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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Eleanor Souray

I seem to be attracted to authors with tragic lives, although I don't actively seek them out. Here's the brief tale of Eleanor Souray, who, as Eleanor Byng, Viscountess Torrington, wrote Over the Garden Wall: A story of racing and romance, published by Hutchinson & Co., in 1924. She also shares her name—Lady Torrington—with a character in the Wallace and Gromit movie, Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

This, like many other bits of research, started with a brief enquiry from a mate of mine, who was trying to confirm her year of birth. A dig around the internet turns up a certain amount of information: Lady Torrington was the wife of George Master Byng, the 9th Viscount Torrington, born 10 September 1886. The title was created in 1721 for Sir George Byng, Admiral of the Fleet in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Wikipedia has more about him and the succession of the title.

George Master Byng succeeded to the title in 1889 following his father's early death at the age of 48. George doesn't have his own Wikipedia page but would appear to have been something of a gambler and man about town. As a youngster, in 1899-1903, he was a Page of Honour to Queen Victoria and performed that role at King Edward VII's coronation before being educated at Eton and Sandhurst. He had briefly served with the Rifle Brigade between 1905-08, but had no occupation after that; at the age of 23 he was receiving an income of £1,000 a year from rents and stocks. He also owned eight racehorses and was living well above his means and borrowing money against the estate he expected to collect when his mother died.

By August 1910 he had borrowed some £4,000 and entered a deal with another moneylender to borrow another £2,000 in order, he said, to buy a motor-car. He later defaulted on paying the balance owed (£2,100) a year later, claiming that the interest he had incurred from the loan was excessive; however, Mr Justice Phillimore disagreed during a subsequent court case in October 1911, saying that Torrington had read the promissory note before signing it. Torrington was ordered to repay the loan, along with the interest and costs. Within weeks of buying the car, Torrington had been convicted of driving at excessive speed through Maidenhead High Street and disregarding a police inspector when the police tried to stop him. He had his licence suspended for six months (later reduced to two months on appeal).

On 23 September 1910 he married Eleanor Souray at the Registry Office in Horncastle, Lincolnshire; the marriage was resolemnized at the English Church, 11 Rue d'Agnesseau, Paris, on 29 September 1910. Eleanor was an actress, first appearing (as Nellie Souray) at the Haymarket Theatre in The Black Tulip and later performing in The Girl from Kay's at the Apollo (1903), The Duchess of Dantzig at the Lyric (1903-04), as Lady Brabasham in The Blue Moon at the Lyric (1905) and in The Merveilleuses at Daly's Theatre (1906). She also established herself as one of George Edwardes' 'Gaiety Girls' and became a popular and striking figure at the Gaiety. At nearly 6 feet in height, she was one of the tallest actresses in London.

The Gaiety Girls were often courted by the rich and famous of London and Eleanor was reputedly the object of desire of a young man whose father was a wealthy soap manufacturer. An account in an American newspaper some years later claimed that the young dancer did not meet with the approval of the father and "to acquire her aid in curing his son of the infatuation the soap manufacturer paid Miss Souray many thousands of pounds. Whether that was true or not, the exquisite Eleanor soon retired from the stage and bought some racing horses."

It is certainly true that Eleanor was involved in horse racing by 1909 and had a stable of fifteen horses at Epsom. It was their mutual interest that first introduced Eleanor and Torrington when, in Ostend in 1910, Eleanor's horse, Darrara, unexpectedly beat his horse Abelard II. They were married three days later.

Lord Torrington was, for the next few years, regularly in the Court Circulars as a gentleman jockey and horse-racer. In 1914 he enlisted with the 19th Hussars, soon after receiving a commission from the Royal-Naval Volunteer Reserve; he subsequently served in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli before transferring to the Royal Naval Air Service. He served aboard the aeroplane carrier Ark Royal at Salonika and was on a reconnoitering mission to the north of the Bulgarian lines in December 1916 when his aircraft developed problems and he was forced to land; captured, he was held for nearly two years at Philippopolis until peace was restored.

He eventually returned to England and his wife on 6 January 1919. Although he moved into their home at Homanton House, Shrewton, Wiltshire, he soon disappeared, leaving on 23 January 1919; he kept on the move, later saying that, during 1919 he had bought some racehorses and had for some time managed a racing stables in Belgium. Meanwhile, Lady Torrington could not trace him, and had to write to him care of his solicitor offering to forgive him should he turn over a new leaf and go straight. In November she received a letter from him which read:
Dear Nellie,—I have received your letter of October 30. Having carefully considered your proposal, I have come to the conclusion that it would not be for the happiness of either of us if I were to return to live with you, and therefore I do not propose to do so.—Your husband, Torrington.
Torrington was declared bankrupt in December 1919; with debts of at least £8,500, Torrington later admitted that his years gambling had run up debts of at least £12,000; his account of his recent financial position since his release showed expenditure of £2,555 against an income of £1,681 and, in the same period, he had run up further debts of £2,962 through betting and gambling. In February 1919 he had executed a settlement in favour of his wife for her life or the family home of Yotes Court, Mereworth, including the furniture, farm and lands (about 920 acres); the settlement recited that he was indebted to her in the sum of £20,000.

His troubles were far from over. In April 1920, Eleanor, Viscountess Torrington, sued for a decree of restitution of conjugal rights and Torrington was given 14 days to obey the ruling, which was judged in her favour. A decree nici was pronounced on 3 May 1921 on grounds of desertion and adultery, with depositions stating that Torrington had been having an affair with a "Miss Miller".

Although he disappears from the story of Eleanor Souray, Torrington's later years were just as turbulent as his married years. He was cited as the co-respondent in the divorce of Harold Ferens and his wife, Norah Elizabeth Ursula Ferens (nee Wood-Pottle), in February 1923. Torrington and Norah They were married at the Registry Office, Brentford, on 1 September 1923.

In 1925, Torrington was arrested and charged with trying to defraud a chemist by asking him to cash a worthless cheque, although was found Not Guilty; in 1926 he was bound over on a charge of stealing a motor-car; later that year he was cited in the bankruptcy of John Montagu, a professional gambler, who attributed his lack of assets to liabilities incurred for and on behalf of Torrington. In 1928 Torrington and his wife were in Newquay, where Viscountess Torrington opened a tea shop and, a year later, a restaurant in Truro, which went into liquidation soon after. Torrington died on 24 May 1944 at Lisheen, Buckfast, Devon.

Things would appear to have been no better for Eleanor. In 1923, auctioneers sold some of the contents of Yotes Court "following an order of the Court, including a large number of portraits of the Byng family" (The Times, 3 October 1923) and furniture, including a Queen Anne bookcase and a Chippendale mahogany hall table. Yotes was put in the hands of trustees who furnished Lady Torrington with an income varying between £300 and £400 a year.

Over the years she had become more involved in horse racing during the war, at first on a small scale in Ireland and then increasingly so when her horse, Rich Gift, proved to be a very good handicapper. She brought Rich Gift to England in 1918 and, ridden by champion jockey Steve Donoghue, he won the Bretby Welter Handicap and the Ditch mile Welter Handicap at Newmarket. As a five-year-old he won the Great Cheshire Handicap at Chester, the Chipstead Plate at Epsom, the Holiday Handicap at Hurst Park, the Great Central Handicap at Haydock Park and the Autumn Handicap at Wolverhampton. A second horse, Ulula, won the City and Suburban Handicap at Epsom in 1924. By now, Eleanor had earned the nickname "The Sporting Peeresss".

Eleanor paid £6,000 for the freehold of Elston House, Shrewton, Wiltshire, in 1919, and established a stud farm, which was successful for a while thanks to Rich Gift. Steve Donoghue was reputedly a partner in the business and continued to ride for her until the late 1920s. In 1927 the two had a narrow escape in Chiswick High Road when their car skidded and collided with a tram-car coming in the opposite direction.

However, all was not well: after expanding the property at Elston through the acquisition of parcels of land, the value of the property had been increased a further £30,000. The idea was to train and race horses for herself and friends but the overheads quickly absorbed her free capital. In 1923, she mortgaged the property as security against a bank overdraft and went to moneylenders in 1923 and 1924. The value of her venture depreciated and she faced heavy interest charges. Two years after a failed attempt to sell the business as a going concern in 1926, she tried to set it up as a limited liability company, but the scheme fell through.

In June 1929, the mortgage, amounting to £11,000 with a second charge of £4,000, was called in and the property put up for auction, although it failed to meet its reserve. Between December 1929 and February 1930, the remaining livestock and contents of the house were sold for £1,400, which was used to pay the most pressing debts and living expenses. By November 1930, it was estimated that Eleanor had unsecured debts of some £6,000; her interest in Yotes had been charged to an insurance company to secure a loan of £2,000; life insurance policies were held against a loan; and she had pledged her jewelry and furs to meet accounts. A fuller accounting in April 1931 put her liabilities at £26,243 against assets of £2,059. She was eventually discharged from bankruptcy, the trustee for her debts eventually offering repayment of 5s. 3d. to the pound.

Eleanor moved to a flat in Ebury Street, Westminster, London, and, in November 1931, opened the Vortex Club in Denman Street. She attended every night and the club had every sign of doing well. She dined at the club on Monday, 7 December 1931, night but was found on Tuesday dead at her flat. Her housekeeper noticed a strong smell of gas and the bedroom door of Eleanor's first floor flat had to be forced open. A gas ring had been turned on and Eleanor had died of asphyxiation due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

An inquest was held on 11 December in the name of Eleanor Mary Byng by the Westminster Coroner. A brother, Alfred George Souray, who gave evidence of identification, said that he had heard from her recently and that the Vortex Club was not going as well as she expected. Her worries were causing her sleepless nights and she had left a note saying that she was worried and depressed about her financial position. The coroner recorded a verdict that she had committed suicide while of unsound mind.

The probate of her estate was made in the name Eleanor Florence Marion Maud Torrington, her effects valued at £10,000, primarily (I believe) the remaining settled land that passed back to her former husband.

Fifty-one years earlier, she was born Ellen Mary Sowray. Her father, Edwin, born in 1852, was married to Mary Ann Husted in Thames Ditton, Surrey, in 1875 and was a bricklayer living at 37 Landseer Terrace, Kensington at the time of his daughter's baptism on 28 November 1880. She was the second of eight children and grew up in Kensington before the family moved to Walthamstow around 1890. Edwin later moved to Barking, where the younger children schooled. Eleanor had, by the age of 20, was boarding at Ridgmount Garden, St Giles in the Fields, erroneously listed in the 1901 census as Eleanor Saway. Profession: actress. In 1903 she was living at 52 Gordon Mansions, Francis Street, Camden; by 1904 she had moved to 14 Hanover Square; then around 1906, to 20 Old Queen Street, Westminster and, around 1908, to 35a South Street, Park Lane. She was living here when she met Lord Torrington... and the rest is tragic history.

(* Photographs used in this piece were found on Flickr. The later photograph, dated 1924, is from the National Portrait Gallery website.


  1. I found this article very helpful and interesting. I have wondered how Eleanor was related to me but never knew she had changed her name from Ellen to Eleanor. She was my Great Grandfathers sister. Thank you for answering that part of my family history.

  2. Hello Steve. I would like to get in touch with you via e-mail about this. Can you send me a message with your contact info? Thank you! Lisa