Lady Olivia Sparrow - The will of iron with a heart of gold

The recent passing of the Iron Lady, reminded me of another unusual woman of an earlier era also known for her determination, power and decisiveness. The comparison must stop here, as the lady who is subject of this article was also known for her … exceptional generosity.

Lady Oliva SparrowA copy of the only portrait of Lady Olivia Sparrow, her hand, fittingly resting on a book, reproduced by Nice watercolourist Alfred Head.Lady Olivia Acheson was the daughter of the Earl of Gosford, a wealthy landowner. She was baptised in 1775, received an excellent education at home and in 1797 married, in Dublin, Brigadier Robert Bernard Sparrow of Worlingham Hall, Suffolk. In six years of marriage she had three children, sadly losing her first baby. In 1805 her young husband died age 32 from a fever at sea, leaving behind an immensely rich and very attractive young widow. Her beauty was legendary even in her older years, as was her grace and generosity.

She received many offers of remarriage, but refused them all, preferring to dedicate herself to her children and her two intellectual vocations: religion and education for the poor and the blind. Her wealth was considerable, but unfortunately it could not provide what was most important to her children: good health. Her son John was suffering from tuberculosis, and her daughter Millicent had a strange neurological problem causing fainting spells and unconsciousness, possibly epilepsy.

Nice was not suitable for her fragile children so Lady Olivia built a large villa (no longer there) in 1817-18 in Villa Franca (Villefranche), which had an easy approach by boat. Since her villa had to have access by land too, she enlarged the seaside path to Nice and made it suitable for coaches, at her own expense. She was also a contributor to the construction of the first portion of the Promenade des Anglais, planned by Reverend Lewis Way to provide work for the poor in Nice. The beggars soon fled and the work was completed by professional cantonniers.

In the early 1800s the aristocratic British residents were just starting to establish the colony of the Croix de Marbre suburb of Nice, which was far from the old town and situated near the seaside, around the Road to France (today called the rue de France). They started to plan for the first Protestant church in this very Catholic town that still belonged to the House of Savoy. It was Lady Olivia who managed to secure the Royal Patent from the King of Savoy through her cousin in Turin to build a Protestant chapel in Nice.

The cost of the chapel was largely financed by Lady Olivia who gave the astounding sum of £300 and Millicent £100, roughly a third of the cost of the land purchase and construction. The yearly (!) wage of a lady’s-maid was about £10 at the time. The chapel had the rather curious specification in the Royal Patent that it could have no exterior indication that it was a … chapel.

Lady Olivia needed a place of worship for she suffered a great loss during the spring of 1819 when her son John died at Villefranche aged only 19. She continued to winter in Nice and spent the rest of the year on her estates in England and Ireland.

In Villefranche, she built a school for underprivileged girls, but the locals forbade them to enter and so the school never functioned. She started the first library by donating 300 books to the church in Nice, and this was the start of the English Library.

In 1834 (three decades before the Education Act of 1870), Olivia opened a school in Leigh for poor girls who were rarely taught to read in that era. But she didn’t stop there; she believed in providing the blind with means of earning a living, educating them and providing a dignified life, not just survival through begging. Lady Sparrow employed the blind Reverend J.W. Burke as a domestic chaplain at Brampton. This remarkable man worked hard to teach and train the blind within the Association for the Welfare of the Blind, receiving contributions from many winter residents in Nice.

Lady Sparrow’s family life was not what she deserved. Her daughter Millicent, Duchess of Manchester, died in1848 after a long illness and her husband claimed that shortly before dying, she rose from her bed to tell him to cancel her previous will (in which she left everything to her children) and make himself sole beneficiary. A long lawsuit followed, but Lady Olivia couldn’t prove that the Duke of Manchester was lying, and thus her grandchildren lost most of their inheritance. She lived to the unusually great age of 85, died on her estate in 1863, having buried both of her children, but not her faith.


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