Who Was Lady Elgin?

Gazette Article by Duff Peterson
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2010

Lady Elgin and Winnetka are forever linked in history. The Lady Elgin had a checkered history long before she came to grief off Winnetka. In August 1854, she hit a rock off Milwaukee and limped into Manitowoc, only to sink at the dock.  In 1857, she caught fire.  In June 1858, a gale on Lake Superior drove her onto the rocks near Copper Harbor, necessitating extensive repairs.  Less than a month after the repairs were complete, she impaled herself on Au Sable Point Reef, also in Lake Superior. Twice in 1859, she had to be towed to safety when critical components broke at sea.[1]

The Lady Elgin was built in Buffalo, New York in 1851.  Measuring 252 feet long and weighing 1,000 tons, she was used primarily as a mail and cargo boat until 1855.  In that year the Grand Trunk Railway across eastern Canada was completed to the U.S. border, making it possible to ship goods much more cheaply from Montreal and Toronto to Chicago and beyond.[2] The railway made the Lady Elgin obsolete as a Great Lakes cargo ship, and she was used mostly for passenger excursions after that.

She was named after Mary Lambton (1819-1898), the second wife of James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin (1811-1863).  The Lambtons were prominent in 19th century British politics and diplomacy.  Her father, John George Lambton, the 1st Earl of Durham, was Governor General of Canada in 1838-1839 and is credited with boldly advocating representative central government for what was then a fractious set of colonies.[3] Mary Lambton’s uncle, the 2nd Earl Grey, was Prime Minister of Britain in the 1830’s and is best known today for popularizing a blend of tea flavored with bergamot oil that eventually came to bear his name.[4]

Mary’s husband, James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, was a direct descendant of Robert the Bruce. (The name Elgin is traditionally pronounced with a hard “g” in the middle, as in “begin.”)  Lord Elgin’s family was equally prominent in 19th century British politics and diplomacy.  His father, the 7th Earl, is best known for purchasing and directing the removal of a group of sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles, from the Acropolis in Athens starting in 1801.  At the time, the 7th Earl was serving as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Greece was a part.  He eventually sold the Elgin Marbles to the British nation at significant personal loss.  They reside to this day in a purpose-built hall of the British Museum in London, but Greece continues to campaign for their return to Athens.

The 7th Earl’s purchase of the Elgin Marbles greatly depleted the family fortunes, and the 8th Earl was forced to work for a living.  He became one of the most distinguished diplomats of the Victorian Age, serving in several key posts around the world, including as Governor General of Canada from 1847 to 1854.  This period saw the launch of the Lady Elgin, but it is not known whether Lord and Lady Elgin attended the event.  Lord Elgin was among the first to understand that Canada’s future lay in close economic relations with its rapidly growing neighbor to the south, and his main accomplishment was negotiating the Canadian-American Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 that eliminated tariffs on U.S. imports of Canadian raw materials.  The treaty stimulated the Canadian economy, helping to pave the way for Canada’s political independence from Britain in 1867.[5]

After resigning his commission in Canada, Lord Elgin became British High Commissioner in Beijing at the height of the British-Chinese hostilities known as the Second Opium War.  In 1860, incensed by the torture and imprisonment of British diplomats at the hands of the Chinese, he ordered British troops to retaliate by destroying the Old Summer Palace, a huge complex of gardens and pavilions outside the city.[6]  (The complex was rebuilt several years later, and is now one of China’s leading tourist attractions.  It often served as a backdrop for the opening credits in television coverage of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.)  He finished his career in perhaps the most prestigious post in the entire British Empire, Viceroy of India, and died in office there in 1863.

Lady Elgin outlived her husband by 35 years.  She was undoubtedly aware of the terrible fate of the ship that bore her name, but her reaction to the disaster is lost to history.

~1. Baillod, Brendon. “The Wreck of the Steamer Lady Elgin,” online article.~
~2. Charles M. Scanlan, The Lady Elgin Disaster.  Milwaukee: Privately~
~published, 1928, p. 47.~
~3. Modern historians have tended to view the Durham Report of 1839 as a~ ~founding document of representative government in several nations that were~ ~once British colonies.  In his brilliant and provocative 2002 book Empire, Niall~ ~Ferguson argues that the Durham Report provided a blueprint for colonies to~ ~achieve independence peacefully, in contrast with the United States a few years~ ~earlier.  As a result of the Durham Report, Ferguson says,  “there would be no~ ~Battle of Lexington in Auckland; no George Washington in Canberra; no~ ~declaration of independence in Ottawa.”  Ferguson, Empire (New York: Basic~ ~Books 2002), p. 113.~
~4. Kramer, Ione. All the Tea in China. China Books 1990, p. 180-181.~
~5. Brebner, Canada: A Modern History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan~
~Press 1970), p. 266-268.~
~6. Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China.  New York: W.W. Norton,~ ~1990, p.181.  See also Michael Moser and Yeone Wei-Chih Moser, Foreigners~ ~within the Gates: The Legations at Peking.  Hong Kong: Oxford University Press,~ ~1993, p. 11.~

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    […] does follow the same formulaic path of its siblings. Belgian stained glass windows donated by Lady Elgin, wife of Lord Elgin, are the building’s highlight. However, Mother Nature hasn’t strayed from […]

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