The Luck of the Lotts

William and Margaret Lott of Hythe had six sons between 1727 and 1742. They were a well-to-do family, but subject to rather more  dramatic changes of luck and quirks of fate than most. The boys all grew up and married and had children of their own, and all was well until 1768.

John was their eldest, a butcher by trade, with a shop and substantial house and stables in Hythe. He had married, been widowed and had a little daughter, Mary. In his mid-forties, he became enamoured of  a twenty-year-old servant in his household, Susannah Mummery. He proposed marriage,  but Susannah refused and when he became importunate, she left his service and went to live in Rolvenden.

There she met a young man called Benjamin Buss, who, it was claimed in one report ‘subsisted chiefly by smuggling’. Benjamin suggested to Susanna that as John Lott was well-off, she should marry him as he would be bound to die first and she would inherit. She appears to have been persuaded by this argument, and the marriage took place in Rolvenden on 15 August 1768. John now had only eleven days left to live.

 

 

Rolvenden church, where John Lott married Susannah Mummery

Susannah later said that it was immediately after the marriage that Benjamin Buss suggested poisoning John Lott. He seems to have accompanied the couple on their return to Hythe and visited the apothecary, Mr Gipps, there and bought two ounces of ‘corrosive sublimate’, mercuric chloride. It was then widely used for treating syphilis, but in larger doses was a poison.

The first attempt to murder John was at an inn in Burmarsh, near Hythe, where John was a regular. He had ridden out there with Susannah and Benjamin, presumably to view his stock, as his brother William a grazier, leased thirty acres there. They ordered a milk bumbo, a mixture of milk, rum, sugar and cinnamon, but John’s portion was laced with poison. He vomited, but recovered. Unfortunately for Susannah and Benjamin, the substance left a suspicious sediment in the bottom of the drinking vessel.

The Shepherd and Crook Inn at Burmarsh

 

Benjamin purchased more corrosive sublimate, which Susannah administered and John finally succumbed on 26 August, having made his will two days earlier. Poisoning was suspected. Susannah, who had bought mourning clothes  as a grieving widow would, was interviewed by a magistrate and seems to have confessed immediately and implicated Benjamin Buss. He denied everything, but they were both arrested and confined in Canterbury Gaol.

The ruins of Canterbury Castle, which housed the County gaol in the eighteenth century

They were brought for trial on 8 March 1769, but as a key witness, Mr Gipps the apothecary, could not attend, they were remanded in Maidstone gaol. There, at the end of April, Susannah gave birth to a daughter whom she named Betty. She said the child was John’s and that she and Benjamin had never been intimate. If the child was conceived on her wedding night, it would have been born at thirty-seven weeks gestation, which is perfectly plausible. Susannah kept the child with her in prison and had her brought into the courtroom to be suckled during her trial.

The trial finally took place in July and the guilty verdict was almost a foregone conclusion. Susanna and Benjamin were both sentenced to death. On 21 July 1769 they were taken to Penenden Heath. Benjamin was hanged first, followed by Susanna, dressed in her mourning clothes. Her body was then tied to a stake and burnt.

Little Betty Lott, now an orphan, does not seem to have been claimed by anyone. Presumably the Lott family thought she was Benjamin’s child. Susannah’s mother, Elizabeth, was still alive and maybe Benjamin Buss had family, but the child was unwanted. She died, aged two, in Maidstone and was buried in All Saints churchyard.

John cannot have suspected Susannah of poisoning him, since his will, made only forty-eight hours before he died, left her £300. This represented over eleven years earnings for a skilled tradesman, so was a substantial sum, but maybe not what she and Benjamin Buss had hoped for. However, John’s main concern was to provide for his daughter Mary. His house and shop, all his stock cattle and swine, his household goods, furniture and ready money all went to her as soon as she was twenty-one. Until then she would be under the guardianship of John’s brother William.

William was a year younger than John and had worked with another brother, Robert, as a grazier until the latter’s death in 1766.  Robert’s widow married again four years later, but had the good sense to insist on a pre-nuptial agreement which entitled her to keep the money Robert had left her. She made good use of it by lending it out to her former brothers-in-law, George, the fifth son and Richard, the sixth son, who was a carpenter. She charged them 4% per annum.

William had no need to borrow money, and already owned two properties in Hythe (1).  He had married Elizabeth Marsh and had a son, another John, who was apprenticed to a Canterbury surgeon, Mr Loftie.  In 1779 when this John was twenty-two, and still apprenticed, he inherited from a maiden aunt of his mother’s a small fortune.

The aunt (or ‘cozen’ as she called herself), Elizabeth Rolfe, had been a devoted friend of a wealthy woman called Catherine Thompson nee Eaton. The relationship seems to have been particularly close, and Miss Rolfe was generously remembered in Catherine’s will. Catherine gave her ’all my furniture and household goods whatsoever excepting my crimson damask which I give to my nephew Peter Eaton’. She also got all Catherine’s clothes and jewellery ‘except my diamonds’ and an annuity of £250 a year plus £4500. She was now a wealthy woman herself, and John inherited nearly everything, on one condition – that he change his surname to Eaton. Elizabeth Rolfe wanted her dear friend’s maiden name to go down in history.

This did not work out quite as she had wished.

Elizabeth Rolfe’s will. This section says ‘…continuing in the name of Eaton as must his son and son’s sons for by no other name shall my fortune be holden by it being the maiden name of my most inestimable friend Dame Cath. Thompson…’

There is no indication that John Lott Eaton ever practised as a surgeon after he inherited: he had no need to engage in what was still ‘trade’ (only university-trained physicians could call their work a profession), but he did erect an ornate memorial to his parents in St Leonard’s church and paid for them to be buried inside the church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lott memorial in St Leonard’s church, Hythe

 

 

John Lott Eaton died in 1807, unmarried and therefore without lawfully begotten sons or daughters.  He was an only child, and he left  his estate to his cousin, Elias Lott, the son of the fifth Lott brother, George.  Elias, as required in Mrs Rolfe’s will duly took the name of Eaton. However, John either overlooked or did not know about a codicil to Elizabeth Rolfe’s will, which stated that he were to die without children then the whole of her fortune should go to the son of Mr Loftie (another cozen), the Canterbury surgeon to whom John Lott Eaton had been apprenticed. This son was, of course, to take the name of Eaton.

He did, very, very promptly. John Lott Eaton died on 3 November 1807. On 17 November 1807, the King had granted a Royal Licence for the name change, which tends to suggest some action before John Lott Eaton’s death. Royal Licences usually took months to arrange. John Skeere Loftie of New Romney was now John Skeere Loftie Eaton. One source states that ‘being of an extravagant temperament, he ran through all his property, and died quite ruined in estate in 1817’. This assessment is borne out by other evidence: in 1816, he was prosecuted for not paying his rates and some of his possessions distrained; in his will he was only able to leave his heir, William, the remainder of a lease on a farm in Cobham, together with the hogs and pigs (but not the crops or sheep).  His widow was left with seven dependant children, and the creditors moved in as soon as probate was sought.

All this must have been galling for Elias Lott Eaton, who had briefly believed himself to be a man of means and had gone to the expense of changing his name for no reason.  He compensated by selling off the Lott family lands in Eastbridge for £3000 in 1811(2) and his uncle William’s Hythe property in 1825 (3), which he had, least, inherited, the Lott brothers not being very successful at producing heirs. He died in 1831, apparently intestate.

John Skeere Loftie Eaton’s heir, William Loftie Eaton did the only sensible thing for impoverished young gentlemen: he emigrated to South Africa in 1820 where he fathered many children.   The name of Loftie Eaton may still be found there. Thus, the name of Eaton, if not Mrs Rolfe’s fortune, was preserved.

  1.   Kent Archives: EK/U204/T114
  2.   Kent Archives: EK/U204/T43
  3.   Kent Archives:  F1966/9/Bt84/7
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The Tragic Life of Louisa Kidder Staples

William Henry Kidder was born on 24 July 1827 to George and Mary Kidder. His father was a baker and the family lived in Saltwood.  William grew up to become a nineteenth century ‘man and van’, except that he had a horse and cart. He variously described himself as a carrier, potato dealer, greengrocer or hawker of vegetables. He formed a relationship with a young woman, Eliza Staples, who lived with him in Theatre Street in Hythe and who had two children with him, Louisa in 1857 and Ellen in 1862. Eliza died before Ellen’s first birthday and the child was sent to live with her Staples grandparents in Sellindge.  Louisa stayed with her father.

William started another relationship with Frances Turner, a young woman working as a servant in Sandgate. On 1 February 1865, when twenty- two-year old Frances was eight months pregnant, William married her in St Leonard’s church in Hythe. One, or both of them, was aiming for respectability. There was even a marriage announcement in the Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser, and in the Canterbury Journal.

It was a stormy relationship from the start and Frances, or Fanny as she was known, appears to have been a woman whose temper was on a very short fuse. In September 1865, she was convicted of assaulting an elderly neighbour and fined. In November that year, Fanny complained to the police that William had kicked her while wearing his outdoor boots and then pushed her out of the house into the pouring rain. He said he would murder her if she went to court. He was starving her, she said, she had not eaten for two days, and he had ordered her not to suckle her infant daughter, Emma,  because ‘she should not live’. A warrant was issued for William’s arrest. Presumably Fanny withdrew the complaint, as it was taken no further.

According to witnesses who came forward later, Fanny loathed her step-daughter Louisa and treated her appallingly. She regularly beat the child with a broomstick so that she was covered in bruises. She hit her about the head and face hard enough to make her nose bleed and the girl was often seen with blood on her pinafore or with black eyes. She was dressed in rags with broken boots, fed only on scraps of bread and butter and made to sleep in a potato sack in a corner of the cellar. Fanny spoke of her as ‘that bitch.’ Neighbours complained to the police about Fanny’s behaviour, and for a while Louisa was removed from the family to her Staples grandparents, but William neglected to pay for her upkeep and she was returned home. Richard and Rebecca Staples still had six children of their own at home and their granddaughter Ellen, all supported on a railway labourer’s wage.

In June 1867, Fanny was accidentally thrown out of  her husband’s cart, and injured and returned to her family home in New Romney to convalesce. She took with her Louisa and her own child, Emma. On 25 August 1867, William went to fetch them back, but on arrival at the Turners’ house found that found that Fanny had gone out with Louisa, but returned without her. She was sitting weeping in the front room, her gown sodden.

William together with Fanny’s father, John Turner, took lanterns and went to search for Louisa. They soon found her, drowned in a shallow ditch. On their return to the house, Fanny said the child had fallen into the ditch, but William did not believe her and called the police. By the time they arrived, Fanny had changed her dress for a dry one, but the officers found her wet garments stuffed under her bed. They arrested her on suspicion of murder.

The news was all over Hythe by the next day.  Christiana Potter, the headmistress of the Girl’s School,  wrote in her log book on 26 August: received news that one of the scholars was dead – murdered by her mother.  There was no presumption of innocence from the start.

Fanny’s first hearing was at the magistrates’ court soon afterwards. She repeated the story that Louisa had fallen, and added that she had tried to save her, but the magistrates did not believe her either and remanded her in custody to stand trial for murder at the assizes in Maidstone. Meanwhile, Louisa was laid to rest in the churchyard at Sellindge.

Fanny appeared at the assizes in March 1868. William had refused to pay for a defence counsel for her, and the court had to appoint someone. In was in vain. The jury did not believe Fanny’s story that Louisa had been frightened by two horses and run away, or that she had tried to save her. The girl had drowned in less than a foot of water, and could easily have been extricated. It did not help that Fanny’s husband, both parents and a sister testified against her. After only twelve minutes the jury brought in a guilty verdict, and Fanny was sentenced to death.

Back in Maidstone prison, awaiting execution, she became sullen and ill-tempered, apparently complaining that she had been ill-used by the court. She showed no sign of remorse and instructed the Governor of the prison to write to William and tell him to stay away.

However, the tide of popular opinion, which had been against Fanny, began to turn. The Kentish Gazette of 24 March reported that she had been ‘very badly brought up and sadly neglected.’ It noted her illiteracy and complete ignorance of Christian teaching, and her good behaviour in service until she met William Kidder. He, the paper said, had behaved shamefully towards her and had treated his daughter almost as badly as Fanny had. Even worse, he had now taken one of Fanny’s sisters, a girl aged only seventeen, into his house to live with him. In Hythe, the mayor, James Watts, got up a petition for clemency to send to the Home Secretary. The citizens of New Romney did the same.

Fanny relented and dictated another letter to William asking him to visit. She had already received a visit from her parents. She did not admit her guilt to them or show any sign of contrition. The Home Secretary considered the petitions from Hythe and New Romney, but declined to intervene in the case and the execution was set for 2 April 1868.

On 1 April, Fanny’s mother and two of her sisters, one only a few months old visited. So too did William. It was a short interview. Fanny reproached him for having taken up with her sister and he left. His departure upset her, and she shrieked and wailed terribly. The prison chaplain told William to go home and remember that he was the cause of his wife’s suffering and to mend his ways. He went to the pub near the gaol instead and then back to Hythe.

His reception in the town was not a welcoming one. During the evening, a mob estimated to be three to four hundred strong paraded through the streets with an effigy of William which they burnt in front of his house while pelting the building with stones.

Executions were still public in April 1868. It was not until May of that year that legislation was passed to move the events inside the prison. On 2 April, at noon, Fanny was hanged in front of a crowd of two to three thousand people outside the main gate of Maidstone Prison, the last woman in England to be publicly executed. She had been composed during the morning, and dictated to the chaplain a letter to her parents saying she was sorry for her crime. Her last words on the scaffold were ‘Lord Jesus, forgive me’. Once dead, her body was left hanging for an hour, and then taken away for immediate burial within the prison grounds.

William Calcraft, Fanny’s executioner

William stayed in Hythe, with Emma, although it seems the relationship with Fanny’s sister did not endure. No subsequent census return shows him living with a woman, and he did not remarry, dying in 1908. Emma lived with him until she herself got married on 31 August 1891 in St Leonard’s church. Her husband, Benjamin Thomas Jones, was a groom working for the army in Hythe. They did not have children and lived quietly, a far as can be known, in Market Street in Hythe (now Dymchurch Road).