Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Poor Rector with a Rich Wife

The Hoopoe
By rail and by mail coach, they arrived. For months in 1839, in regular deliveries, caged and crated, came Cutthroats, Cardinals, Bishops, Hoopoes, Widows, Blackheaded Manakins, Nutmeg birds, Waxbills, Avadawatts, Quaker birds, Lorys, Love birds, Java Sparrows, Virginian Nightingales, Parrots, Paroquets, etc, more than 500 exotic birds shipped from London to the rectory at Milton Malsor. The Rev Edward Robert Butcher D.D. was the newly arrived rector of Holy Cross church in the Northamptonshire village, with his wife Caroline and their two daughters. Significantly, it was Mrs. Butcher who had ordered all these birds from the estimable Mrs. Freestone, a Dickensian figure who dabbled in native and imported birds for "the Nobility and Gentry" at her shop in London's St. Martin's Lane. 

In 1840, a lengthy dispute arose between the two ladies and Mrs. Freestone went to law. Relying on the common law principle that a husband shall be responsible for the debts of his wife, Mrs. Freestone sued the Rev. Butcher for goods (i.e. birds), sold and delivered, valued at £959 - close to a neat £100,000 in today's sterling. To which the country cleric replied, "Nunquam indebitatas." Not my debt, ma'am.

In the Court of Queen's Bench, the Rev Butcher explained that he was simply a "poor rector with a rich wife." Actually, he earned £400 a year. His wife was the sole heiress of a wealthy Middle Temple Barrister, with a separate bank account and fortune paying her £380 per year. In their marriage settlement of 1823, Edward and Caroline had agreed it was to be her money. Caroline's bird passion was solely her doing. Mrs. Freestone had come to Milton Malsor rectory several times to visit her great client but the Rev. Butcher swore that his wife had never troubled herself to introduce him to this curious woman "who dabbled in birds." The bills that steadily arrived were all addressed to "Mrs. Dr. Butcher."

Milton Malsor Rectory (Milton Malsor Historical Soc.)
The case of Freestone v Butcher has become something of a classic in the law of necessaries. Decades before "Married Women's Property" laws became a thing, tradesmen were permitted to rely on the husband to pay for his wife's "necessary" purchases - for her home and person, such as food and fashion suitable to their station in life. The wife, in such transactions, was considered to be the "agent" for her husband. But Lord Abinger, who presided in this case, thought this was a wholly different matter: "Here you have a married woman ordering, in about ten months, £900 worth of fancy birds." What if she suddenly ordered five puncheons (barrels) of rum? Nor was it enough for Mrs. Freestone to claim the rector, surrounded by an ever expanding aviary, "must" have known what his wife was doing with her money. His Lordship held that "it is the bounden duty of tradesmen (and, in this case, a woman) when they find a wife giving extravagant orders, to give notice to the husband immediately, if they mean to hold him liable." 

Sadly, the bird-hoarding Mrs. Butcher "shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the bleedin' choir invisible" in 1844. The fate of her collection is not known. Her husband left Milton for a new flock in Wandsworth in 1844.

Volume Two of Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series remains on sale exclusively through and

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