Mystery of the Marsh

J.F. Smith’s Mystery of the Marsh — Twenty-ninth instalment

Abducting two heiresses with a view to forcing them into marriage is not as unbelievable as it may appear. Though the Victorians may be said to have “pioneered the emancipation of women” in substantial ways (Perkin), the status of women’s rights in law per se remained debatable. The question raised is whether the letter of the law might have been manipulable  to such an extent as to enable the travesty that Smith depicts. And I suspect it might.

In his pamphlet The Subjection of Women (1860), John Stuart Mill points to the historical roots of the issue:

By the old laws of England the husband was lord, and his murder by the wife was accounted petty treason, to be avenged by burning to death. And to this day the wife is the legal and actual bond-servant  of her husband in all matter short of crime. She can acquire no property but for him; her inheritance becomes his. […]

Women may, in fact, be treated better than slaves; but hardly any slave is a slave at all hours, and in Christian countries a female had the right to refuse her master the last familiarity. Not so a wife. However brutal, her husband can claim from her the degradation of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclination.

Our two kidnappers clearly embody such an underlying contempt of their victims, and some understanding that ultimately their deeds will be vindicated in law — all they need to do, they believe, is become their husbands. (The idea of the sacred indissolubility of marriage had lurked around since the middle ages [Perkin].)

Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753, intended as an impediment to “clandestine marriages,” strengthened the requirements of publication of banns or obtaining of licenses in formalizing marriages. The Act stipulated a requirement for minors to obtain the consent of parents or guardians  — which includes Lady Kate, who is “scarcely fifteen” (Chapter Four; the age of majority being twenty-one). In the absence of such requirements, weddings could be declared null and void, and ministers who had celebrated them transported for fourteen years. Being in effect until 1823, the 1753 Act would cover Kate’s and Clara’s planned forced double-wedding.

One ostensive motivation behind Hardwicke’s “Clandestine Marriage Act” was to prevent “outrageously fraudulent  or coercive marriages” (Lemmings, 346), mostly involving the entrapment of underage heirs and heiresses by predatory fortune hunters. The oft-quoted proponent of the Act, Attorney General Sir Dudley Ryder appealed for action

guarding against the many artful contrivances set on foot to seduce young gentlemen and ladies of fortune, and to draw them into improper, perhaps infamous marriages (Parliamentary History, xv, 1-2, 11; qtd. Lemmings)

This brings to mind Lady Montague’s obsession with the scandal that threatened to attach itself to Kate after her initial escape (e.g., Chapter 6; note the “infamous” in Sir Dudley’s quotation, above).

Fortune hunting was in vogue leading up to the era of our interest.  A directory of rich “duchess dowagers” was published in 1742, containing a list of likely targets, with their names, addresses, ranks, and reputed fortunes in cash and stocks (Anon).

But some historians argue that the proponents’ hidden agenda behind the 1753 Act was, in fact, directed against the rise of “affective individualism” — a strengthening trend for upper-class matches in particular to be based upon personal selection (for example, romantic or sexual attraction) rather than in conformance with the economically and politically motivated plans of the parents (See Probert; Lemmings).

For this reason, elopement became a common occurrence during the Regency — even motivating the invention of a board game:  “A Trip to Gretna Green. Designed & invented to enliven the winter evenings of 1820”.

“A Trip to Gretna Green” board game (1820). Source: Borrowed from

The Las Vegas of its day, Gretna Green was a Scottish village not far across the border, where the 1753 Act could be dodged.

These concerns revolve around parental consent. Viscount Allworth’s consent may well have been forthcoming, had not the role of Kate’s guardian been transferred to Lady Montague (Chapter 8); Sir George Marsham’s certainly would not. But we can only wonder at what contrivance the villains have in mind for coercing the two girls’ own consent in this affair, some sham “elopement” of their devising.

Regarding heiresses abducted for their fortunes, some obscure instances do exist. (See, for example, some researched from the British Newspaper Archive by Naomi Clifford.)

One extremely famous case is worth mentioning for interest’s sake, particularly in respect of its grey issues of consent, elopement and the abduction and coercion of minors. Smith could not have been unaware of this, one of the most famous abduction cases “in the annals of British trials” (Harrop).

In 1816, nineteen year-old lawyer and diplomat Edward Gibbon Wakefield eloped with seventeen year-old Eliza Ann Pattle, a ward of Chancery and heiress with an inheritance of 50,000 pounds. Eliza died in 1820, having borne two children. Six years later he abducted a fifteen year-old heiress, Ellen Turner, from her school and fled with her to be married, against the wishes of her family. He was apprehended, tried, and imprisoned in Newgate. The marriage was annulled.

Elopement and abduction overlap significantly when the bride is underage. Wakefield’s own disturbing court testimony of how the elopement played out points to the powerful influence he wielded over her. Note that the two had never met prior to the day of the abduction. After Wakefield had well cased-out his target, he wrote to her schoolmistress that Ellen’s mother was ill and that Ellen’s father was sending him to collect her.  The following is an excerpt of what transpired in his carriage on the way to Gretna Green:

She seemed gratified to learn that her mother was not ill, and neither expressed, nor showed, the slightest anxiety to know more.  I then exerted every power of my mind to amuse and please her. My great object was to draw her out; to see what sort of a mind she had; to learn what had been her education, and what were her opinions, manners, habits. … A state of high excitement caused my spirits to overflow. She was almost equally elated. […]

Marriages, it is said, are made in Heaven. Ours was made by the first two hours of our conversation. No one can imagine the pains that I took to know my future wife; and, finding her, as I did, all that is delightful, how I strove to interest her, and to make her pleased with me. That I succeeded there can be no doubt; for when, having made up my mind to propose marriage to her, I asked her whether she knew where she was going. She said, “No, but I suppose you do? and I do not wish to be told. I rather enjoy the uncertainty.”


We witness a vast evolution in attitudes between that time and ours, such that Wakefield had no need to engage in the complicated evasions that rich and powerful sexual predators of the modern day must. During his time in prison, he became enthused with the study of emigration. After serving a three-year term, he was able to put his new formulations on colonization into practice, and became a “founding father” of both New Zealand and South Australia. He most recently popped up in the Australian media in 2018, when moves were afoot to rename the South Australian electorate of Wakefield on account of his stain.

Dawson Watson; A Sketch in the Shire Hall (Trial of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, 1826); The Shire Hall, Lancaster Castle;


Trust and Distrust — Shifting Points in the Compass — Arrival of Parson Sly in the Marsh — The Captives Discover a Friend

After the payment of the five hundred pounds to the man named Smith, all doubts disappeared from the minds of the confederate ruffians as to his fidelity. Without appearing too zealous, he had an eye for everything, and made several valuable suggestions. Amongst others, he pointed out the wisdom of seeing the tower well provisioned. As for water, there was no fear of that giving out; the well in the interior of the building afforded an unfailing supply.

‘The idea is not a bad one,’ observed Clarence Marsham, when it was first broached to him, ‘although scarcely, necessary, I think. In a few hours the clergyman will arrive, and then —’

‘A few hours!’ repeated the agent. ‘A kingdom, sir, has been lost in less time! If, as I presume, the ladies are of high family, and wealthy — for you would scarcely have incurred so much trouble and expense for two poor girls — their friends may move the government to interfere.’

‘It must discover our hiding-place first,’ suggested Burcham. ‘Once married all danger to ourselves personally will be at an end.’

‘I understand that, sir,’ said the man; ‘but how about your agents? They will have no high and wealthy connections to screen them.’

‘They must shift for themselves,’ answered Clarence, in a tone of indifference. ‘They have been well paid for their services. But act as you think best. If that infernal parson would only arrive,’ he added; ‘the rest would be easy. The men below are staunch.’

‘I doubt but one,’ observed his adviser thoughtfully; ‘the young fellow they call Benoni, who boasted last night that if you married the mistress he would marry the servant — Susan, I think he called the girl. Now, I have taken a fancy for the girl myself.’

‘Have you spoken with her?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Pooh! Benoni is only a boy.’

‘But a very sly one,’ observed the fellow, dryly.

‘Sly or not,’ said the squire, ‘he is insolent. Deal with him as you think fit. Watch him.’

‘Pike and Bilk are doing that,’ replied the man. ‘They dog him like his shadow. You see, gentlemen, I know how to take my precautions.’

‘You are in earnest, then?’

‘Never more so. Perhaps I might do better — can’t tell. My plan has this advantage, once my wife, she will swear to anything I wish her.

‘Excellent!’ exclaimed both the conspirators.

‘Yes, yes,’ exclaimed their confederate. ‘I know a thing or two.’

Evidently, he did. A long life of crime could scarcely have taught him more; and yet to all appearances, the speaker was not over forty.

Although he never displayed the slightest feeling of sympathy for the poor captives, whom he had secretly seen since they were brought to their prison-house, he unwittingly did them one piece of service. On two occasions when the unmanly persecutors would have forced themselves into their presence he prevented them — the first time by quietly asking if it was their way of winning the girls’ affection; the second, by observing it was more than likely to throw the youngest into a brain fever.’

Clarence brutally declared that he should not much care for that, provided she were once his wife.

‘Of course not,’ said the ruffian, whose cynicism exceeded the speaker’s; ‘that is perfectly understood. Still, I don’t think it would be wise. The girl has had a narrow escape — thanks to some beverage the old woman below brewed for her. It is my opinion,’ he added — ‘not that I care a rush whether you follow it or not — that is your affair, I am already paid — merely this: When the parson arrives, and everything is prepared for the ceremony, the brides will be more likely to yield to a sudden terror than one they are familiar with.’

This reasoning, dictated by common sense, prevailed, and the helpless girls were spared the presence of the two beings in the world whom they most feared and loathed.

‘A very sharp fellow,’ observed Burcham, as the speaker quitted the room. We were wrong to suspect him,’

‘Perfectly satisfied of that,’ replied Clarence. ‘And yet I do not blame myself. We are playing for high stakes, and it is our last throw, and it would be madness to give a chance away.’

‘Little fear of that,’ said his friend.

We begin to fear so too.

Suspicion is inseparable from crime — follows it like its shadow — rises with it in the morning, hovers round it during the day, rests with it at night, making its presence felt in fits and starts of broken sleep and horrid dreams. Where conscience finds no voice, suspicion becomes its avenger; and it is well it should be so. Unlike the shadows cast by the sun, it rarely falls in the right places, but seems to take delight in baffling and misleading.

The cunning rascals forgot in their calculations that such fidelity as they relied upon may be bought and sold over and over again. In fact, it is never out of the market, and never will be so long as there are fools and knaves ready to bid for it.

Satisfied that they had nothing to apprehend from the inmates of the tower, Clarence and the squire confined their attention to the approach of danger from the outside. Several times during the day they made their rounds, peering through the strongly-barred loopholes to ascertain if any doubtful persons were within sight.

Portrait of Mary Squires (19th c). Extracted from Wilkinson. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On the last occasion they discovered a wretchedly clad, forlorn-looking female standing close to the huge boulder.

‘Who is she?’ inquired Burcham of the schoolmaster, who accompanied them.

‘One of old Nance’s patients, most probably,’ answered the old man. ‘I think that I have seen her face before. Yes, it must be so. That is the spot where they generally wait the coming of the woman, for I seldom allow them to set foot within the building.’

‘A wise precaution,’ said Clarence.

‘All precautions are wise,’ observed Theophilus Blackmore. Look! She sees us, and is holding up a letter. Shall I send Nance to fetch it?’

It was the very thing the conspirators would have suggested, but coming from the source it did, they hesitated.

‘No,’ said the squire, after consulting his companion by a glance. ‘Send Smith to us.’

The master walked quietly away, and in a few minutes the confidential agent was at their side.

‘What is it, gentlemen?’ he asked.

They pointed to the female.

‘Doubtless some beggar,’ said the speaker; ‘and yet I scarcely think she would expect to find charity in a place like this.’

‘I tell you no!’ exclaimed Marsham, impatiently. ‘It is a letter. See how earnestly she waves it. Doubtless for me.’

‘Then why the deuce don’t you go and receive it, sir?’

‘I shall not leave the tower for a single instant,’ answered the young ruffian, doggedly. ‘Neither will my friend. It would not be prudent at such a moment.’

Their accomplice smiled.

‘Curse the fellow!’ muttered the speaker to himself. ‘Does he think I am afraid? No,’ he added aloud, ‘you take it.’

‘Why the deuce did you not order me, sir, to do so at first?’ observed the man. ‘All this fuss about a letter —’

The rest of the speech was lost as he walked away to execute his instructions.

That fellow is a treasure,’ remarked the squire.

‘Rather an expensive one,’ added his companion, in whose mind the payment of the five hundred pounds still rankled.

After waiting several minutes they saw their messenger walk leisurely towards the boulder and enter into conversation with the woman, who, on receiving several pieces of money, gave him the paper, which he thrust into his pocket, but still continued to speak with her.

‘Why does he not come back? What can they have to chatter about? He has got the letter, and that is enough. I should like to overhear them.’

So, doubtless, would some of our readers.

At last the two speakers, without the slightest appearance of hurry or confusion, walked behind the Druid’s Stone, and were completely hidden from the sight of the watchers.

The eyes of Clarence flashed with re-awakened suspicions.

‘Follow me,’ he said. ‘I fear we have trusted him too soon. I must end or confirm my doubts at once.’

Burcham had taken alarm also, and accompanied him at once to the lower portion of the tower, from whence, after arming themselves, they started forth to seek the supposed traitor.

All this necessarily occupied some little time.

On approaching the boulder the excited watchers met the object of their suspicions walking tranquilly towards them on his way back.

‘So, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘you have ventured out of your shell.’

The taunt rendered them more furious than they were before. Whatever the speaker’s game, if he had one, he played it skillfully, exciting their doubts one instant, quieting them the next, and so keeping them in a state of continued uncertainty, rendering a cool judgment of his conduct, as well as motives, impossible.

He saw that his employers were armed — that their suspicions were once more aroused; but his coolness never for an instant deserted him. From the self-possessed air with which he met them, one would have thought he bore a charmed life.

‘Villain!’ shouted Clarence, ‘where is the woman?’

‘Did you speak to me, sir?’ answered the man in a tone of surprise.

‘To whom else? Where is she?’

‘Gone. But I have the letter.’

Burcham repeated the word ‘gone.’

‘And the man with her,’ added the messenger.

‘Man!’ exclaimed both the conspirators. ‘We saw no man.’

‘Strange if you had,’ was the reply, ‘unless your eyes could see through yonder boulder, where he had hid himself. The female could scarcely venture through the Marsh without protection and a guide of some kind. Having conducted her thus far, the fellow hid himself.’

‘And why should he hide himself?’

‘Prudence, I suppose,’ answered the messenger. ‘Surely, sir, you will not blame him for that.’

This was addressed to Clarence Marsham, who felt the sneer.

‘Gentlemen,’ added the speaker, ‘I am tired of these alternate fits of confidence and suspicion, which, like the attacks of an intermittent fever, blow hot one moment, and become cold the next. There is the letter. You had better dismiss me at once. I can find my way to the creek where the vessel which brought us from Dinant lies at anchor.’

Clarence snatched the letter from his hand, and perused it eagerly, whilst the squire covered the bearer of it with his pistol.

‘All right,’ said his friend, after he had read it. ‘It is from my mother.’

Turning to the object of his suspicion, he commenced what doubtless was intended as an apology for his mistrust.’

‘My good fellow —’

‘Bah!’ ejaculated the man. ‘I want no fine words. I know the exact value of them. Discovered that yon have made fools of yourselves? Say no more about it.’

‘You, are angry,’ observed Burcham. ‘I scarcely wonder at it.’

‘Certainly I am not pleased.’

‘Place yourself in our position,’ added Marsham — ‘fortune, reputation, possibly life, depending on the issue of our plans — and you will scarcely blame us. Not being a gentleman, of course you cannot estimate the feelings which agitate us, the fears which distract us. Our purpose once accomplished, you will find no further cause of complaint.’

‘It is your money that I look to. I care not for your suspicions.’

‘They are dissipated,’ continued Clarence. ‘Listen to me. The clergyman who is to perform the marriage ceremony is in the Marsh. I have sure information of that, and this sight must seal or mar my fortunes. Like most of his cloth, he is careful of his personal safety, and hesitates to advance further without a guide. From the few lines written on the back of the letter you have brought me I find he is at the cottage of a fellow named Tim Sawter. Do you understand me?’

‘Clearly, sir.’

‘You will find the place and bring him to the tavern.’

‘I, sir?’ exclaimed his hearer, in a tone of surprise and a glance which expressed anything but satisfaction. ‘Had you not better go yourself, or send your friend?’

‘No,’ replied the former. ‘We give no chance away.’

‘It is scarcely in the bond,’ replied the man after, a few moments’ deliberation; ‘but I will not disappoint you. Of course, you will consider the extra trouble and risk?’

‘Mercenary rascal!’ muttered his employer between his teeth. ‘All he cares for is money.’

The reproach was rather a singular one, coming as it did from one who had already bartered honour and manhood from the same vile motive; for the virtue and beauty of Lady Kate had failed to produce any feeling akin to love in the thing he called his heart.

The human wolves had held their council, and all three returned to their lair, where they passed the rest of the day in restless watchings.

So minute were their precautions that the squire and Marsham insisted that their now trusted agent should accompany old Nance when she brought refreshments to their prisoners, whose mental sufferings may be more easily understood than described.

Even the courage of Susan began to give way. Again and again she repeated to herself the old wish ‘O! that Goliah were here.’

It was some slight consolation to the captives that their persecutors had not separated them. They were still together in the same vaulted chamber — wretched, disconsolate, and hopeless. Hitherto they had refused to partake of food, unless in the shape of milk. Clara thought she would be able to detect anything like a drug in that. Even bread had been rejected on account of the nameless fear that haunted them.

The cousins were greatly changed. Twenty-four hours’ suffering, both mental and physical, had traced dark circles round the blue eyes of Kate. Her features were colourless as marble. Those of Miss Meredith were equally pale; but the expression of resolute will had not yet deserted them.

The captives spoke but little. Hope seemed to have abandoned them, and so they sat, each gazing in the countenance of the other in mute despair. Now and then a tear stole down the cheeks of Kate, but she seemed perfectly unconscious of its presence. Such tears offered no relief.

The door opened, and the woman Nance appeared, followed by Smith, bearing a tray laden with refreshments, which he placed upon the table, then folded his arms, and stood silently contemplating them.

‘You need not leave it,’ observed Clara. ‘We shall not eat.’

‘You must,’ said the female. ‘Nature cannot sustain itself unassisted. You doubt me? I scarcely wonder at it. There are times when I almost mistrust myself; but I am not so wicked as you think me. Have you forgotten the draught which arrested the fever already burning in the veins of your friend? It saved her life.’

‘In the interest of your wretched employers,’ answered Miss Meredith. ‘Yes, I can understand that. Your pretended pity cannot deceive me.’

Nance turned to her companion, and whispered: ‘What am I to do or say?’

The man hesitated for an instant, and then pronounced the name of Susan.

The startled girl regarded him with surprise.

‘Come to me,’ he added, in an altered voice.

To the astonishment of the cousins their humble friend obeyed, walking slowly and hesitatingly towards the speaker as if under the influence of some spell.

‘Look well into my face,’ he continued, ‘and see if, despite my beard, stained skin and dyed hair, you cannot recognise the features of a true friend. Have you forgotten how frequently I came down to Deerhurst and watched and waited lest your mother should surprise your meeting with Goliah at the end of the garden? Or how you cheated me out of the kiss you promised me under the white lilac bush for keeping your secret?’

‘You may take it now!’ exclaimed the excited girl. Never was friend so welcome!

This edition © 2020 Furin Chime, Michael Guest

References and Further Reading

“Chrisopher Pyne wants seat name honouring child abductor and coloniser changed”. ABC News. Jump to page.

Anon (1742). A master-key to the rich ladies treasury. Or, The widower and batchelor’s directory, containing an exact alphabetical list of the duchess dowagers [&c.] by a younger brother [signing himself B. M-n]. Freely available at Google Books. Jump to file.

Harrop, A.J. (1928). The Amazing Career of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (London: Allen and Unwin). Available to borrow from Internet Archive. Jump to file.

Lemmings, D. (1996). “Marriage and the Law in the Eighteenth Century: Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753”. The Historical Journal, 39.2, 339-360.

Mill, John Stuart (1860). “The Subjection of Women.” Longmans, Green and Co. Internet Archive. Jump to file.

Perkin, J. (1989) Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England (London: Routledge).

Probert, R. (2009). “Control over Marriage in England and Wales, 1753-1823): The Clandestine Marriages Act of 1753 in Context.” Law and History Review, 27.2 (Summer), 413-450.

Wilkinson, G.T. (18–). Newgate Calendar Improved. Internet Archive. Jump to page.

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