Pioneering Petworth female scientist explored in new book

Elizabeth Ilive, Countess of Egremont by Thomas Philips, 1797 National Trust Images
Elizabeth Ilive, Countess of Egremont by Thomas Philips, 1797 National Trust Images

Worthing-based historian Leigh Lawson is the co-author of a new biography, Elizabeth Ilive, Egremont’s Countess – a publication which ties in with a major new exhibition about Elizabeth at the National Trust’s Petworth House.

The book was initially researched and written by Leigh and by the late Sheila Haines. Following Sheila’s death, Leigh was joined in the project by Alison McCann to bring the book to publication. Alison was an archivist at West Sussex Record Office for many years and is now archivist to Lord Egremont.

Leigh said: “Sheila and I were involved in the research for two books on the Petworth Emigration Scheme published in 2000 and subsequently wrote a biography of the Rev Thomas Sockett of Petworth, published in 2007. Sadly, Sheila died in 2011.”

Elizabeth Ilive: A Woman Ahead of Her Time runs at Petworth House until December 31 – the first exhibition to explore the remarkable life and achievements of Elizabeth Ilive, who lived at Petworth House from the 1780s and pursued her interests in art, science and inventing.

Born in 1769, the daughter of an Oxford printer, Ilive came from humble beginnings. Around 1785 at the age of 15 she became the principal mistress of George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont and owner of the Petworth estates, before marrying him in 1801, after which time she was styled the Countess of Egremont. Reputed to have been beautiful and fiercely intelligent, she was an award-winning inventor and conducted innovative agricultural and scientific experiments.

The exhibition showcases Ilive’s pursuits in these fields and includes a representation of the design for the cross-bar lever that she submitted to the Royal Society of Arts in 1798. Also featured is the silver medal she was awarded for this invention under the section of Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, a category that a woman had never won before.

Movingly, it was a medal that Sheila got to hold, Leigh recalls: “She was given five months to live, and she really did only have five months. She was putting the chapters together and that was as far as she got. But one of the things that really interested her was what had happened to Ilive’s silver medal.” Fortunately, it came to light before Sheila died: “It was brought down and Sheila was able to hold it which was terribly emotional. After she died, I didn’t do anything with the book for a year. I missed her. We had been friends for quite some time, but she had said that Alison would help me finish the book.

“Sheila had really drafted the book and had divided it into chapters and had done short sections. There were lots and lots of notes. Some of those notes were my notes. We had been working together. But it was not really ready for publication. I then worked with Alison, and I think Sheila would be very pleased with the finished book.

“Elizabeth Ilive was featured in the recent exhibition on William Blake at Petworth House as she sponsored two of his paintings. Now, there is this other exhibition at Petworth House.

“I think Elizabeth must have been quite a forceful woman, but I think she must have had a very appealing personality for the Earl to stay with her. He had several mistresses, but she was his favourite one.”

Book available from Petworth House and Amazon.

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