In the middle of the 19th century Hamsterley was witness to one of the County’s most vivid scandals – a story of adultery and alleged cruelty involving a prominent Landowner and Justice of the Peace, George Thomas Leaton Blenkinsopp of Hoppyland Park in the parish of Hamsterley.
George T L Blenkinsopp married Harriet Collingwood of Lilburn Tower, Eglingham, Northumberland in 1807 at the age of 22. Harriet was 19 years old. They had several children, Richard (born 1809 and later to become Rector of Shedforth); George Anthony (born 1813 and later a Lieutenant Colonel in India and J.P.); Henry Wellington (born 1815 and died 1839); Edward Clennell (born 1819 and later Rector of Springthorpe, County Lincoln) and Harriet Collingwood (died 1899). Blenkinsopp and his wife lived first at Whickham House, County Durham and later a Hoppyland Park where, in August 1835, papers concerning the divorce case for Consistorial Court of Durham later state, he formed a “very familiar and improper intimacy” with a young woman, Jane Longstaff. Jane was the daughter of Francis Longstaff a woodman and employee of Blenkinsopp, who lived at Howleas, South Bedburn with his wife and family.
Prior to this relationship the divorce case states that Blenkinsopp “did several times after his marriage converse and keep company with divers lewd, wicked and debauched women and had the carnal use and knowledge of their bodies”. His wife Harriet on the other hand “was and is a person of mild affable and obliging temper and of very modest and sober character and behaviour and of a religious and virtuous life and conversation… and hath at all times in her marriage behaved herself towards him (Blenkinsopp) with great duty and respect as the dutiful and indulgent wife”.
Blenkinsopp is described as having taken Jane Longstaff into his house ostensibly as a Houseservant but after a very short time he gave her the keys of his house calling her Housekeeper. He also gave her presents and money. He called her “his Jane” and “his Dear Jane” and told his servants to obey her orders and treat her with respect. At length Blenkinsopp is described as taking her as his mistress and committing “long frequent and continued acts of adultery” at Hoppyland and other places in the County of Durham.
By May 1837 Blenkinsopp is described as having attached himself entirely to Jane, keeping company with her in his library or sitting room. Jane occupied an adjoining bedroom and at the divorce proceedings it was reported that they shared the same bed from the summer of 1837 onwards. The testament of various servants, including Housemaids Ann Bryant and Margaret Watson, the Gardener and his wife Thomas and Jane Johnson and William Cairns, the Groom and Coachman confirmed that Jane and Blenkinsopp slept together. On one occasion the couple were reported as having been seen looking out of the bedroom window together and that Jane’s arms were around Blenkinsopp’s neck. Blenkinsopp was heard to say that Jane was “more to him than either of the ladies” meaning his wife and daughter. Jane admitted the relationship to Ann Bryant and wept blaming her father, Francis, for sending her to Hoppyland in order that Francis would be provided for and Jane taken care of.
The divorce proceedings went on to state that for many years, and particularly since 1832, Blenkinsopp had shown a violent, vindictive temper and disposition towards his wife and that he had treated her with great contempt disdain and cruelty using abusive language, which greatly alarmed and terrified her. In May 1838 after Blenkinsopp had been ill with a bilious attack, he treated his wife particularly badly, calling her a “whore: and saying she was drunk. Blenkinsopp threatened Harriet with violence and would not permit her to leave her room, come near him, take any meals with him or allow any servants to wait on her. Blenkinsopp almost starved his wife and would not allow her any food, clothes, meat, drink or a fire. He would not allow her clothes to be washed in the house and he would not give her any money. Harriet was frequently obliged to go to neighbours’ houses and beg for food or send to traders at Hamsterley for tea, coffee, bread, butter, cheese, milk and occasionally for a little wine or ale to keep up her strength. The court case papers state that had it not been for this help Harriet would have starved to death. All Blenkinsopp allowed her was one frugal meal a day consisting of a little meat and potato, which was sent to her room.
Around 31st December 1840 an application was made to Blenkinsopp for payment of a bill due to Edward Stephenson (deceased) former Grocer and Draper of Hamsterley in the sum of £11 18s for goods supplied to Harriet. Blenkinsopp had to pay the amount to Stephenson’s widow, Mary, after being threatened with action for recovery of debt. Following this incident Blenkinsopp inserted an advertisement in the newspapers stating he would not be responsible for any debts incurred by his wife. Blenkinsopp also distributed handbills throughout Durham to the same effect. Through Blenkinsopp’s action Harriet was reduced to such extremity of want, exhaustion and starvation that she was obliged to leave Hoppyland and go and live in the City of Durham on 8th February, 1841.
The Court was asked to grant a divorce to Harriet on the grounds of adultery and cruelty. The case was found in Harriet’s favour and Blenkinsopp was ordered to pay costs of £270 13s 7d and alimony of £160 per year to Harriet.
Around the time of the divorce hearing, Blenkinsopp and Jane left Hoppyland to live in Scotland at Holyrood Castle. They stayed in Scotland for several years and indeed at the time of the 1851 Census were still there. Between 1842 and 1852 there followed a series of long drawn out legal cases in which Harriet tried to obtain the alimony, which was legally hers.
It appears that prior to Harriet obtaining her divorce, Blenkinsopp sought means of preventing her claiming alimony and in this connection a series of letters were exchanged between Blenkinsopp and his solicitors, Messrs Fenwick and Trotter. It also appears that Blenkinsopp deliberately removed himself to Scotland in order to avoid making payment to Harriet on the grounds that a subpoena could not be served if he resided within the precincts of Holyrood Castle. In order to avoid payment of alimony Blenkinsopp, who possessed considerable freehold and personal estate, executed a deed on 2nd September 1842 between himself and his solicitors, Fenwick and Trotter, which had the effect of transferring all his property to Fenwick and Trotter who were to act as trustees. The deed was ostensibly carried out in order that Blenkinsopp could make a fund for payment of some existing debts. The deed included an arrangement for the payment of annuities from the income of the estate to Blenkinsopp, his sons and to Fenwick and Trotter. It also included an offer to pay Harriet £100 a year providing she dropped all proceedings against Blenkinsopp.
Numerous unsuccessful claims for alimony were made until in December 1844 Blenkinsopp was found to be in contempt of court and sequestrators attempted to seize what they understood to be Blenkinsopp’s property. It was then that the deed of September 1842 came to light and Harriet had to start a long legal fight in order to prove the deed was fraudulent and designed to prevent her from obtaining the alimony, which was rightfully hers. The Master of the Rolls, Lord Langdale, said of the case in February 1850: -
“The letters, written after the date of the deed, do not show so much of the design existing before the date of the deed as was accomplished by the deed; but they show the same continuing design to defeat the remedy of the Plaintiff, and I cannot say, that I think the distinction very material; because the letters written before the deed, are, in my opinion, quite sufficient to support the allegations in the bill.
It is not necessary for me to undertake the disagreeable task of reading these letter: Upon the evidence, consisting of the letter, the deed itself, and the other facts of the case, I am of the opinion, that the principal, if not the only object of the Defendant, in executing the deed in question, was to withdraw his property from the process of the Court in which the Plaintiff was suing, and that, notwithstanding the provision therein made for the payment of certain debts and charges, it was a voluntary deed, principally contrived and executed for that purpose.
I have nothing to do with the deplorable perversity of the Defendant’s conduct. The question is, whether the Court had jurisdiction to set aside, or to reduce the effect of a voluntary deed, executed for the purpose of defeating, by anticipation, an expected order for the payment of money in such a suit.”
Lord Langdale found against Blenkinsopp and ordered that all money owing to Harriet be paid together with all costs relating to the case. Blenkinsopp appealed against the decision but lost.
Blenkinsopp died on 16th December 1864 aged 81 and the Durham County Advertiser reported his death in the following terms: -
“December 16th 1864 – Death of G T Blenkinsopp Esquire, Senior Magistrate of County Durham, Deputy Lieutenant of Durham and Northumberland, who was a most eccentric gentleman having had three coffins made for himself sometime before his death, As a magistrate dignified and just.”
Blenkinsopp must have returned to Hoppyland some years before his death because the 1861 Census records him living at Hoppyland aged 78 with Jane Leaton aged 36, described as “adopted” and born in South Bedburn.
Blenkinsopp died as he had lived, an eccentric gentleman whose hatred of certain members of his family seemed to be equalled by the love and devotion he continued to feel towards Jane until her death. In his Will he made special provision for “my Dear Jane Leaton” (as she was now called) including and annuity of some £300 per annum; the use of Hoppyland Park for six months after his death in order to allow her time to find a new home; the choice of one of his carriages and whatever plate, furniture, etc. she wished together with the disposal of all his clothing. Jane was also given the use of his diamonds for life if she so wished or, alternatively, they could be sold and the proceeds used to buy a house for her use during her lifetime. Blenkinsopp also asked that arrangements be made for he and Jane eventually to be buried together. Blenkinsopp’s funeral arrangements were, to say the least, eccentric. He forbad any of his family to attend the funeral except for his second oldest son, George Anthony, and five named nephews and Jane. He ordered three coffins to be made for himself – a lead one; an oak one covered in crimson muslin velvet and a fur one lined with mattress and pillow. He asked to be buried in Knott Hill at Hoppyland with a temporary vault being made to hold 2 bodies until a permanent one was complete of which his son, George Anthony, knew details. He added that should the owner of Hoppyland refuse Jane’s burial with him, his body was to be removed and laid with hers.
His son, George Anthony, must have objected to these last arrangements because in a codicil to his Will dated 18th November 1864 Blenkinsopp wrote that since his son had “such a repugnance to my being buried in the West Knott Hill, I leave my burial to his disposal”. In the event Blenkinsopp was buried at Hamsterley Parish Church on 19th December 1864. His hatred of his wife continued until his death and his Will stated that neither she nor their daughter should be allowed to come to Hoppy land. Harriet outlived her husband for some years and died aged 88 on 22nd September 1876.