John Conroy was born on 21 October 1786 as the son of John Ponsonby Conroy, Esq., and Margaret Wilson in Wales. Both his parents were Irish, and he was one of six siblings.
He entered the army at the age of 17, but he was not quite as successful as he might have hoped. His only success was marrying the daughter of his general. He married Elizabeth Fisher on 26 December 1808 in Dublin and was promoted to Second Captain on 13 March 1811 and appointed adjutant in the Corps of Artillery Drivers on 11 March 1817. He and Elizabeth went on to have six children together, and one child would die in childhood.
With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in sight, John was desperate for work. He was introduced to Prince Edward, Duke of Kent through his wife’s uncle Dr John Fisher, who was not only the Bishop of Salisbury but he had also served as a tutor for Prince Edward. He was taken into Prince Edward’s household. Upon the death of Prince Edward, John told everyone who was willing to listen that the Duke had entrusted the Duchess of Kent and the newborn Princess Victoria to his care. He held his position in the army until 1822 when he began to devote himself entirely to the Duchess of Kent. He began to take care of her issues, all while moaning about his own sacrifices. He made The Duchess of Kent feel like “an old stupid goose” and began to take advantage of her and was soon appointed comptroller of her household.
He also befriended the ageing Princess Sophia, who with her declining mind also quickly fell under John’s spell, and he treated her like a cash-cow. She bought him a house for his family, a country home in Reading and an estate in Wales. In 1823, his accounts contained just £100, but by 1825 they contained £22,000.
Soon, he and The Duchess of Kent were on a similar mission – becoming Regent for Victoria.
In 1827, John complained that the princess should not be surrounded by commoners, leading King George IV to appoint Conroy a Knight Commander of the Hanoverian Order and a Knight Bachelor and Victoria’s governess was made a Baroness.
The Duchess of Kent and John Conroy began their attempt to bend Victoria to their will, in a plan called “The Kensington System.” They believed that Victoria would most luckily succeed before her 18th birthday and would require a regent, such as her mother. The whole system was “to ensure that the Duchess had such influence over her daughter that the nation should have to assign her the regency.” Victoria’s education was to be kept in the Duchess’s hands so that “nothing and no one should be able to tear the daughter away from her.” Secondly, it was to “give the Princess Victoria an upbringing which would enable her in the future to be equal of her high position” and to “win her so high a place in the hearts of her future subjects, even before her accession, that she would assume the sceptre with a popularity never yet attained and rule with commensurate power.”
Victoria was intended to become detached from her uncles King George IV and his successor King William IV but also King Leopold of Belgium, who also had his eyes on the regency. The public would need to believe that Victoria and her mother were inseparable. In practice, this meant that Victoria was under constant surveillance, and everything was reported to John Conroy. She never saw anyone without a third person present and was never allowed to be alone. She slept in her mother’s bedchamber and her governess Lehzen sat with her until the Duchess came to bed. Victoria was constantly surrounded by John Conroy, but also his children. Victoria became quite resentful at being obliged to spent time with Victoire Conroy, whom she considered to be her social inferior. Victoria also resented her playmate’s father and her mother’s fascination with him. Victoria’s refusal to appoint John as her advisor angered him.
When Victoria became seriously ill in 1835, John did not believe her and thought it to be one of her whims. A few days later, Victoria became delirious, and even John now realised the seriousness. However, he seized the opportunity to have her confirm him as his private secretary. When Victoria refused, her mother came to John’s aide, but even she could not convince her daughter – sick as she was. He also pushed a pen into her hand, and she still refused to sign. She survived, but her recovery was quite slow. Throughout her ordeal, her only support had been Lehzen, her governess. Victoria later wrote, “at the risk of her health if not her life preserved the Queen from this horrible man.”
Victoria ascended the throne upon the death of her uncle King William IV just shortly after her 18th birthday – she had averted a regency. John and the Duchess of Kent spent the entire day trying to get close to the new Queen, but she refused to see them. John told Baron Stockmar, “I am completely beaten.” To salvage what he could, John began to demand a peerage and £3,000 a year. Queen Victoria agreed to the money – if only to be rid of him. However, a peerage would have allowed him to attend court and Victoria did not want that.
John eventually left to go abroad, realising that he would not be admitted to court and not wanting to remain in the Duchess of Kent’s household as she was also out of her daughter’s favour. He took whatever money he had left, and he eventually settled in his country home in Reading. He died there on 2 March 1854. The Duchess of Kent – by now back in favour – wrote to her daughter, “He has been of great use to me, but unfortunately has also done great harm.”1