Sifting the Historical Record


In my previous post, I introduced Katherine (aka Kate) Barnes Cochrane, intrepid traveler and mother of five, whose remarkable adventures are, in my humble opinion, enough to make her a candidate for inclusion on Badass of the Week. But tracking Kate across the pages of history requires luck, patience, and a good bit of metaphorical digging.  To my knowledge, no biography has ever been written about her. To get to know this woman – to unearth the “facts” of her life, to discover her voice – I turned to her paper trail.

Historical research isn’t just finding the right records – it’s knowing where to look. Google searches often turned up dead ends, or offered leads that didn’t seem entirely credible. One site, and even her headstone, suggest that Kate was born in 1796, making her just 16 years old when she married Thomas!
I was willing to bet that she was young, but not that young. 1794 seems a likelier year. She would then be about 18 when she wed Thomas in the summer of 1812. As for the month and date of her birthday, a letter from her husband offers a tantalizing hint. He writes, in a letter dated 12 October 1816, “Many happy returns to the day to my lovely Kate.” The greeting is often used for birthdays, and offers the best clue I’ve come across for Kate’s actual birth date.
According to Burke’s Peerage, Kate’s father, Thomas Barnes, lived in Romford, Essex. It seems likely that Kate spent her childhood in that town, connected to London via good coach roads and home to many thriving industries, including brewing and weaving. After her father died, Kate lived in the care of her aunt, a Mrs. Jackson. 
Portman Square, London, 1813.
While in her late teens, Kate resided in London with her aunt near the posh Portman Square neighborhood. A letter written during Kate’s adulthood suggests that her education was not all that she would have wished: How much more happy should I have been had I been brought up under the eye of a fond Mother, rather than by relations who only felt for me in the moment of childhood and left me to battle in ignorance and poverty my growing years.
It was in London that she met Thomas, and after several refusals, finally accepted his offer of marriage. Less than two years after their marriage, Thomas was convicted in a criminal case and sent to the King’s Bench prison. Kate remained in London with their infant son, visiting Thomas whenever she could and writing frequent letters.
Upon Thomas’ release and commission with the Chilean navy, Kate traveled with her husband throughout South America. Later, she also lived in several locations in Europe. Eventually, at some time during the 1830s, the couple separated. Kate moved to France, where she resided for a time in Paris (on the Champs Elysees!), and also in the seaside town of Boulogne.
Katherine Cochrane – by now Countess of Dundonald – died in France in 1865. Upon further investigation, I found that her body was brought back to England and buried in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin, Speldhurst, in Kent. (Her husband is interred at Westminster Abbey.)
Headstone of Katherine Cochrane, Countess of Dundonald. St. Mary the Virgin, Speldhurst, Kent.
Kent happens to be the location of my graduate studies at the University of Kent, but ironically, I did not learn of Kate’s story until I was on the wrong side of the pond. But I had been close, and like many good mysteries, it was only a matter of time until the clues unfolded.
Notes:
First letter held at the National Records of Scotland, GD233/13/6/1/1/3. Cochrane, Thomas. 12 October 1816.
Second letter held at the National Records of Scotland, GD233/13/6/1/3/8 (2).  Cochrane, Katherine Barnes. 1828.

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