What connects a very respectable Vicar of Lympne with a scandalous widow, a lesbian novel and a notorious fraudster? Read on…
Edwin Biron was born on 21 February 1802 in Dublin. He was probably the son of James Biron of Harold’s Cross, as he was the latter’s sole legatee in 1858. I have found out nothing of Edwin’s early education, though as a young man he studied at Trinity College Dublin and was awarded a BA degree in 1823. He was ordained as a priest by the Bishop of Kildare in 1827 and the next year married Elizabeth Viny, whose stepfather, Robert Craig, was also a clergyman. Their first son, James, was born in about 1829, but died the next year. The second, Robert John, was born in Dublin on 25 Mar 1830.
Edwin was awarded his MA in 1830 and shortly afterwards moved his family to England where he was appointed curate of Denton and of Swingfield, both in south-east Kent, in 1831. This gave him a stipend of fifty pounds a year plus surplice fees for weddings, baptisms and funerals. Both villages lie on what is now the busy A260 leading from Folkestone to Barham. The church of St Mary Magdalene in Denton, the larger of the two villages is still open for services, but St Peter’s in Swingfield is now ‘redundant’ as the village has all but disappeared.
…and Swingfield church
Edwin and his wife lived in Denton and were there for only four years, but another three children were born: Isabella (who died aged three) in 1831, Edwin junior in 1832 and Henry Brydges in 1835. That was the year that Edwin was appointed curate of St Leonard’s in Hythe, doubling his stipend to a hundred pounds a year. Three years later he was also appointed to the living of Stodmarsh, a tiny village on the Romney Marsh. Three more children were born: daughters Elizabeth in 1837 and Emma in 1839 and another son, Thomas, in 1841. There were losses, too. An infant son, George, died in 1838 and both Emma and Thomas had twin siblings who died shortly after birth.
St Leonard’s church, Hythe…
… St Mary’s church, Stodmarsh..
The last baby died in Lympne, a couple of miles from Hythe and the family’s new home. Edwin had been appointed Vicar of Lympne (which had recently been combined with the parish of West Hythe) in 1840 on the death of the last incumbent, James Bell, who had been in place since 1802. Edwin would serve at Lympne for almost as long.
However, his Irish roots were not forgotten. In 1842, the Dublin Evening Mail reported that he travelled the four hundred miles to Dublin to vote in a by-election in the city. His favoured candidate (voting was not then secret) was William Henry Gregory, a Conservative, the party supported by most Irish landlords. Gregory, a close associate of the Prime Minister Robert Peel, is today only remembered for the ‘Gregory Clause’ which said that anyone applying for Peel’s relief provision during the Irish Famine would not be eligible if they were occupying more than a quarter of an acre. It is relevant that this relief was separate from the workhouse provision and it was expected that landowners, as taxpayers, would finance it. In 1842, a man was entitled to vote in the place where he held property, which might not be where he actually lived – hence Edwin’s long journey.
A caricature of William Henry Gregory published in Vanity Fair
He lived quietly after that. He became a county magistrate and managed Lympne National School. He also became a Freemason and at some point, Rector of Eastbridge on the Romney Marsh. This was not an arduous job: the church had been a picturesque ruin since the fifteenth century. However, a stipend was still payable and at Edwin’s death on 25 January 1877 of ‘congestion of the lungs’, the gross annual value of the combined benefices was estimated at £1190 plus a house and glebe of ten acres. He died intestate, and it was left to his eldest son to sort out the legal mess left by this and by the fact that Edwin had never bothered to prove the will of James Biron when he died in 1858.
The remains of Eastbridge church today
The records show that he had under three thousand pounds at the time of his death, of which twelve hundred was in property in Ireland – nearly fifteen hundred acres of land in county Roscommon and five hundred and thirteen acres in county Tipperary. Whether he inherited or bought this, I do not know. As he died intestate, the land seems to have been divided amongst his surviving sons.
Edwin was survived for eleven years by his wife, Elizabeth, who spent her latter years living with her eldest son. He and his surviving brothers had careers which reflect exactly our ideas of what middle-class young men should do in the nineteenth century: the law, the army and the church. The careers of the Biron sons and grandson who entered the legal profession encompass some of the most notorious trials of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Robert John Biron, the eldest, was educated at the King’s School in Canterbury and Corpus Christi Cambridge, graduating with a BA in 1833. He then studied to become a barrister and ate the twelve dinners required to qualify at Lincoln’s Inn, being called to the bar in June 1854. As his father still lived in Hythe, he was able to pick up some local work and was appointed auditor of election expenses for Hythe in 1858 and Recorder of the town from 1859 to 1883.
In 1861 he married Jane Eleanor Inderwick, whose brother Frederick was another barrister and contemporary of Robert. They had two sons, Henry Chartres and Gerald. Robert’s two claims to fame were that he was one of Her Majesty’s Commissioners enquiring into corrupt practices in Norwich in 1869 and his representation of the widow of Charles Bravo, suspected of poisoning her husband.
In the first case, the unsuccessful Liberal candidate in the 1868 election at Norwich accused the Conservatives of bribing voters ‘of the lower classes’ with money and alcohol and then escorting large groups of them to the ballot box – though many were so drunk they did not know who they were voting for. The judge ruled that the allegations made were accurate, the election was declared void, and the result annulled.
The second case, that of the mysterious death in 1876 of Charles Bravo, was considered so scandalous that women were not allowed into the court room where the inquests were held. Bravo had been taken ill one night shortly after retiring to bed. He had been poisoned with antimony. After his agonising death, two inquests were held. His widow Florence was suspected, especially as she had a colourful past – a failed marriage, an affair with a married man and a predilection for strong drink. Robert represented her at both inquests. The first returned an open verdict, the second murder by a person or persons unknown. Florence, unable to clear her name, drank herself to death soon afterwards.
Florence Bravo – wronged woman or murderer?
John Robert’s eventual reward was to become a Queen’s Counsel in 1883. He died of influenza at his home in Pimlico in 1895 and is buried near Eastbourne with his wife.
His son, Henry Chartres, usually known by his second given name, followed in his father’s footsteps. Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1886. He was born some fourteen years before his grandfather’s death and must have known Hythe and had some connections there as he stood, unsuccessfully, as the Liberal candidate in the 1906 General Election.
Chartres, or Sir Chartres as he became in 1920, presided over the 1928 trial for obscenity of Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, ruling that the book was an ‘obscene libel’ and that all copies should be destroyed. The book was not published again until 1949. According to The Times, Biron’s ruling was not based on the acts described in the book, which he said did not of themselves make the book obscene, but on the lack of condemnation of the acts and the behaviour of the characters.
Sir Henry Chartres Biron
He died unmarried in 1940.
His younger brother Gerald, born in 1869, broke with every family tradition and went on the stage. His career was spent in repertory, although he did appear in a Royal Command performance at Windsor before his untimely death at the age of thirty-seven.
But to step back a generation – Edwin junior joined the army after an education at the King’s School, Canterbury. A commission as second lieutenant was purchased for him in 1851 and nine years later, he was promoted captain. He served in Calcutta (Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai) and Mauritius before retiring to his parents’ home in Lympne in 1866. He died unmarried the year after his father, in 1878. His younger brother Thomas also joined the army in 1862, but resigned two years later, dying himself in 1869, aged only twenty-seven.
The last brother, Henry Brydges Biron was destined for the church. Another alumnus of the King’s School, he went on to Cambridge University, graduating in 1858. He was ordained as a deacon the next year and as a priest in 1860. Thereafter he served as curate in Mersham, Biddenden and Harbledown before inheriting his father’s old parish of Lympne in 1882. He also played first-class cricket and his Wisden obituary says that ‘he was a free and attractive batsman who made several good scores for the Gentlemen of Kent’.
Henry Brydges Biron (Fiona Jarvest)
Henry married Jane Elizabeth Blest, a wine merchant’s daughter in 1867 and they produced four sons and then five daughters. He retired to Barham in 1912 and died there three years later, though he is buried in Lympne and there is a window in his memory in the church there. The newspaper reports of his funeral record that although all his daughters attended, none of his sons were there, but apart from Frank, who died young, the others were all seeking their fortunes abroad. The daughters, with the exception of the youngest, Ruth, all married, and she and her widowed mother lived in Elham until at least 1939.
Edwin senior also had two daughters who reached adulthood. The elder, Elizabeth, married a barrister, James Charles Matthew, in 1861. Like her father, he had attended Trinity College Dublin. He was also Roman Catholic and eventually became only the third Catholic judge to be elevated to the Bench. This barrister’s famous case was that of the Tichborne claimant, when he was junior counsel for the Treasury. One of the longest cases in British legal history, the accused was Arthur Orton (or Castro) who had claimed to be Roger Tichborne, the long-lost eldest son of Lady Tichborne, who just happened to be very rich indeed. She had accepted him as her offspring but there was much evidence to the contrary and the Claimant was eventually convicted of perjury. Many years later he confessed to the fraud.
The Tichborne Claimant
Edwin’s younger daughter Emma married Edward John Briscoe of Tullamore Ireland in May 1861. Her brother Henry, newly ordained, conducted the service. Briscoe was a lieutenant in the 14th Regiment of Foot and five months after the wedding the couple left for Trinidad, where the first of their children was born. Others arrived in Cork and Cawnpore. When Briscoe was sent to fight in the third Ashanti war in 1873-4, Emma returned to her parent’s home in Lympne and have birth to her last child there. Her husband died in Dublin in 1881 of ‘rapid consumption’. He had been made a brevet major in 1874.