Lady Marian Margaret Compton was born in Italy in 1817 the elder daughter of the second Marquess of Northampton and Margaret MacLean Clephane. She did not come to England until 1830. She maintained her love of Italy throughout her life. In 1841 she married John Hume (Egerton Cust) Viscount Alford and bore him two sons, who were later to become the 2nd and 3rd Earls Brownlow. Although she never received any formal training she was quite a competent artist and a great patron of the arts and was particularly interested in needlework. It was largely due to her that the Royal School of Art Needlework was founded in South Kensington in 1868. She published Needlework As Art and edited the Handbook of Embroidery by L. Higgin.
Among the archives of Belton House (the main seat of the Brownlows) is a poem signed by Princess Mary Adelaide, mother of Queen Mary, written while staying with Lady Marian at Ashridge.
While Ashridge Hall still burns with light
And revels gay awake the night
Our hearts’ best homage we would pay
To her who now inspires this lay,
With sumptuous grace and gentle ward
Dispensing gifts thro’out this land
The Poorman’s friend, the rich man’s joy
In her we find without alloy
Whate’er can charm and raise the mind
For she is noble as she’s kind.
M.A. Jany 18th 1860
In the verse which Princess Mary Adelaide wrote on her visit to Ashridge she describes Lady Marian as the “Poorman’s friend” and it is as that more than for anything else that she is remembered in Little Gaddesden and the surrounding villages.
Lady Marian’s son John William Spencer Brownlow Cust attained his majority in 1863 and took as active an interest in the affairs of his estates as his health allowed. In his short life John William is chiefly associated with and judged by the events of the Battle of Berkhamsted Common and the furore that accompanied his attempts to enclose part of the Common. He wished to restrict access to certain rights of way. In 1860, whilst the young Earl Brownlow was still a minor, the trustees of the Ashridge estate (among whom was Lady Marian) were successful in purchasing the Manor, except for the castle, for just under £150,000. The intention of Lord Brownlow’s trustees was to make new roadways across the central part of the Common and to preserve the natural beauty of the area which was being damaged by cartwheels and indiscriminate gorse cutting. They planned to restrict access by fencing it under the General Enclosure Act.
By way of compensation the commoners of Berkhamsted were offered land in the town for a recreation ground. The majority of the commoners readily assented and four hundred people signed the deed of release, but it was never completed. A small number of Berkhamsted people objected to the loss of their rights to cut gorse and graze sheep. This opposition was stirred up by the national and local press. It came to be led more by the articulate urban townsfolk rather than by the poorer villagers. Prominent among the objectors was Augustus Smith of Ashlyns Hall who was concerned about the poverty of those he had seen in the countryside around Berkhamsted.
Jennifer Sherwood, Chronicle v.XV (Mar 2018)