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Conroy Family Collection

Introduction

This guide to the Conroy Papers was written by Katherine Hudson and John Jones, and originally published by Balliol College in 1987. It is not the most detailed version of the catalogue; further information will be added gradually. The more detailed but less organised earlier list is available online here, in readable though not word-searchable form. The collection has not yet been catalogued to item level.

This collection is concerned with the ancestors, families, lives, interests and business of the three Baronets Conroy: Sir John, 1st Baronet (1786-1854), Sir Edward, 2nd Baronet (1809-1869) and Sir John, 3rd and last Baronet (1845-1900).

Sir John Ponsonby Conroy, the 1st Baronet was born on 21 October 1786 in Wales, but was of mainly Irish ancestry, claiming descent from the ancient O’Maolconaire family of County Roscommon. He was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1803, retiring on half-pay as a Captain in 1822. In 1808 he married Elizabeth Fisher, a niece of John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury and sometime tutor to Prince Edward, Duke of Kent. Conroy was appointed Equerry to the Duke in 1818, on the Duke’s marriage to Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, widow of the Prince of Leiningen. The future Queen Victoria was the only product of this marriage. She was born in London in 1819, after a hazardous rush from Germany which her mother made in the eighth month of pregnancy. This adventure, which was a political gesture as two other Royal Duchesses were preparing to be confined in Hanover, was organised by Conroy, who arranged for the Duke and Duchess of Kent to break their journey at his Shooters Hill house.

The Duke died in 1820, but Conroy remained in the service of the Duchess as her principal man of business, and dominated her household throughout Queen Victoria’s childhood. All his family were very intimate with the Duchess, and his children were Victoria’s playmates. By the 1830s Victoria had emerged as heir presumptive. Conroy was, to the exasperation of her uncle King William IV, very active in maintaining the public’s awareness of her and her mother, by means of carefully orchestrated provincial tours and the like. He was probably instrumental in procuring the Regency Bill, which would have made the Duchess Regent if the King had expired before Victoria’s eighteenth birthday. If this had happened, Conroy would have been the power behind the throne of England for a season. Conroy’s influence over the Duchess was such that his enemies were able to put about the rumour that he was her lover.

There is not a scrap of support for this to be found in the Conroy Papers, but it is not so easy to bury the aspersions which were cast on his financial relationships with the Duchess and Princess Sophia, who enabled him to acquire substantial estates at Llanbrynmair (Montgomeryshire) and Arborfield (Berkshire). On Victoria’s accession in 1837, Conroy’s fortunes went into reverse. She openly detested him, and her antipathy towards him was probably partly responsible for the cruelty of the Court to the unfortunate Lady Flora Hastings in 1839.

Lady Flora, an unmarried Lady-in-Waiting to the Duchess of Kent, was unwell with a swollen abdomen, and was said in the Queen’s circle to be pregnant by Conroy. Her outraged brother and the Duchess rushed to her defence, but the Palace was determined to have its moral indignation justified and Lady Flora was subjected to a humiliating medical examination. Even when this proved her virginity, there was reluctance to admit that a gross injustice had been done. Lady Flora’s condition rapidly deteriorated as the swelling revealed itself to be a tumour, and she died the same year. The affair was exhaustively analysed by the newspapers and depressed the Queen’s popularity to such an extent that she was hissed in public.

By this time Conroy must have seen that he would not be able to advance himself any further by remaining with the Duchess, and his continued presence in her household was an irritant to the Queen. He yielded to pressure exerted through Wellington and, after an extended tour, retired to farm and live the life of a country gentleman at Arborfield. He received numerous Orders from European Royal Houses, an Honorary DCL from the University of Oxford, and was created a Baronet in 1837. The proper recognition of all these dignities was very important to him, and the trouble he went to o on the subject suggests that his reputation as a vain and pompous man was not entirely unjustified. But he was also a man of shrewd judgement, and his private correspondence shows him to have been warm and sensitive in family matters. He died on 2 March 1854.

Sir Edward Conroy, the 2nd Baronet , was born on 6 December 1809 at Dublin. After education at Charterhouse and Christ Church (where he graduated with a Pass Degree in 1830), he went on a European tour. In 1833 he was engaged briefly as an unpaid attaché in the Diplomatic Service at Brussels, and a few years he later he obtained a position at the London General Register Office. The last perhaps gave him a taste for the genealogy and antiquarian studies which were the principal diversion of his later years. To these studies he brought a curious combination of credulity in matters of legend, and critical scholarship in matters capable of documentary proof.

The story of his private life runs like a Victorian melodrama. In 1837 Lady Alicia Parsons, daughter of the Earl of Rosse, eloped with him from London to Gretna Green, where they were married. But the romance did not endure. Soon after the birth of their only child in 1845, they parted, probably because Conroy had a wandering eye. He had an affair with a ‘Mary’ in 1847 and a few years later an ‘adopted daughter’ appears on the scene. She may have been just that, but the circumstances imply that she was in fact his natural daughter, as she subsequently claimed. Shortly before his death, he sent his wife a passionate plea for forgiveness. Her response suggests that reconciliation might have followed, but he died too soon, on 3 November 1869.

Sir John Conroy, the 3 rd Baronet , was born at Kensington on 16 August 1845. After Eton, he followed his father to Christ Church, where he read Natural Science, taking a First in 1868; Augustus Vernon Harcourt FRS, the pioneer of chemical kinetics, was his tutor. Until about 1880 he lived mainly with his mother at Arborfield. He had no official appointment at this time but was very busy with the social round, hunting, family affairs and scientific studies. His early scientific work, involving some analytical chemistry but relating chiefly to optical measurements, was undertaken mainly in the laboratory at Christ Church, which he visited for a couple of days a week. He held teaching posts at Keble 1881-1890, and at Balliol and Trinity 1886-1900. he was elected a Fellow of Balliol in 1890 and FRS in 1891. He took a full part in University scientific affairs 1880-1900 and in Balliol business generally 1890-1900. He remained intimate with Vernon Harcourt throughout his life; of the Fellows of Balliol, he was closest to JL Strachan-Davidson (later Master 1907-16) and EJ Palmer (later Bishop of Bombay, 1908-1929). His friendships outside Oxford and science were mainly derived from aristocratic contacts made during his undergraduate days at Christ Church, most notably with many members of the Percy family. Conroy held High Church view and took an active part in the affairs of the English Church Union, of which he was a Council member from 1890. He also had an interest in hospital administration, and served as treasurer of the Radcliffe Infirmary at Oxford from 1897. A remarkably systematic man, his own papers, which form the greater part of the collection, are voluminous, complete and well ordered. He seems to have enjoyed the respect and affection of all who had anything to do with him. He never married and died in Rome on 15 December 1900.

The Conroy Papers comprise in the region of two cubic metres of material when close-stacked, and include perhaps 10,000 letters and probably almost as many separable items f other kinds (antiquarian notes, legal documents, pedigrees, financial papers and books, etc0. The Collection came to the College in stages between 1890 and 1984, from the 3 rd Baronet, from his executor EJ Palmer, and through the generosity and good offices of Lady Laura Eastaugh (a member of the Palmer family) and her husband, the Rt Rev Cyril Eastaugh. The entire accumulation has been listed as it lies, in varying levels of detail. The notes which follow make no pretence to be a proper catalogue. They are merely an attempt at a summary description indicating the principal classes of material to be found, with specific mention only of items which seem likely to be of particular interest. The numbers at the beginning of each entry are introduced solely for the convenience of this Guide and have nothing to do with the arrangement of the papers; the codes in square brackets at the end of each entry give locations within the collection. The quantities are mostly rough estimates, given for guidance only. Where there is no indication of extent it may be taken to be a small gathering of up to a dozen or so documents. A ‘bundle’ generally comprises around 50 items, but may run to more than twice this. The content will usually eliminate any ambiguity, but ‘Sir John Conroy’ is generally reserved for the 1 st Baronet and ‘Conroy’ for the 3 rd Baronet.

The scientific papers of Sir John Conroy FRS are described here.

 

- Katherine Hudson and John Jones


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