Mary Anne Theresa Whitby

Mary Anne Theresa Symonds was born on 18 December 1783 to Thomas Symonds, a Post Captain in the Royal Navy. In 1802,  she met and married John Whitby, a Naval Captain. Straight after the wedding they travelled to Newlands Manor in Milford to stay with Admiral Cornwallis, but when her husband returned to sea, Mrs. Whitby remained as a guest.

Cornwallis held her in sufficiently high regard that when he was called to sea he passed control to her of the rebuilding of Newlands Manor, after it had reportedly been damaged by fire. She was just 20 years old.

Mrs Whitby produced many sketches and watercolours. This one shows the view from her dressing room at Newlands and was painted in 1844. Courtesy of MOSHRS

When Mrs Whitby’s husband died in 1806 at the age of 31, she was still only 22 years old. She continued to oversee Cornwallis’ affairs, and cared for him until his death in 1819.

Cornwallis’ last request was to be buried next to his friend, John Whitby. That year, Mrs Whitby and her daughter Teresa were the principal beneficiaries of Cornwallis’ will including the Newlands estate.

A notable businesswoman with a gift for estate management, Mrs Whitby was also interested in breeding silkworms. She laid out a plantation of 1,000 mulberry trees at Newlands, as a silkworm’s preferred food is white mulberry leaves.

Her aim was to reintroduce the silk industry to the country, providing employment for poor women. In 1846, she presented Queen Victoria with 20 yards of brilliant silk damask from ‘silk raised at Newlands.’

View from Newlands Manor, a watercolour by Mrs Whitby. Courtesy of MOSHRS

She also conducted various experiments on silkworms and corresponded with Charles Darwin, who cited some of her results in one of his papers in 1851.

When Cornwallis died in 1819 he left Newlands to Mrs Whitby in trust for her daughter Theresa. She continued to acquire more land, including the Manors of Milford Barnes and Milford Montague. By the 1840s the Newlands estate covered 1,900 acres. By the time of her death in 1850, Mrs Whitby owned 30% of the land in Milford, including the seafront. As a widow, she achieved this at a time when married women were not able to own property in their own right in England.

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