Mary Lady Jeune 1849 – 1931

Susan Marie Elizabeth Stewart MacKenzie 1849 – 1931, also known as Mary Lady Jeune, was a Society Hostess and Journalist, a member of the Primrose Club, The Women Journalist’s Club and the Writer’s Club.

Mary Lady Jeune knew Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Mona Caird, Princess Christian, Winston Churchill, Pearl Craigie, Henry George, Thomas Hardy, Clementine Hozier, James Russell LowellHerbert Spencer, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Mary Augusta Ward, Oscar Wilde, and many others.

With no real court influence in the decades of Queen Victoria’s withdrawal from society after Prince Albert’s death in 1861 the social life of London was led by its society hostesses. Under their watchful eye, old aristocracy, intelligence, colonial money, industrial wealth and political power rubbed shoulders in conversation, ideas, gossip and wit.

One of the younger leaders of London society was Mary Jeune. She was born Susan Marie Elizabeth Stewart MacKenzie, of the Seaforth family of Lewis and Brahan Castle, widow of Colonel Stanley and mother of his two young girls, and from 1881 the wife of barrister Francis Henry Jeune (1843-1905).

She was an energetic and well connected hostess, busy magazine writer and indefatigable charity worker.

A contemporary American wrote: “Fortunate were those who, visiting London, took with them a letter of introduction to Lady Jeune, who on her husband’s elevation to the peerage became Lady St. Helier.

“The daughter of an ancient but impoverished Highland family, she had been brought up like a Spartan child in austerity and simplicity, with little foretaste or foresight of the ascendency which she was to achieve as much through her personality and natural gifts as through her aristocratic connections.

“She more than anybody else fused and liberalized London society, leading it out of the ruts of rank and class into a fellowship with art and letters, and surprising both elements by the results of her tact and magnetism. An introduction to her became a passport to many social privileges.

“May I attempt a picture of her? — A girl in figure, simply dressed, and fresh as her own heather, with large and beautiful eyes, which might be likened to one of her native lochs in their changing moods, now full, cool, and placid, as in calm and shadow, then as a loch swept by wind and sun, luminous, shimmering and dancing with, in her case, a sort of mischievous and communicative humour.

“She brought dissimilar elements together, and, as by magic, turned them into affinities. Under her spell the shyest put off their reserve, and the lofty their aloofness. Nor was she merely a mistress of social arts.

“It was her privilege to be admitted to conferences of the leaders of public opinion at which no other women were present. Her intellectual and politicial influence was as great as the charm which made her salon so brilliant.”

Mary Jeune’s dinner parties became legendary. As a hostess, she enjoyed bringing people together and encouraging them to talk freely on all sorts of subjects. She made sure that there were never too many around the table, and the food was light and tasty –a la Russe- instead of the heavy ill cooked ill considered banquets which had been such a trial of stamina in the past.

Above all, she could be relied upon to introduce sparkling and interesting women to match her own conversational talents and those of her chosen male guests.  As lions among the men around her table she might place Thomas Hardy (who stayed at her house when in London), James Russell Lowell, Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Oscar Wilde and Joseph Chamberlain.

Women at Mary Jeune’s table might include Matthew Arnold’s Tasmania born niece the writer Mary Augusta Ward, the lively, gentle Mona Caird, or witty Americans like Jennie Jerome Churchill ….

Sir Francis Jeune became Lord St Helier in 1905 and died in the same year. Mary Jeune as Lady St Helier sold their country house at Newbury and lived on in London…. With social life less attractive in her widowhood, Mary Jeune had turned to her other interests: practical politics and charitable work. She helped to organise thousands of hot meals for needy Londoners in the winter months, a holiday fund for poor children, and a Rescue Home.

She became a London County Council alderman in 1910, with an almost proprietorial interest in the Garden City movement publicised by society journalist, the New Zealander Charles Compton Reade.

After the Great War, a vast garden suburb was named after her among the lavender fields of Mitcham, and Charles Compton Reade designed another Mitcham garden suburb on the other side of the world at Adelaide. London County Council developed the Lady St Helier estate in the Surrey countryside south of the metropolis between 1928 and 1936. Its purpose was to rehouse people from overcrowded and decaying inner areas, and its success was made possible by investment in fast and direct rail routes to central London.

Morden Underground station had been opened as the terminus of a new Northern Line extension in 1926.   The Lady St Helier estate was designed as a garden city, following the ideas of Ebenezer Howard, founder of Letchworth and Welwyn, preserving as many as possible of the existing trees and natural features, and including generous open spaces and sports and recreation grounds.

It was hoped that greens, gardens, and shrubberies, backed by houses with bays and gables, would make the roads visually interesting and diverse. 120 acres, more than an eighth of the site, were kept as open spaces. During building, much of the material was distributed about the estate by a specially built light railway communicating with sidings at Mitcham. While all this was going on, Mary Jeune died suddenly in 1931….

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