Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Regency Elopements: Edward Gibbon Wakefield and Ellen Turner

Elopements were not always based on love and desire. The Gretna Green histories chronicle some tales in which marriages were accomplished through force and/or lies. Indeed, deception and greed was at the helm of the 1826 elopement of Edward Gibbon Wakefield and fifteen-year-old Ellen Turner.

Early in his life, Wakefield served as the King’s Messenger during the Napoleonic wars, carrying letters throughout Europe. In 1816 he married (also by elopement) an heiress, who later died after complications in childbirth.

Although he had received a settlement of seventy thousand pounds from his first marriage, Wakefield was greedy. He needed more money if he was to live the way he wished and someday become a member of Parliament.

Enlisting his brother’s help, Wakefield devised a plan in which he would lure the wealthy mill’s daughter, Ellen Turner, away from her girl’s school in Liverpool with what appeared to be an official doctor's letter stating her mother was ill and calling for her.

The cruel plan worked. Eager to see her mother, Ellen left the school accompanied by her family’s butler to Manchester. There, she was led to private rooms where she met with Mr. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a handsome, charming man who claimed to be a friend of her father’s.

Edward not only calmed and assured young Ellen that her mother was quite well, but he won her over with his smile and polite manners. She was immediately smitten. When he told her that her father insisted they travel together to Kendal to meet him, Ellen obliged. Once in Kendal, Wakefield informed her that her father would not be coming. Instead, he had terrible news. Her father’s business was ruined. Wakefield produced a supposed letter from a solicitor suggesting Ellen and Wakefield marry at once in order to preserve her father’s failing fortune. Ellen eagerly obliged. She wanted to help her father, and it was in no way a hardship since this man was good-looking and seemingly benevolent of spirit. She agreed, and off they went to Gretna Green.

The marriage took place and the couple left immediately, bound for Calais, France. Fortunately, they were intercepted by Ellen’s uncles. One can only imagine the scene that took place in Calais as the uncles explained that her father was perfectly well, his money in perfect order. Much to her horror, they detailed for the young woman the con man’s intentions to lay hold of her fortune.    

A national scandal ensued known as the “Shrigley Abduction” as Wakefield stood trial in March of 1827. Convicted of kidnapping and felonious marriage, he was sentenced to three years in Newgate Prison and the marriage was annulled.

Even after this, he committed forgery (although it was never proven) in an attempt to extract more money through his deceased wife’s father’s will, but the plan failed.

Despite a sullied reputation, in the 1830s Wakefield became a politician responsible for orchestrating British immigration to Australia and New Zealand as a solution to overcrowding. He spent much of his later years in New Zealand as an influential politician and Member of Parliament.

Ellen Turner married legally and by choice at the age of seventeen to a man who shared her status and position.

Just as they have done since the beginning of time, con artists still swindle unsuspecting folks today. What do you think is the reason people fall for a con artist’s ploy?

Other sites on the topic of Regency elopement:

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Regency Elopements: Lord Erskine and Sarah Buck

During the Regency era, elopements to Gretna Green, Scotland often involved some degree of scandal. No different was the elopement of sixty-six-year-old John Francis Ashley Erskine, 1st baron of Erskine. During the course of his life, Lord Erskine was a midshipman, a lawyer, and a member of parliament (Lord High Chancellor). He wed his first wife, Frances Moore, in 1770. They were married for thirty-five years and had eight children.  Frances passed away in 1805.

(image from

Sarah Buck was his housekeeper and mistress, and by 1818 they had two illegitimate children. Scottish law allowed illegitimate children to be declared legitimate by way of marriage (even after the fact), so off to Gretna Green Erskine went with his mistress (thirty years his junior) and two bastard children in tow.

Erskine’s eight legitimate children and heirs vehemently disapproved of the marriage (and the idea that their inheritance was in jeopardy), and when Thomas, the eldest, discovered his father gone with the housekeeper, he rode off after them into the night.  Here, two differing accounts emerge, both involving disguise and deception. The account chronicled by Peter Orlando Hutchinson insists that Lord Erskine merely disguised himself in plainclothes and declared his name a “Mr. Thomas.” A second version of the story appears to have derived from various sources. In this account, Erskine traveled in elaborate costume wearing a wig, leghorn bonnet, and a long, flowing cape. When asked, he declared himself to be Sarah Buck’s mother.

(A satirical print found at the British Museum)

During the ceremony and in accordance with the Scottish superstition, the children were supposedly hidden beneath Sarah’s cloak to give the impression that they were as yet “unborn.” The marriage took place at the King’s Head uninterrupted by Erskine’s son, who arrived too late to put a stop to the nuptials. Thomas’s reaction to his father’s newly married state was supposedly so violent as to incite a quarrel with his new stepmother, thereby causing a gathering of villager-voyeurs, who later recounted the story in what, some say, was embellished detail.

Erskine was a man of many interesting, idealistic, and romantic pursuits. He went on to write Armata, a romance novel, which apparently sold well. He also defended the cause of Greek Independence as well as that of animals. A lifelong lover of animals, Erskine introduced a bill into the House of Lords in an effort to stop animal cruelty, although it did not pass due to the gentlemen’s love of fox hunting and horse racing.

Sadly, the marriage between Erskine and his housekeeper was ill-fated, and the couple separated within a few years. After his death, Sarah did not inherit his wealth, and she ended with many children of her own to care for and only a charitable allowance upon which to live. She lived for over thirty years after Erskine’s death.

I want to take this moment to wish everyone a happy, blessed, and safe Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Regency Elopements: Mary Ann Stanley and Captain Bontein

Every year for the past ten years, I've taught Romeo and Juliet to ninth graders. Every year, students balk at the idea of a thirteen-year-old girl getting married (most of the freshman are fourteen). This always spurs discussion of shorter lifespans in days gone by--the need to marry early being greater because you never knew when you might catch a fever and die, etc.

Thirteen may have been a more acceptable age to marry in Medieval times, but in the Regency era thirteen was practically unheard of. Twenty-one was the age of consent. Before that, parental consent was necessary. Unless one eloped to Scotland ... which is what makes Mary Ann Stanley's story so intriguing.

Mary Ann Stanley was born in 1801 in Ireland, the only child of Sir Edmond and Jane Talbot. Her life up to the age of thirteen was not particularly eventful other than frequent travel with her parents and education commensurate with that of any other young lady of status.

On June 7, 1815, The Morning Chronicle announced the elopement of thirteen-year-old Mary Ann Stanley to Captain Edward Trant Bontein, a twenty-nine-year-old widower. Although Mary Ann's mother had known of the relationship with Captain Bontein, she had no idea of the serious nature of Bontein's intentions.

In a similar fashion to Lydia Bennett's famous elopement with Wickham in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mary Ann and Bontein acted under a pretense of normality before fleeing to the Scottish border town, where so many couples made secretive marriages. As The Morning Chronicle reported, "On Sunday morning, the 21st ult. the parties went to the Chapel Royal, and thence to the house of Lady BONTEIN, where they partook of a cold collation; they then proceeded in a tilbury to Barnet, under pretence of taking an airing before dinner, where a coach and four was in waiting, and bent their way for Gretna Green, with all the dispatch possible. Lady STANLEY waited dinner till 7 o’clock, and her daughter not coming home as usual, inquiries were made, and circumstances came to light which rendered it evident that the lovers had taken their flight for Gretna."

Somewhere around three-hundred marriages a year were performed in Gretna Green. If a couple traveled from London, the journey could take up to four days. Even one night alone with her intended (even if they didn't lay a finger on each other) would forever ruin a young lady's reputation. Therefore, elopements were considered scandalous, as demonstrated by the hullaballoo when Lydia departed Brighton with Wickham.

If an elopement was confirmed, a male relative or two would ride like the wind in an attempt to catch up with the couple before they reached their first night's lodging. Virtue was not the only thing to be lost during an elopement. Fortunes were also at stake, as a young heiress's money immediately became her husband's after marriage.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that many took a dim view of elopements. Mary Ann Stanley's was no exception. Whereas The Morning Chronicle simply laid out the facts of the elopement, The Northampton Mercury blatantly suggested the poor girl had been duped. "An elopement (if it will bear that term), of a very singular nature has recently taken place, which is likely to undergo a severe legal investigation. It is that of a female child of only thirteen years of age, being induced by some means yet unaccounted for, to be carried away by a captain of dragoons, (a widower), from a barrack near town, where this child was left a visitant to the officer’s mother."

There is little information to confirm whether or not Mary Ann and Captain Bontein lived happily or not. She gave birth to two children and Bontein died at the age of thirty-four, only five years after they married.

I'll be writing about Regency era elopements for the next few weeks. Next week's scandal: Lord Erskine and Miss Sarah Buck.

Have you ever known a couple who has eloped?

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

George IV: The Prince Regent

The Regency era was marked by the rule of George IV, the eldest son of King George III and Queen Charlotte.

When King George III was proclaimed unfit to rule due to mental instability, his son, the Prince Regent, took over in 1811. He ruled until 1820 when his father died. During his governance, he was often tossed and turned by whatever notion took his fancy, whether political or personal.

(comic by George Cruikshank/

Even before taking over the throne, the Prince Regent was an interesting sort. I say “interesting” with my tongue snugly fitted into my cheek. He was actually considered a bit of a national joke. A notorious “ladies’ man,” he had a long list of scandals and intrigues associated with his name early on. He dressed in fashion considered ostentatious and flamboyant. Some of the nobility even went so far as to call his manner of dress “tawdry.” He also appreciated bright, lush interior decorations within his palaces (many of which still exist in Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle).

He had a fetish for older, matronly women and in 1785 he secretly married a Catholic widow, Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert. Under British law, this union was considered illegitimate. (A. She was Catholic and that would never do; B. She was widowed not once, but twice). Finally, his family persuaded him to marry a suitable match—a Protestant German princess, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. George had exorbitant debts and in making this match, the debts would be paid off by parliament. In fact, George IV was often in debt during the course of his life—gambling and profligate spending were some of his favorite pastimes. The marriage seemed ill-fated from the starting point of his drunk arrival to their wedding (drinking and drugging would prove to be another one of his favorite pastimes). Other than to try for conception of an heir, the couple spent very little time together. Their only daughter, Princess Charlotte, died at birth and afterwards their marriage completely came apart.

With manufactured complaints and accusations to add credence to his claims, George IV attempted to divorce Caroline in 1820. The request was not honored, and turned him into the butt of every national joke. The country had never liked him and now they found him ridiculous.

George IV loved excess of every kind. Immoral, self-important, neglectful of his responsibilities, yet charming and good natured, George IV stands out as a ruler with some 21st century habits, tastes, and sensibilities. From his era of rule we inherited the wonderful novels of Jane Austen and the poetry of Byron; the fashion of Beau Brummell and the wonderful Georgian architecture. There is a legacy of culture from this period that we celebrate and recreate in our own century.

In the minds of many, however, he broke down the hard-won sexual integrity of built within the 1760s and 1770s, and in the words of Robert Huish, author of George IV’s biography (1830), he did more for “the demoralisation of society than any prince recorded in the pages of history.”

What is your favorite legacy from the Regency period?



Parissien, Steve. George IV: The Royal Joke. BBC History.

King George IV. The World of