London, 3 February 1785
As dark closed in on Grosvenor Square in the early evening of Thursday 3 February, Bowes set out to dine with his uncle, the indulgent General Armstrong, at his house in Percy Street beyond the Oxford Road. Despite having kept his sister a prisoner and severed all links with his father, Bowes retained the talent to charm his high-ranking army relations. Having left his trusted guards, Mary Reynett and Anna, to watch over Mary he anticipated a convivial evening. But no sooner did she hear the carriage clatter away than Mary and her fellow conspirators swung into action. Primed with their prepared roles, Mary Morgan struck up a conversation with Anna and Mrs Reynett about the latest fashions in millinery while the housemaid Ann Parkes picked a quarrel with the footman, Denham Dally. With her warders momentarily distracted, Mary hastened below stairs. Covering her tattered gown with a servant’s cloak and concealing her hair beneath a maid’s bonnet, she stole out of the basement door accompanied by the new maid Ann Dixon. In her second-hand clothes, with a few guineas borrowed from her maids, Mary took nothing of her own. With the family fortune in Bowes’s hands, she possessed neither money nor belongings; once the richest heiress in Britain, Mary walked out of her marital home penniless and destitute. More significantly, she was walking out on her two youngest children, William, nearly three, and Mary, now seven, with no certain hope of ever seeing them again.
Creeping through the fog in the dimly lit streets, Mary and Ann headed north towards Oxford Street where they suffered an agonisingly long wait for a hackney carriage. Shivering in their thin clothes and flimsy shoes in the chilly evening, they knew that Bowes would set off in pursuit the instant he discovered that they had gone. When at last a carriage pulled up, they urged the driver to head eastwards but had only travelled a short distance along Oxford Street when they spotted Bowes in another hackney carriage hurtling straight for them. Having been alerted to the escape in a hurried message despatched by Mrs Reynett the moment she had realised the deception, he was racing back to Grosvenor Square to intercept the fugitives. Bowling towards them with his head straining out of the window as he scoured the pavements for the escapees, his coach passed within feet of theirs but rattled on in the opposite direction. With Mary now almost hysterical with panic, Ann Dixon implored the driver to hurry. Arriving at Charles Shuter’s chambers in Cursitor Street, a popular residence for legal professionals off Chancery Lane, Mary met the lawyer for the first time. After a cursory consultation lasting less than fifteen minutes, Mary and Ann Dixon headed for Holborn. Here, at 2 Dyers Buildings, in a modest apartment secretly arranged by Morgan hidden in a narrow alley on the south side of the busy thoroughfare, they were met by Mary Morgan and Ann Parkes. Making her getaway a few days later, Susanna Church came to join them.
Free at last from Bowes’s iron grip, though not at liberty, Mary would never forget the courage and kindness of the four women who had rescued her and quite probably saved her life. Having left behind their own few belongings and unpaid wages, her maids now became valued friends who served her for no recompense; indeed she owed money to them all. Not one male servant, she would later stress, had been party to the plan. But through the selfless and audacious actions of these four, she would later say, ‘it is not only myself, but innumerable other more worthy objects, who may through them, in future be saved from oppression, seduction, indigence, and a shameful end’.1 It was the culmination of ‘the eight most memorable years of my life’, Mary would later write in a narrative describing her marriage to Bowes. At the time, she would add, she was ‘fully sensible of the hourly danger I am in from the greatest Monster that ever disgraced the human shape and at the same time, the most artful.’
For Bowes, arriving back at Grosvenor Square to find the household in uproar, with Anna screaming hysterically and Mrs Reynett in a panic, the discovery that Mary had fled with several servants was devastating news. Swearing in fury he dashed into the drawing room where Anna was wailing and seemed to be ‘in a great Flutter’, according to Mrs Reynett. For her part, Anna would proclaim herself ‘extremely hurt’ that her mother had left her behind when she quit the house, although the fact that she had been kept in complete ignorance of the plans might have had more to do with her distress. Bowes would later claim that his stepdaughter had been so distraught at her mother’s flight that he had to prevent her from throwing herself over the banisters. When his gaze fell on a note in Mary’s handwriting addressed ‘To Mr Bowes’ his worst fears were confirmed.
In the farewell letter that she left her husband, a copy of which survives today, Mary was able to put into words her true feelings about Bowes for the first time in eight years of wedlock.2 ‘I think neither yourself nor the World will be surprised at the step I now take,’ she began, ‘as it is the only resource left me to secure my own Life & the Honour of my Family, which has long been tarnished by your Conduct, & the Actions you have forced me to.’ Insisting, in a feeble attempt to delude him, that she would already be far away by the time he read her words, Mary said she had long hoped that he would reform his behaviour over time or that the restoration of her older children might provide a check on ‘your Vices, Follies, & Extravagance’. But as she had learned to her horror since Anna had come to live with them, not only had Bowes’s behaviour become ‘more openly scandalous, & Indecent than ever’ but he had also even encouraged her daughter to treat her with contempt. Having decided that she no longer wished to bring up her five eldest children ‘under the Roof of Viciousness & Illnature’ she was fleeing ‘to save my two youngest from Beggary’ as well as to preserve her own life. Vowing to claim ‘My Dear Boy & Girl’ as soon as she could, she looked forward to guiding their future education as her ‘chief Delight & amusement’. Ending with a flourish she declared: ‘Farewell - I forgive, but will never see you again. I can add no more, as you have long ceased to treat me, in any respect, as a Wife, or a Friend.’
Mary’s touching faith that the Georgian world would express no surprise at her departure was only matched by her misplaced confidence that her troubles with Bowes were at an end. Utterly ignorant of her ordeal, thanks to Bowes’s efficient propaganda campaign, those in polite circles were largely mystified by her actions as chief gossipmonger Horace Walpole made plain. ‘The news of my coffee-house, since I began my letter, is, that Lady Strathmore eloped last night, taking two maids with her,’ he informed his dear friend Lady Ossory, adding ‘but no swain is talked of.’3 As Lady Ossory could have told her, having not seen her own three children from her first marriage since her divorce sixteen years previously, the road ahead was liable to be strewn with obstacles. But as Mary placed her trust in the antiquated, labyrinthine English legal system one fact was certain: she would furnish material for coffee-house gossip for many years to come.
Staying in her Holborn hideaway and assuming a false name - just as Bowes’s sister had done after her escape - Mary immediately initiated three separate legal causes through three distinct branches of the legal system: the King’s Bench, Chancery and the ecclesiastical courts administered by the Church of England. Pitting herself, her tiny band of supporters and her meagre resources against Bowes’s limitless guile and powerful connections, Mary hoped that simple tenets of English justice would keep her safe, restore her fortune and end her miserable marriage. While these may have seemed entirely reasonable aims, within the male-dominated, tradition-bound society of the eighteenth century they were bold ambitions indeed.
Not surprisingly, given her knowledge of Bowes’s temper, Mary’s first priority was to safeguard her life. So on 7 February, just four days after her escape, she appeared before the King’s Bench to exhibit articles of peace against Bowes. One of England’s oldest and highest ranking courts, the King’s Bench - or Queen’s Bench under a female monarch - dealt with those criminal cases that were not punishable by execution. Held in one corner of Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster, since the thirteenth century, its crowded and boisterous sessions competed with the proceedings of two other courts - Chancery and the Court of Common Pleas - as well as with the cacophony of spectators, hawkers and shopkeepers that milled around the cavernous building. Appearing before Lord Mansfield, the enlightened and hard-working Lord Chief Justice who had presided over the King’s Bench for nearly thirty years, Mary pleaded that she was in fear of death or ‘some great bodily hurt’ from Bowes and laid six charges of ‘great Cruelty and Barbarity’ as evidence of his violence.4 Relating a mere handful of Bowes’s most vicious attacks through the course of her married life, these described how he had beaten her with clenched fists, a stick, the hilt of his sword and a silver candlestick, kicked her, burned her face, stabbed her tongue, pulled her ears, threatened to strangle her and ultimately sworn to murder or confine her. Readily granting Mary’s petition, Lord Mansfield ordered that Bowes be bound over to keep the peace for the next twelve months, guaranteed by sureties provided by himself and two others. Leaping to his aid, the bail was volunteered by his drinking cronies, the lawyer John ‘Honest Jack’ Lee and Charles Howard, the future Duke of Norfolk. At Mary’s request the court provided a tipstaff, a court constable named for the staff or stave he brandished, to protect her in her temporary home. Returning to her lodgings with her court guard, as the snow which had been threatening for days now blanketed the streets, Mary remained on edge.
Perversely, the legal step which now promised Mary protection drew attention to her activities - and consequently her whereabouts. Court reporters immediately scurried back with details of her proceedings so that the following morning’s newspapers carried the news. Unable to resist a moralising tone, the Morning Chronicle later added: ‘It is said, Lady S-e’s exhibits against her husband prove - wedlock’s a pill, bitter to swallow.’5 Having despatched his spies to hunt for Mary immediately she escaped, Bowes now frantically attempted to track her down, bribing servants and correspondents to betray her address. At the same time Bowes forbade London tradesmen and shopkeepers to provide her with food or other essentials in the hope, in Mary’s words, ‘that the sharp pangs of hunger might force me to return to my old prison house’.6 Naturally he imposed no such deprivations on himself. Furiously scheming to force Mary back, he stayed awake through the night drinking heavily and, according to Foot, eating spicy food such as peppered biscuits.7
Well aware that one of the most powerful lures to compel Mary to return was her anxiety over the two children she had left behind, Bowes took immediate steps to prevent her from seeing either of them. In the past he had threatened to place little Mary where her mother ‘should never see her again’; now he proceeded to do just that. The little girl who had begged to come home for the holidays was removed from her London school to a carefully concealed countryside location where she was entrusted to the care of Eliza Stephens, Mary’s one-time friend and confidante who had become Bowes’s spy and probable mistress. William, meanwhile, he kept by his side. At the same time Bowes suddenly remembered his latest offspring. Turning up on the doorstep of Mrs Sunderland’s brothel after three months’ absence, he seized Dorothy and her three-month-old daughter and hid them in lodgings in Kensington in order to prevent her testifying against him.8 In the meantime he set out to coerce or bribe any other servants or acquaintances he suspected might prove favourable to Mary.
Yet even as Bowes scoured the town for Mary, constrained her children and intimidated potential witnesses he still adopted his customary stance as the put-upon husband anxious to appease an eccentric wife who had callously abandoned her infants. In an emollient letter on 11 February to the lawyers who had been instructed by Shuter, Bowes wheedled: ‘Gentlemen, It having been intimated to me that Lady Strathmore is uneasy lest I should disturb her quiet I then trouble you to inform her Ladyship that after the step she has taken I never will directly or indirectly molest or in any way interrupt her.’ Proposing that their respective lawyers should come up with mutually agreeable terms for separation he pledged that their suggestions would be binding on him. A few days later an even more conciliatory letter arrived in which Bowes repeated his offer for arbitration as ‘the most speedy method’ to resolve ‘the unfortunate Dispute’ to their reciprocal benefit as well as that of ‘two poor little helpless Children’.9
Far from convinced that Bowes would suddenly prove so amenable to reason, Mary pressed on with her legal steps. With no means of supporting herself beyond the paltry savings of her maids, far less finance costly law suits, she now embarked on a mission to retrieve her lost fortune. Since, of course, every woman in eighteenth-century England from dairymaid to duchess surrendered all her possessions to her husband upon marriage, unless explicitly specified in a legal settlement, on the face of it her ambition seemed fanciful if not totally perverse. Certainly Bowes thought so. When Mary sent her attorney, James Seton, to retrieve the family heirlooms - silverware, paintings, jewellery, diamonds and watches worth more than £10,000 - at a time prearranged with Bowes, he found the door shut firmly in his face. Instead Bowes ordered William Davis to deposit the valuables in Child’s Bank while he continued to live richly on the rents and profits from the Bowes mines and farms.10 But Bowes had a nasty shock in store.
Having forced Mary shortly after their marriage to revoke her prenuptial settlement, which had vested all her estate in two trustees to secure it for her own use, Bowes remained convinced that no trace of the original deed existed. He had even sacked her former footman, George Walker, after searching his belongings to ensure no copy survived. Yet ‘trusty George’, as Bowes had cryptically nicknamed him, now lived up to his moniker. For not only had Walker smuggled a copy of the deed out with him when he left the household, but he also now delivered it to Mary. Furthermore, she had tracked down the one remaining trustee, Captain George Stephens - the lawyer Joshua Peele having died - to his current job as treasurer of the Middlesex Hospital, not a mile from her current lodgings.11 Now Mary launched an audacious attempt through the court of Chancery to restore the original deed and regain all her land, mansions, mines and income, on the grounds that the revocation had been extracted under duress.
Already the defendant in one suit still pending in Chancery, over her eldest children, Mary applied to Lord Thurlow to reinstate her prenuptial deed of 9 and 10 January 1777. Just like the fictional Jarndyce v Jarndyce case in Dickens’s Bleak House, Bowes v Bowes would drag on almost interminably, run up immense costs and blight the lives of scores of innocent descendants and dependants. Affecting the farms, homes and livelihoods of the many servants, tenants and miners whose families had been reliant on the Bowes estate for centuries, just as in Bleak House, children would be born into the suit, marry into it and die out of it. And although the Chancery caseload had not yet approached the mountainous heights or its deliberations the ponderous lengths of the early nineteenth century as lampooned by Dickens, those affected by the Bowes cause would doubtless have echoed the author’s description that, ‘it’s being ground to bits in a slow mill; it’s being roasted at a slow fire; it’s being stung to death by single bees; it’s being drowned by drops; it’s going mad by grains’.12
Yet while she sought valiantly to defend her safety and regain her fortune Mary knew that the only way she would ever truly be free of Bowes was by ending their marriage. And so at the end of February, eight years after their wedding, Mary initiated proceedings for divorce. This legal journey would prove the most arduous of all, dragging Mary’s reputation through a variety of courts and exposing her to sensational, lewd and outrageous allegations that were gleefully reported in the press and devoured by the public for years to come.
While getting married in eighteenth-century England - then as now - was a disarmingly simple procedure, ending a marriage was a distinctly more difficult challenge.13 For a woman it was well nigh impossible.
Prior to the establishment of a divorce court in the middle of the nineteenth century, England was the only Protestant country in Europe without a specific divorce law. Ironically, given his success in extricating himself from wedlock, Henry VIII was to blame. Until the Reformation, as Henry famously discovered, a marriage could only be dissolved by the Pope and only in exceptional circumstances, such as evidence that the alliance was incestuous or unconsummated. Contrary to the received wisdom of numerous schoolchildren, when Henry was refused permission by Pope Clement VII to dissolve his marriage with Catherine of Aragon on grounds of incest - her previous marriage to his brother - he did not unilaterally proceed with a divorce. Rather he had the marriage proclaimed null and void and - following his breach with Rome - subsequently had two further marriages annulled, with Anne Boleyn on the grounds of her alleged incest and adultery, and with Anne of Cleves for his supposed inability to consummate the alliance on account of her ugliness. Having invested himself as the head of the Church of England it would have been a simple matter for Henry to introduce a general law allowing for divorce, in common with other Protestant countries across Europe. Laws permitting divorce on grounds including adultery, impotence and desertion had been introduced from the mid-sixteenth century onwards in Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Scotland and even some English colonies in America. Yet despite encouragement from several clerical advisers, Henry denied his subjects the chance to emulate his marital enthusiasm and this rigid stance would effectively continue for the next three hundred years.
For the vast majority of English couples, therefore, death - of oneself or one’s other half - remained the only possible means of release from a violent, adulterous or otherwise miserable marriage. Yet for those who were powerful, wealthy or desperate enough, other alternatives inevitably developed. Desertion - simply walking away - proved a solution for a number of discontented spouses and although a fugitive husband or wife could be compelled to return to the marital bed this was rarely pursued. While desertion did not free either party to marry again, this did not deter some from bigamous marriages. More ingenious and certainly more dramatic was the idea of ‘wife sale’ which emerged in the sixteenth century and quickly gained popularity, especially - as Thomas Hardy would later illuminate - in south-west England. Frequently such sales took place on market day when a husband might lead his wife to the marketplace with a halter around her neck and offer her to the highest bidder. Barbaric as it might sound, in reality such transactions were commonly prearranged by mutual consent between all parties. One woman, accusing her husband of assault in 1795, produced a receipt to prove that he had sold her, for one guinea, which stipulated ‘both parties being willing to part’.14 Such sales would continue into the nineteenth century although they were not - as the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge would discover - legally recognised as divorce.
Rather more mundane, as well as socially and legally more acceptable, were private separations by deed. Originating in the late seventeenth century, the practice had become relatively standard by the early 1700s and the settlements drawn up by lawyers between a husband and a trustee of his wife - since she, of course, had no status in common law - often provided for custody of the children and financial maintenance for the wife. Such deeds gradually became recognised as legally binding during the eighteenth century - much to the chagrin of some recidivist husbands - and even helped to underline women’s separate legal status. The forward-thinking Lord Mansfield consistently ruled during his tenure as Lord Chief Justice that a wife granted an estate under a separation deed should be regarded as a single woman for legal purposes. But by 1800 such progressive notions would be reversed when his successor, Lord Kenyon, reinforced the principle that a married woman was not entitled to own property - with the enthusiastic backing of John Scott, by then Lord Eldon, who described earlier rulings as ‘impertinent and scandalous’.15 Popular as they were, such deeds did not allow for remarriage nor did they deter recalcitrant husbands from attempts to seize their wives or their property. They also required the consent of both parties.
Less subject to the vagaries of judges and errant husbands were legal separations obtained through the ecclesiastical courts. Although the Church of England had inherited the Roman Catholic view that a valid marriage was indissoluble, religious authorities did accept - in common with Rome - the undesirability of a couple remaining together in extreme circumstances. So the same Church courts which could declare a marriage null and void through incest or impotence - as for Henry VIII - could also decree that a couple should live separately, if it was considered that the physical or spiritual wellbeing of one of them was at risk by the conduct of the other, principally through adultery, cruelty or heresy. Known as divorce a mensa et thoro - literally from bed and board - such rulings released the pair from conjugal duties and cohabitation but did not, of course, permit remarriage. To all intents and purposes, however, and certainly in the eyes of polite society, these separations were regarded as permanent divorce and the courts even awarded maintenance to successful wives. Yet winning a Church divorce case was a lengthy, expensive and fraught experience - especially for women.
Granted with exceeding reluctance and only when a marriage was found to be intolerable, applicants had to prove severe cruelty or serial adultery and preferably both. Given society’s tolerance of violence and male sexual freedom this was a tall order for any spouse; given the prevailing double standards towards women it was hard work indeed. Aggrieved wives were expected to show not only that their husbands were violent but also that their abuse was unprovoked, repeated and life-threatening; not only had they committed adultery but also that their sexual liaisons were particularly perverted, prolific or profane. Furthermore, the courts required two witnesses to every alleged act - not just one as in common law - and specifically excluded evidence from interested parties, chiefly the wife, husband and assorted lovers. Under such burden of proof where witnesses existed at all they were almost invariably servants who were subpoenaed to relate incriminating details of crumpled couches, stained sheets and clandestine romps spied through keyholes. In one case servants stood on a table the better to hear - and report - the creaking bedsprings in the room above; in another, three servants crammed into a cupboard to ogle their mistress and her lover.16
Since the proceedings were fully reported, the Church authorities’ efforts to preserve the holy sanctity of marriage ironically supplied Georgian society’s most salacious publications with sufficient titillating material to keep the printing presses busy. A veritable industry of magazines, books and pamphlets sprang up in the latter half of the eighteenth century, devoted to reporting these ecclesiastical divorce cases. One such publication, Trials for Adultery or the History of Divorces, ran to seven volumes when printed in 1780. Naturally, while they related the sordid details verbatim, such publications adopted a high moral tone. Reminding its readers that adulterers were stoned or thrashed by ancient civilisations, one collection argued that lax contemporary standards meant that reporting such cases ‘may, therefore, be found the most effectual Means at present of preserving Religion and Morality’.17 All the same, the publisher betrayed his pecuniary motives with the aside that: ‘The rapid sale of our former Volumes has induced us to add to the present.’ As if public exposure were not sufficient, Church divorce cases were invariably convoluted, drawn out and expensive with exorbitant fees for lawyers and payments to court clerics. Applicants therefore needed both a thick skin and a deep pocket to embark on the ecclesiastical route. Nevertheless, as expectations of marital bliss rose just as perceived standards of marital fidelity declined, so the ecclesiastical courts saw a rise in divorce trials, particularly after 1780.18 The vast majority of the plaintiffs were wealthy members of the aristocracy or gentry and - not surprisingly - two-thirds were male.
Yet while these various avenues allowed disgruntled husbands, and occasionally wives, to cast off an unwanted partner, none permitted them to do what so many wanted most - and Henry VIII had so flagrantly achieved - to marry someone else. Although it took them more than a century, eventually English nobles did succeed in finding a way to follow the royal lead. In 1670 Lord Roos secured a private act of parliament which both dissolved his marriage to his wife, Anne, and allowed him to remarry. His argument that his wife’s adultery and subsequent illegitimate child deprived him of his right to a legitimate heir won support from Charles II - with an eye to his own marital disaffection - who declared the debate ‘better than a play’.19 With the precedent set, an act of parliament became the only route to a full divorce which allowed the partners to remarry, although solely on grounds of adultery, until the mid-nineteenth century.
The procedure usually began with the aggrieved husband suing his wife’s lover, or alleged lover, for ‘criminal conversation’ - essentially seeking damages for trespassing on his property - in the civil courts. He would then obtain a separation through the ecclesiastical courts before finally moving a bill for divorce through the House of Lords. Although used only rarely at first, during the late 1700s private divorce acts increased in popularity both with the landed classes, who could free themselves from unsavoury marriages, and the general public, who could salivate over their sexual exploits as each suit dragged through its three legal stages. Lady Diana Spencer, later Lady Beauclerk, endured public scorn when divorced from her first husband, Viscount Bolingbroke, by act of parliament in 1768, as the steamy details of her adultery were paraded in court while her husband’s serial philandering went unmentioned. The following year the Duchess of Grafton, later Lady Ossory, suffered a similar trial by humiliation. Yet while some wives, Lady Ossory and Lady Beauclerk among them, connived with the unseemly procedure in exchange for their freedom and the opportunity to remarry, initiating a parliamentary divorce would remain the preserve of a very rich, well-connected and exclusively male elite. Only 132 such divorces were granted before 1800; none were to women plaintiffs.20 Indeed, there were several attempts from 1771 onwards to prevent wives implicated in such cases from themselves remarrying. When finally the first parliamentary divorce sought by a woman was granted in 1801, she would have to prove her husband had committed not only adultery but incest - with her sister - and even then it took an impassioned argument by Lord Thurlow to persuade such diehards as Lord Eldon to support her cause.21
Ultimately it would require a sustained campaign led by enraged women in the early nineteenth century to end the shambolic system and introduce the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, which established the divorce court in which both sexes enjoyed the right to seek a full divorce. Even then the only grounds were adultery and women still had to prove further indignity, such as cruelty, desertion or sodomy. It would be 1923 before women were awarded equal rights in seeking divorce and only as recent as 1969 before the principle of divorce for incompatibility - breakdown of marriage - was at last recognised.
In 1785, therefore, the only way for Mary to sever her chains from Bowes was to seek a separation from bed and board through the ecclesiastical courts. Almost penniless and virtually friendless, she knew that her chances of success were slight while the process would inevitably expose her past indiscretions to public scrutiny. Nevertheless, on 28 February 1785, Mary Eleanor launched her suit for divorce from Andrew Robinson Bowes on grounds of adultery and cruelty with the London Consistory Court, the biggest and busiest of the bishops’ courts dealing with marital disputes.
Based at Doctors’ Commons, a muddle of seventeenth-century courtyards and quadrangles between St Paul’s Cathedral and the Thames, the LCC had become renowned as the country’s chief divorce court. Running in parallel to the common law system, the Church courts had a separate hierarchy of lawyers known as proctors and advocates, equivalent to solicitors and barristers, along with their own distinctive procedures and jargon. Accordingly, anyone initiating a suit had first to engage a proctor - ‘a kind of monkish attorney’ in Dickens’s words - to register a citation which effectively launched the suit.22 Providing a comprehensive litany of Bowes’s outrages, Mary’s citation accused him of ‘beating, scratching, biting, pinching, whipping, kicking, imprisoning, insulting, provoking, tormenting, mortifying, degrading, tyrannizing, cajoling, deceiving, lying, starving, forcing, compelling, and wringing of the heart’.23 Having instructed her proctor to prepare a ‘libel’, which outlined Bowes’s atrocities in detail, Mary now needed sufficient sworn testimonies, known as ‘depositions’, to prove her case. With Bowes determined to thwart her suit, she was going to need all the support that she could muster.
While Bowes, of course, had the entire income generated by Mary’s family estate at his disposal to fight the various law suits now stacking up against him, Mary had no source of funds to support herself or to finance her litigation. Throughout the drawn-out legal process she would remain reliant on the generosity of friends and sympathisers. While her maids stayed with her without wages, her lawyers pursued her various suits without fee in the hope that they would be paid if she were successful. ‘My Lawyers act most zealously for me,’ she told one correspondent, ‘without Fees, the 4 Maid Servants who attended me in my flight, serve me without Wages, & two of them even left behind a great deal of Money which Mr Bowes owes them.’24 The majority of her aid came from those at the poorest levels of Georgian society, principally the servants, estate staff and tenants who had served her family for generations. Gardeners on her estates sent her fruit and vegetables at the risk of losing their jobs, while tenants forwarded their rent at the risk of losing their farms. Even so, according to Foot, she was ‘reduced very low indeed’.25
More significantly, and more dangerously for those involved, Mary needed witnesses who were prepared to testify to Bowes’s years of violence and sexual philandering. While Bowes was prepared to bribe, harass or kidnap servants, friends and assorted disreputable characters to lie on his behalf, Mary could only appeal to her witnesses’ basic honesty to speak out in her support. Confined in her lodgings she devoted her days to writing scores of letters in her looped neat handwriting, or dictating them to her closest ally - ‘my female Secretary Morgan, who takes all the Business of Routine off my Hands’26 - in a stream of correspondence to relatives, friends and acquaintances from the past. Free to reveal her genuine emotions for the first time in years, often to people she had previously been compelled to treat with rudeness, Mary rapidly regained her old confidence and determination. She now discovered who her true friends were, for in this dispute it was impossible not to take sides. Indeed, for those who were swept up in the Bowes divorce case, this was not a simple break-up between two married people so much as a brutally fought civil war which divided whole communities and even split families.
Among the first people Mary turned to were Bowes’s family in Ireland. After hearing nothing from Mary for nearly five years, her sister-in-law rejoiced to learn that she had finally escaped her brother’s tyranny. Now happily married, Mary Lawrenson, as she had become, enthused ‘it is not in words to express my feelings’ and urged Mary to stay safe. Having just lost her first son at only three months old, she wrote that news of Mary’s release had helped assauge her grief and added bitterly: ‘What a Blessing it would be had Bowes been taken off at that Age.’27 Her father, George Stoney, declared himself ‘deeply afflicted’ to learn of his eldest son’s conduct. Now seventy-two and increasingly infirm, he wrote an emotional apology to Mary for the ‘base unnatural Treatment’ she had suffered at the hands of ‘the most wretched man I ever knew’. Yet although he told Bowes’s uncle, General Armstrong, that it would have been a blessing had his son ‘never been Born’, the Stoney patriarch adamantly forbade his daughter Mary from testifying to her brother’s villainy in court on the grounds that: ‘Tho’ we abhor Bowes and his proceedings, yet to join in prosecuting him would be unpardonable in a Sister.’
There was scarcely more support from Mary’s own family. In a stiff and formal letter sent after two entreaties from Mary, Thomas Lyon icily responded: ‘I have the pleasure to acquaint your Ladyship that Lady Maria is perfectly well. She rejoices with me in hearing of your Success & desires her due respects.’28 And while he maintained a close watch on how the legal disputes might affect his wards’ prospects, even a year later he would brush off her appeals for help with the excuse that ‘my name could not be of the smallest use’. Meanwhile Lyon took steps to rein in his wilful niece Anna by placing her in the care of Elizabeth Parish, née Planta, the pious governess Mary had dismissed so acrimoniously while in the throes of her affair with George Gray nine years earlier. With memories of her former mistress’s past excesses evidently not forgotten, Mrs Parish, elder sister of Eliza Stephens, promised that she would try to curb Anna’s newly acquired extravagance but warned: ‘It will give me some trouble to conquer the habits of inattention and disorder which she has contracted’.29 Not long afterwards, reporting a conciliatory letter received from Mary Eleanor, Mrs Parish gleefully informed Lyon: ‘I do not perceive in Lady A- M- the least desire either of seeing her or of hearing from her.’
Much to Mary’s sorrow, Mrs Parish was right. Although Anna would grudgingly sign a deposition testifying that she had heard her mother scream and seen her cry from the abuse meted out by Bowes, she was still sufficiently under her stepfather’s spell to conspire with his pretence that Mary was accident-prone, slovenly and quarrelsome. The only family members who tendered Mary any significant aid were William Lyon, a distant relation of the ninth Earl, who agreed to support her petition to Chancery, and General John Lambton, widower of the late earl’s sister Susan, who called once and ‘made her a present’.30 Likewise Mary enjoyed scant support from the former friends and acquaintances with whom she had rubbed shoulders at masked balls and select salons. Anxious to distance themselves from the vulgar stain of divorce, the pillars of respectable society stayed away from her door.
Turning to the various medical men whose casebooks contained ample details of the fruits of Bowes’s sexual voracity, Mary encountered sharply divided loyalties. The surgeon Jessé Foot would later proclaim that Bowes ‘considered all females as natural game, and hunted them down as so many FERAE NATURAE’.31 The legions of illegitimate children Bowes had spawned, Foot added, were ‘vastly more, perhaps, than the granary of any other man has been found to produce’. But asked by Mary to give evidence to this effect he refused to testify unless subpoenaed ‘for my own Reputation as well as for the Honour of my Profession’. Duly summoned, in his subsequent deposition Foot admitted that Bowes had paid him to deliver the wet-nurse Mrs Houghton’s baby and then dupe her husband into believing it was not uncommon for babies to be born at six months. With little regard to professional honour, he would remain firm friends with Bowes, pandering to his contrived ailments and enjoying the spoils of his table.
Foot’s sworn rival John Hunter, by contrast, congratulated Mary on her escape and pledged his full support to her cause.32 In a frank depiction of Bowes’s austerity towards his wife, his testimony declared that Bowes always exhibited ‘a very strict and severe Disposition’ and refused to indulge Mary with ‘such Trifles’ as tea and coffee. Later writing from Bath, where the surgeon was recovering from a heart attack, Hunter assured her: ‘I hope to see the Day when Your Ladyship’s person will be safe when you can enjoy your Children and your lands again’. Likewise the male midwife Richard Thompson would freely testify to his role in delivering Bowes’s illegitimate child with Dorothy Stephenson.
Yet it was those who had most to lose who showed Mary the greatest loyalty. All four maids who had helped Mary escape - Mary Morgan, Ann Dixon, Ann Parkes and Susanna Church - willingly jeopardised their livelihoods and risked their lives by testifying to their former master’s violent behaviour and sexual outrages. Their courageous descriptions of the bruises, burns and weals which Mary had suffered at Bowes’s hands coupled with his oppressive curtailment of her movements, diet and dress furnished a resounding indictment of his cruelty. Other servants, who had worked in the Bowes household in years past, similarly came forward to describe the despotic regime that they had witnessed stretching back to the days immediately following the couple’s marriage. Even one of Bowes’s current servants, his footman Robert Crundall, made a statement detailing his master’s brutality. He was inevitably sacked for his betrayal and promptly offered his services to Mary with whom he would remain for the rest of her life. Further down the slippery Georgian social ladder, denizens of London’s sexual underworld willingly gave evidence on Mary’s behalf. Nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Waite, who had been reduced to living in the Magdalen Hospital for ‘penitent prostitutes’, told how Bowes had raped her when she applied to work as a nursery maid, while the brothel keeper Susannah Sunderland related how Bowes had brought Dorothy to her house for the delivery of her illegitimate baby. Yet there was still one crucial witness whose testimony, Mary knew, could prove vital to the success of her suit.
Nothing had been seen of nineteen-year-old Dorothy or her baby daughter since Bowes had abducted them from Mrs Sunderland’s brothel in February. When Mary had sent friends to call on Dorothy shortly after her escape they found no sign either of her or the baby. Knowing Dorothy’s dread of Bowes, Mary feared the worst. Meanwhile, her parents, William and Mary Stephenson, who had been loyal tenants of the Bowes family all their lives, were blithely unaware of their daughter’s pregnancy and subsequent disappearance. So when they received an urgent message from Bowes announcing that their daughter was dangerously ill, they set off immediately from their farm in Whickham to bring her home. Arriving in Durham, to catch the first stage coach to London, the couple were shocked to hear not only that the mistress of Gibside had left her husband but also that Dorothy had given birth to a child fathered by its master. Fearful for their daughter’s safety, the Stephensons managed to contact Mary at her secret hideout in London and at the end of April they joined with her in obtaining a writ of habeas corpus demanding that Bowes produce Dorothy. One of the earliest editions of The Times, founded at the beginning of 1785 under the title the Daily Universal Register, reported Lord Mansfield’s order that Dorothy be surrendered.33
It would be nearly two more weeks before a terrified Dorothy was brought before the King’s Bench. Having been kept captive at a house in Kensington, where her six-month-old daughter was still being held, Dorothy had been forced by Bowes to put her cross to an affidavit swearing that she had suffered no violence or restraint. Unable to read or write she had plainly no understanding of the document’s content. Taking a dim view of the abduction of potential court witnesses, Lord Mansfield reunited Dorothy with her relieved parents at which, The Times related, her mother ‘stretched out her arms to receive her and kissed her with great rapture’. Charging her parents to treat Dorothy ‘gently and indulgently’, Lord Mansfield told them to accompany her to Kensington to retrieve her child. As Dorothy now joined Mary in Holborn, her parents carried their granddaughter back to County Durham where they gamely hosted a christening party. Reporting the revels to Mary in London, one loyal worker could not resist observing that, ‘I think that the Child [is] very much like Mr Bowes’.34
Restored to safety, Dorothy lost no time in agreeing a lengthy and incriminating testimony which described how Bowes had repeatedly raped her and made her pregnant, committed adultery with Mrs Houghton who had subseqently given birth to his baby, as well as his catalogue of assaults on Mary with fists, knives and sticks. Declaring Bowes to be ‘a Man of a very cruel savage and abandoned Disposition and also of a loose wicked and lustful Disposition’,35 Dorothy’s statement would prove critical to the outcome of the Bowes divorce.
As news of Dorothy’s ordeal spread among staff and tenants at Gibside, bolstered by many families’ own experiences of Bowes’s bullying and vindictive behaviour, so support for Mary’s cause gathered force. In a groundswell of resistance, estate workers, farmers and their families at last found the courage to oppose Bowes’s worst excesses and they reported their little triumphs in regular despatches to London. For Mary, cut off from her childhood home, the letters which shuttled almost daily between London and County Durham were a lifeline.
Plagued by rheumatism and worn down by poverty, the Gibside gardener Robert Thompson had no doubt where his loyalties lay. Expressing ‘great joy’ at the news of Mary’s escape, he wrote to assure her that ‘the Hot house and Greanhouse’ were in good order although the garden had become overgrown through lack of help. When he was sacked by Bowes in April for refusing to surrender his correspondence with Mary, he continued to tend her plants regardless. Despatching a box of fruit from the hothouse, he described in his semi-literate scrawl how Bowes had ordered his agent ‘to settle with me & to begon out of the place’ but assured Mary that ‘I will not be turnd out of the Garden for none of Mr bowes partey’. Saddened at the neglect the garden was suffering, Thompson dutifully worked without pay to weed the beds and pick insects from the flowers saying it ‘greaves me very sor to see them spoild at this time’.36
Likewise Francis Bennett, once a footman to the late Lord Strathmore, who had stayed on as gamekeeper at Gibside, assured Mary of his continuing devotion and vowed ‘I never intend to serve Mr Bowes any longer’.37 Sending Mary regular bulletins on the fortunes of her beloved plants he also kept her abreast of Bowes’s trail of destruction and terror in the neighbourhood. So the revelation that ‘there is 4 Cape plants come up from the seed’ in the greenhouse was somewhat outweighed by news of Bowes’s relentless felling of ancient trees in the woods and his plans to sell off the livestock. As Bowes and his henchmen stormed about the estate threatening staff with dismissal and tenants with eviction, Bennett told Mary ‘I think that Mr B. wants to do all the mischeif he possible can about this place’. He added: ‘I can safely say that your Ladyship has more friends in this part of the Whorld than ever you had, there is hardly a person but what takes your part and wishes that your Ladyship may get the better of Mr B.’ Sending Mary two pineapples by stagecoach to the Blue Boar at Holborn he warned her to avoid replying to Newcastle since Bowes was intercepting their post. But standing up to the renowned might and guile of the master of the manor was no easy undertaking. As Bennett attempted in vain to collect rents for Mary from the terrified tenants in late spring, he was forced to concede ‘at present things goes on very Bad at Gibside all want to be masters’. Finding a hare caught by its neck in the woods, he confided to Mary, ‘I could a wist it had been something eals.’
With tenants divided by their instinctive loyalty to Mary and their understandable terror of Bowes, it was a relief when Thomas Colpitts, Mary’s agent before her marriage to Bowes when he had summarily been replaced by Henry Bourn, volunteered to collect their rents on Mary’s behalf. Thanking him for forwarding a much-needed £100 at the end of May, Mary wrote: ‘I am greatly obliged by the unabated Regard you express for my Family, & by your very friendly attention to my own Interest’.38
By early summer of 1785, with avowals of support and money from tenants arriving regularly at her lodgings in Dyers Buildings, while testimonies from her witnesses mounted at her lawyer’s office in nearby Cursitor Street, Mary had good cause for optimism. So when Bowes made a formal application to the Lord Chancellor in July proposing arbitration to settle the couple’s land dispute if Mary would halt her suit for divorce, and offered the lawyer John Scott as referee, Mary felt she had little to lose by giving conciliation a trial. Assured that all due rents and profits would in the meantime be deposited with Chancery and that Bowes was willing to negotiate an amicable legal separation, she reluctantly suspended her divorce case just as the law courts began their long summer holiday.39
Well aware that Mary enjoyed no redress to the courts during their traditional three-month break Bowes, of course, had no intention of seeking an amicable resolution, nor of allowing the tenants to pay their rents into Chancery. Instead he redoubled his efforts to track down her sanctuary, wreaked havoc on her estates and stepped up his campaign of intimidation. Variously informing the staff and tenants that Mary and he were reconciled, or that her case was lost, he offered generous incitements to any who would swear false testimonies against her and threatened them with eviction or dismissal when they refused. Many, like William and Mary Stephenson, valiantly rejected his advances. Offered substantial rewards to deliver up Dorothy or betray Mary’s whereabouts, William Stephenson wanted Mary to be informed of ‘my unalterable resolution to withstand all his Vile Temptations & that I would rather starve than betray her in any respect’.40 Others, distressed by poverty and petrified by his threats, were eventually seduced. Ann and George Arthur, the housekeeper and gardener at St Paul’s Walden Bury, had sent Mary hampers of garden produce ever since her escape, but by May their fidelity had begun to falter. ‘Now my Lady I am at a loss again how to obey with safty,’ George Arthur confessed, ‘as your Ladyship gives me Orders & likewise Mr Bowes.’41 In July, when Bowes sent his footman to intercept the weekly food parcel, the Arthurs meekly surrendered the hamper, complete with Mary’s address.
It was a close shave. Alerted just in time that Bowes had discovered her lodgings, Mary fled to a country retreat with Morgan and three of her trusted servants. Warning Thomas Colpitts to communicate only through Charles Shuter, she begged him: ‘For Godsake don’t tell any body that I am in Staffordshire, or that you have the least Idea, or guess as to the place of my Retirement, for it is of the utmost consequence to keep it secret, lest Mr B. shd. pursue me’.42 When she returned to London in November, for the start of the new law term, it was little surprise to hear that Bowes now adamantly refused to consider any negotiated settlement.
Moving into more salubrious lodgings in Bloomsbury Square in December, at which point she also hired a coach, Mary was now resolved to press ahead with her divorce suit at all costs. Anxious to make public her determination to sever all links with Bowes, on Christmas Eve she issued a handbill which declared, ‘my immutable resolution to endure persecutions, sufferings, and dangers, still greater, if possible, than those to which I have hitherto been exposed’ and ‘even to starve in the most miserable manner’ rather than endure any further communication with Bowes.43Packed into the stagecoach bound for Newcastle, the posters were eagerly seized on by her friends in County Durham where they were distributed to tenants. The following day, Christmas Day, Mary travelled to Neasden to see her sons, George and Thomas, in their boarding school. Although snow enveloped the countryside, the visit marked the beginning of a slow thaw in relations with her children. Two weeks later the boys were permitted to dine at her house. And as the new year of 1786 began, with her resolution firmer than ever, Mary handed supervision of her various legal cases to a new attorney.
Sharing premises with his partner Thomas Lacey in Bread Street Hill, Cheapside, James Farrer dealt principally with criminal cases before the King’s Bench.44 Often confused with his namesake, another James Farrer who worked with his brother Oliver at the law firm Farrer and Co in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, relatively little is known about Mary’s attorney. Indeed, the two legal families may have been related since both hailed from Yorkshire. Yet while the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Farrers were well known for their dealings in celebrated divorce cases of the time, Mary’s lawyer had seemingly little experience in this arena. But for all his obscurity, James Farrer was to prove invaluable to Mary. An enthusiastic Mary Morgan was certainly cheered, informing Colpitts that Farrer had ‘taken up the Business with so much spirit that every Circumstance weares a so much better Appearance, & rejoices every individual concern’d with this affair’.45
Immediately grappling with the thorny issue of money, Farrer paid Mary’s current lawyers the several hundred pounds they were owed and insisted on working for no fee. At the same time he succeeded in winning an order that the estate’s rents and mining profits should all be paid to receivers in Chancery. With prospects looking brighter by the day, Mary rejoiced: ‘He is indeed a man amongst ten thousand, nor can any words express my obligations to him sufficiently.’ Utterly reliable and resolutely practical, James Farrer would more than prove his determination to pursue Mary’s case to victory, at one point proclaiming that ‘the effectually settling my Lady S’s concerns, is the most anxious moment of my Life’.
Meanwhile Bowes was equally adamant that he would win the courtroom battles and was prepared to go to any extremes to succeed. Exacting vengeance on Mary’s supporters, he had sacked Francis Bennett in October - ordering three of his hoodlums to kick the loyal retainer out of his sickbed and turf him out of his tied house - then in December he demanded Robert Thompson surrender the keys to the greenhouse, hothouse and banqueting house.46 When Bowes’s dog was killed after falling down a mineshaft, Thompson could not help remarking, ‘i wish it had benn him self’. Blaming the severe winter for his inability to leave the north throughout January and February, Bowes delayed the divorce hearing before the ecclesiastical court. In March he finally filed his counter petition in Chancery, urging the court to declare Mary’s prenuptial deed ‘fraudulent’ since it had been drawn up without his knowledge and ‘in derogation of his marital rights’.47
Ignoring the Chancery order that tenants pay their rents into court, Bowes issued threatening letters to any farmers still withholding their rent ‘at the instigation of a Banditti of Villainous Conspirators and Imposters’.48 Attempting to persuade the tenants to keep their nerve, Colpitts confessed to Farrer: ‘I shall rejoice to hear that any thing can be done this Term for the poor injured Lady, and her Tenants. What a being must that be, that seeks for revenge in punishing every individual who has lent the least assistance in time of her Ladys. greatest distress.’ Up to his usual tricks, Bowes procrastinated further by feigning illness in April and at the end of the month locals were astonished to hear that he had shot himself.49 It seemed, to Mary and her tenants, that their problems were at an end when they read in the English Chronicle: ‘Yesterday advice was received of the death of Andrew Robinson Bowes, Esq. formerly Member for Newcastle.’ Inevitably, it transpired that the report was premature, having been placed in the newspaper by Bowes himself to spread further confusion.
At last, on 6 May 1786, when Bowes could prevaricate no longer, the divorce suit came up for its hearing at the London Consistorial Court at Doctors’ Commons. Described by The Times as ‘the great cause depending between the Countess of Strathmore and Mr Bowes’, its outcome was awaited with trepidation not only by the two combatants but by tenants, servants, estate workers, family and friends throughout the country.50 After more than a year of lawyers taking depositions from witnesses on both sides, who had subsequently been examined and cross-examined in private by the court’s officials, the presiding judge, William Wynne, wasted no time in finding the case in favour of Mary Eleanor Bowes. Declaring the couple ‘divorced from bed, board and mutual cohabitation’ on the abundant evidence of Bowes’s adultery and cruelty, the court ordered him to pay Mary £300 a year in alimony. A staggering triumph, one of only sixteen cases seeking divorce on grounds of both adultery and cruelty in that decade, the result sent a clear signal to abusive husbands and a message of hope to abused wives everywhere.
But the victory was short-lived. Bowes immediately gave notice of his appeal to the next level of the Church courts, the Court of Arches, and readied himself for a ferocious war of propaganda.