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Duration 00:53:26

Scandals in the family

This talk explores the deeds and misdeeds of one family, using documents in The National Archives and elsewhere. The tale involves deception, divorce, and the deliberate destruction of official records. Although the main narrative concerns one man, Captain George Boynton, several other members of his family also had encounters with either the civil or the criminal law. If they appeared in a work of fiction, his and his family’s exploits might seem far-fetched, but they are all true, and we have the evidence to prove it.

Audrey Collins is a family history specialist at The National Archives. She is a regular speaker at family history conferences and events in the UK and overseas, and is the author of numerous books and articles. Her most recent publication is Birth, marriage and death records: A guide for family historians (Pen & Sword 2012), which she co-wrote with Dave Annal.


I was asked to do this talk as an ‘Explore Your Archive’ event, and I have spoken about this particular family and their scandals, the Boynton’s of Burton Agnes, but that was about five years ago and I’ve discovered a bit more since. So, even if you’ve heard this before you might learn something new. I certainly have.

Burton Agnes is a beautiful house in the East Riding of Yorkshire and the Boynton family go a long long way back. The house which is open to the public, and I’d strongly recommend a visit because it’s a very nice house. It’s an exceptionally nice garden. They were there for a very, very long time, and although the family there at the moment are not called Boynton they are still direct descendants of the same family. The Boynton family generally are pretty interesting. They were quite a lively lot and there are some fairly interesting incidents going back through the centuries, but the one I want to concentrate on mainly relates to George Boynton, or to give him his full name and assignation, Captain George Hebblethwaite Lutton Boynton.

And this all started with one document. Apart from being an interesting story that comes into the ‘you couldn’t make it up’ category it’s a nice example of how you start off with one accidental find and then from that take your research to all sorts of other areas, different archives, different sources of information and other documents within the National Archives and this is what started it all off.

I’m very interested in fraud. What I was actually researching was frauds committed to do with registration- people altering birth certificates, or registering fraudulent deaths, but I came across this in a catalogue search and this wasn’t really what I was looking for, but the catalogue description was Fraudulent Abstraction of a Leaf from the Registers of St Pancras Parish: Baptism of Elizabeth Laura Keeling. I thought ‘That looks interesting’ and I went back and I followed it up and I ordered up this document which runs to many pages, several thousand words, and it’s in Home Office correspondence.

Home Office correspondence is a wonderful place. All human life is there. All sorts of people wrote to the Home Secretary about all sorts of things, very often in a state of high indignation about some real or perceived injustice, and this particular document, this statement, was written by a man called Mr Prickitt, of Bridlington in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and this is his statement, which is actually a pretty good narrative of, not the whole story of Captain Boynton and his misdeeds, but a fairly good summary of quite a lot of it.

And this was in 1866 and Mr Prickitt is particularly concerned with events of 1865 and his beef is that his daughter was now the wife of Captain Boynton. Mr Prickitt was not happy about this. Now there isn’t a great deal that the Home Secretary could have done about this, because, you know, the marriage was a perfectly legal one, but the story that unfolds relating to Captain Boynton’s earlier history as well as the events leading up to his marrying Mr Prickitt’s daughter is a fascinating story.

Now I’m not going to read the whole thing out to you, you’ll be relieved to hear, but one of the early paragraphs. He starts off, he says:

‘In the year 1849 Captain Boynton being then 21 years of age eloped with Miss Laura Keeling and clandestinely married her. Miss Keeling was then seventeen years of age and was possessed of a considerable fortune. Under pressure, we are informed, of a threat that proceedings would be taken against him on a charge of having procured the licence by fraudulent means he was induced to make a settlement of his wife’s fortune, two thirds of the income being settled on her for life and one third on him for life, the income of the whole on the survivor for life and the capital on the children of the marriage.’

Now, at this point you need to know a little bit about a couple of important pieces of legislation. One of them was the Married Women’s Property Act which at that time meant that a married woman had no separate legal existence. If you as a single woman owned anything at all, the minute you married that became the property of your husband. The other thing is the law relating to marriage and there was reasonably clear law about marriage at that time: that you had to have banns or licence; had to be between certain hours; you needed permission of parent or guardian if you were under age and so on; and various formalities.

Now, there were certain things that absolutely had to be the case for a marriage to be valid and to remain valid. That is, you couldn’t be too closely related to the person you were going to marry. Both of you had to be free to marry and so on. There were very few things though that would make a marriage invalid if it took place under those circumstances. If you got married without your parent’s permission, or you forged consent forms – all sorts of things like that – that was a wrong thing, but once done the marriage was valid and it could only then be challenged if there was some fraudulent intent and this is what he was referring to there.

Now Professor Rebecca Probert, who has spoken here and we’ve got, I think, two podcasts of her speaking here, she’s written a book on marriage law for genealogists and I would strongly recommend that because it states a lot of things very clearly that I’d only had a rather vague knowledge of before. So reading that book will explain an awful lot of this.

Now, this marriage… the elopement … well frankly if you’re going to run away and marry in secret I don’t think I would recommend the fashionable church of St George Hanover Square as the place to do it. But it could be described as a runaway and elopement because he had procured a marriage licence which is much more private than having banns called and she was indeed 17 and therefore under age. They did marry without the permission of her mother. As the case was, her father was dead, but her mother was still alive and her family were literally an hour or two behind them. There was a great chase went on, on the road to Windsor. It was all in the newspapers. It’s just fascinating. But what Mr Prickitt was referring to was: a deal was done and according to the newspapers this was in an upstairs room in an inn on the road to Windsor where the family caught up with the couple there and a bit of horse trading was done.

Now, they could have challenged the marriage on the grounds that the licence had been obtained fraudulently with intent to deceive and this would have been a good case because the marriage licence, or rather the allegation, was that he said quite correctly, you know, that he was George Boynton, and his age, and his fiancé was under age but she had no father. This was true, her father died when she was a baby and she had no mother living and unmarried to give consent.

Now the way you got to be an adult as a woman was to be a widow, so you could actually enter contracts and give consent and so forth. As soon as you married again you didn’t exist anymore as a legal entity. Your husband, your new husband, was now the legal figure and the one who would, if the case arose, be in a position to give consent to a marriage. So the wording on the licence said she has no father, true, no mother living and unmarried, also true. What it didn’t say was she has a mother, living and remarried, and a stepfather who would be the man to give consent. A man with the rather wonderful name of Trefemus Hodges.

So the family could have challenged the marriage on those grounds. On the other hand if your eligible young daughter has run off [and] is the subject of a scandal, on balance you’d probably rather that she was married than not, even if you didn’t approve of the husband because she would then be ‘damaged goods’ and she wouldn’t be such a good marriage prospect. Although in this case I actually think she would have been because she was very rich.

And this is where the Married Women’s Property Act comes in again because her father, who had died when she was a baby, was extremely rich. She was his only child and unlike a lot of men in that period he’d rather carelessly not put in sort of protective clauses in his will but had left money outright to any child or children he may have.

Now he made the will very early in 1832. His daughter was born in April 1832 and he died at the end of October, so he may have already been ill. He and his wife had been married for about five years at this point but he actually mentions in the will that his wife is now pregnant so there was at least one child on the way and, you know, who knows, there might have been more, but in the event, there weren’t. There was just this one – Elizabeth Laura – and because a lot of money had been left outright to her that made her the most terrific target. This is why you will often see in wills money left to a wife ‘so long as she remain my widow’. Women were very often left a very substantial income but they weren’t very often left sums of money outright. Or if they were left anything, whether an income or an outright sum there would often be a clause saying ‘ for her own personal benefit and not for any husband she may have or subsequently acquire’. So, and this was to protect women whether they were young widows or young single women from ‘pot hunters’, which is what Captain Boynton was.

Now Captain Boynton’s family, the Boynton’s of Burton Agnes, a very old and fairly respectable family, very wealthy, but also a very large family and George was, if not the youngest child, he was close to the youngest. He certainly had at least three older brothers. So, such money as there was in the family plainly was not going to come to him. He wasn’t going to inherit the title, so he decided that the best way to make some money would be to marry it, which was a reasonably smart option and he found himself a nice wealthy young heiress and married her.

So, that was the elopement and the marriage which took place under fairly shady circumstances. But there was also another marriage, because once this marriage was done in St George, Hanover Square, the couple married again a few weeks later in Etwall in Derbyshire. And I thought at first, oh there’s another illegal thing he’s done. But this is perfectly legal. There is…nothing in law that says you can’t marry in the Church of England and then marry in the Church of England again. And the Boyntons were from Burton Agnes in Yorkshire and the Keelings were from London and the West Indies, and there’s another story there. So why Etwall? Well, one of George’s many brother’s happened to be a clergyman and he was the vicar at Etwall at the time so I suppose this would have been for the benefit of the Boynton family, having the proper family society wedding with the brother officiating.

Captain Boynton was in the army. He was in the Crimea, not sure how much actual fighting he saw, but he was in quite a fashionable regiment, and I suspect his reasoning was that it basically cost you money to be a junior officer in a very fashionable regiment. You have to provide yourself with [an] awfully fancy uniform and keep up with a very lavish lifestyle but apparently an awful lot of women are terribly impressed by uniforms. I’m not one of them, but I do understand that this is a thing.

So you can just imagine…a teenage girl would be quite impressed with a man a few years older, with a really smart uniform, who is interested in her. So that probably helped his cause quite a lot. What we don’t know about is how he actually went about courting and attracting Miss Keeling but, as subsequent events show, I suspect he was probably rather charming. You wouldn’t trust him an inch, but I think he must have had some charm about him, to get away with some of the things that he got away with.

Anyway, again according to Mr Prickitt, sadly this marriage was not a great success. Well, if you’re marrying somebody for their money this doesn’t entirely bode well. And he goes on to say that in January 1860 Mrs Boynton instituted a suit against her husband for a dissolution of her marriage on the grounds of her husband’s adultery and cruelty. This wasn’t strictly true. The case came to court in 1860, but she actually petitioned in 1858 the minute the new divorce law came in, but as there was a fair old backlog, particularly from women who could virtually not get a divorce. It was very expensive for a man to get a divorce before 1858 – you needed a private act of parliament – but it was all but impossible for a woman. So she actually petitioned in 1858, but it didn’t come to court, and come to the attention of the newspapers, until 1860 so that’s why he thought that’s when it was.

So there is the divorce. We have the divorce petition here, and very interesting reading it makes. You get a very, very long complaint from the young Mrs Boynton, who must have come down to earth with something of a bump because no sooner were they married, and they started off on a bad footing because he thought he was going to cop the lot, get all of her money, and he had been forced into this rather reduced benefit through these negotiations with her family.

So she thought ‘Well I’m now the wife of an army officer, isn’t that a smart thing?’. Well, yes as maybe, but he wasn’t one for socialising in London, and going round the nightclubs or whatever it was they had in the 1840s. He immediately took her up to Burton Agnes, right in the middle of the countryside. [They were] very much a ‘huntin’, shootin’, fishin’’ kind of family and she was obviously bored rigid. And in fact when one of her complaints was that when their son, the only child of the marriage (so they had one son) was born in 1851, that he was in Yorkshire sort of slaughtering wildlife. And when news came that she’d had the baby he did go to London, but he didn’t hang around for the christening as he didn’t much care for that sort of thing, as he said.

And she complained that he was very cruel to her and generally bullied her, and that the rest of the family weren’t very nice to her, apart from his father. She says that her father-in-law was sometimes kind to her, but then he died fairly soon, so she was not very happy and there’s lots of witness statements of them. They were travelling around Europe and having big stand up rows in the street, usually about money. And then he started doing really rather mean things. They’d book into a hotel and they were a perfectly respectable married couple but he would go out of his way to try and give the impression that she was his mistress. And just generally baited her and was fairly cruel.

And now this is all her petition. His response to it was, slightly more elegantly put but it was roughly along the lines of ‘No, I never’ [laughter]. He didn’t really have a terrifically good case, and the fact that one of the witnesses was to the effect that round about the time when the son was born, when he was in London, and they were staying at her mother and stepfather’s home at the time, one of the witnesses was one of the maidservants with whom he has been committing adultery round about the time of his son being born. So he really didn’t have a very good case.

So she got her divorce. She got her money back which was quite something and sadly this unfortunate child, who by the time of the divorce was now about nine years old, nobody much seemed to want him at all. Neither parent was very interested in him so he was in the care of his grandmother and he was shipped off to school and we don’t hear anything about him for a while – but he will return.

So, we now have the divorced Captain Boynton, who is somewhat out of funds because he’s lost his heiress. So, what does he do? He sets about finding another one, and this was the young Miss Prickitt – Miss Elizabeth Prickitt – who was the only daughter of Mr and Mrs Prickitt. Now she wasn’t quite as good a catch as Miss Keeling because both her parents were still alive and she had five brothers as well, who could probably do you an awful lot of damage if you weren’t careful. But he somehow managed to attract the attention of Miss Prickitt and this is where Mr Prickitt became very annoyed about this. He said ‘In the latter part of 1859…’, and Mr Prickitt thinks this is before the divorce proceedings started. In fact it wasn’t, not that it makes a lot of difference. ‘…He had’ (Captain Boynton had) ‘forced his attentions on Miss Prickitt, then a girl of 16…’ (he likes them young) ‘…in so marked and offensive a manner as to compel her father to write to him a strong letter of remonstrance’. Captain Boynton denied the charge and Mr Prickitt took no further notice of him from that time.

Then in April 1860 he sent his daughter down to a finishing school in London and somehow, who knows how (I think the smart money is on Miss Prickitt), Captain Boynton found out where she was. And he went and he wandered up and down on the pavement outside the school, followed them to church, sat in a nearby pew, probably winked at her, but generally attracted her attention. And the lady who ran the school informed Mr Prickitt, and he immediately whisked his daughter right back to Yorkshire, which is of course, not all that far from where Burton Agnes was. They were very much of the same social circle.

So…he then took out what we would now call a restraining order with the Master of the Rolls, sort of ‘Cease and desist…’, you know? Lastly [it said] ‘We are authorised by Miss Prickitt to inform you that any further renewal of your unmanly and cruel persecution will only still further excite the disgust and contempt she entertains for you’.

I am not convinced that these were her genuine views, as subsequent events will probably show. Captain Boynton was so terribly impressed with this that he went and just stuck it on Mr Prickitt’s front door. That was that for a while.

Now, Miss Prickitt had been 16 when all this started, but she didn’t stay 16 forever. Eventually she got to be 21, and when you’re 21 you can do quite a lot of things. Mainly you can get married without your parent’s consent. Now for a woman to do this you need to have some sort of independent wealth, and I haven’t found the source of this yet, but reading between the lines it seems as though she had some sort of independent income that her parents didn’t control, from some relative. Maybe I’ll find out one day.

But one of the things that she did almost as soon as she turned 21 was, rather surprisingly, she became a Roman Catholic. She had a cousin whose wife was Catholic and she seems to have been very friendly with them, so she became a Catholic herself. Now she may or may not have done this to annoy her parents, because it certainly would have had that effect. And the reaction of Mr and Mrs Prickitt was one of mixed feelings really, because they weren’t too pleased she was Catholic – that just wasn’t done. But on the other hand, the one silver lining is that if you are a Catholic you cannot under any circumstances marry somebody who has been divorced, so at least she wouldn’t marry Captain Boynton, so that was that.

Well, you might think so, but he goes on to say in his statement that at one point in 1864 she just happened to be visiting her parents, she’d been staying with the cousin. In conversation with her mother about Captain Boynton mentioned that it was a curious fact but in the Church of Rome there was only way of getting over the difficulty of marrying a divorced man, and that was by it being proved that his first wife was a Jewess, which Captain Boynton stated that his first wife was. Well, what a coincidence! [laughter] Spoiler alert – she wasn’t. She was good old bog standard C of E, like most of the rest of the population. So, Mr Prickitt made sure that her sort of priest and confidante, Father Eyre, who was based in London, knew about Captain Boynton’s past and that he was a divorced man, and Mr Prickitt was also pretty darn sure that his wife had not at any time been Jewish.

So he then did quite a smart thing, I thought, because the Boynton divorce had been all over the papers, so the reports obviously contained the details of the lawyers who had been acting for Mrs Boynton. He wrote to them. Mrs Boynton, the first Mrs Boynton by the way, was now in Paris living on her income. She never remarried, so I like to think that she lived quite nicely for the rest of her life. The money that she had was actually in the form of a fairly substantial income, so she couldn’t blow it all at once, so I do like to think that she just had a very nice life in Paris and was at least the mistress of her own destiny.

So, Mr Prickitt contacted Messrs Dreuss, the solicitors, to see if they could help and they said ‘Yes, we can. As a matter of fact only last year…’ – for some reason that isn’t explained – ‘Mrs Boynton had requested a copy of her own baptism from the Church of St Pancras’. People did this quite often. I mean we’ve got lots of documents here in The National Archives. They are full of copies of baptism and marriage certificates from parish churches because somebody has needed to produce this for some official reason or another. This was a fairly usual practice, and London was in particular was absolutely full of lawyers’ clerks scuttling around from vestry to vestry, searching registers and getting copies. So, they were able to say we know ‘Oh well, we know exactly when that was. She was baptised on this specific date in 1832 in St Pancras, because that’s where we got the certificate from’. ‘Brilliant’ thought Mr Prickitt, so he sent someone to go and have a look, twice in fact, and it couldn’t be found which was very strange.

Well, to cut a very long story a little bit shorter, what had happened was that Captain Boynton had realised it would completely undermine his whole case if this baptism were found and his wife was proved to be an ordinary Church of England person, so he set about …he and a friend of his called Palmer went to the St Pancras Registry and they went and removed the page that her baptism was on. Now if you look at the St Pancras register nowadays you will see that there is a page missing. In fact the numbers of the entries don’t add up either. It looks as though there is more than one page missing, but the important fact is that the page containing the baptism of Elizabeth Laura Keeling is not there, and there is a note to this effect with a reference to this particular case in the St Pancras Register, which is now very easy to see because these registers are now all online at Ancestry, so you can go and have a look at it if you don’t believe me.

So he and Mr Palmer went alone and just tore this page out, which means of course that all the other people on that page and on the reverse of it, they’ve also been removed. So if you are looking for somebody that you believe should have been baptised in St Pancras in about April 1832 and you can’t find them this might be the reason.

So if you’re a family historian the first thing you would think of is ‘Oh yes, but if you can’t find something in the Parish registers, you’ve got a back-up, you’ve got the Bishop’s transcripts’. No you haven’t, because even before he’d been to St Pancras Registry Captain Boynton and Mr Palmer had been to the Diocesan Registry and they had removed the page from the Bishop’s transcripts. I am guessing that he knew about this because he had a brother who was a clergyman, so this might have been why he knew about Bishop’s transcripts. Searches in the Diocesan register are extremely rare. They said that was the first search that had been done in 1865 and there were no searches at all in 1864, so that was a pretty smart thing to do.

This didn’t come to light straight away, but when Mr Prickitt discovered he could not lay his hand on this, all was not completely lost because the first Mrs Boynton, in Paris, offered to send, and in fact did send, the copy that she had. So that this was a certified copy. This was as good a document as they would have got had they found it in the registers themselves and Mr Prickitt made sure that this was passed on to the relevant bits of the Catholic church, in particular Father Eyre and his superiors and also to Miss Prickitt herself, so she could be in no doubt that Captain Boynton had been properly and legally married before and he was definitely a divorced man and therefore she shouldn’t marry him. Now at some point during this, we don’t have Miss Prickitt’s own individual testimony, so there is no way of knowing for certain, but I think she either knew exactly what was going on, or she had a sort of selective deafness – that she may have kind of suspected it but chose not to examine it too closely.

Either way, she was nowhere to be found. Her father was trying to find her in London and this was by now autumn 1865. She wasn’t to be found and the message that came back via the Catholic priest was that ‘No, she didn’t want her father to know where she was’ because Captain Boynton had told her that her father was so angry with her, with her behaviour, that he wanted to put her into the lunatic asylum’, which Mr Prickitt denies all intention of doing that.

So one way and another she was keeping well away from her father, and then Captain Boynton went and obtained the licence. He also managed somehow to get a sworn statement from a lawyer, an affidavit, to the effect that this copy that had been bouncing around was a forgery which I think would have been extremely difficult to prove, but by that time it didn’t matter because the deed was done and they were married in St James Roman Catholic church in Spanish Place. And there was absolutely nothing illegal or wrong about the marriage. The only people who would have any qualms about it would have been the Catholic church but as far as the law was concerned, he was divorced. It actually says on the marriage entry that his previous marriage was dissolved but that the Catholic church were quite satisfied that this first marriage while valid in English law had not been valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church so from their point of view he was a single man and that was absolutely fine.

So there they were – married. Now this seems to have worked out as far as anybody can tell reasonably well. They went and lived back in Yorkshire. At least that was her home and not just his. He wasn’t taking a little London socialite and they lived, not in Burton Agnes itself but in a house nearby. You can see them in the census and they had a daughter was born there. They are in the census and you can see that they are married, and then they are still married. Of course there isn’t a box to tick, you know, ‘Are you single? Are you married? And then ‘Are you happy with this arrangement?’ [laughter]. So as far as we can tell this was a perfectly reasonably happy marriage.

Sadly the second Mrs Boynton died comparatively young but Captain George, he seems to have calmed down a bit. And although he was still no stranger to the inside of a court room, because was – being a ‘huntin’, shootin’ fishin’’ sort of man – from time to time he was in dispute with racehorse trainers and the like. But he seems to have settled down and lived a relatively calm and incident-free life from then on. The whole of the document, it’s got copies of all the correspondence, only highlights of which I have read out, and a rather scruffy, pencilled version of the baptism certificate that was the source of all this controversy.

The one place where you will find a note of this is not in an official source. It’s in a thing called Pallot’s Baptism Index. Pallot’s Marriage Index was reasonably well-known, but there was also a baptism index. And a lot of that was destroyed by bombing. The reason these baptism and marriage indexes [sic] existed was for the army of clerks who were running around London, that Messrs Pallot decided it would be a fairly good idea to compile an index as they went, instead of having people running around doing every single search as occasion demanded. So there is a scrappy little slip in Pallot’s Marriage Index which refers to the baptism of Elizabeth Laura Keeling on 6 May 1832, daughter of Thomas and Ann, and there is a note which says that…this entry, was supposed to have been removed. Now I haven’t figured out a suitable way of reverse engineering the entries in Pallot’s Marriage Index which is also on Ancestry, sorry Baptism Index, which is also on Ancestry to see if I can find who the other people were who should have been baptised around about that time and who are on the missing pages. Maybe somebody would like to have a go. That was that for a while.

So it all goes quiet. There’s been the runaway marriage and then the divorce and all sorts of ructions and then the other, not exactly runaway marriage, but certainly interesting one, and then it all goes quiet for a while. He’s settled down with his new wife in reasonable peace and tranquility. The first Mrs Boynton’s in Paris, I hope living it up and having a lovely time, but remember the son, little George. He was actually called George Henry Keeling Boynton. So he had almost exactly the same initials as his father as well as a similar name, which is of some significance.

Well it’s not entirely surprising that this young man wasn’t exactly a model pupil and a model of fine upstanding behaviour as an adolescent. When he reaches his late teens we start seeing him in the records. And I came across him really in the newspapers. He fell in love with an actress – Mademoiselle Cornelie D’Ancoeur – who was apparently a particularly racy burlesque star, at least in the terms of late Victorian England which was probably comparatively tame nowadays. Anyway, this young man he fell in love with Miss D’Ancoeur. She was not terribly impressed. She probably had lots of young men after her. But he was terribly serious and he offered to marry her and she said ‘Oh, don’t be silly. Go away you silly little boy’ and he is threatening to kill himself if she didn’t marry him and, you know, he sent her a bullet gift-wrapped [laughter] and it all got terribly, terribly silly, so this was all in the newspapers.

And like his father young George was also very keen on horse racing and particularly good at losing large sums of money. I don’t know, I haven’t seen any evidence that he was particularly interested in the horses and the training of them. I mean Captain Boynton owned racehorses, or shares in racehorses, and was actually interested in the whole process of racing. What I do have evidence of is young George who’d had very little contact with his father, was that he was very interested in the gambling side of it, whether he was interested in the horses or not I don’t know. He may well have been. As I said the Boynton’s were very ‘huntin’ shootin’ fishin’’ sort of people and when I visited Burton Agnes, when you go round the house you see that there are an inordinate number of portraits of horse and dogs, you know, more than there are of members of the family. And the library has got lots of copies of the Badminton Sporting Library and the Stud Book. So he may well have been true-to-type.

So we see him again in the newspapers, not paying his gambling debts. Now gambling debts were a matter of honour. It’s ok if you don’t pay your tailor because that’s only some lower-middle class carry-on, you know, there’s no great shame attached to that. Ok, you might drive somebody out of business but who cares(!) -gambling debts were a matter of honour and he appears in the newspapers. He knowingly was writing cheques when he had very insufficient funds in the bank. First of all, June 1871 he’s in Bow Street Police Court on the charge of assaulting and threatening his actress lady, and then two years later July 1873 he’s at Marlborough Street for obtaining £105 by false and fraudulent pretences and this is a dishonoured cheque that he wrote at Tattersall’s which is where you settled up all your gambling debts.

Interestingly though four days later he got married so that she must have been a very forgiving sort. She actually either didn’t know which I think is unlikely or she seems to be quite forgiving. And then two days later he’s back at Marlborough Street Court and as far as I can tell he seems to have escaped his case being sent to the Old Bailey. Now my educated guess, which I have yet to prove and I may never be able to, is that for the marriage to go on right in the middle of the court case, it may be that her family bailed him out. I don’t know, and there may not be any way of finding out but it’s a reasonable theory. But these dates are certainly correct because I’ve seen the court reports and the newspapers and the date of the marriage. So, he married for the first time.

Three years after this, in 1876, Captain Boynton, he’s back in court again – I did mention that the Boynton’s were a notoriously litigious family and they did swap quarrels and scrap among themselves from time to time – and his mother Dame Mary, he was in court, in dispute, with her. Now Burton Agnes Hall, which is the family home, and that’s where the dowager Dame Mary lived, but nearby there was smaller house called Heysthorp Hall, which seems to have been in her gift. So this may have come to her from her own family and not directly through the Boynton’s, although it’s not completely clear. Well, the dispute was that Captain George claimed that she had settled this house on him and his new wife, the second Mrs Boynton, and their child or children. In the event, they had one daughter. But she had also settled the house on one of her older sons, Charles. And it was actually Charles who was disputing this, saying ‘You’ve given the house to George to live in, but you said I could have it’ and this came to court and it was in the courts for quite a long time because, and I can’t remember the details of it now, because it went to court and a decision was made one way. And then it went to appeal. And then it went to the House of Lords. So this is an awfully long way up. You can’t get any higher than that for a scrap within a family.

And in fact by the time it got to the House of Lords, Dame Mary had died, and it was the two brothers who were slugging it out and in the event George won. It was very interesting case. And it came out in the course of it that Dame Mary who claimed that ‘Oh I know I gave this to George, but it was under duress as I’m a poor old lady and he was bullying me’. I do not for a minute believe that she was a poor weak old lady because various bits of evidence that came out were to the effect that she rather enjoyed playing her sons off against each other. Everybody needs a hobby and that seemed to be hers [laughter] and she seems to have been a fairly smart lady and there are various bits of disputes here and there, and I’m sure as various bits of cataloguing continue to go on more will come to light.

So she had settled the house on Charles, but then she rescinded it. Anyway, the final decision of the highest court in the land was that the house was for George to live in. It was for him to live in, he had a life interest in it, as did his family. So in the event that he outlived his wife, but he, his wife and his daughter, they had the right to live in the house for their lives. So that was Captain George back in court, but the really interesting thing comes in 1882 and this involves young George.

Now young George had plainly been strapped for cash, again, and he had hit on what he thought was rather a clever wheeze. He went to an agent in London and said ‘My name’s George Boynton of Heysthorp Hall in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Bit strapped for cash, need to raise some money, want to sell the house. Will you handle the sale for me?’. ‘Oh, yes please’ they must have thought, thinking ‘lovely commission’ and he went on to say that because he was so strapped for cash he’d really appreciate it if they were able to advance him a modest sum in advance of the sale because they would … ‘Oh, yes certainly we can do that’. He said ‘It’s only to tide me over. It’ll be for about a month’ and they duly handed over the money and he would pay it back in a month with an extra £25 on top, which they said wasn’t interest (they were not Wonga; this was not a payday loan) but they said this was the expenses for sending a clerk up to York, to his solicitors, whom he named in York, to do all the requisite paperwork. Well you can see what’s coming really, can’t you?

A month came and went. No sign of him and the repayment, so they wrote again to the solicitors and they say ‘Well you know, we’ve never … well of course we’ve heard of the Boynton family but we’ve never acted for anybody, certainly not for George Boynton of Heysthorp Hall’. And then of course when they went into it, he’s doing a Micawber I think. He was probably sure that something would turn up, but of course it didn’t. Because if he’d been able to pay back the money he could have then said ‘ Oh no, I’ve changed my mind. I’m not selling the house. Thank you very much for the loan’. But of course, something didn’t turn up and he ended up being arrested. He actually ended up in jail this time. And Captain Boynton actually came down to London for the court case, so he’s back inside a court room again. But this time he’s neither … you know he’s not a defendant, he’s not a litigant. He’s just a witness in this rather sorry affair involving his son.

Well, young George’s solicitors, they did the best they could but really you can’t make bricks without straw and he really did not have a leg to stand on. So they made a fairly spirited defence. They said ‘Oh, maybe I didn’t make myself quite clear. It wasn’t that I actually owned the hall. Sorry – did you think that? No, I have a reversionary interest in it. When my father dies…’. And of course it didn’t belong to his father either. When you’re in a hole, George, stop digging. So that was the rather unfortunate…, not quite the end of that.
If you want to read about the case you can look it up in the proceedings of the Old Bailey where you will get a fairly detailed account of some of the witness statements. The easiest thing is if you just search on the search term ‘Boynton’ and then you will get the whole sorry story. There’s rather a nice little bit in Captain George’s witness statement. So that…he says he hasn’t had much to do with his son [and] that he’s very rarely seen him and that he was the son from his first marriage, to his first wife, from whom he was divorced, and some money was settled on her. Well yes, she got her money back – that’s what you actually meant to say!

So that was the two Georges who seem to have had, plainly had some sort of charm or some sort of influence with the ladies, because young George, his first wife had now died and he married again. Now this is where it gets interesting. When I said that you look at a number of different records and I’ve looked at records in The National Archives, I’ve looked at parish records and I’ve looked at some legal records and lots of things that were in the newspapers, one of the sources you might well want to look at if you’re researching a family like the Boyntons, who are a very old aristocratic family – titles, land, the lot – you’d look in Debrett’s and Burke’s, these, you know, very respectable peerage books. Yes, you would, but you cannot trust everything that you see in all of those books.

If you look for the entry in the Boynton family and you’ll find there’s George, first marriage Elizabeth Laura Keeling and then second Elizabeth Prickitt and then you’ll find young George and then his first marriage and then his second marriage. Well, it says that he married secondly Lillian Constance Smith or Smyth in 1886 and they had a daughter born in 1888. Well, yes they did have a daughter born in 1888 but the date of their marriage was actually 1891. And I know this because I have seen a copy of the certificate. So, somebody must just have made a slip of the pen when they were submitting the information to the peerage books, or they could have been deliberately just glossing over the fact that, just to add to his bankruptcy and to his criminal record and his just general bad behaviour, he’d also had a child out of wedlock. But at least he did marry the mother eventually, but the child was actually born in the lying-in hospital in Endell Street which is an odd sort of place for the grand, or the great-grandchild of a peer to be born, don’t you think? But it’s all there in black and white so that’s a salutary tale about not trusting the peerage books.

Now I’ve been talking about the Boynton family, and there is loads more on the Boynton family which I’m sure could be unearthed and make a terrific mini-series, but sometimes it takes a few years before a particular penny drops. And when I was looking at the Boynton-Keeling thing and the circumstances around her, this first, this clandestine marriage, in Hanover Square, the whole point of this was that she was an only child and therefore she copped the whole lot of this very considerable sum that her father had left. But when I looked at the newspaper reports and also at Mrs Keeling’s will, well by now she was Mrs Hodges having married Captain Trefemus Hodges, there are mentions of two daughters who are also called Keeling. And I thought ‘That can’t be right’ because the whole point that this story rests on is that Elizabeth Laura Keeling was an only child – but she has these two other daughters more. Maybe they were born from an earlier marriage and they were brought up with the name of Keeling. Yes, that makes sense, at a reasonable guess. It’s also completely wrong.

When I looked into it, and I was looking at PCC wills and looking at printed pedigrees, because the Keelings were worth a few bob. They’d made a lot of money in plantations in the West Indies. It turned out that prior to marrying Thomas Keeling in 1827, Ann… (whose name was Chaplin, by the way). Henry…Thomas Keeling very obligingly mentions in his will that ‘his wife Ann, formerly Ann Chaplin’ which is an usually helpful thing to have in a will, but prior to marrying Thomas Keeling in 1827 she had plainly been on very intimate terms with his Uncle Henry. His Uncle Henry died in 1831, but in his will, which is extremely long but to his credit he does give a lot of detail, and he mentions in his will he’s going to leave money to his ‘natural daughter’ Rosetta by Ann Chaplin and very conveniently gives the date and place of her baptism as well which is nice, and his other ‘natural daughter’ Eliza Mary by Ann Chaplin. So at least he’s completely up front with it.

So she was never married to the uncle so her marriage to Thomas Keeling was perfectly valid, but she had been the uncle’s mistress. And he doesn’t seem to have ever married, but he does seem to have put himself about a bit, shall we say, because he also mentions in his will he leaves money to James Todd Keeling, a ‘mulatto natural son’ by Ann Todd, a ‘free, coloured woman of Antigua’, which is where their plantations were, and then also to Eliza Marie Keeling [and] Margaret Keeling, ‘free coloured women of Antigua, natural daughters’ of his deceased brother Thomas Keeling, by Mary Andrews a ‘free coloured woman’. So, it gives an interesting light into plantation life in the West Indies. Not that this is news to anyone who has studied the plantations of the West Indies. His deceased brother Thomas, by the way, was the father of the nephew Thomas that he passed the mistress on to. So I haven’t done a huge amount on the Keelings but it looks as though they might repay a lot of further study as well.

So it just shows when you start digging you never know what you’re going to find, and this all started with that one document – Mr Prickitt’s very indignant letter to the Home Secretary about something which really shouldn’t be there because there was nothing the Home Secretary was going to do about it, nothing he could do about it. But it opens up a whole story and I’m sure there is lots more to find. And I’m sure there are lots more similar stories if you pick open one of these documents, and it’s always the ones you find by accident or when you’re looking for something else, but there are some amazing stories, not just here in The National Archives, but in all sorts of other places as well: in local record offices, in specialist record offices and I know you can’t believe everything you read in the papers, or come to that Burke’s or Debrett’s, but they’re really good clues to stuff that you can follow up in original records. There’s just lots and lots of wonderful uncovered stuff there and I wonder why I never have to bother read very much fiction. I don’t need to [laughter]. You couldn’t make this stuff up, but if someone says that sounds a bit far-fetched, well that’s as may be, but it’s all true and I can prove it.

Thank you.

Transcribed by Laura Hampson as part of a volunteer project, February 2015.