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.
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.
- Kent Archives: EK/U204/T114
- Kent Archives: EK/U204/T43
- Kent Archives: F1966/9/Bt84/7