Deodatus Eaton: A Life of Scandal

This article was first published in Oxfordshire Family Historian, the journal of the Oxfordshire Family History Society, April 2021 (Vol. 35 No. 1).


Deodatus William EATON was born in Oxford in 1819 — the fourth generation of Oxford men with this unusual Christian name, which means ‘God-given’.

His great grandfather, the first Deodatus (1700-1758), was a wood and coal dealer, a business continued by his widow Joan. Their son Deodatus (2) was born in 1746 (his twin sister Elizabeth was the first wife of my husband’s 5x great grandfather). He was apprenticed to a tailor, but took over the family’s coal merchant business after his mother’s death. Deodatus (2) married Mary SLATTER and they had six children, baptising Deodatus (3) in 1778. Deodatus (2) died in 1796, and Deodatus (3) continued the family coal business, but by his late thirties, when he married Ann HAYCOCK, he was selling coal and wine! By the birth of their first son Deodatus William in 1819, Deodatus (3) was solely a wine merchant. The family — with 10 surviving children — lived in St Aldate’s. 

As business thrived, Deodatus (3) became increasingly influential. Soon after being elected as a Common Council-Man in 1820, he became a Chamberlain and Auditor of the House of Industry. In 1825 he was promoted to Bailiff. Newspapers reported on several of his speeches, including one in 1831 to the Freemen of Oxford about parliamentary reform, of which he was a ‘strenuous advocate’. He became an Assistant of the City in 1834, as well as Commissioner of the Sewers, and in 1835 he served in the Mayor’s Court.

In 1836, the City Council passed a resolution to build a railway linking Oxford to London and joining the Great Western Railway. Deodatus was one of 17 men, including Oxford’s Mayor and two MPs, who formed a committee to see this through. The Consulting Engineer on the project was none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel!

Deodatus (4), b. 1819, who attended Aynho School (a free grammar school near Banbury), was the first of the family to attend the University of Oxford. He matriculated at Lincoln College as a Lord Crewe’s Exhibitioner at the age of 14, graduating with a B.A. in 1838 and M.A. in 1841. His brother John Slatter EATON, one year younger, received a B.A. from Worcester College in 1844, becoming Rev. EATON.

In 1841, the family of 13 lived at 3, St Aldate’s with five servants, and also had an address at Southampton St, Bloomsbury Square, London. However, their comfortable existence came to an abrupt end when Deodatus (3) died in 1845. Sadly, due to a complex inheritance issue, Deodatus’s widow and children were forced to leave their home and the city of Oxford. ‘The solicitor of all parties induced her to leave the house in which [Ann] resided in Oxford, called D. Eaton’s house, and come to London, and from that time to the present, she never received a sixpence from the settled property.’ (Morning Post, 15 Dec 1852). 

The family’s substantial moving sale shows that they had a very luxurious home and a staggering amount of wine and liqueurs (presumably for sale rather than personal consumption), but it also suggests that they needed to raise cash urgently:

Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette, 17 May 1845. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). 

Ann had several children to care for, the youngest, Reginald, being only about six years old when his father died. At the age of 12, Reginald was apprenticed to the Merchant Navy and set sail to Australia, where he tragically died at the age of 20. Another son emigrated to the USA.

Deodatus (4), the eldest surviving child, had been fortunate to graduate from the Royal College of Surgeons just before his father’s death. He then secured the position of Assistant Surgeon to the 70th Regiment. In 1849 he married Sarah Lydia ALCOCK, youngest daughter of James ALCOCK, Grand Jury Treasurer of Waterford, near Dublin. The couple spent their first three weeks in Cork and then left for India, living in Calcutta, then Cawnpore (Kanpur) – a major site in the ‘Indian Rebellion’ of 1857 – and other places in East India. 

However, Deodatus’s career and personal life were suffering. Possibly due to ill health, he was placed on half pay. At the same time, he was announced in newspapers as a bankrupt. Deodatus and Sarah seem to have spent time in Kent and Dublin during this period. By 1862 he was back at work, posted to Jamaica and Barbados with the 3rd West India Regiment — an unpopular appointment. In 1862 Deodatus, based at Parkhurst Barracks, Isle of Wight, was once again announced as a bankrupt, and he blamed his wife: ‘The bankrupt attributed his embarrassment to the extravagance of his wife, Sarah Lydia Eaton, who had since eloped from him.’ (Hampshire Advertiser, 23 Aug 1862). In fact, the couple had separated in 1859.

On 13 December, it was reported in the Naval & Military Gazette that ‘Staff-Surg Deodatus William Eaton has been removed from the Army, Her Majesty having no further occasion for his services.’ Ouch! It was practice at the time for the military to dismiss bankrupts, though their salary could be used to liquidise debts. Officers could also sell their commissions. However, these options weren’t available to surgeons. Deodatus’s case, which raised questions about fairness, was discussed in the House of Commons.

Home News for India, China and the Colonies, 18 Jul 1863. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). 

In 1862, Deodatus filed for divorce, and it’s my belief that Deodatus was financially motivated to pursue the case in court.

The first petition claimed that in 1858-59 Sarah EATON had ‘committed adultery with one the Honorable James MacDonald of the Albany Chambers Piccadilly’. The Hon. James William BOSVILLE-MACDONALD was the son of Baron Macdonald, and Private Secretary and Equerry of His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge, with whom he served at the Crimea. He married the daughter of a baron in 1859.

Hon. James William Bosville-Macdonald (‘Men of the Day. No. 128. “Jim”‘)
by James Jacques Tissot
chromolithograph, published in Vanity Fair 1 April 1876
NPG D43738
© National Portrait Gallery, London (CC: 3.0)

Deodatus also claimed that in 1860, in Barbados and on board the Himalaya — a Royal Naval vessel, Sarah ‘had committed adultery with one James Hamilton Bews Staff surgeon in Her Majesty’s Army by whom she was pregnant.’ Since then, Deodatus believed that Sarah had been living with BEWS in New Zealand ‘and leading an adulterous life.’ (Sarah and James had indeed had an illegitimate child — James Hamilton Heaton BEWS — born in New Zealand in 1861.) BEWS had been promoted to Assistant Surgeon at the same time as Deodatus in 1844. Perhaps as well as professional peers, they were friends. 

Concluding the application, Deodatus requested not only the dissolution of the marriage, but also £1000 in damages from James MACDONALD!

The case was unsuccessful, and in 1863 Deodatus, then a surgeon on Sloane Street, tried again. This second application made no mention of Col. MACDONALD, but provided additional details of his wife’s relationship with James BEWS, revealing that they had lived together in Chelsea for three months in 1861. Deodatus’s petition again requested financial compensation — this time asking that James BEWS pay the legal fees and provide ‘other relief’. Neither petition mentions Sarah’s ‘extravagance’ — though that would have had no legal bearing on the case. The marriage was finally dissolved in November 1863. I don’t know if Deodatus received any compensation, but James BEWS died the following year with an estate of less than £200.

The National Archives; Kew, Surrey, England; Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, later Supreme Court of Judicature: Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Files, J 77; Reference Number: J 77/16/E32

Whether due to scandal or opportunity, Deodatus now decided to leave Britain and start afresh in Tasmania. On New Year’s Eve 1864 he embarked on the Dauntless, serving as the Surgeon Superintendent for 420 passengers — primarily government immigrants. A description of the 135-day voyage said, with understatement, that it was ‘not by any means a peaceful one’…

Just a week into the journey, the Dauntless encountered a ship in distress; the Pryne of St John’s, transporting timber to Liverpool, was missing its rudder and sails. The captain declined assistance but ‘tea, sugar, water and tobacco were sent on board’. 

Throughout the voyage, the sailors, unhappy with living conditions, were on several occasions ‘in a state of mutiny. They threatened to take the ship into the Cape of Good Hope. The captain broke open a case of rifles consigned to the Colonial Secretary, and he and the officers always went around armed.’ Six crew members were put in irons during the voyage, and taken off the ship into police custody.

Finally, just off the coast of Tasmania, they rescued 17 crew and the mate of the Fiery Star, an unfortunately named liner that had been destroyed by fire with a large loss of life.

It was a perilous journey for passengers too. Tragically, three women and 17 children died on the voyage. Nevertheless, Dr. EATON, who attended to 17 births (including twins) and solemnised two marriages on board, was presented with a ‘complimentary testimonial’ signed by almost all of the passengers:

Image and description of the voyage from Daily Southern Cross, 16 May 1865 (paperspast.natlib.govt.nz)
Deodatus also served as doctor on the Anglesey (pictured here) in 1865. State Library of South Australia.

Deodatus must have arrived in the New World feeling relieved and optimistic about his future. Six months later, a newspaper announced him as a ‘NEW MEDICAL PRACTITIONER’ who ‘has been en-rolled in the list of the legally qualified Medical Practitioners of Tasmania.’ (Cornwall Chronicle, 18 Nov 1865) His medical expertise must have been respected, as he was called on to give evidence in two murder trials in 1868 and 1870.

However, not long after arriving down under, Deodatus was in and out of court for insolvency yet again. Perhaps this explains why he left Tasmania for Victoria in mainland Australia. Once there, he possibly ‘did a runner’ from the town of Donald to Geelong, 160mi away, as his whereabouts were sought in the paper. In Geelong he incurred yet more debts due to ‘adverse judgment in the Court of Petty Sessions at Donald, pressure of other creditors, and bad debts’. (Geelong Advertiser, 20 Feb 1878). It seems that Deodatus’s own poor financial management was at the root of his chronic debts.

Deodatus William EATON died in Koroit, Victoria, Australia on 14 July 1879, aged 59 (all four Deodatus EATONs died in their fifties). The circumstances of his ‘DEATH BY POISON’ prompted a four-day inquest. He had seemingly been accidentally poisoned by taking oxide of zinc, rather than carbonate of soda. Dr. EATON had made up the prescription for himself at the local chemist’s, as he was ‘suffering from the effects of whiskey’ (though was said to be sober). The jury found that his death had been caused by a diseased heart and ‘some irritable poison administered by himself’, and the chemist was criticised for his carelessness. However, the newspaper reports also hint that Deodatus’s ingestion of the poison may have not been accidental. Noone knew much of the doctor’s past, though he claimed to have been a widower for 10 years, but they knew he was ‘in difficulties’ and ‘a lawyer had his business in hand’. Additionally, it was stated that ‘anyone’ (especially a doctor) ought to know the difference between the two white powders, and Deodatus seems to have taken an unexplained high dose. (Portland Guardian, 19 Jul 1879). Even more suspiciously, when a doctor called on Deodatus two hours before his demise, Deodatus ‘asked for a certificate that illness prevented him from answering a fraud summons at Beaufort on that day.’ (The Age, 17 Jul 1879)

The last Deodatus had no children to carry on the name, and he died intestate, with only £30 14s 2d to his name (in cash, clothing and a few surgical instruments). He was survived by his ex-wife, mother, and several siblings, the last of whom, Charlotte Ellen EATON, a spinster, died in Oxford in 1908. Despite being a divorcé, persistent bankrupt, and emigrant to the other side of the world, the death of ‘EATON, Deodatus W., M.A., M.R.C.S.E., son of the late Mr. Deodatus, of Oxford’ received a brief notice in London’s Pall Mall Gazette

Pall Mall Gazette, 3 Oct 1879. Via BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk.

This article has been edited slightly since publication in Oxfordshire Family Historian with the following additions: family’s relationship to my husband, images of the Anglesey and of Bosville-Macdonald, death notice from the Pall Mall Gazette, and a note about the family’s substantial wine cellar.

One thought on “Deodatus Eaton: A Life of Scandal

  1. Such a fascinating life Deodatus lived! It’s sad to think he wasn’t happy all of the time, but the testimonial from the ship’s passengers tell of his caring character. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Liked by 1 person

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