John Richardson: A Life of Scandal

When my Great Great Great Great Grandfather, John Richardson, was born in 1832, it would be unbeknownst to all what a scandalous life he was about to lead. One that is even still quite uncomfortable to discuss just under 150 years after it ended. Failed marriages, bigamy, illness and abandonment define what was still an incredibly interesting and unique journey to an untimely end, aged just 47.

John Richardson’s story, however, began around just under 70 miles from where it ended, in County Durham, specifically the village of Neasham, which is located nearby to Darlington. He was the eldest son of Robert Richardson, a shoemaker, and Ann Wennington, who had married a few years prior to his birth in 1829. He was baptised at the Parish Church nearby to Neasham, located in Hurworth, on 26 February 1832, the same place as where his parents married. Furthermore, the parish register notes his date of birth as 29 January 1832, which is the only record we have of his birth date, but it is important to note that this date can sometimes be unreliable.

Map showing Neasham in the 1890s

Clearly, as the couple’s eldest child, barring an early death, he would have some siblings to grow up with but also be a role model towards. These children came at wildly inconsistent rates down to what could be a multitude of reasons, but regardless, by 1855, when he was aged about twenty-three, his parent’s final child, a lad named Joseph, was born. In total, including John, they had eight children who survived infancy – 5 boys and 4 girls.

Despite the fact his family was growing, John didn’t remain in Neasham for long after he came of age. In fact, the last recorded time he was living with his family and in his place of birth was the 1851 census, where he is recorded as working as a joiner. Furthermore, it is noted that John is a journeyman, indicating that he may have also spent time away learning his trade as an apprentice, or at the very least illustrating his skills. Perhaps with his new skills and his trade, he set off into an ever-changing world with ambitions to build his own life and future.

Extract of their marriage certificate showing the hand of both John Richardson and Emma Exley

With this in mind, the fact within just over a year or so, he had moved to the up-and-coming West Yorkshire town of Dewsbury doesn’t seem too surprising. However, what is undoubtedly interesting is that in June 1852, within a year or so of his move, he married the 17-year-old Emma Exley. The couple settled into married life and welcomed their first child, John William, in 1854, followed by James in 1856.

In 1861, the family of four was residing on King Street, Batley Carr and John unsurprisingly worked as a joiner. Also, in what I feel to be somewhat of a poignant gesture towards John’s younger brother and father, their third lad born in 1864 was named Christopher Robert Richardson.

John’s brother, Christopher Robert Richardson, many years after the events of John’s life, aged about 90

However, despite all seeming well, the scandalous nature of John’s life was about to begin, for John left his wife and three boys in about 1864.

We will never know the exact motivation as to why John leaves his wife. From my perspective, the marriage seemed to be rushed and strange; Emma seemed too young and considering that John was also still a young lad that had just moved nearly 70 miles, how did the couple even meet? Was their period of courtship long enough? Was the marriage “rushed” with John regretting his decision? Emma’s family was more middle class, with her father being an employer, so perhaps John saw his marriage as a means to advance himself and was ignorant of any long-term consequences? Ignoring all of these more philosophical questions, which we realistically cannot answer easily, I believe that there is a trigger that caused him to leave his family – another woman.

Put in simple terms, my Great Great Great Grandfather, Samuel Walker Richardson, was born in December 1865, John’s first son to Lydia Walker, the above “other” woman. We do not know when they met exactly but using logic, they both must have known each other since the beginning of the year, and as it was around that year that John is later reported as leaving Emma, I think it is fair to come to the conclusion that this was the trigger. It is also worth noting by 1871 after the births of a few new kids to her – namely Tom, Harry and Jane – John is recorded as living with Lydia on Mill Lane, Hanging Heaton as her lodger.

The Baptisms of two of Lydia and John’s children – Jane and Tom – at St Thomas’ Church, Batley

John was in court around the same time period in 1871, specifically May, when he was summoned by the Dewsbury Poor Law Union at Dewsbury Borough Court for leaving his wife and children dependent upon the common fund of the Poor Law Union. The court notes that John typically paid weekly maintenance fees to Emma, but since he was recently taken ill, he could not do so. He was allowed to settle with the Receiving Officer outside of court, and the case was closed.

Arguably the most scandalous action of John’s life was when both he and Lydia moved to Wellington Street, Leeds, for a short period in late 1874, where they were married bigamously. They must have determined Leeds to be large enough to keep some anonymity as they were committing a crime but wasn’t too far removed from Batley and Dewsbury, where they would eventually live again. Banns were read between 25 October and 8 November, before their marriage on 21 November.

The marriage that shouldn’t have legally happened

Both John and Lydia had another son, in about 1872, named Fred, and then Mary Ann in 1875 and had moved back to Batley by the point of her birth. Despite now getting their relationship confirmed in front of god and effectively already existing as a married couple, John was once again summoned for neglecting to pay Emma’s maintenance and once again leaving her at the mercy of the Dewsbury Poor Law Union. He admitted in May 1876 before the Dewsbury Borough Court as being “away’, perhaps linking back to the time spent in Leeds. He was sentenced to three month’s hard labour unless he managed to settle with the Board of Guardians out of court, which he appeared to do. Interestingly, the newspaper report notes that he is “living with another woman” and that he has a sizeable number of kids with her. From this, it was likely well known that they were together, both John and Lydia, so the fact that they were able to get away with marrying bigamously is quite impressive.

It was touched upon in the May 1871 case that John had been taken ill, and ignoring if that was an excuse made for the court or a genuine fact, it foreshadowed what was to happen to John. Specifically, by August 1879, he becomes ill again – fatally ill. Tuberculosis is what kills him, aged 47, on 13 August 1879 at his home with Lydia on Ambler Street, Batley Carr.

Part of John Richardson’s death certificate – not the greatest copy in the world.

Funnily enough, Emma registers his death and is noted as being “in attendance”. This doesn’t illustrate anything significant, as she may have just felt it was right to fulfil her final duties as his wife and mother of his children, or they have reconciled even just a little towards the end. John was buried at Dewsbury Cemetery on 16 August 1879 in a grave that Emma bought and was later buried in herself. Again, the more romantic point might be a reconciliation between the two on his death bed. Yet, I honestly feel that Emma bought the plot over Lydia as, despite the bigamous marriage, Emma was John’s legal wife. Perhaps Emma didn’t even choose to be buried with John. She may have been buried there because it was the easiest for her family members.

There isn’t an easy way to conclude John’s tale as it is one that was cut short, and many pieces are missing from it, unlikely to have ever been recorded by any official records. His thoughts and feelings were especially crucial to his story, and as we don’t know them 150 years on, we should be mindful of that when discussing his actions and intentions. It is essential to discuss regardless as it beautifully exemplifies the fact that not everything is as simple as it appears. Despite what we may think of the past, people have always been people, easily all been able to make similar mistakes and decisions as we are in the modern world. John Richardson’s story isn’t one I gladly shout from the rooftops, but without him and the fact he left his wife, I wouldn’t be here today, so I feel it would be wrong of me to ignore it. After all, he led an incredibly interesting and unique journey through life irrespective of his flaws and scandalous nature.

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