“A perpetual state of honeymoon” – snapshots from a Victorian marriage, Sir Malcolm Murray MacGregor and Lady Helen Murray MacGregor Née McDonnell

The Council Archives holds letters between Malcolm MacGregor and his wife Helen from the year of their marriage in 1864, to the year of his death, at the relatively young age of 45, in 1879. This collection is of interest partly because many of the letters date from when Sir Malcolm, a distinguished officer in the Royal Navy, was at sea, and partly because there are sets of letters between the couple, that give a very clear indication of the kind of relationship that they shared. This forms a unique snapshot into the lives of a relatively well to do couple in mid-nineteenth century Scotland during the Victorian period. There is a popular view of the Victorian sensibility as a stuffy one, cold, prudish and formal. It is true enough that aristocratic marriages in this period still tended to be contracted as a form of business arrangement to ensure that land and property stayed in the hands of those deemed suitable to keep it, as they had been amongst the upper classes since mediaeval times. This marriage, however, was most definitely a love match. It is very clear from the tone of the letters that the couple maintained an extremely affectionate relationship throughout their marriage, and that the partnership was in every sense an equal one.

Malcolm Murray MacGregor was born on 29th August 1834, son of Sir John Atholl Bannatyne Murray-MacGregor and his wife Mary Charlotte Hardy. His wife, Helen Laura McDonnell was born on 2nd May 1837, daughter of Hugh Seymour McDonnell, 4th Earl of Antrim and Laura Cecilia Parker. They married on 26th October 1864 at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, London.

Malcolm Murray MacGregor had a successful career in the Royal Navy joining as a Midshipman at the age of thirteen in 1847. By 1854 he had earned his Lieutenancy and rose quickly through the ranks after this becoming Commander in 1856 after his service in the Crimean War, and Captain in 1862 when he was in command of the ship HMS Harrier. Sir Malcolm was popular with the crews who served under him and would appear to have fostered a level of concern for his men that was not always typical of Naval officers at this time. In March 1869, Malcolm MacGregor was granted a bronze medal by the Royal Humane Society for jumping into shark infested waters to rescue one of his crew who had fallen overboard. The incident happened at an anchorage referred to as the Lagos Roads off the coast of West Africa on the 3rd October 1868. The man, named Clarke fell overboard off HMS Danae, Malcolm MacGregor’s command at the time. Sir Malcolm jumped into the sea from the stern windows of the vessel and supported the man in the water until a boat could reach them. The letter that he wrote to his wife three days later is characteristically low-key about the incident: –

“Since we left Jellah Coffee, we have had 3 men overboard but fortunately picked them all up without them being much the worse.”

It is not clear where the couple met, although it seems likely that it would have been in London. Although Sir Malcolm was ostensibly based at the family seat, Edinchip near Lochearnhead, Perthshire, and had inherited the Baronetcy on the death of his father in 1851, and Lady Helen was originally from Glenarm in Northern Ireland, like most aristocratic families, they will have spent a good deal of their time at the family houses in London. Doubtless the couple met at some social occasion during London’s social Season.

It would appear that they were acquainted for some time before marrying, as both Malcolm and Helen had their portraits taken by well-known society photographer Camille Silvy in 1860. Long engagements were common amongst the upper classes at this time.

There is a small bundle of letters surviving written by Malcolm to his fiancée just before their wedding which give some idea of the nature of their relationship in the early days. The letters, dating from late September to early October 1864, are all very affectionate in tone and are shown below.

This letter of 29th September 1864 is devoted mostly to the subject of wedding preparations. Malcolm dwells a little on his reticence in this letter – “I do wish you were over here – you mustn’t judge of my feeling by my letters as I never say much in them.” But he does end this one “longing for you, my own darling Helen” so perhaps he isn’t as unemotional as he is suggesting.

In his letter of 1st October 1864, Malcolm describes himself as ‘hungry’ for the mail each day and tells Helen “You ain’t to stop writing daily on any account. The only thing I bargain for is that you are not to expect me to write daily – not but what I like writing to you but because I may often miss the right time and so you will make a point of alwaysconstantly writing to me while at the same time you will never expect any answer.” He is clearly missing his intended, and the tone of the letter conveys the light-hearted and humorous nature of their relationship very well.

There is more detail about the circumstances behind the match between Sir Malcolm and Lady Helen in the letter of 2nd October 1864. It would appear from what is said that Lady Helen was marrying into a family that was not as wealthy as her own. Malcolm remarks – “So long as we live within our income we may have to put up with many inconveniences perhaps… I only hope you won’t mind being pinched a little. I must try to make up to you by my affection what you will lose in mating with such a poor man. But I hope… that you won’t be unhappy because you can’t have all you might like. As for me, as long as I have your love, my own darling, I shall care very little for the rest.” The affection of her husband-to-be does appear to be large enough to make up any deficit, in another part of the letter he says: “I do look forward so eagerly to our next meeting – you don’t know my darling how I miss you. I do wish it was all over and that we were fast bound. However, it is nearer than it was and the time will slip away faster when you are back in London and I can bask in your smile again – my own love.” An embarrassment of riches indeed. Having said that, the ‘pinching’ that he speaks of is relative. The Earl of Antrim was very well off, so it is only a comparative comedown in the world for Helen. As we shall see in later letters, the couple were still able to afford to run an establishment with several servants on Malcolm’s naval officer salary, they would be considered comparatively rich by present day standards.

The letter of 4th October 1864 is where the quote used for these blog posts is taken from. Their wedding was clearly going to be an elaborate affair as they are to be married by the Bishop of Oxford, who at this time was Samuel Wilberforce, famous for speaking against the theories of Charles Darwin at a debate in Oxford in 1860.

Malcolm also refers to the organisation of their honeymoon “…we can easily make a little more time between the (conventional) honeymoon and our visit to Scotland. I say conventional because I am sanguine enough to hope we may live all our lives in a perpetual state of honeymoon.” It would appear from the letters in this collection that he was able to make good on this promise.

Council Archives staff will be blogging letters between Sir Malcolm and Lady Helen Macgregor every day from March 4th to the 15th on the anniversary of their composition in 1867. This bundle is unique in the collection as there are letters in it from both parties, which give us a snapshot of the story of their marriage from a time when they were separated, Helen being in East Molesey, Surrey with the couple’s two children, and Malcolm in Perthshire house hunting as the family prepare to return to living primarily in Scotland.