The Yelverton Affair: a nineteenth-century sensation

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), Volume 13

‘When Mrs Yelverton emerged from the Four Courts, a great demonstration of popular enthusiasm took place. She was cheered by fifty thousand people frantic with joy, who had waited outside the gates to hear the result . . . at the Gresham Hotel . . . in response to a universal call she came to the balcony of one of the drawingroom windows, and when the cheering had subsided, she said: “My noble-hearted friends, you have made me this day an Irishwoman, by the verdict that I am the wife of an Irishman. I glory to belong to such a noble-hearted nation. You will live in my heart for ever, as I have lived in your hearts this day . . . Farewell for the present, but forever I belong, in heart and soul, to the people of Dublin.”’

Thus Judge William O’Connor Morris recorded the climax of  Longworth v. Yelverton, a celebrated case that came before the Irish public in 1861 as an action for maintenance and led to a radical change in the Irish civil law regarding marriage. The parties to the case were Theresa Longworth, an English Catholic, and William Charles Yelverton, a Protestant member of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. The issue was whether or not they were validly married. Theresa maintained that they were; Charles insisted that they were not.

Family backgrounds

Theresa Longworth, born c. 1832, was the youngest of six children of a Manchester silk manufacturer. Her mother died when she was eight, and Theresa was educated at an Ursuline convent school in France. Theresa’s father died when she was twenty, leaving her a private income, which she used to travel in Europe and the Near East. An adventurous spirit, though not conventionally pretty, she certainly had the power to charm and influence others.
The Honourable William Charles Yelverton’s background was superficially very different. Born c. 1820, the second son of Viscount Avonmore of Belle Isle, Co. Tipperary, he was a major in the Royal Artillery. He is described as ‘about thirty-five years at the date of the trial, a good-looking man with dark, deeply-set brown eyes, and a resolute face’. We are told that he was in perpetual debt, which was usual for young army officers of his time. Little is known of his personal life and character apart from what can be deduced from his letters quoted in the courtroom, where he  appeared ill at ease and consequently made a bad impression.
The Yelvertons had an ambiguous reputation. Their ancestry derived from an eighteenth-century English merchant, and their Avonmore title was a ‘Union peerage’ given to Charles’s grandfather, Barry Yelverton, for supporting the Act of Union, breaking a pledge he had already given to Henry Grattan, a personal friend. Barry Yelverton had also repudiated an early marriage to a Catholic.

Flirtatious and affectionate letters

Theresa and Charles first met on a cross-channel steamer one summer evening in 1852. They sat up all night on deck talking, and next day Charles escorted Theresa to the place where she was to stay in London. Charles, a penniless younger son, could not afford to marry, but all the same did not want to lose contact with this fascinating girl. For the next three years, the only contact between them was through a series of flirtatious and increasingly affectionate letters.
Following the outbreak of war in the Crimea (1854–6) Charles went there on active service. He found Theresa there too, working with the French Sisters of Charity at Galata in Constantinople. The French army in the Crimea, unlike their British allies, had an efficient medical service. Hospital care was organised by nuns, aided by lay nurses, of whom Theresa was one. These nurses were dressed like novice nuns, so Theresa came to meet Charles wearing the blue-grey dress of a Sister of Charity. Charles was so enchanted with her appearance that he embraced and kissed her. Then, according to Theresa, he asked her to marry him, and their first real difference arose.
Theresa wanted a public ceremony in a Catholic church after the war. Charles wanted an immediate, secret, Greek Orthodox marriage. Theresa refused. Charles explained that he had promised his family not to marry, hence the need for absolute secrecy. It is not clear how seriously Theresa took this explanation. She seems to have thought it more likely that Charles feared his ascendancy family’s reaction to a bourgeois bride. She suggested that if he cared so much about social differences, maybe they should break off their engagement. Never having had any connection with Ireland, Theresa was ignorant of another possible reason for Charles’s reluctance to plight his troth publicly.

‘Mixed marriages’ and the law

To discourage Protestants from marrying Catholics, a statute of George II (19 Geo. 2. c. 13.) declared the Irish Catholic marriage ceremony invalid for a Protestant, though valid for a Catholic. Consequently, in Ireland most Catholic/Protestant couples had a public ceremony performed by a Church of Ireland minister according to the rites of that church, then a renewal of marriage vows before a Catholic priest.
Theresa could hardly have known about this, but Charles Yelverton was aware that a Catholic marriage in Ireland would be as invalid for him as it had been for his grandfather. Charles may have counted on eventually making a wealthy match in which love would not necessarily figure, but in the meantime there was Theresa, and he wanted her. Could he induce her to live with him, believing herself to be his wife, but in the eyes of the law actually his mistress? From his own later admissions, it seems that this was the situation Charles planned to bring about.
Theresa began to notice that Charles, though still  professing passionate love for her, was avoiding mention of actual marriage. She tentatively suggested that perhaps they could try out a platonic living arrangement of some kind. Charles’s response was to depart, returning to England by a route avoiding the one he knew Theresa planned to take. He wrote a long letter telling her why he had done this, explaining that he could no longer exercise self-control if he were alone with her for any length of time. More letters were exchanged, conciliatory on her side, apologetic on his, and when Charles became commanding officer at Leith Fort, Edinburgh, in February 1857, Theresa arrived with her friend Arabella MacFarlane, and took lodgings in the city.
The two young women visited people to whom they had introductions, wrote letters, practised the piano, and studied languages. Each day, except Saturdays and Sundays, Charles Yelverton called, and spent several hours with them. Occasionally Theresa went out riding with Charles, but if they were ever alone indoors, Arabella was within earshot in the next room, as the conventions of the time required.

‘Scotch marriage’ alleged

On one occasion Arabella had difficulty hearing anything. That was on 6 April 1857, when, according to Theresa, Charles and she quietly read the marriage service from a Church of England prayerbook, pledged fidelity to each other and gave the appropriate responses, the whole ceremony constituting a ‘Scotch marriage’, which, although irregular, was legally valid if followed by consummation of the union. Charles denied that any such ceremony ever took place, and there was no objective evidence available to contradict him.
At the end of April the group broke up, Charles going to his family in Ireland, Theresa to friends in Hull, and Arabella to enter a convent. Charles and Theresa wrote frequently to each other. The tone of the letters of both suggests that their ‘Scotch marriage’, if it indeed took place, had not yet been consummated. Charles still insisted that a public ceremony was out of the question, but Theresa refused to cohabit with him without a Catholic ceremony.

Catholic marriage in Ireland

Finally, Charles agreed to a Catholic marriage—in Ireland.  He bought a wedding ring in Dublin. Theresa joined him at Waterford, and they travelled to Rostrevor, Co. Down. On this journey, which took a fortnight, they cohabited for the first time as man and wife, signed hotel registers as a married couple, and were assumed to be on their honeymoon. Theresa had yielded to her lover in anticipation of what she evidently considered their real marriage. On the way to Rostrevor, she had an interview with Dr John Pius Leahy, Catholic bishop of Dromore, and was told that banns could be dispensed with as the couple were simply regularising the clandestine (‘Scotch’) marriage.
After Mass on 15 August 1857 in the parish church of Kilbroney near Rostrevor, as soon as the congregation left, Charles and Theresa knelt before the altar, holding hands, and Fr Bernard Mooney PP received a renewal of the matrimonial consent. At the appropriate moment, Charles turned the wedding ring, which she already wore, on Theresa’s finger.
Fr Mooney understood that to salve the conscience of the Catholic bride the groom, although by his own description ‘not much of anything’ and a ‘Protestant-Catholic’, had agreed to that brief Catholic ceremony. Even had there been no previous marriage, this ceremony would still constitute a valid one for both parties according to Bishop Leahy, though not according to Irish civil law. The couple explained their need for secrecy to Fr Mooney, asking him not to enter details of their marriage in any public register, and he consented.
Theresa and Charles continued their Irish honeymoon. At the end of August Charles visited relatives, and Theresa returned to Edinburgh. In September Charles rejoined her. They lived unobtrusively as a married couple, acknowledged as such by their friends and those of Theresa’s relatives whom she had told about the situation under a pledge of secrecy. Apart from a Highland trip undertaken in October, they stayed in Edinburgh until December 1857. Theresa then went to friends in Hull, and was joined by Charles when he could get leave.

Theresa pregnant

Just before Christmas Theresa wrote to Charles to say that she was certain she was pregnant. If so, how could they continue to conceal the marriage? Charles replied promptly, saying that they had no option but concealment: ‘Where is your duty of keeping faith with me? Whilst we both live you must trust me, and I must trust you. Your duty lies this way.’
The solution, he thought, would be to stay abroad until the child was born. Charles was always noticeably careful to avoid using words like ‘wife’, ‘child’ or ‘marriage’ in his letters. Early in 1858 he obtained a passport for Theresa in the name of Yelverton, and the couple travelled to France and stayed there until Charles had to return to Leith. Theresa was unable to accompany him, since she was now ill. The illness seems to have been severe, and resulted in a miscarriage.
One of Theresa’s subsequent letters, in which she referred to herself as Charles’s wife, was mistakenly opened by a member of Charles’s family (the Yelvertons knew of Theresa, but not of the marriage). Charles told Theresa what had happened, impressing upon her the continuing need for secrecy, even in her letters to him. She responded by asking him at least to tell his mother that they were married.

Charles demands that Theresa repudiate the marriage

When Theresa returned to Edinburgh at the beginning of June 1858 her reunion with Charles was not happy. He came to her hotel, not to join her but to demand that she renounce her status as his wife, emigrate on her own to New Zealand and start a new life there. Charles added that their marriage had been imprudent and had ruined him. It had not left him poorer, however, for all their living expenses of the previous year had been met by Theresa.
While Theresa was ill in France, Charles courted one Emily Ashworth Forbes. Emily was a general’s daughter and the widow of a professor at Edinburgh University. Richer than Theresa, she had full control of her money, which Theresa had not. Charles proposed to Emily, and was accepted.
Theresa flatly refused to leave the country, or to renounce the status she believed to be rightfully hers. Charles left, promising to see her again on the morrow. He did not keep his promise, because he had actually arranged to marry Emily on that day. Instead, his elder brother visited Theresa and tried the same arguments Charles had used, with the same lack of success. Eventually he tried to buy Theresa off, offering her money to leave the country promptly and quietly.
Theresa had no intention of doing anything of the kind. Instead, she took legal advice and brought proceedings against Charles on 7 August 1858, seeking a declaration that she was entitled to a wife’s maintenance. She relied for proof on the validity of the Irish marriage. Matthew McDonnell Bodkin KC, studying the case years later, thought that an action for restoration of conjugal rights might have succeeded.
On 8 June 1859 Charles brought a counter-action against Theresa ‘to have it declared that he was free of any marriage with the defendant and to silence her’. Theresa abandoned the original action, instituting in 1860 a new proceeding which took into account both marriages. The case came before Lord Ardmillan in Edinburgh, who found for Charles, although he thought Charles probably guilty of perjury. His judgement was promptly reversed by the Scottish court of appeal.

Fragmentary and confused evidence

It has to be said that the evidence offered by both parties in the case was fragmentary, confused, and mostly consisted of correspondence between Charles and Theresa. Not only were their letters written in an obscure and dramatic style packed with foreign language quotations, but some letters were incomplete. Theresa cut bits out of Charles’s letters to her; Charles admitted to losing some and destroying others. Nevertheless, the lawyers concerned attached great importance to letters as offering essential clues to the true motives of the parties in a complicated and controversial case.
Charles Yelverton was transferred to Cork, and the  Longworth/Yelverton case recommenced with an action for maintenance on 21 February 1861. A case was brought against Charles to recover the cost of goods supplied to Theresa. If her husband, he would have to pay. The case was tried in Dublin by jury before Lord Justice Monaghan, Sergeant Sullivan leading for the plaintiff and Sergeant Armstrong for the defendant. Both parties were cross-examined by their celebrated lawyers before a crowded court, a dramatic ordeal in which Theresa, wearing black velvet that set off her red-blonde hair, came off by far the best. Her account of events is approximately that given above. Charles said that he had never seen Theresa as anything more than a mistress. How could he condescend to marry a social inferior, a Catholic, from an English manufacturing family? Charles added that he had told her he never intended to marry anyway. Attempting to blacken Theresa’s moral character, he only revealed her as more affectionate and less guarded than himself.
Whatever about the strength of his case, the Irish judge found little to like about Charles Yelverton, whose demand that Theresa pay him damages and apparent callousness regarding her pregnancy told against him. Theresa, on the other hand, excited sympathy with her desire simply to be recognised as Charles’s legal wife. The judges agreed that she had been unwise, but admired her courage and her devotion, seeing her as a victim rather than the harpy figure of Charles Yelverton’s account. Attempts on the part of Theresa to embellish her case at the expense of truth were treated with indulgence, and hardly censured. The result is described by Judge William O’Connor Morris:

‘The jury found for Miss Longworth, amidst a scene of passionate excitement and wild cheering, for the feelings of the audience and the religious sympathies of the many Catholics present had been aroused.’

Theresa, overjoyed and supported by Irish public opinion, thought naïvely that Charles would return to her. Instead, he appealed to the House of Lords.
When the case finally reached the Lords in 1864 the evidence was reviewed by five judges, whose decision hinged on the lack of independent evidence for the ‘Scotch’ marriage. By one vote judgement was given in favour of Charles Yelverton. He was declared innocent of bigamy, his first (Catholic) marriage invalid, and the marriage to Emily Forbes lawful. He was awarded no damages against Theresa.

Political dimension

The lawyers directly involved had mixed feelings. They disliked the extensive press reports and the impression made on the general public, who queried why, if Ireland and England were alike part of the United Kingdom, as was so often claimed, Irish marriage laws discriminated against Catholics to prevent them acquiring land. Title to land was a major political issue then, and opposition to the existing system was becoming more organised. The Yelverton case therefore had a political dimension.
There were other factors, less obvious but not less powerful. Cases like this had long been part of Irish legal history. Irregular marriages in Ireland were relatively common. The consequences for children of such unions could be severe in an age when illegitimacy was a life-long disadvantage. The women involved usually lacked the confidence or the ability to fight back if a legal decision went against them; they were not aware of having any rights. In the challenging action she took, Theresa Longworth broke new ground. How did she manage to do this and to carry public opinion with her?
Theresa was attractive, confident in manner, witty and articulate. Here was no timid peasant girl whose importuning ascendancy lover offered her ‘marriage in your own faith’, resigning herself when the law did not uphold her marriage. In the eyes of lawyers and journalists, Theresa was a person from their own world, a woman whom any one of them might have hoped to marry. Though English, she identified with Ireland and shared the religion of the despised majority. Moreover, she had been one of that group of women whose compassion redeemed the scandal the Crimean War had become—she could be seen as a public heroine. Lastly, Theresa’s performance in the witness box, her candour, warmth and quick wit, impressed the public in the court. They wanted her to win, and some actually contributed to a fund for her legal expenses. Unusually, large numbers of women attended the trial, and feeling against Yelverton ran so high that a man who somewhat resembled him was pursued by a Dublin mob and narrowly escaped a beating.
A senior judge, William O’Connor Morris, was one of those who believed that it was time to amend the law on mixed marriage. Consulted about the form a change should take, he said that he would first have liked to see the ‘Scotch marriage’ in all its variations abolished as well, but this was not within his remit, and he had to settle for the Marriage Causes and Marriage Law Amendment Act of 1870 (33 + 34 Vict., c. 110) and further clarifying legislation in the following year. In Ireland from then on, to quote Patrick Corish, ‘A mixed marriage before a Catholic priest became valid and lawful, subject to the normal provisos of civil law’.
Theresa Longworth—or, as she continued  to call herself, Theresa Yelverton—was not aware at the time of any positive results of her fight for justice. She attempted to appeal the House of Lords decision until 1868. Then, funds being low, she began to travel again. She had already produced a novel based on her recent experience, followed by a second novel with an American heroine. In 1874 and 1875 she produced travel books about her adventures in America and elsewhere, and supported herself by giving public readings from these. Such a wandering career was probably the only one open to her, for, taking the conventions of her time into account, she must have been seen by the English public as morally delinquent. She died at Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in 1880. O’Connor Morris summed up her situation:

‘Miss Longworth was declared an unmarried woman, her life blighted and her reputation gone, and Yelverton was set free, but with a stain on his name, from a tie involving the dearest rights of another, which he had made himself, incautiously no doubt, but in order to gratify a selfish passion.’

Little is known about Charles Yelverton’s later life. An item in the ‘home news’ of an 1870 New York edition of The Irish People mentions his separation from Emily, pending divorce. He inherited the Avonmore title but, as he had no heirs, it died with him.

Helena Kelleher Kahn is a returned emigrant who graduated from social work to social history.

Further reading:

M. McDonnell Bodkin, Famous Irish trials (Dublin, 1928).

The Freeman’s Journal, February–July 1861.

W. O’Connor Morris, Memories and thoughts of a life (London, 1895).

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