"...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, April 29, 2013

Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Kidnapper and Empire-Builder

For today's post, let us cast our eyes back to the days of King George IV, an era where an enterprising young fellow could launch his career by serially kidnapping heiresses and wind up—not, as you might imagine, at the business end of a rope—but in the Dictionary of National Biography.

The hero of our story, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, was born in London on March 20, 1796. In 1816, he met Eliza Susan Pattle, orphaned daughter of a wealthy merchant. Miss Pattle soon became infatuated with Wakefield, who was a debonair rascal straight out of the cheesiest paperback romance, and they eloped. Although her guardians were understandably outraged, the fait accompli eventually convinced them to make the best of the matter, and the groom settled down to pursue his career, serving secretarial duties at the British embassies in Turin and Paris. The marriage proved to be a very happy one, but in 1820 the young wife died giving birth to their second child.

The next act of his saga took place in March of 1826, when a girls’ school in Liverpool, England received an alarming note. It was from a “John Ainsworth, M.D.,” informing them that Mrs. Turner, the mother of one of their pupils, had been seized with “a sudden and dangerous attack of paralysis,” and wished to see her daughter immediately. However, Mrs. Turner did not want her daughter to be informed of her condition ahead of time, so that she would not be frightened during the journey.

The note was plausible, the carriage that had been sent to fetch the girl suitably stylish, and the servant who delivered the note appeared both suave and respectable. Mrs. Turner’s fifteen-year-old daughter Ellen, the only child of a rich and socially prominent silk manufacturer from Manchester, was soon trustingly sent on her way.

When the carriage reached Manchester, they stopped at an inn.  Miss Turner was escorted to a private room, where the servant assured her that her father would soon arrive to escort her home. He then told the owners of the house that he would answer the bell if the girl rang.

Not long after her arrival, the young lady was startled to see a good-looking, well-dressed young stranger enter her room. Edward Wakefield calmly introduced himself, saying he had been enlisted to take her to her parents. He explained that the note announcing her mother’s illness was merely a cover story. The truth, he told her solemnly, was that her father’s business affairs had taken such a serious downturn that she would be forced to leave her school. He then introduced his brother William, who would accompany them on the remainder of the journey.

The girl was understandably upset by this latest development, but saw no reason to doubt the courteous, well-spoken intruder. The strange little party set off for Halifax, where, she was told, her father awaited them.

Mr. Turner failed to appear at Halifax. Not to worry, said the unflappable Mr. Wakefield. No doubt, he was in Kendal. In that town they found, if not the man himself, at least a letter from him to Wakefield, bidding them to meet him in Carlisle. During their journey, Edward Wakefield gave Ellen the sad details of her father’s desperate straits. Mr. Turner was “almost ruined.” Wakefield’s uncle had been benevolent enough to loan him 60,000 pounds, but even that had failed to keep him afloat. As a result of this loan, the uncle now held the title for the Turner family estate, and “her papa might be turned out-of-doors any day.”

Turner’s solicitor saw only one hope for the now-destitute family, her escort sighed. Wakefield and Ellen must immediately marry. Then, the property would be hers, not this heartless creditor’s.

Ellen Turner was a highly-sheltered, trusting girl, with little knowledge of the world. She had no reason to doubt the word of this man who seemed so sure of himself and so sympathetic to her plight. Still, even highly-sheltered and trusting girls have their limits. She managed to stammer out that she could do nothing until she saw her father.

When they reached an inn at Carlisle, the men entered the establishment, leaving the girl to wait in the carriage. They shortly returned to give her the bad news that there was more traveling to do. Mr. Turner, said Wakefield, was hiding from the law in a room at the back of the inn, and hoped to soon escape over the border. He sent word to her to marry Wakefield as soon as possible. She was the only one who could save her family now.

Feeling she had no other choice, Ellen gave a confused assent. Their carriage sped for Scotland, where the couple married at Gretna Green “in the presence of a drunken blacksmith, the landlord of a public-house, and a post-boy.”

After this irregular ceremony, Ellen assumed they would return to Carlisle and her peripatetic father. Well, no, Wakefield told her. Mr. Turner had fled. They would probably find him in London. The wedding party—surely one of the most dismal on record—spent the night in Penrith. All of them in separate rooms.

Two days later, Wakefield and his ill-gotten bride arrived in London, having parted along the way from brother William. The next morning, the new Mrs. W. was informed that her father had been forced to flee his creditors by going to France, and was now lying-low in Calais. So off to Calais went the Wakefields.

Meanwhile, Miss Daulby, the headmistress of Ellen’s school, was becoming increasingly uneasy about not hearing any news of her missing student. Finally, five days later, she went to the Turner estate to make enquiries. Several shocks awaited her. The first was the fact that on the previous day, the London papers had announced her pupil’s marriage to an Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Second, Mrs. Turner was in her usual health—or would have been, if not from her horror at suddenly discovering she had not lost a daughter, but gained a son-in-law. Third, no one in the Turner household had ever heard of Dr. Ainsworth, his servant, or Wakefield himself.

As one of the newspapers had helpfully provided the information that the newlyweds were now honeymooning in Paris, the outraged father, accompanied by two of his brothers, the family solicitor, and a Bow Street runner, started for France in hot pursuit.

At Wakefield’s hotel, he courteously greeted his visitors, but declined to allow them to see his new wife. The solicitor informed him that he deserved to be shot. Wakefield commented that he himself had a daughter, “and if any man were to take her off in the same manner, I believe I should send a bullet through his head.”

Edward Wakefield may have been a scoundrel, but at least he was an unusually fair-minded one.

Wakefield eventually admitted to the men that he had been told Ellen was “a very fine girl,” and “heiress to one of the largest fortunes in the country.” As a result, he was “determined to possess himself of her.” After the men had had a brief debate about the legality of the marriage, Wakefield finally allowed them to see his bride. In the cheesy romance novels I mentioned earlier, where Wakefield would have been right at home, Ellen would undoubtedly have announced her newly-awakened love for her abductor and her determination to stay with him no matter what the law or her family might say. Unfortunately for our Edward, he never appeared to learn that real life is a cheesy novel of a more prosaic variety. When one of Ellen’s uncles explained to her how horribly and thoroughly her trust had been betrayed, the distraught—but now relieved—girl begged to be taken home. Wakefield urged her to reconsider, pointing out that he had been “a gentleman” to her. (It is an interesting sidelight on Wakefield’s world-view that a kidnapper was still a “gentleman” if only he refrained from being a rapist as well.) Unsurprisingly, the girl saw things a bit differently, crying that he had “deceived” her and she never wanted to see him again. The Turner party and “Madame Wakefield” quickly returned home.

After their departure, Wakefield immediately wrote his brother William a letter warning him the game was up. He reported that Ellen “told all, and was anxious to leave me when she knew all.” With what seemed to be his characteristic eccentricity, he complained of the way the Turner party had treated him: “Nothing could be more hostile than the whole spirit of the proceedings.” He went on to say that he had given a “solemn declaration that she and I have been as brother and sister,” and he did not know how that would affect the legality of the marriage. He advised his brother to flee England: “I am now in a stew about you, and wish you were safe…For myself, I will meet it, come what may; but if you are able, get away as soon as possible.”

He added, “The grand question now is: Is the marriage legal?”

Indeed. The Wakefields, along with their French valet (who had posed as servant to the mythical “Dr. Ainsworth,”) went on trial for conspiracy and abduction in March 1827. The brothers’ stepmother, Frances Davies Wakefield, who had fed them information about the Turners and provided money for the escapade, was also named in the indictment. (A curious footnote:  Frances and the senior Wakefield had, years before,  also made a runaway match.)  As the stranger-than-fiction abduction had created quite a sensation in the country, this proceeding was a widely-publicized event. William was already in custody, having been arrested for an unrelated debt. Edward could have escaped arrest, but returned to face justice in his own inimitable fashion. “I must stand by my wife,” he declared. “I would have made her love me.”

The hero of the most crowd-pleasing penny-dreadful could not have said it better.

The best the defense could do was to bring forward a number of witnesses willing to assert that Miss Turner married Wakefield not just willingly, but joyfully, even eagerly.  It all went over like the proverbial lead balloon.  To the surprise of no one, the brothers were convicted and sentenced to a visit of several years in Newgate.  Frances Wakefield was also found guilty, but was never called up for judgment.  All this still left the question of the validity of the marriage unresolved. Ellen’s father presented a petition to the House of Lords, asking them to allow a bill to have his daughter’s irregular union annulled. Wakefield presented a counter-petition denying most of the allegations in the Turner document, and asking that he be allowed to present his case in person. To make a good deal of tiresome legal wrangling short, Parliament determined there was precedent for Turner’s request, in a 1690 annulment case, and the result was that Ellen regained her spinsterhood.

After the Wakefields had paid their debt to society, they both found a new, and considerably more successful, life in the colonies. In 1829, William became an agent for the New Zealand Land Company. (Incidentally, he too eloped—with the daughter of a baronet—but with considerably happier results than his brother’s second experiment in that line.) He is best known for founding the city of Wellington. By the time he died in 1848, he had a reputation for being “not more shrewd then trustworthy.”

Edward put his incarceration to good use, by turning his attention to a subject naturally dear to his heart at the time—prison reform. While serving his sentence he wrote a book, “Facts Relating to the Punishment of Death in the Metropolis,” an account of Newgate’s various horrors that is quite powerful and well-written. He later published several pamphlets addressing various social issues.

Upon his release, he went to South Australia and then New Zealand, where he became one of that country’s leading statesmen. Indeed, he is considered among the chief founders of that country, pursuing a career as a “pioneer of Empire” that eventually earned him no fewer than seven columns in the DNB. (That eminent book of record treated his early escapades with a tactful brevity.)

The historical opinion of Wakefield’s career has shifted back and forth dramatically over the years, depending upon the current prevailing view of colonialism. As one can imagine, his reputation is fairly low right now, but during the height of the British Empire, many historians regarded him as a national hero, which caused them to contrive many very curious attempts to defend his abduction of Ellen Turner. It’s a fascinating lesson in how “historical truth” is more relative than we like to think.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield never remarried. The Antipodes were short on eligible heiresses to abduct, and the Wakefield family appeared to be ignorant of any other courtship methods. He died in Wellington in 1862, no doubt seeing himself as the hero of melodrama to the last.

The famed victim of his younger days, Ellen Turner, met a far earlier, and sadder fate. At the age of seventeen she married a Thomas Legh, only to die in childbirth two years later.


  1. Very good explication of the story.

    There's also a very detailed book on this story - The Shrigley Abduction by Abby Ashby and Audrey Jones.

    I have many other tales of abduction and elopement in the Georgian era at my website: http://www.naomiclifford.com/famous-elopements/#.UY5uZCsjo6I

  2. What an interesting post this was! I was just amazed throughout. Penny dreadful indeed. But really amazing to think he thought it would work.

    1. Yes! When I read about this abduction, my first thought was, "How did he think he'd get away with it?" By all accounts, Wakefield had a lot of charm and was an extraordinarily persuasive fellow, so I can only assume he figured that, given enough time with Ellen Turner, she would decide to welcome him as a husband.

      Bad bet,obviously.


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