Frances Sarah Barlee should have led the slightly dull and unremarkable life of any other wife of a Suffolk gentleman in the early years of the nineteenth century and disappeared into the oblivion of the past, barely remembered. It was surprising then to find her name in the records of Ipswich Gaol. I was looking for background material about the lives, sometimes the very wretched lives, of the poor women who ended up imprisoned there and it was extraordinary to find the name of this wealthy and privileged woman among the poor and often extremely degraded females who were locked up there. Even more striking was the reason. She had been sent to prison for contempt of court. The court was an Ecclesiastical Court known as the Court of the Arches and the contempt was that she refused to return to live with her husband, Charles William Buckle Barlee and restore to him “his conjugal rights”. Sarah was kept in gaol for three and a half years, from June 1821 until she was released under Habeas Corpus in late 1824, despite her allegations that her husband was cruel and even violent towards her. Barlee claimed that Sarah (she preferred her middle name) was mentally unstable and he had the support of many – but not all – of his friends and relations in this, most of whom were lawyers, magistrates and clergymen. It is the stuff of fiction, of the Gothic novel or later works such as Jane Eyre or The Woman in White. The power that a husband had over his wife in England at this time was overwhelming.
Sarah Barlee’s story is difficult to unpack. It is very much a case of Sarah’s word against her husband’s but whatever our understanding of the merits of her case, it is difficult to understand how it was considered to be justifiable to imprison someone for years in these circumstances. Sarah and her husband were cousins and she was dependent upon his relations for help, as both her parents died before she married, so she was completely dependent upon her husband and his family for everything.
How had this woman, wealthy in her own right, found herself in such terrible circumstances? The answer is that the marriage laws of the time gave married women no control over their own property. On top of this, her husband was prepared to be utterly ruthless in his claims to his wife’s fortune.
Sarah was born in Deptford in 1781, the daughter of George and Frances Mitchell. Her father was a solicitor, based in Deptford, and he was obviously a very successful one. Both of Sarah’s parents died in 1803, when Sarah was only twenty-two years old and presumably in quite a vulnerable position, as a single woman of good fortune. George Mitchell the attorney had made what he must have thought were excellent provisions for his only daughter in his will. In fact, by doing so, he made his daughter vulnerable to a rogue like Charles Barlee. If she had not married, Sarah might have lived a happy life, as a woman of independent means, but in that era, the unmarried woman, the spinster, was a subject of ridicule and patronising sympathy, even if she was able to support herself.
George Mitchell left his daughter £5,000 as personal property and £500 a year income from properties in Suffolk and Essex. This made Sarah quite an attractive prospect as a wife and it wasn’t long before her cousin from Suffolk turned up with a proposal of marriage, which Sarah turned down. Charles went off and joined the East Suffolk Militia, for some reason signing up under the name of Charles Buckle.
Charles William Barlee was the son of a clergyman, the Rev. Charles Buckle, Rector of Worlingworth in Suffolk. All the Rev. Buckle’s children adopted the name Barlee in 1811, as a condition of an inheritance. This was a fairly common practice among their class at this time, but I suspect it was less common to then revert to the former name when it was convenient. There is a suggestion here of lack of honesty, or straightforwardness at least. Although they were an eminently respectable family in many ways – many of them were clergymen and magistrates, rather harsh magistrates – reading what little material is available about them gives one a distinct impression that they were rather more keen on the material than the spiritual. They loved money and property and the acquisition of more of it appears to have been a preoccupation of most members of this family.
Whether it was because of lasting feelings for Sarah or for her fortune, Charles Barlee reappeared in Sarah’s life in 1814. By this time, Sarah had moved from her family home at Broomfield Place, Deptford to a house in Park Street, near Grosvenor Square in the heart of Mayfair, surely an indication of exactly how rich she had become. Charles told her he’d left the army because of ill-health and proposed to her again. This time, aged 33, Sarah must have felt that her marriage prospects were diminishing and she accepted him. They were married on 19 July 1814 at St George’s, Hanover Square.
The marriage settlement “brought her husband £20,000”, according to one report, but Sarah was allowed to keep the bulk of her property in trust, plus £100 a year from her father-in-law. The trustees, Rev. Edward Barlee and Mr. Charles Clarke, were her cousins, but they were even closer to her husband. Edward was Charles’ brother and Clarke was a close friend as well as a relation. This was quite a conventional arrangement for an heiress in Sarah’s situation but the marriage appears to have gone wrong almost from the moment she and Charles left the altar. According to one newspaper she “conceived a dislike” for her husband immediately. It seems quite reasonable that she did. Charles told her that he’d only married her for her money and that far from ill health being the reason he left the Militia, he’d been court-martialled “under a fictitious name and dismissed the service”.
Using his wife’s money, Barlee bought the Vine Street Brewery on the banks of the Thames, south of the river, close to where Waterloo Station would be built in 1848. Although it was a marshy, semi-rural area before the railways came, in 1815 the Lambeth streets alongside the river were busy, noisy, dirty, foul-smelling and mostly populated by the offices of merchants – timber, coal, potatoes – as well as ship’s brokers, foundries, breweries and small factories. It was a long way from the refinements of Mayfair. Sarah claimed that her husband kept her prisoner there for several years and given his subsequent behaviour, it’s not hard to believe. The money Charles used to set up the brewing business, didn’t last long. Fifteen months after their marriage, in November 1815, Charles was declared bankrupt. Later, in a letter to Viscount Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, Sarah made serious allegations about the mental and physical cruelty he had inflicted upon her: “A mutual verbal agreement to live separate took place, but C. W. Barlee [Sarah always refers to her husband in this way] afterwards kidnapped and confined me in a small place in Vine Street, Lambeth … he put me in the charge of a man, without any female attendant, I have a Wen upon my head which arose from an Act of violence committed by him, July 21st 1815”.
After his bankruptcy, Charles disappeared for a while – at least Sarah couldn’t find him – and she went to court and she was advised to seek the protection of her Trustees, but her Trustees were Charles’ brother Edward and his friend, Charles Clarke. She thought they were conniving with him. She took apartments in Chapel Street, Great Yarmouth, where, she wrote, “I was molested by C. W. Barlee in May 1817.” Sarah became convinced her Trustees were hindering rather than helping her and legal wrangling continued until matters came to a head when Charles Barlee began a Suit for the Restitution of Conjugal Rights in January 1819. It was this that led Sarah to the Court of the Arches, the contempt charge and her indefinite imprisonment in Ipswich Gaol.
Ipswich County Gaol and House of Correction was built on the south-west side of St. Helen’s Street between 1786 and 1790. Before that it had been in Black Horse Lane. The original layout of the building shows “a central building in the shape of a truncated or chamfered square, with four radiating wings in the shape of a saltaire.” The central building contained the keeper’s house, magistrate’s room, chapel and infirmaries. The wings had three stories and six main bays, and may originally have had open arcades on the ground floor. The prison was extended in 1821 by the addition of two wings and a treadwheel, just before Sarah was imprisoned there. It was a grim place where public executions were held, including the hanging of seventeen-year-old William Aldous for arson, when Sarah was there.
By the time of her appeal to the Court of the Arches, on 16 November 1822, Sarah had been in prison for eighteen months. She petitioned the Court for help and described her conditions in Ipswich Gaol. Her husband has refused to supply her with “food and raiment”, meaning she had to live on the normal, frugal prison diet of “bread and water, with a small portion of cheese”. There was no ceiling on her cell and she was exposed to the elements, a situation that exacerbated some health problems, including rheumatism and a liver complaint, leading her to fear “that another winter’s imprisonment under her present privations would be fatal to her.” She was 41 years old.
A twenty-first century view might be that Sarah was subject to “gaslighting” by her husband. She certainly made allegations about her husband’s cruelty and Charles in return declared that his wife had a “disordered mind”. In 1820, the couple were still living apart and Sarah began writing letters making allegations about her husband’s violence. Sarah Barlee wrote a great many letters, some of which are in the National Archives. She was articulate and reasonable for the most part and they don’t seem to me to show any evidence of irrationality, let alone insanity. But it should be remembered that in the 1820s, the men who were making decisions about her life genuinely believed that the female sex was weaker in body and mind and less rational.
Sarah believed that she could persuade the authorities of the merits of her case, by writing to them. It was, after all, the only “voice” she had. She was successful in that a letter she wrote to Sir John Nicholl , the eminent judge who presided over her appeal, was endorsed by “the High Sheriff and nine Magistrates of the County” but this letter turned out to be a grave error on her part. Having been miserably incarcerated for fifteen months, she was obviously distressed and may have exaggerated her privations to the extent that the letter was to provide evidence that she was not in her right mind.
Despite the support she was receiving from the public and from many in the legal profession, Sarah lost her appeal and had to wait until the end of 1824 to be released. Even then, there was no respite from C. W. Barlee. Having obtained her writ of Habeas Corpus, she, as the Ipswich Journal describes it, “quitted the miserable abode which she had so long endured, and, accompanied by her Solicitor went to Town [i.e. London] where her discharge was immediately directed by three Learned Judges who had heard the case. On this occasion, we understand that the husband, accompanied by two Bow-street Officers attended at the Judge’s House, with a view to take his wife as soon as she should be liberated, but the lady immediately obtained the protection of the Officer of the Court.”
C. W. Barlee made it clear that he would now pursue his wife on the grounds of her alleged insanity. Along with the Trustees, Rev. Edward Barlee and Charles Clarke, he attempted to “take proceedings that a commission in the nature of His Majesty’s writ de lunatico inquirendo should issue against her”. In other words, he wanted Sarah to be confined again, this time on the grounds that she was a “lunatic”. Sarah’s response was to take out a suit claiming that the three men had conspired “to falsely charge” her “with being a lunatic or person of unsound mind”. The defendants pleaded not guilty.
John Longe, the vicar of Coddenham, whose diaries have been published by the Ipswich Records Society, was a friend of Charles’ brother, who was also a clergyman. His diary entries for 8-11 March 1826 include brief references to his appearance at the trial at Chelmsford where he was one of 106 witnesses to appear. Although he was a friend of several members of the Barlee family, Longe attempted to be impartial and told the court that he had visited Sarah in prison and considered her to be of sound intellect. The defendants were cleared of the charge despite the fact that there was now national sympathy for Sarah’s plight. The problem was that the laws of the time did not allow a married woman to be independent of even the cruellest husband.
Sarah continued litigation for years afterwards in an attempt to reclaim some of the money C. W. Barlee had taken from her. She spent her remaining years living quietly, in lodgings such as the King’s Head in Beccles and Duke’s Bridge House in Bungay, where in 1841 she was living with two servants, Harriet Girling and Mary Ann King. The census records her age as 55, although she was closer to 60. She was not living in poverty, but for a woman who had inherited such a vast fortune, it must have felt like it, albeit it in a genteel form. She continued to write letters to public bodies such as the one she wrote to the General Board of Health in 1848 recommending opium and sage tea for the treatment of cholera. At the 1851 census, she was still living at Duke’s Bridge House but, the enumerator wrote, “Barlee refuses to make a return. There are …. females living in this house.” Sarah died “on 31st ult. [October] in her 74th year, Mrs. Frances S. Barlee, of Duke’s Bridge House, Bungay, relict of Rev. Chas. W. Barlee.” [Suffolk Chronicle, 11 November 1854.]
C. W. Barlee died in 1849, never quite having succeded in defeating his wife or having her locked up again. Nor did he ever quell her spirit. Frances Sarah Barlee remained a strong, determined, rational and independent woman to the end.
Reader, she outlived him.
Note: for those interested, below is a transcription of two letters that Sarah wrote to Viscount Sidmouth in 1820, which unfortunately I can’t reproduce for copyright reasons. The reader can make up their mind as to the state of Sarah Barlee’s mental health.
Kings Head Inn, Beccles, May 6, 1820.
I take the liberty of requesting your attention, not only to a case of very great distress, but one in which offences of very great enormity have been committed.
I was the sole heiress of both my parents – my father, George Mitchell of Deptford, Kent – was a Solicitor who practised in the Conveyancing line – he was the only surviving issue of his parents that attained the age of 21 years – he left me by Will all his real & personal Estate. I inherited my mothers property, under her marriage settlement – she was the only issue of the marriage of William Pell of Bungay, with Anne Clarke of Henstead, Suffolk.
I was intrapped into a marriage with Charles William Barlee – By which he obtained several thousands of pounds of my property & ill-treated me, as soon as the ceremony had passed – his mother is one of my nearest relations – my great grandfather, John Clarke of Henstead, having been ancestor in common to Mr Barlee & three other of the parties against whom I complain – his father, the Revd. Charles Barlee held Church Preferment in & was a Magistrate for the County of Suffolk.
The parties to whom I accuse of Conspiracy, fraud, cruelty, & injustice, are C. W. Barlee, his parents, & the Trustees under my Marriage Settlement, viz. the Revd. Edward Barlee of Worlingworth, & Charles Clarke of Hulver, in whom they have acted in Conspiracy & connivance.
A mutual verbal agreement to live separate took place – but C. W Barlee afterwards kidnapped & confined me in a small place in Vine St. Lambeth, which he had previously made for my prison, where he put me in charge of a man, without any female attendant – I have a Wen upon my head which arose from an Act of violence committed by him, July 21, 1815 – through the interference of the Magistrates at Union Hall, I was unable to appear there, against C. W. Barlee – He could not be found, & and as I was informed that I had a right to claim the protection of my Trustees, I was induced by the persuasion of C. Clarke to go to his House at Hulver. W. Sparrow & W. Farr as Beccles magistrates granted me a Warrant against C. W. Barlee . I soon found that C. Clarke was acting in connivance with the Barlees, & as I was not properly treated in his House, I took Apartments, in 1816. I went to reside in the house of W Robinson, Chapel St, Yarmouth where I was molested by C. W Barlee in May, 1817.
In June 1815, W. Reynolds of Yarmouth, was appointed my Solicitor & Solicitor to my Trustees & upon their refusing to place my affairs in Chancery, a refusal which no oldest Trustees could have made, he advised me, to employ W. Sales as my Solicitor, which I did about June 1817 – he only trifled with me & as C. W. Barlee had commenced a Suit for Restitution of Conjugal Rights in January 1819, I employed Robert Cory Junior of Yarmouth, as my solicitor. He said, that I must secrete myself until I had the Protection of the Court of Chancery – he told me I had that Protection & I ventured out in Yarmouth, & was assaulted by C. W. Barlee (A severe illness ensued, in consequence of colds caught in the improper place in which W. Cory had secreted me) after much evasion, & some altercation, W. Cory confessed that he had never applied for the protection. I felt indignant at his breach of veracity & as to such a matter of fact & as soon as I was able I came over here, July 28, to place myself under the protection of the Magistrates of this Town, until I could obtain that of the Court of Chancery. I found that W. Cory had so involved my affairs that no Solicitor could take them out of his hands. I wrote to the Lord Chancellor who was pleased to direct me to apply to a Counsellor at the Bar. I wrote to the attorney general who said that it was quite impracticable for him to render me any assistance without I employed a Solicitor in this neighbourhood to conduct the Proceedings. As I could not do this. I told him so – sent him an Affidavit of my Pauperism & requested that he would not only allow me to name him as my Counsel but that he would be pleased to conduct the Proceedings for me himself. More than six months has elapsed since I have heard from him, though he is aware of the necessity of immediate Law proceedings in my behalf & the state of want, misery & distress in which I am in.
The property settled for my sole use, previously to marriage, is about £500 a year. I appointed in June 1815, Messrs. Gurney, bankers, Yarmouth to receive my settled property. They were to keep my accounts & receive my rents in this part of the Country & there Agents, Messrs. Barclay to receive them at Deptford & Croydon. My Trustees signed a Power of Attorney for them to receive my Dividends. I received about £1000 when payment of my draft was refused , as my Trustees had taken away all my property there ought to have been there about £1000. The last money I received was £10, January 9, 1819. I have ever since subsisted upon what credit I could obtain.
C. W. Barlee was tried by a Court Marshall, & turned out of the 52nd regiments in 1813, in the name of Buckle. Soon after the marriage, he avowed his intention of concealing my property, obtaining all the money & credit he could & then causing himself to be made bankrupt & which he accomplished, with the assistance of Mr. Nelson, my Trustee, who was appointed Solicitor to the Assignees, as he would have taken Apartments within the Rules of the Kings Bench for three months & have shown himself there for two or three times. He used to place loaded pistols where they could only have been put with the intention of destroying me. My danger was the greater as I am extremely shortsighted.
He sold all my family plates & pictures. My poor father’s Books, my Jewels, valuable as having been worn by my mother, even a chain & Bracelets made of the hair of my parents & my poor mothers wedding ring and all these things were done in the most deliberate & cruel manner & with the knowledge of the whole family. Soon after the marriage he dismissed my servant at a moments notice, without my knowledge that I might not have any Witness of his cruelty, et cetera. He has threatened to put me in a Mad house – take me out of the Country, et cetera.
Owing to my not having a proper means of defending myself in the last Term he obtained an order in the Court of Arches for me to return home to him. He has announced his determination of having me sent to prison & excommunicated. I know not what the Law may permit to be done to a female who is deprived by the Conspiracy of the Parties of the means of defending herself, but I do know the parties & am aware that everything in the power of villainy, conspiracy, & fraud to affect will be done against me.
From fear of personal violence I am totally deprived of air & exercise & my health is injured by confinement, distress, deprivation & anxiety of mind.
The objects I solicit your assistance to obtain our redress for my injuries to establish my right to live separate from C. W Barlee & recover my Estate.
I cannot comply with the order of the Spiritual Court – nor have I any right so to do – if I could procure a proper hearing of my Cause in Chancery but if the Spiritual Court, would compel me, for the good of my soul to either live with C. W Barlee as in a Prison I could not hesitate in my choice but it would be unjust to condemn me to a prison for life upon account of the extreme wickedness of others. Religion, morality & self-respect point out to me one line of conduct. I never can become the willing associate of vice, depravity, & infamy, a Villain, a Vagrant, a Swindler, even if I were not in fear of my life. He is expelled all society & with him, I must be expelled too, even if he were willing to allow me to see anyone & they driven into seclusion. I have not done anything to forfeit my situation in society, for I was deceived into the marriage. I have the honour to be, my Lord with great respect, your very obedient servant,
F. S. Barlee