21 March 2023

The rustic charm of Yelvertoft
and a war-time murder trial
that exposed prejudice

Slow Hedgehogs Crossing … the entrance to Yelvertoft, Northamptonshire, on Crick Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I spent an afternoon in the village of Yelvertoft in rural Northamptonshire a few days ago, visiting All Saints’ Church and researching further details in the life of Canon Henry Comberford of Lichfield, who was the Rector of Yelvertoft almost 500 years ago (1546-1560).

Yelvertoft is a pretty village with thatched houses in the hundred of Guilsborough in Northamptonshire, eight miles east of Rugby and close to the borders with Warwickshire.

Because there are no bus or links with Yelvertoft, I caught the bus from Northampton to Crick, and walked the 3 km road to Yelvertoft through open countryside, with stud farms, stables, and a large farm with solar panels and wind turbines, and close to the banks of the Grand Union Canal.

The Old Gable thatched cottage on the High Street in Yelvertoft (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The village is close to the M1, M6 and M45 and close to the east-west link of the A14. Junction 18 of the M1 motorway is a five-minute drive away, Junction 1 of the M6 and J20 of the M1 are both within a 15-minute drive. But Yelvertoft has no regular bus service, and the nearest railway stations are in Long Buckby, Market Harborough, Rugby and Northampton.

Because no major transport routes pass through Yelvertoft, the village has kept a more independent, rural character compared to other neighbouring villages, such as Crick.

Yelvertoft has a population of about 800, and – for a small village – has a very long High Street that must be one of the longest in the East Midlands. This High Street is a linear street that follows the course of an ancient Portway known as Salters Way. It is about three quarters of a mile in length, stretching from All Saints’ Church in the east to the Village Hall in the west.

The east end of the High Street in Yelvertoft, near All Saints’ Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The parish covers about 900 hectares, occupying a narrow strip of land that widens at the east end. Watling Street forms the west boundary of the parish, and archaeologists have identified the location of two Roman settlements in the north and south of the parish, with finds of sherds of Roman pottery in the 1970s.

The western projection of the parish may relate to the undocumented deserted settlement of Shenley. The name survives in a modern farm, but there is no cartographic evidence of a settlement there, and the suggestion of a lost hamlet is based merely on the shape of the parish of Yelvertoft itself.

The name Yelvertoft means ‘curtilage of Geldfrith’, from the Old English cot, cotu or ‘cottage(s).’ The village was recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086, when a priest was mentioned.

The Knightley Arms public house and the High Street in Yelvertoft (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Before modern developments, Yelvertoft was little more than a single High Street with the church detached from it to the south-east and with small extensions along lanes to the north-east at either end of the main street. The common fields of the parish were enclosed by an Act of Parliament of 1776, but no Enclosure Map survives.

The places of historical interest include the parish church, All Saints’ Church, with its monument to a 15th century rector, John Drycson, a charity school established in 1711, rebuilt in 1792 and now the Reading Room, the recently renovated village pump dating from 1900, and the village’s war memorial.

Yelvertoft is a lively and thriving village with three churches – Anglican, Independent and Roman Catholic – a primary school, a butcher’s shop and delicatessen, the Knightley Arms public house, a village hall, an equestrian centre and some small businesses.

The charity school established in 1711 and rebuilt in 1792 is now the Reading Room (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

I described All Saints’ Church in my posting yesterday. The Independent or Congregational Chapel was first established in 1662. The present chapel was built in 1792 and a new frontage built on in 1832. The interior was refurnished in 1897 to seat 160. It had square oak pews until 1903, when they were replaced by seats in pitch pine.

The many local groups and organisations include the Women’s Institute, Mothers Union, a local history group, Sunday school, youth drop-in, pre-school, cricket and football clubs and the school association which organises social, recreational and community activities.

The recreational facilities include a sports field with cricket and football pitches, a pocket park, children’s play area, a skate park and a basketball court.

The Independent or Congregational Chapel was first established in 1662 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Manor in Yelvertoft is a 16th century listed manor house is partly Tudor with later additions, with a two-storey extension to the rear. The house once belonged to the Cave family.

The Manor was once owned by the Cave family, and Canon Henry Comberford of Lichfield, who the Rector of Yelvertoft in 1546-1560, is named as ‘Sir Henry Comberford, clerk, parson of Yelvertoft,’ in 1557, when he was appointed one of the executors in the will of Sir Thomas Cave, who died in 1558.

The advosom of Yelvertoft, or the right to nominate the rector of the parish, was held by the Combeford family for almost a century, from some time after the 1460s, when John Comberford married Joan Parles, the heiress of Watford Manor and Shutlanger, until 1563, when Thomas Comberford sold the Cumberford Manor in Watford to Sir John Spencer and the Comberford family interest in Yelvertoft parish came to an end.

Oliver Cromwell is said to stayed at the Manor in Yelvertoft in June 1645 on the night before the Battle of Naseby.

The Manor in Yelvertoft once belonged to the Cave family … Cromwell stayed there on the night before the Battle of Naseby (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The manor gained national notoriety in 1917 when the heir to the manor, Lieutenant J Douglas Malcolm, was acquitted at the Old Bailey of murdering his wife’s lover in their flat in Paddington.

Malcolm was a well-to-do stockbroker who married the beautiful young Dorothy Elliston-Taylor in June 1914. Within three days of the outbreak of war he enlisted. In June 1917, he was fighting in France, and was decorated with the Military Cross for conspicuous bravery.

He was home on leave from the Western Front in July 1917 when he discovered that his wife was having an affair with the self-styled Count de Borch.

Count de Borch, whose real name, was Anton Baumberg was tall, well-dressed and well-educated, spoke several languages and posed as a Russian nobleman. But the popular press claimed he was a fleecer and seducer of women, a blackmailer, and even a white slave trafficker, and a German spy. It was said he had once lived with a woman who was a German spy and who was caught and shot by the French.

When Malcolm came home on leave in July 1917, his wife was not at their London house. He tracked her to a cottage in New Milton, Hampshire, and found her upstairs in Baumberg’s room. Malcolm violently assaulted Baumberg, challenged him to a duel, and then took Dorothy back to London.

Within days of returning to France, Malcolm received a letter from Dorothy telling him she would not give up Baumberg. He got special leave and returned to London on 13 August to search for his wife’s lover and found him living in a top floor room in Porchester Place, Hyde Park.

Malcolm took a hunting crop and a pistol to Porchester Place in the early morning and posing as Inspector Quin of Scotland Yard he gained entry. He fired five pistol shots at Baumberg in bed, walked calmly out of the house and handed himself over to the police, along with his pistol.

When charged with murder, Malcolm replied: ‘I did it for my honour,’ and entered a plea of self-defence. In evidence, Malcolm claimed his original intention was to horsewhip Count de Borch beyond recognition. But instead he shot Borch and killed him

There was no legal or logical defence to the charge of murder, and Sir Richard Muir, who prosecuted, warned the jury that there was no such thing as the ‘unwritten law’ in England. But it was seen popularly as a sensational crime of passion and Malcolm, a decorated man in uniform who was home on leave from the front, attracted public sympathy.

The defence tried to denigrate the victim as ‘a Russian Jew of unsavoury character, believed to be a spy in German pay.’ The judge condemned this approach, yet the all-male jury took only 20 minutes to acquit Malcolm and the court burst out in applause despite the judge’s reproaches.

Dorothy Malcolm was a socialite and even after the trial she kept a string of admirers around her. Her admirers and guests at the Manor in Yelvertoft included the music hall actor and comedian George Robey (1869-1954), the painter Augustus John (1878-1961) and the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957). Douglas Malcolm continued to live the life of a countryman and officer, devoting his time to horses and hunting.

The War Memorial in Yelvertoft (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Malcolm trial at the height of World War I exposed class prejudices, racism and antisemitism that were rife in English society a century ago. Is the same true today?

With current debates about refugees and asylum seekers, including the debate about proposed legislation and the remarks by Gary Lineker, I find it interesting to read the remarks addressed to the jury by Mr Justice McCardie during the Malcolm trial:

‘It matters not in what realm a man has been born. It matters not what colour foreign sun has burned on his cheek, the moment he sets foot on British soil, he falls within the King’s peace, and the shackles of foreign nationality do not prevent him from asking that he shall be protected by the ordinary rules of British justice.’

Yelvertoft retains its independent, rural character as a village (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (28)

The Herkenrode windows in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

I was reflecting yesterday [20 March 2023] on how Samuel Johnson grieved and prayed after the death of his wife Elizabeth (‘Tetty’) in 1752.

Yet, in 1753 Johnson was considering marriage once again, and the woman who was the object of his affection was Hill Boothby (1708-1756). However, the circumstances of her life changed dramatically, and W Jackson Bate, in his prize-winning biography Samuel Johnson (1975), says ‘any thought of marriage was quickly dropped.’

Hill Boothby was a descendant of William and Hill Boothby, who owned the Moat House, the Jacobean house in Lichfield Street, Tamworth, once owned by the Comberford family. She was a grand-daughter of Sir William Boothby (1664-1731), 3rd baronet, and a daughter of Brooke Boothby of Ashbourne Hall, Derbyshire.

The Lichfield poet Anna Seward calls her ‘the sublimated methodistic Hill Boothby who read her Bible in Hebrew.’

Hill Boothby got to know Samuel Johnson in 1753, while she was presiding over the household of a distant relation, William Fitzherbert (1712-1772), of Tissington, near Ashbourne, and MP for Derby. Johnson says sadly of Fitzherbert:

There was no sparkle, no brilliancy in Fitzherbert; but I never knew a man who was so generally acceptable. He made everybody quite easy, overpowered nobody by the superiority of his talents, made no man think worse of himself by being his rival, seemed always to listen, did not oblige you to hear much from him, and did not oppose what you said. Everybody liked him; but he had no friend, as I understand the word, nobody with whom he exchanged intimate thoughts.

Hill Boothby and Samuel Johnson soon developed such a warm friendship that he addresses her as ‘sweet angel’ and ‘dearest dear,’ and he assures her that he ‘has none other on whom his heart reposes.’

His letters to her were preserved by Anna Seward, and they all show this affectionate strain. However, Johnson was annoyed by her friendship with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Lyttelton, and this jealousy influenced his writing of Lyttleton’s biography.

Hill Boothby died on 16 January 1756. After her death, Samuel Johnson wrote this ‘Prayer after the death of a good friend’:

O Lord God, almighty disposer of all things, in whose hands are life and death, who givest comforts and takest them away, I return thee thanks for the good example of H[ill] Boothby, whom thou hast now taken away. I implore thy grace, that I may improve the opportunity of instruction which thou hast afforded me, by the knowledge of her life, and by the sense of her death; that I may consider the uncertainty of my present state, and apply myself earnestly to the duties which thou hast set before me; that living in thy fear, I may die in thy favour, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hill Boothby wrote her letters to Samuel Johnson with vivacity and in a tone of enthusiastic piety. They were collected and published by Richard Wright, the Lichfield surgeon, in 1805. That book includes a fragment of Johnson’s autobiography, and some verses to Hill Boothby’s memory by her nephew, Sir Brooke Boothby, 6th Bt (1744-1824).

Sir Brooke Boothby was a linguist, translator, poet and friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was part of the intellectual and literary circle in Lichfield that included Anna Seward, Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Erasmus Darwin, and of the Lunar Society.

Brooke Boothby In 1803, he bought the 16th century Herkenrode stained glass for Lichfield Cathedral in 1803. But, as a result of this extravagance, he met economic disaster and he died in exile in Boulogne.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Sir Brooke Boothby’s memorial window in south quire aisle, Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)