Tag Archives: divorce

A very Regency Scandal

Richard Lee about 1795


Anyone who has been watching Lucy Worsley’s lovely series on BBC Four  Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency will be aware that scandal was never far from the surface among the families making up the top level of society. The affair of Robert Home Gordon and Susanna Hope, the wife of Joseph Biscoe, was a very Regency scandal involving illicit sex, servants peeping through windows, the rights of a man over his wife and child, great wealth and all ending in a much publicized court case.

Typical of many who had acquired their position via the sugar plantations of Jamaica, Robert Home Gordon passed most of his life in Great Britain spending the wealth generated by his estates – Cromwell estate in St Mary and the Home Castle estate in the parish of St Ann.

He had come to England from Jamaica as a small boy, under the guardianship of Robert Cooper Lee, and went to Harrow School together with Richard Lee. There they also met Joseph Biscoe, about four years their senior, whose mother was Lady Mary Seymour daughter of the Duke of Somerset, and whose father Vincent was a partner in the firm of Hilton and Biscoe, Merchants trading with Jamaica.

On 22nd May 1786 Joseph Biscoe married seventeen year old Susanna Harriot Hope at All Saints Church, Derby. [Location corrected as per comments below] Her father was the well respected Rector of All Saints, now Derby Cathedral. The family were friends of the painter Joseph Wright of Derby and a portrait of Susanna painted a few years before her marriage came up for sale at Christie’s in 2009. It’s a pleasant and very conventional picture of a well to do young girl. Wright doesn’t seem to have seen anything in her to suggest she would later cause the kind of scandal that nudged its way into the national press at a time when it was mostly preoccupied with a raft of treason trials.

For the first seven years the Biscoe’s life together seems to have been a happy one,  living in Derbyshire and Mansfield, and a daughter Mary was born the year after their wedding. There were no further children and in October 1793 the couple moved with their daughter to Kent, taking the lease of Shoreham House the following year from Robert Gordon, to whom Joseph had been reintroduced by Richard Lee.

Biscoe, Gordon and Richard Lee all enjoyed country sports, and Robert Gordon and Richard Lee regularly came down from London to go riding or shooting with Joseph Biscoe. Richard Lee never stayed more than a couple of days before going back to his business in London, but Robert Gordon often stayed several weeks at a time and the Biscoes stayed with him in turn at his hunting box in Kent.

It was at this point that Robert Gordon fell head over heels in love with Susanna and she was undoubtedly attracted to him. Had Joseph Biscoe shown any concern, the affair might have ended before it began.  Instead he continued to go out all day shooting, often with Richard Lee but frequently on his own, leaving Robert Gordon alone with his wife. Although Biscoe claimed to be completely unaware of what was going on the servants were not. It had become common for Robert Gordon to sit for hours alone with Susanna, sending her seven year-old daughter out of the room, and only picking up his gun to go out shortly before Biscoe was due back. Several times when the men came in from shooting Robert and Susanna sat up into the small hours, with Biscoe and Richard Lee having gone to bed hours earlier.

On the 21st October 1794 matters came to a head. Joseph Biscoe had gone up to London on business and Susanna rode out accompanied by the Coachman Francis Swindel. When she met up with Robert, Swindel was told to drop back to where he could not hear their conversation. Her maid Margaret Sparks was already suspicious because that morning Susanna had asked her to leave her drawers unlocked, which the maid had not done wanting to know what Susanna took out of them. It was clear to the servants that an elopement was in the offing. When Gordon and Susanna got back in the middle of the afternoon her two brothers were already there, well aware of her impending flight and having been drinking quantities of Biscoe’s wine while they waited. They spent only a short time talking to Robert before leaving again.

The servants then became aware of a scene being played out between Susanna and Robert Gordon. He was pleading with her to elope with him, stamping noisily up and down in the parlour. She was crying that she could not leave her child. He called for some laudanum to calm her, but the servants, with a somewhat melodramatic turn of mind, suspected that he meant to drug and kidnap her. In any case they had no laudanum and could only provide hartshorn or wine and water.

As it grew dark the lovers left the house unobserved and walked several miles, pursued by Biscoe’s Coachman, before obtaining a chaise at a local inn to take them to Robert Gordon’s London house in Albemarle Street. There they occupied separate but adjoining bedrooms. It was not enough to save her reputation, and Susanna now knew that she had burnt her boats.

The scene was set for a scandalous court case in which the young William Garrow (who featured in the recent BBC series Garrow’s Law) would play a part. Joseph Biscoe, rather than simply demand a divorce, sued Robert Gordon for damages claiming £10,000 for Gordon’s ‘criminal conversation’, i.e. adultery, with his wife. Even for a wealthy man £10,000 was a large sum, equivalent to nearly a million pounds in relation to retail prices, or over ten million pounds relative to average earnings, today.

On the 8th December 1794 a special jury hearing was held before Lord Chief Justice Kenyon. Technically it was the ‘Trial of Mrs Biscoe for Adultery with Robert Gordon Esq.’ although Susanna did not attend. Robert Home Gordon was able to afford some big legal guns and his defence team included Thomas Erskine (later to be Lord Chancellor), William Garrow and a Mr Burrow, while Joseph Biscoe had Messrs Bearcroft, Gibbs and Perceval on his side.

The Biscoe servants were called to give evidence, with Biscoe’s team clearly having decided to paint Susanna as a wronged woman, seduced and possibly made drunk and abducted by Robert Home Gordon. They represented the marriage as blissful and Gordon as a cad who had betrayed his friend’s hospitality.

Robert had ensured that Susanna would not be called to testify by admitting the adultery from the outset – it would have been hard to deny since the couple had been living together at Albemarle Street since October – and so his legal team worked hard to reduce the amount of any damages to be awarded.

Biscoe’s team called several witnesses to testify to his years of happy marriage and that he had been an indulgent husband. However the first hint of where the trouble lay came when an old college friend, George Biggin, described Biscoe as being a man of very reserved character. This gave Erskine the opening he needed and he portrayed Biscoe as a man who would rather spend all day out hunting or shooting than at home with his wife – a man who ‘in consequence of his own gross negligence, permits his wife to have an improper intercourse [unchaperoned meetings] with other men, which may ultimately terminate in the ruin of both’.

Without attempting to destroy Biscoe’s honour Erskine made clear that it should have been obvious to anyone, and particularly Biscoe, that allowing his wife to sit up until three in the morning with Robert Gordon was asking for trouble. Why, Erskine asked, if Biscoe had first become aware of the danger in August, had he not put a stop to it? Why had he done nothing to attempt to reclaim his wife’s affections? Why had he remained in the same room as the lovers while they sat side by side on a ‘sopha’ and did nothing about it? Indeed why when they had gone out riding with Richard Lee, who proposed that all four should stay together, had Biscoe said ‘no, let them go on by themselves, they are made for one another’?

‘After this gentleman sees that his wife’s affections are alienated from him, instead of putting any check or reins upon them, he encourages the defendant, and then comes into a court of justice to complain of them’, said Erskine.

It was a devastating opening statement, representing Biscoe as having thrown his wife into the arms of Robert Gordon, and it was backed up by Richard Lee, who Erskine admitted was appearing as a very reluctant witness. Not only was he a friend of both men, but he was the business associate of Robert Gordon who had grown up with him almost like a brother. Moreover it was Richard who had re-introduced Gordon to Biscoe and who had then watched Gordon fall head over heels for Susanna while her husband did nothing to prevent it. William Garrow asked Richard if he had thought Biscoe was ‘a prudent discreet, cautious husband’ and Richard answered ‘I do not think he was’.

Richard was then asked by Biscoe’s lawyers whether he had thought that Gordon had gone to Kent with the intention of seducing Susanna.

‘I took it for granted, and I thought him criminal’, replied Richard. But when challenged as to why he had done nothing to prevent it he told the jury that ‘I should have thought it extremely improper to interfere in any degree.’ Poor Richard was clearly caught in an impossible situation, deeply disapproving of Robert Gordon’s conduct but not feeling it right to intervene or interfere, and believing it was clear that Biscoe did not care enough to put a stop to the affair.

Kenyon was scathing in his summing up:

On the part of the Defendant they tell you, that Mr Biscoe has stood by and seen his wife debauched; and, if that is so, he is one of the most atrocious men living. And if you see Mr Biscoe to be the pander of the lusts of the Defendant, give him not a farthing, but give the Defendant your verdict. But on the contrary, if you shall be of the opinion that the Plaintiff was put off his guard, by pretended friendship, and that he has been robbed of his domestic comforts by the foulest conspiracy, I think no damages but Ten Thousand Pounds will satisfy the fair calls which Mr Biscoe makes on your honours and your consciences for justice.

In spite of the evident adultery, and Lord Kenyon’s censuring of Richard Lee for failing to intervene, the Jury obviously felt that Biscoe was partly to blame. They withdrew for only a short time and found in favour of Biscoe, but the claim for damages was halved to £5000.

Susanna probably never saw her daughter again, for she was put in the care of Joseph’s sister Mary and brought up in her father’s household. In 1807 she married Sir Robert Harry Inglis, and in 1815 they adopted the nine orphaned children of Henry and Marianne Thornton.

Joseph finally obtained a divorce in 1796 and remarried in 1799, having seven children with his new wife Stephana Law.

Susanna and Robert Gordon continued to live together but did not marry until some years later, a codicil to Robert’s Will implying that by 1812 they were married under both English and Scots Law. This was important as he had substantial estates in Scotland.

Robert died in Brighton in 1826 and, as they had no children, when Susanna died in 1839 most of the property went to Robert’s cousin Sir Orford Gordon of Embo.

It seems a sad ending to a whirlwind romance and elopement and I can only hope they were happy together.