Social connectedness in 1860’s Britain


A nineteenth century British politician – I think it was Disraeli – once referred to the ‘ten thousand’ – essentially the mixture of upper middle class people and members of the aristocracy who actually ran things.

And it’s true – one keeps on coming across the same names time and time again – the governing class of the British state was a pretty small group.

Recently I’ve been having a look at the Yelverton case – story that you really couldn’t make up.

When she was 19, Theresa Yelverton, the Catholic daughter of a successful Manchester textile manufacturer, spied Major Charles Yelverton, an Irish aristocrat, on a cross channel ferry and instantly fell in love with him.

It obviously wasn’t a passing fancy, as she later followed him to the Crimea, where she worked as a nurse during the Crimean war.

Theresa maintained that she did not have sex with Yelverton until after they were married, while Yelverton alleged that they had a torrid few days on the SS Great Britain, which was being used as a troopship, while travelling between Balaklava and Constantinople.

The couple then returned to Scotland where Charles had become commander of Leith Fort.

Theresa said that the couple then married privately in Edinburgh. At the time ‘marriage by declaration’ was still valid in Scotland – essentially, if you said you were married, acted as if you were married, you were married as far as the law was concerned – essentially ‘marriage by declaration’ functioned as an early form of civil partnership and a means of accommodating various informal relationships, particularly among the rural poor.

The couple then had their marriage blessed by a Catholic priest in Ireland. Ireland did not require the legal registration marriages until 1864, meaning that there was possibly no record of either marriage.

So far so good.

But Charles had been seeing another woman, Emily Forbes, the daughter of an army general, and the widow of  Professor Edward Forbes, a professor of Natural History at Edinburgh. (There is a suggestion that Emily Forbes also worked as nurse in the Crimea, but I havn’t been able to confirm this.)

In 1858, while Theresa was recovering in France from a miscarriage, Charles married Emily.

Theresa sued Charles for bigamy. Charles’s defence was that as a member of the protestant Anglo Irish aristocracy, he was legally forbidden from marrying a Catholic, and anyway, show me proof, and of course there was none.

Charles denied everything. However Theresa persisted. Charles offered to pay for her to go to New Zealand, which some saw as tantamount to an admission of guilt.

A court in Ireland ruled that the marriage was valid, as did a court in Edinburgh. Charles then appealed to the English House of Lords, which ruled in his favour.

The case had great legal implications – in Scotland it lead to the end of ‘marriage by declaration’ and in Ireland it helped the cause of Catholic emancipation and lead to marriages between Catholics and Protestants being legally recognised.

But remember the rough connectedness diagram at the top of this post?

Theresa Longworth, as a nurse in the Crimea, was probably known to Florence Nightingale, as would have been Emily Forbes if she indeed served as a nurse in the Crimea.

Emily, via her first husband, would have had acquaintance of both Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin with whom her husband corresponded.

More importantly her husband was mentor to Thomas Huxley, later known as Darwin’s Bulldog for his spirited defence of the theory of evolution, and helped him publish his discoveries which he had made in the late 1840’s as ship’s naturalist on HMS Rattlesnake in its voyage up the coast of Queensland and on to what is now PNG.

HMS Rattlesnake also served as support to Edmund Kennedy’s ill starred expedition to Cape York, and was commanded by Owen Stanley, after whom the range in PNG is named.

So, basically we can say that scratch hard enough, and everyone in the governing class of 1860’s Britain was connected in some way or another…

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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