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Littlehampton Women: Katherine Parnell

By Charlotte Burford


A cross shaped gravestone for Katherine Parnell in Littlehampton Cemetery

The Grave of Katherine Parnell in Littlehampton cemetery. Copyright: Derrick Chester 2020. Used with Permission.

The 5th February 2021 marks 100 years since the passing of Katherine Parnell. So who was Katherine Parnell and what exactly did she have to do with Littlehampton? Read on to find out more

Katherine Parnell was born Katherine Wood in Essex in 1846. You might know Katherine's story from the 1937 Clark Gable movie "Parnell" which dramatised the well publicised Love affair between Katherine and Charles Stewart Parnell, you might also know her by the name Kitty O'Shea.

Katherine or Katie as she was known to her friends married captain William O'Shea in 1867, a Catholic Nationalist MP but the pair separated in 1875 and lived separately with Katherine living with her Aunt. Katherine had grown up wealthy but her marriage to a Catholic man was not something that her family approved of. Luckily Katherine's aunt was generous and provided for her and her children and even paid an allowance to absent husband O'Shea. Katherine would remain living with her Aunt until her aunt's death.

In 1880 Katherine met Charles Parnell, a well know Irish Politician, and the two began an affair. Her Husband was aware of the affair but he kept quiet, at least to start with. At the time, such an affair would be a huge scandal and was looked down upon by Victorian Society. Despite the risks the affair continued with the pair meeting up for secret liaison and with Katherine giving birth to three children by Parnell.

Charles Parnell was a prominent politician and he served at the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Part from 1882 to 1891. He was a main player in the fight for Irish Home Rule. Katherine's family had connections and Katherine often acted as a liason between Parnell and Gladstone. But ultimately his relationship with Katherine would prove to be his downfall and the end of his career.

Sadly when Katherine's Aunt died, the secret love affair would not be secret for much longer. Her aunt left her entire estate to Katherine in her will leaving Katherine a very wealthy woman. Neither her family or her husband were pleased and Katherine soon found that her Husband was asking for a Divorce in 1889, demanding more money than she could afford. In the end the Divorce was granted and her husband was given custody of her two children.

The scandalous love affair took its toll on Charles career, his enemies used it to besmirch his name and many people refused to work with him and called for him to resign. He refused to do so and continued to work despite party divides. 

Following the Divorce Katherine and Charles had decided to quietly marry, their marriage took place in Steyning and the pair lived together in Hove near Brighton. The Scandal had taken it toll on Charles' health and he died in 1891.

For Katherine, the shame of the scandal was not over and many people blamed her for the downfall of Parnell's career which they consequently saw as hugely damaging to Ireland. She was called "Kitty" which was at the time a slang term for a Prostitute. Sadly after their civil marriage an administrative error meant that Katherine recieved nothing from her husband in his will. 

Later in life, with very little money Katherine moved to Littlehampton. She lived at 39 East Ham Road, in a small terraced house. She lived quietly and very few people knew her. At her funeral, only her children were in attendance. This is a stark contrast to that of her Husband who had one of the largest funerals to be seen in Ireland, a shameful reminder of the treatment of women in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Today you can find her gravestone in Littlehampton Cemetery where is is undoubtedly she is the most famous resident. 

For more information about the Gravestones in Littlehampton Cemetery check out the Facebook group, Stories from Littlehampton Cemetary:


Famous Faces of Littlehampton by the Littlehampton Research Group


Steyning Museum

The Parnell Society