History books on Winston Churchill have become something of an industry in recent years but Heaton Hall has its own little-known connection to the man whom many regard as the greatest Briton.
In 1916, the then 6th Earl of Wilton, Seymour Edward Egerton (known as Sim), proposed marriage to Winston Churchill’s first cousin, Clare Sheridan. Sim was attached to the Royal Naval Intelligence Unit at that time as he was too physically delicate for active service. Sheridan was a widow with two young children, her first husband, Wilfred, having been killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Seymour was only 20 years old, while Clare was 31. Having not yet reached the age of 21, Sim needed his family’s approval for the wedding. His family was opposed to the match (for obvious reasons), as were some of her family members. Winston’s mother Jennie in particular disapproved of Sim due to his youth and extravagant lifestyle.
Clare’s American mother, Clara Jerome, was a sister of Winston’s mother Jennie – the beautiful and wealthy Jerome sisters were the toast of London society. That same London society found Clare and Sim to be an odd match, when their engagement was announced in April 1917. The noted war correspondent and former soldier, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles A Court Repington mentioned in his memoir that there was ‘much talk of the engagement of Lord Wilton to Clare Sheridan’ by aristocratic ladies such as Mrs (Alice) Keppel, Violet Asquith and others. Whatever his family’s feelings about the relationship, Clare was facing a difficult future as a widow with two young children to raise. Sim was not just young and fun-loving, he was wealthy (although he had a propensity to live beyond his means) and this made him attractive as a future husband. Clare, however, was not one to be easily swayed by money – her own father Moreton was a failed businessman and her late husband had lost his stockbroking business before he went to war. Marriage to Sim would ensure a secure future for her an her children. Her parents, for their part, encouraged the match as they hoped for some security for her.
The engagement did not last long as Clare got cold feet and fell in love with another aristocrat Alexander Thynne, son of the Marquis of Bath, who was subsequently killed in 1918. There is no record of Clare visiting Heaton Hall which would have been unlikely as Sim was living in London at this time. The rural peace of the Heaton estate did not attract him as he preferred socialising in Mayfair to horse-racing.
Clare went on to become an accomplished sculptor and travelled extensively, living for much of her life in Algeria. She never remarried. She wrote many volumes of autobiography and travel writing, some of which are available through online bookshops. Her relationship with Churchill was almost always close throughout their lives – they shared a love of art and he was kind to her when she struggled for money later in life.
Sim eventually married Brenda Petersen, the daughter of a Scottish shipping magnate in August 1917. She was the first Countess of Wilton not to originate from an aristocratic background. They had two children but were living separate lives until both of their early deaths. Sim died in 1927 aged only 31 and his Countess in 1930.
Copyright: Carole O’Reilly 2021
Clare Sheridan (1927) Nuda Veritas London: Butterworth
Lt.-Colonel Charles A Repington (1920) The First World War 1914-1918: Personal Experiences, Vol.1. London: Constable and Company
Anita Leslie (1977) Clare Sheridan A memoir of Clare by her cousin, Anita. New York: Doubleday
Elizabeth Kehoe (2005) Fortune’d Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters London: Atlantic Books