Two hundred years ago, yesterday, a baby girl was born in Piccadilly. Though she would be her mother’s only child, she is believed to be her father’s second, but first legitimate, daughter. This little girl was, of course, Augusta Ada Byron, the daughter of Lord Byron and his wife, the former Anne Isabella Milbanke. Sadly, though her parents had been married less than a year at the time of her birth, the marriage had already begun to disintegrate. Byron would leave Britain only a few months after his daughter’s birth, never to return.
When Ada Byron came into the world . . .
George Gordon, Lord Byron, married Anne Isabella Milbanke on the morning of Monday, 2 January 1815. The wedding took place at the home of the bride, her family’s country home, Seaham Hall, in County Durham, in the far north of England. The marriage was not a love match. Byron had married Miss Milbanke because he was sorely in need of funds and had discovered that no other wealthy and eligible young lady would have him. Annabella, as she was known to family and friends, was an intelligent and well-educated, but very religious young woman. She was attracted to Byron, but also believed that as his wife she could reform him. Their relationship was rocky from their wedding day.
Not long after his marriage to a reputed heiress, most of Byron’s creditors began pressing him for payment of the many debts he had incurred during the preceding years. His wife’s fortune was soon depleted, long before all his debts were paid. During this period, at least ten executions were levied against his property for debt, and he was only saved from imprisonment by virtue of the fact that he was a peer of the realm. Further funds had been promised to Byron by Annabella’s father in the marriage settlement. However, it appears that Mr. Milbanke delayed the remittance of these funds for fear that once Byron had control of them, knowing it would be the last money he would get from his wife’s family, that he would desert her. Therefore, throughout their short marriage, the young couple was constantly plagued by creditors demanding payment for one debt or another.
Despite the difficulties in their relationship, Byron often claimed his marital rights with Annabella. Nevertheless, during that year of marriage, he is known to have carried on adulterous affairs with more than one woman. One of those women was almost certainly his married half-sister, Augusta Leigh, by whom it is believed he had a daughter, Elizabeth, who had been born in the year before his marriage. Remarkably, most scholars believe that his only legitimate daughter, Augusta Ada Byron, was conceived in March of 1815, while Byron and his wife were visiting Augusta Leigh and her family. At that time, it seems there was still some affection between the couple. Nevertheless, Byron was not faithful, even to Augusta, and had affairs with a number of other women during the year he was married. It seems that Annabella was probably unaware of Byron’s philandering, at least for the first few months of their marriage. It was only several months after she became pregnant that rumors of her husband’s sexual escapades had begun to reach her.
Lady Byron gave birth to a baby girl during the afternoon of Sunday, 10 December 1815. The child came into the world in London, at 13 Piccadilly Terrace, her parent’s home. While his wife was in labor, it is recorded that Byron tossed several pieces of furniture around the room in which he was waiting, though it is unclear whether this was the result of impatience, stress or anger. Byron was very disappointed to learn that his newborn child was a girl, since he had been expecting a "glorious boy." His first words to his newborn daughter were less than fatherly, "Oh! What an implement of torture have I acquired in you!" Later, he wrote of her that she was " . . . the child of love—though born in bitterness, and nurtured in convulsion."
At the time of her daughter’s birth, Lady Byron was on fairly amicable terms with her husband’s half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Therefore, she had no serious objections when Byron not only wanted to name the baby after Augusta, but also chose her as his daughter’s god-mother. Nevertheless, though the baby was christened Augusta Ada Byron, her father always called her Ada during the very brief time he spent with her. Even after their separation and Byron’s departure for the Continent, Lady Byron also called her daughter Ada, not Augusta. In fact, Byron’s daughter would be known as Ada by her family and friends throughout her life.
Notwithstanding his chronic philandering, or perhaps because of it, Byron routinely harangued his wife, who did her best to try to reform him. Even when she was pregnant with their child, he subjected her to a number of violent outbursts, shouting at her that she made him feel like he "was in hell." Initially, Annabella believed that her husband would gradually reform and settle down to life as a married man. She also assumed that he would become more responsible, and faithful, once he became a father. Sadly, she was to be deeply disappointed on all counts. Within a few days of his daughter’s birth, Byron had taken up with an actress. When little Ada was barely a month old, he wrote to Lady Byron, directing her to choose a convenient day to leave their home in Piccadilly Terrace. He added to that, "The child will of course accompany you."
On Monday morning, 15 January 1815, Lady Byron rose very early, from the bed she still shared with Byron. She dressed herself and her infant daughter warmly against the winter cold, and the two of them quietly left their Piccadilly Terrace home, never to return. In fact, they also left London, travelling to the home of Lady Byron’s parents at Kirkby Mallory, in Leicestershire. On 2 February, Byron’s father-in-law wrote to him, proposing a legal separation. Byron initially refused, but was forced to agree when Mr. Milbanke threatened to bring legal action against him. Byron eventually signed a deed of separation in April of 1816. Within a few weeks, he departed for the Continent, never to set foot in Britain again. Nor would he ever again see his wife or his daughter.
Lady Byron did everything she could to prevent any of Byron’s undesirable traits from manifesting in her daughter. She even hid the identity of her father from Ada until the child was twelve years old, more than three years after Byron had died in Greece. Ada was not allowed to see his famous portrait in Albanian costume, which hung in her grandparents’ house, draped in a green cloth, until she was twenty years old and a married woman. Lady Byron ensured that Ada was brought up very strictly. Her education focused on mathematics, science and foreign languages. Despite all her mother’s efforts, Ada was an imaginative and creative young woman. Later in her life, she wrote to her mother, " . . . if you can’t give me poetry, can’t you give me poetical science?" Ada put her mathematical studies and her creativity to good use and became the very first computer programmer.