Capel Lofft: a Suffolk humanitarian

I have to admit that the subject I’m writing about today is a hero of mine. I have a print of a portrait of Capel Lofft (1751-1824) looking over me as I write. It is a portrait of a young man dressed in barrister’s robes and he looks what I imagine he was: kind, intelligent and idealistic. Lofft was from a wealthy Suffolk family and, at one time, was the owner of both Stanton Hall and Troston Hall. Unlike many East Anglian landowning families, however, there was also a strong intellectual background. His uncle, Edward Capell, is credited as being the scholar who discovered one of Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ plays, Edward III.

Capel Lofft could have spent his life as a privileged dilettante. He was educated at Eton & Cambridge and mixed with an artistic and literary crowd. He certainly wrote a great deal of fairly bad poetry – something which won him the lifelong emnity of Charles Lamb, who was miffed because Lofft published his dodgy odes under the soubriquet “C.L.”

But Capel Lofft was a man with ideals and a conscience. The causes he chose to take up are relevant today: slavery, hunting, the death penalty and the restriction of civil liberties. He was closely involved, as a young barrister with “Somersett’s Case,” in 1772, which ended in a legal ruling that was the beginning of the end of slavery in England with Lord Mansfield’s ruling that “the state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political…. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it…”

In middle age, Lofft became a magistrate in Suffolk. Years later, John Glyde wrote in The Suffolk Garland (1866): “As a Magistrate, the well-known Mr. Capel Lofft was indefatigable in the performance of his duties,” but somehow he became involved in a case which led to his dismissal from the Suffolk bench. In October 1799, a 22-year-old serving woman, Sarah Lloyd from Hadleigh, let her boyfriend, Joseph Clark, into the house of her employer. Property was stolen and a fire was started, although no serious damage was done. Lloyd and Clark were arrested and charged. Sarah Lloyd was found guilty of stealing goods to the value of forty pounds and sentenced to death. Clark was acquitted. Sarah Lloyd may not have been of average intelligence. She is described in contemporary reports as “deluded” or simple and child-like. Horrified at the death sentence, Lofft took up her case. He managed to persuade William Pearson, the Sheriff of Ipswich, to grant a stay of execution and appealed to the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, for a reprieve. The Times declared that Lloyd’s crime was of “unequalled… atrociousness” and the Duke of Portland refused the petition. Lofft accompanied Sarah Lloyd to the scaffold in Bury St. Edmunds. It was raining and he gave her an umbrella and helped her to hold it over her head. Lofft was distraught after the execution had taken place, apparently making frantic attempts to revive her. Sir Nash Grose, the judge in her original trial was furious, describing Lofft’s conduct as “improper interference.” This, along with the fact that he had made a speech that explicitly attacked the Tory government, led to his being struck off the magistrate’s list.

Capel Lofft’s life didn’t end very happily. He was mocked and derided for many of his views, which would be regarded as quite reasonable today. He ended his life in self-imposed exile in Italy. He died at Montcalieri, near Turin, in 1824 and was buried in the Protestant church of St. Germain, in Piedmont. Sarah Lloyd’s memorial is closer to home and can be seen in the old churchyard in Bury.


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