"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Bainbrigges: A Family Only a Kardashian Could Love

George Romney, "King Lear in the Tempest"

Although it is forgotten today, in 1850 the lawsuit of Bainbrigge vs. Bainbrigge held the entire United Kingdom on the edge of their seats. The legal details of the case were straightforward and of themselves not particularly interesting. What enchanted the public was the how the suit revealed the hitherto little-known lurid history of the principals in the matter. As always, bad behavior--particularly among the upper-classes--made for irresistible entertainment.

The central figure in the case was Thomas Bainbrigge, a man whose sordid and depressing history reads like a parody of a Thomas Hardy novel. He began his life as a charmed figure: Wealthy, highly intelligent, well-educated, charming, refined. He moved in England's best social and political circles, where his favor was wooed by all. Fittingly, this Prince Charming eventually found himself a Princess--the beautiful niece of an earl. The two became engaged. It was like something from a fairy tale.

Well, every fairy tale needs a villain, and in this case, it proved to be Thomas' father. Although Bainbrigge senior had originally approved of the match, when it came time to work out the settlement the bride would receive, he thought the girl's parents asked him to contribute an excessive amount of money. Bainbrigge senior was so offended, that he cavalierly forbade the marriage altogether.

This was, naturally, a great blow to Thomas. When his beloved died a short time later, his grief and bitterness was so intense that he angrily withdrew from society altogether. When his father died in 1798, Thomas inherited a vast estate, but by then he was too soured on the world to take any pleasure from it. He buried himself at his mansion of Woodseat, near the Sherwood Forest, installed an attractive woman named Elizabeth Parker as his housekeeper, and let his private life go to a defiant ruin. He dressed like a vagrant, let his sumptuous residences decay, and generally lived like a dissipated Roderick Usher. Everyone in his household had to live with his crude speech and manners, unkempt person, and violent, erratic temper. Curiously, though, when he occasionally mixed in local society, he appeared as his old self. His hosts and the other guests found this immaculately-dressed figure to be so suave and personable they found it impossible to believe the stories about his curious domestic life--even after Elizabeth Parker gave birth a girl in 1790 whom Bainbrigge accepted as his daughter.

However, when Parker became pregnant a second time--with a child Bainbrigge knew could not be his--he indignantly banished her from the premises. Despite this, he had become greatly attached to his baby daughter, and resolved to raise her as his acknowledged heiress. The girl, Betsy, received the finest education and training money could buy, and when she was thirteen, Bainbrigge made out a will leaving her everything he possessed--with the provision that, if she ever married, her husband should assume the name of Bainbrigge. If Betsy had no children, the estate would pass after her death to the children of Bainbrigge's brother.

Betsy grew up into a beautiful and talented young woman. What prevented her from being accepted into local society was not her illegitimacy, but rather her father's increasingly alarming behavior. As Thomas grew older, his eccentricity began spiraling downward into madness. His strange and violent manner--usually fueled by alcohol--became too notorious to be ignored. Through no fault of her own, Bainbrigge's daughter was forced to share in his now hermit-like existence

The teenaged Betsy found herself isolated in the gloomy, squalid atmosphere of Woodseat, with no companionship beyond the indifferent, disreputable servants and her brooding, disturbing father. It really should have been no surprise to anyone when the lonely girl became pregnant by her father's coachman.

When Bainbrigge heard the news, however, he was not only surprised, but dangerously furious with the girl he had once, in his own peculiar fashion, greatly loved. He immediately wrote out a new will leaving the bulk of his fortune to his siblings and their descendants, cutting Betsy off with nothing but an annuity of two hundred pounds a year. He allowed his daughter to remain on the estate until her baby was born, but after that event, he swore, she would be banished from his properties and his life forever. (The coachman, incidentally, had long since fled, never to be seen again.)

After Betsy had her baby in February 1809, a girl named Marianne (or Mary Ann,) Bainbrigge relented somewhat. However displeased he may have been with his daughter, she was all he had. He allowed Betsy to stay in the dubious shelter of Woodseat. As for Betsy's daughter,  Bainbrigge became even more infatuated with this new baby girl than he had been with the ultimately-unsatisfactory Betsy. From the first moment he lay eyes on the child, he was utterly enchanted, and openly declared that he would make yet another will, leaving everything to little Marianne. His granddaughter became the center of his existence,which would prove to be a decidedly questionable blessing for the child.

Betsy had no difficulty in virtually relinquishing custody of her daughter. She had had it with Woodseat--the isolation, the squalor, and above all the oppressive presence of her strange father. She sought her escape through the only way available to her--marriage. For many years, Thomas Bainbrigge and a local farmer named Arnold had carried on a bitter feud, which had originated in Bainbrigge's insistence on hunting over Arnold's land. Relations between the men had, on at least one occasion, descended into physical violence. The mere mention of Arnold's name was more than enough to send Bainbrigge into one of his frightening fits of rage.

It was the son of this same Arnold whom Betsy chose to marry.

When Bainbrigge heard of his daughter's decision, he reacted with predictable fury. He sent her off to one of his other properties in the custody of two servants, putting her under a virtual house arrest.

Betsy was undeterred. She had undoubtedly knew her father would react in some such extreme fashion, and was likely enjoying the thought that she had finally found a way to get revenge upon him. She soon escaped her captivity, and she and young Arnold successfully eloped. Bainbrigge's reaction to this development was to roar that from that moment, his daughter was dead to him. Naturally, he made yet another will, this time cutting Betsy off entirely, and leaving every penny he had to little Marianne. If she died without children, Bainbrigge's brothers and sisters would inherit. Bainbrigge's solicitor, a man named Blair, was named as the will's trustee.

As good as his word, Bainbrigge treated his daughter as if she had never existed, ignoring all her efforts for some sort of rapproachment. He settled into complete isolation in his gloomy manor, with baby Marianne as virtually his only companionship. After Betsy's "betrayal," his peculiarities grew to the point where the few servants left around him believed it was inevitable that he would soon wind up in a madhouse.

Three years after Betsy's marriage, Bainbrigge moved his little household to one of his estates in Derby, where he devoted himself to Marianne, drinking, and horse racing, roughly in that order. While riding in one of the races, he fell on his head, injuring himself severely. When Betsy heard that her father was probably dying, she made an effort to see him, but his servants contemptuously barred her from entering the house. On what he assumed was his deathbed, Bainbrigge continued to refuse to see Betsy, but he softened towards her enough to say she had his forgiveness, and to amend his will so that she would receive fifty pounds a year.

However, Bainbrigge recovered, but his accident appeared to have exacerbated his increasing insanity. In contrast to his careful upbringing of Betsy, he allowed Marianne to run wild. She received no formal education and had no friends outside the household servants, who were all nearly as strange and crude as their master. Bainbrigge took a perverse delight in seeing his idolized granddaughter grow up into a foul-mouthed, conniving, insolent delinquent. When, at the age of eight, Marianne berated the servants with some precociously vile language, he merely laughed delightedly. Around that time, Bainbrigge impulsively decided to fire all the female household help. When one girl objected to having to leave under such short notice, Bainbrigge indignantly seized her by the throat, nearly choking her to death and he dragged her out of the house. If solicitor Blair had not quietly slipped her a sum of money, the girl would have had her ex-master indicted for attempted murder. Marianne grew up assuming such scenes were perfectly normal.

In 1818, Bainbrigge's lifestyle, centered as it was around alcohol and choler, finally took its toll, and he took to what proved to truly be his deathbed. Betsy again arrived on the scene, but this time her father was in no condition to refuse her admittance. As it turned out, she had a secret ally in her father's solicitor, Mr. Blair. For many years past, Blair had been embezzling from Bainbrigge's estate. Blair's greatest fear was that Bainbrigge's nephew Thomas Parker Bainbrigge, who was heir after Marianne, would inherit the estate, as this would mean Blair's thievery would inevitably be detected. Accordingly, Blair and Betsy put their heads together and devised a plan that would benefit them both. They decided that the dying Bainbrigge would sign a new will leaving the bulk of his estate to Betsy and her children, should Marianne die childless. Bainbrigge's siblings and their offspring were cut off entirely. The Arnolds, of course, would tactfully overlook Blair's theft.

By this point, Bainbrigge was too ill to have any real idea what was going on around him. Blair placed a pen in his hand and guided his shaking hand on the document well enough to make a semblance of his signature. Two days later, Bainbrigge died.

Betsy and Blair immediately took complete control of the Bainbrigge fortune. Eleven-year-old Marianne, the rightful heiress, was packed off to a boarding school. However, it was far too late to undo the effects of her depraved upbringing. She resisted all efforts to educate her or modify her unruly behavior, and at the age of sixteen she eloped with the penniless son of an apothecary. The pair had two children.

For as long as Marianne lived, the descendants of Bainbrigge's siblings respected her rights as heiress. However, by 1845, Marianne and her children were all dead, and these Bainbrigges felt this changed the situation completely. They were certain that Thomas Bainbrigge's final will cutting them out of the succession had been obtained through fraud. Accordingly, in 1850, Thomas Parker Bainbrigge brought a lawsuit to have this will overturned. (Blair had by this time gone bankrupt, and was removed as trustee of the Bainbrigge estate.)

The Arnolds, naturally, fought back, and the great battle over the question of old Thomas Bainbrigge's sanity was on. The Bainbrigges produced a string of witness giving dismal testimony about "Mad Bainbrigge's" last years. He was described as letting himself become intolerably filthy and covered with insects. He allowed his clothes to fall into rags. His home was just as dirty and vermin-ridden. Many appalling stories were told of his violent, erratic, and shocking behavior. "Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper" reported breathlessly:

When he rode out in his carriage, it was unwashed and uncleaned, and covered with the dirt of the fowls which roosted in it. His horses were not groomed, and he took any of his farm labourers, without any change of dress, to drive it. He once drove into Derby with a man who had been just driving a dung cart, and in the very dress in which he had driven it. He used to crouch so near the fire that his coat tails were burned off. He used to go to buy his own fish and meat, and was once met in the streets of Derby with fish covered with blood hanging out of his coat pockets. He was once seen bringing home a slaughtered ox on the top of his carriage. Another time he brought home a calf's head and pluck on the bow of his saddle. He wore a flannel waistcoat from March to July without once being washed, and when remonstrated with once on the subject, he said washing would spoil flannel. He one made his labourers set out in the midst of a storm of hail and rain to make hay, and when a coach passed by, and the passengers shouted out, "Are ye mad?" the men answered, "It is not we that are mad, but our master." He once suddenly gave directions to dispossess all his tenants in a street in Derby, though they did not owe him a penny of rent, and actually ejected every one of them without any reason whatever but some wild fancy of his own. When he had some friends at dinner once, the servant brought him a cold plate. He ordered him to keep it at the fire till he called for it, and when he did, and the man brought it, it burned his (Mr. B's) fingers; and thereupon be seized a roast goose that was on the table by the legs and hung it after the man, and cursed and swore at him and kicked him out of the room, In 1817, a lady went up with the granddaughter, Marianne, into his bedroom, and there saw a bottle of brandy and a bottle of gin, and the poker and tongs an a chair near his bed; and he told her on several occasions that he kept them there to protect him against the devil. He used to mutter frequently to himself, "I must go to:the devil, but I am not ready yet." All religious feeling departed, and he cursed and blasphemed in a most frightful manner--in such a manner that no one could doubt that he was in a state of complete mental aberration. There could be no better proof of this than the change in his conduct respecting his granddaughter Marianne. In 1815, he had taken great precautions for her proper education; but, subsequently, so lost was he to all proper feeling, that he taught her to curse and swear, and encouraged her in the moat incredible obscenity, and in the use of language to which none abut the most depraved could listen...A crowd having begun to stare at them one day at Buxton, she said she would give them a salute, and looking bask to the multitude, slapped her hand on the back part of her body...He was so violent to his servants that none could stop with him. He offered to fight his farm bailiff if he would not go up to his neck in a pool of water, and because he did not he discharged him, and then caused him to be summoned for deserting his service and to he imprisoned for twenty-eight days. As a general rule, when they in any way displeased him he used to fling bottles, glasses, crockeryware, knives, or any articles that were nearest to him. Even when they did not offend, he often wantonly attacked them. One day he came into the kitchen found a servant toasting bread, and bending down with her back to him, and he stole up to her, and stuck a fork with all his strength into the back part of her person, and then ran out, and she did not recover for a month. When he drove out in his carriage he took his gun with him, and once threatened to shoot the man who was driving, for having taken the wrong road; and the man jumped off and ran away from him...He had forty servants in a few months, as none would stop with him for more than a few days...He had a stallion which used to break out of a paddock in which it was kept, and get to the mares when people did not want him to do so. He therefore put him into a stable with a large loose box. The horse got lame, and so indignant was he that he sat in judgment on him, sentenced him to seven years' transportation, and then commuted it to imprisonment and solitary confinement. The horse was accordingly kept in partial darkness, with no straw to lie on, and only as much hay and water as would keep life in him; and at the end of four months, when he was almost starved to death and had dung up to his belly, and the servant told the master he was all but dead, the answer was, "Well, he is just alive, keep him so; he has not served out his time." He used to drink excessively; but liquor made him not drunk, but mad and furious.

The star witness for the Arnold side was solicitor Blair. He admitted his embezzlement, but strongly denied having helped Thomas Bainbrigge sign his will. Other witnesses for the Arnolds testified that while Thomas Bainbrigge had certainly been a peculiar and unpleasant character, he was not actually insane.

In his summing-up, the judge in the case was sympathetic to the Arnold camp. However, the jury, after deliberating only twenty minutes, returned a verdict in favor of Thomas Parker Bainbrigge. It looked as if, at long last, the Arnolds were out of the money.

Not quite. The defendants immediately appealed the verdict. It was beginning to appear that the true heirs to the Bainbrigge fortune would be the lawyers for both sides. However--rather unusually in such cases--both sides were brought together and induced to save something from the impending wreck. In the end, a compromise was reached where the estate was shared equally among all the interested parties, and the Great Bainbrigge Saga came to an uncharacteristically quiet end.


  1. Wow, what a tale. I'm surprised Dickens didn't make something out of it. It sounds perfect for one of his stories - with reality actually softened a bit for publication. The strangest thing is that the warring parties at the end decided to make peace. Evidently, Bainbrigge's insanity didn't affect everyone.

  2. Actually, the compromise of 1851 proved not to be the end of the matter. Legal actions continued until 1860, and only then was T.P. Bainbrigge able to sell the estate.

  3. Being Bainbrigge myself it has always intrigued me


Comments are moderated. Because no one gets to be rude and obnoxious around here except the author of this blog.