The case of Maultby v. Skinner

When 19-year-old Hannah Maultby became an unmarried mother in 1866, the father promised to marry her. But two years later, he had failed to keep his word, and Hannah’s mother took him to court for seduction. 

I think most of us have discovered children in our family trees whose parents weren’t married when they were born. Until 1834, bastardy laws pressed reputed fathers into providing financial support for their children. After the end of those laws, coinciding with the creation of the poor law unions, single mothers found society even less sympathetic to their plight. If they weren’t able to marry the father, families sometimes stepped in to help care for the children (this was the case with my paternal grandmother). But that support network was not always available, and the stigma and financial hardship associated with being a single mother meant that very occasionally, unmarried mothers took desperate measures raising an illegitimate child — like my ancestor Fanny Talmer, accused of infanticide in 1851. 

On another branch of my family tree, teenager Hannah Maultby found herself ‘in the family way’ in 1866. But this time, her family was not content to let the father of her child off the hook. Hannah’s pregnancy led to a remarkable court case heard at the Court of Common Pleas.

Childhood — a Bedfordshire baker’s daughter

Hannah Maultby was born in 1846 in Leighton Buzzard, a market town in Bedfordshire. She was the youngest of four children of my 4th great grandparents: Richard Maultby, a second-generation master baker, and Martha (née Hopkins), who had joined the family business when she married Richard in 1838. 

Hannah had an older sister, Ann, and two older brothers, William and Thomas — my 3rd great grandfather.

A booming market town

Hannah’s grandparents Thomas and Anna Maultby established their bakery on Friday Street, Leighton Buzzard before 1830 (having previously run a bakery in Shrewsbury), and the Maultbys were still on Friday Street in 1851. However, by 1861 they had moved to North Street, and Hannah’s two eldest siblings were also working in the family business. 

It’s likely that the Maultby bakery business was thriving due to the town’s modern transport links. The 1864 Post Office directory described Leighton Buzzard’s rapid growth: ‘This town (so much increased in importance since the opening of the London and North Western Railway, of which it is a principal station) … consists of one wide street, branching off north and south at the market place. … The Grand Junction Canal runs between the railway and the town. The canal and railway give to the inhabitants a ready communication both with the metropolis and the northern counties’. 

Leighton Buzzard’s booming economy and convenient location brought newcomers into the town, like George Skinner and his sister Elizabeth, who opened a grocery shop next door to the Maultbys’ bakery in about 1858.

Skinner and Maultby households, North Street, Leighton Buzzard, 1861. Census of England and Wales, The National Archives, RG 9; Piece: 1006; Folio: 6; Page: 6; GSU roll: 542735. Via Ancestry.co.uk.

George was the son of a customs excise officer from Devon, and the Skinner family had moved around frequently — he was born in Bristol in 1836, was living in Bucks in 1841, and in Deptford in 1851. His new business in Leighton Buzzard was evidently successful, as by 1864, he opened another shop in another part of town.

At the same time, the Maultby family’s horizons were rapidly expanding; Thomas jumped aboard the travel and communications revolution, working as a telegraph clerk. In 1865 he left home to marry and forge a career in the exciting railway industry. 

Meanwhile, however, Hannah’s opportunities were much more constrained. It seems that she wasn’t needed in the bakery, and in 1861, aged 14, she was working as a bonnet sewer. Most working women in Leighton Buzzard were straw plaiters, and the industry required piece workers like Hannah to sew plaited lengths together into the final products, though within a decade, this work would start to be replaced by hat sewing machines.[1]

1866 — a death and a birth

In the summer of 1866, two events had a huge impact on the family. On 10 July, Richard Maultby died, leaving an estate of less than £200 to support his family. It was now up to Martha, Ann, and William to run the bakery without him.

Leighton Buzzard Observer and Linslade Gazette – Tuesday 24 July 1866. Via BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk.

It’s possible that 19-year-old Hannah was also working in the bakery by this time, or that she stepped in after her father’s death to help keep the business afloat. But however Hannah was earning her keep, she couldn’t be a breadwinner for long, because she had her own bun in the oven. On 17 September, she delivered a baby boy: Sidney Skinner Maultby.

At that time, fathers’ names were not allowed to be included on birth certificates of illegitimate children, but his father was, of course, Hannah’s next door neighbour George Skinner. George was at that time 30 or 31 years old — more than a decade older than Hannah (and much closer in age to her older sister Ann).

Birth certificate of Sidney Skinner Maultby

To find out what happened next, we need to leap forward 17 months to February 1868. 

A ‘rather peculiar case’

On 15 February, 1868, newspapers across the country reported that ‘a rather peculiar case was heard before Mr. Secondary Potter and a jury, on Wednesday. It was on a writ of enquiry sent down from the Court of Common Pleas to assess the damages in a seduction case, “Maltby v. Skinner.”’ (although my ancestors consistently spelled their name ‘Maultby’, some newspapers misspelt their name).

The article continued by describing ‘the story told in evidence’ as follows:

The plaintiff, Mrs. Maltby, a baker and flour dealer, residing in Leighton Buzzard, has four children, two of them daughters. One of these daughters, named Hannah, was in her nineteenth year in 1866, and was at that time engaged to the defendant, who had a shop next door to Mrs. Maltby’s, as well as one in another part of the town. In September of 1866, Hannah gave birth to a child, of which the defendant is alleged to be the father. The defendant promised, soon after the birth of the child, that he would marry its mother, and the peculiarity of the case consisted in the fact that Mrs. Maltby was unable to state whether he had fulfilled that promise or not. In August, 1867, the girl Hannah left home to visit some friends in Essex, and has not since returned to reside with her mother. She is now living with the defendant in his house at Leighton Buzzard, while her child is still with Mrs. Maltby. Although evidence had been obtained to show that Banns had been published at St. Pancras Church and at Shoreditch Church, and although the marriage had been notified in the local papers, yet no statement had been made as to where the ceremony had been performed.

Bucks Chronicle and Bucks Gazette – Saturday 15 February 1868

In a nutshell, George had promised to marry Hannah, and the marriage was announced in papers, but no ceremony had actually taken place. Instead, Hannah had simply moved in with George and left their baby to be cared for by her mother. Martha Maultby courageously responded by taking George to court. 

Leighton Buzzard Observer and Linslade Gazette – Tuesday 22 October 1867. via BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk

The tort of Seduction

Based on the newspaper report, she first brought her action against George Skinner to the Court of Common Pleas. Founded in the 12th century (and only to continue operating for five more years), this court in Westminster Hall heard cases brought by one subject against another. 

The tort of seduction originally allowed a father of an unmarried, pregnant woman to sue for the loss of her chastity, which was viewed as his property. Later, the father sued for the loss of his daughter’s working services. If the father was deceased, the mother could sue for her daughter’s seduction.[2] However, if the seduced woman was in service, the right to sue for her seduction, and resulting loss of her services, passed to her employer.

Over time, attitudes changed and ‘although damages were nominally awarded for the financial loss to the claimant, by the 19th century they tended to reflect more the social embarrassment and stigma associated with pregnancy out of wedlock that was suffered by the claimant.’[3]

Nevertheless, I suspect that Martha’s decision to sue was driven by financial need — though to help pay for her grandson’s upbringing rather than to compensate for the loss of her daughter’s work contribution.

Secondaries’ Court

Following the judgement of the Court of Pleas, a writ had been issued to assess the damages awarded to Martha. She had then returned to court. The newspaper article doesn’t state what court it was. However, I’ve found details of other contemporary cases in which a case at the Court of the Common Pleas led to a writ being issued, followed by another hearing at the Secondaries’ Court of London. Those cases were presided over by ‘Mr Secondary Potter’, the same judge who heard Martha’s testimony. That was Judge George William Potter, who was Secondary of the City of London. I conclude that Maultby v. Skinner must also have been heard at the Secondaries’ Court. But where and what was it?

According to an 1865 article in The Solicitor’s Journal and Reporter, the court was something of a curiosity, taking place in a back room of the Secondary’s offices on Basinghall Street, in a former wool warehouse. Since 1830, ‘the learned Secondary [had] …heard cases at times involving, upon writs of inquiry, very large sums of money.’

Punch magazine poked fun at the shabby Secondaries Court in 1842: ‘The structure itself is decidedly rude, but the clerks inside are ruder.’ The full article is great fun.

Punch, Or, The London Charivari, Volume 4

It’s been really hard to find information about this court, but it seems that in about 1867, the building, which was owned by the Mercers’ Company, was pulled down, and the court had to convene temporarily in a small room of the Mason’s Hall Tavern, before being moved into the justice room at the Guildhall. Whether Martha would have been at the Guildhall, or a room in the back of a pub, I’m not sure.

The wide variety of cases heard at the Secondaries Court in the 1860s and reported in newspapers included a woman suing a bank, a man suing a railway for injuries to his wife and child, cases of libel, and several actions for ‘breach of promise of marriage’. 

Martha’s story

On 12 Feb 1868, Martha Maultby stood in the Secondaries’ Court before Secondary Potter and the jury, to present her grievance for the second time. Her legal representative in court was Donald Browne, instructed by her solicitor, Mr Shepherd of Luton. Another newspaper report gives Martha’s first-hand telling of the story. In her own words, she states that there had in fact been no engagement prior to the birth of her grandchild. 

With the headline, ‘EXTRAORDINARY ACTION FOR SEDUCTION’ it opens by saying that the case was ‘probably of an unprecedented character’ …

Mrs. Maltby, the mother of the girl who had been seduced, said: I am the plaintiff. I live at Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, where I carry on business as a baker and flour dealer. I have four children, two boys and two girls, who were all living with me in 1866. I know defendant, who at that time lived next door to me. He carried on the business of a grocer, and had a fancy basket business in another part of the town. My daughters’ names are Anne [sic] and Hannah, and the latter was in her nineteenth year at the time this affair happened. There was no engagement between defendant and my daughter. He was friendly. My husband died in July, 1866, and in September of the same year Hannah was confined. I did not know she was in the family-way, but suspected it, and challenged her with it. She denied it a week before. The defendant is the father of the child which I am now keeping. I was almost out of my mind when this occurred, and the more so that defendant had always acted in so friendly and kindly a manner towards me. When my husband died he helped me to get him into bed. I made a complaint to the defendant, who came into my house when Hannah was confined, and he said to me and before the doctor, “Do not make a noise; as soon as she can be moved I will marry her.” I was of course very much agitated, and he took me into his house next door, and kept me there two or three hours, until I became calmer. I always looked upon him as a gentleman, and this came upon me like a thunderbolt. In August 1867, my daughter paid a visit to some friends in Essex, and never returned to my house. I expected her back in October, but she never came, and she is now living with defendant at his house in Leighton Buzzard. I know that, because I have called at his house and seen my daughter there. Defendant has been in the town ten years, and is now living on his means.

Cross-examined: Defendant’s sister used to keep his house, and after she left my daughters were often there. I have not received one penny from the defendant, but my daughter has for clothes for the child. I know that marriage banns were put up at St. Pancras church. I know that my son wrote to the clergyman of that church. The marriage of my daughter and the defendant has been notified in the local papers.

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper – Sunday 16 February 1868

This report gives me insight into Martha’s state of mind and her motivation. Primarily, she was looking for financial support, since, as she says, she was keeping her grandson. However, her anger and sense of betrayal are palpable. She had trusted George Skinner — he had even helped her to lay out her deceased husband. He had, in her eyes, taken advantage of her daughter and then, worse still, not taken any responsibility for his child. The strange uncertainty about whether a marriage had taken place suggests that Hannah had become estranged from her mother and family, even though they lived in the same town.

One further news article reveals that my 3rd great grandfather Thomas had spoken for his mother in court. It also goes some way to explaining why the marriage didn’t take place, and sheds light on what Martha hoped to receive from George Skinner:

“my son wrote to the clergyman of [St Pancras] church, stating that the defendant and my daughter lived at Leighton Buzzard, and in consequence of that communication the clergyman refused to marry them at S. Pancras church.”

Thomas Maultby, son of the plaintiff, was called to confirm the testimony of his mother, and he also stated that the defendant had disposed of his business, and gave evidence as to the supposed extent of his property.

Other witnesses having been called, Mr. Browne, in addressing the jury for the plaintiff said that £200 had been offered, but under the circumstances that sum could not be accepted, as the child had been left behind and the mother could not ascertain whether the marriage had really been performed.

Mr. Willis, in addressing the jury for the defense, contested that there really had been no seduction, and that the plaintiff had suffered no damage. The defendant did not cast the girl aside after the birth of the child, but, although he never promised her marriage, he married her. …The defendant regretted the circumstances of the case as much as any person in court, and had made what amends he could. He had offered the plaintiff £200, which Mrs Maultby had refused to accept, and asked for a most exorbitant sum [of £500].

The Leighton Buzzard Observer – 18 Feb 1868

The article also reports that Mr Willis (Skinner’s attorney) claimed that a settlement of £200 had already been reached, but Martha’s defense attorneys had dissolved their partnership and this had stalled the arrangements. It could well be that Martha had accepted the offer after the first court session, thinking that her daughter was married (and perhaps that she would take back her child). However, circumstances had changed.

I’m proud of my 4th great grandmother Martha. She had been so determined to get financial support for her grandson, and, I think, a sense of justice, that she had taken time away from her demanding business and travelled from Bedfordshire to London twice (presumably by train). She had also had to publicly air her family’s dirty laundry. But Martha returned home without the comfort of knowing that her daughter was truly married, and with only £50 (about £3000 today) — not a trivial amount, but only a fraction of what she hoped for, and quarter of what she had previously been offered. Furthermore, her action was likely to estrange her from her daughter permanently.

More cases of seduction

Many other cases of seduction were reported in newspapers. Although headlines were designed to shock, the women at the centre of the stories were usually treated with sympathy. They were typically young, and said to be ‘respectable’ and ‘educated’, whereas the man was usually older, and often portrayed as a heartless swine.

Several cases were heard at the Secondaries’ Court. Of those I’ve found in newspapers, damages awarded ranged from just £9 to £500. However, the larger amounts seem to have been awarded in cases of ‘breach of promise of marriage as well as seduction’. It seems that a promise had to be proven to have taken place prior to the seduction.

Looking for evidence

After learning about the case of Maultby v Skinner in the newspapers, I wanted to find more evidence about the events that transpired after Sidney’s birth. 

However, so far, my search for evidence in original legal sources hasn’t been fruitful. I identified several Court of Pleas records which covered Hilary term, 1868, in the collection of The National Archives. But when I reviewed the documents last year, I found nothing about Maultby v Skinner. Frustratingly, I don’t know how long it was before the case came to the Secondaries Court that it had been heard in the Court of Pleas, or when the Writ was issued. In one case heard at the Secondaries Court in 1861, about ten months had passed since the writ had been issued. I plan to search more indexes to the books of judgments at my next visit.

I’ve not yet been able to establish where records of the Secondaries’ Court are held; the National Archives has records only up to the 1820s. I think they are most likely to be at the London Metropolitan Archives and I’ll be heading there soon to investigate.

Another illegitimate child, and a marriage

The exact events that transpired after Sidney’s birth in 1866 are hazy, but by 1868, Hannah and George seem to have been living together in London — not only were banns read there, but around the same time that Martha Maultby was seeking financial compensation in the Secondaries’ Court, Hannah gave birth to a second child with George Skinner, in St John’s Wood, Westminster. Harry Maultby Skinner was born in Q2 1868. Hannah and George still weren’t married, but this time, their son received his father’s surname. 

Finally, on 1 March 1869, Hannah Maultby and George Skinner married at St Luke’s, Finsbury. It’s worth pointing out that although it might have made them more socially accepted, this didn’t change the illegitimate status of Sidney or Harry — both born before the marriage. It wasn’t until 1926 that children born out of wedlock could become legally legitimate after their parents married.[4]

Marriage of Hannah Maultby and George Skinner. London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; Reference Number: p76/luk/057. Via Ancestry.co.uk.

When Hannah walked down the aisle, she was possibly already pregnant with what would be her first legitimate child, Herbert Oxenham Skinner (b. Q4 1869), whose middle name came from George’s mother. Herbert was born in Horsham, Suffolk, where the Skinner family — George, Hannah, Harry and Herbert — resided in 1871. The census shows that George was a master grocer employing two men. 

Skinner family at 9 Westgate, Horsham, Surrey, 1871 Census of England and Wales, The National Archives, Class: RG 10; Piece: 1097; Folio: 15; Page: 6; GSU roll: 827507. via Ancestry.co.uk.

Five more children soon followed: Isabel Skinner (b. 1871), Thomas Skinner (b. 1874), Bertha Skinner (b. 1875), William Maultby Skinner (b. 1877), and Kate Skinner (b. 1878).

Unfortunately, Hannah and George only had a decade of marriage. On 21 November 1879, George Skinner died, aged only 44, and Hannah was left a widow with her youngest child just a baby. However, Hannah was resilient; in the 1881 census, she was working as a grocer and raising six children, with the help of two domestic servants and two grocers’ assistants.

A second marriage

The following year, Hannah remarried. Her second husband, Walter Joyes, was a corn merchant and agent for agricultural machinery, and like George Skinner, he was a decade older than Hannah. With Walter, she had two more children, Frederick Richard Walter Joyes (b. 1883) and Charles Maultby Joyes (b. 1885). Frederick was the only one of Hannah’s ten children not to survive childhood; he sadly died aged about 14.

Hannah and Walter Joyes, 1911 Census of England and Wales, The National Archives, Class: RG14; Piece: 5281; Schedule Number: 153. Via Ancestry.co.uk.

Hannah and Walter lived at Hereford House on Station Road, Billingshurst, Sussex. They enjoyed 37 years of married life until Hannah’s death in 1919, aged 72. She and Walter share a grave at St Mary’s, Billingshurst.

Sidney Skinner Maultby

The curious among you might have wondered what happened to Sidney, Hannah’s first child. 

After being abandoned by his parents, Sidney was raised by two very strong women — his grandmother Martha, and her eldest daughter Ann, who never married. After Martha died in 1867, when he was 12, Sidney lived with his aunt Ann, who continued to work as a baker in Leighton Buzzard. 

Ann Maultby and her nephew Sidney Maultby, Leighton Buzzard, 1881 Census of England and Wales, Class: RG11; Piece: 1641; Folio: 55; Page: 5; GSU roll: 1341392. Via Ancestry.co.uk.

Sidney married at just 19 years old. The space on his marriage certificate where his father’s name should appear was left blank. Though George Skinner was deceased, Sidney surely knew who his father was, so this omission suggests that George had never been involved in Sidney’s life.  However, Sidney, like his absent father, was a grocer.

Marriage certificate of Sidney Skinner Maultby and Frances Sarah Ann Blades

Sidney went on to have a long and interesting life. He spent time in Argentina at the turn of the century, and married his second wife, Mary Jane Turner in St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Buenos Aires, 1897. The marriage was probably bigamous. Sidney and Mary returned to England and had nine children. Surprisingly, they gave three of their four boys the middle name ‘Skinner’. 

Sidney worked for London County Council for many years as an Inspector of Weights and Measures. He was also a freemason. 

When Sidney’s aunt Ann Maultby died in 1915, she made Sidney her executor, and bequeathed the remainder of her estate to him. Her will states that his name was ‘Sidney Skinner, commonly known as … Sidney Skinner Maultby’. 

Excerpt of Ann Maultby’s will, proved 4 January 1916

Sidney experienced personal tragedy in 1944, when his daughter Mabel, a Red Cross nurse, was killed in the bombing of the Guards Chapel.

Sidney Skinner Maultby died a few days before Christmas, 1952, aged 86. The tort of seduction was not abolished in England and Wales until 1971.

[1] Luton: Hat Industry 1750 to 2000

[2] Reports of Cases Decided in the Court of Common Pleas of Upper …, Volume 11

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seduction_(tort)

[4] Probert, R. Marriage Law for Genealogists (Takeaway Publishing, 2016).

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