24 May 2019

Two portraits in Tamworth
Castle tell the story of
a very Victorian scandal

The portrait of George Ferrars Townshend (1778-1855), 3rd Marquess Townshend, in Tamworth Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Two portraits in one of the great rooms in Tamworth Castle reminded me earlier this month of a family that once owned the Moat House, the former Comberford family house on Lichfield Street, and the story of a broken marriage and a peerage scandal that resulted in the House of Lords declaring a large family illegitimate and depriving children of the titles they were known by.

The first portrait is of George Ferrars Townshend (1778-1855), 3rd Marquess Townshend, who was known for most of his life as Earl of Leicester. The second portrait has no name on it, but I imagine it is a portrait of his wife, Sarah Dunn Gardner. The intimate details of their marriage became a matter of scandal and gossip when the couple broke up and the details emerged in cases first before church courts and later in debates in Parliament.

The Townshend family who had come to live at Tamworth Castle and bought the Moat House in 1767. George Townshend (1724-1807), the 1st Marquess Townshend, who received his title in 1787, was a godson of King George I. In a distinguished military career, he was present at the battles of Dettingen, Fontenoy and Culloden. At the siege of Quebec, he assumed command of the army when James Wolfe was killed and accepted the surrender of Quebec in 1759. He was Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in 1767-1772.

When he died in 1807, his son and heir, George Townshend (1753-1811), the 2nd Marquess Townshend, enthusiastically set about restoring Tamworth Castle. The Moat House became the residence of his steward, John Willington, and then of Lord Townshend until his death in 1811.

In 1811, the family titles were inherited by his son, George Townshend (1778-1855), who became the 3rd Marquis Townshend. The tenants at the Moat House included Sir John Sheal, from 1811 to 1815, and Dr Robert Woody in 1815-1821. But George Townshend had been disinherited by his father, and he lived in exile in family-imposed exile in Italy instead of living at Tamworth Castle.

The society scandal became public when his wife, the former Sarah Dunn Gardner, left him and entered a second, bigamous marriage without ever securing a divorce, and George Townshend denied that his wife’s eldest child was his son and heir.

An untitled portrait in Tamworth Castle may be of Sarah Dunn Gardiner (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Lord Townshend was born George Ferrars Townshend on 13 December 1778 and was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. He was known by as Lord Chartley when he married a wealthy and beautiful heiress, Sarah Dunn Gardner, in 1807. Later that year, when his grandfather died in 1807, George started to use the courtesy title of Earl of Leicester.

The couple had no children when Sarah left George after only a year later. She claimed he was impotent and accused him of having sexual intercourse with his Italian Secretary. She sued for annulment in the church courts, but eventually she dropped the case and the marriage was never legally dissolved although she committed adultery by entering into a bigamous marriage.

Then, in 1809, shortly after abandoning her husband, Sarah went through a legally invalid and bigamous marriage in a ceremony at Gretna Green with John Margetts, a brewer from St Ives in Huntingdonshire.

As the scandal unfolded and became a matter of society and newspaper gossip, George Townshend was disinherited by his father for bringing disgrace to the family, and he lived abroad for the rest of his life.

Sarah and John’s first son John was born on 20 July 1811. Seven days later, her father-in-law, the 2nd Marquess Townshend, died on 27 July 1811, and her still-legal husband, George Townshend, who had been known as the Earl of Leicester, inherited the family estates and titles as 3rd Marquess Townshend.

Did Sarah have her eyes on the family titles and estates for her children? … a mirror in Tamworth Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Sarah must have had an eye on these titles and estates, including Tamworth Castle and the Moat House, and when her new-born son was baptised in Saint George’s Church, Bloomsbury, on 26 December 1823, she named him John Townshend.

The run-away couple had many more children, who used the Margetts family name until 1823. But Sarah was still legally married to George, but she decided that all her children should use the Townshend surname of her still-legal husband.

Of course, since Sarah’s marriage had never been annulled and George and Sarah were still legally married, the law at the time regarded any children she gave birth to as being her husband’s children and ipso facto eligible to succeed to his estates and his titles.

Sarah’s eldest son was still known as the Hon John Townshend when he assumed the courtesy title of Earl of Leicester. He was elected to Parliament in July 1841 as the Conservative MP for Bodmin. He was named in the return to the writ as ‘the Hon John Townshend, commonly called the Earl of Leicester.’

Alarm bells rang throughout the Townshend family and their retinue in Tamworth. George was living in Italy, and his younger brother, Lord Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, realised Tamworth Castle and the Townshend titles were likely to slip from his grasp and pass out of the family to his sister-in-law’s illegitimate children.

Lord Charles Townshend had twice sat as MP for Tamworth, in 1812-1818 and 1830-1835. Now he realised he might never hold a seat in the House of Lord. An alarmed Charles petitioned the House of Lords in May 1842 to have Sarah’s children declared illegitimate. Eventually all the children were declared illegitimate by Act of Parliament in 1842.

Needless to say, John continued to sit in the House of Commons as the Tory MP for Bodmin until 1847, but now called himself John Dunn Gardner, using his mother’s family name rather than the family name of his real father.

George Townshend died in Genoa on 31 December 1855; he was 77. His only brother, Lord Charles Townshend, who had succeeded in having Sarah’s children declared illegitimate, had died two years earlier, on 5 November 1853. He had no sons either, so the title of Earl of Leicester died out, other family titles went into abeyance, and the Townshend title passed to a cousin, John Townshend (1798-1863), who was MP for Tamworth (1847-1855).

Meanwhile, Sarah’s supposed second husband, John Margetts, had died in 1842. When her legal husband George died, she was legally a widow, and 10 days later she married James Laidler on 10 January 1856. Sarah died on 11 September 1858.

As for Sarah’s son John – the man who might have become Marquess Townshend and the heir to Tamworth Castle – he changed his name to John Dunn Gardner and inherited Soham Mere and Chatteris House in Cambridge from his maternal grandfather.

With this new-found respectability, he put his parents’ scandals behind him, and became a Justice of the Peace, a Deputy Lieutenant, and High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. He was married twice. In 1847, he married Mary Lawson, daughter of Andrew Lawson, MP for Knaresborough. After her death, he married in 1853 Ada Piggott, daughter of William Pigott of Dullingham House, Newmarket, and granddaughter of Sir George Pigott of Knapton, Queen’s County (Laois).

John Dunn Gardner was the sixth largest landowner in Cambridgeshire in 1872. He died on 11 January 1903. He had two surviving brothers, William and Cecil, and two sisters.

His brother, William Dunn-Gardner (1812-1879), inherited Fordham Abbey, near Newmarket. He was known as Lord William Townshend until he and his siblings were declared illegitimate in 1843 by private act. Their sisters were known for a time as Lady Rosa-Jane Dunn-Gardner and Lady Lavinia-Charlotte-Sarah Dunn-Gardner. The youngest brother, Cecil Mina Bolivar Dunn-Gardner (1825-1903), continued to be known as Lord Cecil Townshend until a second Act of Parliament was passed to stop him using the name and title.

Tamworth Castle … never inherited by Sarah Dunn-Gardiner’s children (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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