Muriel (better known as Lady Coventry) has a street named after her – rare for a woman – in the area of Chippenham she was once Lady of the Manor for. Her achievements, as a prominent female member of the town Poor Law Board of Guardians, and only the second female magistrate the town had ever had in 1928, appear to have come in second to the extreme benevolence and generosity that she showed towards the impoverished residents of Chippenham. Lady Coventry Road, however, relates to the name she took when she married in 1893, and she was born a Howard and was a Lady from the get go.
She came from the family that produced Katherine Howard, fifth wife of King Henry VIII, but her branch split off in Tudor times. She was the eldest child of the 18th Earl of Suffolk and 11th Earl of Berkshire Henry Charles Howard, and as the daughter of an earl and a lord was entitled to call herself Lady her entire life, regardless of who she married. In the run up to her parents’ marriage her father had been MP for Malmesbury, located at the family seat at vast Charlton Park, to the north of the town. However, two years before Muriel arrived he had been defeated in the general election, so was taking a bit of break from political life.
Charlton Park, where Muriel grew up. It is still in the Howard family.
Muriel was born in central London at the beginning of the 1870s, and was followed less than two years later by a sister who didn’t live long enough to be named. Her next sister, Eleanor, followed just over a year later, when the family were living in Rutland, and then another – Agnes – midway through 1874 when they were back in Wiltshire. The son and heir to continue the Earldom, Henry, was born in Scotland, and then Muriel’s final two siblings – Katherine and James – in Malmesbury in the 1880s.
Both brothers were sent away to school to be educated, as would have been common for sons of the nobility at this time – both attended Winchester College. Muriel and her sisters, however, appear to have been educated at home at Charlton Park. One census has a Scottish governess in the household, who is clearly in charge of educating the young ladies. It is always possible that Muriel attended some sort of formal finishing school before she made her societal debut, but there is no definite record of this.
She’d have made a formal debut at around 18, being presented at court to the queen as would have been expected for the daughter of an Earl, and would have officially entered the marriage market. This didn’t happen immediately for her, however, and the 1891 census finds her still at home near Malmesbury at the age of 21, so she probably enjoyed several London social seasons. The household at Charlton Park included a cook, a couple of lady’s maids, a footman, a butler, housemaids and kitchen maids, and even a still room maid – in charge of herbs and brewing for them all.
At the age of 23, Muriel married her first cousin – Henry Robert Beauclerk Coventry, the son of her mother’s brother. He was two years her junior, and had been a serving soldier. It’s likely she already knew him, rather than meeting him through society, but it still would have been an advantageous match. He came from a prominent Scottish family, and a divorce scandal involving his mother in the late 1870s was temporally far away enough to be forgotten. They married at the church closest to Charlton Park, and initially lived close by, but in 1894 took on the vacant Monkton House in Chippenham. This Georgian-remodelled property had traditionally been the seat of the Esmead and Edridge families, but until 1892 had been home to prominent local solicitor West Awdry and his family. His death left the house available for Muriel and Henry.
Monkton House c1960
The first mention of her at Monkton House is as the honourable secretary of the Chippenham branch of the Soldiers and Sailor Family Association in 1894. All of the office holders were women from big houses and prominent families in the area. She also first joined the Chippenham Poor Law Board of Guardians in that year, alongside her husband, which was another function that was often filled by the wealthy and good of the town. However, in Muriel’s case it proved to be less of a duty and more of a passion.
She did not have children for a few years after her marriage, but at the end of 1897 her daughter Joan was born, and she was followed by sons Dan and Arthur at two and four years afterwards. They were all baptised at the Charlton Park church, and appear to have been close to their mother’s family.
All three children appear to have been sent away to be educated once they were old enough. Invariably, at this time, most children of the gentry were taught at home by a governess until they reached the age of nine, and then went away to school. Muriel and Henry were far from alone while they were gone, however. Their household in 1911 had a clutch of servants – a cook, a lady’s maid, a nurse, a house maid, a kitchen maid and two parlour maids. This was considerably less household staff than Muriel had grown up with, which may reflect a downturn in their fortunes, but equally could be explained by Monkton House being considerably smaller than Charlton Park, and therefore needing less people to keep the household going.
One of Muriel and her husband’s first loves in the life of the town was music, and they actively supported orchestral work in the local area. Both of them immediately joined the Poor Law Board of Guardians, with Muriel taking the position of Vice-Chairman of the Board for a time and though she was offered the position of Chairman she declined it. When the workhouse, the focus of the Board of Guardians, became the Chippenham Institution in 1931 following a change of legislation, she was nominated to represent the institution on the county council. Later she held the Langley seat on the council, and represented the area.
The former Chippenham workhouse, now the town hospital
During the First World War she was involved in the food control committee, ensuring that everyone locally had enough to eat. Her daughter Joan, like many other upper-class women of the age, volunteered at the local field hospital and became a staff nurse treating wounded soldiers. Neither of her sons were old enough to fight in that conflict, but Arthur went into the navy straight after the war. Her brother Henry, however, who had become the next earl of the death of their father in 1898 and married a blue-blood American woman, was not so lucky and was killed by flying shrapnel in 1917 while serving in modern day Iraq.
Two of her three sisters and other brother had married equally well (the third sister remained unmarried her whole life). Her mother, after she was widowed, left the big house and moved to a cottage on the Charlton Park estate.
Muriel’s sister Eleanor, and brothers Henry and James. A publicly available photograph of Muriel is not available.
In 1919, a descendant of the Esmead and Edridge families, Miss Carrick Moore, sold the Monkton House buildings and all the estates. Muriel and Henry, who had only rented the house until this point, bought the property that they lived in and all the surrounding land. Lady Muriel is referred to as the owner, rather than Henry, so it is probable that it was her inherited money that bought the estate.
Monkton House c1987
Muriel was deeply involved in the provision the Chippenham workhouse and later the Institution made for those in poverty. The general feeling among the place was that she treated the premises as her own house, and would often work tirelessly to improve the lives of those who resided there. She knew that many of the young women who grew up there and were placed in domestic service had nowhere to call home and return to during their time off, so she provided and furnished a large sitting room at the institution for their use, so they had somewhere comfortable to return to. She also provided a new organ for the workhouse chapel, and kept it maintained.
In 1928 she became only the second female magistrate to ever sit on the Chippenham bench, and regularly worked in local law matters, preferring public assistance cases and working in out-relief. She also had a considerable interest in the town hospital, and nursing association, sat on the parochial council of one of the churches, and was a manager of the local schools before they were taken over by the county council.
She was known to be a fan of collecting clocks. A 1933 issue of the Liverpool Echo reported that she owned over 100, all in working order, which required an hour’s winding daily. Whether she did this winding herself, or asked a member of staff to do it for her, is open to question. She is also thought to have been a keen gardener – a type of begonia was named after her in 1907.
Her son Dan served in the army, but remained based at home. Her son Arthur was sent around the world with the navy, but married and eventually settled. Her daughter Joan did not marry either, but lived in Oxfordshire for a time and also spent time in India and South Africa.
At the beginning of 1938 Muriel was taken ill and was not able to attend her usual public meetings and duties. Wishes were sent for her recovery to no effect, and she died in mid-February just shy of her 68th birthday. Many public institutions mourned her passing, with reports of her good work and benevolence given in the local papers.
“When dealing with out-relief cases she was always just; with her own purse she was always generous.”
“No one more than the officers knew that vital work Lady Muriel did, and the untiring energy she always put into everything she undertook. The officers felt they had lost a true friend.”
In her will she left £26,500 to her husband. Her daughter Joan died during the Second World War, and her son Dan died directly afterwards. Muriel’s husband Henry lived until 1953. In 1954, part of their land was sold off to make a cattle market on Cocklebury Road. Further probate was settled for Henry in 1957, when Chippenham Council acquired the land and house. Muriel’s house was divided up into flats and is now in multiple ownership. An estate of houses was build on some of the lands, with some streets named after the families that had owned the house – and that’s how Lady Coventry Road was named. The rest of the land now forms a golf course and a public park.