The Peripatetic Life of Edwin Buller

Edwin Buller, born in Haddenham, Cambridgeshire on 3 December 1818,  was baptised in nearby Graveley in May 1820. He was the son of William Nicholas Buller, a surgeon, and Mary Ann nee Burrows. He had an older sister and brother and other siblings followed.

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Haddenham later in the nineteenth century

Edwin followed his father and trained to be a surgeon. This was not then an academic process but was learned through apprenticeship to a qualified man with a view to gaining membership of the Royal College of Surgeons. This was achieved after attending one session on anatomy and one on surgery and after passing an oral examination. His older brother William had already acquired membership and took Edwin on as his assistant while he continued his studies, which included visits to Charing Cross Hospital and the London Hospital. It did not, however, include providing a home for him (their parents were dead) and in 1841 Edwin was lodging in an agricultural labourer’s cottage in Haddenham where his brother practised. His prospects must have seemed well-ordered and predictable.

Then in 1842 he got caught up in an affair of his brother’s which changed his life.

William had, two years previously, eloped with nineteen-year-old Mary Bicheno, the daughter of comfortably-off parents from the village of Over, about ten miles from Cambridge. Her furious father refused to speak to his daughter, but the girl visited her mother when he was away from home. One of the reasons that Mr Bicheno turned against his son-in-law was probably that he was, financially, a disaster area. William employed a solicitor, a Mr Rance to help him deal with the many claims against him, but ended up owing Rance money, too, and the solicitor was running out of patience.

William, or perhaps Mary, or maybe Edwin forged a promissory note from Mary’s parents, to the value of £200 – a substantial sum, representing over three years wages for a skilled tradesman. Edwin delivered this to Mr Rance, to cover the money William owed him. Some time later, the solicitor, smelling a rat, visited the Bichenos in Over. They had, of course, no idea of the existence of the note. William, Mary and Edwin were arrested and accused of forgery and of uttering (presenting) a forged document. The magistrates at their first hearing in April 1842 were not convinced that Mary was involved, and discharged her, but sent the men for trial. Bail was not given.

The trial was in July. The jury thought it was likely that Mary, rather than her husband or brother-in-law, had forged the note, and acquitted William and Edwin of the charge of forgery. However, it was Edwin who had delivered the note to Mr Rance. The jury believed that he had known it was a fake and found him guilty of uttering a document knowing it to be forged. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

Edwin served his term in the new Borough Gaol in Cambridge, built as recently as 1829.  He decided to use the time there to continue with his studies, but after two years inside (including the time on remand), his health, physical and mental, had broken down. He petitioned Queen Victoria for early release, a petition supported by the prison chaplain, the surgeon, several visiting magistrates and the mayor. They were all of the opinion that Edwin had been manipulated by his older brother. The outcome of the petition is not known.

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The Borough Gaol in Cambridge, overlooking a park known as Parker’s Piece

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Part of Edwin’s petition to the queen. 

The next few years are a blank. Perhaps he was able to continue his studies. In later years he used the initials MRCS after his name. However, from the time of his release, he rarely spent more than a few years in any one place, constantly moving on. He next appears in the records on 28 August 1848 when at Ryde on the Isle of Wight, he married Eliza, the widow of John Challice. She came from Cambridge, and the newly-weds moved back there setting up home with Eliza’s two sons at 5 Maid’s Causeway.

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Maid’s Causeway in Cambridge, a street of pretty Georgian houses

There Eliza carried on her profession of teaching dancing, which included calisthenics, often performed to music, and exercise classes with chest expanders.

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They had a son, another Edwin, born in March 1850 and Edwin senior ran a lodging house from the premises.

Three years after the wedding, Edwin was declared an insolvent debtor. His debts in total were £696 14s 8d and his assets only £51. 15s. One of his principal creditors was a spirits merchant, which may have been part of the problem. Eliza had seen it all before. Her first husband, John Challice, who referred to himself as an artist but actually earned his living by working as a clerk to a bookseller, giving drawing lessons and letting out rooms at the family home, was also declared insolvent shortly before his death. Did Eliza have poor judgement in her choice of husbands or was it in fact she who was the spendthrift? That seems unlikely: she earned £200 a year from her dance school, and had taken the precaution, before marrying Edwin, of getting all her furniture put in her own name, so it could not be sold.

Eliza died in 1860. Her sons by her first marriage were now adult, and Edwin left Cambridge with his son and went to live in St Helier in Jersey, where he set up as a surgeon practising in the High Street. Three years later, in Islington, he married again, to Louisa Hill. Twenty years his junior (though Edwin was always vague about his age and knocked several years off), she was the daughter of a publican. They had two sons, Charles Edwin and Edgar born in 1865 and 1867 in Essex and twins Reginald Arthur (who lived only a few weeks) and Ida Louisa in 1869 in Godmanchester in Huntingdonshire. Here Edwin was again working as a surgeon.

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Louisa died in 1870, and Edwin now moved to Exeter with the children, but before long they had been sent away to school or to relatives and Edwin was living in rented rooms and getting into debt. He owed money to his landlord but turned the tables on him and accused the man of stealing from him. The case was thrown out of court.

The next move was to St Mabyn in Cornwall, then back to Cambridgeshire where he set up in a joint practice with another surgeon in Ely. This was dissolved in 1885. He then went to Martley in Worcestshire, where he lived in Knightwick, practised as a surgeon and joined the Oddfellows. He left in 1892 and went to Christchurch in Dorset. Fourteen months before his death, his estranged son, Charles Edwin made an appearance in the town.

The young man had been apprenticed to a draper in Truro and had then, according to his own account, been accepted by the Diocesan School of Divinity in Bangor. There he became mentally ill through over-work and was admitted to an asylum before going to Montreal, a stay which lasted only six weeks. On his return to the UK, he threw himself on the mercy of his father, who had refused to speak to him for some years. Edwin sent him to Christchurch workhouse and – although this may not be relevant – immediately made plans to leave Christchurch and move to Kennington, near Ashford in Kent. He was resident there when he died, though the place of his death was given as 3 Park Avenue, Hythe. This was the home of Albert Prior, a gardener who had recently moved there from Ashford and may have been Edwin’s patient.

Edwin may not have known that Charles Edwin had again been admitted to an asylum for the insane in Bodmin. He died there twenty-eight years later in 1923. Edwin’s other surviving children, Edwin, Edgar and Ida, simply disappear from the record. Perhaps they were adopted by other family members and lived under other names or maybe emigrated.

Someone, though, paid for the funeral and the modest kerbstone memorial.

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The inscription reads simply ‘Edwin Buller born December 3 1818 Died December 26th 1895′. When it was recorded four years ago it was legible. now the inset lead letters are flaking away. 

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