The tale of the 19th century abduction of a Cheshire girl and the trial of her kidnapper was a story as big as Brexit, but then why did the tale of Ellen Turner disappear?
By Antonia Charlesworth
The morning of 7 March 1826 began as most did at Margaret Daulby’s elite boarding school for girls in Liverpool. But 15-year-old Ellen Turner – a bright, accomplished child – would not be sitting down to her books that day. Her education and her childhood both came to an abrupt end that morning when her schoolmistress handed her freely but unknowingly over to her abductor.
“I got into the carriage. Nothing was said about me going anywhere other than home.”
The history books note Edward Gibbon Wakefield as an imperial visionary and one of the founders of New Zealand but his wealth did not match his political ambition so he set his sights on marrying a wealthy heiress. In 1816, aged 19, he married 16-year-old Eliza Pattle who died four years later. Wakefield lived off her fortune in Paris before conspiring to abduct the daughter of wealthy Macclesfield silk merchant William Turner of Pott Shrigley.
As Wakefield’s meticulously premeditated plan unfolded Turner was taken up and down the country – to Gretna Green where she was tricked into marriage and down to Dover where she was smuggled out of the country. But hot on their heels was Turner’s father’s lawyer and the Metropolitan Police.
“The story of the abduction completely transfixed the whole of the national press. It was the number one story, a bit like Brexit is today,” says Kate M Atkinson, who became so “completely and utterly hooked” on the story she wrote a book about it – Abduction: The Story of Ellen Turner.
Atkinson came across the story while working at Lyme Park in Cheshire, the former home of MP Thomas Legh, whom Turner married soon after Wakefield was taken to trial.
“One of my jobs in the winter was to research absolutely everything to do with Lyme and I came across a footnote in a tome of some sort with the very, very brief précis of the story. It looked intriguing so I started researching it.”
The conspiracy began with Wakefield’s stepmother Frances inveigling her way into the Turner family’s lives via a mutual friend, Mrs Brocklehurst, the wife of the owner of a local bank. In addition to the hundreds of column inches dedicated to the scandal Atkinson uncovered the court transcripts.
“I was told and believed that I was to go to Manchester where I would meet my papa, and from there to Shrigley,” Turner – who was taken from school by a man posing as a new servant to her father – told Lancaster Assizes a year after her ordeal. When she arrived in Manchester, however, she wasn’t met by her father, who was on business in London, but by Wakefield.
“He said he was commissioned by my papa to take me to him, that it was the state of my papa’s business affairs which had induced him to send for me home. Nothing was said about me going anywhere other than home. I got into the carriage. I imagined I was going to meet my papa but we didn’t go to Shrigley, we went to several different places.”
Turner and Wakefield first travelled via Huddersfield to Kendal. A fashionable and charming man, Wakefield told Turner that her father was on the brink of ruin but that his uncle, a rich Kendal banker, had loaned him £60,000.
“He said that his uncle demanded security for the sum that he had lent and that the security was to be the estate of Shrigley,” Turner told the courts. “He said that it had been suggested by Mr Grimsditch, my papa’s attorney, that he, Mr Wakefield, should be my husband, then the estate of Shrigley would be mine and it would only be in my power to turn my papa out of doors, if I liked, but of course, I would not think of doing so. I made no reply to this, not at this time.”
In Kendal Wakefield pretended to find a letter from William Turner at the post office, asking him to bring his daughter further north to Carlisle.
“I had left school at eight o’clock in the morning… I arrived at Carlisle at 11 o’clock at night. Mr Wakefield alighted from the carriage and went into an inn. After 15 minutes he returned. He said he had seen my papa and that Mr Grimsditch was with him. That my papa was concealed in a small room at the back of the inn. That my papa had made two attempts that day to cross the border into Scotland but could not. He said that Sheriff’s officers were in search of my papa and Mr Grimsditch had entreated him not to stop in the room or him and my papa should be discovered. He said that Mr Grimsditch had taken him by the shoulders and turned him out of the room. He said that my papa had requested that if I ever loved him that I would not hesitate, not hesitate to accept Mr Wakefield as a husband. I consented, for fear that if I did not my papa would be ruined.”
Atkinson points out that Turner would have been predisposed to her role as an “obedient pawn” with an expectation that she would marry well to produce an “heir and a spare”. The pair travelled on to Gretna Green where they married, had dinner and drank champagne. Turner described feeling proud of rendering a service to her family “beyond any I could have hoped” and pleased to have had the opportunity. “I had saved my papa from financial ruin and secured the estate of Shrigley. I had no idea of the sins Mr Wakefield had committed against my papa, and me. I believed myself the lawful wife of Mr Wakefield. I wrote a letter to my mother and used the name of Mrs Edward Wakefield. Mr Edward Wakefield dictated the letter.”
In 1826 abduction only amounted to a felony if a woman of property was taken against her will, with a view to gaining her fortune, and if the abductor married or defiled her. The law protected property, not women, so abducting women with no fortune was perfectly legal. Atkinson says in this regard Turner’s abduction was in no way unique.
Wakefield, clearly familiar with the law, avoided committing a felony by marrying Turner outside the jurisdiction. After the marriage they set out for France, another jurisdiction, where he intended them to settle as man and wife.
“I expected now to go home to Shrigley but Mr Wakefield said that business had taken my papa to London and to meet him there,” recalled Turner. “On alighting from the carriage at the Brunswick hotel, we were shown into a sitting room but my papa was not there. Only Mr Wakefield’s brother. I left the room in tears. Mr Wakefield said that his brother had been sent to inform me that my papa had been called away on another business and was now in Calais. He said my papa had requested that I meet him there.
“In Calais I awaited the arrival of my father. Each day I walked down to the quay to watch for the Dover steam packet. On the fourth day I saw Mr Grimsditch disembark. I learned that I was not Mr Wakefield’s lawful wife, that I should never see him again, he had deceived me. And when I heard all, I was anxious to tell all. I am not Mrs Edward Wakefield, I am Miss Ellen Turner.”
Wakefield and his brother were tried and found guilty of the offence of conspiracy to abduct – a misdemeanour – in 1827. The case had captured the public imagination to such an extent that, Atkinson says, there was not a bed to be had in Lancaster during the trial. The brothers each served a three-year sentence.
The court notes, alongside press reports, have now been recorded by actors as part of a contemporary art installation at Lyme. The installation follows the journey of Mr Scarlett, defence for Wakefield, as he visits key witnesses and attempts to gather evidence against her he hopes will “stop her mouth”.
“We knew the story of Ellen Turner’s abduction was a fascinating one but as we explored it further it struck us how her experience reflects the experiences of many other women, and men, who stand to give evidence,” says Sarah Richardson of Filament, the theatre company behind the audio. “In the run-up to the trial Ellen’s character and behaviour were scrutinised by the defence, the press and the public, and yet aged only 16 she stood in front of a crowded courtroom to tell her version of events.”
The most unusual thing about the case, says Atkinson, is that William Turner bothered to fight it – and won.
“Most fathers in those days would live with it. But William Turner had a big industry in Blackburn, so had his brothers, and he didn’t want to see his wealth being squandered by her abductor,” she says. William Turner applied to have the marriage annulled by a special act of parliament. Wakefield unsuccessfully counter-petitioned and the House of Lords Act declaring the marriage void was given Royal Assent on 14 June 1827, bringing the 15-month union to an end.
By the time Wakefield was released in 1830 Turner was married to Thomas Legh, a man twice her age, and living at Lyme. Following a miscarriage, she had had a successful pregnancy and a daughter. She quickly became pregnant again but the son who would have ensured the inheritance of both Lyme and Shrigley was still-born and Ellen herself died on 17 January 1831, shortly after the birth. She was 19.
So why was Ellen Turner’s story – with its mystery, intrigue, deception and tragedy – consigned to a footnote in the history of Lyme?
“She was abducted at 15 and died at 19,” says Atkinson. “A very, very short space of time. The poor woman died just out of childhood and then Thomas’s endeavours and aggrandisement of his estate in Cheshire and Lancashire, all his business schemes, took precedent over that story. He remarried, so Ellen’s story became lost in many ways.”
Tuesday 7 March 1826. Miss Ellen Turner, sole heiress to Shrigley Park, is abducted from her school in Liverpool. Taken by carriage to Gretna Green, she is deceived into marriage by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a man she has never met before. She is a month past her 15th birthday.
Below you can hear extracts from the installation, created and produced by a partnership of Filament Projects, Waterside Arts and Creative Industries Trafford.
James Scarlett, defence lawyer for Wakefield, follows the route of the abduction and interviews key witnesses to gather evidence about Ellen Turner – evidence he hopes will close her mouth and prevent her from standing as a witness at the forthcoming trial.
Finally, hear Turner in her own words, as she stand before the court and outlines her ordeal.
In the courtyard at the Ladies’ Seminary Miss Elizabeth Daulby, Ellen Turner’s school mistress, is questioned by James Scarlett.
At the Bush Inn, landlady Sarah Holmes is questioned by James Scarlett
Miss Linton, daughter of the landlord of Gretna Green Hall, is questioned by James Scarlett
At Lancaster Shire Hall Assizes Ellen Turner gives evidence
A young lady of “very interesting, prepossessing appearance” and a fashionable and charming man become embroiled in a scandal with high money stakes. “The press were rubbing their hands in glee,” says Kate Atkinson.
The Manchester Guardian
“Miss Turner is very pleasing to look at. A young lady of very interesting, prepossessing appearance. Her complexion is good and the expression of her lips particularly beautiful. On entering the court dressed in a plain black gown and bonnet, the bonnet with a scarlet ribbon round it, her figure was particularly
and deservedly admired. She looked extremely well and behaved with great propriety and composure not withstanding the intense curiosity with which she was viewed by so large an assembly.”
“This is a cruel case of abduction. The child was carried off being only 15 years of age. Miss Turner, the child in question, or the young lady of very interesting and prepossessing appearance, is rather tall for her age and her countenance is enlivened by two piercing eyes. Her peculiarly white and beautifully formed teeth provide a fine contrast to her ruby lip. Although it had been hinted that Miss Turner’s intellects are not of the strongest kind, she is a lady of quick and natural talents and no pains have been spent of their cultivation. There is something so fascinating about her.”
Stockport Advertiser and Guardian
“The usual disgusting trickery has been employed by the gentlemen of the press to excite the sympathy of the public, and the appearance and manners of Miss Turner have furnished ample materials of the paragraph makers. We cannot conceive anything more insulting to Miss Turner and her family than all of this hoo hah about her personal appearance. She is a fine tall girl of her age and we believe she has sense enough to feel consummate disgust at the bare faced flattery that is thus heaped upon her. Coupled as it is with the similar expressions towards the man from whom she has received such an irreparable injury. While we are on the subject, we may just notice that Edward Wakefield is said to bear a strong resemblance to Sir Walter Scott.”
“Now, mark all this, pretty Miss Turner did not in the least care about being ran away with, for if she had, by speaking to the landlady at the first inn where she ran upstairs to put her curlers right, or to tie her shoe strings, explain the real state of the case, the ravisher and the post chaise would have been laid by the heels in a twinkling. The steam packet to Calais, a whisper, a look, a sigh, would have roused the gallantry of all the male passengers of the chivalrous age.
But no, having tried Mr Wakefield for a week or ten days, and finding him beyond my fancy stupid, and by her conception, dull, she bounds away. I’m very glad that she is well rid of such a thing but, I confess, I see nothing neither interesting nor romantic in the affair – a good deal of naivety on one side and a common quantity of stupidity on the other.”
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