Writer’s Travel Guide: Lyme Park – an Austen Drama in its Own Right

In this post:
• An illegitimate son rescuing the family seat
• Abduction!
• A haunted bedroom

Lyme Park is located two miles south of Disley, Cheshire.

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It goes without saying that every Regency Enthusiast knows Lyme Park as Mr Darcy’s Pemberley in the Pride & Prejudice series with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. But drama and romance at Lyme Park are not limited to movies. It has its own drama and romance in an incident worth a Wickham/Darcy tale.

For the drama, we need

  • a wealthy manufacturer,
  • an heiress,
  • a charismatic villain,
  • a rich, handsome gentleman who, with the benevolent assistance of The Prince of Wales, could have chosen his bride in best circles – but chose to do otherwise.

You think this smells of abduction? To be sure it does! Before we dig into it, let’s have a look at that rich, handsome gentleman: Thomas Legh of Lyme Park.

Who was Thomas Legh?

Thomas (1792 – 1857) was the eldest of seven illegitimate children his father had with seven different women. His actual date of birth and the name of his mother are unknown. However, Thomas and his siblings seem to have grown up at Lyme Park quite respectably.

Thomas became the head of the family and owner of Lyme Park in 1797, at the age of 4. By that time, Lyme Park had deteriorated into a deplorable state. Luckily, Thomas grew into an extremely wealthy young man. He commissioned Lewis Wyatt in 1814 to alter the interior, and Wyatt remodelled every room in perfect Regency period splendour.

But Thomas didn’t confine his activities to house building. He actually kept away from the noise and bustle of the construction site for most of the time: He travelled to Brussels, Vienna and Constantinople, to Syria, the Lebanon and Jordan. Thomas became famous as a traveller and archaeologist, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. If you enjoy adventures including crocodiles, excavations, the plague, near-asphyxiation in a cave and accusation of murder and black magic, read Thomas’ Narrative of a Journey in Egypt and the Country beyond the Cataracts here and don’t forget to have a look at a painting of Thomas in his Ottoman dress.

Abduction!

In 1826, Thomas became involved in a scandalous abduction.
At the age of 33, he was still a bachelor. However, there was an understanding with his neighbour, the wealthy manufacturer William Turner, that Thomas would marry his daughter Ellen once she was out of school. Ellen was then only 15 years old and received the best education at a respectable Ladies Seminary in Liverpool. Little did Thomas know that his prospective bride would soon become the victim of a scrupulous abductor.

The George Wickham of this story is a certain Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796 – 1862). He was a charismatic man, a bit stout, with a massive head, a fair complexion, longish hair, and brilliant blue eyes. He was also ambitious: He wished to acquire an estate and enter Parliament. For this, he needed money. As Wakefield had already managed to run off with an heiress in 1816 and had secured 70.000 pounds from this marriage (his wife died four year later in childbirth), what could be more logical than playing this trick again?

Wakefield selected Ellen Turner, worth about half a million pounds, as a suitable prey. With the help of his brother William, Wakefield planned to take the girl to Gretna Green. He was certain that, to avoid a scandal, Ellen’s family could be brought to acknowledge the marriage officially and provide a handsome dowry as well. But he had to get hold of the girl first.

With a faked message from her father, stating that Mrs Turner had become seriously ill and wished to see her daughter immediately, an accomplice lured Ellen away from the Ladies Seminary, packed her in a coach and brought her to Manchester. Here, Wakefield took over. He made the girl believe her father had lost his fortune, the whole family was on the brink of ruin, but luckily, he, Wakefield, could provide a loan to save them – if Ellen would marry him. The inexperienced girl swallowed his tale and agreed.

After the wedding ceremony in Scotland, Wakefield took Ellen to France. By now, Ellen’s relatives, the family solicitor and a police officer were hotly on Wakefield’s heels. In Calais, they spotted him and Ellen, and finally the girl was reunited with her family. Wakefield was brought to trial – Thomas was one of the magistrates involved in the verdict – and sentenced to three years in Newgate prison. The marriage was annulled by Act of Parliament.

Ellen returned home and was greeted by crowds of cheering villagers. Thomas started to pay his addresses to Ellen to chase away the dark shadows. Their marriage was celebrated in first style two years later, including a feast, a half-day off for local workers and the bride being elegantly dressed in finest silk. Ellen and Thomas lived happily in Lyme Park. Ellen became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter.

… and they lived happily ever after?

  • Ellen’s father made the political career Wakefield had dreamt of: He was elected Member of Parliament for Blackburn as a Whig and served for nine years.
  • After his release, Edward Wakefield became active in prison reform. As he could not get his foot back into English Society, he went to Australia and then New Zealand where he dedicated himself to several economical and political projects. Today, he is counted among the most important founders of New Zealand.
  • Poor Ellen died in childbirth aged only 19. Having once been abducted stuck to her throughout her short live. Upon her death, the Gentleman’s Magazine identified her in the death notice as the lady “for the abduction of whom the Wakefields were tried and imprisoned”.
  • Thomas continued to be a respected member of society and Member of Parliament for Newton. He remarried in 1843.

Make Thomas Legh a character of your novel

Thomas Legh is great to use as a minor character in your novel, if you would like to include adventurous travels, politics or the battle of Waterloo to your novel. Here are more facts about him:

  •  He was fabulously rich. In 1814, he was worth 30.000 pounds per annum (who still cares for Mr. Darcy?)
  • He once enjoyed a flirt with Miss Aston, a niece of the Marchioness Conyngham. At that time, the Marchioness was the mistress of The Prince of Wales. It was rumoured the Prince would have made Thomas a baronet to be a suitable spouse for Miss Aston.
  • He was in Brussels at the eve of the battle of Waterloo. During the battle, he served as an extra aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington. As a matter of fact, also Edward Gibbon Wakefield carried messages during the Battle of Waterloo. I think – but can’t proof – that Thomas and Wakefield knew each other, which makes it even more perfidious that Wakefield chose Ellen Turner as his victim.
  • He carried out the first survey of Petra, an archaeological site in Jordan. On his travels, he met famous Egyptologists such as Johann Ludwig Burckhardt and William John Bankes of Kingston Lacy. William Bankes admired Thomas’s understanding of Egypt, but was not amused when Thomas pre-empted him in publishing his adventures.
  • At the Royal Society, he was presented with the club that had killed Captain Cook in Hawaii. The club had been preserved at Lyme Park and Shirgley Hall, the home of the Turners.
  • He enlarged the dining room at Lyme Park to cope with the scale of entertainment customary in the Regency period.
  • The Knight’s Room, a bedroom at Lyme Park, is said to be haunted. At Thomas’s time, it was reserved as a guest room for fearless bachelors. Legend has it that there is a secret tunnel from the Knight’s Room to the tower called “the cage” in the park.

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Picture (right): “The Cage” – does a secret tunnel lead to the haunted Knight’s Room at Lyme Park?

Sources and further reading

The National Trust: Lyme Park, 1998.
Thomas Legh: Narrative of a Journey in Egypt and the Country Beyond The Cataracts, 1816.
Kate M. Atkinson: Abduction: The Story of Ellen Turner; Blenkins Press, 2002.
Audrey Jones & Abby Ashby: The Shrigley Abduction; Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2003.
Sylvanus Urban: The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle. From January to June 1831, Volume CI; John Nicols and son, 1831.
John Wilson Croker: The Croker Papers: The Correspondence and Diaries of the Late Right Honourable John Wilson Croker, secretary to the admiralty from 1809 to 1830, Vol. 1; Cambridge University Press, 2012
Patricia Usick: Adventures in Egypt and Nubia: the travels of William John Bankes (1786-1855), British Museum, 2002
Philip Temple: A Sort of Conscience: The Wakefields; Auckland University Press, 2002
http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/1966/wakefield-edward-gibbon
http://collections.lancsmuseums.gov.uk/narratives/narrative.php?irn=354
http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/member/legh-thomas-1793-1857
http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/ellen-turner-of-helmshore-d-1831
http://www.egypt-sudan-graffiti.be/THOMAS-LEGH.htm

2 thoughts on “Writer’s Travel Guide: Lyme Park – an Austen Drama in its Own Right

    • Thank you, Helen. Your praise on my research means a lot to me! You always publish brilliantly researched posts on your blog.

      It took me some time to find out that Ellen was “promised” to Thomas and I was delighted when I finally managed to do so via google books.

      I wish I could have found a proof that Thomas Legh und Wakefield knew each other. If anyone out there on the web can help, please feel free to type a hint or an answer in the comment form of this post.

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