Mrs Dalrymple: A Story of Bigamy and Betrayal


I think it is time to share another story of divorce, one that brought a wry smile to my face. This time, it is the story of a lady who was not prepared to sit in silence as her husband tried to turn his back on her and take everything from her. She had spirit, a fire inside of her, and she knew what was right and what was hers and she fought back against him. I first came across this story when I was a law student studying family law at Sydney Uni. I didn’t take much from it at the time, only that this was the case that settled in law what it took to make a valid marriage. But the story behind this infamous case, well, it is a story that needs telling…  

The year was 1804.  In this year, the nineteen-year-old Mr John Dalrymple, the son of a noble Scotch family, was a cornet in His Majesty’s Dragoon Guards, and was quartered with his regiment in Edinburgh. Shortly after his arrival, he found love, or more accurately, he found Miss Johanna Gordon, the daughter of Charles Gordon of Braid and of Cluny, ‘a gentleman in a respectable condition of life’. As the court would state, Johanna was young enough to ‘excite a passion in his breast’. As to what attraction she saw in him, as the Scottish artist Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe wrote to Lady Charlotte Campbell in 1811:

As to Miss Gordon, she’s a Venus well suited to such a Vulcan, whom nothing but money and a title could have rendered tolerable even to a kitchen wench.

The two began courting and committed their love to each other in writing, with mutual promises of marriage exchanged. John was concerned that his family, and particularly his father, General William Dalrymple, would disapprove of his marriage ‘to a degree that might seriously affect his fortunes’, and he persuaded Johanna to keep the marriage a secret. As a result of this need to keep their marriage a secret, John and Johanna did not cohabit as man and wife, and upon hearing of the troubling rumours relating to his son, John’s father made haste to Edinburgh and ‘removed’ him to England.

The thwarted lovers resorted to letter writing to declare their continued ardour for each other while John was in England. However, when John sailed for Malta in 1805, his correspondence to Johanna ceased and he recruited a family friend and his ‘confidential agent’, a Mr Hawkins, to intercept any further letters from Johanna, and to tell her that he would read no more of them. It seemed that his passion for his wife had not survived the years of separation from her. In short, he had tired of her.

Johanna continued to keep her silence as to her marriage, until the spring of 1807, when General Dalrymple, John’s father, died. At that time, Johanna ‘asserted her marriage rights’ and wrote to Mr Hawkins to tell him so. Mr Hawkins advised John as to ‘what had passed by letter between himself and Miss Gordon, and… dismissed him with the most anxious advice to adhere to the connection he had formed; and by no means to attempt to involve any other female in the misery that must attend any new matrimonial connection.’

John, however, was not a man to take this advice, even when coming from a trusted family friend. Within only ‘a very few days afterwards’ John married a Miss Laura Manners, or to call her by the name to which she would later become entitled, Lady Laura Manners-Tollemache, who had the benefit of a much higher social standing than Johanna, being the daughter of John Manners, an MP who was a direct descendent of the second Duke of Rutland, and Lady Louisa Tollemache, later to become the 7th Countess of Dysart. The marriage ceremony, which took place by special license at St George’s, Hanover Square, was described by the Court as being conducted in ‘the most formal and regular manner’, unlike Johanna’s wedding to John, which had been far more informal.  

Upon hearing this news of her husband’s purported marriage to Laura, an infuriated Johanna took her claim to the courts, seeking restitution of her conjugal rights.  This was more than just an attempt to require her husband to resume intimate relations with her, as a court order for the restoration of her conjugal rights would require John to provide for her financially.  

The Court found in favour of Johanna, despite the distress that this would cause the distraught Laura. Indeed, the court exonerated both women of any blame in the whole marital debacle. Speaking of Johanna, the judge, Sir William Scott, later to become Lord Stowell, said:

‘She did all she could do under the obligations of secrecy, which [John] had imposed upon her, by entering her private protest against his forming any new connection; she appears to me to have satisfied the whole demands of that duty, which circumstances imposed upon her, and I must say that if an innocent lady has been betrayed into a marriage, which conveys to her neither the character nor rights of a wife, I cannot, upon any evidence which has been produced, think that the conduct of Miss Gordon is chargeable, either legally or morally, with having contributed to so disastrous an event.’

Sir William was not happy at having to make this finding, as he made clear, saying:

‘it is impossible to conceal from my own observation the distress which that sentence may eventually inflict upon one or perhaps more individuals; but the Court must discharge its public duty however painful to the feelings of others, and possibly to its own; and I think I discharge that duty in pronouncing that Miss Gordon is the legal wife of John William Henry Dalrymple, Esq., and that he, in obedience to the law, is bound to receive her home in that character, and to treat her with conjugal affection, and to certify to this Court that he has so done, by the first session of the next term.’

The effect of the decision was that Laura was left without a husband, and in the invidious position of being neither wife, nor widow, nor divorced wife, and having unintentionally committed the scandal of having lived with a man outside of wedlock.  Through no fauly of her own, she was ruined. She became a recluse, retiring with her dogs, her parrot and her loyal companion, Jane Beauchamp, to whom she left a bequest in her will when she died in 1834.

John was forced by the Court to take Johanna back as his wife. He was, however, allegedly able to extricate himself from that marriage in 1820, in circumstances which are far from clear with the Scot’s Peerage declaring that the marriage had been annulled by Lords of the Scottish session, but with no surviving record to verify this. However, justice of a sort did catch up with him as he spent the last eleven years of his life ‘speechless and almost unconscious’ before he too died in his hotel in the Rue de Clichy, Paris in 1840. He died childless, ‘the male issue of the first and notorious Earl of Stair expiring with him’, leaving a distant cousin to inherit the title. He is remembered most for this infamous legal precedent discussing marriage.

As for Johanna, or the indomitable ‘Miss Jacky’, as her family called her, she continued to refer to herself as the Dowager Countess of Stair until her death in 1847, holding on to what was hers to the very end.

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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