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In a Walled Garden. Belloc, Bessie Rayner, 1829–1925.
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page: 135

BASIL MONTAGU.

IN the year 1845 Basil Montagu was the handsomest old English gentleman imaginable, although he must have been three score years and ten at the lowest computation, for he was one of many children, and the tragic death of his beautiful mother took place in 1779. He had snowy hair, blue eyes, and an aquiline nose of the most pronounced and aristocratic type; and his stately wife, the Mrs. Montagu so vividly described by Carlyle, was as dark as he was fair. They then lived at Storey’s Gate, in the little house once occupied by Mrs. Norton. It is still standing,¹ and can be known by its porch and balcony, and by the mirrors which even yet reflect the park. Famous people have visited that small house, and I believe it was there that


¹ It has been destroyed this year.

page: 136 Meredith placed the London home of Diana of the Cross‐ways.

Basil Montagu was the son of the historic Lord Sandwich, the patron of Captain Cook and name‐father of the Sandwich Islands. His birth was irregular, and his life from beginning to end a strange romance. He was one of the three finally surviving children of Miss Ray, who was barbarously murdered as she was leaving Convent Garden Theatre by a young clergyman of the name of Hackman. It was a most piteous and dreadful crime, for there is no authentic record¹ of any worse flaw in the poor woman’s character than that involved in her relations to Lord Sandwich, and her murderer was actuated by a mad jealousy which, according to reasonable testimony, she had done nothing to provoke. The event is reported in the serious‐minded Gentleman’s Magazine, under date of April 7th, 1779. Here are the exact words in their quaint sobriety:—

“Wednesday. A most unprecedented murder was committed on the person of Miss Ray by the


¹ The spurious nature of the letters lately republished is surely demonstrated by Lord Sandwich’s public recognition of his children.

page: 137 Rev. W. Hackman, who, being desperately in love with her, watched her from the play, and as she was stepping into her coach amidst a crowd of people, clapped a pistol to her ear and shot her through the head. She dropped and expired without a groan. His intent was instantly to destroy himself, but in that he failed, and endeavouring to make his escape, he was secured and committed to prison. He appeared to be perfectly in his senses, and endeavoured to justify the act by a sudden impulse that for a moment convulsed his mind. The deceased for more than sixteen years had been connected with Lord Sandwich, and had been the mother of nine children, five of whom are now alive. At the time when Lord Sandwich was attracted by her person she was in her sixteenth year, and an apprentice to a mantua‐maker in Clerkenwell. This murder affords a melancholy proof that there is no act contrary to reason that reasonable men will not commit when under the dominion of their passions. It is impossible to convey an idea of the impression made on all ranks of people when it was first reported; the manner of it struck every feeling heart with horror.” page: 138 Such was the very human utterance of Sylvanus Urban, avoiding all reproach of the unfortunate mother of so many young children, who expiated her fault by so dreadful a fate. The street ballad, of the epoch which then usually commemorated events striking to the popular imagination, touches the same key, and Grub Street furnished a long poem on the death of Miss Ray; one verse of it, quoted by Thackeray, ends with a rough but touching piety:— “A clergyman, O wicked one! In Convent Garden shot her, No time to cry upon her God, It’s hoped He’s not forgot her.”

It must be added that it would be unfair for the cloth to suffer in reputation for Hackman’s atrocious deed. He had held His Majesty’s Commission, and it was as a soldier that he first met Miss Ray, at Hinchinbrooke, and he sold out in pursuance of the object of his admiration. Why he took orders, how he obtained ordination, and why he should have imagined that by such extraordinary and disreputable plotting he could succeed in winning Miss Ray away from her children and their father, is one of those mysteries which surround the sphere of madness. At the page: 139 inquest, which was very fully reported on the next page of the magazine, Hackman seems to have made no effort at self‐defence, simply saying that jealousy had driven him mad. A Mr. Macnamara appeared as principal witness, and described how he had taken Miss Ray upon his arm in order to lead her to the carriage sent by Lord Sandwich, how he had suddenly felt the shock and the noise of the explosion, and the movement of the lady dropping on the pavement, dead! The pistol had been fired close to the back of her head.

Hackman was of course condemned, and suffered at Tyburn Tree on the 19th of April, whither he was taken in a mourning coach accompanied by the chaplain of Newgate, a sheriff’s officer, and James Boswell of Auchinlick. Lord Carlisle also attended the execution, and gave an account of it to George Selwyn which is to be found in Selwyn’s correspondence. Hackman stated that he had taken the pistol with the intent of committing suicide, but had been maddened by jealousy at the sight of Mr. Macnamara. Such was the poor crazy criminal whose deed filled all London with horror, and page: 140 orphaned a house full of children, causing the people of that day to overlook the irregularities of Miss Ray’s life in their pity for her tragical fate.

It is wonderful and instructive to note that in the official life of Lord Sandwich, written by his domestic chaplain, the great minister is lauded as a model of all the virtues, in language which only the pompous diction of the last century could supply. He was sixty when this awful tragedy befell him, and survived to the age of seventy‐three, dying younger than did his son Basil. He was succeeded by his only legitimate son, born to him by his third wife, Dorothy Fane, which son became a man of no particular importance; but Basil rose to great eminence, and Basil’s brother became Admiral Montagu, while the only surviving sister married the Sardinian Ambassador, Comte de Viry.

It was probably one result of the mother’s melancholy death that Lord Sandwich thenceforth brought up the children of his dead mistress as kings have brought up their offspring, giving them his name, and, so far as he could, the advantages of his own rank. Basil’s name is deeply writ on the Statute Book of England, page: 141 while from the Sardinian marriage sprang a train of curious circumstances, of which “The Lost Chord” survives as an echo of the Catholic marriage of Madame de Viry.

It should be also recorded by the truthful historian that pious proper George the Third was much attached to Lord Sandwich, and twice visited the fleet while that nobleman was at the head of the Admiralty. In this connection an anecdote is told (but not by the chaplain) of the inquisitive monarch. He asked to taste the pork and pease soup on which the equipage of a certain man‐of‐war was about to dine. Lord Sandwich sent a message to the purser, who sent word back that he could not “victual any man in a King’s ship without a warrant from the captain.” This was obtained in due form, and accompanied with the request that a nice piece of pork should be selected for his Majesty. The crusty purser declared that this was against all rule. Either the King or the First Lord of the Admiralty must “prick in the tub and take pot luck.”

Returning to Basil Montagu (still a familiar figure when our Queen was young), he was in page: 142 due time sent by his father to Oxford, and thence to the Bar. While at college and under twenty‐one, he made a runaway marriage with a baronet’s daughter. I forget her name, but he used to talk about her to me with much frankness. The young wife died in child‐birth, leaving a son, also named Basil, who grew up to manhood. The boyish father was heartbroken at her loss, and told, in his old age, how he spent the days thinking about her, and the nights in lying upon her grave. “But,” said he, with old‐fashioned precision, “I reflected, my dear, that such indulgence in grief would never do; so I made a resolution to think of my wife for a quarter of an hour less every day, and I did so (impressively); and so at last I was cured of my sorrow.” It is half a century since this narrative of a grief‐cure was given, but the quotation of the strange recipe is exact.

At the Bar Mr. Montagu built up a great reputation. He was intimately associated with Sir Samuel Romilly in successful efforts to abolish the punishment of death for those numerous offences, far short of murder, for which it was then pitilessly exacted. Together page: 143 they waged a long and successful crusade. Of the state of the law and the astounding callousness of the British judge at the beginning of this century, the following letter bears evidence, and is worth many statistics. In 1810 Sir Samuel received a letter signed Stephen R. Amwell, informing him that in passing through Maidstone, the writer had learned that three men, all convicted for slight offences, had been left for execution by the judge. One of them, Lawes by name, who had stolen property worth forty shillings, might be thought to have some claim to mercy because a bill to repeal in such cases the punishment of death was actually pending in Parliament. The man was to be hanged on the day following the receipt of the letter. Sir Samuel hastened to the Secretary of State, and he without delay sent on Amwell’s letter to Judge Heath. Here is the judge’s answer:—

“Sir,—I have received and read the letter with the signature of Amwell, and by some passages I am confident that he wrote me a letter, signed Amicus Curiæ, respecting Lawes. As for Lawes, he was guilty of house‐breaking, and page: 144 most probably burglary, in the dwelling house of Mary Wilkins, a widow woman, who carries on the business of baker at Minster, and stole plate to the value of £20 and upwards, to the best of my recollection. As housebreaking has been frequent in Kent and no person appeared to give him a character, I left him for execution. Stephen Nichols was convicted of stealing two heifers, which the prisoner and his brother, who has absconded, pretended to have bought for £34. They were driven from the close of a poor widow woman whose property they were, and slaughtered by the prisoner.

“The third is Peter Presnel, who was convicted for breaking into the cottage of John Orpin, no persons being therein, and stealing therein property to the value of five shillings; in fact, the things were of the value of forty shillings. It was found that the cottage was broken into while the prosecutor was absent at his labour, and all the valuable things were stolen by the prisoner. I consider this offence the worst of all, because, if not checked, it would destroy all parsimony and frugality among cottagers. In truth, I tried ninety‐nine prisoners at page: 145 Maidstone; and excepting one executed for murder, I only left the above three for execution, and not one of those could adduce a single witness to his character.

“I have the honour to be, etc.,

“D. HEATH.

“Bedford Square,

“April 8th, 1810.”

No respite was sent, and consequently the three men were hanged. Nichols was reported in the newspapers to be a boy of nineteen.

The abolition of these ghastly laws and practices was the main triumph of Basil Montagu’s middle age; but his house was for years the centre of bright, refined activity; 25, Bedford Square, was blessed by all the younger spirits of literature and the law.

In his old age, when all his sons and daughters were married or otherwise scattered (for of the boys I have no accurate count), he was a devotee of Lord Bacon, whose works he edited, and of whom he ever spoke with fanatic admiration.

In 1845 my parents lived in his near neigh‐ page: 146 bourhood neighbourhood , and I thought it an immense honour to help him prepare gigantic rolls of paper, which were pasted together till they were of the size of a small sheet. On these Mr. Montagu would print in huge capitals the names of the Cardinal Virtues. I understood at the time that these had some connection with Lord Bacon! It is not my impression that Mr. Montagu was particularly gifted with devotion to the Counsels of Perfection, but to this day I cannot see Truth and Temperance printed on a handbill in Roman letters without thinking of my dear old friend. I do not know what purpose he had in view, but I can hardly think that so important a personage intended to deliver a lecture to any audience lower in status than the assembled Bar!

Quite towards his closing years Mr. Montagu suffered some reverse of fortune which must have been caused by younger members of his family. The little establishment at Storey’s Gate was broken up, and he and his wife retired to France. I last saw him waving a good‐bye to my parents on the pier of Boulogne, He was buried in the cemetery on the St. Omer page: 147 Road, with one short line of noble epitaph, well deserved, for he had certainly used his life of labour for the cause of Justice and Liberty and the happiness of Mankind.

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