Intrigue, infidelity in 19th-century British high society

January 23, 2019

Today is the 136th anniversary of the death of a man in Texas.

Many other people will have passed away on the same day of course, but this one death marked the final chapter in a fascinating, if somewhat sleazy, tale. It’s a story of love and marriage, infidelity in high places, politics, aristocrats and more than a hint of a royal scandal.

First, let’s establish who’s who. The man who died was Joseph Heneage Finch. It’s not a common name in Texas but then, he wasn’t from the Lone Star State. In fact he wasn’t an American at all, he was a British aristocrat, descended from a long line of aristocrats. His titles were 7th Earl of Aylesford and Baron Guernsey.

Born in 1849, by the time he was in his mid-20s Joseph Finch was living the great life of a Victorian nobleman and he was married to Edith Peers-Williams, the daughter of a senior politician in Britain’s Parliament. Joseph himself was a Member of Parliament and together he and Edith lived an idyllic existence in Packington Hall, a big country house in the heart of England. The young couple had two daughters but that didn’t stop them entertaining lavishly and mixing with all the right company. They were members of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII’s, inner circle of friends, and the Prince stayed over at their home on several occasions.

They also entertained the rest of the Prince’s friends, one of whom was George Spencer-Churchill, the Marquess of Blandford, and his wife, Albertha. Spencer-Churchill was the heir to the Duke of Marlborough and an uncle to Sir Winston Churchill.

All seemed to go well on the Spencer-Churchills’ visit, the couples were about the same age, they were rich, belonged to the same social strata and enjoyed each other’s company. It wasn’t until the visit ended and the Blandfords had returned home that Albertha noticed a change in her husband’s behavior toward her. This was in the summer of 1875 and a few months later Joseph Finch was invited to travel with the Prince of Wales to India, leaving Edith behind.

How the affair between Churchill and Edith progressed isn’t clear, but amongst other things there were stories of a trail of his footprints being discovered in the snow leading to her bedroom window.

Albertha, pregnant with her fourth child, confronted George about it and he hit her. The couple separated and he didn’t see his fourth child until she was 2 years old.

Meanwhile Edith had written to Joseph to tell him she intended to leave him in order to elope with her lover and Churchill finally admitted the affair to Albertha. Joseph returned to England and immediately sued for divorce, naming Churchill as co-respondent.

This caused a huge scandal in Victorian England. Alarmed about the effect on his family’s reputation, the Duke of Marlborough wrote to the Prince of Wales asking him to get his friend to withdraw the divorce petition.

The Prince refused to become involved and, in an effort to get him to change his mind, Edith gave the Duke a packet of letters the Prince had written to her.

It’s not clear what exactly was in the letters but the Lord Chancellor, England’s senior lawyer, described them as “being written in a strain of undue familiarity.” The Churchills went further, they said if they were published the Prince would never be able to become king.

You don’t try to blackmail the heir to the British crown with impunity. Queen Victoria was appalled. She instructed the Prime Minister to sort the mess out and so he ordered the Duke to Ireland to take the post of Lord Lieutenant and made him take his son, Blandford, with him. With the co-respondent safely out of the way, pressure was put on the Earl of Aylesford to withdraw his petition. He protested but got little support and eventually he did so.

You might imagine that was the end of the story but there was yet more to come. Albertha, Marchioness of Blandford, signed an official document of separation with her husband and they parted. Shortly afterwards though, she heard he’d left Edith and was living alone in France. For the sake of their four children she wrote to him, they met and agreed to try to live together again.

It seemed, perhaps, that Albertha was able to forgive but George Spencer-Churchill was reluctant to forget. They took a house in London, he started to hang portraits of Edith in the rooms and they began to quarrel again. The end finally came when news reached Albertha that Edith was living in Paris and calling herself “Mrs. Spencer.” Not only that but, in 1882, she gave birth to a son and Blandford was said to be the father.

Albertha filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery, cruelty and desertion and in 1883 the petition was granted.

So, we come back to the man at the start of this article, Joseph Heneage Finch, 7th Earl of Aylesford. What happened to him? His friends had deserted him, his wife had publicly cheated on him with one of his best friends and she’d had her lover’s child. The Prince of Wales, once a close friend, was staying well away from him and to cap it all when he reissued his divorce petition it was denied on the grounds of his own infidelity.

He was lonely and depressed so he packed his hunting gear and sailed across the Atlantic. He landed in New York and set out into the interior.

By 1883 he’d made his way to Big Spring, Howard County, Texas.

One thing Aylesford did have left was money. He soon attracted many friends and once more he picked up the tab for lavish drinking parties. As a hunter he’d brought his private butcher with him and he set this man up in his own butcher’s shop, the first brick-built building in the town. On top of that, in order to have a place to stay, he bought a hotel.

He also had a ranch about 12 miles outside of the town and here he settled down to forget his unfaithful spouse, choosing an old, established way. He drank. He drank so much it was said the pile of empty liquor bottles outside his door was as big as a haystack.

On Jan. 13, 1885, he went into town to drink and play cards with the boys. Suddenly he stood up, said goodnight, climbed into bed and died. He was just 36 years old.

Derek Coleman is a parttime writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.