Elopement of Thomas Buxton and Elizabeth Hickson

Before we get into the details of this elopement, let’s delve into the background of these two ‘love birds’ and try to discover a bit more about them.

Thomas Buxton was born in Bradbourne Derbyshire in 1806. He was baptised in the Parish Church there on 17th Nov 1806[1] to Thomas, a moderately successful farmer, and Elizabeth. He had 3 siblings, an older brother also called Thomas but who died aged 9 the year our Thomas was born; Betty (or Elizabeth on the Census Returns) born in 1803 and a younger sister Mary Ann born in 1809.[2] At some point before 1823 the family moved to Stenson[3] and were Tenant farmers on the Harpur Crewe Estate.[4] They were doing sufficiently well to be able to send a fifteen-year-old Mary Ann to Miss Moss’s private school in Derby at £25 per year.[5]

Elizabeth Hickson was baptised in Worton Nether, Oxfordshire to John and Mary Hickson on 26 Aug 1810.[6] She was a privileged child almost from birth. Her mother’s uncle, John Wilson was a very wealthy man and never married or had children of his own. He lived in Stenson as a farmer, land and property owner and doted on Elizabeth. She, it seems, lived with him through most of her childhood and John paid for all her education. The Wilson family had been in Stenson for generations and John’s brother Thomas was a wealthy Merchant living in London.[7] John Wilson had left his fortune in his will to Elizabeth (about £40,000).

Elizabeth’s father John died in 1811 [8]when Elizabeth was just a baby, which may explain why her Great Uncle John took her under his wing. Her mother, Mary married again to George Wayte,  a farmer and he manages one of John Wilson’s farms and acts as bailiff for John.[9] They sent Elizabeth to Miss Moss’s private school in Derby where she makes the acquaintance of Mary Ann Buxton. In fact, the Buxtons and the Hicksons were acquainted with one another, Mrs Hickson taking tea on two occasions at the Buxton’s farm. It was she who had recommended Miss Moss’s school for Mary Ann.[10]

So let’s go now to 1828, sometime before June and introduce William Webster. William had been a Sherriff’s Officer in Derby but was having pecuniary difficulties. He was friendly with Thomas, who apparently had found himself in ‘embarrassing circumstances’ and William, eager to get himself out of debt, knew of Elizabeth and her impending fortune. He hatched a plot with Thomas for Thomas to woo her and ultimately marry her. On marrying her, William was to receive £500 and, strangely, Thomas’s best horse for his part in the plot.[11]

The two were introduced by Thomas’s sister, Mary Ann who was already well acquainted with Elizabeth. There followed over a period several meetings and, subsequently, love letters were sent to each other via Mary Ann, who was, it seems, aware of the plot. Thomas seemed to gain some affection from Elizabeth who was “a young lady of great simplicity of character and of the most kind and confiding disposition”.[12] Was this the prosecution’s aim to portray Elizabeth as a vulnerable woman and therefore easily persuaded, or actually, was she a well educated, but sheltered girl who was very much aware of her actions, and therefore willing to go along with Thomas’s plan?

Once the two were ‘in a relationship’ William Webster made enquiries about marriage by licence or banns. Marriage by licence would have needed the permission of Elizabeth’s parents as she was underage (in a later bill put before Parliament Elizabeth is actually called ‘an infant’) and Banns read in their local Parish Church of Barrow would of course have alerted family and friends and they would certainly have prevented the marriage. So William was advised to have the Banns called elsewhere, preferably a large city where hundreds of Banns are read out each week and theirs would get ‘lost’. The decision was made to have the Banns read in Manchester.[13] Thomas and William travelled up to Manchester and met with Benjamin Wilde, who ran the White Lion pub.  This would be where the ‘wedding party’ would stay prior to, and after, the marriage. They arranged with the local Parish Clerk for the Banns to be read, which they were on three successive Sunday’s without the knowledge of Miss Hickson’s family.[14]

Meanwhile, the meetings between Elizabeth and Thomas had been noticed by her friends. The family, who obviously did not consider Thomas a suitable person for Elizabeth, forbade her to see any of the Buxton family, save for Mary Ann.

Mary Ann went to Elizabeth’s house on the 8th June and told her the plan to get her away from the house the following morning. So Elizabeth gained permission from her mother to go out for the day to visit friends in Normanton. She rode a pony and was attended by a boy on foot. However, following the plan, she sent the boy away with the pony to Derby and then went in another direction to meet Thomas, Mary Ann and Erasmus Webster, who had also been brought into the plot. He was William’s brother and had been an Attorney in Manchester but had to leave because of pecuniary difficulties. They were in a waiting carriage and Erasmus directed the driver by way of small roads to avoid Derby and the turn-pike roads to Matlock. They ordered fresh horses and paid the post boy an extra charge of 6s 8d to delay his return to Derby until 7 o’clock in the evening with the view of hiding their movements further.[15]

Erasmus, it seemed, had played his part as he returned to Derby and the other three carried on to Manchester, arriving at the White Lion the same evening. What was Elizabeth feeling that evening? Was she excited or was she a little apprehensive in deceiving her family?

They were married as early as they could get the vicar to the church the following morning on the 10th June.[16] They signed the register (a slight irregularity occurred in that they signed the register before the ceremony and the vicar did not sign it until afterwards) and stated they were ‘of the Parish of Manchester’. They returned to the White Lion. William Webster, perhaps mindful that Elizabeth’s family might yet track them down, advised them to go elsewhere to consummate the marriage, but they did not.[17]

Meanwhile, back in Stenson, concern had been growing for Elizabeth when she did not return from Normanton. I think they were either told, or had guessed what had happened, because they contacted Elizabeth’s Uncle (her mother’s brother) Ambrose Moore. Ambrose was another successful and wealthy businessman. He was a Silk Manufacturer with factories in Derby and London. He happened to be in Derby at the time and so he hurried to Stenson, first to the family to find out exactly what had happened and from there to the Buxton house to speak to Thomas’s mother. Whatever he found out there took him to Hulland Ward near Belper to speak to Thomas’s grandmother. Then, for reasons unknown, he went to Burton-upon-Trent, back to Derby and then onto Manchester. This was an epic journey of, in total, 110 miles in a day, on horseback.

When he arrived in Manchester it was early evening and he procured the services of Mr Lavender, a policeman and went to the White Lion in the ‘salubrious’ area named Hanging Ditch and demanded to be told where Elizabeth was. Benjamin Wilde tried to forestall Ambrose from seeing Elizabeth, by first saying they were not there, then showing them to an empty room. Ambrose finally found Elizabeth in a bedroom upstairs with Thomas and his sister Mary Ann. Thomas and Elizabeth were clinging to one another. Ambrose forcibly separated them telling Thomas that if he did not give her up he would answer to Mr Lavender. Mr Lavender forced everyone to leave the room bar Ambrose and his niece. He then took Elizabeth away and back to his house in Derby.[18]

Thomas, William and Erasmus Webster, Mary Ann, and Benjamin Wilde were arrested, but someone held Bail for them. Thomas was not going to take this lying down though. A few days later he had a writ of habeas corpus against Ambrose Moore and Stephen Lavender, deputy constable of Manchester brought against them. It was charged that Ambrose and Mr Lavender had forcibly carried away Elizabeth Buxton, his wife, and separated her from him against her will. And therefore he had been imprisoned unlawfully.[19] The result after Ambrose had been on the Witness stand was inconclusive, and I can find no further court reports about it.

And so in March the following year, they found themselves in court, facing the following charges

  • Having been engaged in procuring a marriage without due publication of banns
  • Making false entry in a book of banns
  • Making a false entry in the register of marriages
  • Conspiring to effect a marriage without the due publication of banns.[20]

Mr Pollock for the defence pointed out that Thomas and Elizabeth were lawfully man and wife even though no consummation had taken place. ‘Elizabeth received his attentions, tolerated his advances and consented to become his wife.’[21]

The judge in summing up said that marriage by bans in this manner was not an offence under this Act of Parliament but it was a conspiracy at Common Law to avoid regulations about underage persons.[22]

The Jury took only a few minutes to deliberate and found Thomas Buxton, William and Erasmus Webster guilty. They were sentenced to 3 years in the notorious Lancaster Castle Prison. Mary Ann and Benjamin Wilde walked free.

In 1830, Elizabeth’s family took their case to Parliament with a Private Act of Parliament called the Hickson Marriage Annulment Bill to try to have the marriage made null and void. Because of their failure in the courts to do so, their only option was to appeal to Parliament. It also went to the Lords where a witness called Edward Fletcher was called, amongst others, who knew both Thomas Buxton and William Webster. He did not paint a very good picture of Thomas saying that he frequented public houses frequently and also brothels in Derby, having at one time had ladies of ill repute over at his own house. Interestingly, Edward was also asked whether William Webster had been formerly engaged to Thomas’s older sister, Elizabeth, to which he replied in the affirmative.[23]

Thomas was sent a copy of the Bill in which he was described as ‘ a needy man of profligate character’, ‘violent and vindictive’, has continued a course of ‘vice and wickedness’.[24]

From his prison cell on the 17th May 1830 Thomas took up his pen and wrote a letter to Sir George Crewe and included a copy of the said Bill. (His mother, and I think his older sister Elizabeth, were still the Tenant farmers for Sir George at Stenson.) He writes:

‘…….. I beg most respectfully to call your attention to the recitals of the bill the reading of which has overwhelmed me with distress and after the punishment to which I have been subjected on account of this business and the misfortunes it has entailed upon my family to be thus branded by a solemn act of Legislature, as one of the basest and most wicked of mankind is filling my cup of grief and bitterness to the very brim. I have come up against my misfortune the better, perhaps from the conviction that they are in a great measure the consequences of an ill spent life and in the hope and firm resolve of profiting by the moral lesson they have read me, but this is too severe – trampling too much upon a fallen man. For should this bill pass into a Law I feel convinced however anxious I may hereafter be to regain a respectable station in society (and believe me Sir I am most anxious on the subject) that my character and future prospects are irretrievably stained.[25]

Of course, we don’t know whether George replied to Thomas or whether he tried to help. But ultimately the Bill failed and so Thomas and Elizabeth were still married.

The next little twist in this story occured in 1832, I would think not long after Thomas, William and Erasmus are released from prison. We find that Mary Ann, Thomas’s sister married Erasmus Webster in Ashbourne[26] and they have two children. Erasmus is back practising Law as an attorney in the 1841 and 1851 censuses in Chapel en le Frith.[27]

Thomas went back to Hulland Ward and is a farmer, running the farm with his sister Elizabeth and at the time of the 1841 Census they have Arthur Webster, Mary Ann’s 6-year-old son with them too.[28]

Elizabeth remained single until she was 32, ‘when another wooer, one John Shaw, a student of law, paid his addresses to her in a more conventional fashion. His proposals were favorably received; but it was doubted (not altogether without reason) whether, under the circumstances, the parties could safely marry; and divorce was finally decided upon. Buxton was found, and (his hope of profit from his marriage having grown cold) was induced by payment of £40 for expenses and a contingent fee of £250 to go to Scotland and remain there until a divorce could be secured. Buxton accordingly went to Scotland, was followed by Elizabeth Hickson, and they were finally divorced in 1846. Shaw, meanwhile, fixed himself permanently in Scotland and became a member of the Scottish bar. He and Elizabeth were married in June 1846.’[29]

Thomas died in 1852.[30]

You would think that would be the end of the story wouldn’t you, but there is one final twist. Elizabeth died in 1863, her husband John having died 9 years before her.[31] They have had 3 children. She was still a woman of considerable wealth and, as you would expect, in her will she leaves everything to her children. Elizabeth’s family (and I have no way of knowing exactly who they are) have other ideas.

In 1867 (4 years after the death of Elizabeth) the case was brought before the Lords that the laws in Scotland, ie Divorce, are not valid in England and therefore Elizabeth’s children are illegitimate. It was upheld amid much discussion in the newspapers about the discreditable confusion of the marriage laws in England.[32] And so I would guess that the children received nothing.

What a chain of events a conversation in a pub between two friends in reduced financial circumstances had started. And despite going through the Courts and both houses of Parliament, no laws were changed, despite the efforts, and finances of Elizabeth’s family to annul her marriage, get them divorced and then, strangely try to declare her children illegitimate.

[1] Bradbourne Parish Registers
[2] Bradbourne Parish Register
[3] Testimony of Mary Ann Wayte at the trial – Times Mar 24 1829
[4] Testimony of Edward Fletcher at the trial – Times Mar 24 1829
[5] Testimony of Mary ann Wayte at the trial – Times Mar 24 1829
[6] Worton Nether Parish Registers
[7] Testimony of Thomas Wilson at the trial – Times Mar 24 1829
[8] Ancestry.co.uk Sept 2018
[9] Testimony of Thomas Wilson at the trial – Times Mar 24 1829
[10] Testimony of Mary Ann Wayte at the trial – Times mar 24 1829
[11] Prosecution counsel at the trial – Times Mar 24 1829
[12] Prosecution counsel at the trial – Times Mar 24 1829
[13] Prosecution counsel at the trial – Times Mar 24 1829
[14] Prosecution counsel at the trial – Times Mar 24 1829
[15] Prosecution counsel at the trial – Time Mar 24 1829
[16] Manchester and England marriages and banns
[17] Prosecution counsel at the trial – Times Mar 24 1829
[18] Ambrose Moore testimony at the trial Times Mar 24 1829.
[19] Manchester Courier and Lancaster General Advertiser 21 Jun 1828
[20] Times Mar 24 1829
[21] Defence appeal at the trial – Times 24 Mar 1829
[22] Judge’s summing up at the trial – Times 24 Mar 1829
[23] Hickson’s Marriage Annulling Bill – The Lords – 1830
[24] Copy of the Bill DRO D2375/F/F/1/1
[25] Letter from Thomas Buxton – DRO D2375/F/F/1/1
[26] England birth, death and Marriage index – Ancestry.co.uk Oct 2018
[27] 1841 1851 census Chapel en le Frith – Ancestry.co.uk Oct 2018
[28] 1841 Census Hulland Ward – Ancestry.co.uk Oct 2018
[29] Nat Gould his life and books.
[30] England birth, marriage and death index
[31] Scottish birth marriage and death index
[32] Sheffield and Rotherham Independent 11 May 1868

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Karen Kreft

With a passion for social history, ex-teacher Karen has, since 2017, created a database of over 2000 Calke servants.

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