Living in her late father’s house in Westgate Street, one of Newcastle’s most affluent addresses, Hannah Newton could not help but be aware of the society wedding of the year between two of her close neighbours. Just eighteen months older than Mary Eleanor, nineteen-year-old Hannah would have brushed skirts with Mary at the concerts, plays and assemblies which entertained the city’s polite society. Having grown up in the same region, Hannah and Mary Eleanor would have moved in the same elite social circles for Hannah’s father, William Newton, had also accumulated a fortune from coal in the mineral-rich lands of County Durham. The owner of two collieries near the Derwent, Newton had acquired large estates at Burnopfield, less than two miles from Gibside, and Cole Pike Hill, eight miles to the south near Lanchester. Although not in the league of the Grand Allies, Newton had been presented by the city with the ‘great seal’ in 1749 for inventing a new method to extract coal from deeper pits.1 When William Newton died in 1762, about the time of Hannah’s fifteenth birthday, he left his daughter and sole heiress with a sizeable fortune in collieries and farmland valued at between £20,000 and £30,000 - more than £3m in modern terms.2 It was little wonder, therefore, that just like Mary Eleanor, Hannah had attracted the attentions of a number of suitors.
Baptised on 11 November 1747 - her date of birth went unrecorded but was probably a few days or weeks beforehand - Hannah was not considered a great beauty by eighteenth-century standards.3 ‘She was not at all handsome; short, and very dark’, one acquaintance later recalled.4 Yet the size of her fortune more than made up for her lack of physical attributes in the eyes of certain suitors. Indeed, it was perfectly possible for the only daughter of a middle-ranking or nouveau riche family to marry well above her perceived station in life and even into the aristocracy - as had Mary Eleanor - given sufficient capital to her name. So Hannah, for all her plain appearance, might easily expect to walk up the aisle with the eldest son of one of the powerful local coal-owning families or at least with an up-and-coming professional man. Why she had therefore set her heart on a young Irish soldier, who marched into Newcastle the most junior and poorly paid officer in his regiment, remains something of a mystery.
Andrew Robinson Stoney had enlisted with the Fourth or King’s Own Regiment of Foot as an ensign - the lowliest rank of officer - in November 1764 at the age of seventeen and first met up with his regiment the following spring.5 It was a good time to join the army - for anyone keen to avoid the perils of battle. Although William Makepeace Thackeray would place the anti-hero of his novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, who was modelled on Stoney, in the brutal pandemonium of the Seven Years’ War, the real Stoney never once faced enemy fire. In fact, the global conflict which had raged across Europe, India, North America and the Caribbean since 1756 had ended a full year before Stoney signed the commission book. And since Britain had lost its appetite for further bloodshed or military expense, there was little immediate risk in wearing the scarlet coat. At the same time, with the King’s Own freshly returned from a string of conquests in the West Indies, the new recruit would be sure to share in some of his fellow officers’ reflected glory. So as the regiment marched across the medieval stone Tyne Bridge into the walled city of Newcastle in early 1767, the young ensign who carried the regimental colours could be assured of a hero’s welcome. Certainly, there would be no shortage of admiring women eager to partner the regiment’s officers at the various entertainments to which the city had invited its visiting troops. An army officer with a good family background was considered a fairly desirable beau for a younger daughter in a middling family of the gentry. But for a humble ensign to pitch his interest at one of the city’s richest heiresses would have required a great deal of charm, imagination and bravado. Unluckily for Hannah, these were attributes Stoney possessed in large measure.
Born on 19 June 1747 in County Tipperary, Stoney was the eldest son of a well-to-do Protestant family which had prospered since emigrating from Yorkshire at the end of the seventeenth century. His great-grandfather, George Stoney, had moved his young family to Ireland under the handsome inducements offered to emigrating Protestant families at some point after 1692 and had established a family estate named Greyfort near the little village of Borrisokane. Eldest son Thomas, Stoney’s grandfather, married Sarah Robinson - at nineteen nearly half his age - the daughter of a prominent Protestant family whose ancestors, the Robinsons and the Armstrongs, had fought on opposite sides in the English Civil War. Still a powerfully ambitious military family, Sarah’s numerous male relatives were highly placed in the British army. An uncle, General John Armstrong, who was more than six feet tall, was a skilled engineer who had fought at Blenheim and helped found the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1741.6 Sarah’s brother, Captain Andrew Robinson, would ultimately rise to the rank of Major-General, while her cousin, Bigoe Armstrong, and nephew, Robert Robinson, would both become regimental colonels who would take a kindly interest in their nephew. Fiercely independent and staunchly religious - her family bible still survives - Sarah was only thirty-three when her husband died leaving her with three young sons and the family farms to manage in a hostile country. Aged thirteen at the time of his father’s death, eldest son George, Stoney’s father, studied hard and laboured long under his mother’s watchful eye.
Assuming control of the family estate once he came of age, George Stoney worked industriously to nurture the farm before feeling sufficiently comfortable to marry at the age of thirty-three. When he did, in 1746, it was scarcely surprising that he married into another local Protestant military family. Elizabeth Johnston’s father, James Johnston, had been one of the defenders of Derry against Catholic forces in 1689, while her brother Robert was even now rising up army ranks. It was, as one of George’s relatives commented in the most complimentary terms of the age, a ‘prudent choice’.7 When the couple’s first child was born a year later he was named Andrew Robinson after his great-uncle, grandmother Sarah’s brother, who would be promoted six years later to the role of equerry to Princess Augusta, mother of the future George III. The family bible, in which Sarah inscribed significant domestic events, records that baby Andrew was immediately sent to a wet-nurse - it even gives her name, Honory MacGilton - in keeping with upper- and middle-class custom. When Sarah died, still only fifty-five, a year after the birth of her first grandchild, she went to her rest in Ballingarry churchyard in the happy confidence that the family’s proud army traditions would continue in the infant who bore her surname.
Growing tall amid the fertile countryside which nourished the family’s livestock and crops, Robinson - as he was known within the family - took little interest in the daily tedium of farming. Ambitious but lazy, intelligent but scheming, young Stoney could barely wait to escape the familiar Tipperary landscape, with its mountain borders to the south and west and its snaking Lough Derg to the north, or his father’s restraining authority. Robinson lorded it over his brothers and sisters, who arrived in swift succession almost year on year, and probably bullied his siblings and his cousins; certainly they deferred to him meekly in later life. As future acquaintances would discover, their strapping elder brother could swiftly change from being friendly and charming one minute to vindictive and sadistic the next, and they quickly realised it was better to be on his side than against him. Leaving the farmyard chores to his brother Thomas, a year his junior, Robinson ran rings around his indulgent, adoring mother and his overworked father.
A well-educated man with simple tastes, who enjoyed country pursuits like hunting, fishing and the typically Irish sport of hurling, George Stoney could never get the measure of his eldest son. His natural hopes that his heir, the future head of the household, would develop into a relentless worker and dedicated family man like himself were abruptly disappointed. Instead he found Robinson conniving and manipulative when he wanted something, arrogant and defiant when he was spurned. George Stoney’s surviving letters and two diaries record his incomprehension, despair and ultimate helplessness at his eldest son’s increasingly wayward behaviour.
George Stoney’s earliest diary in 1765 - none survive from his son’s childhood - reveals a careful, parsimonious businessman, who recorded the farming accounts in diligent detail and noted debts from friends for as little as sixpence. With his farm and large labour force to run, as well as managing lands for his relatives serving in the army overseas, it was an arduous, time-consuming business. Up one morning at five, for example, it took him six hours to herd livestock to a county fair, which he left for the six-hour return journey at nine that night. With cattle to tend, sheep to fleece, hops to pole and corn to thresh, there was little time for leisure. As the family grew - ultimately there would be five sons and six daughters - the farm and domestic labour increased and profits were stretched increasingly thin. Among other necessities, all six daughters would require generous portions if they were to secure advantageous marriages. So while his wife and daughters mixed in genteel county circles, Farmer Stoney worked long hours and worried over the price of bullocks, his own indifferent health and his implacably unruly eldest son.
Although George Stoney evidently cared deeply about his family, employing a tutor for the younger children and fretting when they caught the inevitable childhood diseases, he was a distant, sometimes cold, father who showed little affection to his offspring, much in the manner of most Georgian parents. As the head of the family, he demanded unconditional respect and compliance from his wife and children, yet frequently showed himself ineffectual at engendering such authority. One of his brother-in-laws on one occasion remarked pointedly that Thomas, the second eldest, was ‘a very promising boy’ who took a keen interest in farming, but added, ‘his Father does not encourage him as he ought’.8 Although he may have been stern when the children were little - it was commonplace for Georgian fathers to beat their sons - any discipline on his part seems to have been frequently reversed by Mrs Stoney who spoiled the children and countermanded her husband’s orders. Certainly in later life he would become bitter and resentful over what he regarded as his wife’s indulgence and children’s indolence. Such inconsistency between parents may perhaps have been one of the explanations - though not sufficient excuse - for their eldest son’s later conduct.
As the putative heir of his father’s successful farming business and the family seat of Greyfort, young Robinson could have counted himself lucky in expectation of a comfortable, if dull, future as a country gentleman. Yet although he enjoyed a privileged, if not pampered, upbringing, Robinson soon became aware that he would never achieve the opulent lifestyle he so obviously desired if he remained in rural Ireland. His best chances of the money, power and influence he craved lay, he knew, across St George’s Channel. Since it was plain to both his parents that their eldest son displayed neither the inclination nor the application to run the family estate, his father grudgingly groomed young Thomas, a keen and able worker, to take over the farming duties. No doubt his parents were optimistic that by enlisting in the army, Robinson would distinguish himself and rise through the military ranks just like his illustrious ancestors. Secretly, his father probably also hoped that some military discipline would knock his quick-tempered son into line.
It was Uncle Robert, by now a regimental colonel, who secured his nephew a commission as an ensign in the King’s Own in November 1764, initially without pay.9 After kicking his heels on the farm over the winter, Stoney said goodbye to his then eight siblings the following spring and set sail to join his regiment in England. At first the military life appeared to suit him. Relating news of his enrolment that July, one of his uncles reported that ‘General Armstrong and Col. Robn give very good accounts of him’. With two such powerfully placed great-uncles keeping a paternalistic eye over his progress, Stoney was set for a medal-encrusted military career. The first signs of tension surfaced just two months later. Colonel Robinson, stationed in Southampton, wrote to tell George Stoney that he planned to buy his great-nephew a promotion to lieutenant as soon as an opportunity arose but added ominously, ‘I mean to tell him that it will be done only on condition of his making good progress at the Academy .’10 Evidently, Stoney’s record so far left room for improvement.
By June the following year, serious concerns had erupted over the behaviour of the young ensign who appeared resistant both to army discipline and to common etiquette. Now billeted in Plymouth, Stoney had been reprimanded by several senior officers for his insolence, bad temper and debauched lifestyle in addition to running up debts amounting to £40. Precisely what this dissipation comprised, and where the £40 had been expended, were not revealed although later events would suggest that the money had been squandered on drinking, gambling and women. So seriously was his conduct viewed that Lieutenant Colonel George Maddison, commanding officer of the regiment, felt moved to complain to the regiment’s formal colonel - essentially an honorary figure - the MP Robert Brudenell. ‘He’s very averse to taking advice,’ wrote Maddison, ‘and I assure you both [Captains] Boarder & Henderson have taken great pains with him, with such little effect that they have given him up.’ Although Maddison had ‘taken him in hand once or twice myself pretty strongly’, he concluded: ‘He does his duty, but not with seeming pleasure a boy of his age ought to do, and he’s a very Indifferent Temper.’11 While army discipline in the eighteenth century was notoriously lax, with soldiers who had been lured into enlisting with cash or alcohol frequently deserting or defying orders, these were stern words with which to describe a commissioned officer. They had little effect on Stoney, however, who would always baulk at authority and prefer to command his own actions.
By the following month, July 1766, Stoney was back in Ireland, sent home in disgrace in the vain hope that his father might tackle his recalcitrant behaviour. Seemingly his great-uncles had intervened with the regiment to save him from a worse fate. Writing from Dublin, General Armstrong - Uncle Bigoe - informed George Stoney gamely: ‘No doubt you will be surprised at your son’s arrival in Ireland. It is an expedient thought of by Col. Robinson (& approved of by his Colonel) to get him away from his Regt for a few months, that he may be under your eye, and they hope that you will be able to break him of that idle extravagant turn he has taken.’12 His poor father’s heart must have sunk; he knew only too well that he had long since lost any gainsay over his arrogant nineteen-year-old son.
Yet for all his misbehaviour, when occasion demanded the young ensign possessed a magnetic charm and disarming amiability that could win him friends and patrons who were often older and more senior - and should have been wiser - than he was. Despite conduct apparently so disruptive that even the army had failed to whip any sense into him, he had somehow ingratiated himself with his superior officers, as Uncle Bigoe made plain. ‘He is very sensible and smart,’ he pleaded in his favour, ‘and I make doubt but that he will in a little turn out a clever fellow.’ Indeed, young Stoney was already a clever fellow. For, as the general reported, Colonel Brudenell himself had taken ‘a very great liking’ to the junior officer who presented such an apparently poor role model to the platoon under his command. Like Stoney’s easygoing uncles, no doubt Brudenell regarded the ensign as a spirited but generally loveable rogue and excused his behaviour as youthful exuberance. After lending his great-nephew ten guineas, which Uncle Bigoe fully expected to see again, he added: ‘He desires you will send Horses for him as soon as you can.’
How George Stoney greeted his prodigal son went unrecorded but one thing is certain: any harsh words or discipline that he may have meted out had utterly no effect. When Stoney returned to England to rejoin his regiment in time to begin a long march northwards in February 1767, his extravagant tastes and bullish self-confidence remained intact. And as he marched through the arched gate into the bustling city of Newcastle at the head of his platoon on 8 May, the nineteen-year-old ensign held his head high.
Most visitors assailed for the first time by the overcrowded tenements, heaving quayside and noisome street markets wrestling for space within the medieval walls of mid-eighteenth-century Newcastle recoiled in disgust. ‘The town of Newcastle is horrible, like the ways of thrift it is narrow, dark and dirty,’ complained Elizabeth Montagu on her first trip to the city which had helped make her husband’s fortune. The streets were so narrow that her carriage scraped the walls as it passed while the goods from the shops swung so far outwards that she could only marvel that ‘I have not yet caught a coach full of red herrings’. For another visitor, newly wed Sophia Curzon, first impressions of the town exceeded ‘all the horrible discreptions’ she had already heard. ‘I really thought when we enter’d the Town that we was going into the deepest & darkest Pit ever heard off, as it was hardly possible to breathe for want of air & the horrid stink of the Tan Yards,’ Sophia informed her aunt.13 With its large and predominantly poor population densely packed between the tanneries, tenements and the fish and flesh markets near the quayside, there is no doubt that Georgian Newcastle exuded a pungent stench. But as he marched past the slum housing, the rowdy taverns and overflowing street stalls, Ensign Stoney could detect a sweeter smell. It was the smell of money.
Billeted in a tavern or private house within the town walls, for the army had no barracks to call its own, Stoney no doubt enjoyed the seamier pleasures that the city had to offer. Cock-fighting and even bull-baiting were popular in the warren of streets leading up from the ‘Keyside’ and stakes could be heavy now that the warmer weather marked the revival of the coal trading season. With almost the entire town’s economy dependent on the fluctuating fortunes of the coal business, the winters - when no ships could sail - were frequently long, bleak and hungry, while the summers - when hundreds of colliers shuttled the coal from the Tyne to the Thames each week - brought ready money for all. Having lived most of the winter on credit, the pitmen, sailors and keelmen, who navigated the coal-bearing boats downriver to the estuary, were impatient to spend their long-awaited wages and the shopkeepers were eager to serve them. So as Stoney made his first forays into the town that spring, the ale-houses would be crammed, as would the brothels, clustered in the steep, stepped alleys or ‘chares’ which climbed up from the quay. Judging from his conduct so far, both kinds of establishment would find a willing customer in the young officer. But Stoney soon set his sights higher - literally - for the source of the money now rapidly changing hands at the teeming riverside all flowed from the grand houses up the hill. It was here, in the wide and pleasant streets such as Westgate, where Hannah lived, that those who had made their fortunes from the coal business resided. And with the hectic summer social season about to begin, Stoney lifted up his eyes in anticipation.
He did not have long to wait. From the traditional Ascension Day festival at the end of May to the anniversary of the King’s accession to the throne in October, the Newcastle populace celebrated every conceivable religious, royal and civic occasion. The troops of the King’s Own were only too eager to help, providing regimental music, drinking their royal patron’s health and firing volleys into the sky at every opportunity.14 And while the regiment’s rank and file caroused merrily with the townsfolk, its officers became acquainted with the civic worthies and dignitaries at a packed calendar of balls, assemblies and musical soirees. According to Mrs Montagu, feeling rather better disposed to the city by 1760, the social life was relentless. ‘I was at a municipal entertainment yesterday morning, at a concert last night, at a musical entertainment this morning,’ she boasted to her friend Lord Lyttelton. ‘I have bespoken a play for to-morrow night, and shall go to a ball for choosing a Mayor on Monday night.’ Although the northern diversions were admittedly ‘less elegant’ and the conversations ‘less polite’ than their southern equivalents, she had to confess that the ‘desire for pleasure and love of dissipation rages here as much as in London’.15
It was at just such an event that Hannah Newton first set eyes on the swarthy, good-looking junior officer with the penetrating stare.16 Tall, lean and with a soldier’s upright bearing, Stoney exuded the kind of confident, easygoing manner that made him popular with men and fatally attractive to women. Although later caricatures would show him as hook-nosed, double-chinned and bug-eyed, these were plainly crude exaggerations, for women would always be drawn to Stoney, some of them desperately so. Certainly Jessé Foot, his surgeon, friend and biographer, would insist that Stoney presented a handsome face with a ‘captivating’ manner. ‘His speech was soft, his height was more than five feet ten, his eyes were bright and small, he had a perfect command over them, his eye brows were low, large and sandy, his hair light, and his complexion muddy, his smile was agreeable, his wit ready.’17 Only one flaw marred the young Stoney’s good looks, described by Foot as ‘something uncommon in the connexion of his nose with his upper lip’ which meant that whenever he talked his nose ‘moved ridiculously’. In order to avoid this comical trait Stoney was forced to lisp when he spoke. Lisping or not, in his imposing officer’s uniform with its white breeches, knee-length red coat and black boots, his sword swinging from his belt and his tawny hair pulled tightly back in the regulation braid or ‘queue’, Stoney cut a dash at the city’s assembly hall. Hannah soon fell under his spell.
If Stoney’s fiery temper and reputation for debauchery were well known within his regiment, in polite company he took pains to present himself as well-mannered, attentive and generous - in short, the perfect officer and gentleman. Escorting Hannah to social occasions throughout the autumn and winter, Stoney flattered her incessantly, showered her with gifts and gave ostentatiously large tips to servants in a determined effort to inflate his family’s perceived wealth and his own expectations of fortune. Running up even higher debts than usual, which he had no means of paying on his scant ensign’s pay, Stoney had to beg his father for handouts which were forwarded from Ireland with reluctance. By the beginning of 1768, Hannah was besotted with her passionate and well-connected Irish gentleman whom she was determined to marry at the earliest opportunity. But the course of true love - as it certainly seemed to be for Hannah if not for her intended bridegroom - did not run smooth and the couple had to cool their ardour as their desired union encountered a series of obstacles.
Both aged twenty in early 1768, Hannah and Stoney still required parental consent in order to marry. This was no problem for Stoney, whose father was understandably keen to see his errant son settled. Hannah’s mother, Catherine Newton, proved equally easy to handle. Convinced by Stoney’s conveniently distant claims to fortune, the widow had no suspicions about the charismatic officer her plain daughter introduced as her suitor. More troublesome, Hannah’s inheritance was overseen by guardians who were bound by a clause in her father’s will which stipulated that her future husband must own property providing an income of at least £50 a year to inherit the Newton fortune.18 Just like George Bowes, William Newton had been determined to manipulate his only daughter’s future from beyond the grave. Although Stoney pressed Hannah to elope with him to Gretna Green - only a tantalising day’s journey from Newcastle - he was soon deterred from this plan by the realisation that she would thereby forfeit her inheritance. Further difficulties arose in the shape of Hannah’s uncle, Samuel Newton, who held a half-share in parts of the Burnopfield estate, and who was not so easy to convince. Angling to marry Hannah to his own son, Matthew, and thereby keep his brother’s fortune entirely within the family, he vowed to do all in his power to prevent the match to ‘that damned Irishman’.19
Exhibiting the typical anti-Irish prejudice of the day, Uncle Sam was not alone in branding Irishmen as fortune hunters. A satirical pamphlet published in Dublin in the 1740s went so far as to list the various landed heiresses available for pursuit in England, under the title The Irish Register: or a list of the Duchess Dowagers, Countesses, Widow Ladies, Maiden Ladies, Widows, and Misses of large fortunes in England.20 And the stereotype was not without some foundation, since several Irish landowners and their heirs did cross to Britain in a bid to secure an English heiress as a route to money, power and influence on the mainland. What Uncle Sam could not have predicted was that Andrew Robinson Stoney, fictionalised as Barry Lyndon, would come to epitomise the type.
By March, Stoney was desperate to capture his quarry. Knowing his regiment was shortly due to march northwards to Scotland, he was horrified at the prospect of the Newton riches slipping through his hands. In a series of alternately wheedling and vituperative letters to Tipperary, Stoney begged his father to settle sufficient of the family property on him to satisfy the terms of William Newton’s will.21 When his father declined - well aware of his son’s aversion to maintaining an Irish estate - Stoney staged a revealing piece of play-acting which he gleefully related in his next letter home. Brandishing his father’s refusal to a distressed Hannah and her mother, he made a show of resigning himself to his sorry fate like a true gentleman, releasing Hannah from all obligations to him, then ‘took my Hatt, & wished her a good Morning’. It was all a cunning performance, for as Stoney explained: ‘You may be assured I had no intention of going, for I well knew I would not be permitted. However, with the help of a few Tears, I was prevailed on to remain with her.’ Now he piled the pressure on his father to comply with his request, pleading that only the transfer of the desired property stood between him and ‘a woman I love & regard’ who would, furthermore, ‘be a credit to our family, as well for her accomplishments as, without doubt, a fortune as large - above twenty thousand pounds - as I cou’d ever expect to get.’ Warning that, rather like a livestock investment, ‘so good an opportunity may never happen to any of our family again’, Stoney appealed simultaneously to his father’s romantic instincts and his avarice, arguing that, ‘I love the lady sufficiently well (was I independant) to marry her without any fortune; therefore how much more happy must I be when I can get her with so good a one’.
Further letters followed in rapid succession, as the regiment prepared to march and Stoney grew increasingly fraught. By May George Stoney had relented and was drawing up title deeds for his son, although Hannah’s guardians still needed to be satisfied that the promised property would provide the requisite £50 annual income. As he celebrated his twenty-first birthday in June, being now able to marry as he wished, Stoney secured three months’ leave to stay behind in Newcastle and clinch the deal. Urging his father to hurry with the necessary legal requirements, he pointedly reminded him that ‘a woman a man loves with a fortune of at least Twenty Thousand Pounds should not be trifled with’. If any doubt remained, the capital letters made plain his true interest. On tenterhooks, Stoney continued the expensive business of wooing Hannah and was livid in July when his father’s bankers in Edinburgh refused to honour a bill he had submitted. Protesting to his father, he insisted that his expenses were ‘absolutely necessary for a young man paying his addresses to a Lady with Twenty Thousand Pounds fortune’. Itemising costs which must have horrified the penny-pinching farmer, Stoney explained: ‘I have attended with this lady at all Publick divertions within fifty miles of Newcastle, I have had two Horses, it has cost about Fifty Pounds for different presents, besides at first Fees to servants, & many other expenses attending such a scheme.’ With an agent now despatched to Ireland by Hannah’s guardians to check out her suitor’s supposed means, Stoney was more anxious than ever to secure his father’s compliance, assuring him that once married his only wish was ‘to be settled near my parents’.
By now Stoney’s mask was beginning to fall. Having written what even he admitted was an ‘extremely rude’ letter to the bank, he was forced to eat humble pie and write them an apology in September. The pain this afforded him says much about his uncompromising self-belief. ‘I do assure you it hurts my spirit not a little,’ he told his father, ‘as I believe it to be the first acknowledgement I ever made in my life, except to a Parent; which, perhaps, you will say I am nothing the better for.’ But he could not contain his fury at such indignity since, as he complained to his father, if news that he had had a bill refused had become known in Newcastle ‘many people here would have been happy at the account’ which would have lent credence to their ‘unjust Reports’. Evidently Stoney’s high-handed conduct and transparent aims had generated unsavoury rumours and spawned enemies in the city which had so recently welcomed him. He dealt with them in the manner which would become customary to him: brutally. ‘I think they are now at an end,’ he informed his father, ‘though I believe it to be more owing to fear than regard to me, as I have brought every person that I could find out that mentioned my name to a severe account, & obliged them to beg my Pardon in the most penitent manner.’
Hints were emerging that even Hannah herself now harboured doubts about her impetuous beau for she had expressed a desire to settle near Greyfort after the marriage, Stoney wrote, ‘in order to have my Father to govern me’. There was little danger that George Stoney would ever govern his eldest son, but then neither did Stoney have any intention of moving back to Ireland. However, as Hannah’s guardians had finally declared themselves satisfied with the young ensign’s credentials, there was no going back. Indeed, as Stoney had skilfully made certain, the young lovers had been so much in each other’s company that - according to Georgian society’s strict codes of conduct - their marriage was ‘looked upon as impossible to be avoided with propriety on either side’. Ordered to rejoin his regiment by mid-October, Stoney begged his obliging uncle, Colonel Robinson, to secure him a few more crucial weeks’ leave, ‘for it is impossible I can think of going before I
am marry’d’. With his paralysed prey just within his grasp, Stoney was even prepared to resign from the regiment rather than leave Newcastle a bachelor.
At last, on 5 November 1768, Stoney hurried Hannah down the aisle of St Andrew’s Church in Newcastle to sign the marriage register and seal her destiny. Just eighteen months after he had breached the city walls, the young soldier had captured one of the town’s richest heiresses and claimed his fortune - for under Georgian law, as Stoney well knew, every last item of Hannah’s property now belonged entirely to him, at least during her lifetime. The local newspapers reported the match, with full details of the prize, almost with incredulity. ‘Saturday was married in this town, Mr And. Robison [sic] Stoney, an ensign in the fourth regiment of foot, to Miss Newton, daughter of the late Mr Will. Newton; a young lady possessed of a very large fortune,’ announced the Newcastle Journal, while the Newcastle Chronicle referred to the bridegroom as ‘Capt. Stoney’, a title which the ensign found he rather liked.22 Writing to his father on his wedding day, Stoney announced: ‘I have the pleasure to inform my dear Father that my long-wished-for Happiness was this morning compleated by adding to our Family a woman whom I have reason to think will in every particular be agreeable.’23 Obsequiously respectful for the most part - for he was still drawing bills on his father’s account - Stoney let his guard drop momentarily in declaring that the estate his father had dutifully bought for the newly weds was ‘not worth sixpence’. Confident that his father would ‘find some more advantageous Purchase for us’, Stoney enclosed a promissory note for £500, to cover the large amounts he owed his father, which he hoped to be in a position to honour shortly. It was never drawn.
There was scarcely time to move his few belongings into his new family seat at Cole Pike Hill in County Durham, and survey the surrounding farms and valuable woodland he now owned, before Stoney had to kiss his bride goodbye and dash north to rejoin his regiment in Scotland.24 At just twenty-one, the ensign had become a wealthy landowner and a member of the gentry with farms and mines guaranteed to provide a handsome quarterly income. By Christmas he was celebrating his newfound riches and status with his army fellows in Edinburgh.
Money opened many doors. Marching across the Scottish lowlands, quartered in taverns during the harsh winter, under canvas in summer, Stoney could afford to employ a valet, one John Smith, to assume the laborious tasks of looking after his uniform and tending to his horses. But riches did nothing to smooth his temper. Setting out from Perth to Stirling at one point in 1769, Stoney horsewhipped Smith because - Stoney claimed - he was too drunk to continue the march. When the valet threatened to bring the law on him, Stoney was so incensed that he gave him a ‘few more lashes with his whip’ for insolence. Smith’s complaint - it is not clear to which court or what the outcome was - did nothing to hinder his master’s advancement. At the end of the year, Stoney was promoted to lieutenant and shortly afterwards transferred to the 30th Regiment of Foot.25
For all his preferment, Stoney saw little of military life during his army career. By dint of his fortune and his influence with his high-ranking military relatives, he was frequently granted leave from his regiment to tend to his business matters in England and Ireland. So while the regiment built roads and aided civil forces in Scotland in 1769 and 1770, Stoney visited Ireland, presumably to introduce his ‘agreeable’ wife to the Stoney clan, although needless to say, the newly weds did not settle near Greyfort.26 Dividing the remainder of his time between Newcastle and Bath - where Hannah frequently repaired for her health - he left his Durham estates in the hands of agents. The first agent, who managed the farms and mines from the manor hall at Cole Pike Hill - commonly described as Cold Pig Hill - happened to be Rowland Stephenson, whose two brothers both worked at Gibside only eight miles away.
Squandering the income collected from his farms and mines, Stoney dealt meanly with his agents and dodged demands from his creditors. While Stoney enjoyed elegant lodgings and fine food in Bath, Rowland Stephenson grumbled into his accounts over the £5 - a huge sum to a poor family - his master had refused to pay him for accommodation.27 Stephenson did not live to grumble much longer; he died in 1770 and was succeeded by another unfortunate agent, Robert Morrow. When storms prevented the coal-carrying ships from leaving the Tyne for longer than normal one bleak winter - spreading destitution throughout the region - Stoney pressed his agent to harass the starving tenants for their rents. Morrow, who was faring little better than the desperate tenants, pledged to try his best but warned that ‘a general poverty reigns amongst us’.28 And while Stoney ran up hefty bills for new items of uniform and other luxuries he led his creditors a merry chase for payment. One poor trader pursued him for a bill of £100 over several years.29 While running up large amounts of credit was commonplace and widely accepted in the eighteenth century, especially among the land-rich, cash-poor aristocracy, Stoney saw it as a matter of principle never to settle a debt until creditors either gave up or threatened him with imprisonment. Often, it was later said, he would jingle loose change in his pockets when making a purchase to hoodwink traders into believing he was flush with cash.30 But if Stoney’s tenants, servants and creditors suffered under his severe regime, they would count themselves lucky compared to his wife.
How soon Hannah Newton discovered the true nature of the adoring officer she believed she was marrying is unknown. None of her correspondence has survived; her voice is unheard. But certainly she was unwell within three years of her marriage and when not accompanying her husband to Ireland or sharing lodgings in Newcastle, she spent much of her time at Bath, presumably to take the health-giving waters. The nature of her illness, mentioned in letters between Stoney and his family, was never revealed. Young as she was, there were any number of lingering infectious diseases or chronic conditions to which she may have fallen victim, tuberculosis being among the most common, although equally she may have suffered complications from pregnancy and miscarriage. Without a doubt her husband exacerbated, if not physically caused, her long-running sickness.
Rumours about Stoney’s mistreatment of his wife abounded. One anonymous pamphlet entitled The Stoniad, which would be published in Newcastle in 1777, accused him of ruthlessly beating and abusing Hannah while squandering her fortune. Having hoodwinked her into marriage by feigned declarations of love and false claims to wealth and ancestry, Stoney had made Hannah’s life wretched, the poem declared. Rhetorically, it enquired: ‘What had she done such violence to cause?/Was she not faithful as REBECCA was?/Did she not give thee all that mortal cou’d,/Bear thee to bruise her head and shed her blood.’ While The Stoniad was doubtless motivated by political ends - published as it was when Stoney was seeking electoral support - Jessé Foot, writing some years later, cited two letters from correspondents living in Newcastle in the 1770s who testified to Stoney’s brutality towards Hannah.31 One of them recorded that he ‘treated her in a most cruel manner’ to the extent that he ‘shortened her days’. ‘She bore the character of being a very good woman,’ said Foot’s informant, ‘which in all probability increased her sensibility, upon feeling her melancholy lot from the choice she had made.’ Foot’s second letter writer remembered that Stoney ‘behaved like a brute and a savage to his wife, and in a short time, broke her heart’. On one occasion he locked Hannah in a cupboard in just her underwear and kept her there for three days, allowing her only an egg a day for sustenance. Another time, attending a public meeting together in Newcastle, he threw Hannah down a flight of stairs ‘in a violent fit of rage’. Generally more discreet in company, Stoney usually made a show of treating his wife with studied kindness but ‘knew secret ways of provoking her’ so that when she complained he would appeal to his guests as if to say she was impossible to please. His second wife would become well accustomed to such tricks. ‘He made a very bad husband,’ said Foot’s informant, ‘and she was a most wretched wife, and brought no children alive into the world; which he much desired for his own sake.’
Providing Stoney with an heir was of crucial importance. During Hannah’s lifetime, the law gave him complete control over his wife and all her belongings but should she die, all her property would pass to her nearest male heir - currently her Uncle Samuel or his descendants. Since the terms of her father’s will gave Hannah only a life interest in the estate, supervised by trustees, Stoney was unable to sell any of the property and realise his capital in that way. The only route by which Stoney could be certain of retaining future control over the Newton fortune was by fathering an heir to inherit the estate; this would entitle him to maintain his right to the property throughout his own lifetime. So for all his apparent distaste for his sensitive young wife, Stoney made sure to exact his conjugal rights.
It seems Hannah became pregnant at least once, and possibly several times, during their marriage but no child was born alive. On one occasion, according to the second of Foot’s correspondents, Stoney paid the bellringers of St Nicholas’s Church in Newcastle in an effort to proclaim that a stillborn baby had initially survived. Quite possibly Hannah’s frequent visits to Bath were to seek treatment for her failed pregnancies or even to boost her fertility; Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, would stay there in 1782 in the hope that the waters would help her to fall pregnant.32Quite probably Stoney’s brutality contributed to Hannah’s difficulties; it is common for abusive men to mistreat their partners more severely than usual during pregnancy.
When Stoney finally retired from the army in 1771, gaining himself half-pay for life while ensuring he would miss out on the next military conflict - the American War of Independence - the violence at home continued unabated. That summer his decadent lifestyle and unbridled temper caused even his normally indulgent relatives some alarm. Writing from his regimental quarters in Scotland, Captain Robert Johnston, his mother’s brother, meekly encouraged Stoney: ‘If you should alter your way of life, it will require all your resolution, as nothing is so difficult as to get the better of any habit.’33 Good-naturedly confessing to his own less than spotless past, Uncle Robert added: ‘I have gone through many scenes of debauchery and yet I always had the greatest faith and trust in the Almighty God at intervals.’ Evidently, Hannah was at that point recovering either from another bout of illness or a failed pregnancy, for Uncle Robert was ‘very happy to hear Mrs Stoney is better’. Chillingly, he added, ‘be assured its your interest she should continue to get so’. But Uncle Robert was equally conscious of the desire for an heir, pointing out that if Stoney decided to live alone at Cole Pike Hill - as he had seemingly suggested - he would need to bear the expense of ‘going backwards and forwards continually at Bath until that event happens’. The following spring, in March 1772, Stoney was with Hannah in Bath - perhaps on one of his conjugal visits - for Uncle Robert had heard that his expenses there were ‘great’. A year later, in May 1773, Uncle Robert tentatively enquired: ‘Let me know how you and Mrs Stoney are, and particularly what state of health the worthy little woman is in’. Stoney was only too well aware of his wife’s worth. Having now settled at Cole Pike Hill, as debts mounted and the Newton fortune drained away, Stoney was casting around for a new way to raise funds. He did not need to look far for inspiration.
Only a few months earlier, in December 1772, Hannah had made a will which bequeathed land worth £5,000 to her husband if no children were born of their marriage before her death. Evidently Stoney had thought it prudent to make contingency measures in case Hannah died without providing the requisite heir.34 But with the sickly Hannah confounding fate by lingering on in the spring of 1773, Stoney desperately needed an alternative source of income. Striding about his estate at Cole Pike Hill his eyes fell on the surrounding ancient wood-lands. Sold for timber, the splendid oak trees could fetch a handsome sum. Stoney lost no time in advertising this prize asset, placing a notice on the front page of the Newcastle Chronicle seeking offers for ‘about fifteen Hundred Old OAK TREES, now standing and growing at Coldpighill’. There was just one problem: Uncle Sam. Furious at the interloper who had not only seduced his niece but now planned to lay waste the lands which he still hoped might descend to his son, Samuel Newton leapt into action. The following week - and for the week after that - Stoney’s advertisement appeared again but this time with a notice underneath it in which Newton warned that he would prosecute any bidder. Determined to safeguard the cherished property of his ancestors, Newton sought an injunction from the Court of Chancery in London to prevent Stoney selling any timber.35 The bill of complaint affords a revealing insight into Stoney’s bag of tricks, for Newton complained that both Stoney and Hannah had by turns claimed that her father had died without leaving a will or had owned his property ‘in fee simple’, meaning without restriction, allowing it be sold. The outcome of the case went unrecorded - as did many Chancery suits - although the fact that Samuel and Matthew Newton were declared bankrupt later that year doubtless invalidated their claim. It was the first, but by no means the last, of Stoney’s brushes with the lumbering Chancery system.
In debt once more and increasingly desperate for both immediate money and long-term security, in 1775 Stoney demanded his father buy back the Irish land George Stoney had been inveigled to give the couple before their marriage. In a demonically abusive letter, which may well have been written when drunk, Stoney thanked his father for his ‘flattering epistle’ which ‘contained more Blasphemy under the cloak of enthusiastick Religion than I ever before observe in the compass of one sheet of paper’ and which Stoney could only attribute to the ‘Idea that Reason and you are for ever parted’.36 Rambling incoherently in places, he speculated that his father might live ten more years then added: ‘I had like to forget that I myself am mortal. Apropros, pray how old am I?’ Branding his father ‘an Object of Pity’ and one of his uncles ‘the Lordling’, he urged that the desired purchase be quickly concluded as he was never ‘happy when in Debt’. Writing from Bath, he concluded with the ominous news that Hannah had been sent to Bristol - presumably on doctors’ orders to try the Hotwell waters there - ‘and is now there - I fear for ever.’
Stoney had been prematurely pessimistic, however, for a month later he was back in Newcastle sporting a brand new regimental coat sent up from one of the best tailors in London in time for the Durham Races.37 He was in celebratory mood, for whether the waters of Bristol or Bath had taken effect, Hannah was pregnant again. Finally the prospect of handing down an English country estate to generations of little Stoneys - and in the meantime taking full control of those assets himself - seemed within his grasp. It was not to be. On 11 March 1776, giving birth at Cole Pike Hill, Hannah died. Anxiously awaiting the cry of a baby, his heir and passport to fortune, Stoney heard only silence - the baby had died alongside her. There were few mourners as Hannah was buried three days later in the graveyard of the little parish church where she had been baptised only twenty-eight years earlier. Her grieving mother, still surviving on a widow’s pension, would follow her to the grave less than a year later. Two days after the burial, the Newcastle Journal published Stoney’s notice announcing that his ‘lady’ had died ‘in child bed’.38 That much the newspaper’s readers, perusing the columns in the city’s taverns and coffee-houses, might believe. But they knew it was stretching credulity when he went on to claim that she was ‘much lamented’. For the rumours which had already swirled around the town’s narrow streets and market stalls, accusing Stoney of making Hannah’s life a misery, now blamed him squarely for her death. Before long The Stoniad would even allege he should have been tried for her murder. ‘Did she not die and leave thee UNARRAIGN’D?’ the satirical verse accused before adding: ‘Behold poor N*wt** stretch’d upon her Bier!’
It mattered little to her widower. He stayed in the north-east only long enough to prove Hannah’s will, by which he lawfully received a lump sum of £5,000 and unlawfully claimed possession of Cole Pike Hill. Handsomely sporting a brand new suit of scarlet regimentals, his sword swinging by his side, ‘Captain’ Stoney - as he now described himself - was gaily heading south, on the lookout for a suitable second wife.