Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Eminent Women: Mary Lockwood Kemp and Lady Sydney Morgan

Eminent Women: Mary Lockwood Kemp and Lady Sydney Morgan

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - June 04, 2012

She was a sensitive, artistic woman, ill-suited to the demands of polygamy and life on the frontier. Her children’s best memories of Mary Lockwood Kemp were of the music in their home and of Mary carefully teaching them the old English songs their father used to sing as well as the songs of her native Yorkshire.

Mary Lockwood joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1858 in Yorkshire. Her daughter was never sure whether she had been more attracted to the doctrines or to the missionaries. Nevertheless, the young English woman left her poor mother and alcoholic father and went with a friend to Zion. Her friend died on the way to Utah, and Mary arrived in Salt Lake City alone and deathly ill from mountain fever. A childless Irish couple, David and Isabella Ross, was assigned to take care of her and several months later Mary married David Ross as his second wife.

Mary was sick for several years and the demands of the illness, the struggle to make a living, and at least one incidence of domestic violence wore on the family. After being threatened with a church court for an economic dispute, David Ross decided to leave the Church and go to California. He took his two wives to the Mormon settlement of St. Thomas, Nevada, and from there headed to California. He and his first wife and children went in one wagon and he hired an Indian to drive Mary and her two small children in a second wagon. Mary persuaded her driver to lag behind, and just after David and Isabella crossed a small river, the driver turned the wagon and he and Mary fled back to St. Thomas.

Mary could no longer feed her infant son, so the townspeople convinced her to give him to another family, and they sent Mary and her young daughter to the next major settlement, St. George, Utah, perhaps so David Ross could not find her. She expected to return to Salt Lake City but after she arrived in St. George, she met William Button Kemp. He was a widower about twenty years older than she was and had grown children and grandchildren as well as children at home. Despite the age difference, the two married and had an affectionate, caring relationship.

Mary gave birth to a son who died as an infant,[1] then three more sons. She was pregnant with a daughter, Kate, when William died after getting sunstroke while working on the St. George Temple.

A glimpse of the grieving family is found in the description of Mary’s two-year-old son, Elias, who disappeared from the house soon after his father’s death and was found climbing the hill leading to the family farm, “hunting his father, … crawling along on his hands and knees and calling, ‘Daddy,’ every step.”

Mary was not able to manage the family farm by herself, and she sold the water rights and let the farm dry up, to the disgust of her stepchildren. She lived on two dollars worth of church food each month, the same amount in a small church stipend, the kindness of the townspeople, and occasional work as a washerwoman until her boys were old enough to work. [2]

Her daughter remembered being sent to the tithing office for food:

The Bishop’s storehouse, the Tithing Office, was shortened by the children into “the T.O.” The T.O. was a small one-story building a block east of Mary’s home. One small room, a low porch and a cellar from which vinegarish smells arose from rows of barrels of molasses, bales of hay, sacks of dried fruit and bins of grain could all be seen by the children sent there with their little empty lard pails to be filled with something to spread their bread with.

Mary would say nearly every morning after breakfast, “Come here, [Kate], and let’s see if you have your hair combed nice enough to go to the T.O.” And after inspection, “Tell Monri [Mahonri Snow] to give you a little butter if he has any in this morning. Now, you hurry before someone else gets it. Aunt Sophronia [Turnbow] Carter told me last night she was going to pay her tithing butter this morning…”

Mary was a close friend of Julia Spencer Snow, a wife of Apostle Erastus Snow. The two women spent many afternoons drinking tea, telling fortunes, playing euchre, and gossiping. Many choice nuggets of gossip made it into Mary’s biography.[3]

In 1877, Mary helped Wilford Woodruff and the other women of St. George do the temple work for the Eminent Women. Her daughter, Kate, told about a later trip Mary took to the temple, complete with a description of Mary’s Yorkshire dialect:

“Here comes the Temple wagon, Ma,” said [Kate], as she stood where she had been stationed by her mother to watch for its coming; for Mary wanted to ride to the Temple, where she would “Take a Name” and do vicarious “Work for the Dead” that was so conscientiously being done, from the time this first Temple built by the Latter-day Saints in the West had been finished.

“Hi don’t think the Temple workers like me stopping George, the driver, to beg a ride; so Hi will wait till he stops for Sister Mack. Some of them are real nice to me, like old Sister Alger, but others grumble at the delay. They think Hi ham lazy because Hi do not take silkworms to feed…There now, ’e’s stopped and Hi will go hover. Now, you be a good girl and do hup the morning’s work; and ’ave the kettle boiling at noon, for Hi shall ask them to let me hout the first one and Hi shall be back early, hif Hi ’ave to walk, and will be wanting a cup of tea.”

Later in her life Mary suffered a severe fall and a stroke and had to move in with her daughter, Kate, and Kate’s large family. In her final years, she asked her daughter to tell her life story. Twenty years after her mother died, Kate bought a typewriter and wrote the biography of her mother, leaving us with a detailed life sketch of the personality and trials of Mary Lockwood Kemp.[4]

* * *

Mary Lockwood Kemp did the temple work for another woman who was also remembered for preserving the folk songs of her childhood, Lady Sydney Morgan.

Lady Sydney Morgan was born Sydney Owenson, the daughter of comedic actor Robert Owenson and his wife Jane. She was probably born in Dublin, Ireland. One biography says, “She was constitutionally inexact, avowed a scorn for dates, and sedulously concealed her age.” When pressed, she gave her birth year as 1783; it may have been as early as 1770.[5]

Sydney’s earliest memories consisted of music, particularly Irish tunes, and interactions with her parents’ literary and theatrical friends. She spent her childhood at home until her mother died and her father sent her to boarding school.

After she left school, Owenson worked as a governess. She was a talented and charming woman and of diminutive stature, less than four feet tall. She was said to have a slightly deformed spine and face.

Sydney Owenson had been writing to entertain herself and her friends and family since she was young, but after her father suffered a business failure, she started writing to help support the family. During her lifetime she wrote songs, poems, travel narratives, and novels. She was particularly known for her collections of Irish folk tunes. Her most famous novel, The Wild Irish Girl, a work based very loosely on her own life, is written in the following style:

“And, therefore, Mortimer, is it nothing to Glorvina?” she softly replied; and with one of those natural motions so incidental to the simplicity of her manners, she threw her hand on my shoulder, and leaning her head on it, raised her eloquent, her tearful, eyes to mine. Oh! while the bright drops hung upon her cheek’s faded rose, with what difficulty I restrained the impulse that tempted me to gather them with my lips; while she, like a ministering angel, again took my hand, and, applying her fingers to my wrist, said with a sad smile, “You know I am a skilful little doctress.”

Although not evident from this passage, the book was full of nationalistic Irish sentiments. Just eight years earlier, the United Irishmen had risen against British rule. The Rebellion of 1798 was violent and bloody and though the British government suppressed the rebels, the fight for human rights in Ireland had barely begun. The nationalistic sentiments in The Wild Irish Girl created a political furor, and Sydney’s friends, family, and the political parties in Dublin thereafter called her “Glorvina” after the main character.

As a result of her newfound popularity, the Marquess of Abercorn and his wife (Anne Jane Gore) invited the now-famous author to become part of their household. In 1812, Sydney married Abercorn family physician Sir Thomas Charles Morgan. Sydney’s biographer, Geraldine Jewsbury, told the story of the marriage:

On a cold morning in January, in 1812, she was sitting in the library by the fire in a morning wrapper, when Lady Abercorn opened the door, and said “Glorvina, come upstairs and be married; there must be no more trifling!” Her ladyship took Miss Owenson’s arm, and led her up-stairs into her dressing-room, where a table was arranged for the ceremony—the family chaplain standing, in full canonicals, with his book open, and Sir Charles ready to receive her. There was no escape left. The ceremony proceeded, and the “Wild Irish Girl” was married past redemption.

Sydney and Thomas lived in Ireland and London and spent several years traveling in France and Italy. The two collaborated on at least one of Sydney’s more successful books.

Sir Thomas Morgan died after three decades of marriage. Sydney died sixteen years later in 1859, about 80 years old, give or take a decade. She and her husband had no children.

Her writings have not weathered time as well as those of her contemporary, Jane Austen. But although her works are rarely read today, Lady Morgan made enduring contributions to Irish nationalism and folk music.[6]

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

[1]Mary’s son William died of summer complaint. This disease, also called cholera infantum, struck babies in their first few summers, and caused up to ten percent of deaths in a survey of Salt Lake City death records, and higher rates in more populated cities. The most significant cause of summer complaint was contaminated milk, but contaminated water and poor sanitation also played a role. The disease largely disappeared when early public health measures started to require milk pasteurization and the regulation of water supplies.

[2]Mary’s daughter, Kate Thurston, remembers her mother saying:

“I left my native land for the Gospel’s sake, as did the father of my children, and now I am a widow far from my own people, and my orphan children, whose father’s last day’s work was done on the roof of the Temple built by a people professing to take care of its widows and orphans.” She would get very red in the face, gesticulating and crying, and anyone to whom her tirade was ever directed never wished for a “piece” of Mary’s mind the second time.

Kate later said, “when Mary got angry she was very, very angry. Time with its hardships softens some people, but it had hardened Mary.”

After her first bad experience with polygamy, Mary’s daughter noted that she swore never to enter another polygamous marriage, but polygamy was often used as a safety net for widows and other unattached women, so Mary probably would have felt significant community pressure to marry again. Four years after William’s death, Mary was married to Peter John Lundberg, a Swedish immigrant from nearby Washington, but she almost immediately requested and got a divorce. I have not tracked down Peter Lundberg and his wife Johanna. They may be this family.

[3]Unfortunately for the historian, Kate Thurston did not name names, but, as in the case of gossip about John MacFarlane and the circumstances of his polygamous marriages, the hints about the identities of the people (in the MacFarlane case, nationality, occupation, and details of plural marriages) are often specific enough that it’s possible to identify the people meant.

[4]The biography, The Winds of Doctrine: The Story of the Life of Mary Lockwood Kemp in Mormon Utah during the last half of the Nineteenth Century (K. K. Thurston, 1952) is historical fiction, but Kate states: “The events chronicled here are true, as they really happened, slightly colored, probably, by a child’s imagination and memories…. The things that happened to Mary, as recorded in this story, are all true, but her character is, of course, softened by a daughter’s retelling.” (If the portrait of Mary in her biography was indeed softened by her daughter’s retelling, she must have been quite a character!) After extensive fact checking, the book seems to be fairly accurate as far as dates and places and people, although many people are unnamed or are given pseudonyms, including Kate. She calls herself “Eve.”

Leonard Arrington had this to say about the book:

…anyone who spends a substantial amount of time going through the materials in the Church Archives must gain a new appreciation of the important and indispensable role of women in the history of the Church — not to mention new insights into Church history resulting from viewing it through the eyes of women.[Footnote 8]

[Footnote 8.] A good example of the “new look” at the inside of Church history by viewing it through the life of a woman is K. K. Thurston, The Winds of Doctrine: The Story of the Life of Mary Lockwood Kemp in Mormon Utah during the last half of the Nineteenth Century…

A personal note: after reading many family histories, this book was very touching. Despite some weaknesses in the narrative, it brought the people of early St. George to life.

[5]The 1770 date is probably a slander by a critic. Another critic suggested she was born on board a ship sailing to Ireland. The contemporary records are unclear as to the date of her birth.

[6] Lady Sydney Morgan is one of a group of Irish nationals for whom Wilford Woodruff had temple work done, including Henry Grattan, John P. Curran, Daniel O’Connell and their wives; and perhaps others. Wilford Woodruff did not have the work done for Lady Morgan’s husband.



  1. Another terrific entry in this series! Thanks, Amy.

    I wonder–you don’t mention a divorce from David Ross. Was there one, or did that marriage just sort of fade away?

    Comment by Mark B. — June 4, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

  2. Not to be flippant, Mark B., but there’s an awful lot that’s not mentioned here. : )

    Mary’s daughter said that Mary called her marriage to William Kemp her “legal marriage.” Legally, she didn’t need a divorce from Mr Ross, but I assume she would have needed a church divorce. Where are those records kept? Did that have to be approved by Brigham Young or someone else? The book mentions Mary going to the temple president for her divorce from Mr Lundberg. That would have been Wilford Woodruff at the time.

    Comment by Amy T — June 4, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

  3. There’s an enormous file of divorces granted by Brigham Young, but unfortunately it’s restricted. (Or “limited access” as they’re calling it now.) As a plural wife, Mary would have had no trouble having a divorce granted for any reason, or none at all. A claim that Ross was leaving the Church would have made it all the easier.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 4, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

  4. I haven’t kept up with all of the Eminent Women posts, but this, like the others I have read, are fascinating. Thanks for sharing these.

    Comment by kevinf — June 4, 2012 @ 11:23 pm

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