The sadness in the legacy of 18th Century Vicar of Croydon

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: The Duke, the bigamist, his wife and the vicar… In his latest delve into the archives at Croydon Minster, DAVID MORGAN has discovered a scandalising tale from Restoration England

Colourful episode: Croydon Minster is steeped in history

A search behind a simple entry in the burial register of what used to be known as Croydon Parish Church has uncovered a fascinating tale about the two wives of the Reverend Nathaniael Collier.

“Thursday Dec 2nd 1745 was buried Dame Lady Jane Cox, now Collier, wife of the Rev Nathaniel Collier the vicar.”

It would surely have been a very sorrowful service in the church, followed by the internment of the vicar’s wife. For Rev Nathaniel Collier, the Vicar of Croydon from 1728 until his death in 1754, it was especially tragic as this was the second wife he had laid to rest.

His mind would have gone back to Ilfracombe, where he was the Rector from 1724 to 1728.

When he left Holy Trinity Church, Ilfracombe, for Croydon, his first wife Mary had already been buried. A memorial for her was erected high up on the south wall by the church door. Mary was a local lass, the only daughter of Edward Harpur of Beere.

Etched in stone: the Collier memorial in Blockley, Gloucestershire, details the demise of family members, including a Vicar of Croydon, across three centuries

The name of the vicar’s second wife was recorded as “Dame Lady Jane Cox, now Collier”. This provides clear evidence that she had been married before. She had wed Sir Charles Cox, the Whig MP for Southwark.

Or had she?

The vicar would have spoken the well-known words at the marriage service, “If there is any lawful impediment why these two persons should not be married, ye are to declare it now.”

This was to be no Jane Eyre moment though. When Charlotte Bronte’s heroine was about to marry Mr Rochester, it was Mr Briggs, the family solicitor, who shouted out that the groom was already married and stopped the ceremony from going ahead. When he was at the altar, Sir Charles’ heart must have been thumping, not out of ardent love for his new bride, but out of fear that someone might announce that he was already married.

Poor Jane Biffin. She walked down the aisle, ignorant of Sir Charles’ secret and stepped straight into a most sticky situation.

The ceremony went ahead. Nobody said a word to the contrary that the couple could not be joined in holy matrimony. Sir Charles and the now Lady Jane lived out the next two years together as a couple. Then came the shock revelation.

Lady Jane became aware of the existence of the first wife, Martha (née Tomlinson). Charles and Martha had married in 1688 at the Holy Sepulchre Church in Holborn. They had four children together. However, as time had gone on, they had become estranged and lived apart.

Sir Charles must have dreaded this moment of truth, but using his powers of persuasion, he convinced Jane to stay with him by telling her that his first wife was old and in poor health and not likely to live for very much longer. Not for as long as her husband, at any rate.

Jane was in a dilemma. She had to choose between staying with her bigamous husband, a knight of the realm, or leaving him and face a life on her own, probably to be shunned by society for being a woman in a bigamous relationship. Of course, she chose to stay.

Sir Charles Cox, it seems, was quite the chancer. The end of the 17th Century was one of great turmoil and change in England, a time of revolution, rebellions and restoration, of Great Fires and great plagues.

Hero of the time: the 1st Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, Queen Anne’s great general

In 1695, Sir Charles became the MP for Southwark, a position he held until 1712. A successful businessman, he was one of the leading brewers in south London.

In 1709 he opened his warehouses on the south bank of the River Thames to provide temporary housing for German refugees, initially coming from the Palatinate region of Germany. There was a public outcry about the immigrants arriving in this country. Residents of Southwark petitioned parliament to get the 1,400 Germans housed by Cox moved on.

In 1714, when the Duke of Marlborough returned to London shortly after the death of Queen Anne, it was none other than Sir Charles who led the triumphant procession into London for the hero of Blenheim, at the head of more than 200 gentlemen on horseback.

In 1717 Sir Charles was appointed High Sheriff for Surrey.

Not everything was hunky dory though. He suffered a serious financial loss when his brewery and warehouses were gutted by fire in 1712. Having lost his Parliamentary seat in 1713, he subsequently tried to obtain a Treasury position under the new Hanoverian king, George, but failed. He was also among those who lost an awful lot of money in the “South Sea Bubble” collapse of 1720.

Having told Jane that his first wife was old and infirm, an entry appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine for April 1724 informing its readers that Lady Cox, the wife of Sir Charles Cox, formerly Member of Parliament for Southwark, had died of an apoplectic fit on the 24th of the month. Sir Charles then presented a bond to a trustee for Jane which, he said, would guarantee her the sum of £1,000 on his death. The amount would be the equivalent of a bequest of £150,000 today.

Sir Charles died on June 24, 1729, with a will written only weeks before.

In the document, Sir Charles wrote, somewhat meanly many might consider, that he had already provided for his wife and all his children “more than any law or custom can oblige”. He left no property for Jane, just his goods, chattels, jewels, horses and carriages.

And that £1,000 bond, of course.

Except, when Jane went to cash it, she couldn’t get a penny. In a subsequent court case when the will and the bond were challenged, it was determined that there was not enough money from Sir Charles’ assets to pay out the £1,000. There was then a legal argument as to whether the bond should be seen as a simple contract debt. The court ruled that while it had every sympathy for Jane, it did not find in her favour.

Where there’s a will: Sir Charles Cox’s will in 1729 was a little on the mean side

The court ruled that when she discovered Sir Charles was already married, she should have left him. Secondly, because she was not his legal wife then the bond was deemed voluntary and void.

Thirdly it was her choice to continue to live in an illicit arrangement.

The court did, however, acknowledge that Sir Charles was a bigamist. This was scant consolation for poor Jane. What was she to do?

Along came Rev Nathaniel Collier.

How they met is lost in the mists of time. But free from the stresses of her relationship with Sir Charles, Jane was able to fulfil the role of a vicar’s wife for 10 years or so before her death in 1745. There were no children from this marriage. The cause of her death was not recorded, neither was her age.

Rev Collier was to live for a further nine years, until 1754. There was an extraordinarily sad sentence contained in his own will. Having written out his desire that he would like any children of his to inherit his estates and his assets and provide for his widow, he realised that this was not going to happen. He penned the words, “If I am to die without issue and without a wife as is most probable,” before listing alternative bequests.

Included in these were his quarter share in a boat named Recovery which was based in Ilfracombe. He left this share to the captain of the vessel, a Mr Harris, with the proviso that he paid £30 to the Customs Officer Mr Fosse at Ilfracombe and the church wardens at Ilfracombe Parish Church so that, if needed, they could use the money to repair the monument “to his first wife and her children”.

Any money not used was to be put in a trust and the interest gained was to be used to help the poor of Ilfracombe. Collier never forgot his time in Ilfracombe and never forgot Mary.

Among many detailed bequests was one to Thomas Harding of South Molton, his first wife’s cousin. If Thomas chose to accept it, he could have the picture of Mary Collier which Nathaniel had kept all those years.

One of the other detailed bequests in Collier’s will concerned items of Lady Jane’s wardrobe. He left her “a gold chain, the best suit of head-clothes (head-dress) etc” to Jane De L’Angle, an aunt of Lady Jane. Were these some of the trinkets left by Sir Charles?

Collier died on his estate in Blockley in the Cotswolds. He was buried in the church there, where other members of the Collier family were remembered, but many miles away from either of his wives. The Blockley church might be familiar to those who have watched the BBC’s Father Brown series.

Nathaniel Collier was a clergyman man with two wives who couldn’t have been more different. One a local lass, the other a long-time companion of a knight of the realm.

Previous articles by David Morgan:

David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups.

To read his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here

If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page


About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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