashore on the treacherous Atlantic coast of Ireland some weeks before the birth. Gertrude’s father, the euphoniously named Lieutenant Henry Theodosius Browne Collier, RN, was in command of HMS Falmouth when it ran aground.”
This quote is taken directly from David Waller’s book, which is aptly titled “The Magnificent Mrs. Tennant.”
Yes, that’s right, someone wrote an entire book on her life. So, it would seem she was indeed Quite the Character. In reading through David Waller’s book, there is no way to sum up her incredible life here on just this one blog post, that would be a whole lot of scrolling. Suffice to say her life was illustrious. Her story is at times unbelievable, although according to the author, all of the information was taken from letters found in two long ignored old oak chests in an attic of a farm house, belonging to the wife of one of Gertrude’s grandsons.
Then there is the matter of her pedigree.
Her father, as I mentioned was a Lieutenant in the British Royal Navy as was his father before him. Pictured on the left is Gertrude’s Grandfather, Vice Admiral Sir George Collier (1738-1795), an interesting character in his own right, who served in the Seven Years’ War and the French Revolutionary Wars. He was also considered a hero in the American War of Independence commanding the HMS Rainbow (also quite the story). On her mother’s side it is mentioned that she descended from none other than Oliver Cromwell.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
The Adventurous Life of Gertrude Tennant, Victorian Grande Dame
Gertrude’s early childhood was spent travelling to exotic lands aboard various vessels commanded by her Father and accompanied by her beautiful Mother. At the age of 5 she and her family moved to France and there they remained for more than 20 years.
Gertrude’s life, from what I read, seemed to have a way of orbiting around important moments, interesting places and fascinating characters in history – kind of similar to the way Forrest Gump happens upon great moments in American History. Ridiculous visual there, but anyhow…
One story in the Waller’s book describes Gertrude and her Father (by happenstance) passing through town on the afternoon of February 25th in 1830 as Victor Hugo‘s play Hernani premiered in Paris which caused quite the stir between the new French Romanticists and the conservative Classicists. Gertrude would, a few short years later meet Mr. Hugo in person at his residence, and the description of this encounter in Waller’s book is captivating. This was only the first of their many encounters.
At the age of 14, while on vacation with her family, she met who would become her future husband, Charles Tennant, who at the time was 38. It would be 12 years before they would cross paths again.
She began to make her way in Parisian society by the mid-1830s, finding herself surrounded by members of high society and making many aristocratic French friends. The name dropping is exhaustive. Perhaps, it was via the circles she found herself in that attributed to her becoming Quite the Character, we are after all judged by the company we keep aren’t we? N’est-ce pas?
And then there’s the implied romance or rather long friendship with Gustave Flaubert, the French novelist. In that chest found in the country side were dozens of letters from Gustave to Gertrude, including dedicated first editions of Madame Bovary and other works of this famed author.
She did finally settle down at the age of 27, with Charles Tennant (then 51), although her parents were not entirely pleased with the union. They felt that their daughter would be more suited with someone with a higher social standing.
In 1868 the family moved into No. 2 Richmond Terrace. (Google that fancy pants location!) It wasn’t that long after, in 1873 that her dear husband passed. They had been married 25 years and had 6 children together. She seemed at that point to carry on with her social career and now on with her plans to marry off two of her daughters, Dorothy and Eveleen. Her plans seemed to play off very well indeed, because marry well, Dolly and Evie did.
- Eveleen Tennant married Frederic William Henry Myers
- Dorothy Tennant married famed explorer and journalist Henry Morton Stanley in Westminster Abbey
Perhaps for Gertrude Barbara Rich Collier Tennant, described below as a Lady of Property (with) no occupation, it is true that you are known for the company you keep.
In the 1911 England Census her address was still 2 Richmond Terrace, Whitehall, Westminster. She was now living with 2 of her adult daughters, 2 grandchildren and let’s count shall we? 8 servants altogether? I must confess I haven’t made time to watch Downton Abbey just yet, but I sort of have a visual of how this story goes. What even is a Scullery Boy anyhow?
Gertrude passed away on April 27th, 1918 at the age of 98. She had certainly left her mark on the world and was by all accounts Quite the Character.
Out of curiousity, I did some rough math on this probate record. If we calculate how much £ 80,312 in 1918 is worth today it would amount to a whopping £ 4,593,846! For my own reference, in Canadian dollars that would be approximately $ 7,855,477.
Fancy Pants indeed.
Photo of Sir George Collier : By John James Hinchliff (1805-1875) – The National Maritime Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6379488