Laura Bell: prostitution and politics
In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley looks at the colourful life of Laura Bell
16 May, 2019 — By Neil Titley
Laura Bell by Ernest Joseph Angelon Girard, c 1850. Image: The Wallace Collection
THE actress Joanna Lumley has become renowned as the advocate of decency in matters relating to British treatment of the Gurkha regiments. What is less known is that there was an equally persuasive woman involved in the origins of Gurkha involvement with the UK.
Amid the names that are associated with the “Deeds That Won the Empire” saga – Clive of India, Wolfe of Quebec, Lawrence of Arabia, etc – the name of Laura Bell “of Nepal” (1829-1894) rarely crops up. But this splendid Irish courtesan probably has just as much right to renown as the others.
Born in Glenavy, Co Antrim, Laura started life as a Belfast shop assistant who dabbled in selective prostitution. She was an extraordinarily good-looking girl, with cascades of long, golden hair, large blue eyes, and a fresh peaches-and-cream complexion – and was also very intelligent. Moving to Dublin aged 18, she became an experienced sex worker whose clients included Oscar Wilde’s father, Sir William Wilde.
Passing rapidly on to England, by 1849 she was known as the “Queen of London Whoredom” who numbered dukes, senior politicians, and the Emperor Louis Napoleon among her lovers. Each week she would parade in state through Hyde Park in a gilt coach drawn by two white horses.
At a period when there were around 80,000 prostitutes in London and when one house in every 60 was a brothel, her rise to the top of her profession in less than a year was phenomenal. But above all it was her affair with the Nepalese prime minister Jung Bahadur that outshone her other activities.
The British Foreign Office was very keen on establishing Nepal as a buffer state between India and Russia, and Jung Bahadur became the first prince from the south Asian sub-continent to be invited to the court of Queen Victoria. However, while in London he also met Laura and fell entirely under her spell. He showered her with gifts including a luxury house in Wilton Crescent, Belgravia, and by the end of their short time together he had spent over £250,000 on her.
Aghast at the idea that the young prince had beggared the treasury of Nepal, the India Office was forced to reimburse him for Laura’s depredations. When he reluctantly returned home, he promised that he would always fulfil her every wish.
As a result Laura was a wealthy young woman aged just 21. Two years later she married the Bishop of Norwich’s grandson, August Thistlethwayte. This gentleman had an eccentric habit of summoning his valet to his bedroom by firing a revolver into the ceiling. One morning, something went wrong and instead of hitting the ceiling he hit his head and died as a result. Laura inherited his grand London house and a Scottish estate.
In a total reversal, she suddenly decided to abandon her former life and instead become a Salvationist preacher. Referring to herself as “God’s Ambassadress”, she turned her Grosvenor Square house into an Evangelist mission where she hosted religious meetings and encouraged high society to contribute aid to alleviate the lot of the common prostitute. She travelled the country delivering sermons and was said to be a superb speaker.
Deciding that West End style was not conducive to her new role, in 1887 Laura abandoned her mansion and moved to Woodbine Cottage, just off Finchley Road in Hampstead. This building no longer exists but the present Lyncroft Gardens was constructed on the site.
It was during this period that Laura became friendly with prime minister William Gladstone. When in opposition, Gladstone and his wife stayed on occasion at the Hampstead cottage, and Laura often would drive him to political meetings in her carriage and pair. They remained close confidantes throughout the rest of her life.
When he decided that he was going to stand down as premier in 1892, he told Laura in confidence of his decision even before informing Queen Victoria.
Perhaps the most surprising event of her life occurred in 1857. When the Indian Mutiny broke out the future of the Raj teetered in the balance. Mindful of Laura Bell’s liaison with the man who now held supreme power in Nepal and even more importantly commanded the crack Gurkha troops, a desperate India Office prevailed upon Laura to ask Jung Bahadoor to abandon Nepal’s neutrality and intervene for the sake of British India – or possibly more persuasively for the memory of the few idyllic months in Laura’s bed.
Whatever his motivation, Jung Bahadoor threw in his lot with the British and personally led six Nepalese regiments into India. Among their feats of arms was the recapture of Lucknow after the famous siege. Later, the Gurkhas became part of the British Army and were justly renowned as the most expert and loyal of troops.
What part Laura had played in all this is a matter of conjecture.
She died in 1894 and is buried in Paddington Green Cemetery in the Bishop of Norwich’s family vault.
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details see www.wildetheatre.co.uk