They Lived in Headingley

Lucy Beckett (1864-1891)

Between 1870-1914 a hundred and sixty members of the British aristocracy married wealthy American heiresses. One such marriage took place in 1883 between Ernest Beckett and Lucy Tracy Lee, only child of William Tracy Lee of New York. Lucy was just nineteen. The usual explanation for such transatlantic alliances is the agricultural depression in Britain after 1870 and the surge in American wealth following the ending of the Civil War. Declining agrarian rents meant that many landed families looked to this form of inward investment as a way of keeping their families financially afloat, and one calculation estimates that these ‘dollar princesses’ bestowed over $160 million on the stately homes of England during this period.*  For newly rich American parents mesmerised by an old aristocracy, such marriages were perceived as consolidating and enhancing their social status in the USA. But the Beckett family weren’t suffering financially, although they owned over three thousand acres of land, the basis of their fortune was in banking and railways. Perhaps the reason for Ernest’s marriage was the one given by Oscar Wilde in 1887, referring to ‘the American invasion’, he suggested that American women were ‘bright, clever and wonderfully cosmopolitan’ compared with their more demure (prissy?) British sisters.

Lucy was now the mistress of a smart London house off  Piccadilly, a country villa in Virginia Water and Kirkstall Grange, the family home of the Becketts in Headingley (now part of Leeds Metropolitan University)   Her husband revelled in ‘high society’ and was a member of  the social circle around the Prince of Wales; for Lucy there were dinners, balls and weekend parties for aristocrats, politicians and national celebrities where she played the role of hostess. In 1885, Ernest became the MP for Whitby. The couple’s first child, Lucy Katharine was born in 1884 followed two years later by a second daughter, Helen Muriel.

The pleasure-seeking traits of the Victorian aristocracy were also accompanied by a sense of paternalistic duty, and charity work was seen as the particular responsibility of the women of the household. According to the Vicar of St Chad’s Church, Lucy gave generously to the Christmas fund for the Sick and Poor, she subscribed to a scheme for the provision of a parish nurse for the poor and asked the Vicar for a list of aged and sick parishioners so that she might visit them in their own homes. Her major charitable endeavours however were devoted to the Church of England’s Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays.

The Society had been founded in 1881 to provide homes for orphan children or those whose parents were unable to care for them. It opened its 29th orphanage in 1889 at Glebe House at the top of Hollin Lane. A significant fund-raiser and member of the organising committee, Lucy Beckett was present at the opening ceremony. Within two years, it was obvious that Glebe House was too small and it was agreed that a larger orphanage must be built. Lucy herself was not to see the fulfilment of this project: on the 3rd May 1891, she gave birth in London to her son, Ralph and six days later she died. Her body was brought back to Leeds for a funeral at St Chad’s and she was buried in the graveyard at Adel Church.

It was as a memorial to his wife that Ernest Beckett announced a gift of £3000 to complete the building of the new orphanage. Two years after her death, the foundation stones of the new building were laid: following a service at St Chad’s Church, a small procession including Ernest and the three children made their way to the building site. There each of the Beckett children (Ralph was only two years old) were presented with small hammers and each child formally laid a foundation stone carved with their initials, saying ‘In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I lay this stone to the glory of God and in the memory of my dear Mother’. In December 1894, the home was formally opened by Lucy Beckett.

The St Chad’s Home for Waifs and Strays is now Weetwood Primary School and you can still see the foundation stones bearing the children’s initials on either side of the front door. Over the door itself is the crest of the Beckett family. 

* this summer there is an exhibition called The Dollar Princesses at the American Museum at Claverton Manor outside Bath.

Janet Douglas