Countess Amelia

On 28 September 1868 an apparently respectable Victorian gentlewoman left her house at Blaydon and, with two burly henchmen, moved into the ruined tower at Dilston.

She put up a tarpaulin as a roof, hung up pictures which she said portrayed members of the Radcliffe Family, brought in pieces of furniture, and barricaded the door against the startled Mr Grey, the agent for Greenwich Hospital, which then owned the estate. 'Countess Amelia' had arrived.

This lady, styling herself 'Lady Matilda Mary Tudor Radcliffe', had, in fact, first filed a claim to the Derwentwater Estates in 1857. She claimed to be the grand-daughter of John Radcliffe, only son of James Radcliffe and titular 4th Earl of Derwentwater. She said her grandfather had not died aged 19 in London at all, but had, in fact, faked his own death and escaped to Germany where he had lived to an old age. To support the story, she produced a range of convincing relics, including family portraits, furniture, jewellery, wills and a family tree.

She claimed to have had even more convincing proof of her heritage, but to have sent it to Lord Palmerston, who had never returned the documents. She followed this up by writing a series of letters to Lord Petre, descendant of the Radcliffes and holder of the remaining Derwentwater relics at Thorndon Hall, Essex. He was unimpressed by her claim and did nothing to help her. Her next strategy was to write directly to the Trustees of Greenwich Hospital to stake her claim to all the remaining Radcliffe lands, including Dilston.

In 1866 she moved north to Blaydon and told her story to the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, which greatly boosted her profile and, just at the time when romanticism over the Jacobites was at its height, won her considerable public support. Moving into the castle was guaranteed to further raise the stakes and force the hand of the Greenwich Commissioners.