22 September 2009

Scandal: Captain George Bisset's Trial

By Michelle Styles

In 1782, the chattering classes of Britain and the United States were held transfixed by the trial of George Bisset for criminal conversation. The transcript had seven printings in the first year--even George Washington requested one.

The action was brought by Sir Richard Worsley and he claimed damages of £20,000. In 1775, Worsley had married a very rich heiress, Seymour Dorothy Fleming. At first they were the perfect power couple of Georgian England. Sir Richard became a rising star in Lord North's government and Lady Worsley was popular in the ton. They had a son, Robert Edwin, within a year or two of the marriage and to the outside word, a daughter born August 1781.

However, all was not happy and Sir Richard buried himself in his work and in the Hampshire Militia. Worsley was also a collector of Roman artifacts and there is a suggestion that such men often preferred not to look at women. Lady Worsley would later say that for the the first three months of her marriage, it was like living with a brother. In any case, there is evidence that he did not pay Seymour much attention and Lady Worsley craved attention.

Lady Worsley took a number of discrete lovers. Her friendship with one George M Bisset became something more and she gave birth to their daughter.

On 18 November 1781, she eloped with Bisset, travelling in a carriage from Lewes to London where the pair hid. It can be assumed that Lady Worsley felt a quick divorce would be in the offing and everything would be settled discretely. After all Sir Richard had been content with the previous arrangement and had even accepted Bisset's daughter as his own.

Faced with the humiliation of a runaway wife, Sir Richard decided to take his revenge. He sued George M Bisset for £20,000 in damages. This would have ruined Bisset.

As the pair had been discovered in London, there was no real defence on Bisset's part. He had eloped with another man's wife. However Sir Richard had reckoned without his estranged wife. Rather than allow her lover to be ruined, Seymour decided to run the defence that not only had her husband known about her various relationships, he had approved of them.

Thus a series of men were called who gave discrete evidence about relations with Seymour. All of London, in particular the demi-monde, turned out to hear the case.

However, it was the evidence of the bath lady that stunned the court. She could well remember that sunny day when the Worsleys and Captain Bisset came to use her bath house. She had helped Lady Worsley undress. Suddenly she had heard Sir Richard saying in a loud voice: "Seymour, Seymour, Bisset is looking at you." Furthermore, the bath lady announced the only way Bisset could have achieved this feat was by standing on Sir Richard's shoulders. In short, Sir Richard had been exposed as a voyeur. The cartoonists had a field day and ever afterward, people would think of the cartoons rather his collection of Roman cameos or his position as counsel in Venice.

The jury took every little time in deliberating. Sir Richard won his case but was rewarded one shilling for his trouble rather than the fortune he had demanded. A transcript of the trial can be seen here.

While the case was going on, Lord North's government was busy collapsing and it has been speculated that because Sir Richard was distracted, the government fell and a government that was sympathetic to ending the American Revolution was installed.

Sir Richard, his career and reputation in ruins, took more revenge by refusing to divorce Seymour. They formally separated in 1788 and she was only entitled to pin money, rather than her extensive dowry. Neither did she have any access to her lavish wardrobe or jewels. Seymour and Bisset's love affair ended as they could not marry and she took a series of lovers in order to survive (as well to rub her husband's nose in her notoriety).

Unfortunately Sir Richard also refused to allow her access to either of her children and the little daughter died. Seymour suspected that the death was from neglect. There was further tragedy when their son, in his late teens, died due to an accident with the militia. Because of the Napoleonic War, their son had not been able to have Grand Tour (not considered safe) but had served for a time with the Hampshire Militia.

It was only after Sir Richard's death that Seymour regained control of her fortune. She eventually married a second time--to a much younger man. She was never received in polite society again but was eventually allowed to have some contact with her sister and mother.

If you are interested in the scandal, Hallie Rubenfield wrote a comprehensive account of it in Lady Worsley's Whim.