One rainy day in the autumn of 1875, a writer named A.A. Smith met Lady Blanche Murphy, the daughter of an earl, on a sidewalk in North Conway, N.H.
She was a “graceful little figure wrapped in a gray waterproof walking with a quick elastic step, the fresh rosy face fair as a flower framed in thick golden brown hair,” he wrote.
Lady Blanche was also a writer. She wrote magazine stories for money because her father had disowned her for marrying a commoner. Her husband found a job in New Hampshire, which is how she ended up on a North Conway sidewalk. Eventually, Lady Blanche would buy a rustic cottage near the shadow of Humphreys Ledge in nearby Bartlett.
The year before she died, she would publish an essay about the first-ever Christmas tree in her adopted town.
Lady Blanche was born on March 25, 1845, the eldest of the five children of Charles George Noel. Her father served as a member of Parliament and high sheriff of Rutland. Then in 1866 he succeeded his father as Earl of Gainsborough and entered the House of Lords.
Her mother, the former Lady Ida Hay, was the daughter of an illegitimate daughter of King William IV and his Irish mistress. That didn’t bother Queen Victoria, his niece. The queen agreed to be Lady Blanche’s godmother.
Her birthday fell on Lady Day. Roman Catholics celebrate it as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus Christ. Her parents gave her the name of Lady Blanche Elizabeth Mary Annunciata Noel.
Before her fifth birthday, her parents publicly announced their conversion to Roman Catholicism on New Year’s Day in 1850. They belonged to the Tractarian movement, which held the Church of England had grown “too plain.” The Tractarians wanted to include liturgy and ceremony from the Middle Ages into the Anglican Church.
Her parents had her privately tutored at home, a baronial mansion called Exton Hall. She learned Italian, French, German and Spanish, and some Latin and Greek. She also traveled through Italy and Germany, trips that she would later describe in magazines when she needed money.
Cardinal Henry Edward Manning met her in her eighteenth year and described his impressions in a letter to her father. “I thought her quick, observant and thoughtful, and in character decided and independent beyond her years,” he wrote. He noted that she had visited Rome and talked about Garibaldi. “[But] she was too truly Christian and Catholic to sympathize in anything opposed either to the faith or to the Holy See.”
Then, in a prescient observation, the cardinal wrote, “Though she had been born and brought up with all the surroundings of the world, and with all the relations and associations which draw other minds under its influence, she seemed to me not only to be unattracted by such influences, but to be repelled by them. I thought I saw a reaction against them and a decided tendency to break through the conventionalities of her life.”
Lady Blanche’s parents hired a handsome young Irishman named Thomas Murphy to tutor their children in music. He played the organ in the Exton Hall chapel, where the family attended daily Mass. Blanche sang in the choir.
A.A. Smith later described Thomas Murphy as a fine musician. “[H]e is sympathetic, cordial, warm hearted in his manners, well educated.”
Americans would find nothing strange, wrote Smith, “that in the hours spent singing together after matins or vespers in the chapel, the glad young voices pouring through the chapel windows, making the old woods ring, the young enthusiastic Lady Blanche and the impulsive young organist fell in love with each other.”
Her father, dismayed and furious when he finally found out, forbade them to wed. The daughter of an earl did not marry a commoner in 1870.
Lady Blanche and her unacceptable boyfriend eloped to London in March 1870. After their wedding they sailed for the United States on the Plymouth Rock, landing in New York.
Disinherited and unemployed, the newlyweds tried to find work. According to the story, they had no money, and when they hadn’t eaten for 24 hours Lady Blanche sold her earrings for a loaf of bread. She said it was the best meal she ever had.
While in New York, Lady Blanche met Father Isaac Hecker. An activist priest, he had founded the Catholic World publication as well as the Paulist Fathers, a religious society of men.
Hecker put them in touch with employers, Thomas with the Kearsarge School for Boys in North Conway and Lady Blanche with magazine publishers. They took their sparse belongings to New Hampshire and boarded with the founder of the Kearsarge School. Thomas taught French and music, and he may have worked as an organist at the local Catholic Church.
Lady Blanche wrote for Father Hecker’s magazine, Catholic World. She also wrote essays on English high life and the English nobility for the Galaxy. Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly published her work, and she drew on her familiarity with Europe to write travel pieces for Lippincott’s.
Lady Blanche also stayed in touch with her family. Soon word got out that the unassuming wife of the schoolteacher received letters addressed to “Lady Blanche.”
The story goes that Lady Blanche came into some money and bought a house and a small farm in Bartlett, N.H., a town in the Mount Washington Valley. Either her father relented and sent her an annuity, or an aunt had left her some money.
The Murphys did not live together in the house for long. Lady Blanche died after a short illness on March 21, 1881, only 36 years old.
Three days after she died, Bishop James Healey said a Gregorian funeral Mass for her in Portland. Her body was then shipped to England, according to the New York Times.
“Her remains will find a last earthly place in the family’s vault on the estate of her father in Exon [sic], England, and will be placed by the side of her mother, who died many years ago,” the Times reported.
Thomas Murphy moved to a boardinghouse, but kept the farm. He eventually found his way to Boston, where he died. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery.
First Christmas Tree
Just before Lady Blanche died she had written a description of the Mount Washington Valley’s first Christmas tree. It appeared in the March 1881 edition of the London Graphic.
Lady Blanche described the valley as “a backwoods (where) the necessities of cold weather stifle the chance of keeping up the etiquette of civilized life.”
Just before Christmas in 1880, she wrote, “a few of the more travelled individuals in the neighborhood had the bright idea of having a Christmas tree, a novelty in this district where the children had never seen one.”
As an English Catholic, Lady Blanche noted the “puritanical seriousness” of a meeting in a neighbor’s house, held to discuss the tree. “To an outsider, this particular Christmas meeting would have suggested a funeral,” she wrote.
They decided in favor of a tree “to give the children a little amusement” and named a committee of four to set it up.
“[A]n American feature of Christmas trees, which I believe is not known in England, is the ‘Santa Claus’ who distributes the gifts and is required to make jokes and have ready ‘smart’ sayings fitted to the occasion,” she wrote. “We had to choose one among the committee to undertake this part.”
The local men trekked through deep snow to cut down a suitable tree, which they set up in the schoolhouse, she wrote.
The Gods Deliver Lady Blanche
“The men did little but that, and the women spent their spare time popping corn and stringing it bead-like (a very pretty decoration, as the grains of “popcorn” take all sorts of surprising shapes when held over the hot coals) … and otherwise arranging presents.”
Candles and lanterns illuminated the little schoolhouse, and a local woman spelled out in evergreens, “A merry Christmas to all.”
Because the tree was too tall for the room, they stuck the top into a stovepipe hole in the ceiling. “On a bristling crown of stout nails round the hole … hang some of the abundant gifts and ornaments,” wrote Lady Blanche.
The novelty of the tree attracted a crowd. “About 60 more people than the place was built to hold (for a host of strangers beyond the district insisted on coming to witness our modest efforts).
Then the adults called on some children to recite little pieces and sing hymns. Lady Blanche didn’t think much of the practice, calling it ” a foolish habit much in favor in the United States — the gods deliver Englishmen from it.”
In the end, though, she wrote that the Christmas tree did what it was supposed to. “The children were delighted, the tree was a success, and many of the grown people, who also had never seen one, were immensely pleased.”
That Christmas, Lady Blanche had given presents to all her neighbors. When she died, the man who worked for them on the farm was said to have wept like a child.
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Images: Haystack By Ken Gallager – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92244583. This story was updated in 2022.