THE nation, said a politician cheerfully on the radio yesterday morning as I awoke, “is still stony broke and likely to remain that way for some time”.

He was referring to the Chancellor’s downgraded growth forecasts and as, to cheer myself up, I immediately flicked back to the Ashes, I never got to hear his name.

But he could have been promoting an exhibition that opens at the Bowes Museum in Barnard castle on Saturday.

This is one of my favourite etymological stories, although it is not confirmed by any proper dictionary. Nearly all of them say the phrase “stony broke” just means flat broke, or dead broke.

Only one of them offers anything like a proper explanation. “This expression is said to refer to the custom of breaking up a craftsman’s stone bench when he failed to pay his debts,” it says.

But there is another, much better story. It concerns Andrew Robinson Stoney, who was a terrible rogue who locked his first wife, Hannah Newton, in a cupboard in Burnopfield Hall until she was dead so he could inherit her fortune. Then he wormed his way into the affections of Mary Eleanor Bowes, the wealthiest heiress in Europe who owned Gibside and Streatlam Castle in Teesdale.

But having married her, Stoney turned brutish once more. He beat poor Mary, he stole her fortune, he raped her servants, he became an MP (for Newcastle), he sold her priceless collection of plants. Bravely, in 1786, Mary filed for divorce – something Georgian women just didn’t do – and fled.

Stoney’s ruffians kidnapped her in London, dragged her on horseback up to Streatlam Castle (between Barnard Castle and Staindrop), where he held her hostage for days before dragging her round on a crazy course across the snow-covered moors. He was desperate for her to drop the divorce case because without access to her fortune, he would be declared bankrupt and he feared spending the rest of his days in a debtors’ prison.

But at Neasham, near Darlington, he was apprehended and Mary was released. She divorced him, he became bankrupt and did indeed end up in debtors’ prison in London – Stoney was stony broke.

But Stoney broke was very different from being stony broke, because he managed to wangle it so that he lived in the prison governor’s mansion within the jail walls.

A fellow bankrupt had fetching daughter who visited the prison regularly. She was "a girl of perfect symmetry, fair, lively and innocent", so Stoney moved her into his prison mansion. At some time, he had his solicitor’s wife also living with him, along with a pretty sempstress who had been shacked up in a cell with a bankrupt clergyman.

So Stoney had a harem. He lavishly entertained them with parties, gambling sessions and random acts of violence, and he soon amassed a large collection of children by them.

After 22 years in the King’s Bench Prison in Southwark, Bowes died on January 6, 1810, technically insolvent but having lived the life of Riley. This may, then, be the origin of our phrase “stony broke” – penniless but having a riotous time, and it may mean that the country is not quite as doomed as Phillip Hammond’s growth forecasts suggest it is.

Mary's grandson, John Bowes, founded the Bowes Museum, and Streatlam Castle is the subject of an exhibition which opens on Saturday, November 25, 2017