He claimed to be an army captain, a gentleman, a pensioner of the Consolidated Board (which was responsible for army provisions). He also claimed to have been born in Hanwell, Middlesex, in 1794 – but there is no evidence of his birth or baptism there, and none for neighbouring parishes. He is also absent from all of the National Archives’ army records.
The first thing known about him is that he married Sarah Ann Smith in Marylebone in 1827. She had a better recorded past; the daughter and only child of Morgan Smith, a Reading grocer who had died when she was around eight years old, and his wife Sarah Shackel, from a well-to-do family from Earley, near Reading.
Backing up Heather’s assertion that he was in the army, he and Sarah were living in St Helier, Jersey, by 1830, when their first child, the exotically named Victoria Commenda was born. They were still there in 1835, when second daughter Caroline Banksia was born.
They returned home in 1837 or 1838, and settled into a grand house – 25 Brompton Crescent, Kensington. Sarah was pregnant with their third child.
On 13 August 1838, The Morning Post reported that a Mrs Heather, ‘a youthful matron’, had been charged at the Queen Square police office in Westminster with breaking window panes of a cottage in Gore Lane, Kensington. The accusation was made the cottage’s owner, Mrs Wiseman, who, the paper reported, was known as “The Merry Widow”.
It appeared that Sarah Heather had suspected “the young widow” of having “inveigled” the attentions of her husband John. Sarah was described as “the best of wives”, but, the Morning Post pointed out,
“as jealousy, once aroused, knows no bounds, abuse and violence are usually resorted to against the supposed delinquent party as a means of vengeance.”
Sarah was ordered to pay six shillings – the value of the damage she had caused to the Merry Widow’s window – but refused to do so. The magistrates then ordered her to be locked up in default of payment – despite the fact that she was nine months pregnant. Hopefully, she soon changed her mind about paying, or her husband paid on her behalf.
The couple settled back into married life. In the early 1840s they moved abroad again for a few years, renting out their house, but had returned by 1851. In the 1851 census, John Heather was listed as the owner of a public house in Henley on Thames – presumably it was an investment he was checking on, as the rest of the family remained in Kensington.
He then became a vestryman at Holy Trinity Church in Brompton, and poor law guardian for Kensington, living the life of a socially-aware, charitably minded, affluent gentleman. His mother in law had died in 1847, leaving her daughter a substantial amount of money, so the Heathers were comfortably off.
But suddenly, in 1863, Captain Heather was in the news. The Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper described him thus:
“John Heath [sic], apparently about sixty-five years of age, and very infirm…who it was stated had been a captain in the army.”
He may have been infirm, but he was nothing if not active. He was in the news as the result of an affiliation case heard at Marylebone: he was accused of having had an affair with 28-year-old Elizabeth Hoare, one of the servants of a Mrs Whitaker at Dorset Place. Elizabeth said:
“Defendant visited there [Dorset Place] and he made my acquaintance. I had intercourse with him in 1858 and 1859. The child was born on the 7th of October 1858.” (Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 September 1863)
Heather had, apparently, paid maintenance to Elizabeth, although she complained that she used to have “a difficulty” in getting the money – “Sometimes he gave me 10s, 1l, 2l, and 3l”. It was Heather who arranged Elizabeth’s confinement – with a Mrs Doggett acting as midwife. However, Elizabeth stated that in 1860, he tried to get her to say that the child was not his, and when she would not, stopped her money.
Elizabeth was then prompted to take her case to the authorities, where, although she argued that she “was never intimate with any other man”, and that she “will swear that I never had a child before, neither have I had one since”, was soon forced to admit that she “might have had” another baby since.
Luckily for John Heather, but not so for Elizabeth, it was decided that the complainant’s immorality – in having had two illegitimate children by two different fathers, and attempting to hide the fact of the second child’s existence – meant that the case should be dismissed. No order for maintenance was made, and the “infirm” Heather did not have to pay further for this child, who continued to be supported by its mother.
John’s long suffering wife Sarah died in 1866 of bronchitis, leaving the Shackel and Smith money to her husband and three daughters. By this time, John had been paralysed for the past year, leaving him almost immobile. He survived in this state until April 1869, when he died in the family home in Kensington. He died intestate, with his parentage unknown, and much of his life likewise – apart from the gossip provided by the newspapers’ crime reports.
That was a bit of an indulgent post about my great-great-great-grandparents. Unfortunately, due to my grandma having thrown away all photos of my granddad’s family (like you do), I’ve had to illustrate this piece with more generic images. 😦