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Colonel Stephen Digby

Of Mrs. Digby's Six Sons the only one to be associated with Thames Ditton to any extent was the fifth - Stephen. A man of quiet debonaire charm, a strong character, who mixed in court circles and mingled with the great. Surprisingly no biography of his life has yet been published. As he is part of the history of our house, we will spare a little time briefly to relate some of it now.

He had been commissioned in the army, served for a time in Germany, and rose to the rank of colonel. On his return he engaged the attention of Queen Charlotte, wife of George the third, who appointed him to be her vice-chamberlain. Digby's forceful personality did much to bring a touch of life to the somewhat torpid atmosphere of dull George's court.

During the king's increasingly frequent bouts of "alienation of mind", he was the only person who could manage him. When the tormented royal brain rambled uncontrolably others were often helpless to pacify him, but Digby just took his arm, spoke soft but firm words of comfort, "and the patient allowed himself to be taken back quietly, like a child"(82).

His fascination, too, charmed all female hearts. Fanny Burney, the novelist and diarist, who was herself one of the queen's ladies in waiting, fell like the rest. In August 1786 she notes in her diary: "At tea I found a new uniform. He was colonel Fairly"(The name she used to disguise his identity). "He is a man of most scrupulous good-breeding, diffident, gentle, and sentimental in his conversation, and assiduously attentive to his manners"(83).

Nevertheless, the ladies could only look and sigh. The colonel was already married. On the first day of October 1771, Thames Ditton had stirred to the sound of joyful wedding bells as he went from Fords across the road to St. Nicholas' church to wed the lady of his choice - his cousin, Lady Lucy Fox Strangways (84). Two of their children were also presented at the font there to be baptised(85).

But his wife was of a very delicate constitution. Again we may turn to the pages of Miss Burney's diary: "10 January 1787. I met Mr. Fairly. His lady, to whom he is much attached, is suffering death by inches, from the most painful of all complaints, a cancer"(86).

Col. Stephen Digby Miss Fanny Burney
Col. Stephen Digby Miss Fanny Burney

Her world of suffering ceased in the following August, and her body was taken to the little church where she had been married to be interred in a vault in the churchyard. Whereon were engraved the words:"SHE DEPARTED THIS LIFE AUGUST 16, 1787, AFTER A LONG AND PAINFUL ILLNESS, WHICH SHE BORE WITH INFINITE FORTITUDE AND CHRISTIAN RESIGNATION. HER VIRTUES AND AMIABLE DISPOSITION ENDEARED HER TO ALL WHO KNEW HER, AND SHE HAS LEFT A SADLY-PLEASING NAME, A NAME STILL TO BE UTTERED WITH A SIGH"(87).

The devoted Fanny says: "I read in the newspapers a paragraph that touched me very much for the amiable Mr. Fairly: it was the death of his wife. Mr. Fairly has devoted his whole time, strength, thoughts, and cares solely to her nursing and attending her during a long and most painful illness which she has sustained. They speak of her as being amiable, but so cold and reserved, that she was little known, and by no means in equal favour with her husband, who stands, upon the whole, the highest in esteem and regard of any individual of the household. I find every mouth open to praise and pity, love and honour him(88).

Love and honour him she certainly did. It was an open secret in the royal household that she was head over heels in love with him. In fact her attitude to his wife's death must have been tinged with mixed emotions. After a decent interval he would be eligible for marriage again. There would surely be a chance now for the faithful Fanny, even though she was thirty-five years old and a rather dowdy spinster.

He returned to the court "thin, haggard, worn", and grey, "with some of his front teeth vanished"(89); and took to visiting her appartment, when the two would read aloud to one another, poems, sermons, and other uplifting and edifying literature. Although she wrote that: "I believe Mr. Fairly to possess from nature high animal spirits, though now curbed by his fortune, and a fine vein of satire. He is, in mixed company, gay, shrewd and arch". But at their little secluded meetings "his spirits do not rise above cheerfulness; he delights in moral discourse, on grave and instructional subjects. I never observe him to lead but to themes of religion, literature, or moral life"(90).

Fanny's was in the main a very dispirited life, she wallowed in a slough of depression, waiting on the ever demanding queen's every whim, her only anodyne being the meetings with "Mr. Fairly". Once when the court was holidaying at cheltenham, Digby visited her at her lodging: "I cannot give you our conversation", she wrote. "the birds that chirped, the meadows that bloomed, the hills that rose before us, the purity of the air we breathed --- made a union of faculties with our senses --- And here for near two hours we remained & they were two hours of such pure serenity, without and within, as I think I scarce ever remember to have spent"(91).

But passion can be a great deceiver. In spite of his assiduous attention at their little tetes-a-tete, Digby's mind was really centred on rather more exotic material than the stolid bluestocking novelist. Rumours abounded that he was paying court to another maid of honour - the much younger, prettier, and more vivacious, if somewhat less learned, Miss Charlotte Gunning. And what is more she was reputed to be the possessor of a fortune of ten thousand pounds(92).

In December 1789, two years after the loss of his wife, The Times reported: "The Match between the Hon. Colonel Digby and Miss Gunning, takes place without delay"(93). They were married in the next month(94).

Fanny was mortified. The love she thought was hers belonged to another. Now nothing was too bad to be said about the former paragon. He was now "a man of double dealing & selfish artifice. He has risked my whole Earthly peace, with defiance of all mental integrity. He has committed a breach of all moral ties, with every semblance of every virtue"(95).

Especial spleen was reserved for the young lady who had weaned her shining knight away. She was lampooned under the pseudonym "Miss Fuzilier". So vituperative were some of the things which now began to creep into the famous diary, that when, after Fanny's death, her relations published it, they insisted that the public be allowed only to read a bowdlerised version of the events. "If you can cut out a volume of Digby", one of them advised, "it will be an improvement"(96). However, the original unexpurgated manuscript may still be read in the Berg Collection in New York Public Library.

Fanny Burney had to wait until she was forty-one before she - was finally married to the French emigree, General D'Arblay.

Stephen's mother, Charlotte Digby, still the owner of Fords, died in November 1778, and was laid to rest in Thames Ditton church (97).

Except for a number of bequests to servants, and some property to her eldest son, Lord Henry Digby, she left the whole of her estate to Stephen(98). However, it turned out that her bequests were somewhat over-liberal considering the state of her personal assets, which were said to be "greatly insufficient to answer pay and satisfy her debts funeral expenses and the legacies given by her". It was obvious that some property would have to be sold. Lord Digby, therefore, enterred into an agreement with his brother forgoing the whole of his share of the inheritance(99). This gesture not only allowed the various liabilities to be satisfied, but also permitted the Thames Ditton estate to be kept as a whole.

As we have already seen, Stephen Digby's commitments at this time lay in other fields. He had no requirement either for himself or his family to live at Fords, and again we find it being let out on lease.

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