An Unconventional Love-Match

Fanny Catherine Knight was the first-born of Jane's brother Edward, and Elizabeth Bridges. Fanny married Sir Edward Knatchbull of Mersham Hatch, in Kent, and they had nine children; their eighth, born in 1835, was Herbert Thomas. Joan Corder, in her 1953 manuscript 'Akin to Jane,' wrote that in September 1873 Herbert married Elizabeth Lewis Burton, daughter of Moses Burton of Dover; and that over the next fifteen years they had six children, whose names she listed. In the process of checking the family I searched in the General Register Office's marriage indexes for 1873 and several years following, but there was no record of the union; entries for the children's births were missing as well. It must be said that not every marriage (nor birth, nor death) ended up on central records, but it is unlikely that all of a family's vital records should go missing. Stranger still, Herbert was recorded on the 1881 census as unmarried, and living with his widowed mother Lady Knatchbull at the family's country seat, Provender House, near Faversham in Kent. I took it that he was living there, rather than visiting, because his occupation was recorded as 'Barrister not practising, farming 150 acres emp. 4 men 1 boy.'

The 19th century censuses have been outsourced to India for transcription, and put online by Ancestry.com; for the most part their work is strikingly accurate, but there are some desperate misinterpretations of unusual names and poor handwriting. Nevertheless there are ways to tease out the names of individuals who are concealed in this way, and I set to applying the techniques to Elizabeth and children. Leaving out the surname I found an Elizabeth L, of the right age and from the right birthplace, married but without a husband present, and three sons whose given names and ages matched those of the second, third and fourth from 'Akin to Jane', living at an address in Knightsbridge along with one maidservant. This was certain to be the right family, but the scent was confused by the fact that their surname was not Hugessen, or Knatchbull-Hugessen, but Harvey. Herbert hadn't married her, but was keeping her and their offspring under an assumed name. (Note: On the death of their father in 1849 Herbert and his brothers had, under Royal license, assumed the additional surname of Hugessen, the maiden name of their paternal grandmother.)

Herbert was to be found on the 1891 census again at Faversham, still single, and a Member of Parliament for North Kent; Elizabeth Harvey was at the Knightsbridge address, married but again without a husband in residence. I have often wondered just how worthy some of the chaps who were brought up as gentlemen, living off the fruits of their fathers' labours as Barristers not-in-Practice, Honorary Colonels, Sheriffs and JPs, etc, might have appeared if stripped of their wealth. At this point Herbert, living respectably with his mother in Kent while keeping a woman under an assumed name in Knightsbridge, was looking like a case in point.

But wait – Elizabeth had with her in that 1891 entry not only the youngest of the sons from the 1881 census, but four more children aged 8, 5, 3, and four months; a return to the GRO index was called for. The marriage index has an entry for Herbert and Elizabeth's wedding in the third quarter of 1883, quite shortly after the death of Fanny, the dowager Lady Knatchbull, on 24 December 1882. There were still no Knatchbull children to be found, but searching under Harvey revealed them all – and in fact there were ultimately eight (only six were listed by Joan Corder in 'Akin to Jane.').

Elizabeth's background is interesting: on the 1851 census, when she was two, her family were living in New Romney, a village near Dover, where her father was a master blacksmith. On the 1871 census she was a maidservant in the Mayfair household of George AFC Bentinck, MP for Whitehaven. (The Knights and Knatchbulls themselves had Mayfair residences, and presumably moved in the same circles as the Bentincks.)

The story emerging from the accumulated details had a happy confirmation with the 1901 census – the record for the Knightsbridge address showed Herbert (still living under the assumed surname of Harvey, but confirmed by his correct age and birthplace) this time in residence with Elizabeth, and with five of the children still at home. From at least 1873, when their first son was born, until the death of Lady Knatchbull in 1882, Herbert had lived a double life caring for his widowed mother and managing the estate farm, and maintaining a growing family in London while sitting as an MP. Possibly he had had himself recorded in Faversham as unmarried (not just in 1881 but in 1891, long after his mother had died) because it wouldn't have helped his career in Parliament to have a wife from an 'inferior' class.

I was pleased to have followed the research to its conclusion, and gave him an unscholarly cheer for doing the right thing by Elizabeth and evidently being true to his heart.

© Ronald Dunning

A version of this article first appeared in the Jane Austen Society's News Letter.
Genealogical information on Herbert and Elizabeth can be found at this link.