Murder in Bedfordshire

During our research for A Right Royal Scandal which features Flitwick and Ampthill, we came across this shocking murder which took place on Monday, 1st December, 1788, in Flitwick Wood, just two miles from Ampthill, Bedfordshire.

The victim was an Elizabeth White, of Ampthill, who according to her sisters, went out on the morning of the murder to meet a Joseph Cook(e), a baker of Steppingley, near Ampthill and told them she would be home by dinner time. There was speculation that Cook was a criminal and that she had gone to meet him for money (there were also rumours which were found to be untrue that she was pregnant). Elizabeth never returned.

A Distant View of Ampthill Park by George Shepherd, (active 1782–1830). Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
A Distant View of Ampthill Park by George Shepherd, (active 1782–1830). Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
Her body was discovered between eleven and twelve the following day by an old man and his two sons, as they were gathering sticks in the wood. Her throat had been cut, an incision of about four or five inches in length, and down to the neck bone. There were four or five wounds near her mouth, her jaw bone had been broken and three of her upper teeth were bent out of place, her cheek bone was fractured, there were also several wounds and bruises on her head, one wrist was badly bruised and one of her fingers had been cut off just above the nail in a slanting direction, and another finger had been cut down to the second joint. A white handled case knife with about an inch broken off from the point, and the blade of a new pen-knife (both very bloody) with the piece of her finger, were found on her cloak, close to where the body lay.

The Coroner’s Jury sat to discuss the death. Mr Boldington junior, surgeon, at the request of the jury, cut open her head and found upon the head and face ten wounds, but no other fractures other than on the cheek and jaw bones; it was his opinion that the bruises were given with the claws and face of a hammer.

Cook was arrested and with other corroborating circumstances was committed by the Coroner to Bedford gaol to await his trial. The newspaper reported that he was a married man and described his wife as a very neat, decent woman, saying the couple had three or four fine children.

At the assizes, the trial took upwards of nine hours and the jury went out for an hour and a quarter before pronouncing their verdict: death! At the time of his demise, Cook acknowledged his guilt to the clergyman who attended him and he was then taken to the place of execution in a post-chaise. After the hanging, his body was cut down and delivered to the surgeons for dissection.

St Andrew, Ampthill © Copyright Paul Billington
St Andrew, Ampthill © Copyright Paul Billington
Elizabeth was buried on 6th December, 1788 at St Andrew’s church, Ampthill.

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The Tragic Tale of the Death of Ann Hoon, 1796

When aged just twenty-one years of age, Ann Rollstone was married to Thomas Hoon, a labourer, at the parish church in Longford, Derbyshire, about six miles from the town of Ashbourne. Just nine months later the couple produced their first child, a beautiful baby girl whom they named, Elizabeth.

Longford Church. © sarumsleuth via Flickr
Longford Church. © sarumsleuth via Flickr

Tragically though their joy at this birth was to be short-lived as the child died the following April. Despite this loss and unknown to Ann at the time, she was already pregnant with their second child, another daughter whom they named Ann, after her mother. Ann was born at the end of January 1795.

The couple’s life continued as it did for most people, with Ann looking after the home and raising their daughter and Thomas going out to work.

In March 1796, this picture of domestic bliss was about to end abruptly as the story will now show from Ann’s trial at Derby Assizes. This tragic story came to the attention of the newspapers of the day due to its unusual nature.

On Friday last this poor creature, who is the wife of a laboring man, was about to heat her oven, and being short of wood, had broken down a rail or two from the fencing round the plantation of a gentleman in the neighbourhood, some of her neighbours threatened her with prosecution and told her she would be transported for it.

This so much alarmed her mind and the idea of being separated from her child, whom she had always appeared remarkably fond of, so wrought on her imagination, that she formed the horrible design of putting her to death, in order that, by surrendering herself into the hands of justice, she might be executed for the murder, and so be forever reunited in heaven with the baby whom she had loved more than life.

(Kentish Gazette, 22nd March 1796)

Her story continues – no sooner had her husband had gone to work she began to hatch a plan to put this dreadful thing into action. She decided that the best way to do this was to fill a large tub with water and plunge the child into to it causing it to drown. However, when she took the child in her arms and was just about to plunge her into the water, the baby, smiling up at the mother’s face, disarmed her for the moment, and Anne found herself unable to commit the dreadful act.

Having composed herself, she then lulled the baby to sleep at her breast, wrapped a cloth around her and plunged her into the tub, and held her under water till life became extinct.

She took the baby out of the tub and carefully laid her dead body on the bed. She then collected up her hat and cloak, went outside, locking her street door after her, and took the key to a neighbours for her husband to collect when he returned from work.

She then proceeded to walk about eight miles to a magistrate (which would, in all likelihood have been at Derby). When she arrived, she knocked on the door and asked to be admitted. Ann then proceeded to tell the magistrate the whole story, desperately wishing to be executed immediately for what she had done.

Derby Prison as it was previous to the riots of 1831.
Derby Prison. Courtesy of British Library

About an hour after she had left, her husband, Thomas, returned home from work and to his very great shock and dismay he found his dear little infant lying stretched out on the bed. It had such an effect upon Thomas, that he was insensible for quite some time. When he had composed himself he enquired of neighbours as to whether they knew where his wife was and was told that she went out about an hour earlier, but no-one knew where she had gone. Distraught he simply sat down by his dead infant and waited for Ann to return.

Derbyshire Assizes. © Enjoying Derby via Flickr
Derbyshire Assizes. © Enjoying Derby via Flickr

Ann did not get her wish of execution but was instead sent for trial at Derby Assizes whereupon it transpired that there had, in fact, been ‘many instances of insanity over the past four years’ and it was felt that this was the most likely cause of her dramatic action. This mitigating evidence was taken into consideration by the jury and somewhat surprisingly they found her … not guilty of such a heinous crime. It is well known that at that time many juries were reluctant to convict women of intentional killing and in fact, infanticide was not particularly rare during the Georgian Era and there are quite a few cases that appeared at The Old Bailey.

What became of the couple after this terrible event remains a mystery, did they return to the marital home in Longford or did they move elsewhere? There are baptism records for a William and a Thomas Hoon at Derby in 1800 and 1805 respectively, with parents named as Thomas and Ann Hoon: could the couple have moved to Derby for a fresh start? We may never know, we can only hope.

 

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Family Sitting Outside a Rural Cottage, Attributed to George Morland, Courtesy of Buxton Museum

Sold for a pot of beer and a shilling!

On August 10th 1817 the marriage took place between Charles Skinner and Mary Gower, at Speldhurst, Kent, the union of two people in Holy matrimony. This seemingly happy union was to last for the next ten years until John Savage appeared on the scene.

We turn to an account of a court case in the Globe newspaper of July 26th, 1828 which took place at the West Kent Quarter Sessions. Charles Skinner, Mary Skinner and John Savage, of the parish of Tonbridge, were indicted for a misdemeanour. The misdemeanour being:

one of those disgusting transactions which were frequently mentioned in the newspapers, and which by a vulgar error, were imagined to be lawful. It was by many persons supposed that if a man became tired of his wife, he might take her to a public market with a halter round her neck, or (as in the present instance) a handkerchief round her waist, and there publicly sell her. Such proceedings were both illegal and immoral, whether the parties were or were not all agreed. Sometime the wife was sold against her will; but in this case, there was an agreement by all parties before they left the cottage at Speldhurst, in which they all lived.

Matrimony: may the Devil take them that brought you and me together.
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

Charles and Mary had separated in the respect of being husband and wife, but they continued to live under the same roof along with Mary’s new lover, John Savage. The cottage they all lived in belonged to the parish and this unusual living arrangement came to the attention of the officers responsible for the cottage. Charles and Mary were told in no uncertain terms to ‘behave themselves’.

Clearly ‘behaving’ was not an option and they decided upon a different course of action so that they could retain possession of the cottage. So, with that, Charles and Mary went to the tap-room of the George and Dragon public house in Tonbridge. Then, after a while, John Savage appeared in the pub and the drama began. Making sure that people heard, Charles, having tied a silk handkerchief around his wife’s waist, said to Savage, “Will you buy my wife?” Savage replied, “Yes, what will you have for her?” Charles replied, “A shilling and a pot of beer”. Savage agreed to the bargain and Mary was handed over to him with Charles saying to her ‘If you give me that handkerchief I have nothing more to do with you”. She then gave him the handkerchief and they went away.

Thwick-Thwack
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

Mr Pollock, prosecuting, concluded by observing that these people ought to be taught that what they had done was both immoral and illegal, that by their punishment other people might be warned that such transactions could not take place without impunity.

William Hook who was one of the overseers of Speldhurst confirmed that Charles Skinner was a pauper of the parish and that he had resided in the cottage belonging to the parish for three years, but was now in the workhouse because of this transaction. Hook also pointed out that the couple had already been warned at the Monthly Vestry that if he permitted Savage to live in the house, and cohabit with his wife, he must leave the cottage; if he had more room than he wanted, the parish would find somebody to put in it, but apparently Skinner took no notice of this warning.  John Smith the landlord of the George and Dragon was called to give his account of the events of that evening.

He confirmed that on June 2nd that Charles Skinner went in first and ordered a pot of beer and shortly after Savage arrived, the transaction was carried out. He confirmed that there were about four other people present who also witnessed it. Skinner and Savage assumed that this would make it all legal – how wrong they were! As each witness gave their version of events, all were consistent that Skinner had, in fact, sold his wife for a shilling and a pot of beer.

The learned Chairman intimated that there was not enough evidence to support a charge of conspiracy, but that the transaction took place could not be denied.

The defendants were called to give their account of the event. Mary simply laughed and said, “My husband did not wish to go along with my wishes and that was the reason I wished to part”.

Six Weeks after Marriage
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

The learned Chairman, in summing up, observed that this indictment was rather of a novel nature. He did not think the charge of a conspiracy had been proved. These people had been living together in the same house, but in what manner it was not now necessary to inquire; and even it was, a mere rumour was not sufficient to reply upon that point. Besides the count of conspiracy, there were two others, charging the defendants with making the sale, and it appeared that such a sale did take place. The lady certainly did not rate her own value very highly; for a pot of beer and a shilling was the only consideration given for that valuable commodity.

The jury, without hesitation, found all of them guilty. They were each sentenced to serve one months hard labour.

 

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Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

Elizabeth Morton and ‘The Gentleman in Black’

Elizabeth Morton was baptized May 4th May 1747 in the small, rural Nottinghamshire village of Misterton, daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth. She had three siblings – Mary (25th September 1743), Thomas (25th Sept 1757) and Ann (1757).

All Saints Church, Misterton, Nottinghamshire.
All Saints Church, Misterton. Courtesy of Southwell and Nottingham Church History Project

When just 15 years old she had gained employment as a servant in the neighbouring village of Walkeringham, just over 2 miles from her home, for a farmer John Oliver and his wife Elizabeth née Clark. At that time the couple had three daughters:

Ann (baptized 12th October 1758);

Mary (baptized 7th June 1760);

Rebecca (baptized 20th May 1762)

Their son John (baptized 29th May 1763) was not born until after the incident in question.

St Mary Magdalene church, Walkeringham, Nottinghamshire.
St Mary Magdalene church, Walkeringham. Courtesy of J. Hannan-Briggs

On 10th August 1762 Elizabeth was committed to Nottingham county gaol, by Daniel Newton, one of the coroners; she was charged with the murder of an infant about two years of age, the daughter of John Oliver. The Leeds Intelligencer of 24th August 1762, reported that Elizabeth had strangled the child with her hands as it lay in the cradle. The newspaper also stated that:

there is too much reason to suspect, that this unhappy girl has murdered two other young children, in different places, where she was taken in to look after them. She is a stout made girl, has little to say for herself, can neither read nor write, and appears to be of a brutish disposition.

Some seven months later, on 10th March 1763 at the Nottingham Assizes her trial for a capital offence began i.e. the murder of a two-year-old child and the attempted murder of another child, who survived and had recovered. Also for attempting the life of another of the children, whose neck she had almost twisted round, and hid it in some straw in the barn, where it was found by its mother struggling in the agonies of death. At her trial, Elizabeth claimed that she had been incited to commit the crime by a ‘gentleman in black’ who came to her during the night (alluding to it being the devil who made her commit the crime).

The Derby Mercury of 11th March 1763 described her as:

a most profligate harden’d young wretch, the reason she gives for such inhuman acts, is that the children were cross and troublesome. Execution was respited for the time being on account of her youth.

The Derby Mercury of 1st April 1763 noted her demise.

Yesterday Elizabeth Morton, a girl of only 16 years of age, was executed at Nottingham (being her Birth-Day) for the murder of her master’s daughter, a child of two years old, who liv’d at Walkeringham, near Gainsboro’. Her behaviour since she received sentence of death has been decent. She never denied the fact but could give no satisfactory account of the motives that induc’d her to commit so shocking a crime. She was attended to the place of execution by a prodigious concourse of people where after the usual time spent in prayer with the minister, she was tuned off about one o’clock much frighted with the terrors of death.

After her death, her body was given to a surgeon of Calverton near Nottingham, to be dissected, then buried in a village near her home.

According to The annual register, or a view of the history, politicks, and literature, for the year 1763

‘… it is probable that she was an idiot …’ 

This would, if proven, have been sufficient grounds for a pardon, the register gives no indication as to whether this was tested or not.

On a final note, having found the baptism records for John Oliver’s children there are also two corresponding burials at the time Elizabeth was charged with the murder of the two-year-old. Mary was buried on 5th August 1762, but there is also an entry for the burial of Rebecca who would have been a mere three months old on 3rd August 1762 – did she die from natural causes or was she also one of Elizabeth’s victims?

 

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Nottingham Gallows. Courtesy of University of Nottingham 

 

Views in the Levant: Paestum, c.1785.

An Italian honeymoon ends in tragedy, 1824

Caroline Isham, the eldest daughter of the Reverend Charles Euseby Isham, married Thomas Welch Hunt, the Squire of Wadenhoe in Northampton on 9th February 1824. The marriage took place at Polebrook where Caroline’s father was rector of the parish.

Caroline Hunt, née Isham, painted to commemorate her marriage in 1824.
Caroline Hunt, née Isham; British School, 1824; Peterborough Museum & Art Gallery

The couple were both young; Caroline was 22 years old at the time of her wedding and Thomas was 27. Moreover, Thomas Welch Hunt was a wealthy and amiable gentleman. Their future looked bright.

Thomas Welch Hunt, painted to commemorate his marriage in 1824.
Thomas Welch Hunt; British School, 1824; Peterborough Museum & Art Gallery

A short time after the marriage, the new Mr and Mrs Hunt took an extended Grand Tour of a honeymoon on the continent, heading for Italy. The Napoleonic Wars were at an end and British tourists were once more able to travel across mainland Europe. They made first for Rome and then travelled south, stopping at the coastal town of Salerno in the Kingdom of Naples before, in early December, continuing on to the small town of Eboli in order to visit the ruins of the three Greek temples at Paestum. They were in wild and dangerous countryside where banditti roamed and English visitors were warned to carry pistols.

Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1824.
Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1824. Rijksmuseum.
Perhaps Mr and Mr Hunt were dressed similarly when they visited Paestum?

The hills became less picturesque as the Hunts carriage travelled from Salerno but Eboli itself was a handsome town, built on the slope of the hills. Beyond Eboli was the plain of Paestum, with large tracts of dark green shrubs which had a dismal and desolate appearance when viewed from the higher ground of Eboli but which were myrtles, ten feet high, standing in a pasture which fed water buffalo (kept for making cheese from their milk). A traveller in 1822 was to recall that there ‘was something solemn and imposing in the silent loneliness of this monstrous expanse… [our driver] pointed out to us a spot, where, about two years since, two Englishmen had been stopt… [and] robbed of everything, even to their shirts, and sent literally naked back to Eboli, where these travellers had been so incautious as to exhibit diamond pins, and gold watches and seals’.

A View of Paestum by Antonio Joli, 1759.
A View of Paestum by Antonio Joli, 1759 (via Wikimedia).

There were three groups of English tourists visiting Paestum; the Hunts, a Mrs Benyon and her two daughters and three midshipmen from the Revenge, Charles Alex Thorndike, a Mr Hornby and Mr Thompson. Thomas and Caroline Hunt spent the night at a ‘miserable little inn at Eboli’, and unwittingly placed themselves in mortal danger.

Between Salerno and Eboli by John Robert Cozens, 1782.
Between Salerno and Eboli by John Robert Cozens, 1782. Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.

The landlord was a rogue and a villain, in league with the lawless men who terrorised the vicinity. Naples had changed hands a few times during the Napoleonic wars but, from 1823, was – for the second time – under the control of the Bourbon, King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies and maintained by an Austrian garrison. A Corps of sixty pardoned highwaymen had formed part of the king’s troops in Sicily under the command of a Chef de Brigade named Costa, also a former criminal and a fervent anti-Jacobin. They had not received their pay for some time and – it was rumoured – had reverted to their old trade, roaming the plains of Paestum and preying on visitors to the ancient ruins. Unbeknown to the Hunts, their landlord at the inn alerted the banditti. Mr Hunt had been careless – or imprudent – in putting his expensive travelling accoutrements on display. The eagle-eyed landlord had noted their value.

…the landlord, observing that he [Mr Hunt] had silver mounted cruets, and silver backed brushes in his dressing-case (a wedding present he had received), communicated with a band of brigands that infested the neighbourhood.

The next day – Friday 3rd December 1824 – the banditti were stationed, ready to pounce on the unwary tourists. Mrs Benyon and her daughters were their first victims. As they left the ruins at around one o’clock in the afternoon they were held up, threatened and relieved of their valuables but allowed to continue on to Salerno where they were expecting to meet up with the other two English parties. By nightfall, Mrs Benyon was convinced that misfortune had befallen her fellow travellers and penned a hasty and unfortunately prophetic letter to the Minister at Naples, ‘it is much to be feared that resistancemay have led to dreadful results’.

Travellers Attacked by Banditti by Philip James De Loutherbourg, 1781.
Travellers Attacked by Banditti, 1781 by Philip James De Loutherbourg. The Tate

Thomas Welch Hunt and his wife Caroline were the next victims of the troop of brigands. They set off in their carriage from Paestum but had only travelled about half a mile when a man jumped out from behind a hedge and stopped the horses; another man leaped on to the footboard of the carriage and demanded money from the servant travelling on the box before throwing him to the ground and holding him fast there. In all, there were six highwaymen, all masked and armed; one pointed his musket at Mr Hunt (who was unarmed) and another targeted Caroline. Mr Hunt gave the men his purse but repeatedly asked for at least two or three carlins (a Sicilian silver coin worth about fourpence) to be returned to him, perhaps trying to convince them that he had no other money or valuables with him. Caroline – terrified – begged her husband to just hand over everything; the men knew there was a box in the carriage containing the silverware and they wanted more than just Mr Hunt’s purse. But Thomas Welch Hunt was obstinate and imprudent; he was also deaf to his wife’s pleas and bravely contemptuous of the threats made by the men pointing their muskets at the couple. “If you do not immediately give up everything, we will shoot you”. “You dare not do that”, responded Mr Hunt. Caroline recalled the fatal moment:

The words were no sooner uttered than we were both unfortunately shot. I wish he had not been so obstinate, and I am sure they would not have acted so rashly – but pray do not tell my husband I said so. They all made their escape without delay without taking a single article from us.

The servant who had been on the box took one of the horses and galloped as fast as he could back to the ruins at Paestum to find the three midshipmen. The carriage, with the wounded couple inside, headed back the same way.

Views in the Levant: Temple Ruins at Paestum, c.1785.
Views in the Levant: Temple Ruins at Paestum, c.1785. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Mr Hunt and his wife were gently carried into the ruins and it was clear that they were both mortally wounded. A ball had passed through Mr Hunt’s right breast, and another had passed clean through Caroline’s left hand and left breast. Medical aid was sent for and a message also sent to Mr John Roskilly, an eminent English surgeon resident at Naples (who had treated Percy Bysshe Shelley a few years earlier). Thomas Welch Hunt was too injured to be moved and he died amid the ruins of the Greek temples at seven o’clock that evening; Caroline had been taken to a nearby farmhouse where she was tended to but not told of her husband’s death. The next morning (Saturday) she was able to tell Mr Thorndike what had happened but after that she became weak and she died in the early hours of the Sunday morning. Mr Roskilly arrived at noon on the Sunday, too late to be of use but it was he who discovered what had become of Thomas Welch Hunt’s body. It had been taken to the church and the local surgeon had opened the body before placing it – upright – in a narrow closet, unclothed and with the body still open. Roskilly was able to prevent Caroline’s remains suffering the same fate.

The young, newly married couple were buried side-by-side, and a tablet to their memory is located nearby in the churchyard of Christ Church in Naples; another was placed back in the church at Wadenhoe.

The memorial plaque at Naples to Thomas Welch Hunt and his young bride, Caroline.
The memorial plaque at Naples to Thomas Welch Hunt and his young bride, Caroline. The Phraser

The brigands were rounded up, accused and found guilty of the Hunts murder.

EXECUTION OF THE ASSASSINS OF MR. AND MRS HUNT

NAPLES, APRIL 28, 1825

The assassins of the unfortunate Mr. and Mrs. Hunt, whose case excited so deep and extensive an interest, were executed last Saturday, 23d inst. The Neapolitan journal, which, as you may remember, avoided making any mention of the distressing affair at the time it happened, and which only alluded to it lately, when the malefactors were discovered, inserted yesterday a long article on the subject. It appears, that immediately after committing the crime, the villains had kept themselves closely hidden, and by means of the wife of one of them, who denounced certain innocent individuals, misled for some time the pursuits of the police. At last, however, the whole mystery was cleared up, and the following individuals secured: – Felice Solito, aged 32, a peasant; Biagio Manzo, 32, a colono, (or little farmer); Liberato Letteriello di Vincenzo, aged 26, a peasant; Pietro Antonio di Pasquale, aged 28, a wine seller, or tavernajo; Maria Vittoria Calabrese, aged 39, wife of Biagio Manzo; Marianna Cirmo, aged 30, wife of Liberato Letteriello, Raffaele Frasca, aged 30, a guardiano campestre, (or man armed for taking care of country property); and Nicola Maria Petrelli, whose condition is not mentioned, aged 38. These persons were brought before the Military Commission of the Province at Salerno, according to a decree of King Ferdinand, dated 3d October, 1822, which orders that all briganti, or companies of robbers, be tried by martial law, and executed immediately after conviction. The Commission… declared Solito, Manzo, Letteriello, and Di Pasquale, guilty, recommending, however, Solito to Royal mercy, as his evidence had principally discovered the secrets of the crime, in which also he had taken the least part. Of the other individuals, accused of being privy to the desperate projects of the assassins, and of having lent them arms and assistance, one, viz. Cirmo, was acquitted in toto, and the other three detained in prison for further examination.

The three ordered for execution were carried down to Eboli and shot, at three o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday. The brutal ruffians, the sanguinary destroyers of defenceless youth and beauty, died like dastardly villains as they were. Those hearts which had the baneful energy to arrive at the excess of crime, which could dictate the cruel blow that was to send to a premature grave two beings rich in merit, in love, and in happiness; and that was to wound the hearts of thousands of the just and virtuous, trembled and sunk at their own sufferings. They moaned, they shrieked, nor could all the consolations of religion give them strength to face their punishment.

It appeared on the trial that the criminals took to the road, for the first time, the day before our unfortunate country people fell into their hands.

Probably the last likeness of Caroline Hunt née Isham which survives is a plaster cast medallion, done by Neri while she was in Rome and which was in the possession of a descendant of the Isham family, Gyles Isham, in 1950. Intriguingly, either the original or a second copy was bought at an antique show in Massachusetts and was in a fragile box alongside a similar one of Rosa Bathurst, another young Englishwoman who also died in Italy in 1824 (Rosa drowned in the Tiber). It is not known how their two medallions ended up together, but you can read more about them by clicking here.

Cameos of Caroline Hunt née Isham (left) and Rosa Bathurst (right).
Medallions of Caroline Hunt née Isham (left) and Rosa Bathurst (right).

 

Sources not referenced above:

Scots Magazine, 1st September 1822

London Courier and Evening Gazette, 20th May 1825

The Story of Wadenhoe by the Wadenhoe History Group

Tragic Honeymoon by Gyles Isham; Northamptonshire Past and Present, 1950

 

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Views in the Levant: Paestum, c.1785. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Old Hastings by Edward William Cooke, 1834-1835. Victoria and Albert Museum

On the trail of the Hawkhurst gang of smugglers

In An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliot, we mention her uncle by marriage, John Dundas who married Helen Brown, Grace’s determined and strong-minded maternal aunt who was a constant presence in Grace’s formative years.  In 1748, some six years before Grace was born, John Dundas was a Captain in the 34th Regiment of Foot and was placed in command of a troop of soldiers hunting two fugitives from Newgate Prison.

William Gray and Thomas Kemp had been arrested for smuggling, both members of the notorious Hawkhurst Gang of smugglers and thieves who terrorised the south coast of England from Kent to Dorset during 1735 to 1750.  On the 30th March 1748, these two, along with five other smugglers who were all being held in Newgate, managed to escape, all taking different routes through the London streets.  Five of them were soon taken, but Gray and Kemp got clean away.  They evaded capture for some weeks until, in mid-May, the following report appeared in the newspapers:

By an Express from Hastings we have an Account, that William Gray, who lately broke out of Newgate, was last Tuesday Morning retaken by a party of Lord Cobham’s Dragoons, under the Command of Capt. Dundass, of Cholmondeley’s Regiment of Foot and carry’d to that Place; and that Kemp, who broke out at the same Time with Gray, narrowly escaped being taken with him.[1]

Chasing Smugglers on a Rocky Coast; British School
British School; Chasing Smugglers on a Rocky Coast; National Maritime Museum

William Gray stood trial and was sentenced to be transported for seven years; the Penny London Post reported on 27th July 1748, that Gray had given the Government information regarding smugglers and he was to be pardoned, however, he remained in Newgate and the General Evening Post, 19th November 1748 mentioned that he was so ill his life was despaired of.  Thomas Kemp was recaptured along with his brother in 1749, after breaking into a house armed with pistols; both were sentenced to death.

More information on John Dundas and his wife Helen Brown can be found in our book which documents not only Grace’s life but those of her extended family as well.

[1] London Evening Post, 17th May 1748.

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Old Hastings by Edward William Cooke, Victoria and Albert Museum

St James's Palace with a View of Pall Mall; National Trust Collections

The Mysterious Marriages of Thomas Nelson

Charlotte Hayes, née Ward, aka O’Kelly was a highly successful Georgian brothel keeper and for those of you watching the TV series Harlots you will know her as the character, Charlotte Wells.

Actress Jessica Brown Findlay as Charlotte Wells in Harlots
Actress Jessica Brown Findlay as Charlotte Wells

We have briefly touched upon Charlotte in another of our blog posts about Samuel Derrick and much has already been written about her, but we came across her name in the newspaper in connection with another matter regarding her coachman and her cook, which simply had to be investigated further.

Possible portrait of Charlotte Hayes
Possible portrait of Charlotte Hayes

London Courier and Evening Gazette, 5th September 1815

THIRTY POUNDS REWARD – MARRIAGE CERTIFICATE – The said Reward will be paid to any person who will give such information as shall ascertain the time and place of marriage of Thomas Nelson. He was Coachman to Charlotte Hayes alias Mrs O’Kelly, Marlborough-street, in 1770 and soon afterwards kept a House the Corner of Hollen-street and Wardour-street; then lived in Winsley-street; in 1775 kept the Larder in Gerrard-street, Soho; then a House is Norris-street; in 1777 the George in Drury-lane; then the Cardigan Head, Charing-Cross; afterwards Almack’s, 56, Pall-Mall; and died at No. 60, Pall-Mall, in 1792.

His Will describes his Widow as Mary Nelson, the daughter of John and Mary Fogarty, but it is supposed he married Mary Kelly (who was Cook to the said Charlotte Hayes) by whom he had two Children, and who died in Duke-street, St. James’s, about 1785. Apply to Mr. Fielder, 9, Bennett-street, St. James’s.

We’re going to claim the £30 reward for this as we have found the marriage certificate that John Fielder was searching for.

17th April 1781 – Thomas Nelson of St Sepulchre married Mary Fogarty, also of St Sepulchre, by banns and in the presence of Sarah Fleming and Thomas Collier
17th April 1781 – Thomas Nelson of St Sepulchre married Mary Fogarty, also of St Sepulchre, by banns and in the presence of Sarah Fleming and Thomas Collier

But … everything is not quite as it seems. Clearly he married Mary Fogarty as it’s there in black and white and he was also very specific in his will, leaving everything to his ‘loving wife Mary, daughter of John and Mary Fogarty’.

When you dig deeper there are one or two anomalies. Thomas states he was a bachelor – was this true? Thomas appears to have moved around somewhat, changing his address and occupation.

Some ten years previously there was a reputed marriage for a Thomas Nelson to a Mary Kelly, the cook to Charlotte Hayes. So far there is no evidence that this marriage actually took place but, on 1st August 1774 at St Clement Danes, we find the baptism of a girl named Charlotte who seems to be their daughter, then on 26th August 1777 at St Mary-Le-Strand  the baptism of a second daughter, Sophia Augusta. She was named as daughter of Thomas and Mary Nelson of Drury Lane.

It wasn’t until 12th February 1816, when a case came to court pertaining to Thomas’ daughter Sophia Augusta, that things began to unravel. John Fielder, named in the above newspaper report was clearly trying to gather evidence against his wife Sophia whom he married in 1797.

The 1797 marriage record of John Fielder and Sophia Augusta Nelson.

John wanted the marriage nullified after almost 20 years, as he claimed that when he married Sophia her mother Mary gave permission, as Sophia was a minor, but that her mother, Mary (née Smith) was not married at the time and therefore should not have given her permission and that Sophia was born illegitimate.

So we now have three women all named Mary, connected with Thomas Nelson – Mary Smith, Mary Kelly and Mary Fogarty. The only one we can validate as his legitimate wife is Mary Fogarty.

During the case witnesses were produced, one of whom asserted that Nelson was married to Mary Kelly in April 1771, but we can’t find any proof to support this claim.

Mr Watts, an upholsterer, deposes that he furnished a house for Mr Nelson, upon his marriage with one Mary Kelly; that he, the deponent, was not present at the marriage, but he remembers their going out to be married; that, on their return they were married, and he dined with them upon the occasion, that they lived together two or three years, but then disagreed and parted; that he the deponent, was a trustee for Mrs Nelson; that he believes that he died in 1792, but knows that she was alive many years after the year 1788.

Interior of the Pantheon, Oxford Road, London by William Hodges and William Pars, 1770s; Leeds Museums and Galleries
Interior of the Pantheon, Oxford Road, London by William Hodges and William Pars, 1770s; Leeds Museums and Galleries

That in 1774 Mr Nelson removed into a street opposite to the Pantheon, in Oxford Street from thence to Gerrard Street, Soho, where he kept the Royal Larder, and lastly to Drury Lane, in 1776, at all which places he kept a gaming house and that whilst he lived in Gerrard Street, he went one evening with the deponent, to Bagnigge Wells.

Bagnigge Wells, 1783 © The Trustees of the British Museum
© The Trustees of the British Museum

That they there met with two young women, one of whom, Mary Smith, who from that time lived with Mr Nelson as his wife; that they had four children, to one of which he, the despondent, stood godfather; that he believes it was Sophia Augusta, and that she was born in 1777; that he often saw her during her infancy and latterly at the house of her mother, in Pall Mall, as Mrs Fielder.

If you are confused by this, spare a thought for us as we have tried to untangle it. Overall, though it would appear that Thomas Nelson cohabited with one or perhaps two Marys and produced several children including two daughters, then proceeded to walk up the aisle with Mary Fogarty, to whom he remained married until the end of his life (Thomas Nelson died in January 1792). It seems feasible that the witnesses in the court case could have been induced to lie to support Mr Fielder’s claim or quite simply believed that he was married to Mary Kelly and took the couple at their word. As to quite what the truth of the matter is we will probably never know – a secret he took to his grave.

 

For more information on Charlotte Hayes and the incredible but true story behind Harlots, see The Covent Garden Ladies: The Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List by Hallie Rubenhold.

 

Featured Image

St James’s Palace with a View of Pall Mall, British (English) School, National Trust Collections