In the extreme northeast of Essex lies the parish of Thorpe, where Robert Cooper, a farmer, and his wife Judith brought their new-born daughter Catherine to the church to be baptised on February 11th 1720. Catherine, or Kitty as she was known to all, grew up to be a great beauty and attracted the attention of many well-bred gentlemen from the London social scene, but surprised everyone when, aged only twenty, she accepted a marriage proposal from the local vicar, the Reverend Mr Gough.
At a ball near Covent Garden, London, Kitty slipped away from her husband’s sight and disappeared into the night with a young aristocrat, John, Lord Dalmeny. Dalmeny was the eldest son of James, Second Earl of Rosebery, and heir to his father’s title and estates in Fife.
He and Kitty Cannon married in secret and she went with him on a Grand Tour of Europe; it is thought she told him that she was a young widow. The couple were very happy, and travelled to many of the fashionable resorts in southern Europe. However, at Florence early in 1752, Kitty fell seriously ill and it soon became apparent that the tuberculosis from which she was suffering would be fatal. On her deathbed, Kitty Cannon called for pen and paper and wrote the following,
“I am really the wife of the Reverend Mr. Gough, vicar of Thorpe, near Colchester, Essex; my maiden name was Kitty Cannon, and my family belong to the same parish. Bury me there.”
The young Lord Dalmeny was devastated by the death of his beautiful wife, and this unexpected confession of bigamy, but he was determined to carry out her last wish. He had her body embalmed and placed in a fine oaken coffin decorated with silver plates, which was placed in a larger crate, and together with her jewellery and clothing, was transported to Marseilles. From there, Dalmeny took a boat to Dover, from where, under disguise as Mr Williams, a Hamburg merchant, he hired a boat to take him and his unhappy cargo to Harwich. Unfortunately, contrary winds forced the boat to Colchester, where customs officers grew suspicious of Mr Williams, dressed in black mourning and bowed with grief, thinking him to be a Jacobite sympathiser who was smuggling French contraband into England. As they threatened to plunge knives into the crates, he drew his sword and made them desist. He made a full confession to the customs men, who nonetheless opened the coffin and drew back the cere-cloths to reveal the dead beauty. Dalmeny and the crates were moved into a nearby church, until the story could be verified, and news quickly spread amongst the villagers of the strange goings-on.
They came to the church and many of them identified the embalmed body as Kitty Cannon, who had lived at Thorpe and had disappeared soon after her marriage to the local pastor. Mr Gough was sent for, and at first was hostile to the Lord, threatening to run him through the body, but after hearing his full story, and bearing in mind his innocence in the matter, and his honest devotion to wishes of his dead wife, bringing her body home and staying in vigil in the church, he repented and forgave him. After the authorities were satisfied that no crime had been committed, the coffin was moved to Thorpe where, on July 7th 1752, the funeral took place. As the cortege passed the vicarage, Dalmeny stopped them and went indoors, to emerge soon after arm-in-arm with Mr Gough, who was dressing in mourning as deep as his own. The body was laid to rest with all the pomp and show as that of a real peeress, and Lord Dalmeny vowed to leave England and live in exile for the rest of his life. This was not long, as he died on August 11th 1755, at the age of thirty.
|Rosebery family arms|
Mr Gough did not remarry, and died in July 1774. A memorial stone to Kitty Cannon was replaced at the orders of a later vicar by a plain, flat stone early in the following century, although the parishioners of Thorpe remembered the unhappy, romantic story for many generations. John, Lord Dalmeny’s name was struck from the existing and future ‘Peerages’, maybe to spare his family from shame and association with the sorry story; the title was passed to his younger brother when the Second Earl died.
|John mentioned in Debrett's Peerage 1808|
|No mention in Burke's Peerage 1869|
A version of this story appeared in Volume 7 of Once a Week (1862), written under the name of Diana Butler, who claims to be Kitty's great niece, and who changes the names of the characters to Kitty Holcomb, Viscount Dalrie and Reverend St George.
Kitty Cooper was the first woman in England who had two husbands to follow her to the grave together.