Monday, June 26, 2017

A Teesdale Rector with a "Ton of Daughters."

The "clean and healthy" village of Romaldkirk is set amidst what one Victorian visitor called, “the softer scenery of Teesdale.” The ancient Saxon church of St. Romald was particularly striking. Near the church were the walled grounds of the rubbled sandstone rectory. From 1850 until his death in 1889, the rector was the Rev. Henry Cleveland. In 1871, he found himself briefly a national celebrity when he flatly refused to pay the bills for his daughter’s wedding.

The Rev. and Mrs. Cleveland were blessed with a large family. There were ten surviving children, six of them daughters. Mary Louisa was 27 on her wedding day, Michaelmas Day, the 29th of September 1870. The groom was Capt. Henry Grant Young, an officer of the Royal Artillery. Mary Louisa stood a full 5 foot 10 in her splendid gown and veil. The large and extended Cleveland family, a few of the groom’s brother officers and all the villagers were treated to a sumptuous wedding breakfast at the rectory. Capt. and Mrs. Young soon set off for their wedding trip before he was to join his unit in India.
This jolly proceeding was followed days later by what the Rev. Mr. Cleveland called a “thunderbolt.” In the post, he received a bill from London: Whiteley’s, the famous “Universal Provider’s” of Bayswater, had submitted their account for £155 5s for “a variety of silk & other dresses, petticoats, jackets, mantles, veils, head-dresses, embroideries, trimmings, laces, etc.”  The rector wrote back immediately, “Sir, I am perfectly astonished at the amount of the bill which you have sent in to my daughter. She chose to forget, and you are not aware, that she is one of ten children of a country parson. On her return from her wedding tour, she will examine the items of your account.” Mary Louisa’s homecoming was undoubtedly not a pleasant one. In fact, there was a great quarrel. In February 1871, the Rev. Henry Cleveland and William Whiteley found themselves on opposite sides before Lord Justice Willes in Durham Crown Court.

Mr. Whiteley, “with engaging candour,” told the jury that his bill was quite a reasonable one.  In fact, it would not have been thought extravagant at three times that much for the bride of an officer in Her Majesty’s army. Whiteley presented a fistful of letters from Mary Louisa with her specific purchase requests and detailed instructions for the dress-makers. The “particularly long wedding veil” was the subject of a painfully extensive discussion. The great merchant stated that it would have been a grave insult for a Whiteley’s clerk to write to a gentleman to ask if his daughter’s purchases were sanctioned. The Rev. Mr. Cleveland, a gentleman of rank and ample income, who moved in the finest society, had simply refused to pay for his daughter’s trousseau, though she lived with him and was married from his house. No retailer in England would be safe if this defiance was allowed to stand.

In the box, the Rev. Cleveland denied any intention to cause any calamity on the High Streets of Britain. Had the bill been smaller, he would have paid it just to preserve his family honour. But what extravagance in his name! He said he was aghast when he caught his first glimpse of Mary Louisa’s wedding gown, “a ridiculous production more suited for a Duke’s daughter." He had already paid almost £300 for flowers, lodging, the wedding breakfast and other flummeries of such a happy day. He was no paternal miser, the rector insisted. Each daughter received £40 per annum for their dresses and bonnets, as well as a family legacy out of which he had presumed his daughter would have financed her trousseau. His last remaining unmarried daughter, 22-year old Miss Isabella, took the stand to say she had sensibly made her bridesmaid dress for only £2 7s. As for the gallant Capt. Young, he had no great fortune of his own nor could he be held legally responsible for any of the debts which his wife had contracted before their marriage. 

Mr. Justice Willes instructed the jury that their only issue was whether or not Whiteley’s could reasonably have assumed that Miss Cleveland's trousseau had been ordered with the expressed or implied authority of her father. The jurymen ruled that the Bayswater bill must be paid in full; the Newcastle Courant thought the jury must have been composed of a “set of heartless bachelors.” 

The case of the Teesdale parson “with a ton of daughters” delighted the national papers. John Bull barked that the rector of Romaldkirk “seems to us to be an ill-advised and rather crusty gentleman.” Over so small a sum, “we cannot comprehend a gentleman allowing the affairs of his family to be canvassed.” 

For the Clevelands, however, this public kerfuffle was followed soon by private grief.  The new bride Mary Louisa Young died in India just over a year later. Capt. Young would re-marry Mary Louisa’s older sister, Charlotte. This time, there would be no trousseau issues. In fact, the marriage could not be celebrated in England as it was still illegal to marry your “deceased wife’s sister.” As for humble Isabella, it must be unhappily reported that she never had her own trousseau. She never married and was living alone with her aged father when he died at Romaldkirk rectory in 1889.

Photo: Memorial in St. Romald's Church, author's photo 2009.

The all new PAPERBACK volume two of Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, with five full-length stories - will be published very shortly. 

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