Precarious Fortunes, the debut novel by Yorkshire-born Ian Townsend, is a work of historical fiction loosely based on actual characters and events from 1830s Harrogate and England. Set in 1838, Precarious Fortunes exposes life in Europe’s leading spa town of Harrogate, where many conventions of the period were being audaciously replaced by a more liberal and risqué attitude. Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts, a young heiress reputed to be the richest woman in England, is heading for Harrogate to seek respite from the unwelcome attention of dishonourable suitors and scroungers in London. At the same time, a captain in the 11th Light Dragoons is despatched to the northern spa town on a secret government mission. A chance meeting between the captain and Miss Coutts sparks the beginning of an intriguing adventure as the pair weave their way through a perilous web of deception, abduction and extortion. Old scores demand settling and new ones add to the drama as this fast paced narrative pits ruthless villains and corrupt aristocrats against spirited women and courageous cavalrymen.















Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts

Early years

Angela Georgina Burdett was born on 21st April 1814. Her mother, Sophia, was one of three daughters to Thomas and Susannah Coutts. Her father was Sir Francis Burdett who became an MP, thanks largely to his father-in-law, and went on to become an ardent supporter of political reform.

As a young woman, Angela spent a good deal of time travelling and her family rarely stayed very long in their London home. Sir Francis Burdett had made quite a name for himself in political circles and he became something of an absent legend in Angela’s eyes. Despite all this, Angela received a great deal of affection from her parents. By all accounts, she was said to be intelligent with a sweet disposition.

Angela and her step-grandmother, Harriot Mellon-Coutts

Angela’s grandmother, Susannah, died when Angela was very young, leaving Thomas Coutts free to marry the actress, Harriot Mellon. When the Burdett family was in London, Harriot often sent her coach for Angela and her sister, Clara, and the three of them would play on the lawns or open Harriot’s theatrical boxes.

In 1822 Thomas Coutts died and left his entire estate to Harriot. His will not only concerned his family fortune but also one of the great banks of Europe. Most extraordinarily, he had left it to Harriot to decide who would ultimately succeed her. By all accounts, his trust was not misplaced and Harriot did an excellent job. As well as helping the bank to grow, she spent the next 15 years observing Thomas’s grandchildren.

Harriot caused a stir in 1827, when she married the much younger Duke of St Albans. Despite this, she still spent a great deal of time with Thomas’s grandchildren and Angela was able to observe Harriot’s charity at first hand and how it was often abused. She travelled in great cavalcades with the Duchess and even went with her on a long tour of the north to visit Thomas’s birthplace of Edinburgh. (For those interested in learning about Harriot, I would recommend The Merry Duchess by Joan Perkin, and for those interested in the fascinating life of Thomas Coutts, I would suggest The Life of Thomas Coutts by E.H. Coleridge.)

Angela’s inheritance

In 1837, Harriot died and left the entirety of Thomas’s fortune to Angela Burdett. Neither Angela nor her parents had any prior knowledge of this and her life changed forever. Overnight she became one of the richest women in Europe. Although noted for her shyness, Angela developed a firmness and competence. Begging letters flowed in and during this time, she relied heavily on her companion, Miss Hannah Meredith. She received countless proposals of marriage, which as a shy and sensitive girl, she found deeply distasteful.

Angela Coutts and Precarious Fortunes 

In the summer of 1838, after being hounded relentlessly, Angela fled to Harrogate where she found respite. She travelled over the moors to Bolton Abbey, took long walks in the dales and drank at Harrogate’s sulphurous well. But her recovery was short-lived as she was pursued by an Irish barrister named Richard Dunn. He was arrested after bursting into her bedroom at the Queen Hotel, Harrogate, which prompted her to return to London. Upon his release, Dunn too headed for London, where he was once again arrested and eventually prosecuted. Precarious Fortunes was inspired by Angela’s visit to Harrogate and the fictional story weaves around real-life events. Angela did indeed stay at The Queen Hotel (now the Cedar Court Hotel) and would have most likely attended local events and balls.

Angela’s charitable causes

Angela eventually adjusted to her wealth, but the idea of buying a husband repulsed her. She preferred flowers to jewels and her great wealth demanded a great cause, which she eventually found in the relief of poverty. She established a home for fallen women, pioneered model housing and strove for sanitary reform. She supported the NSPCC and the RSPCA. She built churches and helped the starving people of Ireland by sending them fishing boats and fishing equipment. She regularly acted through intermediaries such as Charles Dickens, and often anonymously. She remained unmarried until eventually, on February 12th 1881, aged 66, she married an American half her age; an act which drastically changed her finances as she effectively forfeited her inheritance. She became known as the ‘Queen of the Poor’ and was described by Edward VII as the most remarkable woman in the kingdom after his mother. In the last decade of the 19th century, she spent a good deal of time abroad and was often in Paris, however her favourite resort was thought to be Corsica. Angela passed away on December 30th 1905, aged 91.

(For those wishing to read more about this remarkable lady, I would recommend Lady Unknown by Edna Healey.)

Captain Townsend

While I was researching the remarkable Miss Coutts, my father sadly died. Then whilst sorting through his papers, I became aware that my great, great grandfather was something of an adventurer who loved horses and had made and lost more than one fortune. He had lived during the greater part of the 19th century and, like Angela Coutts, died early in the 20th century, aged 90. An outline of Precarious Fortunes was forming in my mind and for that I needed an adventurous cavalry captain; so Captain George Townsend was born.

By the time the fictional Captain Townsend arrived in Harrogate in 1838, he had lost both his parents and had seen his marriage proposal to Georgiana Hamilton dismissed out of hand by her odious father, Sir William Hamilton. To add to his woes, Captain Townsend further annoyed Sir William by exposing one of his friends, Lord Garraty, for cheating at cards in a London club. Shortly afterwards, he is ordered to Harrogate to ostensibly watch out for suspicious Russians, who are supposedly headed that way. As a consequence, he rides north under the pretext of visiting his mother’s sister, Mrs. Violet Moore, who resides there.

Born to a good family and with many years of faithful service and training in India to his name, Captain Townsend displays bravery, a keen military mind, a dedicated sense of duty and a chivalrous grace.  He is able to move effortlessly among the aristocracy, although sometimes uncomfortably, and is able to navigate his way through delicate political developments. However, in matters of the heart he displays fallibility, whilst remaining a charming and genuine companion to the strong female characters he encounters.


Mr. Pickersgill Palliser and the Harrogate Advertiser

Mr. Palliser was born in 1804 and ran the Post Office. He was the founder of the Harrogate Advertiser, which is still published today. In those early days the ‘Advertiser’ took the form of weekly lists documenting who was staying in Harrogate. This then developed over the years into an excellent local newspaper. Not content with that, Mr. Palliser created and published ‘Palliser’s History and Directory of Harrogate’, in which he created an amazing record of life in Harrogate during the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign.


Jonathan Dearlove and the Queen Hotel


Queens Hotel (cropped)

Jonathan Dearlove, the owner of the Queen Hotel, was charged with looking after Miss Coutts and Miss Meredith during their stay in Harrogate in 1838 and would have been in his late fifties around that time. This superb hotel was often referred to as the ‘Manchester Warehouse’ due to its popularity amongst Lancashire mill owners. It was the first to be built in the town and dates back to 1671. Situated opposite the race course, this hotel was very popular during Jonathan Dearlove’s tenure which lasted until 1849. As the 19th century drew to a close, the Queen Hotel was regarded as the best in Harrogate and from time to time could boast royalty amongst its residents. It is now owned by Cedar Court Hotels, one of Yorkshire’s largest independent hotel chains and continues to be held in high esteem.


The Crown Hotel, Harrogate

Crown Hotel

The Crown Hotel is situated on the right hand side of the domed pump room which is in the centre of above illustration. This was one of Harrogate’s largest hotels and famously hosted a weekly ball during the season. In 1838 balls were also held regularly at the Granby and the Dragon, the latter of which is sadly no longer standing. Lord Byron famously stayed at the Crown in 1806 and the hotel was and continues to be one of the finest in Harrogate.



The Dragon Hotel


The Dragon (cropped)

The Dragon was one of Harrogate’s liveliest hotels and, like all the hotels mentioned here, features prominently in Precarious Fortunes. It was formerly the home of William Powell Frith, the celebrated portrait artist, whose father was the owner and manager. When his father died, William moved to London where his career as an artist went from strength to strength. Balls were held at the Dragon every Monday in the season and gambling went on well into the night. Large sums were risked here on a regular basis as it became a popular haunt for those looking for something a little more adventurous. During the latter half of the 19th century it became a school for boys, after which it fell into disrepair and was unfortunately demolished.


Jonathan Benn and the Granby Hotel

Granby Hotel (cropped)


Jonathan Benn was the owner and manager of the Granby, one of Harrogate’s elite hotels, which catered solely for the upper classes. Nicknamed ‘The House of Lords,’ it regularly welcomed the Duchess of St Albans (formerly Harriot Mellon) who became a favourite with the staff at the hotel and even took part in donkey races. Mr. Benn was such an admirer of the Duchess that he named his own house ‘St Albans House’. Other notable guests over the years include Clive of India, who avenged the atrocity at Fort William Calcutta (The Black Hole of Calcutta) when 123 people died. The building still stands proudly on the edge of the Stray; however it is now a care home.


The Crown, Boroughbridge


This was one of the most famous coaching inns in England, which at its peak had stabling for 100 horses. Ideally situated on the Great North Road, it attended to coaches heading north to Edinburgh and south to London. The fastest coaches would average around 11 miles per hour and the quickest recorded journey from London to York was 20 hours. There were daily coaches from Leeds to Boroughbridge, and Leeds to Newcastle. The North Star (heading for Carlisle and Edinburgh), The Defence (bound for Durham), The Royal Charlotte (Sunderland) and many more, all called at Boroughbridge. Travelling by stagecoach was surprisingly expensive; Leeds to Newcastle for example cost 28 shillings inside and 14 shillings outside. Stagecoach transport had disappeared by 1853 and Boroughbridge lost seven of its 22 inns, but happily, not the Crown.


Holderness House


The house features prominently in the book and although it still exists today it wasn’t actually built until the 1850’s. It was first lived in by Dr Richardson and then changed its name from Holderness House to Beech House  . Eventually the villa became known as Araucaria. The original ‘Holderness House’ can still be seen today standing proudly overlooking the Stray. Over the years two blocks of flats have been built either side of this however an artist’s impression (above) shows how it could have looked when it was first built. The interior is described in some detail in the book  and the ground floor is currently in the process of being restored to its original appearance which includes some magnificent ceiling decorations.