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Saturday, 3 May 2014


My Gurney ancestors had their finest hours in the century or so in which they were official shorthand writers to the Houses of Parliament. But the reputation of the Gurney system of shorthand was built in London’s law courts, especially the Old Bailey, by my 4x great grandfather Joseph Gurney (whose father Thomas had invented the system).

Joseph Gurney (1744-1815)

The newspapers did not report court cases in those days, and the public appetite for sensational evidence was catered for by private shorthand writers who printed their verbatim reports of proceedings. One of the scandalous hearings on which Gurney shorthand made its name was the trial of the Duchess of Kingston, who was accused of bigamy by her nephew.

The duchess, as plain Elizabeth Chudleigh, married Augustus Hervey, the brother of the Earl of Bristol in 1744. They married in secret late at night in the private chapel of a stately home in which fifty years earlier Charles II had lived with his mistress. The reason for the secrecy was that both partners were relatively poor and Elizabeth did not want to lose her position and income as maid of honour to the Princess of Wales.

The union was an unhappy one. They soon separated and the marriage which no one had known about was over. Elizabeth, described as a coarse and licentious woman, became (no doubt on those grounds) a prominent figure in London society. Frederick the Great of Russia and George II of Britain flirted with her. Meanwhile the Earl of Bristol became ill, and it looked as if Augustus Hervey would inherit the title. Elizabeth forged a wedding entry in the church register in anticipation of making a claim as Hervey’s countess.

Elizabeth Hervey, née Chudleigh, as Iphigenia at a masked ball in 1749, at which George II asked her if he might touch her breast

By 1769, Evelyn Pierrepont, Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull and a better prospect that the Earl of Bristol, took her as his mistress. Elizabeth was content to have a new admirer and to let the old marriage disappear into the mists of history. Augustus Hervey however wanted to ensure that she could make no claims on the Bristol estates and sought a divorce.

Public recognition that she had been married would have damaged Elizabeth’s social standing, not to mention her relationship with Pierrepoint. In 1769 she challenged Hervey to prove that they had ever been married. He could not, or would not, although it was an open secret that the marriage had taken place. Elizabeth was declared a spinster in the courts; and within weeks she had married Pierrepont.

L-R: Augustus John Hervey, 3rd Earl of Bristol 
(painted by Gainsborough);
Elizabeth Pierrepont, née Chudleigh (1720-1788);
Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull

Pierrepont died only four years later and left everything to Elizabeth on condition that she remain a widow. As the dowager duchess of Kingston she travelled widely in Europe and was even received with due ceremony by Pope Clement XIV. Two years later in 1775 her first husband Hervey acceded to the earldom of Bristol; and now Elizabeth was a duchess twice over. Pierrepont’s relatives however were furious that they got nothing in the will; and his nephew Evelyn Medows accused her of bigamy, exposing the open secret of her first marriage.

Elizabeth hoped to hide behind the spinster judgement of 1769, but to no avail. She was tried by a jury of her peers at Westminster and it all came out, including testimony about her child with Hervey which died in infancy. She was found guilty by 116 peers to none. It was lurid proof to the lower orders that the upper classes were a degenerate lot, and the Gurney account of it was a best seller.

A ticket to the trial of the Duchess of Kingston; and another account of the trial (this one published in Manchester, and probably taken down by a rival to the Gurney shorthand system)

Still calling herself the Duchess of Kingston, Elizabeth fled the country and spent the rest of her life wandering around Europe. She died near Paris in 1788. The new Earl of Bristol never did divorce her, perhaps having been at such public pains to deny the marriage in 1769. Unable to remarry, he lived faithfully with his mistress Mary Nesbitt, an artist’s model, until his death in 1779.

There’s a much fuller account of Elizabeth Chudleigh’s life in a post in the wonderful Scandalous Woman blog.

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