The Fleming Sisters

The RTFHS published The Gypsy Countess in May 2018 – this is a brief introduction to the story of the amazing life of a daughter of a Gypsy who married one of the richest young men in England.

Jemima, the daughter of Gypsies Selbea Stanley and William Fletcher, had chosen to settle in the village of Sturminster Marshall, Dorset, when she married Henry Cox, a farm labourer. They had three sons and four daughters, and three of these girls, Catherine, Susan and Mary were, surprisingly, to marry into the social elite, at a time when marriage was one of the few career options open to women.

Catherine Cox was born in the Autumn of 1826, and having received an education at the local charity school until she was 15, unusual for a girl from a poor family, went to London at the age of 20, in the spring of 1847 – for she planned to make her fortune. Finding a job at the riding stables in central London run by the famous jockey, Jem Mason, not only for herself, but her two younger sisters, Susan and Mary, meant that they learnt to be highly-skilled horsewomen. This lead to roles as equestriennes at Astley’s Amphitheatre, a famous indoor circus in the centre of London; here they performed as Kitty, Sukey and Polly Fleming. Astley’s was a favoured haunt of the aristocracy and high society, and the sisters found themselves feted and admired by rich and handsome young men.

The events that impelled the Cox girls to run away and join the circus lay in their home village. Their eldest brother, Hiram, died in 1843, having been ill and unable to work for some time. Their eldest sister, meanwhile, had already added to the family by becoming a mother to a little girl, Sarah Letitia, fathered by the son of a local farmer, John Martin. A couple of years later another child, Tom Martin Cox, was born and subsequently, in 1844, another boy, Robert Miller Cox, the son of a Robert Miller.

The brother nearest to Catherine in age, Henry Cox, having married Mary Jane Galpin in the spring of 1845, made nearby Wimborne his home for himself and his young family; whilst her other brother, Israel, was arrested in early 1847 for stealing a silver watch, and sentenced to four months’ imprisonment with hard labour. Clearly, the family must have been struggling financially, with only the wages of their father, an agricultural labourer, to rely on.

Catherine rented a house in St. John’s Wood, and arranged for lessons in drawing, music, reading, writing and French for herself, her sisters, and her niece, the daughter of her eldest sister, Tamar. The classes were to enable self-improvement, in order that they would all be equipped to enter a very different social world. It was a far-sighted approach to take, but Catherine was no ordinary Victorian woman.

In 1852 Susan married the son of a diplomat and, in the late summer of 1855, Catherine married George Harry Grey, the 7th Earl of Stamford and Warrington. The union, which turned out to be a very successful one, enabled Catherine to lift her entire family out of poverty. Nevertheless, Mary was to be something of a trial to Catherine; she had three illegitimate children with her lover, Thomas Lister, Lord Ribblesdale, before a brief marriage to Henry Hervey, the son of Sir William Hervey, ended in a sensational divorce case. There eventually followed a longer union with an eminent surgeon, Dr. Henry Kiallmark, which lasted until her death.

Catherine’s niece, Sarah Letitia, remained in her aunt’s care, married a clergyman, and had two children, the eldest of whom, also named Catherine, married a baronet and became her great-aunt’s heiress. It would be the descendants of this great-niece, often spoken of as Catherine’s adopted daughter, who would not only inherit the Enville estate, the family home of the 7th Earl and his Countess, but marry into the Royal family. A fact that may rather have amused the Gypsy Countess and a friend of her husband’s, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII.

The unions the sisters formed, perhaps most especially Catherine’s, challenged the social conventions of the day, and were not, of course, without their difficulties. Some whispered that the sisters were courtesans, others gossiped that they were Gypsies – in fact, they were both.

The Gypsy Countess is available either through the RTFHS or Genfair.