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Sex, Crime, Punishment & Philanthropy: Everyday stories from the life of John Bennet Lawes as revealed by his diaries.

Report of a talk given to the Society on 24th May 2016 by Dr John Jenkyn.

This report first appeared in Newsletter 129, August 2016.

John Bennet Lawes c1860. He was created a baronet in 1882 – DS-HC 1713

Each of the three stories that John related had emerged from the pages of Lawes’ diaries but, at the end, most of the audience agreed with John’s assertion that they (and especially the last one) could just as easily have been written by Dickens (or, according to Lawes, ‘Dickins’).

John began by reminding us how important Lawes was both locally and nationally (if not internationally). The fertiliser manufacturing business that he established in London made him a wealthy man. This enabled him to pursue his interest in agricultural science, and put the fledgling Rothamsted Laboratory (now known as Rothamsted Research) on a firm footing. He took his responsibilities as the local squire very seriously and there were undoubtedly many benevolent acts that also benefited from his wealth.

The circumstances surrounding the relatively recent discovery of Lawes’ diaries and accounts were the subject of a previous talk to the Society, also given by John. Since then, he and Roger Plumb have been transcribing the diaries and trying to extract as much useful information as possible from the accounts (which is not very much!). The diaries per se give a fascinating impression of Lawes’ daily life over a period of about twenty years, starting in 1847. They are, though, less interesting than they might be because they are, essentially, business diaries that mostly record where he went and who he met. There are relatively few references to his personal life or even to the research that was being done at the laboratory, and none that reveal his political sympathies.

There were, however, rare occasions when he deviated from this narrow focus, and the triggers seem to have been circumstances that greatly interfered with his normal day-to-day routine. These few exceptions form the basis of the stories that John related but some of the details came from other sources; the second and third stories, in particular, were also informed by letters from Lawes and others to Gilbert (who was Lawes’ scientific collaborator), which are preserved in the Rothamsted archives.

Sex: Warde v Warde

Charles Warde – Dr Tim Paine, Hodgson family archives

Marianne Warde – later in life

The first story is of particular interest because it gives Lawes’ perspective on an acrimonious, and at the time notorious, legal battle between his sister, Marianne, and her husband, Charles Warde, over the custody of their five children. The couple got married in 1834, and lived at Clopton House in Warwickshire. In 1846, Warde agreed to purchase Luton Hoo from the Marquis of Bute but found himself in a difficult financial position because shares in the railways (allegedly purchased on the advice of Lawes) had not done as well as expected. He, therefore, asked Marianne to go to Rothamsted, in April 1847, to ‘consult’ with her brother (presumably to ask for a loan). While she was there, however, he sent her abusive letters about her family, and she also learnt from well-meaning friends about his adultery (of which they had been aware for a long time).

Attempts at reconciliation came to nothing, and proceedings to secure a divorce for Marianne, and custody of the children, began in May 1847. Evidence from people residing near Clopton went to ‘prove that Mr Warde (had) been guilty of gross immorality’. Marianne obtained her divorce (which was actually an ecclesiastical divorce, and can more accurately be described as a legal separation) without much difficulty but not until March 1848. The battle for custody of the children was much more protracted but, while it was undoubtedly emotionally stressful for Marianne, Lawes took much of the practical burden on his own shoulders. Marianne signed a number of affidavits concerning her husband’s behaviour but seldom attended the numerous meetings that Lawes had with their legal team or, apparently, the court proceedings.

The case came to court in December 1847, and the judge declared, according to Lawes’ diary, that Marianne’s ‘conduct throughout deserved the greatest praise and that Mr Warde’s conduct was infamous but he ordered the children to be given to Mr Warde because by so doing he hoped that Mrs Warde would follow them’. Lawes was furious about this judgement but could do nothing to prevent the removal of the children from their mother, and their return to their father’s custody. An appeal was launched almost immediately but was not heard until more than a year later, in January 1849. On this occasion, the judge ‘ordered the children to be placed exclusively in the hands of Mrs Warde’, adding that ‘the eldest daughter could not be left with her father and that he would not separate the children’. Thereafter, Marianne lived happily in Harpenden, in the house known as Bennetts, currently occupied by the British Legion, until her death in 1891. Her husband, who continued to live a scandalous life, died in 1865.

Crime & punishment: John Brash

We now move to crime and punishment! The central character in this story is someone called John Brash who started work at Rothamsted, as the farm bailiff, on 25th December 1848. There are a number of references to him in the diaries, and in letters from Lawes to Gilbert, during 1849 but until September of that year they all relate to his routine duties as bailiff. In subsequent weeks, however, Lawes, who was then on holiday with his family in Scotland, expressed increasing irritation in his letters to Gilbert at Brash’s refusal or inability to provide weekly summaries of farm income and expenditure.

At first, Lawes was prepared to ascribe this to incompetence, and merely told Brash that he ‘must give up his situation either immediately or at the end of the twelve month’. On his return to Rothamsted, however, Lawes dug deeper, and on 19th January 1850 he went to St Albans to prefer a charge against Brash (his late bailiff) for receiving money in his name and not accounting for it. Further charges were brought in early February before Brash appeared before Lord Salisbury at the sessions at Hertford on 18th February. Brash was found guilty and was sentenced to seven year’s transportation but, after spending time in Northampton and Portland jails, he was granted a free pardon and released on 27th October 1852. Records in the National Archives at Kew reveal that the free pardon was granted as a reward for ‘grassing’ on a fellow convict who was planning to escape!

Meanwhile, the local community in Harpenden had rallied around to support Brash’s wife, Helen, and in November 1850, Lawes wrote in his diary ‘Received of Mr Baker £31 being the subscription … which he had received for Mrs Brash’. It is almost certain that Helen Brash used this money to establish her business, in Harpenden, as a ‘Tea Dealer’. After his release from prison, Brash returned to Harpenden and told Lawes that he was thinking of going into business but Lawes thought that he would have great difficulty in making a success of it and advised him to emigrate! At least one donation (of £10) was given to Mrs Brash ‘to pay a portion of J. Brash’s passage money to Australia’ but nothing has been found to confirm that he actually went.

There is, however another twist to this story because, in December 1857, Lawes was told by Mr Melville (the local schoolmaster) that Mrs Brash had insured her husband’s life; Lawes then ‘called upon the Insurance Office and offered to guarantee them from loss if they would pay Mrs Brash the amount of the Policy’. The implication is that the insurers were suspicious about the validity of the claim despite Helen Brash having a certificate of his burial. They may, though, have had just cause because the certificate (which she obtained from ‘a person in Glasgow’) cost a suspiciously large amount of money viz. £13 to £14, equivalent to around £700 at today’s prices. When and where John Brash actually died is still not known but Helen Brash died in December 1881, and is buried in the churchyard at St Nicholas’ Church.

Philanthropy: Eugene Lissignol

The last story illustrates Lawes’ benevolence, and specifically how much time, effort and, indeed, money he was prepared to spend in order to help a total stranger who had a talent for getting himself into trouble! Lawes’ involvement began with a letter from his sister, Marianne, who was spending the winter of 1857/58 in Montpellier. The lady with whom she was staying, who was the widow of a protestant minister (Abraham Louis Lissignol), was in great distress because she had heard nothing for many months of her son, who had travelled to London. Lawes visited his last known address (that of a Dr Holt Yates, a ‘gentleman connected with some missionary societies’), and learnt that during the six months that he had resided with Holt Yates, (Eugene) Lissignol was ‘perfectly well conducted’. After moving out he had, however, according to Holt Yates, ‘greatly misbehaved himself’. With the help of Holt Yates, Lawes managed to track-down Lissignol who had been ‘living for the last three month (sic) in an unfurnished house (which) contained 2 broken Chairs and an old bedsted (sic)’. He was afraid to go out ‘lest he should be taken up’, and had been living on bread and cheese which had been procured for him by an old woman. Lawes gave him money to pay-off his debts (including rent and the money that he owed his servant!) and get his clothes out of pawn, and then sent him down to Harpenden.

Gilbert was instructed to find lodgings for Lissignol and put him to work translating some of their scientific papers etc. into French. Lawes recognised that Lissignol had ‘engaging manners’ and instructed Gilbert to warn the villagers that he had a reputation for cheating and deceiving those who have trusted him. Despite having some difficulty with scientific terminology, Lissignol translated a number of Lawes’ and Gilbert’s papers but sometimes he evidently found it difficult to settle to the task in hand. There are no references to Lissignol in diaries after March 1858, and in a letter to Gilbert later that year, Lawes said that he thought it useless to write to Mr Lissignol as he must have left England before this.

For a long time this was all that was known about Lissignol but then three letters from him to Gilbert were found in the Rothamsted Library Archive. The first (probably written in April/May 1858) revealed that he was then living somewhere in Buckinghamshire having fled from Harpenden to escape ‘those scoundrels of Bums and Bailiffs’; he had, despite this, just finished another translation. The next letter, dated 4th October 1858 was sent from on board the Sarah Dixon with yet another finished translation. The final letter was written on paper with a very impressive heading viz. E. Lissignol & Co., General Commission Agents, Exporters of Colonial Produce, and Gold Brokers, Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, and the other Australian Colonies. This was, however, clearly intended to deceive, and he admitted as much to Gilbert; he then listed the vast range of jobs that he had done since arriving in the country only ‘to be as poor as the first day (he) landed’.

There is no doubt that (Eugene) Lissignol was a bit of a rogue but there was another side to him. He was a talented musician and composer, who also gave fencing lessons, and, after arriving in Australia, translated a number of technical books into English. He also mixed with the cream of the French expatriate community, and by 1866 was the Secretary to the French Consulate in Melbourne. The last that is known of him is that he left Melbourne in May 1870, possibly with a wife, bound for Bombay where he was to be the French vice-consul. True to form, though, he was arrested, just before his ship sailed, for embezzling funds from the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, of which he had been the Secretary! It was only through the action of his friends, who raised the money owed, that the warrant was cancelled and he managed to catch the boat just as she was departing. It would be nice to think that he carved for himself a successful career in India but we’ll probably never know.

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