In the spring of 1847 Mary Cox, together with her elder sisters, Catherine and Susan, left her village life in Dorset and went to London – for Catherine had a plan to make their fortunes. They were soon performing equestrienne feats at the famous Astley’s Amphitheatre, as Kitty, Sukey and Polly Fleming. They were all, eventually, to marry into the social elite – but Mary/Polly also makes an appearance in the diaries of MP Chichester Fortescue at the time, having become his mistress in the months after her arrival in the capital.
The editor of Chichester Fortescue’s diaries, Osborn Wyndham Hewett, reflects upon the affair with Polly Fleming/Mary Cox, and remarks that ‘though nine years his junior [Polly] had the ripe, flashing beauty of a Gypsy,’ and that ‘Chichester Fortescue settled down to his Parliamentary duties, with occasional visits to Miss Polly Fleming as his principal relaxation.’
The reference made to their age difference, but Polly’s sensual nature, is probably offered as an explanation – or an excuse – for an affair in which the young woman involved could not have been much more than 16 years of age. Misogyny, of course, was alive and well in the Victorian period, and still maintains a presence in society today.
While her elder sisters were steadier, and made lasting unions, Mary went on to become the mistress of Lord Ribblesdale, and to have three children by him, before marrying, all too briefly, Henry Hervey, son of Lord William Hervey. Within the year she had become entangled in a sensational divorce, having eloped with her former lover. Was Mary, just a girl when she first came to London, really a victim of her own excesses, or her ‘ripe, flashing beauty,’ or of the excesses of others?