For seven or eight years I have been downloading and reading books published during the Regency era—by which I mean the “long” Regency era running from about 1780 (before the French Revolution) to 1830 (the year King George IV died). Books published during these years provide the background information for my Regency-era novels. Occasionally, when the fancy strikes, I take a screenshot of the book owner’s signature as it appears on the title page or elsewhere.
Here is W. Musgrave’s signature in a book titled Adultery Trial, in the Court of King’s Bench, before Lord Kenyon, and a Special Jury, between Edward Dodwell, Esq., Plaintiff, and The Rev. Henry Bate Dudley, Defendant, for Crim. Con.1 “Crim. Con.” is short for “criminal conversation”—adultery. I was struck by the fact that the case involved a clergyman. My, oh, my! At a mere forty-four pages the book (published in 1789) offers a glimpse of late 18th-century English life I had not fully appreciated.
Mr. Dodwell, the Plaintiff, sought damages from the Rev. Mr. Henry Bate Dudley for seducing and having criminal conversation with Mrs. Dodwell, which resulted in the loss of her comfort, society, and affection. The Plaintiff stated quite clearly that he and Mrs. Dodwell had enjoyed the “utmost harmony and love” until the Defendant seduced his wife, producing “unhappiness and discord.” The Defendant pleaded NOT GUILTY.
Evidence for the Plaintiff
Mr. Bearcroft was the leading Counsel for the Plaintiff. His evidence revealed pertinent information about the crim.con. For example, Mrs. Dodwell had been seen walking with Mr. Bate Dudley, not returning home until after midnight. Later she told her husband that she was going to Southend for the purpose of a little salt-water bathing. In truth, she met her lover there. It was reported that he was a constant visitor to her lodgings, where “they enjoyed their caresses.”One morning quite early—around two a.m.—Mrs. Dodwell’s servant went to her mistress’s room, believing Mr. Bate Dudley had retired. On opening the door she saw them on the floor performing the act of adultery, in “what would, on proof to the Jury, induce them, without hesitation, to give their verdict for the Plaintiff.”
Furthermore, Mrs. Dodwell’s servant reported that her mistress and Mr. Bate Dudley had been seen together repeatedly: in the town field near the Water-house (where Mr. and Mrs. Dodwell lived), walking together in Cherry Orchard Lane, and riding in her carriage. Indeed, the servant admitted to assisting the lovers in their intrigue. Mr. Dodwell’s coachman, Mr. Meadows, likewise reported that he saw Mrs. Dodwell and Mr. Bate Dudley riding and driving together. The couple appeared very familiar with one another, but Mr. Meadows never saw evidence of crim. con.
A coachman named Rollins had seen Mrs. Dodwell and Mr. Bate Dudley together frequently, once riding in his whisky (a type of carriage2) to a house where they took some refreshment, but he never saw any improper familiarity between them. Another witness likewise had seen them together, but not kissing or showing other familiarity.
The DefenceThe learned Counsel for the Defence, Mr. Mingay, stated the importance of determining the extent to which Mr. Dodwell had lost his wife’s love, affection, and society, as this claim was the basis for determining the degree of damages awarded to him should his case succeed.The jury was charged with determining whether the Defendant had criminal conversation with the Plaintiff’s wife.
Gems Reported during Discovery
I expected the Defense’s evidence to examine Mr. Bate Dudley’s character and service to his community. I could not have been more wrong. Here are a few tidbits that emerged during the discovery:
- Mr. Dodwell dissected dead bodies, having followed the science of dissection since he was in college at Edinburgh and Cambridge. Sometimes he approached his wife with hands covered all over with the “nauseous filthiness of such pursuits.” As if this weren’t bad enough, his dissecting room was situated near his bedchamber. A house guest testified to having passed the door one day where he saw an arm lying half dissected upon the table!
- Mr. Dodwell had another disagreeable hobby: he operated an iron forge and spent hours hammering on his projects. Afterwards he appeared before his wife unwashed, with dust and soot covering his clothes and body.
- Mr. Dodwell had “hungry hounds.” The Defendant’s Counsel seemed to suggest that the byproducts of Mr. Dodwell’s dissections were thrown to the dogs.
- Mr. Dodwell introduced a young and handsome baronet to Mrs. Dodwell and allowed the man to become very attentive to his wife. Mrs. Dodwell pleaded with her husband to dampen the baronet’s ardor, for she believed her honor was in danger of being compromised, but Mr. Dodwell ignored her complaint. The baronet persisted (and succeeded, apparently), resulting in a duel being fought—an illegal activity at the time. The duel “ended the dispute in the field of honor.” I take this to mean the baronet was killed.
- After this shabby episode, Mr. Dodwell sent his wife to the Continent, where she remained for two years. While there she developed an intimacy with an officer at Lisle, France.
- When Mrs. Dodwell returned to London, she arrived at the Bates’s hotel (not to be confused with the Bates Motel) in the Adelphi district of London, where Mr. Dodwell visited her as if she were his “kept girl.”
- The Dodwells were on friendly terms with a neighbor, General Defaguliers. The General invited the Dodwells to Woolwich to enjoy time on his yacht. While Mr. Dodwell amused himself on shore, fiddling with a gun, the General was onboard the yacht, apparently amusing himself with the beautiful Mrs. Dodwell. The Defendant’s Counsel called Mr. Dodwell an “accessary to the prostitution of his wife.”
- Indeed Mr. Dodwell did not live with his wife but found lodgings for her in various parts of London while he enjoyed his residence in Hertfordshire.
- During the time Mr. Dodwell claimed Mr. Bate Dudley was committing crim. con. with his wife, it turned out that the clergyman was in the King’s Bench prison.
After deliberating for twelve minutes, the jury returned a verdict for the Defendant, Mr. Bate Dudley.
Questions Arising Some 228 Years after the Verdict
This seems to be a case where the jury expressed considerable tolerance for the low character of a beautiful woman and zero tolerance for the actions of her deplorable husband. Several interesting questions arise:
- What became of Mrs. Dodwell? Poor lady. Winning a divorce against her husband would have been nearly impossible, since she must prove both crim.con. and cruel and abusive behavior (such as physical beatings, bigamy, or incest) on his side.3 (Mr. Dodwell had only to prove crim. con. to win a divorce.) She likely had no independent means of support, which fact would force her to remain married. Presumably the Dodwells rubbed along until death parted them, much like the young couple in Hogarth’s series about marriage, shown above: together in law, separate in life.
- How did Mr. Dodwell come to have a human body for dissecting at home? Bodysnatchers were assuredly working in the 1780’s, but the Golden Era of the resurrection men didn’t really get going until the early 1800’s, when London’s anatomy schools needed hundreds of bodies for training students in medicine and surgery.4 Did Mr. Dodwell rob the local graveyard to obtain the body or bodies? Or did he buy a body from a resurrection man? Why wasn’t he punished or vilified for his nefarious activity? Were the locals not aware of it?
- Who was W. Musgrave, the person whose signature appears on the back side of the book’s title page? A clerk in a law office? A law student? A buyer of old books?
- Why had the clergyman been imprisoned? For debts? For stealing?
- What would this cast of characters think if they learned their story had been retold in the 21st century? Would they be utterly embarrassed? Or would they merely shrug, having already had their case published for all to read?
One cannot but wonder whether Mr. Dodwell became a pariah in Hertfordshire. And there’s this: the Dutch word “yacht” has been in use since the 1550’s. That discovery was nearly as astonishing as all the rest!
1Anon. Adultery Trial, in the Court of King’s Bench, before Lord Kenyon, and a Special Jury, between Edward Dodwell, Esq., Plaintiff, and The Rev. Henry Bate Dudley, Defendant, for Crim. Con. (London, 1789).
2Felton, William. A Treatise on Carriages; Comprehending Coaches, Chariots, Phaetons, Curricles, Whiskies, etc. (London, 1796), p. 114 (PDF p. 141).]
3Perkin, Joan. Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England. Chicago: Lyceum Books, Inc., 1989, p. 23.
4Bailey, James Blake. The Diary of a Resurrectionist, 1811-1812 (London, 1896), pp. 20, 37-38.