Suffolk author uncovers the incredible story of Mary Alice Berners
- Credit: The Berners Family/Simon Pearce
Located just five miles outside of Ipswich is Woolverstone Hall. A magnificent Grade I-listed mansion, it is set across 87 acres of sprawling Suffolk countryside.
Built in 1776 and just a stone’s throw away from the River Orwell, it’s got some fascinating stories to tell – and one local man has just uncovered perhaps the most fascinating of them all.
Meet Simon Pearce. A retired English teacher, Simon has spent the last six years researching and writing his debut book, The Astonishing Story of Mary Alice Berners. Chronicling her life across the 19th and 20th century, Simon first stumbled across Mary while working at the hall.
“I’m originally from the West Country, but I ended up here on the East coast some years ago. As soon as I came to Woolverstone, I knew I wanted to stay here and since being here, I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know the village, developing an interest in its history.”
For years, Simon taught at Woolverstone Hall when it was a boys’ school - but it was back in 2015 when his journey into uncovering the story of Mary Alice Berners began.
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“I was doing some work in the St Michael’s churchyard grounds, tidying up nettles and grass, when a couple came to the churchyard looking for two brass memorials that were erected in memory of their family members from years gone by.”
These family members happened to be related to Hamilton Hugh Berners (whose ancestor William Berners built Woolverstone Hall), and Charles Spencer-Warwick.
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“I was able to show them where the brasses were in the church, and eventually we started talking about them. But just around the corner from the church we found a small stone memorial to an infant who was buried in the Red Sea. She called Mary Constance Spencer Warwick, and they had no idea this memorial – or even the child - existed.”
It turned out that Mary Constance Spencer Warwick was the second child of Mary Alice Spencer Warwick (née Berners) - and one of the gentlemen visiting the memorials, Anthony, was Mary Alice’s great-grandson.
“He had no idea his great-grandmother Mary had a second child who had sadly passed away. We ended up talking more about her and from that moment, we set up a relationship. He told me some amazing stories about her – and between 1920 and 1944, she lived her final years in India as a man.”
In order to understand Mary’s final years, it’s important to first paint a picture of her life story, and uncover the pivotal events that shaped her as a person.
Born May 4 1868 in Kensington, London, Mary Alice Berners was the daughter of Charles Berners and Mary Anstruther Berners. Charles Berners later inherited Woolverstone Hall from his father Captain Hugh Berners in 1891.
“In a nutshell, she was born into an extraordinarily wealthy family. The Berners also owned land off Oxford Street, and had a house in the south of England. Some of Mary’s formative years were spent at Rookery Park in Yoxford here in Suffolk, but she also lived at her father’s house in Surrey, going back and forth between the two counties.”
At the age of 20, Mary met a soldier called Charles Spencer Warwick. The two fell passionately in love and married him in secret.
“At the time, this would’ve been seen as scandalous as she would’ve needed her father’s permission. But he was in Australia at the time and couldn’t prevent her from getting married.”
As a married woman, Mary then lived the life of an officer’s wife for several years, following her husband to India. “But sadly, he turned out to be a villain. He assaulted Mary on a number of occasions, and had a series of affairs. She sought a dissolution to her marriage in India in 1898 after nine years of marriage. Unable to get a dissolution, Mary however managed to secure a Judicial Separation.”
Following the separation from her husband, Mary lived on her own in India for around two years before coming back to England and converting to Catholicism.
“She was back at Woolverstone Hall, and at the time also went through a very public divorce between 1905 and 1907. She was eventually granted her divorce, and lurid details and headlines appeared in the papers.”
Mary’s mother passed away in 1911, her youngest brother was killed in France during the First World War, her son was killed in Gallipoli, and her father later died in 1919.
“Around the time this was all happening, people who were finding it hard to maintain their large country houses due to death duties, alongside a number of other reasons.”
Woolverstone Hall was eventually sold in 1937 – but by that time Mary had already moved back to India and was living a new life under a new name.
“From around 1920, she spent her final years building an extraordinary monastery in the north of India, in the foothills of the Himalayas,” explains Simon.
“Towards the end of her life, Mary was incredibly religious, and had two chapels in what could only be described as ‘an earthly paradise’. But when she settled in India, she disguised herself as a man and styled herself as Major Michael Warwick. Towards the end of her life, she was known as Brother Michele de Elias Warwick. It was only in 1944 when she died in India that people realised ‘Michael’ was in fact Mary.”
While Simon is still unsure as to why she decided to spend her final days as Michael, he felt compelled to share her story with the rest of the world.
“I think that’s why I decided to call the book ‘The Astonishing Story of Mary Alice Berners’. She was courageous, incredibly independent, spontaneous, and a risk taker. She obviously had a charisma that attracted people to her – whether she was Mary or Michael.”
With such a fascinating and unique story to tell, how did Simon go about conducting his lengthy research?
“I had no idea it was going to be so difficult,” he explains. “There was very little in terms of written records for the Berners family, and no one really knows what happened to them – although some people locally think much of the estate records were incinerated when the hall was sold.”
Simon therefore had to piece a lot of his findings through newspaper articles, which documented much of Mary and her family’s life here in Suffolk.
“For instance, in 1907, she put on a performance in Berners Hall, which she wrote and starred in – and that’s where the picture on the cover of the book came from. It was actually covered in the East Anglian Daily Times, and in that article I was able to read exactly what happened at the event, what she wore, what she sang, and what the people attending thought of the performance.”
When it came to piecing together the parts from Mary’s life in India, that however proved much more difficult.
“There are lots of gaps in her final years, because when she died in India, her estate and all of the contents within it were sold – including the documents that would’ve told us more about her.”
But with the help of local memory and legend, and an essay that was found in the British Library, these both provided a greater insight into Mary’s life in India.
“Luckily, a bit of help came from a man called Jasper Newsome. He was an English mystic who moved to India to find himself, and the hut he stayed in was previously inhabited by a Danish man called Alfred Sorensen. Alfred had actually been a friend of Mary – but knew her as Major Michael Warwick.
“The custom in India when someone leaves things behind is to burn them, but Jasper managed to save some of the documents that would’ve otherwise been incinerated. He then pieced them together and wrote a short essay on Mary which I found in tucked away in the British Library when writing my book.”
Another source that came in handy was a book entitled ‘Last Children of the Raj’, and within it there is reference to Brother Michael Warwick.
“A young lad wrote of his time in India, and described how he met someone called Brother Michael Warwick. He goes on to say that Michael would tell him all sorts of things about himself, such as how he was a keen crossword player, and had actually built his estate from the winnings from international crossword tournaments. So through these sources, I was able to gradually piece together a picture of Mary when she was living as Michael.”
One of the most important sources however throughout Simon’s six-year research was Anthony Berners, Mary’s great-grandson.
“The Berners family, have been very helpful. Anthony let me borrow pieces that his grandmother had left him, with helped me understand more about Mary.
“Back in June, I gave some talks on Mary in Berners Hall, which was fitting as that’s where she held her event where she told some of the family’s history. Anthony attended and he was absolutely delighted at how I’d pieced it all together.”
What started off as curiosity spiralled into Simon’s 374-page book. But what does he hope readers get from it?
“I suppose I wanted people to understand more about a remarkable woman who had a such a fascinating life, and really went through a lot. While there’s still bits missing, I would have loved nothing more than to sit down and have a conversation with her. It would’ve been wonderful to understand her motivation behind moving to India and living out her final years as Michael.”
On Friday September 24, Simon will be doing a talk on his book, exploring the life of Mary Alice Berners in further detail. The event will be taking place at Berners Hall in Woolverstone, and tickets are £6. Tickets can be purchased from Orwell Stores, or by calling 01473 780009.
To find out more about the story of Mary Alice Berners or to purchase a copy of the book, visit the website.
Copies of the book can also be purchased from Dial Lane Books.