Laura Bell Courtesan and Preacher

Laura Bell Courtesan and Preacher
Laura Bell by Wallace Ernest-Joseph-Angelon Girard (1813 – 1898) c. 1850. Courtesy of The Wallace Collection.

Laura Eliza Jane Seymour Bell was born in 1829 in Glenavy in Northern Ireland to Captain R. H. Bell, who managed Hertford’s Antrim estates, and to the illegitimate daughter of Lord Hertford. Laura who supposedly had an unsupervised childhood, eventually moved to Belfast. There she worked as a shop assistant but was alleged to have earned extra money by occasionally working as a prostitute, although she denied it. She next moved to Dublin and was frequently spotted riding around in her own carriage in the tree-lined avenues of Phoenix Park. It was also while she lived in Dublin that she reportedly had a relationship with Dr. William Wilde, father of Oscar Wilde.

In 1849, she moved to London where she became a well-known courtesan referred to as The Queen of London Whoredom because of her wealthy clientele of noblemen and dukes. Part of her success as a courtesan was that she was strikingly beautiful, so much so that on “one occasion at the opera the entire house rose simultaneously to look at her as she was leaving.”[1] In addition, as she had done in Dublin, she was often seen riding in her carriage, but this time it was in Hyde Park in a gilt one drawn by two magnificent white horses.

Jung Bahadur Rana before 1877. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One day while in the park, the Nepalese Prime Minister, Jung Bahadur Rana, laid eyes on her. He was completely bewitched, and she was allegedly just as smitten by him. He soon installed her in a luxurious London residence in an affluent area in Central London known as Belgravia. Their affair was well-known as indicated by a brief article published in August of 1850 in a Bristol paper:

“The Nepaulese Ambassador leaves this country this week, and takes with him a young English girl, of surpassing beauty and evil spirit – a second Lola Montes whom she must equal in courage to trust herself alone among the Nepaulese warriors and their wives. Her Majesty has been, it is said, much scandalized by the appearance of this young lady in the Nepaulese Ambassador’s box at the Opera, the said one being next to the one occupied by her Majesty herself. The name of the person alluded to is Laura Bell: she is of a respectable Irish family, but has been living for some time in London a life of open and extravagant profligacy. Her carriages, one of the most stylish equipages there, might usually be seen at the ton hour in the Park.”[2]

During Jung’s time in London, rumors circulated that he showered Laura with expensive gifts and that he paid £250,000 for a single night with her,* although that amount was actually underwritten by the Governor-General of India, Lord Canning. He also gave her a ring as a token of his love and promised to fulfill her every wish. Years later, after he had left England, she sent him a request to rescue the British during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The ring he had once gifted her was included with her request, and, at the time, the Nepalese court was divided as whether to help the British or not, but Jung could not deny her, and, in the end, he personally led his troops to the gates of Lucknow.

Despite all the money and gifts that Laura may have received from Jung, an interesting tidbit appeared in a newspaper in 1851 related to her finances.

“Miss Laura Bell, the courtesan of Dublin, whose name has been before the public, on the 12th September 1850, gave at London a bill of exchange for £195, for jewels purchased of Mr. Josh. Joel. She came to Paris without paying the bill, and Joel passed it to a Frenchman. When it came due, M. Rognoux, the holder, caused proceedings to be taken on it, and had her arrested. Miss Bell, instead of being take at once to prison, caused herself to be conveyed to the residence of M. Guy de la Tour du Pin, who advanced her 5300f. to pay the debt and costs, but under reserves. The lady was thereupon released, and yesterday she appealed to the Court of Appeal to have the judgment of the Civil Tribunal, declaring the validity of the debt, set aside. But, after hearing arguments, the court confirmed the judgment.”[3]

The year 1851 were not the only year Laura found herself facing financial difficulties. On 21 January 1852, she married an eccentric army captain named Augustus Frederick Thistlethwayte. His godfather was the Duke of Sussex and Thistlethwayte was exceedingly rich because of a wealthy inheritance. Laura was a spendthrift and eager to spend her husband’s money. The result was the couple constantly fought and she spent so much on her wardrobe, he finally told tradesmen she had no credit.

Despite being cut off financially by her husband, Laura continued to spend freely purchasing items plied by pushy tradesmen. Initially, her husband paid some of these bills. What he would not pay, she paid for with “pecuniary assistance” from a friend. As her spending continued unabated, her husband became so upset, he finally obstinately refused to pay any of the tradesmen she frequented. Of course, this made the tradesmen unhappy.

In 1878, one milliner, a Mr. Padwick, sued Thistlethwayte for “bonnets and shawls and other feminine fripperies.”[4] The case went to trial and Thistlethwayte argued that other women in his wife’s social position spent much less than she did. His attorney also stated, “Mrs. Thistlethwayte appears to have a passion for such wretched vanities, and it is most improper that her husband should be expected to meet the bills thus incurred.”[5] Jurors agreed with his arguments, absolved Thistlethwayte of responsibility, and noted that the credit was extended to his wife and not to him.

Although Laura may have had financial difficulties, she was popular, and, in fact, her popularity was great enough that a carte de visite (abbreviated CdV) was made of her. CdVs were a type of small photograph patented in Paris by photographer André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri in 1854. They were mounted and finished to be about 2.5 inches by 4 inches. Initially, the cards were slow to gain popularity, but, in 1859, when Disdéri published a CdV of Emperor Napoleon III, the cards became an overnight success and “cardomania” happened. People everywhere began trading CdVs with one another. Laura was popular and her CdV could easily be traded for CdVs of such people as the Prince of Wales, Lord Dundreary, Sir Bulwer Lytton, Robert Burns, the Duke of Wellington, Tom Thumb, or Dr. Livingstone.

William Ewart Gladstone. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Around the time of the CdV craze, in the mid-60s, Laura met William Ewart Gladstone, a British statesman of the Liberal Party who later became Prime Minister. He was a Scotsman that his biographer John Morley described him as “a highlander in the custody of a lowlander” and as an adversary “an ardent Italian in the custody of a Scotsman.” He was also interesting in another way because he always wore a glove or finger-stall to hide the mutilation that affected him on his left forefinger from a shooting accident that occurred in 1842.

Around the 1840s, he also became interested in the plight of London’s prostitutes and began walking the streets hoping to reform and save them. Around the mid-60s, he was introduced to Laura, who was at the time was a partially retired courtesan. Some people claim that he used his “rescue and rehabilitation” methods on her and thereby supposedly “saved” her. Nevertheless, she had already undergone a religious conversion a few years earlier after her husband went to hear “Richard Weaver, the converted pugilist, preach, and [he] became himself converted.”[6]

Thistlethwayte’s conversion, caused Laura to convert and before long the Thistlethwaytes were preaching about God’s glory. Laura quickly gained a following because her zealous and eloquent sermons were so mesmerizing. A visitor to one of her services in 1865 published his thoughts stating:

“Precisely at three o’clock a side door on the platform was opened, and I at once recognised Mrs. Thistlethwayte.  She looks in the very prime of womanhood. Her beautiful light brown hair was worn perfectly plain, and on her head she a little black bonnet, well thrown back with ruche inside, and long strings of tulle hanging down. She wore a dress of thick black silk, with embroidered epaulets and cuffs; plain white linen collar, and under sleeves the latter fastened with colitaires. Advancing at once to the table, she said, ‘Let us sing the 60th hymn in the book.’ … Mrs. Thistlethwayte reads beautifully. She has a soft, yet powerful, and admirably modulated voice; but she opens her mouth to a greater extent more than is necessary, probably with a desire to give as much volume as possible to her voice. … She next offered up a prayer, after which another hymn was sung. The text of the sermon was the 21st verse of the 10th of Luke. Upon this subject she enlarged for nearly an hour, with a propriety of expression, an eloquence of diction, and rapidity of elocution, positively amazing. The manner of delivery was, perhaps, a little jerky here and there, and she occasionally clenched her hand unnecessarily but as a whole, the effect was most impressive, and I don’t think any one who heard her went away unimproved. At the conclusion she offered up another prayer, and then withdrew, accompanied by some half-dozen of the pragmatic ladies in rich garments.”[7]

Once Laura began preaching, she also began referring to herself as “God’s Ambassadress” and claimed that she was “a sinner saved by grace through faith in the Lamb of God.”[8] The famous monthly American magazine, Harper’s, reported on her conversion in 1867:

“Laura Bell, who was the heroine of the London letters four or five years ago, who drove exquisite equipages and gave ravishing suppers, and fluttered for a tinsel hour, ‘become converted,’ as read in a late London letter, and now in an exquisite dress, but with faded beauty and angular features, preaches to men and women with eager concern ……. she gets good society to her dinner parties, and talks over human depravity with earls and marquises, and kisses pious countesses upon the cheek.”[9]

Having been saved and having gained new found respectability, Laura also began to invite her new friend to dinner. Gladstone accepted these invitations and their friendship grew. She then began to assist him in his work with prostitutes, but her assistance was not political as she provided social ministry and support to the women on the streets. Gladstone fraternizing with Laura soon sparked gossip. It happened around 1866 when reports surfaced that he gave her his annotated copy of Tennyson, and she gave him a ring, to which he said, “I will have it engraved: ‘L.T. to W.E.G.’ She insisted on only ‘L.’”[10] The distinguished Tory politician, Henry Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon also penned in his diary, “Gladstone seems to be going out of his mind. Northcote has just told that Gladstone’s last passion is Mrs. Thistlethwayte. He goes to dinner with her and she in return in her preachments to her congregations exhorts them to put up their prayers on behalf of Mr. G’s reform bill.”[11] Another mention of their relationship came from Edward George Geoffrey Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby. He was a conservative British statesman and three-time Prime Minister. He wrote in 1869:

“Strange story of Gladstone frequenting the company of a Mrs. Thistlethwaite, a kept woman in her youth, who induced a foolish person with a large fortune to marry her. She has since her marriage taken to religion, and preaches or lectures. This, with her beauty, is the attraction to G. and it is characteristic of him to be indifferent to scandal. But I can scarcely believe the report that he is going to pass a week with her and her husband at their country house – she not being visited or received in society.”[12]

Gladstone and Laura’s friendship would last thirty years, and no one would ever know for sure the exact nature of their relationship partly because much of the correspondence between the two was destroyed. However, conjecture about their relationship remains even now because she apparently wrote many letters to him and even professed her “love.” Many historians believe that he was greatly tempted by her but always maintained control. One twentieth-century historian notes of Gladstone and Laura’s relationship:

“Mrs. Th’s’ non-political nature may have been part of her appeal … but her religiosity, constant expressions of suffering and pathetic concern with respectability would seem, in addition to her ‘signal soul clad in a beautiful body’, to have aroused in Gladstone a powerful fellow-feeling and sympathy. … The Thistlethwayte affair seems to have siphoned off a good deal of the nervous energy which usually accompanied Gladstone’s work with prostitutes. This certainly continued regularly while he was Prime Minister, and several of his encounters are marked by the sign ‘X’, denoting temptation of his part. But the sign is also used after some of his meetings with Mrs. Thistlethwayte, a fact which in itself testified to the ambiguity of her position in Gladstone’s mind. Was she friend, or rescue case? When she left for Egypt on doctor’s advice in 1872, he noted in his dairy: ‘It is well for me that she goes.’”[13]

By the late 1870s, one newspaper journalist gave a rather cheeky assessment of the changes Laura’s life had undergone over the years resulting in respectability:

“I have received numerous letters asking me whether Mrs. Thistlethwayte, the pious lady who enjoys the friendship of Mr. Gladstone, and who has recently been exposed to so many ill-natured remarks in a court of justice on the score of her expenditure, is ‘the notorious Laura Bell of seven-and-twenty years ago.’ The lady’s name certainly was Laura Bell, but seven-and-twenty years ago was too much before my time for me to say whether she was notorious or not. All I can say is that if any discreditable sense is to be attached to the word ‘notorious,’ I for one cannot in any way admit the possibility of its being applicable to a friend of Mr. Gladstone, who, as all men know, has always been especially careful to limit his acquaintanceship among ladies to those who were most distinguished as models of virtue and decorum.”[14]

Laura’s debts were again the topic of conversation in 1881. This time an upholsterer on South Audley-street was trying to recover money for furniture repaired and new furniture ordered by her after she pledged the credit of her husband. The furniture maker knew nothing about the earlier case with the milliner nor that Laura was given a set allowance. He also did not remember receiving a circular that stated she had no authority to order any goods on behalf of her husband. Thus, when the verdict came back, it did not go well for the furniture maker:

“The jury, after being locked up for more than hour, found that Mrs. Thistlethwayte had not in fact authority to pledge her husband’s credit … His Lordship, upon this finding, entered the verdict for the defendant.”[15]

On 7 August 1887, a terrible accident happened at the Thistlethwayte’s home. Thistlethwayte apparently had a bad habit of shooting his revolver into the ceiling to summon his valet and therefore always kept a revolver nearby. Unfortunately, one night he accidentally shot himself. He was fifty-seven, and numerous newspapers reported on his “singular death,” with the following paragraph being printed by a Yorkshire one:

“On Sunday night, Mr. E.F. Thistlethwayte Grosvenor-square, London, who was in the habit of keeping a loaded revolver on a table by his bedside, was seized with a fainting fit, stumbled against the table, knocked down the pistol, and caused it to explode with fatal result to himself.”[16]

Although Thistlethwayte’s death was claimed to be an accident some people were uncertain if it truly was an accident. Everyone knew Laura was unhappily married and there were hints that her husband had relationships with other women. However, the uncertainty never amounted to anything and Gladstone always believed it was accident. In the end, Laura inherited everything, which was reported to be an estate valued at £71,561 1s 4d.

After her husband death, Laura never remarried, but she did continue to preach and lecture to young girls, as well as distribute religious tracts in the parks. She and Gladstone also remained friends until the day she died. That happened on 30 May 1894 at Woodbine Cottage in West Hampstead. A death notice appeared in the society gossip section of some papers, and one newspaper published the following about Laura:

“Her striking beauty, her rich and mellifluous voice, and her splendid figure made her a most powerful and persuasive evangelist. … for between 30 and 40 years her house was the centre of much religious activity. Many of the leading men of the day, both in politics and religion, were her visitors. Mr. Gladstone, for one was profoundly struck by the intense earnestness and spirituality of her character, and was not an infrequent visitor at her house.”[17]


*The amount is more likely the total in gifts Rana gave to Bell over the 90 days they spent together.

References:

  • [1] The Graphic, “Court and Club,” June 9, 1894, p. 18.
  • [2] Bristol Times and Mirror, “The Nepaul Princes,” August 17, 1850, p. 2.
  • [3] Limerick Chronicle, “London, January 23,” January 25, 1851, p. 2.
  • [4] H. Wyndham, Feminine Frailty (E. Benn limited, 1929), p. 45.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 46.
  • [6] The Newcastle Guardian, “Mrs. Thistlethwayte the Lady Preacher,” April 15, 1865, p. 6.
  • [7] Cork Constitution, “Religious Service Conducted by Mrs. Thistlethwayte,” April 11, 1865, p. 3.
  • [8] M. Harrison, London by gaslight, 1861-1911 (London: P. Davies, 1963), p. 27.
  • [9] Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (New York: Harper & brothers, 1867), p. 668.
  • [10] P. Loewenberg, Fantasy and Reality in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 100.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] H.C.G. Matthew, Gladstone 1809-1898 (Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 243.
  • [14] Vanity Fair v. 19 (London: Vanity Fair, 1878), p. 239.
  • [15] Leeds Mercury, “Mrs. Thistlewayte’s Debts,” November 18, 1881, p. 7.
  • [16] Yorkshire Gazette, August 13, 1887, p. 11.
  • [17] Coventry Herald, “Mrs. Thistlethwayte,” June 8, 1894, p. 3.

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