Catherine Holme (1736-1777)

Written by Kay Saville-Smith

Occupation: Nabobina
Location: Dalston

Catherine Holme’s resilience supported her through two return passages to India in the mid-eighteenth century, enabled a strategic marriage to the nabob William Brightwell Sumner, and transformed her from the daughter of a Carlisle attorney and minor Cumberland landowner to a nabobina and mistress of one of the choicest estates in Surrey.

Baptised at St Cuthbert, Carlisle on 15 September 1736, Catherine Holme (sometime referred to as Holmes) was the eldest daughter of John Holme of The Hill (1702-1769) and Catharine Brisco (1706-1741) of Crofton Hall, Thursby. Through her mother, Catherine was connected to a network of prominent gentry and middling families. Her maternal grandmother was the daughter of Sir Richard Musgrave (d. circa 1718) of Hayton Castle and an aunt had married Sir Christopher Musgrave (d. 1735) of Edenhall. Through the Brisco family, Catherine Holme was connected to the Hilton family and the Morlands of Capplethwaite Hall. All these families had active interests in East Indies and West Indies trade, including slave ownership, throughout the long eighteenth century. 

John Holme’s marriage into the Brisco family may have been facilitated by an initial sojourn in the East Indies, although the evidence is fragmentary and possibly confounded by another East Indies sojourner of the same name. Holme married Catharine Brisco on 19 April 1732 at Thursby and practised as an attorney in Carlisle. The death of his wife (15 October 1741) appears to have galvanised John Holme to take both his children, Catherine and John, to Calcutta. Catherine Holme married William Brightwell Sumner (1737-1796) in Calcutta bearing two daughters, Catherine (1758-1823) and Ann (1759-1761) and a son, George (1760-1838) [IOR B/92, p.374 N/1/2 f.47; N/1/2 f.55.  N/1/2 f.27].

The Sumners returned to England in 1762 with a baby born at sea, William (1762-1796) who was baptised at St-Martin-in-the-Fields, and a considerable fortune. In England they joined an emerging set of nabobs and nabobinas seeking to settle new wealth in country estates near London. Catherine and William commissioned a conversation piece from Johann Zoffany of their children playing on a see-saw set in a country estate overlooking London. 

The temptations of further Indian wealth and encouragement by Robert Clive (1725-1774), who was returning to Bengal as governor and commander-in-chief, drew the Sumners back to India. William left for India sometime in 1763 and Catherine travelled with Clive to Calcutta in 1765, his third journey to the subcontinent. Clive grew to dislike her, describing her as ‘a woman of most diabolical disposition, ignorant, ill-tempered and selfish to the highest degree. She seemed possessed of every disagreeable quality which ever belonged to the female sex.’ He was infuriated by her insistent harpsichord playing. ‘To give you a Specimen of this Lady’s Natural Abilities, she gave us to understand that she understood Music and could play upon the Harpsichord & to convince Us of this she has been playing two hum drum Tunes for four Hours every day since she has been on Board (Sunday excepted) without the least Variation or Improvement’ [quoted in Forrest, 248, 253].

Catherine was pregnant on the voyage and a short-lived son was born soon after arriving at Calcutta [IOR N/1/2 ff. 61-62]. Perhaps because she had irritated Clive so much, but more probably because Clive was attempting to distance himself from rumours of bribery and corruption floating around the Society of Trade, a price setting cartel, Catherine’s husband was persuaded to resign from the Bengal Council and leave India. It is estimated that in the two years Sumner had operated the Society of Trade, he was able to skim £23,000 which brought his accumulated wealth from India to around £90,000. 

On their return, and as befitting a returning nabob and nabobina, William and Catherine purchased in 1770 one of the most desirable estates proximate to London, Hatchlands Park at East Clandon. Put up for sale by Fanny, the widow of Admiral Edward Boscawen (1711-1761), the house was designed by Stiff Leadbetter and enhanced by Robert Adam’s interiors with the grounds fashionably landscaped.  Before her death, Catherine had the satisfaction of seeing her husband appointed High Sheriff for Surrey in 1777 [Derby Mercury, 2] and her daughter married to James Lawrell (1741-1799), also a returner from Bengal, who had settled nearby at Eastwick Park at Great Bookham. From that marriage two grandchildren were born. One of them, Georgiana Lawrell (1783-1853), was reputedly the mistress of the Prince Regent from around 1813 when her husband, Colonel George Quentin (1760-1851), was fighting in the Peninsula Wars [Harris, 233-238]. 

Catherine’s elder son George, who had been educated at Harrow and Emmanuel College Cambridge, entered parliament representing a series of seats including Ilchester, a notorious rotten borough, from 1787-1790 [Spencer]. He inherited Hatchlands Park, which was passed into the ownership of the National Trust in 1945, and undertook modernizations to the house and gardens. Humphrey Repton’s recommendations for Hatchlands can be found in Repton’s red books [National Trust]. Her other surviving son William became a banker with Castel, Powell & Co., in Lombard Street and died young in 1797 [Kentish Gazette, 4]. He bequeathed his property to his brother George and requested that he be buried with his parents at East Clandon [Prerogative Court Canterbury].

Catherine died at the age of forty-one on 31 December 1777 at Hatchlands Park where her descendants resided until 1888. Her brother John (1738-1779) died in Calcutta just over a year later. His memorial reads ‘The Remains of JOHN HOLME, Esq. of the City of Carlisle, Cumberland, who died the 2 day of January 1779, are here deposited, Aged 49 years. This Monument was erected To perpetuate the Memory of A Sincere Friend and Honest Man by his surviving Friends as a Testimony of their regard for his virtues’ (Derozario, 25). William Sumner was similarly eager to promote the reputation of his wife. Catherine’s memorial in St Thomas of Canterbury church, East Clandon refers to her ‘exemplary virtues which as a daughter, wife, parent and friend distinguished and endeared her living are worthy of remembrance and imitation.’ The Holme Hill estate at Dalston was passed from Catherine’s uncle to her son, George who eventually sold it in 1810 to another Cumbrian returning from the East Indies, Thomas Salkeld (1760-1820).  


  • Boumphrey, R., C. R. Hudleston, and J. Hughes, An Armorial for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Kendal, Lake District Museum Trust and CWAAS, 1975)
  • Derozario, M., The Complete Monumental Register: Containing All the Epitaphs, Inscriptions, &c. &c. &c. in the Different Churches and Burial-grounds, in and about 
  • Forrest, P, G., Life of Lord Clive (London, Gassell and Company, 1918).
  • Harris, E., The Country Houses of Robert Adam: From the Archives of Country Life (London, Aurum Press, 2007).
  • Harris, J., Satire, Celebrity, and Politics in Jane Austen (Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2017).
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  • Saville-Smith, K. J., Provincial Society and Empire: The Cumbrian Counties and the East Indies, 1680-1829 (Woolbridge, The Boydell Press, 2018). Note a transcription error states Catherine Holme’s death as 1771. This has been corrected in this biography. 
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  • Derby Mercury Friday 31 January 1777,
  • India Office Records and Private Papers (IOR) (British Library). Many of the East India Company records relating to birth, baptism, marriages, deaths, burials, wills and estate inventories can be found at Specific records are referenced in the text using their IOR reference.  
  • Kentish Gazette Friday 09 June 1797
  • National Trust, The Sumner Family at Hatchlands Park, accessed February 2021,
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  • Spencer, H., HOLME SUMNER (formerly SUMNER), George (1760-1838), of Hatchlands Park, East Clandon, nr. Guildford, Surr., History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832
  • Sutherland, L. S., and L. Namier, CLIVE, Robert (1725-74), of Styche Hall, nr. Market Drayton, Salop; subsequently of Walcot Park, Salop; Claremont, Surr.; and Oakley Park, Salop, History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790
  • The Zoffany conversation piece of the Sumner children auctioned by Christie’s 11 July 1997. Realised price £551,000.
  • Vigar, J. E.,
  • Westminster Baptisms, Westminster Archives Centre accessed through