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24 Mar 2020

Lady Augusta Kennedy-Erskine: from illegitimate daughter to lady of the house

Written by Emma Inglis
Oil painting of a lady in a dress and bonnet with a toddler with red hair, wearing a white gown sitting on her knee. A red-headed child in a red dress stands beside her, looking at a baby sleeping in a crib.
Lady Augusta, pictured with her three young children: William Henry, Williamina, and Millicent
In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re publishing a series of blog posts written by our volunteers and staff, highlighting both historical female characters and their influences at their properties.

In the sixth of these posts, Emma Inglis (Curator South & West) looks in detail at the unusual life of Lady Augusta Kennedy-Erskine, former resident of the House of Dun.

Lady Augusta Kennedy-Erskine was born plain Augusta, eighth child of the famous actress Dorothea Jordan and her long-term lover the Duke of Clarence, who later became King William IV. As a child Augusta was part of a large and loving, if unorthodox, family; her time was divided between their home at Bushy Park and the theatres where her mother performed.

Although the Duke of Clarence was enormously affectionate towards Dorothea and his illegitimate family, ultimately, when pressure was brought to bear on him to make an acceptable marriage, he was forced to give Dorothea up. His girls, including Augusta, were sent to be raised by governesses in royal households, and in later life all the children were made life peers, giving them some level of respectability. Separated from her mother at a young age, Augusta retained mementos of Dorothea throughout her life, showing the childhood bond was never fully broken.

A painting of a woman, hands clasped, looking over her shoulder, wearing a white gown with blue ribbon around her waist. Her red hair, in ringlets, flows over her shoulders. The painting sits in an ornate gold frame and hangs on a wall with patterned paper.
Dorothea Jordan pictured in one of her most famous stage roles in ‘The Country Girl’

In 1827 Augusta was married by special licence to the Honourable John Kennedy, who inherited the House of Dun from his maternal grandfather. After journeying from London, via Culzean, they settled into Dun and started to make it their own. Craftsmen and decorators were called in to help them put their stamp on the place; walls were hung with decorative papers, new sets of furniture ordered, and crates of china were shipped from London. Together, they turned House of Dun from a slightly austere Georgian box to a Victorian home full of texture and colour, and fit for the lifestyle of a young and vibrant couple.

Augusta’s contribution was her amazing needlework that still survives at the house today. Working in satin, silk and wool, she crafted many beautiful pieces – often depicting exotic birds, flowers and foliage in an incredible display of skill. Other items were more serviceable, and family history relates that she left the less interesting aspects of her bed hangings for her French chef to complete.

There is a sense that these were happy years for Augusta and John, with their life before them. Unfortunately, change was not long in coming and in 1831, after only four years of marriage, John succumbed to a chest complaint during a holiday in Pisa and died. Augusta brought her husband home in a coffin and he was buried at Dun. A delicate mother-of-pearl clock was reportedly brought back with her, a beautiful yet sad reminder of their last days together.

An ornate mother-of-pearl clock with gold detail is pictured against a grey background.
Mother-of-pearl clock brought home from Italy in 1831

With no reason to remain at Dun, Augusta returned to London to be near her father. She married again and took up residence as State Housekeeper at Kensington Palace, a role given to her by her father who had by then been crowned king. It was there that she raised her three children, socialising among the London elite, making regular visits to the coast at Brighton and occasional visits to the continent.

Years later she returned to Dun only as the visitor of her married son and daughter-in-law, but her presence remained. A bedcover embroidered with the words ‘From Mother’, a final decorative addition to the household, may be the ultimate sign of the loving relationship between a mother and her son.