Harriot, Duchess of St. Albans (1777-1837) was born Harriot Mellon, the daughter of Sarah Mellon, an Irish strolling player, and an impecunious lieutenant in the Madras Cavalry. Harriot made her first appearance on the stage at the age of eleven in a farce called The Spoiled Child in 1788. Her career as an actress came to an abrupt end on her marriage in 1815 to her long-time admirer, the 83 year-old banker Thomas Coutts. On his death shortly thereafter Harriot was left his sole legatee. The Morning Post recorded that 'some time previous to his death he settled upon Mrs. C. the sum of £600,000 with the house in Stratton-street, all the plate, linen, &c. - the service of plate is said to be the most valuable in any of the country...'
Within three years of Coutts's death, reports of an impending marriage between his widow and the 21 year-old heir to the Dukedom of St. Albans were rife. William Beauclerk succeeded to the Dukedom in 1825 and almost immediately proposed marriage to Mrs. Coutts. It was said that she refused him, telling him to ask her again in a year's time. Sir Walter Scott wrote in his journal 'If the Duke marries her, he ensures an immense fortune; if she marries him she has the first rank. If he marries a woman older than himself by twenty years, she marries a man younger in wit by twenty degrees.' (Lockart, Life of Sir Walter Scott, vol. VIII, pp.116-117). The Duke's second proposal was accepted and they were married on June 16, 1827. It appears to have been a happy marriage, despite the fact that the Duchess kept the pillow upon which Mr. Coutts expired with her at all times, encased in a wooden box.
The Duchess was renowned both for the extravagance of her hospitality and her generosity to those in need. Vilified by the popular press, she seems to have been either wildly hated or greatly loved by all in society. The Royal Dukes, with the exception of the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) were all regular visitors. The Duchess died in 1837. Contemporary newspaper accounts gleefully pointed out that her fortune was the equivalent to thirteen tons of gold, or if in sovereigns would stretch over twenty-four miles and take ten weeks to count. Her legatee, her step-daughter Angela Burdett-Coutts, became a noted philanthropist, was created a Baroness in 1871 by Queen Victoria, and when she died in 1906 was buried in Westminster Abbey. After her death the bulk of the Duchess' silver remained in storage until 1914 when it was sold by Christie's in a number of sales held up until 1920.