The least likely account of 18th century adultery?

Until recently I have tended to blog about marital cruelty, so kind readers of my blog will perhaps think that doing research into marriage is very depressing and sad. Well, some of it is, for sources on domestic violence are awful to read.

But I also study adultery, and to be honest some of those separation cases are just laugh-out-loud hilarious. So for a little light relief, here is a brief retelling of the separation of Elizabeth and George Surtees.

Gillray card playing

Wikimedia Commons: Gillray 1796

George was a gentleman who sued his wife for separation on the grounds of adultery in 1745 before Durham Consistory Court. He claimed that after being married for four years Elizabeth committed adultery with John Thompson. Practically all of the case turned on the evidence of George’s 28 year old servant, Margaret Crow, who testified to seeing Elizabeth and John in the act of adultery three times.

Margaret’s testimony was very detailed, ranging from John’s bare backside, and Elizabeth’s naked thighs, to describing the beds: a yellow bed in the marital chamber, and a blue Russell bed in the chamber hung with blue paper. On one occasion, she said, John was visiting Elizabeth so she made coffee to take to them in the yellow bed chamber. Margaret says that she later returned to the room to take away the coffee things. The door was open and so she looked in and saw John

with a Coffee Cup in his Left Hand and his Privy Member in his Right Hand, and naked (and erect to this Deponent’s apprehension) and in that Position and his Breeches down went to the yellow Bed

upon which Elizabeth lay. And you can imagine the rest.

When I read this, I giggled, naturally, but also was struck by the oddness of the scene. It was not like the other adultery cases, nor like criminal conversation suits where the lover was sued by the husband for financial damages. I kept asking myself, would an unfaithful wife keep leaving her chamber door open to have sex with her lover? Once by accident perhaps, but not several times when the maid kept walking by! Would a man really have his coffee cup in one hand and his member in the other?

I was not surprised to find that Elizabeth defended her case, which dragged on in Durham’s court until she appealed the case to York in 1748 claiming that Margaret Crow was a ‘Common Lyar’. I haven’t yet tracked down whether Elizabeth’s appeal was successful. It is unlikely to have been as most husbands in these situations got their separation.

I did look up George Surtees’ will, however, He made his will in March 1757 and it was proved the following year in 1758 when he died. He left all his estate to his son Anthony who was 17 and thus still a minor. Anthony’s guardian was not his mother Elizabeth but George’s relation Cuthbert Surtees.

What jumped out as I was reading his will was that George also left a thatch house to Margaret Crow, his servant, free for her to live in for the rest of her life, plus £10 per annum. Was this, I still wonder, for services rendered?

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