William Swaine was a Hertfordshire farmer, who had grown accustomed to the help of his young niece around his Stevenage farm.
She had been living with his family since she was two and a half, and he looked on her as his own child. This young girl, Matilda Winters, spent her days looking after the farmhouse whilst her uncle farmed.
Living down the road was the Brown family. Young master Brown lived with his parents, and they all got on well with Farmer Swaine.
The farmer noticed that Brown got on particularly well with Matilda, but thought nothing of it; he supposed “that a man at his time of life was not likely to take advantage of the confidence that was placed in him.”
Unfortunately for William Swaine, his faith was misplaced. Matilda was a good looking girl, who looked younger than her age. Although Brown had known her since she was a child, he now professed the “greatest affection” for her.
At Christmas time in 1867, when Matilda was just 16, Brown seduced her in the farm stable. Her wrote her letters, addressing her as his “dear little sweetheart”, and on Valentine’s Day, 1868, he sent her a romantic poem.
The relationship continued, in secret, until February 1870, when Matilda realised she was pregnant.
She asked Brown was she was to do, and he gave her a prescription for an abortifacent, accompanying her to a chemist in Hitchin, where the prescription was made up – but the “medicine” tasted so horrid that Matilda was unable to drink more than one bottle of it.
Brown asked her for the one unopened bottle back; when she refused and asked why he wanted it, he replied, “it might be useful to some other girl.”
The pregnancy continued. Matilda’s uncle grew suspicious only when she reached seven or eight months pregnant, and when questioning her, she at first refused to say who the father was. Eventually she admitted it was their neighbour – to her uncle’s shock.
Swaine immediately called Brown to him, and told him he knew that Matilda was pregnant. Brown admitted that he had slept with Matilda, but attempted to blacken the young woman’s name, stating that “others had done the same”.
Swaine saaid that the only way for Brown to “restore his niece’s character” was to marry her. Brown refused but said he would be willing to give her an allowance of 10 shillings a week as long as he did not have to live with her.
Swaine, horrified at Brown’s allegations of Matilda’s sexual misconduct with other boys, ordered Brown to leave his house.
Matilda gave birth to her daughter on 15 November 1870. She named her Cecilia Angelina Brown Winters, her child’s second name being her seducer’s surname. Her friends approached Brown and asked him to marry her, as he had previously promised to do, but he continued to refuse.
Accordingly, William Swaine took him to the Hertford Assizes in March 1871, ostensibly to “recover damages for the loss of the services of his niece, on account of her seduction”.
This was as a seduced woman could not bring a case herself – William brought one as Matilda’s de facto father, with this “parent/child” relationship being seen as akin to a master/servant one. This was unlike a breach of promise case, where the injured party was required to bring the action herself.
William sought £2,000 (the equivalent of over £90,000 today) from Brown.
Matilda stood in court and claimed that Brown had bought her presents, including a watch, a locket, and a work-box. She thought he had intended to marry her, and denied that she had ever “been guilty of any impropriety” with some other local boys named in court.
Swaine was told that he could not prove that he had lost Matilda’s services as a result of her seduction, as he had instigated the case before she had given birth.
The Lord Chief Justice then criticised Swaine for bringing a case prematurely, suggesting that the farmer and Brown could have come to “some arrangement” that would have removed the need of further litigation.
But after debate between the defence and the prosecution counsels, Brown stated that he would agree to pay Sweyne compensation of £750 (just under £3,500 today), and the verdict was accordingly recorded.
Four years after the court case, Matilda wed a Luton-born butcher named George Ellerd Davis. George had not had a straightforward start to his sexual life either. He had become a husband at 21, on marrying Phoebe Horley, and a widower at 22.
Matilda and George lived in various places in Hertfordshire, Middlesex and Bedfordshire, having several sons together.
But there was a twist in this tale. Matilda died in 1898, aged 46. Her widower, George, had, within weeks, remarried.
The speed with which he remarried was one thing. But his choice of wife was even more unexpected – he wed his illegitimate stepdaughter, Cecilia, who was 18 years his junior.
They married on 2 November 1898 in Islington, a place where they had no links, presumably to avoid gossip from those they knew. Yet in 1901, they were living at Moorfield House, Fishers Green – back in Stevenage.
Perhaps they thought nobody there would remember the circumstances of Cecilia’s birth 30 years earlier, but one person would have. William Swaine was still alive and lived in Stevenage for another eight years until he died aged 88.
Cecilia also died, on 18 June 1908, after less than ten years of marriage, and aged only 37. She and her mother Matilda both had children by George Davis; Cecilia’s son Hector was left without a mother at the age of six.
George again lost little time in finding another wife – his fourth – although at least this time, she does not appear to have been a member of the Winters family.
But there appears to have been doubt, after Cecilia’s death, as to whether she and George were even legally married.
Probate was not issued until 21 years after her death, which found her effects to be worth over £2,000. Her name was listed in the probate calendar as “Cecilia Angelina Brown Winters, otherwise Cecilia Davis”.
An 1846 Isle of Man case had argued that marriage between another stepfather and stepfather was “incestuous intercourse”, and stated that canon law prohibited a man from marrying his late wife’s daughter – this was ruled to be “affinity”.
However, in the Isle of Man case, because the man and woman had been lawfully married under licence, the marriage could not be “put aside”.
Cecilia and George had also been married legally, by licence. It seems that when probate was finally granted to George, in 1929, long after he had married for the fourth time, that a similar conclusion was reached as in the 1846 case.
The decision closed the door on one family’s complex relationships – a teenage seduction, illegitimate child, multiple marriages and that contested, secret marriage to a stepchild. Who knew Stevenage’s history was so interesting?!
Sources: The Morning Post, 3 March 1871, page 7, “Promises Broken: Courtship, Class, and Gender in Victorian England” by Ginger S. Frost (University of Virginia Press, 1995), Ancestry.co.uk.