By Karen M. Schillings
It may seem curious to discover that the woman who eventually founded the Girl Scouts of the United States of America, Juliette Gordon Low, spent a good portion of her life in Wellesbourne, England, in the county of Warwickshire.
Most Girl Scouts are familiar with the William and Eleanor Gordon home in Savannah, referred to as the “birthplace,” where Juliette had her start in life and became known to family and friends as Daisy. They also might know that the first Girl Scout meeting took place in the Andrew Low estate carriage house, which Juliette’s father-in-law had originally owned. However, when examining Juliette’s life, it becomes clear that the residence she and her husband owned in England, the Wellesbourne House, was the place Daisy considered to be the home that really belonged to her. So how did this 19th-century Southern debutante end up so far away from her upbringing in Savannah? It all has to do with the family into which Juliette married.
Eleanor Kinzie Gordon, Juliette’s mother, came from a family of well-educated women, and she expected the same from her daughters. Early on, Daisy was learning to read and write in the home of a local teacher. At the age of twelve, she was sent to a boarding school in New Jersey. A year later, she attended the Virginia Female Institute and, afterward, Edgehill School, also in Virginia. She studied mathematics, English grammar, spelling, French, piano, and drawing. Daisy was quite artistic, so she enjoyed drawing the most.
Her studies concluded at a finishing school in New York City, where she learned how to dance, curtsy, and sit properly, the important skills of the day for members of polite society. In this era, it was understood that an elite Southern girl was being educated to take her place in society and to be a good wife, not to espouse a profession.
William “Willy” Mackay Low came into Daisy’s life when she needed someone the most. Her sister Alice had died of scarlet fever in 1880, and Daisy was grieving deeply over the loss. Willy had been in England for some time, studying at Oxford, but had come to Savannah for the summer to stay with family and friends. He was the son of Andrew Low, an immigrant from Scotland who became the wealthiest cotton merchant in Savannah. Andrew had built a large house on Lafayette Square just a few minutes’ walk from the Gordon home. In 1864, when Willy was four years old, his mother passed away.
Andrew moved the family to the Warwickshire town of Royal Leamington Spa. However, he maintained the Savannah home and only returned there when he was on business. It should be noted that Andrew Low disapproved of the relationship developing between Willy and Daisy since he wanted his son to marry someone of equal status. On the other hand, Willie Gordon wanted Daisy to marry a man who could support himself through his challenging work rather than marry an idle rich man.
When Willy returned to England in 1881, the impetuous couple continued to correspond, disregarding parental objections. Daisy was given the opportunity to see Willy at Beauchamp Hall in Leamington when her father consented to her first trip to Europe in 1882. Her second voyage overseas in 1884 gave her another prospect to encounter Willy, even though Daisy assured her parents that her trip to Beauchamp Hall was to visit with the Low sisters. Juliette and Willy strengthened their commitment to each other that summer. A few months later, Willy came to Savannah, and the courtship continued. When the couple announced their intention to marry in February of 1886, Andrew Low insisted on a year’s waiting period. Otherwise, Willy would forego his inheritance. Willy and Daisy agreed to the arrangement, but Andrew died suddenly in June. Even though it was customary to have a year of mourning, they decided to get married as soon as possible. Willie Gordon, unwilling to relinquish his daughter totally, requested that Daisy come home to Savannah for six months each year. The couple agreed, and the date was set for December 21, 1886.
At first, the newlyweds resided in Savannah and occupied the luxurious Low home. However, during the summer of 1887, the couple returned to England. At this time, Willy had two rented homes, one in Leamington, near Beauchamp Hall, and the other near Blair Atholl in Perthshire, Scotland. However, he wanted to own a country manor 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, and then he set about making improvements. 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 Wellesbourne automobile 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 delighted with Wellesbourne House and relished being the lady of this stately home.
As a part of the Marlborough set, a group of high society individuals close to Edward Albert, the Prince of Wales, 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 Yeomanry, his voluntary cavalry unit. In May 1895, the Prince of Wales attended a Warwickshire Yeomanry dance. Daisy was flattered to be the only woman in the room with whom the Prince asked to dance. In 1896, Prince Edward visited Wellesbourne House with his entourage. Daisy presided over a lovely luncheon for her honored guests.
Another celebrity of the time graced the Wellesbourne House. Rudyard Kipling and his wife Carrie frequented the home because Daisy’s mother was Carrie’s cousin. Once they had become acquainted, Juliette became good friends with Mr. and Mrs. Kipling. Daisy 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 his friends, Daisy started to feel lonely. She had been an artistic soul from an early age and delved into various pursuits to take up the time whenever Willy was absent. Daisy had already proved herself an excellent portrait artist but branched out into other endeavors. She took up woodworking and carved a beautiful mantel for Willy’s smoking room and other ornamental pieces for her home. Then she took to metalworking. 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 endeavor 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.
Although Daisy was thoroughly devoted to her husband, it cannot be said the same for him. Willy had a roving eye and was very keen on women. In 1901, Anna Bateman, an actress, was discovered to be Willy’s mistress.
This was particularly hurtful to Daisy since she had welcomed Mrs. Bateman to Wellesbourne House on several occasions.
Now Daisy had a dilemma; how to end her marriage quietly and honorably. If she filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery, then her husband and Anna Bateman would be subjected to embarrassment and shunned in polite society. Not wishing to bring scandal to either of them, Daisy decided to leave Wellesbourne and reside in London. At a later time, she did file for divorce, but on the grounds of desertion. However, before the divorce was finalized, William Mackay Low died of a seizure in 1905.
Without her knowledge, Willy changed his will and left his estate to Anna Bateman. Nevertheless, Daisy persuaded Willy’s four sisters to contest the will. In the end, Daisy did receive a small settlement, along with the house in Savannah.
Willy’s sister Amy Low Grenfell kept Wellesbourne House.
Daisy needed to put the heartbreak of her marriage and Willy’s death behind her. Without a career or the prospects of remarrying, she set her sights on traveling.
However, this strong woman wanted to have a purposeful life and continued to search for something meaningful to do. In 1911, she had by chance been seated at a luncheon next to Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had just started the Boy Scouts. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I had the good fortune to visit Wellesbourne in July of 2017. At that time, the house Daisy so loved was an office complex. Then in 2018, the property was sold and converted into condominiums. However, it was nice to see the replicated gates and to imagine what an exquisite home it once was.
I’m sure the many people who enter those gates today are unaware of the lovely lady who once lived there.
Since there was nothing on the site to identify the property as once being the home of our founder, I started making inquiries as to how a historical plaque could be secured for Wellesbourne House. After much research and outreach, two local historians, who at the time did not know the property’s historical significance, offered to help. A plaque was affixed to the home at the end of 2019. Dedication of the plaque was to occur in March 2020, but this ceremony was canceled due to the pandemic.
It has recently been rescheduled and will take place in April 2023.
It’s good to know that the Wellesbourne House is now correctly identified for its distinguished history in the life of Juliette Gordon Low.
One thought on “From Savannah to Wellesbourne, The Story of Juliette Gordon Low in Warwickshire, England”
Loved reading Karen’s historical story of our founder Juliette.Gordon Low.