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William Mitton 1789 - 1866

If ever proof were needed that money can't buy happiness, the Mitton family provides it. Garden neighbours of William Haycock, and doubtless envied by poorer townsfolk, behind closed doors life in the Mitton household was anything but joyful.

William Mitton is born in 1789 into a life of comfort and ease. His father Henry is a country gentleman of substantial means, built up by earlier generations through the malting business. The family lives at Mitton House (now demolished) in Snaith in the East Riding of Yorkshire and has landholdings in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. William's mother dies when he is five and his father when he is twelve, at which point he inherits the manors of Snaith and Cowick. What happens to William and his siblings and how and where he spends the next three decades of his life is unclear, but in 1834 we find William moving to Stamford with his 21 year old wife, Sarah - 20 years his junior - and baby Mary. 

They initially settle in Rutland Terrace, next door to the well-known Baptist preacher Rev J C Philpot and next door but one to Thomas Laxton's parents. A Joseph Mitton (who may or may not have been related) is also resident in the All Saints parish and runs a small silk-weaving factory. By 1840 the growing family has moved to the substantial house in High Street, St Martins where they are to remain until William's eventual death. Some time before 1847 they acquire their Waterfurlong Garden and William gives evidence in court when a thief steals his prize cucumbers.


Four more daughters and three sons arrive over the next 15 years, all but two surviving into adulthood. The boys are sent off to boarding school at a young age, Sarah has a nursemaid, cook and general maid to help her run the home



William's niece and nephew, Elizabeth Mitton Shearburn and Thomas Shearburn circa 1835. Thomas was one of the executors of William's will.

and William is elected steward of the Stamford Institute, where he presumably enjoys discussing the topics of the day with friends and neighbours. William and Sarah attend balls at the Assembly Rooms, William accepts the honorary position of overseer of the roads for St Martin's and the couple mingles with Stamford's great and good. 

Sarah's death in December 1856 at the age of 44 seems to send the family into a downward spiral, or perhaps the cracks were just less visible beforehand. To the public eye, William is every bit the grief-stricken and benevolent paterfamilias. At great expense he has a stained-glass window installed in St Martin's church and dedicated to Sarah, and shortly thereafter is made a freeman of the town.

'A painted picture window of six lights has been inserted in the north aisle of St Martin's church, Stamford, at the cost of Wm Mitton, Esq, as a memorial to his deceased wife. In the centre compartment of the upper division is our Saviour enthroned in glory, with the sceptre and orb, and supported by cherubims, the compartments on either side being occupied by St Luke bearing the sword of martyrdom, and St John with the cup. The lower centre compartment contains the Virgin with the infant Jesus on one arm and a white lily on the other, St Luke and St Mark occupying positions on either side. In the tracery are two angels, with a scroll containing this inscription; "Blessed are they which die in the Lord." The colouring is very rich, and the whole of the details are admirably carried out. It was designed by the Rev C J Dyer, and executed by Mr Wailes, of Newcastle.' Stamford Mercury 6 January 1857(1)

On 27 July that same year William's 21 year old daughter Ann makes an 'unsuitable' marriage to Henry Lincoln Simpson, a commercial traveller originally from Stamford but living in London. The couple moves to Liverpool where the scandalous unravelling of their marriage will eventually be paraded in public.

'The Custody of Lunatics'

Back in Stamford, William is facing struggles with another daughter, 24 year old Eliza, a young woman of 'nervous and excitable temperament.' Now in his seventies, William has no patience with Eliza's behaviour and sends her to live in the household of one Dr Henry Wilkins of Ealing Green, London, where she can receive 'indefinite supervised care' for an agreed sum of £180 a year.

In the early hours of 12 August 1864 Eliza is found by a police constable wandering aimlessly in the Edgware Road. Eliza writes down Dr Wilkins's address on a piece of paper and, given her odd responses to their questions, the police take her to Marylebone workhouse, where the resident surgeon puts her on the lunacy ward.

St Marylebone Workhouse and Asylum

Dr Wilkins arrives to collect Eliza, saying 'You've got one of my patients here' and explaining that Eliza is a lunatic and 'an old card' at escaping from his house. This, in turn, leads to the trial of Dr Wilkins, not for cruelty or false imprisonment, but for the egregious Victorian crime of 'harbouring a lunatic at a house other than a registered asylum.'

On 18 August the case is heard by Mr Henry at Bow Street Police Court and William appears as a witness. Contradicting his statement to the asylum doctor, Dr Wilkins's defence hinges on the argument that Eliza is not a lunatic. It is not only Henry Wilkins who needs this to stick, so does William if he is to avoid the possibility of being charged as accessory to a crime. The Mercury reports on William's testimony:

'Owing to [Eliza's] general ill health he sent her to the defendant's house in April, 1862. Witness had several other children, and she had lived with the family up to that time. She was excitable, but not of unsound mind, when he first sent her there. She was very nervous at times, but they had never restrained her at all [at home]. After she had been in that state she would calm down like a person who had been in a passion. He did not consider she was of unsound mind then. His medical man recommended him to put her under the care of Dr Wilkins, with the view to change of air and society...She took her meals with the [Wilkins] family, and was not restrained in any way whatever. Previous to that he never knew of such an outbreak as that under which she went away from Dr Wilkins's house.'(1)

The magistrate is evidently suspicious of Eliza's absence from court. 'Mr Henry: Is your daughter here to-day? Witness: I believe she is not. Mr Henry: Is there any reason why she should not attend? No answer.'(1)


William's lawyer, Mr Brown, is allowed to interject:'[My client] thought it would be very undesirable to bring the lady into court to hear herself called a lunatic. The excitement of examination might do her much injury.'(1)

The Mercury reports that Mr Metcalfe then appeared for Dr Wilkins: 'Referring to the Act upon which the indictment proceeded, he characterised it as legislation run mad. See, he said, what the effect would be if this charge were to be established. Any person who had a relative with a mind at all affected by periodical illness, perfectly rational at times, though occasionally excited — any person, he said, who did not want to keep such a relative at home could not send him or her away to the house of any friend or stranger, or pay even for board or lodging, without declaring that such person was a lunatic. If this indictment was to prevail, a man might not be allowed to send a member of his family subject to nervousness or excitement away for change of air. The real question, he submitted, for the jury was whether, at the time she was received into the family of Dr Wilkins, she was a person of unsound mind, not what she afterwards became.'(1) As it transpired, this line of argument was to serve William better than it did Dr Wilkins. 

Responding to further questions from the judge, Mr Brown spoke on behalf of his client: 'It was a very common and a very wise practice to intrust persons of sickly health entirely to the charge of a medical man, and, looking to the position and respectability of the defendant, he considered the charges made for the board and medical care of this young lady extremely moderate. Accepting she had suffered from temporary aberration of the mind on the night in question, aggravated as it patently was by her removal to the lunacy ward, and her examination by lunacy doctors, there was not a tittle of proof that her mind was in the slightest degree affected when she was first received as a patient into the defendant's house. 


Mr Henry said he must send the case for trial, and then, if the defendant thought it expedient to produce the young lady herself, the jury would be the better able to pronounce a judgment as to the state of her mind.'(1)

The case is duly heard on 30 September at the Central Criminal Court and the jury finds Dr Wilkins guilty of contravening the Act on the Care and Treatment of Lunatics. He is fined £50 'which he paid at once before leaving immediately.'(1)


During the course of the trial both William and Dr Wilkins argue that Eliza's mental health has deteriorated dramatically following what they style her 'adventure' and since the 

preliminary hearing they have had her committed to Friars' Private Lunatic Asylum in Acton. Eliza is consequently no longer at liberty to appear as a witness, despite the testimony of a Dr John Yate, who had at some point examined her and 'considered the young woman was capable of looking after herself.'(1)


Dr Yate's view is not shared by Dr Nesbit, superintendent of the Friars' Asylum (who is, of course, making a tidy sum from Eliza's incarceration): 'Dr Nesbit said he received Eliza Mitton under a certificate signed by the defendant himself, by Dr Tuke, and by Mr Mitton, her father, dated the 13th of September inst. He had had 25 years' experience, and he was of opinion that this was a case of advanced imbecility, verging on idiotcy. In such cases the sooner a person was removed from the atmosphere of his own family the better; but that would always depend upon a great number of circumstances.'(1)


The following New Year's Day (1865) 72 year old William Mitton 'fell dead in his house.'(1) Had William been ill for some time, had the widespread newspaper coverage of 'lunacy' in his family carried more stigma than his health could stand, or was there overwhelming shame that the world now knew how he had engineered his daughter's incarceration? For a man of such standing a one sentence obituary is rare indeed and it might give us a clue as to how William's actions are viewed by his peers; even given the brutal standards of the day the case is shocking, as can be seen from the scathing editorial published in the Telegraph and widely syndicated:


Friars' Private Lunatic Asylum was closed in 1902 and its patients' records lost or destroyed. Poignantly, the same Dr Nesbit had 'treated' John Clare in St Andrew's Asylum, Northampton until the Helpston poet's death four months before Eliza's formal committal.

John Clare by William Hilton

"NERVOUS PATIENTS."To be mad is a frightful visitation of humanity… But next to being mad must be ranked the cruel misfortune and wrong of being treated as mad, while the brain is clear and healthy. Clear and healthy indeed the brain must be to resist the influence of such a cruelty; for there is an accursed infection in the very word, and times without number has a troubled mind been goaded into insanity by the despair of proving itself sane. Society does well, therefore, to watch with the intensest suspicion those who make subsistency by keeping the insane, or such as are so called under restraint. Worse than any murder is the murder of the mind; and as lives are taken, so may the life of the mind be taken, for gold. "May be taken," do we say? — men and women have been morally killed by scores. If all secrets were known here, as they must and will be known hereafter, many is the dreadful tale of inconvenient relations got out of the way, an heir quietly disposed of, wife sacrificed to a mistress, husband to a paramour, by the vile subservience of the mad-doctor... Despair, worse, ten times worse, than death, has at last finished its works, and victims handed over "for medical attendance," with the crafty label of madness affixed to them, have been turned into actual raving maniacs...


The public must remember that the law as it stands is wretchedly incomplete for public safety, and that a series of legislative contradictions actually protect the rogues whose interest it may be to call the sane insane. But bad enough before as the chance of "inconvenient people" appeared — with medical authorities ready to swear to the mental aberration of Solomon, or to testify that Socrates was not quite compos mentis, and with private asylums opening their licensed gates to shut in the "patient" from every help but that of perfunctory magistrates making a visit of formality now and then — bad as the law was before, we discern a danger to society totally unsuspected.


We invite the attention of those who know the importance of the subject, to a case heard at Bow Street on Thursday last. A policeman in the Edgware Road found a young lady wandering upon his beat night, and conducted her to the Marylebone Workhouse. She was "strange and incoherent" in manner, it is said, but no particular evidences of the fact are given beyond the rather weak one that she "wanted to go away," and "looked in the fireplace to see if there was any fire." We know sane people who would do the same, we think — but that may pass. She gave the address of "Dr Wilkins, Ealing Green," and bye-and-bye Dr Wilkins came to remove her. In conversation with the workhouse physician, he stated that "she had escaped" from his house. Mr Wilkins is then permitted to sign the book, and bear away his flown bird: but inquiry naturally arises and Mr Wilkins is summoned to explain whether his house is licensed as a lunatic asylum. "Oh, no-oh dear, no," is the reply. "This young lady is not mad, bless you she is a 'nervous patient,' and her papa pays me £180 sterling per annum for board and attendance." Papa, who turns out to be a gentleman at Stamford, is summoned, and deposes to the "nervous patient" theory, and the sum: but when asked why his daughter is not present, he gives no answer.


Most properly under such circumstances, the magistrate sent the case for trial; and Dr Wilkins is out on bail to explain this new and delicate phraseology of "nervous patients." The case of course may be perfectly satisfactory; the young lady may be lost to reason and incapable of her own control; and Mr Mitten [sic], of Stamford, may be a careful father, who has done the best he can under such painful circumstances. But if it be so, Dr Wilkins, of Ealing Green, is between the horns of this dilemma — that either she is mad, and he is keeping mad patients in an unlicensed house; or that she is only a "nervous patient," in which case he has to make it good with the public that "nervous patients'' should be "old cards" at escaping, and that they should be fetched back like runaway gaol-birds. If Miss Mitten is insane, her custodian has broken a most salutary law, and one that must be jealously vindicated; if sane — and his side seemed tremendously anxious to establish that view — then are sane people, under an amiable euphemism, to be shut up for £180 a year, amid such conditions that they break from "board and attendance" whenever they find a chance, and can't be trusted in the witness-box. We make no anticipatory comments on a case that will certainly not be lost sight of; but— but— "We do not like thee, Dr Fell." We do not like this new and elegant phrase of “nervous patients," by favour of which lady, young or old, may be consigned to the delightful benevolence and highly valuable skill of Dr Wilkins or any other doctor, and nothing be heard or known of her except by letters, which can of course be stopped if her ‘guardian’ objects — until a policeman finds her at night in the Edgware Road, and a crush of tender friends is made to bring her back to her gilded cage. Morally, if not legally, it may be all right in the Ealing case — we hope it is; but the Legislature must give its attention to this new phrase, and to what the Ealing solicitor calls "the very wise practice of intrusting persons of sickly health entirely to the charge of a medical man." We, at any rate, shall watch the development of the "nervous patient" theory with the closest interest.'(1)

William's executors lose no time selling off his home and its contents:

VALUABLE Freehold FAMILY RESIDENCE (Land-tax redeemed), situated in the very best part of St Martin's, Stamford Baron, adjoining Burghley Park, Northamptonshire, to be SOLD by AUCTION, by Mr W Langley, the George Hotel. St Martin's, Stamford, on Tuesday, March 6, 1866, Three o'clock in the Afternoon precisely, by direction of the Executors of William Mitton, Esq, deceased. This valuable Freehold Residential Property is handsomely Stone-built and Slated: it contains on the ground floor entrance passage and hall, 4 reception rooms, excellent kitchen, 2 pantries, scullery, larder, &c ; and in the basement, capital ale, wine, and coal cellars; on the first floor, lobby, elegant drawing-room, 2 first class bed-rooms, 3 smaller ditto, dressing-room, water closet, and bathroom ; and on the attic floor, 2 chambers. At the side of the premises, approached by folding gates, are Stable, Coach-house, with Hay and Corn Stores over, Fowl, Coal, and Cinder-houses, Harness-room, Piggery, and other conveniences ; and at the back of the House a small prettily laid out Garden. There are 2 Pumps in the Yard, which supply the Residence with Hard and Soft Water. May be viewed by tickets, to be had of the Auctioneer. Descriptive particulars, &c of Sale may be obtained 10 days previous by applying to Mr W Langley, auctioneer and valuer, land, house, and estate agent, &c, High-street, Stamford; or of E CLARKE, Esq, Solicitor, Snaith, Yorkshire.(1)

St. MARTIN'S, STAMFORD. Valuable HOUSEHOLD FURNITURE, Plate, Plated Articles, Linen, China, Glass, Books, Engravings, Paintings, Two excellent Pianofortes, and numerous Effects, To SOLD by AUCTION, by Mr Wm Langley, Upon the premises of the late Wm Mitton Esq, (by direction of the Executors,) on Monday and Tuesday, March 19th and 20th, 1866, at Ten o'clock each day. FURNITURE comprises painted, mahogany, and other wash-stands; sets of chamber crockery, dressing-tables, looking-glasses, handsome wardrobes, numerous chests of drawers, Kidderminster and other bed-room carpets; handsome four-post mahogany, tent, Arabian, and other bedsteads several with rich damask hangings; feather beds, mattresses, blankets, counterpanes, and the usual chamber requisites of a large house; sets of handsome rosewood, mahogany, and other sitting-room chairs; mahogany sideboards; dining, Pembroke, and other tables and stands; glazed bookcases, books, framed engravings, oil paintings; tea, coffee, dinner, and dessert services, in china, &c; numerous sets of rich moreen, damask, and other curtains and valens; chimney-glasses, mahogany and other framed sofas & couches, several easy chairs, covered horse-hair, &c: Brussels, Kidderminster, and other carpets, two measuring about 24ft. by 19ft.; hearth-rugs, fenders and fire-irons, elegant rosewood l00-table, cheffonier, sideboard, and occasional chairs, 2 excellent pianofortes, about 70 ounces of plate, plated articles, quantity of excellent and valuable linen, china, cut glass, &c.&c.; the usual hall, pantry, kitchen, and scullery requisites, and numerous other effects. May be viewed on Saturday, March 17th, between the hours of 10 and 5, and the Morning of the Sale. Catalogues may be had seven days prior by applying to Mr W Langley, auctioneer and valuer, land, house, and estate agent, &c, High-street, Stamford.(1)

William's own story is over, his executors have distributed his estate - in the region of £30,000 - to the beneficiaries, and the surviving Mitton children who once played in their parents' Waterfurlong garden are all dispersed; Eliza in the asylum in Acton, elder son William Henry in Tur Langton in Leicestershire, younger son Robert in Derbyshire and daughter Ann in Liverpool, where a new drama is beginning to unfold - a drama that will once more drag the Mittons through the mud.



A Tale of Cruelty, Abandonment and a Greek Lover

After the widespread exposure of Eliza's misfortune, it seems the family pulled many strings to keep the drama about her sister Ann's potential divorce confined to the Yorkshire and Lancashire press. 

This is the Todmorden & District News's 2 July 1874 coverage of the case:


'In the Divorce Court, London, the case of Simpson -v- Simpson and Caralli has just been decided. It was a suit instituted by Mr Henry Simpson, of Liverpool, for the dissolution of his marriage on the ground of adultery committed with the co-respondent, Sophocles Caralli, a cotton-broker, also of Liverpool. The allegations in the petition were denied both by the respondent and the co-respondent. Damages were laid at £500. The counsel said the parties were married in 1857, and shortly after they went to reside at Southfield. Here they lived happily until his wife made the acquaintance of Caralli, which led to frequent quarrels. Eventually, the petitioner and his wife mutually agreed to separate, as he objected to Caralli's residence in their house. Petitioner went into

lodgings, but the respondent took a house at Tuebrook, the husband making her an annual allowance. Here Mr Caralli again made his appearance. There was no direct evidence of adultery being committed, but he should ask the jury, after they had heard the evidence of certain witnesses, for their verdict.


The desertion and adultery alleged against the petitioner he totally denied. Mr Henry Lincoln Simpson, the petitioner, said he was married in 1857 and he and his wife afterwards lived in lodgings. They afterwards went to reside at Southfield, near Liverpool. There were four children alive. His wife received the interest of £3,000 under her father's will. For some time after marriage they lived happily, but eventually he had to complain of his wife's indifference to his comforts. Before they went to Waterloo to live, his wife had made the acquaintance of Caralli, a Greek merchant. He first came to lodge with them in a house the petitioner had taken. The reason Caralli did so was in consequence of a suggestion of his wife that, as the residence was an expensive one, such an arrangement would reduce the rent. In March 1868 Caralli was living with them and some suspicion arose in the petitioner's mind as to the attentions of Caralli. At this time, petitioner was taken ill and had to proceed to Matlock, leaving his wife at home. He received a number of letters from his wife in most of which she spoke of the great kindness with which Caralli had acted during petitioner's absence from home. Thinking he had been harsh and hasty in acting as he had done towards Caralli, he consented to the request of his wife that he should become again an inmate of the house.


His wife visited him at Matlock, but their meeting on that occasion, although only for one night, was not a happy one. When the petitioner returned home, he ordered Caralli to leave his home. This was done in consequence of a communication he received from Jane Walker. A separation then took place between himself and his wife, she taking with her the youngest child. After that Mary Walker applied to him for a situation towards the end of the year 1870, and it was from her, coupled with the information he had received from her sister, that he had instituted the present proceedings. He did so immediately he thought he had sufficient evidence to justify the course.


There was no pretence for saying he had treated his wife with cruelty, or that he had ever deserted her. He did not know a woman named "Lizzie" and he denied ever committing adultery with her. He also denied committing adultery with Mary Walker. He had had a misunderstanding with his wife, but it was not on account of his drinking habits. The illness for which he had to go to Matlock was not the result of habits of intoxication. He explained the passage "I could weep tears of blood for time and money ill-spent" by saying it referred to the unhappy domestic differences between himself and his wife. He also wrote to the wife that he hoped to return home a stronger and better man. By that he meant a more religious one than he had formerly been. Matlock he considered a very religious place. His illness whilst there was a very severe one. The letter signed "Lizzie' and commencing "Dear Harry" he had never seen before that day. His wife told him she had such a letter in her possession. She had also accused him of improper conduct with Jane Walker, but there was no truth in the imputation. Walker might have been in his bedroom in her night-dress, but it would be quite with the knowledge of his wife, who had refused to attend to him during his frequent illness. The attacks rendered him quite prostrate and it became absolutely necessary for someone to attend at certain times during the night. 

The Court here adjourned and an arrangement was come to between the parties

Ann's testimony is considerably more extensive than reported, alleging a long saga of drunken cruelty and humiliation at the hands of her habitually unfaithful husband. She claims he ordered her out of the family home, letting her take only her four-year-old youngest child and that Henry has never paid her a penny maintenance. It is curious the court does not seem to pay attention to the child's name  - Henry Sophocles - which is mentioned in both parties' depositions. Was Sophocles Henry junior's Godfather or was he perhaps his father?


After the hearing Sophocles seems to vanish from the scene and Ann continues living independently in some style, with a governess, cook and housemaid. Three things can be concluded from various records: Henry did not come from a monied family, his and Ann's lifestyle improved considerably after her father's death and, despite only a modest income from his job as commercial traveller, Henry spent the rest of his days in comfort, suggesting that the financial arrangement was generous. Ann claims in her testimony that Henry's behaviour has broken her physical and mental health, and three years later she dies, most of her fortune gone (possibly to provide Henry's compensation). Henry remarries five months later, having by law inherited what is left of Ann's money. 


The scant regard paid to the welfare of any of the children is shocking to us today. When Henry and Ann separated he seems to have sent his eight and nine year old daughters to boarding school 300 miles away in Margate. What becomes of their son Edward, or whether the older three children ever see their mother again is unclear.  


Sadly and unsurprisingly, none of the children seems to recover from their traumatic beginnings. Both girls disappear from the records, Edward becomes a warehouseman, dying in a boarding house at 35, while Henry Sophocles drifts from job to job as a 'ship's repair traveller.'


As for William Mitton's two remaining sons, there seems to be quite a contrast between them. Elder son William Henry, who inherits the bulk of William senior's fortune, marries young and moves to Keythorpe in Leicestershire, where he styles himself 'landed proprietor and gentleman'. Unlike his father, he cannot hold onto his money and by 1881 has moved downmarket to the railway gate-house at Easton Magna, is working as a maltster and has no servants. Whether or not he keeps in touch with his siblings is unknown, but there is nothing in the records to suggest he offers them practical or financial support in times of need. 

Meanwhile, younger brother Robert, whose inheritance was much more modest, marries a local Stamford girl, Sarah Law Daffern, and settles first in Derbyshire as a corn-merchant, then in Bootle as a coal-merchant and finally in Rhyl as a poultry farmer. It is Robert who acts as executor for Ann and it is Robert who offers his spinster sister Sarah Jane a home with his family after their father's house is sold. Perhaps it is also Robert who intervenes on his poor sister Eliza's behalf, for in 1867 she is transferred to Earls Court House, a private lunatic asylum on the Old Brompton Road run at that time by Dr Robert Gardiner Hill, a comparatively enlightened reformer of 'the system of the treatment of the insane' who does not believe in the routine use of hand-cuffs, leg-irons or straight-jackets.

The Mittons are almost certainly acquainted with Hill, who grew up in Louth and had been elected Mayor of Lincoln in 1852 whilst Superintendent at the Lincoln Asylum.  

At the time of Eliza's admission Earls Court House is licensed for '30 female patients of the private and gentle class.' She dies there on 7 December 1877 at the age of 39, having spent more than 15 years locked up. 


Through three generations of the Mitton family we witness a sad, repeating 

pattern of children orphaned or sent away and can only hope their garden gave them at least some carefree times. 


(1) The British Newspaper Archive © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018

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