Edward Walford.

Tales of our great families. 2d series (Volume 1) online

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a substantial brick house, the front diversified
by two bays ; and attached to it are good offices
and farm buildings. A wealthy farmer now
occupies it ; and, as if still to connect the tradi-
tion of Cupid and Hymen's doings with the house,
its master, the morning I paid my visit to the
spot, had led a third bride to the saffron-coloured
altar. Crossing the little river Muse, I entered
the village of Great Bolas. It is the beau ideal
of an English hamlet clean, picturesque, not
fine, and with no excitement about it. There
are hundreds like it scattered through our land.
The houses, and they are few, are thatched, and
irregularly placed. I entered one, which pos-
sessed a spacious lower room, beautifully neat
and comfortable. Like many Shropshire houses,
it had a fire burning under a boiler to prepare
turnips for the cattle. Joining the cottage gar-
den was a churchyard. The church is a small,
uninteresting structure of red stone, but which,
from its colour, at a little distance harmonises
well with a clump of trees standing close to it.
On the ground, which falls away rather steeply
from the northern wall of the inclosure, stood
Hoggins' farm, of which the only memorials re-


maining are a wicket by which it was approached,
and a well. The old man whose house I entered
was parish clerk. Even he had forgotten the
grave of the first-born child ; but he was well
acquainted with the circumstances of this story.
His wife, who was ill in bed, recollected the
persons of Mr. and Mrs. Cecil. Unable to con-
verse with this link between the past and the
present, I was more fortunate, in walking
from the village, to meet an aged woman, her
chin adorned with a grey beard, whose memory
retained not only the action, but the [persons of
the drama.

"The picture of the 'Peasant Countess,' in
the billiard-room at Burghley House, represents
her as beautiful : the pencil of Lawrence would
hardly do less for so interesting a sitter ; but my
inquiries as to her beauty raised no enthusiastic
response. The old woman would not even admit
that she was handsome. ' She might have been
well-looking,' was the extent of her praise. A
male informant told me he believed Sarah Hog-
gins was a ' straight lass.' Shade of Hogarth !
AVhat a description of beauty !"

The poet has beautifully described the droop-
ing of a flower removed from its native air into
a higher level. He has said that the village
maiden received with extreme grace the homage


and love of those about her ; yet that her heart
was being eaten out by yearnings for the little
village and the old farm, and the simple faces
of those among whom she lived in the days of
her youth. These influences may have contri-
buted somewhat towards her early death ; but the
mediate cause took effect in childbirth, and
happened only a very few years after she had
arrived at her honours, at the early age of

" And a gentle consort made he,

And her gentle mind was such
That she grew a noble lady,

And the people lov'd her much.

" But a trouble weigh'd upon her

And perplex' d her night and morn,
With the burden of an honour
Unto which she was not born.

" Faint she grew and ever fainter,

And she murmured, ' Oh, that he

Were once more that landscape painter

Which did win my heart from me.'

" So she droop'd and droop'd before him,

Fading slowly from his side ;
Three fair children first she bore him,
Then before her tune she died."

The school of Werther is not a numerous
school among our English nobility, whether
titled or untitlcd ; but even at the time of Mr.


Henry Cecil's love adventure, the spirit of
romanticism had penetrated the French and
German nations, and also, to some extent, the
English. But whether it was the cause or the
effect of that revolutionary earthquake which
eighty years since was rocking the people of
Europe, at all events it had subsided along
with those wild political enthusiasms which
stirred many fine souls to their lowest depths.
For the most part, the alliances of " the Upper
Ten Thousand" nowadays are made upon consi-
derations which effectually shut out all chance of
a rustic love, however real and genuine, ending
in matrimony. Nevertheless, from the day
when King Cophetua wedded the " beggar-
maide" down to the present hour, a few sporadic
cases have occurred in high circles in which love,
as a kind of eccentricity, I suppose, has broken
through the cold and calculating rules which
prevail under our social code. And yet, who
can say how much benefit some noble families
have gained \>y the transfusion into their veins
of a little admixture of plebeian blood, red with
country health and free from the taint of courts
and cities *?

The romantic tale of Sarah Hoggins, with only
a few variations, has also been popularized in
another way, namely, as an oratorio, which has


been performed with much success at more than
one Musical Festival for instance at Birmingham
in 1875, when it achieved a great success. It
was thus described at the time :

" The story illustrated in music by the com-
poser, Signer Schira, is a pleasing and graceful
one, and the music makes an admirable match to
the words. The subject is essentially pastoral
and fanciful, a theme which novelists and poets
in all ages have loved to tell, in both simple
prose and in ambitious verse. A powerful lord,
' the Lord of Burleigh,' in one of his wanderings
in quest of subjects to fill his sketch-book, under
the modest title of his Christian name, has wooed
and won the affections of a simple rustic beauty,
named Marian. On the conclusion of the mar-
riage festivities the artist-nobleman and his bride
set out, professedly to seek their fortunes,
accompanied only by Marian's old playmate,
Constance. On their journey they turn aside,
led seemingly by an idle impulse, to survey a
lordly mansion, near which the road passes,
when, to the amazement of Marian, her husband
conducts her through the gates, not only without
opposition, but with every mark of respect and
welcome from the attendants. Cecil then flings
off his disguise and avows his stratagem, secure
in the conviction that Marian loves him for him-


self alone ; but the burden of the state to which
she is so suddenly lifted weighs heavily upon
his rustic bride, and the happiness of the lovers
is shortly ended by the decline and death of

" Who, like a lily drooping,
Bows down her head and dies."

A termination sad enough to satisfy the most
ardent lovers of the * tear-compelling ballad,' and
sufficiently suggestive of variety to give the
utmost charm when set to characteristic music ;
and as Signer Schira approached his task in
the spirit of both poet and musician, the suc-
cessful result already spoken of was a matter for
little surprise. The character of the music is so
happy in form and treatment that the mind is
put to no effort to conjure up the several scenes
as the music progresses. Now we can see the
bridal procession winding down the green hill to
the valley in which the moss-covered village
church stands, grey with age, the bride and
bridegroom, truly 'a comely coup/e,' answering
with glowing eyes the kind greetings on all sides,
and then the quaint old mansion, bearing evi-
dence of strength needed in a former time, when
every lord's house was of necessity his castle,
the wondering wife passing through lines of


obsequious servants, and marvelling at the vast
amount of respect with which she and her painter
lover are welcomed ; then the effects of trans-
planting the lovely flower of the field into the
richer parterre of the garden ; the sickness and
death of Marian follow with a sad swiftness,
making the story like an April day

" ' Begun with a smile,
To end with a sigh." "



AMONG the noblest and the proudest of our
old English families deservedly stand the
Shirleys, of Shirley in Derbyshire ; of Staunton
Harold, in Leicestershire ; of Chartley, in Stafford-
shire ; of Eatington, in Warwickshire ; and of
half a dozen other places, which are enumerated
in the " Landed Gentry " of Sir Bernard Burke,
who assigns to them an unbroken descent from
the Anglo-Saxon days. And with good reason
too ; for does not that learned antiquary Sir
Wm. Dugdale himself say that, " the name of
their ancestor, Sewallis de Etingdon, argues him
to have been of the old English stock f The fact
is that the lordship of Etingdon, or (as it is now
termed) Eatington or Etington, was granted by
William the Conqueror to one of his Norman
followers, who appears to have left Sewallis in

Q 2


peaceful possession of his lands, though doubtless
in nominal dependence on himself. In the course
of years, possibly the Norman lords being absen-
tees, and not looking well to their own interests,
the descendants of Sewallis contrived to make
good their hold, and to play first fiddle instead of
second. At all events, at a very early date under
our Norman sovereigns, the acknowledged lords of
Eatington were Shirley s ; and Mr. Sewallis Shirley,
the younger, of Eatington, is at present one of
the representatives of Warwickshire in Parlia-
ment, as his father and grandfather were before

Sir Ralph de Shirley held the manor of Eat-
ington, and was also member for Warwickshire in
the reign of Edward I., and his descendants, the
lords of Eatington, took an active part in the
Wars of the Roses and with France ; and if any
of my readers desire to know more on the subject,
they will find ample information anent the
family in three distinct MS. histories of the House
of Shirley in the British Museum.

In the eighteenth generation from the above-
named Saxon thane as Dugdale styles him I
come to Sir Robert Shirley, a gallant knight and
Privy Councillor in the time of William and
Mary, who, having inherited the ancient barony of
Ferrers de Ohartley, in right of his mother,


Dorothy, daughter and heiress of Robert Devereux,
Earl of Essex, the unfortunate favourite of Eliza-
beth, was raised in 1711 to the Earldom of
Ferrers, and whose shield was destined to receive
a melancholy tarnish in the person of one of his
grandsons, whose story I come to tell.

The first Earl's eldest son dying without leaving
issue male, the title passed to his second son,
Henry, and as he died unmarried, it devolved in
due course on Laurence Shirley, eldest son of his
third son, the Hon. Laurence Shirley, by his wife
Anne, daughter of Sir Walter Clarges, Bart.
probably one of the family after whom Clarges-
street, Piccadilly, is named. Even as a boy it is
recorded of him that he was of a moody and pas-
sionate temper, and that at times he had but
little control over his words or his deeds. His
uncle, whose death placed the coronet on his head,
had been in confinement under a statute of lunacy,
and after a short return of reason relapsed into a
state of incurable madness, which ended only
with his life. One of his aunts, too the Lady
Barbara Shirley was confined as a lunatic. The
young lord himself was so far a sharer in the
hereditary disorder of his family as to be subject,
even after he grew to manhood, to sudden, cause-
less, and outrageous passions. According to a
writer in the Gentleman's Magazine, he would


walk hastily about the room, clenching his fists,
grinning, biting his lips, and talking to himself
without having anything to ruffle his temper, and
without being under the influence of liquor. He
would also talk to himself incoherently for hours
and hours after he had gone to bed. Nor was
this all; he would entertain all sorts of groundless
delusions and suspicions of those round about
him ; he would go about secretly armed with a
dagger or a brace of pistols ; when spoken to he
was absent, and often would not reply ; he would
make odd mouths before a looking-glass, and spit
upon it, and use all sorts of strange gestures, as
if he was bewitched. It appears, too, that he had
contracted a habit of drinking strong liquors
while making what was then called the " Grand
Tour," without which no member of " the quality "
was considered to have finished his education.

In 1752 the eccentric nobleman had married a
.daughter of Sir William Meredith; but, though
she was of a mild and gentle disposition, he
treated her with great brutality. Nor was his
wife the only member of his family to whom he
so behaved himself. He was on ill terms with
almost all his relations, and appears to have
been a nuisance to the neighbourhood and to
himself. One day when his brother William, a
clergyman, got up from the table, not choosing to


sit longer over the bottle, and joined the ladies in
the drawing room, he followed him, and, standing
with his back to the fire, broke out into a violent
rage and insulted him in the presence of the com-
pany, though there was not a shadow of pretext
for any such treatment. The fact was that his
hereditary tendency to insanity had been fostered
and cherished by a fond and foolish mamma, who
had allowed the dear boy to have his own way in
everything when a child, and would not permit
his father to correct him. His temper had not
been improved by a legal separation which his
wife had lately obtained from him by an Act of
Parliament, which had also authorised the ap-
pointment of a person to receive the income of his
estates, and to control his expenditure. So
eccentric indeed, had he become that his family
solicitor, a Mr Goostrey, declined any longer to act
for him, and that, on account of an absurd and
groundless quarrel which he contrived to pick
with Sir Thomas Stapleton when staying in Lord
Westmoreland's house, his relatives had held a
cabinet council to discuss the question of apply-
ing for a commission of lunacy to be issued
against him. From this step, however, it appears
that they were deterred by the fact that he
enjoyed long intervals of sanity, and that if they
should fail they would be in danger of being sen-


tenced to pay a heavy fine as guilty of scandalum

It appears too that about this period he took up
his abode in lodgings at Muswell Hill, near High-
gate and Hornsey, where he kept all sort of low
company, whom he amused, no doubt, by his
vulgar and eccentric conduct. He would drink
coffee out of the spout of a kettle, mix his beer
and porter with mud, and shave one side of his
face only. He threatened on more than one occa-
sion to " do for " his landlady upon the most
trifling provocation in the world ; and on one occa-
sion he violently broke open on a Sunday a stable
where his horse was locked up, knocking down
with his fist the ostler's wife when she asked him
to wait a few minutes while her husband brought
the key. During this time, however, he managed
his own affairs with shrewdness and penetration,
so that Mr. Goostrey said it would be easier to
cheat anyone in the county than the Earl, and
that he was as sharp as any member of either
House of Parliament in dealing with such a mat-
ter as the cutting off of an entail.

Mr. Cradock, in his " Literary and Miscella-
neous Memoirs," speak of his Lordship as all
but a madman. He writes :

" I still retain a strong impression of the un-
fortunate Earl Ferrers, who, with the Ladies


Shirley, his sisters, frequented Leicester races,
and visited at my father's house. During the
early part of the day, his lordship preserved the
character of a polite scholar and a courteous
nobleman, but in the evening he became the
terror of the inhabitants ; and I distinctly re-
member running up-stairs to hide myself, when
an alarm was given that Lord Ferrers was
coming armed, with a great mob after him. He
had behaved well at the ordinary ; the races
were then in the afternoon, and the ladies
regularly attended the balls. My father's house
was situated midway between Lord Ferrers's
lodgings and the town-hall, where the race
assemblies were then held : he had, as was sup-
posed, obtained liquor privately, and then became
outrageous ; for from our house he suddenly
escaped and proceeded to the town-hall, and,
after many most violent acts, threw a large silver
tankard of scalding negus amongst the ladies ;
he was then secured for that evening. This was
the last time of his appearing at Leicester, till
brought from Ashby-de-la-Zouch to prison there.
It has been much regretted by his friends that,
as Lady Ferrers and some of his property had
been taken from him, no greater precaution had
been used with respect to his own safety, as well
as that of all around him. Whilst sober, my


father, who had a real regard for him, always
urged that he was quite manageable ; and when
his sisters ventured to come with him to the
races, they had an absolute reliance on his good
intentions and promises."

Such was the character of Laurence, third
Earl Ferrers, in the early part of the year 1760,
when the tragic events which I am about to
record took place. When it was ordered by the
Court of Chancery that the rents due to Lord
Ferrers should be paid to a receiver, the nomi-
nation of the said receiver was left to his lordship,
who of course hoped to find in that person a
pliant tool, who would take things easily, and
let him have his own way. The person whom
he so appointed was a Mr. John Johnson, his
own steward, who had been in the service of
the Shirleys for many years even from boyhood.
But he soon found out that Johnson would not
oblige him at the expense of his honesty and his
duty ; and accordingly from that time he con-
ceived an inveterate hatred towards him on ac-
count of the opposition which he offered to his
crotchets. He never spoke of him except in
terms of abuse and resentment, not to say with
savage oaths; vowing that he had conspired
with his enemies to do him a mortal injury, and
was a villain, a scoundrel, and so forth. Further,


he gave him warning to quit a farm of which he
had long been tenant, and of which the trustees
of the Ferrers estates had recently renewed the
lease. But in this matter he could not get his
own way, and from that time he resolved to
move heaven and earth to obtain his revenge,
even though he should have to " bide his time."
He dissembled his feelings, however, so cleverly,
that poor Johnson was led to believe that he
never stood on better terms with the Earl, who
all the while was meditating how to get rid of

In January, 1760, Lord Ferrers was at his
seat of Staunton Harold, about two miles from
Ashby-de-la-Zouch. His household consisted of

a Mrs. C , who lived with him nominally as

his housekeeper, her four daughters, and five
domestic servants three maids, a boy, and an
old man. Mr. Johnson's farmhouse, The Mount,
was about a mile off across the park. On Sun-
day, the 18th of that month, Lord Ferrers called
on Mr. Johnson, and, after some discourse,
desired that he would come to him at Staimton
on the following Friday at three o'clock in the
afternoon. The Friday came round ; and John-
son was true to his appointment. His lordship's
dinner hour like that of most country gentlemen
of the time was two o'clock ; and risiug early


from table, shortly before the appointed hour,

he desired Mrs. C to take the children for a

walk, arranging that they were to return at five
or half-past five o'clock, as the evenings were
dark. The two men-servants also he contrived
to get out of the way on different pretexts ; so
that when Mr. Johnson arrived there was no one
in the house except the maids.

Three o'clock struck ; punctual to his promise,
Mr. Johnson knocked and rang the bell, and was
ushered by the parlour-maid, Elizabeth Burland,
into his lordship's private sitting-room. They
had sat together talking on various matters for
some ten minutes or more, when the Earl got up,
walked to the door, and locked it. He next
desired Johnson at once to settle some disputed
account ; then, rising higher in his demands,
ordered him, as he valued his life, to sign a
paper which he had drawn up, and which was
a confession of his (Johnson's) villainy. Johnson
expostulated and refused, as an honest man
would refuse, to sign his name to any such
document. The Earl then drew from his pocket
a loaded pistol, and bade him kneel down, for
that his last hour was come. Johnson bent one
knee, but the Earl insisted on his kneeling on
both his knees. He did so, and Lord Ferrers
at once fired. The ball entered his body below


the rib, but it did not do its fell work instan-
taneously. Though mortally wounded, the poor
fellow had strength to rise, and to call loudly
for assistance. The Earl at first coolly prepared
as though he would discharge the other pistol, so
as to put his victim out of misery ; but, suddenly
moved with remorse, he unlocked the door and
called for the servants, who on hearing the dis-
charge of the pistol had run in fear and trembling
to the washhouse, not knowing whether his
lordship would not take it into his head to send
a bullet through their bodies also. He called
them once and again, desired one to fetch a
surgeon, and another to help the wounded man
into a bed. It was clear, however, that Johnson
had not many hours to live ; and as he desired to
see his children before he died, the Earl ordered
that they should be summoned from the farm.
Miss Johnson came speedily, and found her
father apparently in the agonies of death, and
Lord Ferrers standing by the bedside, and
attempting to staunch the blood that flowed from
the wound.

The whole neighbourhood was soon aroused,
for the messenger who was sent for the doctor
told the sad story to his friends and acquaint-
ances along the road to Ashby, and by the time
that the surgeon arrived there was a large crowd


gathering round the house. His lordship now
began to quake for his own life, and repeatedly
implored the doctor not to allow him to be seized,
declaring at the same time that he would shoot
anyone who attempted to lay hands on him.

Fortunately, in order to deaden his feelings,
his lordship had recourse to the porter jugs,
which he continued to drain one after another,
till he was hopelessly drunk ; and for a few
minutes he threatened to renew the attack on
poor Johnson, whom he reviled and cursed as a
villain, vowing that he would shoot him through
the head as he lay in the bed. Soon, however,
the paroxysm passed away ; and at the end of
the day, while his victim was still writhing in
agony, his lordship, stupefied with drink, lay
down to sleep.

During the night, by a clever rtise, the sur-
geon, Mr. Kirkland, contrived to have Johnson
removed to his home in a sort of sedan chair
which he extemporised for the occasion ; but he
survived the removal only a few hours, dying at
nine o'clock the next morning.

The next part of the story shall be told in the
words of the contemporary account as they stand
in the Gentleman's Magazine.

" As soon as it became known that Mr. Johnson
was really dead, the neighbours set about seizing


the murderer. A few persons armed set out
for Staunton, and as they entered the hall-yard
they saw the Earl going towards the stable, as
they imagined to take horse. He appeared to be
just out of bed, his stockings being down and his
garters in his hand, having probably taken the
alarm immediately on coming out of his room
and finding that Johnson had been removed.
One Springthorpe, advancing towards his lord-
ship presented a pistol, and required him to sur-
render ; but his lordship putting his hand to his
pocket, Springthorpe imagined he was feeling
for a pistol, and stopped short, being probably
intimidated. He thus suffered the Earl to es-
cape back into the house, where he fastened the
doors, and stood on his defence. The crowd of
people who had come to apprehend him beset the
house, and their number increased very fast.
In about two hours Lord Ferrers appeared at the
garret window, and called out, 'How is John-
son 1' Springthorpe answered ' He is dead ;' upon
which his Lordship insulted him, and called him
a liar, and swore he would not believe anybody
but the surgeon, Kirkland. Upon being again

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Online LibraryEdward WalfordTales of our great families. 2d series (Volume 1) → online text (page 5 of 16)