William Surtees Cook

William Surtees Cook (afterwards Altham), (1813–87)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 12, 363–368.

EBB’s second cousin and brother-in-law, known by his middle name, was born on 24 March 1813 at Pilgrim’s Hatch, near Brentwood, Essex. He was the second son and fourth child of John Cook and Elizabeth, daughter of Aubone and Mary Surtees (née Altham). Mary was one of five sisters that included EBB’s maternal grandmother, Arabella Graham-Clarke (née Altham). This kinship on the mother’s side would allow Surtees to be a frequent visitor at 50 Wimpole Street. Much of what we know about Surtees comes from the extensive journals he kept from about 1835 up until just before his death. The journals prior to October 1844 and those covering the period September 1845 to October 1847 are missing.

When Surtees was still a young boy, his father, a colonel in the 28th Dragoons, retired from the cavalry on half-pay and moved the family from Dosthill, Warwickshire to Normandy in order to live more cheaply. They settled nine miles southeast of Le Havre in the small village of Routot. Surtees received his early education at the nearby College D’Honfleur. A journal entry from a much later period indicates that in 1828 he was sent to Mr. Blythe’s school in Woolwich to prepare for a military career (Surtees, 1 December 1880). After the death of his father on 3 December 1829, his mother moved the family to London, where a month later she was appointed Housekeeper, or Necessary Woman, for the Home Office at 11 Downing Street. This was a fairly well-paid position, and family tradition indicates that it was made available through the intervention of her aunt, Elizabeth Scott (née Surtees), Lady Eldon, whose husband had been Lord High Chancellor from 1801 to 1827. The same influence may have been used to gain Surtees, who had chosen a military career (as his father had), an army commission. In those days commissions were usually purchased rather than earned; in the case of Surtees, he needed 450 pounds. This rather large sum of money was eventually raised, and he was commissioned an ensign on 27 June 1834 in the 65th Regiment of Foot. From army records and his own journal, the high point of his first ten years in the military seems to have been a three-year stay in Canada from 1838 to 1841.

After his company’s return from Canada, Surtees was posted to Exeter, then Torquay, and later Manchester. In June 1844 he was transferred to the London recruiting office at 17 Duke Street, Westminster. Some time later he called on his Moulton-Barrett relatives in Wimpole Street and made the acquaintance of his second cousins, including Henrietta. Apparently, it was not long before he was smitten by her. Unfortunately for him, there were rivals for Henrietta’s hand. One of them, Matthew Bell, withdrew early leaving Palmer Chapman, son of a wealthy banker, as sole adversary. Surtees’s journal entries for this period document a lover’s lament replete with sobbing, breast-beating, and rival-bashing. Although Surtees ultimately prevailed over the banker’s son in the competition for Henrietta, there were two stumbling blocks in the way of marrying her: Edward Moulton-Barrett and the lack of money. Nothing could be done about the former. Surtees addressed the latter problem with appeals to friends and relatives for a higher paying situation outside the army. A more romantic money-making scheme involved writing a novel called “Johnny Cheerful,” which he finished in Spring 1845. A journal entry indicates that EBB may have helped edit the manuscript: “Went to the Barretts, and sat with Henrietta correcting my book—as revised by Ba” (Surtees, 22 May 1845). He submitted the work to Colburn, but it was rejected and never published. Surtees’s financial worries were somewhat mitigated when he was promoted to captain on 30 December 1845. On 20 April of the following year he retired from the army on half-pay after exchanging to the 83rd Regiment of Foot. At the same time, he assumed the duties of Adjutant to the 1st Somerset Militia at Taunton. Still, neither he nor Henrietta felt they had enough to marry on. But after four years of futile waiting for Surtees to secure a better position, they decided to marry. The wedding took place on 6 April 1850 at St. James’s Church (Piccadilly). None of Henrietta’s brothers or sisters was present. Even though they approved of the marriage, they were kept blameless of any direct involvement in order to protect them from their father, of whom Surtees remarked in his journal entry for that day, “Mr. Barrett did not, to our sorrow, give his consent, nor would he have done so to any child of his marrying to anyone” (Surtees, 6 April 1850). As EBB had been, Henrietta was immediately disowned upon marrying.

After their marriage the Cooks settled in Taunton, Somerset and began raising a family on Surtees’s somewhat limited means. They started out in an apartment, then moved into a cottage for a brief time a few months after the birth of their first child, Altham Surtees (1851–1931). In June 1851 they took a house in the nearby parish of Wilton where Mary Altham (1852–1950) and Edward Altham (1856–1943) were born. The Cooks’ finances improved dramatically in 1858, when Charles John Moulton-Barrett settled £5000 upon Henrietta (Charles John, as oldest surviving son, had become the principal inheritor upon the death of Edward Moulton-Barrett the previous year). In May 1859 the Cooks moved from their house in Wilton to Stoke Court in Stoke St. Mary, three miles outside Taunton. About a year later, Surtees was promoted to Major on 21 April 1860; his journal entry for that day reads: “This day my name appeared in the newspapers—gazetted to the 83rd Regiment—promoted to the Brevet rank of Major—and retired from the regular army, realizing the full value of my commission £1800” (Surtees, 21 April 1860). The Cooks had little time to enjoy their improved circumstances together. Three months later Surtees took Henrietta to see a physician in London; she had been “seriously ailing” (Surtees, 15 June 1860). On 23 November, she died of cancer, and her husband wrote: “My gentle sweet Henrietta is gone—the dear love of so many many years” (Surtees, 23 November 1860).

On 20 February 1862 he married his second cousin Arabella Addams (1820–1908), whose maternal grandmother was also an Altham sister, and took the name of Altham by prior arrangement, the name having become extinct in the male line. Two days later he wrote in his journal: “Precious darling Henrietta, what would you say!! … Still I must confess you would approve of this one, if of any … So much she gives her heart to our precious children” (Surtees, 22 February 1862). By his second wife, whom he called “Bell,” Surtees had two daughters: Arabella (1863–70) and Charlotte (1864–1934). Because of this marriage, Surtees was later able to buy Timbercombe in the Quantock Hills, saying of it, “purchased in my name—so I am now, in some sort a landed proprietor!! … Dear Bell’s great affection, and generosity to me, I have to thank for all this” (Surtees, 28 December 1871).

In 1874, Surtees assumed the duties of magistrate for the county of Somerset. Commenting on the appointment in his journal, he wrote, “Old enough and ugly enough to be a judge!!!” (Surtees, 24 December 1873). Surtees devoted the remainder of his life to his family, his county duties, and his writings. In the latter are included his journals, a memoir of his father, and the preparing of a highly censored edition of the letters from EBB to Henrietta, which served as the text for Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Letters to her Sister, 1846–1859, ed. Leonard Huxley (1929). Surtees made entries in his journal up until 12 February 1887; this last entry reads: “Very cold. Went out with gun in plantations & caught cold in my throat.” He died two days later on Valentine’s Day. He was buried next to his first wife, Henrietta, at Thurlbear Parish Church.

Surtees became known to EBB, and in turn RB, through his being a frequent visitor at 50 Wimpole Street and his relationship with Henrietta, the precariousness of which, given Edward Moulton Barrett’s vehement disapproval of such things, was similar to the poets’ own. The first direct reference to Surtees in the Brownings’ correspondence occurs in a letter of 21 January 1846 to RB (no. 2181), in which EBB describes her father’s attitude towards his children: “Only the other day … I hear, downstairs—‘passive obedience, & particularly in respect to marriage.’ One after the other, my brothers all walked out of the room, & there was left for sole auditor, Captain Surtees Cook, who had especial reasons for sitting it out against his will,—so he sate and asked ‘if children were to be considered slaves’ as meekly as if he were asking for information.” In a letter to RB, dated 25 January 1846, EBB humorously summarizes Surtees’s courtship of Henrietta. After Matthew Bell withdrew from the contest he gave nicknames to the remaining opponents: Despair for Palmer Chapman, and Perseverance for Surtees. “Perseverance,” EBB writes, “insisted that she loved him, without knowing it, or should .. elbowed poor despair in the open streets .. who being a gentleman, would’nt elbow again .. swore that ‘if she married another he would wait till she became a widow, trusting to Providence’—did wait every morning till the head of the house was out, & sate day by day, in spite of the disinclination of my sisters & the rudeness of all my brothers, four hours in the drawingroom .. let himself be refused once a week & sate all the longer .. allowed everybody in the house (& a few visitors) to see & hear him in fits of hysterical sobbing, & sate on unabashed; the end being that he sits now sole regnant” (letter 2185). For all the apparent derision, however, EBB does not think too badly of her future brother-in-law. In the same letter she says, “… yet I am woman enough rather to be glad that the decision is made so– He is sincerely attached to her, I believe; & the want of refinement & sensibility (for he understood her affections to be engaged to another at one time) is covered in a measure by the earnestness.” We know little of RB’s opinion of Surtees, though one remark in a letter written to EBB on 27 January 1846 (no. 2188) could indicate that he thought the Captain an interesting study: “How your account of the actors in the ‘Love’s Labour lost’ amused me! I rather like tho’, the notion of that steady businesslike pursuit of love under difficulties.” It is likely that RB would have been sympathetic to Surtees, considering that the most insurmountable of those difficulties was common to them both … Mr. Barrett. Certainly, they were both driven to somewhat drastic measures because of him. But Surtees had an enormous advantage over RB in the pursuit of his Miss Barrett; being a relative, he had, as it might have appeared to RB, open access to 50 Wimpole Street. And more important, Mr. Barrett actually seemed to like Surtees, who recorded occasionally in his journal of 1844–45 that he had been asked to dinner by Mr. Barrett, had met Mr. Barrett at the Jamaica Coffee House, had gone for a walk with Mr. Barrett. When Surtees asked him face-to-face for Henrietta’s hand in marriage (something RB wanted to do but dared not for the consequences to EBB), he was refused, but the parting was apparently amicable; they shook hands.

After the Brownings marriage and departure from England, Surtees was often mentioned in the correspondence between EBB and her sisters. As Henrietta’s long engagement dragged on, while Surtees waited for better means of income, EBB often urged her to marry on what they had rather than wait. Apparently, however, EBB did not think that Surtees was doing all he could. In a letter to Julia Martin, dated 22 February 1850, she wrote: “… he wants energy, & is a great deal too well pleased to loiter on as he is doing in Wimpole Street.” There are no extant letters from Surtees to either of the Brownings, though he wrote to them many times, as can be seen by their letters to him, the first extant letter of which, from EBB, is in response to his letter upon his marriage to Henrietta. EBB writes on 25 May 1850: “I have great faith in you, and am confident that you will make my dearest Henrietta as happy a wife as she begins by being,” and she adds, “Robert says he is delighted to be your ‘brother Browning’.” Following the outbreak of war in the Crimea, EBB’s letters to her sisters are filled with concern that Surtees will be transferred out of England. After learning of his Militia’s vote in favor of not going to the Mediterranean, EBB writes Henrietta on 11–18 March 1855: “I am so happy you are not going to the Mediterranean. Malta would not have agreed with Altham in the summer.” At one point, toward the beginning of the war, Surtees had tried to secure a promotion by way of volunteering for the Crimea. EBB remarked upon this to Arabella in a letter dated 20 December 1854: “It’s the greatest relief to me to hear of Surtees’ missing his majority & the chance of a glorious grave at Sebastapol. At the same time, Arabel, I must confess to you that I didn’t take your view of the case—& it seemed to me (& to Robert too) natural & praise-worthy that he should make the offer he did. He is a soldier after all, & we must accept his point of view. If Robert were in his position, perhaps I should’nt have had the force to act as nobly as Henrietta did, but I should certainly have tried.”

The Brownings met Surtees briefly on their 1851 and 1852 visits to London. But it was not until their week-long visit to Wilton in September of 1856, that they spent any appreciable length of time with him, and both seemed to be genuinely impressed. During their stay, EBB wrote Arabella on 25 September saying: “And do you know that both Robert and I consider that Surtees has been very generally underrated. He is kind, & honest, & straightforward, & by no means, in our mind, wanting sense—conscientious, religious—really, as the world goes, these are high qualities.” The warmth of this visit did not, however, prevent EBB and Surtees from arguing about religion. Surtees was firmly Tractarian in his religious views. This had been one of the reasons Mr. Barrett had given for refusing to allow his marrying Henrietta. EBB was Non-Conformist, as was her father, and the fact that Surtees had been influencing Henrietta in a Tractarian direction would not have sat well with the poetess. She tells Arabella in a letter dated 4 October 1856 that she and Surtees had “a good deal of theological talk on one occasion … & he grew very hot .. for which I liked him none the less. It’s really good to see a man in earnest, even when he is in the wrong. Which Surtees was, I am bound to add.” EBB went on to say that “as surely as he and I lived, so surely should I live to see him a R. Catholic.” Although Surtees may have grown “hot” in argument, it apparently did not prevent the Brownings from thinking fondly of him and their visit to Wilton. Before they left the next month for Italy, they sent him some studs made of Florentine malachite “to wear now & then with a thought for us two, his brother & sister, Robert & Ba” (letter from EBB to Henrietta dated 21 October 1856).

EBB never saw her sister or Surtees again after this visit. Following the death of John Kenyon and the reading of his will, which left the Cooks just £100 while leaving princely sums to the Brownings and others, EBB commiserated with Henrietta in a letter dated 10 January 1857. It was for this letter that Surtees wrote an annotation condemning Sarah Bayley (see vol. 10, pp. 325–327), who was Kenyon’s long-time companion and principal beneficiary, and who Surtees seemed to think dictated the terms of the will. The last letter Surtees received from EBB is dated December 1860, soon after Henrietta’s death. In it she says to him: “We both know she was the best, sweetest, purest, tenderest—and though I do confess, Surtees, that your loss is the greater, (seeing that she was closer to you and loved you above all,) yet mine goes back further into the past and devastates my memories of life & youth.” When EBB died seven months later, Surtees wrote RB a letter of condolence, to which the poet responded in a letter dated 18 July 1861: “Thank you from my heart—you can feel for me indeed … I am going to leave Florence in a week, not to return for many years: I shall see you in England soon I trust.” RB wrote to him again upon the death of Octavius Moulton-Barrett’s first wife, Charlotte, who had died in childbirth with her infant son on 6 October 1861. She and Octavius had been staying in Taunton while Surtees was helping them look for a house in the neighbourhood. In his letter of 8 October 1861 RB tells Surtees, “I endeavored to break this new calamity to poor Arabel as gently as I could … it will be the dearest of privileges to attempt at least to be of some use—however trifling … She bids me thank you for your goodness & entreat you to keep her apprised of the state of Octavius.” Several months later Surtees recorded in his journal that he went to London to fetch his daughter Mary, who had been staying with Arabella at 7 Delamere Terrace. There he met RB and Pen. “Such a tall boy ‘Penni’—as they call him—is grown. He has a sweet smile and is very intelligent, but I do not like his calling his aunt and uncle—‘Arabel’—‘Ocky!’ it sounds pert—and disagreeable. Strange, the three widowers assembled together, it seemed—!” (Surtees, 9 December 1861).

Surtees and RB seldom saw each other after this. There is no evidence that RB ever visited him at either Stoke Court or later at Timbercombe. Surtees, on his infrequent trips to London, would occasionally visit RB at Warwick Crescent, sometimes bringing his son Altham along to see Pen. With Henrietta and EBB gone, these two sons remained the central point of common interest between the poet and the Major. This bond may have been at its strongest when both boys were undergraduates at Christ Church, Oxford. Pen, who had been living in Oxford for nearly two years, having tried and failed to matriculate at Balliol, helped Altham settle in when he arrived there towards the beginning of the fall term in 1869. When it came to studying, however, it was Pen who needed the help. Altham excelled in his first year at Christ Church, easily passing his exams at the close of the fall and spring terms, while Pen failed his each time. The news hit RB hard. The same day that Surtees wrote in his journal: “Poor Pen—again ploughed for Smalls” (Surtees, 17 June 1870), RB wrote to him for advice: “You know the state of things with Pen, & how all my hopes have come to nothing … it is necessary that something should be done, and done at once: and as one possible career, still open to us, seems the Army … will you do me the great favor of advising me as to what steps should be taken for putting Robert in the best possible position.” Surtees apparently responded with advice, but when RB wrote back on 10 August 1870, he had decided to make different plans for Pen: “I shall see if I cannot secure some Civil Service post which may suit, after all: the army would be altogether a mistake for him.” Surtees in turn appealed to RB for assistance in a matter concerning his son Edward. In a letter to Lord Sandhurst, dated 17 April 1876, RB asked for advice on behalf of Surtees, apparently regarding Edward’s future in the army (prior to this Surtees had recorded in his journal: “Our darling Edward’s name in the newspapers, as first in order of merit, in Varsity exams—for Army!”; Surtees, 13 January 1876). The specific nature of this advice is not clear, but as a letter written three days later to the same correspondent indicates, it was given and passed on. The last extant letter from RB to Surtees, dated 6 April 1881, is a congratulatory one on the impending marriage of Altham: “So you are actually in your sixty-ninth year already, while I am just within a month of getting out of mine! Certainly you look some years younger.”


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