By Karen Schillings, Council Historian
In July of 2017, I travelled with my husband and another couple throughout England and Wales. During our journey through the English countryside, we had the good fortune to visit Juliette (Daisy) Gordon Low’s country estate, Wellesbourne House. Little did I know at the time when we started this trip that it would set into motion my personal “Take Action” project as a Girl Scout volunteer and historian. However, to understand my “project”, one must first understand the history of Wellesbourne House as it pertains to Juliette.
Most individuals connected with Girl Scouts, either as girl members or adults, have knowledge of Juliette’s birthplace in Savannah, Georgia, a National Historic Landmark. This home is now owned and preserved by GSUSA, and the place most associated with Juliette, since she resided there until her marriage to William (Willy) Mackay Low in 1886. Her marriage to Willy initiated many changes for Juliette, which would eventually take her across the Atlantic to live a good portion of her life in England. Although there were many places important to Daisy during her lifetime, the one that was truly her delight was the Wellesbourne House in the county of Warwickshire, England. So how did it come to pass that this young woman from Savannah became the lady of such a stately home on the “other side of the pond”?
As newlyweds, the Lows moved into the elegant Andrew Low house (on the National Registry of Historic Homes), also located in Savannah. Even though Andrew Low was a wealthy cotton merchant, originally from Scotland, he maintained a home for his family in Savannah. When his wife died, Andrew retained the Savannah home, but moved his young family to his other home in England. Andrew Low died in 1886 shortly before his son’s marriage, so Willy inherited his father’s estate, including the house in Savannah. Juliette and Willy resided in this house immediately after their wedding, but then moved to England in 1887. At this time, Willy had a rented house in Leamington, but he wanted to own a country home befitting his social position. To that end, he purchased Wellesbourne House in rural Warwickshire in 1889, a fifty-five-acre estate. Having inherited 750,000 pounds from his father’s fortune, Willy could well afford the purchase price. He soon set about making improvements on the home. The estate grew to twenty bedrooms with a stable for forty horses, a cottage for the gardener, a separate laundry facility, a greenhouse, and a garage where the first automobile in Wellesbourne was housed. This was a home for entertaining and living the good life. Daisy was excited to have a home of her own, and thoroughly enjoyed selecting the furnishings. From all accounts, she was elated with Wellesbourne House and relished being the lady of this splendid home.
Being a part of the Marlborough set, a group of high society individuals who were close to Edward Albert, the Prince of Wales, meant that Willy and Daisy had many social events on their schedule. Willy became president of the Wellesbourne Cricket Club and was also a member of the Warwickshire Yoemanry, a voluntary cavalry unit. In May of 1895, the Prince of Wales attended a Warwickshire Yeomanry dance. Daisy was flattered to be the only woman in the room who was asked to dance by the Prince. In 1896, Edward actually visited Wellesbourne House with his entourage. Daisy presided over a delightful luncheon for her honored guests.
Another celebrity of the time graced the Wellesbourne House. Rudyard Kipling and his wife Carrie frequented the home. Daisy’s mother was the cousin of Carrie. Once they had become acquainted, Juliette became good friends with Mr. and Mrs. Kipling. She enjoyed this refreshing couple who were quite different from the social elites to whom Willy was attracted.
Because Willy was away so much on hunting trips, racing his horses, or gambling with friends, Daisy started to feel lonely. She had been an artistic soul from an early age and delved into a variety of pursuits to take up the time whenever Willy was absent. She had already proved herself to be an excellent portrait artist, but she branched out into other endeavors. One of these ventures was taking up metal working. It’s not for certain who taught her how to forge, but it’s suspected that the village blacksmith John Thomas Thorpe was the one who instructed her. She took on a major project by designing and then forging the gates for the entrance to Wellesbourne House. Those original gates were later shipped to Savannah to adorn the entrance of Gordonston Memorial Park, but they are now on display at the Birthplace. However, replicas made from Daisy’s design still hang at the Wellesbourne House entrance.
As the years passed, Juliette found that she and Willy were growing apart. In 1901, she discovered that Willy had been unfaithful. Totally devastated, embarrassed, and not wishing to bring scandal to the family, Daisy decided to leave Wellesbourne and take up residence in London, never to return to the home she loved so much. At a later time, she filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion. Before the divorce was finalized, Willy died of a stroke.
Fast forward to 2017, when my husband’s plans for us to tour England and Wales were being finalized. As Denny was completing his research on the places we would visit, one day it dawned on me that perhaps our travels would take us near Juliette’s Wellesbourne House. Being a senior citizen of the 21st century, I decided to “google it”. What I found was that the village of Wellesbourne was located just 7 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. Since Denny had already made plans for us to visit the Shakespeare sites, I considered this to be a “slam dunk”. However, my extremely methodical husband had everything logically planned out in meticulous order. Since Wellesbourne was east of Stratford-upon-Avon, and we would be travelling west to Wales, Denny was concerned about the havoc this departure from his plan would do to our schedule. Nevertheless, he agreed to adjust the itinerary if I could discover the exact location of the house, so we wouldn’t be wasting time trying to find it.
Here is where my quest began. Even though I have been a council historian for over a dozen years, there was nothing on the internet or in any of the books I have read about Juliette which reveals the exact location of Wellesbourne House. I realized that I needed to contact someone locally to help me know its whereabouts. Once again, I started searching the internet to find a government agency or historical society that might be able to give me directions to the house. After sending emails to several sites, I finally received a response from Benjamin Earl, the web editor of the Our Warwickshire website. Since this website posts historical information concerning the county where Wellesbourne is situated, Ben was intrigued about the history of Juliette’s time at Wellesbourne House. He kindly took it upon himself to search country records, so he could determine its precise location and relay that information to me. With this knowledge in hand, I was able to persuade my husband that we could easily deviate from our scheduled route and still make it to Conway, Wales with little loss of time. Hence, on July 30, 2017, we made our way to Wellesbourne House.
The information given to us by Ben made it easy to find the house. Seeing the house both thrilled and saddened me at the same time. Juliette’s beautiful home had been converted to an office complex and asphalt now covered her once lovely garden. However, just seeing this place that meant so much to Daisy was very moving to me. The replicated gates that grace the entrance reminded me of the woman who was able to take on any task and see it to completion. Still, the one thing that bewildered me was the lack of anything that acknowledged the incredible woman who once lived there. Although there is a plaque on the gate post which identifies it as the Wellesbourne House, nothing associated with Juliette was evident.
When I returned home, I immediately contacted Ben again, asking him if there might be a way to get a plaque for the house which would indicate its association to Juliette Gordon Low. He sent me a list of historical societies and groups that I could contact, but when I reached out to them, I either received no reply or a “Sorry, we can’t help you.” I was becoming very discouraged, but then I decided to try the village of Wellesbourne to see if anyone there could give me a lead. Luckily, the web master at My Wellesbourne sent me a link to the Wellesbourne Local History Group. On the website was the email address for the web master, Michael Dane. I immediately contacted Michael, and he responded to my request for information about who might allow a plaque to be placed on Wellesbourne House. Michael informed me that the house had recently changed hands and was being renovated into apartments. He went out of his way to research the new owners, contact them, and arrange for a meeting to request that a plaque be placed on the house, indicating that Juliette Gordon Low had once lived there. The owners gave their approval!!!!!
Michael then set to work researching companies which could make the appropriate plaque, while I got busy letting my fellow historians know that we needed to fund this project. At one of our historian meetings, we discussed and decided upon the appropriate wording for the plaque. I then relayed the wording to Michael, who sent it on to the plaque maker. Once the manufacturer had the specifications, Michael was able to inform me of the cost, which was nearly $350. Overwhelming support and generous donations from not only the GCNWI historians, but also the Northern Illinois historians, made it possible for the plaque to be purchased. Michael recently received the completed plaque and sent me a photo of it. The installation will take place in the near future.
From July 2017 to July 2018, I spent many hours trying to determine how I could achieve my goal of acquiring a plaque for Daisy’s Wellesbourne House. I realized that the Girl Scout in me would not let detours along this journey impede my progress. Finding the right people to help in this quest was key. Thanks to Ben, Michael, and my sister historians, we accomplished this as a team. I feel that Juliette Gordon Low would be proud to know that her beloved home will now be identified properly. She was passionate about starting an organization for girls that would allow them to reach their full potential in whatever they chose to do. This experience has taught me that you are never too old to follow Juliette’s ideals. So, if you are really passionate about something, you WILL find a way to discover, connect, and TAKE ACTION.