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  Margaret Maria Verney (1844–1930), by Sir William Blake Richmond, 1869 Margaret Maria Verney (1844–1930), by Sir William Blake Richmond, 1869
Verney [née Hay Williams], Margaret Maria, Lady Verney (1844–1930), historian and promoter of higher education in Wales, was born at 66 Lower Grosvenor Street, London, on 3 December 1844, the elder daughter and coheir of Sir John Hay Williams, second baronet (1794–1859), of Bodelwyddan, co. Flint, and his wife, Lady Sarah Elizabeth Pitt Amherst (bap. 1801, d. 1876), only daughter of . On the death of Sir John Hay Williams in 1859 his family retired to Rhianva (later spelt Rhianfa), a house which he had built for them on the Menai Strait in Anglesey.

On 14 January 1868 Margaret Hay Williams married Edmund Hope Verney (1838–1910), the son of , and his wife, Eliza, née Hope (d. 1857); they had one son, Sir Harry Calvert Williams Verney (1881–1974), and three daughters. Born on 6 April 1838 and educated at Harrow School, Edmund Verney had become a captain in the Royal Navy, and had been decorated for service in the Crimea and in the Indian mutiny. His personal account of the latter was published as The Shannon's Brigade in India (1862); this, and his detailed letters home to his father, formed the basis for his great-nephew Ralph Verney's subsequent account of the mutiny The Devil's Wind (1956). Edmund Verney afterwards served on the Pacific seaboard of Canada (1862–5), where he found ‘the country more interesting than the people’ (Pritchard, 33); his letters home have been published as The Vancouver Island Letters of Edmund Hope Verney, edited by Allan Pritchard (1996), and some of the artefacts he brought home are in the British Museum. Afterwards he commanded a vessel stationed off west Africa, and retired from active service in 1872, having been partially disabled in a shooting accident on the family's Buckinghamshire estate three years earlier. He represented Brixton on the first London county council and served as member of parliament for North Buckinghamshire, 1885–6 and 1889–91. A Gladstonian Liberal and a supporter of Irish home rule, he wrote a tract against imperial expansion, Four Years of Protest in the Transvaal (1881). His public career ended abruptly with his expulsion from the House of Commons in May 1891 following his conviction at the central criminal court on a charge of conspiring to procure for a criminal purpose an under-age girl, one Nellie Maud Baskett. He was sentenced to a year in prison. This was a notable and very public fall for one who had been noted for his piety, and who listed ‘collector of early editions of the Bible’ among his recreations in Who's Who. He succeeded to the baronetcy in 1894 on the death of his father (he and Lady Verney already resided partly at the family home at Claydon, Buckinghamshire), and died after a short illness on 8 May 1910.

Lady Verney, in the meantime, had divided her time and interest between her Buckinghamshire and Anglesey homes. In both localities she took an active interest in the community, especially in education and nursing. She served on the rural school boards, was co-opted to the Buckinghamshire county education committee, and originated the association for the loan of pictures to schools; later she started a similar scheme for Anglesey. In Wales her activities extended to higher education in connection with the University College of North Wales at Bangor; she was an original member of the court of governors, and a memorial scholarship in her name was set up shortly after her death. She was a member of the University of Wales court (afterwards the council) from 1894 to 1922, and she continued thereafter to represent that body on the court of the National Library of Wales and on the Bangor council. In 1919 she was appointed junior deputy chancellor of the university, and received the honorary degree of LLD. As a convinced Liberal, Lady Verney worked enthusiastically for her husband and son in their election campaigns. Throughout her life she showed indomitable industry and real breadth of view, well supported by unfailing courage, patience, and humour.

Lady Verney's principal achievement, however, lay in the literary work which she took up as an amateur and completed as an acknowledged authority. She continued the work begun by , the sister of Florence Nightingale and second wife of Sir Harry Verney, who had first discovered the historical value of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century letters, diaries, and accounts preserved at Claydon House. Her illustrated history of the Verney family down to 1650 was completed for the press by Margaret Maria Verney as volumes 1 and 2 of Memoirs of the Verney Family, with a preface by S. R. Gardiner, in 1892. These were followed by volume 3 (1650–60) in 1894, and by volume 4 (1660–96) in 1899, which were entirely her own work. The Claydon manuscripts, including over 30,000 letters dated before 1700, with drafts and copies of answers, required elaborate arrangement and comparison. The work attracted so much attention that a thoroughly revised reissue in two volumes appeared in 1904, and there were subsequent editions in 1925 and 1971.

In addition to contributions about the Verneys to magazines and the six articles she wrote for the Dictionary of National Biography, Lady Verney published a short Memoir of Sir Henry Cunningham (1923), and a textbook of county history, Bucks. Biographies (1912), for use in elementary schools. Later she returned to the family papers, and just before her death (1930) saw through the press two supplementary volumes, the first of which dealt with the correspondence of John Verney, Viscount Fermanagh (1696–1717), and the second with that of the two earls Verney (1717–91). Her editions of the Verney papers remain useful, though her selection of material, being informed by the historiographical preferences of the time, favoured public events over private and family concerns. It is the wealth of domestic detail that has attracted more recent scholars to base further work on the archive.

Lady Verney died at Rhianfa on 7 October 1930 and was buried on 10 October at nearby Llandegfan. The memorial tablet placed in Middle Claydon church in 1936 recalls her as ‘steadfast in faith and unwearied in work … diligent as the historian of Claydon’.

H. E. D. Blakiston, rev. H. J. Spencer

Sources  

In memory of Margaret Maria, Lady Verney (1930) · private information (1937) · personal knowledge (1937) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · Burke, Peerage (1859); (1959); (1999) · The Times (10 May 1930); (8 Oct 1930); (11 Oct 1930); (4 Dec 1930) · WWBMP, vol. 2 [Capt. Edmund Hope Verney] · WWW, 1897–1915 [Verney, Sir Edmund Hope] · A. Pritchard, ed., The Vancouver Island letters of Edmund Hope Verney (1996) · memorial inscription, Middle Claydon church, Buckinghamshire · Claydon House, National Trust (1999)

Archives  

Claydon House [NT], Buckinghamshire, corresp., journals, and literary papers


Likenesses  

W. B. Richmond, oils, 1869, Claydon House, Buckinghamshire [see illus.] · photograph

Wealth at death  

£6974 12s. 1d.—save and except settled land: probate, 26 March 1931, CGPLA Eng. & Wales