The Feuding Pearce family

You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.

Feuding Pearce family

Never was the old adage as true as in the case of the feuding Pearce family.  We stumbled upon them, and their story, whilst looking for the husband of the subject of another blog, ‘Mary Ann Pearce’, whose husband (or brother depending on the source) was reputedly an officer on the half-pay but, although this family has two men who were officers on the half-pay, other than the coincidence of the surname we can find nothing to definitively tie her into them, except for Mrs Caroline Norton saying that Edmund (or Edward) Wentworth Pearce was Mary Ann’s brother.  However, their story is so peculiar that we felt it was worth telling.

Caroline_Norton_(1808-77)_society_beauty_and_author_by_GH,_Chatsworth_Coll. (1)
Caroline Norton.

In 1818 Edmund Wentworth Pearce, on the half-pay of the 18th Royal Irish Regiment of Foot published a letter ‘To a Noble Lord containing a systematic and detailed account of Unparalleled Atrocities acted by Capt. Thomas Pearce, on the Half-Pay of the Royal Marine Corps, lately a Prisoner in the King’s Bench. Comprehending some Account of the Author’s Sufferings, as a perfectly Sane Man, at the Two Insane Houses of Bethnal Green, Middlesex. Between May 2, 1815, and Nov. 1, 1817, &c. &c. &c.’

Well, with that Edmund Wentworth Pearce had our full attention!

Sometimes an Edward rather than an Edmund, he claimed to be the godson of Edmund Burke and Lord Rockingham, Charles Watson-Wentworth, and was the son of Jane Maria, daughter of Samuel Turner Esq of County Wexford, and an unnamed father (a military man who, like his sons, had ended up on the half-pay) who in turn was the son of Colonel Pearce and the grandson of the Right Honourable Lieutenant-General Pearce, Commander in Chief of Ireland. Edmund’s father had been a schoolfellow of Edmund Burke.

NPG 406; Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham after Sir Joshua Reynolds
Charles Watson-Wentworth.
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

The family lived on Cartwright Street and on Bennett Street in Westminster until Mr Pearce, the father of the family, passed away.  Besides Thomas and Edward there was another brother, James who was a Captain Lieutenant in the Marine Corps, and four sisters, Jane, Sarah, Charlotte who was sickly, and Mary.

In 1818 when his ‘Letter’ was published Edmund was living above Sandoe’s Ornamental Tunbridge-Ware Manufactory at 4 Devonshire Street, Queen Square, London. It begins by describing Thomas, many years older than Edmund, as a small, swarthy, ordinary and sickly child, born with crooked fingers and details many of Thomas’ childhood transgressions such as keeping most of a sum of money desired to be shared equally between him and his next brother. Thomas grew up to contract debts on account of his gin drinking and consorted with a gang of thieves at the house of the landlord of the Coach and Horses on St. Martin’s Lane. He was then packed off to join the Plymouth Division of Marines as a Second Lieutenant. Nothing good is said of Thomas’ character; indeed, he seems past redemption.

Whilst home on leave he encouraged his sister Mary Pearce to throw herself into the way of a rich Jewish Gentleman, Nathan Franks Esq of Great George Street, who was enamoured of her.  Franks took Mary to a bagnio and Thomas Pearce followed them, entering the room at an inopportune moment and after shouting at his sister and ordering her home, turned to Nathan Franks and threatened to expose him if he did not pay him one hundred pounds.

Returning home with the money Thomas gave a small share to his unfortunate sister, who, said Edmund, spent it on finery which subsequently led to her utter ruin.  Thomas’ share did not last long and he was perpetually in debt as he lived well beyond his means. Resorting to getting the other young naval officers drunk so they did not see him cheat at the gaming table, his boon companions at that time were Captain Ludlam who ended his days on the gallows convicted of forgery, and Captain Mence who, on his friends instructions, performed a sham marriage between Thomas and a girl named Polly Clarke, who was then often left to either pay her spurious husband’s debts or be taken into custody for them.

boxing baroness

Mary Pearce, with her reputation ruined, was now living in the keeping of a Mr James Cox, a man who was easily frightened by the bullying Thomas and who was persuaded to pay Mary an annuity and also to lend sums of money to her brother. James Cox had thoughts of making an honest woman of Mary until Thomas told him that she had ‘contracted a disease of danger and dishonour’. Edmund recorded in his ‘Letter’ that Mary died in a dreadful state a short time later and Edmund blamed Thomas for leading her into the habits that caused her death.

The family moved frequently as the widowed Jane Maria Pearce was virtually penniless and the family were often in penury.  Thomas lived with them off and on but never supported them financially, merely adding to their distress (while the family resided in Ranelagh Street, Pimlico, he was in the habit of standing naked at his bedroom window to expose himself to the daughters and female servants belonging to the house opposite).

His brother James meanwhile, had captured the affections of Rose Hickman, a wealthy widow and, even though Thomas tried to scupper the relationship, the pair married at St. Margaret’s in Westminster on the 13th May 1786 in the presence of Thomas, his mother Jane Maria and, somewhat surprisingly as Edmund has placed her death previous to this date, his sister Mary.

rose hickman

Towards the end of the ‘Letter,’ seemingly forgetting that he has killed her off in the earlier pages, Edmund says that his ‘sister Mary had left Ranelagh-Street, and gone to live at Chatham, in Kent.’  With Mary Pearce brought back to life, was the Boxing Baroness, really then sister to Edmund Wentworth Pearce as Caroline Norton asserted?

The sickly Charlotte was married off by Thomas to ‘a low, drunken fellow, in consequence of which, after going through a series of complicated miseries, she died a most dreadful object.’ Her husband was William Norton (no known relation to Caroline Norton) and the marriage took place on the 19th June 1787, at St. Margaret’s, witnessed by Jane Maria Pearce and her three sons.

The family now moved to 19 Marsham Street, Westminster. Here Jane Maria applied to William Wilberforce for relief and he granted her £25 a year and she also secured £5 a year from a family connection to the late Lord Archbishop of York. This was the sum total that she had to survive on and provide for her younger children who were still living with her. Eventually Edmund and his mother moved to a small house, no. 6 Buckingham Row, still in Westminster.  Thomas was back with his marine regiment in Plymouth, on full rather than half-pay, but, when his mother asked him for a trifling sum of money to pay her rent he did not respond.  Jane Maria’s furniture was taken and sold for a fraction of its true value to pay the debt and she and her youngest son took a cheap furnished apartment in Bowling Street. Edmund subsequently found out that on the morning that his mother could have received a reply from Thomas (she wanted but one guinea to save her furniture), he had instead sent his latest strumpet, Molly Goodey, a remittance of three guineas.

Molly Goodey, who seems to have given birth to Thomas’ child during their relationship, was soon out of the picture as far as Thomas was concerned though: at Kingston Church on the Isle of Wight (according to Edmund) he married a Miss Maria Cresswell, a pretty women who was as poor as a church mouse. Maria!  We started this journey by looking for a Mary Ann Pearce; could this be she?  Maria Cresswell’s mother died due to excessive drinking, having lived with Maria’s father for some years before he married her.

Two of Maria’s sisters were named as Mrs Rickman, who ‘lived and died an abandoned prostitute’ and whose husband died among chimney sweeps in a Southwark hovel, and Mrs Cooke, who was seduced by a married man and died ‘in all the agonies of remorse and extreme poverty’. On the face of it with a background like that she would seem a good match for Mary Ann Pearce whose love of gin led to all her problems.

Thomas now evaded going away to sea with his regiment as he was afraid that his new wife would be seduced by another man in his absence, and this, combined with his general conduct, led to him being ignominiously dismissed from the Marines upon half-pay.

By this time Edmund was old enough to consider a career, and family connections were employed to gain him, in June 1794, an Ensigncy without purchase in the 18th Royal Irish Regiment of Foot but Edmund, by his own admission, was granted a year’s private leave of absence due to a ‘long and severe personal illness’ and then permission to retire upon the half-pay of £32 per year. This was the full extent of his military career.

Feuding Pearce ensign

Now that he had obtained his discharge from the army Edmund’s health suddenly improved and he set about endeavouring to add to their family finances, but not by doing any actual work.  He managed to secure a place as an annual participator at the King’s Maundy for his mother and, via the Countess of Liverpool, a sum of £60. The Countess, once confirmed as a soft touch, then seems to have been approached for further sums and annuities, all of which she seems to have tried her best to initially charitably comply with.

Thomas, as always in debt and with little to live on, wanted to move with his wife back into his mother’s house, but Edmund prevented this, even going so far as to obtain a warrant for Thomas’ arrest when he allegedly attacked his brother and mother. Instead Thomas left his wife in lodging in Chester and joined the Northumberland Fencibles as an Ensign.

Edmund was now living on £62 a year, having gained an extra annuity of £30 from somewhere or someone. By his own admission he was suffering from a nervous complaint and Thomas used this as an excuse to have him taken up and committed to the Bethnal Green insane asylum as a prelude to taking control of both Edmund’s and his mother’s annuities. Edmund entered the White House on the 2nd of May 1815. Here he claims he was treated appallingly, the men who ran the house being in the pay of his brother Thomas. He was informed that he would spend the rest of his life there. In actual fact he spent a year and ten days in confinement at the White House, all the while trying to obtain his release: he managed to write to the Countess of Liverpool asking for help, but, after so many former appeals, she neglected to reply.

When he finally did leave, on the 12th of May 1816, it was only to the Red House, another insane asylum next door to the White House, but one where he was treated infinitely better. Finally, on the 7th of September 1817, after a total confinement of two years and four months, Edmund Wentworth Pearce, dressed in rags and without a penny to his name, made his escape with the help of a friend and was once more at liberty.

The case against Thomas, from Edmund’s ‘Letter’ seems pretty cut and dried but a slightly different version of Edmund’s incarceration was told before a legal counsel at the Court of the King’s Bench on the 14th April 1818, when Edmund tried to gain access to his mother and his missing pay which were both in the custody of Thomas. Claiming he was his mother’s favourite son, he merely said he had been absent from home for some time from the 15th April 1815. Returning and arranging with Thomas that their mother should be brought to an address in Bloomsbury to meet him, he was instead seized and forced into a carriage and taken away to a private mad-house, from which he escaped in December 1817. When his mother was brought before the court and asked if she was under any constraint to remain with Thomas she replied that she was not, that she wished to live and die with her eldest son who was the best of men and who had always treated her most kindly and dutifully.  Free to go she happily went home with Thomas.

The King's Bench Prison from Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808-10)
The King’s Bench Prison from Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808-10)

It transpires that Edmund was no angel and something of a fantasist. Choosing to style himself as Captain Pearce and letting it be known that he was ‘an officer of long-standing in the British army,’ he’d actually ended up as the oldest Ensign in his regiment and a notorious cheat on the streets of London. In May 1827 he turned up at the Marlborough Street police station, described as a ‘remarkably tall, erect, and gaunt-looking personage, covered with a profusion of flour and pomatum, and altogether presenting a most eccentric and Quixotic appearance’ accusing one, William Allenby of assault.

Two years earlier, when Allenby owned a confectioner’s shop, Edmund had arrived at his door and seeing only a young girl in the shop helped himself to nine jellies costing a shilling each, quickly devouring each in succession, before turning his attention to the other fare on offer.  Having eaten 18 shillings worth of produce he stuffed his pockets with cakes and left. Allenby appeared just as Edmund had left and tracked him to his lodgings where Edmund airily said he had no money on him and gave his name as Mr Wellesley Pole.  Soon after William Allenby learned that Edmund had played this same trick on other shopkeepers and tradesmen and was nought but a swindler and when he later met Edmund once more he carried him away to Marlborough Street. Lampooned for this episode in the press as Captain Gobble, Edmund wrote a pompous letter to The Times, protesting his innocence of all charges and saying he left a new pocket handkerchief in payment for the jellies, ending his letter with a postscript.

P.S. The unexampled infamy of treatment that I met with some years ago, has given birth to a subsequent and complicated course of pecuniary embarrassment continuing ever since; and the utmost in my power to do is, to pay both former and recent debts by instalments, which I neither have or shall ever want principle to do, as frequently as the means come into my hands.

In 1835 Edmund endured a spell in the King’s Bench for debt and then four years later was accused of exposing himself to a group of women at the corner of a court in Salisbury Square on the evening of the 27th August, but was acquitted due to a lack of evidence.

A year later he was back in court accusing a brushmaker of assaulting him and annoying the magistrates by insisting on reading a long statement, written in the most pompous style. The argument had arisen when the brushmaker had (perhaps wisely) prevented his brother-in-law from offering Edmund a lodging in his house, knowing his character all too well. And then in the last days of that year Edmund was accused of stalking Mrs Caroline Norton, a woman deprived of her children following a notorious criminal conversation case: he was allowed to go free after promising not to molest or annoy the lady again, and once more defended himself in a letter to The Times, pleading total innocence, but the press knew better, describing him as ‘well known about town as a very eccentric character [who had] figured at most of the police-offices for refusing to pay his carriage and cab fares, tavern bills, &c’.  Another paper described him as an ‘antiquated beau, all powder and white waistcoat.’

In 1825 Thomas Pearce and his son William ended up accused of causing merry mayhem in the house of a girl whom the son wished to marry (her mama prudently had other ideas!). Another son of Thomas’ named Villiers was actually sentenced to ten years transportation for the crime of forgery.

What a pair and what to believe!  Each is as bad as the other, obviously, neither given to telling the truth or paying their way and both, to put it mildly, are eccentric and workshy. Whether or not Mary Ann Pearce was related to Thomas and Edmund, it seems that London was plagued by the three of them for several years to the despair of tradesman, tavern keepers, police officers and magistrates.

Edmund Wentworth Pearce died in the latter months of 1848 in the St. Giles area of London and was buried, at St Giles, on October 14, aged 77.

Sources used:

A Letter to a Noble Lord containing a systematic and detailed account of Unparalleled Atrocities acted by Capt. Thomas Pearce, on the Half-Pay of the Royal Marine Corps, lately a Prisoner in the King’s Bench. Comprehending some Account of the Author’s Sufferings, as a perfectly Sane Man, at the Two Insane Houses of Bethnal Green, Middlesex. Between May 2, 1815, and Nov. 1, 1817, &c. &c. &c., 1818

The Examiner, Issue no. 538, 19th April 1818

Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 24th April 1818

The Times, 7th January, 1825, 12th May and 14th May 1827, 24th September 1839, 28th December 1840

The Morning Post, 13th November 1840

Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, 26th December 1840