What the wealthy baronet didn’t know — or at least claimed not to know — was that Valerie Langdon usually worked in a dive in Holborn, London, called the Casino de Venise. There she spent her evenings as a barmaid, banjo player — and prostitute
One night, in late Victorian Brighton, Sir Henry Meux, a fabulously rich brewing heir, stepped into a theatre. There, up on stage, was Valerie Langdon, an enchantingly beautiful, buxom actress. Sir Henry was instantly smitten.
What the wealthy baronet didn’t know — or at least claimed not to know — was that Valerie Langdon usually worked in a dive in Holborn, London, called the Casino de Venise. There she spent her evenings as a barmaid, banjo player — and prostitute.
Some at the time were convinced that Sir Henry had first encountered her in this guise, as a customer.
Whatever the case, despite the gulf in class and money, within months they were married in secret in 1878.
Valerie became Lady Meux, to the life-long horror of his family. Suddenly, she was one of the richest women in 19th-century England.
Travelling round London — and past her appalled in-laws’ fashionable city home — in a four-wheeled zebra-drawn carriage, she used the brewing fortune of her husband with dash, flair and eccentricity.
She revamped his Hertfordshire estate with a roller-skating rink and an indoor swimming pool and decorated it with one of Sir Christopher Wren’s finest buildings — carted all the way from central London.
She pursued country sports — stalking, fishing and grouse-shooting in Scotland as if to the manner born.
Next month, the Norfolk auction house, Holts, is selling a rare, late-Victorian 28-bore shotgun that once belonged to Lady Meux.
However unusual the gun, its owner was more extraordinary: perhaps the most colourful and unlikely aristocrat of the Victorian era.
She was born Valerie Langdon, the daughter of a Devon butcher, in 1847.
She claimed she was once an actress — often a euphemism for a prostitute in the 19th century. It seems she only acted on stage for a single season before winding up as that banjo-playing barmaid.
Sir Henry came from one of Britain’s richest brewing dynasties. Meux’s Brewery Company, founded in 1764, was one of the biggest brewers of porter ale in London in the 19th century. It survived as Friary Meux until 1999.
Nine years older than Langdon, he was bewitched by her. With her heart-shaped face, smouldering brown eyes and hourglass figure, she was quite the Victorian stunner.
In 1881, she was painted three times by the great American artist, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Whistler’s first portrait of her — Harmony In Pink And Grey: Portrait Of Lady Meux — shows her in her pomp, in a fabulous dress of glimmering pink and frothy white topped by a mammoth hat. The picture is now in the Frick Collection, an elegant mansion-turned-museum off New York’s Central Park.
The second Whistler portrait of her, Arrangement In Black: Lady Meux, shows her dressed up for a night on the town, with a plunging dress in black, accompanied by long, black gloves, a diamond tiara, necklace and bracelet, and a 12ft-long stole that will have required the sacrifice of dozens of mink. It hangs in the Honolulu Museum of Art in Hawaii.
Nine years older than Langdon, he was bewitched by her. With her heart-shaped face, smouldering brown eyes and hourglass figure, she was quite the Victorian stunner. The pair are pictured above
By the time he got to the third picture, Portrait Of Lady Meux in Furs, Whistler had had enough. When she complained at having to pose, he shouted at her. She responded: ‘See here, Jimmy Whistler. You keep a civil tongue in that head of yours, or I will have someone in to finish these portraits you have made of me.’
Whistler promptly destroyed the painting. Lady Meux wasn’t daunted by this setback. She was too busy turning her mind — and her husband’s fortune — to his estate, Theobalds Park, in Hertfordshire. He also owned houses in Wiltshire and Surrey, a chateau in France and a house on Park Lane.
For all her exotic background, Lady Meux was highly intelligent. She amassed 1,700 Egyptian objects. She was generous, too. She wanted to leave the collection to the British Museum but they snobbishly turned her down.
Lady Meux’s greatest coup, though, was to buy one of Christopher Wren’s finest buildings, Temple Bar, and turn it into a gatehouse at Theobalds. Temple Bar was built by Wren in 1672 as the entrance to the City of London from Westminster on Fleet Street. Decorated with statues of Charles I, James I and Charles II, it was one of the most celebrated buildings in London.
By 1878, the gateway was too narrow for London’s increasing traffic so it was taken down stone by stone, beam by beam and stored in a yard — until Lady Meux decided she had to have it.
So more than 2,500 of its numbered stones, weighing nearly 400 tons, were transported 12 miles from London to Hertfordshire on low, flat trolleys pulled by a team of horses.
There, she had the Wren masterpiece set up as the gatehouse to the estate, throwing a magnificent garden party to celebrate its completion. Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales would regularly come for parties in the relocated building.
Lady Meux remained attached to the theatre. She liked to dine early in her London house before going to see a play. Her friends included Mrs Patrick Campbell, the celebrated stage actress.
She once fell out with American actress Mrs Brown Potter, and inflicted on her what the Los Angeles Herald described as ‘Lady Meux’s curse … she openly declared that her victim never would have any luck as long as she lived’. Sure enough, Brown Potter was dropped from her next play.
The LA Herald claimed, too, that Sir Henry was ill. He ‘had an affliction which prevented him from going into society … his wife was his devoted nurse’.
To her great sorrow, they had no children. So she turned her affection to her string of racehorses. Under the pseudonym Mr Theobalds, Lady Meux won the 1901 Derby with Volodyovski.
A shotgun (pictured) which once belonged to one of London’s most eccentric women, Lady Meux, is to be sold at auction next month
She became immensely rich in her own right in 1900, when Sir Henry died, aged only 44, and she inherited Theobalds and the Meux brewery. Soon after, she fell for Sir Hedworth Lambton, later Admiral of the Fleet. Fighting in the Second Boer War, Sir Hedworth realised cannon were needed to rescue the British forces at Ladysmith, the famous siege in Natal from 1899-1900. With his heavily armed naval brigade, he pulled off the rescue and became a national hero.
Lady Meux paid for six naval 12-pounder artillery guns to be sent out on special field carriages to the British troops.
On his return to England, Sir Hedworth called on Lady Meux to thank her — and they hit it off. Sir Hedworth became heir to her £200,000 fortune (a vast sum then) on the understanding he would change his name to Meux on her death. He was only too happy to become Sir Hedworth Meux when Lady Meux died in 1910, aged 63.
After Sir Hedworth’s death in 1929, Theobalds was sold. Long after Lady Meux’s death, Temple Bar remained forgotten at Theobalds. In 2004, it was returned to a site next to St Paul’s Cathedral.
And so barely a trace is left of the banjo-playing prostitute who set Victorian hearts aflame — except for those two ravishing, glamorous Whistler portraits in New York and Honolulu.
Devil-may-care, live-for-the-moment Lady Meux would have loved to end up in such exotic locations.
Harry Mount is author of How England Made The English, published by Penguin.