Noble Branch A British Historian Looks Into Anglo-American Romance Between Louise Corbin And Lord Walpole
Martin Stiles’ job doesn’t sound half bad: He’s the “hall curator” for Lord and Lady Walpole’s estate in Norfolk, England.
Stiles takes care of stately Wolterton Hall (circa 1724) and the 2,000 acres of parkland surrounding it.
So why isn’t he at home polishing the armor? Grafting the tea roses? Oiling the drawbridge? What was he doing here in Spokane, poring through the archives of the Cheney Cowles Museum?
Because the noble Walpole family has an important Spokane connection.
Lady Louise Walpole (1866-1909), Countess of Orford, was actually Louise Corbin, the daughter of D.C. Corbin.
That’s D.C. Corbin, as in Corbin Art Center, Corbin Community Center and Corbin Park in Spokane. As in wealthy railroad-mining-banking magnate of Spokane’s early years.
Stiles first realized that the Walpole family tree had a Spokane branch when he was moving some stuffed elk and bighorn sheep heads around in Wolterton’s chambers.
“When I got the heads down, there on the back were the words ‘Withers Bros. Taxidermy, Spokane, Wash.,”’ said Stiles.
As archivist of the family history, Stiles was intrigued. One of his jobs is to compile information on this famous family, which also boasts Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1746), Britain’s first prime minister, and Horace Walpole (1717-1797), renowned British man of letters.
It didn’t take Stiles long to discover that the late Lady Louise, wife of Robert Walpole, fifth Earl of Orford, was the daughter of the Spokane tycoon. Soon afterward, he read Spokane historian John Fahey’s 1965 book, “Inland Empire: D.C. Corbin and Spokane,” which filled in many more gaps in the story.
“Now, I’m here to fill in some of the other gaps, about the personal side of the fifth earl,” said Stiles, who spent two days conferring with Fahey and the archivists at Cheney Cowles.
Together Fahey and Stiles have pieced together the basic story of this Anglo-American romance:
D.C. Corbin’s wife was, in the parlance of the time, not a well woman. So while Corbin was making a huge fortune in railroads, mining and banking in the Inland Northwest, his wife and the two Corbin daughters, Louise and Mary, were sent to various health spas on the East Coast and in Europe.
Then, when Louise was about 9, she was sent to France to be educated for almost the next 10 years. Soon after passing her graduation exams, she paid a visit to Scotland.
There she met and fell in love with Robert Walpole, a Royal Navy sub-lieutenant. They were married a year later in 1888, when she was 21. Walpole’s uncle died in 1894, and Robert ascended to the earldom. He became the Earl of Orford; she became the Countess.
They soon poured a great deal of money into fixing up Wolterton, which had been abandoned for 40 years. The money for that renovation may well have been Spokane railroad dollars. Stiles doesn’t know for sure, but this kind of arrangement wasn’t unheard of at the time: A wealthy American marries into a title, and a titled Britisher marries into ready cash.
“The British aristocracy on paper was worth a fortune, but when it comes to actual money in the bank, no,” said Stiles.
“The estate was mortgaged reasonably heavy. But we’re not sure what kind of settlement D.C. might have made on Louise, and whether that helped. That’s something to sort out.”
The Walpole family’s political influence had long faded. The earl had a seat in the House of Lords, but he only turned up occasionally, said Stiles. Mostly he lived the life of a “fairly standard landowner.”
“He did his shooting and fishing and trundled around the world,” said Stiles.
The Gentlewoman, a British periodical, did a profile of the countess in 1903, and said this about her life:
“Apart from their fishing and traveling, she is very devoted to music, and during the season, when she and Lord Orford are to be found at their house in Bruton Street (London), Lady Orford does not often miss a night at the Opera, where she has a box, the gift of her father, who comes over from time to time to see her.”
D.C. Corbin visited Wolterton several times, as did her sister Mary and her husband Kirtland Cutter, the famous Spokane architect.
The earl and countess also made several treks to Spokane, one of which resulted in the acquisition of those stuffed heads Stiles found at Wolterton.
The earl and countess had two children. Horatio, the only male heir, died before he reached age 2, but Dorothy survived.
The marriage appeared to be happy, albeit short. The countess died suddenly in 1909, at age 42, of unknown causes. The only account Stiles has of her death is this terse entry by her husband the earl: “This year on May the 4th, Lady Orford fell dead in her bedroom. I was on the way to Scotland at the time.”
Lacking a male heir, the Earldom of Orford died with Robert in 1931. The present Lord Walpole is a baron, a couple of steps down in the hierarchy of nobility.
However, the Wolterton estate still has living, leafy evidence of that long ago Anglo-American romance. Amid the estate’s meadowlands, ancient church ruins and moats stands a grove of old maples. The fifth earl left behind a note that says these maples were “grown from seed brought from Spokane.”
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