An (18 Century) Bamburgh Castle Scandal!

We are lucky to have some tales of Bamburgh in the post-medieval period made available to us from the research undertaken by Carol Griffiths (with grateful thanks to Woodhorn Archive). Here is the first of them in Carol’s words that I hope won’t be too scandalous for those of a sensitive disposition (GY):

I work and volunteer at Bamburgh Castle, and have become absolutely hooked on researching its history. Some 2 years ago, I was lucky enough to become accepted as a volunteer at Woodhorn County Archive, on the Working Lives Project; a Lottery funded work examining some of the grand Northumbrian Estates-including the Lord Crewe Estates of Bamburgh in the Eighteenth Century. This work for me has been an absolute privilege and joy-and thereby hangs many a tale, as I have discovered the lives of many colourful larger-than-life characters from Bamburgh (or Balmbrough as it then was) of the mid 1700s…

Occasionally today, if the Castle receives queries from people researching their family history, and are unable to help from Castle records, I will be asked if I have any knowledge of such-and-such a name from my research. So it was some 15 months ago, I was forwarded an email from someone in Australia, claiming that their ancestor called George Hall, had been a Constable at the Castle. I had already undertaken extensive research into the Constables of the Castle during the medieval and Tudor times; knew all the names and was certain it did not include George Hall. So I was about to write a brief negative response, but the following day was undertaking more research at Woodhorn. Because of my passion for all things Bamburgh Castle, I was indulged by being asked to transcribe some of the early Court Books (recording the proceedings of Manorial Courts from 1695 until the 1920s-I only managed the first 100 years!), and also to summarize the bundles of letters written to Dr John Sharp, the most famous of the Lord Crewe Trustees, who succeeded his father as Trustee and more than anyone else, directed the restoration of the Castle and the establishment of many good charitable deeds under the Will of Lord Crewe.

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Dr John Sharp (1723-1792)

I picked up the bundle of fragile original 18C letters I was working on, and could not believe my eyes-there was the name of George Hall! He has since become a familiar name, and in brief, was appointed Dr Sharp’s foreman at the Castle and was indeed appointed Constable-but in the 18C sense. Each village and hamlet appointed a Constable (there were also Aletasters, Pounders and Bailiffs) whose duties I imagine were akin to a village bobby-certainly not the status or power of a medieval Constable of the Castle appointed by the King. Every time Dr Sharp left the Castle for his living at Hartburn or for the Diocese in Durham, George Hall wrote frequent letters to update him in his absence from Bamburgh-wonderful gossipy letters full of village and Castle news, all expressed in the deferential terms of the 18C when patronage reigned supreme. Thus began my love affair with George Hall, and the following is one of the most dramatic and moving stories uncovered…

The bundles of letters I was privileged to summarize were all letters addressed to Dr Sharp-but occasionally there are accounts in his own hands of various issues-often matters needing to be brought to the attention of his fellow Trustees, or to the next Manorial Court. However, one such account (NRO 00452/C/3/2/9/34 ) written on 21 September 1790-shortly before he died-was breathtaking in its drama, and also the very human terms which he used to describe events-

“ A female servant of George Hall’s left her place last Whitsuntide, visibly pregnant, but last night returned increased in size…She was examined recently by Mr. Marsh and said that Jonathan Hall was the father of the child but she was not sworn. She is a woman of bad character, and does seem to have confined her favour to one person only. She has gained a settlement in the Castle by service and the difficulty is how to get quit of her; this being a constabulary by itself. George Hall is Constable and Overseer… It would not be very agreeable to have her crying out while the Trustees are here”

One wonders at the inconsistency of accusing the woman of being a bad character, but admitting she confined her favours to one person only-Jonathan Hall. Dr Sharp continues-one almost feels sorry for him…

“I knew nothing of all this till this morning, for I am generally the last to hear things that I ought to have been made acquainted with till they are known the town over”

It gets worse-

“Since I wrote the above Peter Wilson has been with me in great distress he says that whilst he was ringing the Bell last night, the woman came to his house, his wife turned her out, and Pater on coming home found her sitting on his door and out of mere humanity to a woman in her condition her took her in…George Hall ought to take care of her, but I am told dare not for fear of his wife and that some mischief should happen”

The following day Dr Sharp records-

“I have heard today that George Hall some time ago had her sent to Alnham that she might bear the child there privately but having neglected to give his Bond in time to the Overseers of that Parish, they would not let her stay”

“I have been further informed that it was through George Hall that she was not allowed to take her oath before the Justice who said it was not necessary before the child was born. To be sure by law she is not compelled to do it sooner. I know the other delinquent concerned (Jonathan Hall?) and have proof of his having been concerned with the girl, but this makes me cautious of taking any step in the affair as her Oath must determine the father…”

It is clear that the law at that time allowed the mother to appear before a Justice to swear her oath as to the child’s paternity. And the next day the final entry-

“I have been informed that the girl yesterday was sent out of the Castle to a House at the Mizen Head [on the edge of the village, on the Glororum road]”

Poor Dr Sharp, confronted with a real moral dilemma, involving the son of his foreman! I could not let it rest there, and decided to do some more sleuth work. I used the IGI and discovered that George and his wife Ann had a son Jonathan born at Harburn, christened on 29 January 1766. (This could also give a clue as to George’s appointment to the Castle; he must have known Dr Sharp from his original Hartburn living).

I then delved further, hoping to discover the birth of the baby, and possibly, romantically, the marriage of Jonathan and the child’s mother.. In the Durham Bishops Transcripts I did indeed discover the birth of the baby and the identity of the baby’s mother-

The entry for a christening on December 29 1790 at St Aiden’s, Bamburgh reads-

“Matilda Brown, illegitimate daughter of Eleanor Brown of Sunderland, and Jonathan Hall of Bamburgh Castle, who were presented for fornication”

This was a horrendous discovery, because being “presented” means a formal accusation, with a humiliating sentence. Although there is no trace of the penitential statement both would have had to make publicly in church, during a Service, possibly dressed in white and standing on a raised area, another such statement of the same era reads-

“Whereas I Good Neighbours, forgetting and neglecting my Duty to Almighty God, and the care I ought to have had of my own soul, have committed the grievous and detestable sin of fornication, to the great danger of mine own Soul, and the evil and pernicious Example of all Sober Christians, offended thereby; I do here in a most penitential and sorrowful manner acknowledge and confess my Sin and am heartily sorry for the same, humbly desiring Almighty God to forgive me both this and all other mine Offences, and for to Assist me with the Grace of his Holy Spirit, that I may never commit the like hereafter, saying Our Father etc”

The written statement had then to be signed by the Minister-a Rev Henry Elliott, Curate, who lived in comfort in the Castle- and Church Wardens with the date that such public penance had been done. The records contain at least one other named Penitential statement I have seen; perhaps in an era when the public stocks were erected to be used, such inflicted humiliation seemed less offensive than to the modern mind…

I can-as yet-discover no further reference to Matilda or Eleanor Brown, or indeed of Jonathan, who presumably was disgraced. Certainly no happy ending and it would seem that both male and female paid the price for transgressing the moral code of Dr Sharp’s Bamburgh. However George did not lose his job, which continued even following Dr Sharp’s death, until his own in 1801.

The only ending I can offer is that of George. In Bamburgh St Aiden’s Churchyard-quite near the entrance door, I found a memorial stone-“Sacred to the memory of George Hall of Bamburgh Castle who died 11 may 1801 aged 65 years. Ann his wife died 18 December 1818 aged 77 years and Robert their son died 29 December 1820.”

Where Jonathan, Eleanor and their daughter Matilda lie we know not.

Carol Griffiths

3 thoughts on “An (18 Century) Bamburgh Castle Scandal!

    • Thanks, though we can’t claim too much credit, its really all Carol’s hard work in the records office. We are fortunate to have such detailed information on the 18th century castle and also her allowing us to pass on some of the stories she has discovered.

  1. Pingback: Do you need a doctor? Applying for medical jobs in the eighteenth century | Dr Alun Withey

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