Baroness de Sternberg (1791-1859)

Written by Jean Warburton

Occupation: Philanthropist
Location: Windermere

Early life and family

Baroness de Sternberg was born Catherine Augusta Harrison on 17th October 1791 in Epping, Essex and was baptised there at All Saints church on 6th November 1791. She was the seventh of eight children. Her father was John Harrison (1753-1815) who had been born at Dean near Workington where his family had lived at Branthwaite Edge from time immemorial. John Harrison left Cumberland for London to train as an apothecary and surgeon. On 8th September 1781, at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire he married Jane Mary Parkinson (1760-1830). He became an eminent London surgeon, dying on 1st August 1815 and was buried in the churchyard at Dean. Jane Harrison died in 1830.

Joseph Steele (1745-1835) was a schoolfellow and lifelong friend of John Harrison and, like him, became a successful surgeon in London. His family home was at Acrewalls in Arlecdon near Whitehaven and he had inherited further land in the area. He was Catherine’s godfather. When her father died, Catherine went to live with Dr Steele at his house, 9 Trinity Square near to the Tower of London. She was his housekeeper, constant companion and, finally, his nurse. In her obituary in the Westmorland Gazette, she was described as living with him more in the character of a daughter. Dr Steele died on 30th September 1835 and was buried at All Hallows Barking by the Tower. There is a marble tablet to his memory in the parish church of St Michaels, Arlecdon.

Inheritance and wealth

Dr Joseph Steele left the majority of his estate to Catherine. She received a life interest in landed property at Acrewalls, Cringlegill and Arlecdon in Cumberland. There were also outright gifts of land in London, Essex and at Birks, Crosslacon, Frizington Parks and Arlecdon in Cumberland. In addition, she received Dr Steele’s shares in ships and gifts of items of value and cash. The properties in Cumberland were farm estates but some had deposits of coal and iron which were mined. In particular, Frizington Parks had valuable deposits of high quality haematite iron ore which produced good returns from mining leases. Catherine had, therefore, inherited not only capital but also a steady stream of income. She retained Dr Steele’s houses in Acrewalls and Trinity Square but also went on to purchase 15 Royal Crescent Bath and 1 Waterloo Crescent Dover. For a summer residence, she bought land overlooking Windermere at Bowness where she had a villa built.

Catherine was undoubtedly generous with her inheritance, supporting good causes for the rest of her life. She also indulged herself buying a large number of pieces of jewellery set with diamonds, emeralds and rubies together with valuable antique and modern plate and old china for her houses. Her collection included the magnificent state bed from Stowe erected after the design of Signor Borra in 1737. Despite all this expenditure, Catherine left £100,000 at her death in addition to her houses, one of which was sold after her death for £11,600.

Later life

On 30th May 1836 at St Nicholas’ church in Brighton, Catherine married Anthony Augustus Baron de Sternberg (1794-1858). This would appear to have been a move by Catherine to acquire the status she considered appropriate to her wealth rather than a love match. Her property was put into a marriage settlement placing the property in the hands of trustees, including her brother Lawrence Harrison (1790-1862), with a requirement that they respond to her reasonable requests. Under the settlement, her husband was given the use of 9 Trinity Square and £30,000. Unfortunately, the marriage was not successful and they parted, entering into a formal separation agreement in February 1840. The house in the Royal Crescent, Bath which Catherine had purchased immediately before the wedding was sold in June 1840. There would appear to have been some kind of rapprochement in 1842 as the society press reported their joint attendance, for example, at the Regent Hotel Leamington Spa in 1842 and at the Lyceum Theatre in 1844. The Baron and Baroness seem to have gone their separate ways after 1846 with the Baron remaining in London. Catherine, firmly keeping her title as Baroness, divided her time between Acrewalls, Dover and Bowness. They did not have any children.

The Baron died on 12th November 1858 at 16 New Burlington Street, London and was buried at All Saints, Kensal Green, Kensington and Chelsea. He left about £2,000 which suggests that the original appeal for Catherine had indeed been his title and not his financial status. Catherine died a short while later on 21st June 1859 at the London Hotel, Albermarle Street, London. She had apparently been staying there to see doctors in Harley Street about a heart condition. Her will directed that she should be buried in a pauper’s grave and she was interred at Hanwell Cemetery, West London.


In 1844, Catherine had been one of the royal party of the King of Saxony who was staying at the Royal Hotel, Bowness-on-Windermere and became so enamoured of the beautiful site afforded by Belles field slightly to the north that she was determined to buy it. An offer was made to the owner of the land, Mr Beaufoy, who sold her the cottage he had built on the land, Belsfield, together with adjoining land amounting to about eight acres in all. Catherine engaged the architect George Webster (1797-1864; ODNB) to design a residence for her. He produced plans for an Italianate villa with an Osborne tower which was built by Abraham Pattinson (1818-1871)(qv) of Bowness. The house was completed at the end of 1846 when the Baron and Baroness treated about 60 workmen employed at the building to a supper at the Royal Hotel. In 1853, Abraham Pattinson extended the house and added stables and a conservatory for exotic plants. The gardens were also extended with the purchase of land for a kitchen garden and orchard.

Catherine entered into life in Windermere and the surrounding area. She bought the yacht, Fairy, from Earl Tyrconnel and entered the Regattas held on Windermere from 1849. In 1855, her yacht came fifth in the match for the Silver Cup and it was reported in the Westmorland Gazette that she entertained the other competitors and their friends ‘in sumptuous style’. Produce from her garden regularly won prizes at the Kendal Floral and Horticultural Society Show. She became active in church circles, making a large contribution to the fund to purchase St Mary’s church in Windermere. There were regular contributions to local charities and provision of food and clothing for the poor.

After Catherine’s death in 1859, Belsfield was sold by her trustees to the Crossley family of Halifax, carpet manufacturers. In 1869, the house and estate was sold to the industrialist Henry William Schneider (1817-1887; DNB) for £12,500 and in 1892 Belsfield was bought by Lieutenant A D. Macleod who established the property as a hotel.


Catherine was a regular contributor to charities in Cumberland, Westmorland, Dover and London, appearing on subscription lists and attending events such as bazaars and balls for diverse causes from the Dover Sailors Home to rebuilding the school in Wetherall. She was a steadfast supporter of the Cumberland Benevolent Association being a Patroness and attending its annual ball in London every January. It could be argued that Catherine’s motive for these contributions was to establish and maintain her place in society. Fellow Patronesses and attendees at the balls were the Duchess of Sutherland, Lady Anne Beckett, Lady Muncaster and Lady Dalrymple. However, many of her philanthropic activities were purely altruistic and, in particular, showed concern for the area of her birth. For example, she contributed £70 to pay the debts of Cleator Schools but her main contribution was to the Whitehaven and West Cumberland Infirmary.

In 1855, Catherine offered, at her own expense, to provide a new wing at the Whitehaven hospital for the treatment of fever patients. She not only provided the building but also bore the expense of furnishing the two wards at an overall cost of £3,300. Catherine took great interest in the progress of the work, visiting the site in August 1856 and paid much attention to the detail of the construction. The men’s ward was dedicated to the memory of her father, John Harrison, and the women’s ward to the memory of her godfather, Joseph Steele. She maintained her interest in the wards and provided in her will £1,000 for a new fever ward and £300 to keep in repair the existing wards.

Catherine’s gifts to philanthropic causes in her will exceeded £25,000. Many were for medical institutions but also included wider support for patients. She provided funds for Samaritan Societies at both the London Hospital and Whitehaven Infirmary and £1,000 for a chaplain at the latter hospital. Her strong religious views were reflected in generous gifts to the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church. There were also a number of gifts for the support of children including the establishment of the Joseph Steele Apprentices Scheme, gifts for three orphan asylums and funds for the maintenance and education of children of Westmorland parents in London.

The Cumbrian view of Catherine was summarised by the Soulby’s Ulverston Advertiser and General Intelligencer of 7th July 1859: ‘The memory of the Baroness de Sternberg will long be cherished on account of her liberality to various charitable institutions in this neighbourhood.’


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