No Ordinary Courtier She
When little Miss Murray found herself launched in a coracle on the river Towy in 1802 she could hardly have realised that this was an early taste of the adventure that would colour her much travelled life. She was but seven years old at the time and living in the Bishop's Palace at Abergwili just before the great flood of July 1802 changed the course of the river. When she found herself upon the water she was in fact afloat in the old river bed, which at that time ran close to the palace grounds.
Amelia Matilda Murray was born in 1795 the fourth daughter of Lord George Murray (1761-1803) and Anne Charlotte, second daughter of Lt-General Francis Ludovick Grant, M.P.; through her father she was the grand-daughter of the third Duke of Atholl. Her father was Bishop of St. Davids from 11th February 1801 to 3rd June 1803, which accounts for her presence on the Towy in what was perhaps her first voyage, and it was the memory of this and other pleasantries which must have lured her back, more than sixty years later, during the episcopate
of Bishop Thirlwall.
Her father's untimely death cut short the family's sojourn at Abergwili and it was while staying at Weymouth in 1805 that ten year old Amelia became known to the royal family. Weymouth was at that time a fashionable resort patronised by royalty. In 1808 her mother was appointed lady-in-waithing to the Princesses Augusta I and Elizabeth, which meant that Amelia was also frequently at Court, where her vivacious personality attracted the notice of George III himself. Later, one of her most intimate friends would be Lady Byron.
Miss Murray grew up to be an accomplished artist and a highly competent botanist, two qualities she would put to good use during her travels. But in the meantime she in her turn was destined for life at Court in an official capacity, for in 1837 she was appointed maid of honour to the new queen, Victoria. She was already forty-two years old and because of her maturity she became known as the Mother of the Maids. Although she greatly enjoyed her position at Court, she nevertheless continued her interest in the education of destitute and delinquent children and her membership of the Children's Friend Society, which she had joined when it was started in 1830.
At a time when most women of her age and station would have been preparing themselves for the serenity of old age, Miss Murray, now approaching sixty years of age, decided to embark on a voyage across the Atlantic. After setting out in July 1854, she visited Cuba and toured the American States and Canada before returning home in October 1855. According to the Dictionary of National Biography
she returned a zealous advocate for the abolition of slavery, but Bishop Thirlwall, after reading her own account of her experiences, recorded that in America "she fell into the hands of Southerners, who prepossessed her in favour of their domestic institution, and got her to promise that on her return to England she would publish her sentiments in its favour".1
Expanding on this observation, the Bishop wrote: "As long as she remains in the North [of the American States] she is only opposed to the precipitate measures of the Abolitionists and to the suppression of the slave trade, which, by limiting the number, appeared to her to have deteriorated the condition of the slaves. As she moves South she finds herself more and more prepossessed in favour of the white population, in comparison with the manners and habits of the Yankees; and the more she sees of the 'Darkies' the more she is convinced that they are incapable of civilisation, and that, if their labour is to be made really useful, it must be compulsory".2
He further observed: "The slave trade she regards as the great instrument appointed by Providence for the civilisation and evangelisation of Africa."3
Without sharing her views on slavery — "with what a frenzy of indignation and abhorence such doctrines would be received at Exeter Hall"4
— the Bishop confessed to being "very much of her opinion as to the capacity of the negro," and did "not believe that he will, or ever can be, raised to an equality with the whites".
These views about slavery Miss Murray recorded in Letters from the United States, Cuba and Canada,
published in two volumes in 1856, after resigning her position at Court to satisfy the convention that forbade the publication of any material of a political nature. But her strong loyalty to the Queen remained unsullied and in time she was made an extra woman of the bedchamber. Despite her inflamatory views about slavery, her account of her travels contains much interesting information. Thirlwall judged her to be "a clear-headed and perfectly independent observer", always keeping her eyes open and often meeting "historical persons".5
She travelled extensively in the United States, always sketching and botanising, often armed with an umbrella, which on one occasion was held over her protectively against pelting rain by the poet Longfellow
while she committed the scene to her sketch-book. But although she prepared many sketches to accompany her narrative they were never published.
Besides her talent for sketching, which she did "rapidly and well", and her interest in botany, which she cultivated "to the root", Miss Murray played the piano "from memory with a free bold touch". Characteristic was her claim to practise homoeopathy with unfailing success. Thirlwall thought her "a woman of very original and independent modes of thought, not always . . . consistent with that faultless orthodoxy which one looks for in a bishop's daughter". She was an entertaining though interminable raconteur, who was "said to have performed the almost incredible feat of keeping Macaulay in gasping speechlessness, vainly waiting, like Horace's rustic, for a pause in her fluency".6
In her later years especially, she seems to have spent much of her time in endless peregrination visiting relatives, friends and acquaintances. It was thus that in 1865 she felt drawn towards her childhood home at Abergwili, having crossed from Ilfracombe in atrocious weather after visiting in Cornwall. She was then seventy and her episcopal host, himself two years her junior, was led to observe that she carried her years with "rare elastic vigour". She still continued to rise every morning at six and must have been something of a trial for John, the Bishop's manservant, whom she knocked up the very first morning after her arrival so that he could show her around the palace and the grounds.
She left Abergwili armed with a letter of introduction to a canon of St. David's, who reported that she had made the most of her time and scaled St. David's Head, unafraid and undaunted. She revelled in the scenery and did not fail to produce sketches, again under her umbrella in a downpour. She also visited Tenby and went on to see the Talbots at Margam, all the time preaching to anyone who would listen the duty of contributing to the restoration of "the greatest Welsh Cathedral" and producing her sketch-book to prove it.
Death overcame her at last on 7th June 1884 at Glenberrow in Herefordshire. She was eighty-nine and one would like to feel that she was hale and visiting to the end. Besides Letters from America,
her published work included a volume of recollections (1868) and Pictorial and Descriptive Sketches of the Oden Wald