It's hard now to imagine the scandal caused more than two hundred years ago when Clara Middelton, wife of William Middelton, the squire of the manor of Ilkley, was thrown out of her home following her affair with a household servant. In the first of a series of articles adapted from his forthcoming book 'The Lords of Ilkley Manor - The Road to Ruin', David Carpenter tells the story.
William Middelton and Clara Grace had been married in London on February 11, 1782 and made their home at Stockeld Park, the family's mansion near Wetherby. For many years it seems they lived together happily and by 1792 they had six children, three others having died earlier. The few letters which survive show us a contented family. Clara was wrapped up in matchmaking and gossiping about the romances of the wider family and friends whilst William looked forward eagerly to the start of the shooting season. He would often come over to Ilkley to stay at Myddelton Lodge to shoot game during the season and also enjoyed following the hounds.
But the happiness of the privileged couple was soon to be overturned. In 1791 a new face appeared amongst the servants at Stockeld when John Rose was appointed groom to the family. By all accounts he was a handsome fellow, but what first awoke Clara's uncontrollable passion for him we have no way of knowing. Soon the other servants were gossiping about the intimacy which had developed between the lady of the house and the groom. They had noticed how often she was visiting the stables, and saw the pair out riding together 'as near as two horses could go together, side by side'. They would meet together in the shrubbery after dark, and Clara had been known to return with her gown 'remarkably dirty, and her sash' as if she had been 'pulled about by a man'.
At the end of 1792 one of the servants left a note for Middelton's brother Marmaduke who was visiting the house, telling him that Clara had 'taken an unfortunate affection for the groom'. Most of the servants took a dim view of the business. Quite apart from any moral judgements they may have made they knew that the affair might lead to the breaking up of the household and hence the loss of their jobs. But though Marmaduke had been convinced that the groom must be dismissed, Clara managed to persuade her husband of her innocence. She convinced him that it would not only be unfair to sack Rose, but that this would also confirm to the world that the rumours circulating widely were true. So for the time being Rose kept his job.
But over the ensuing months Middelton saw or heard enough to realise that he had been mistaken to keep Rose on the premises and determined that he would have to go, though it seems he still believed in his wife's innocence. On the evening of 2 April 1793 Middelton returned from a short visit to his brother's house in London to discuss the situation and two days later heard from one of the servants that Rose had been seen entering his wife's bedroom one night during his absence. Faced with such an accusation Middelton called his lawyers from York and together they interviewed the servants one by one. This time even Middelton was convinced. Through his attorney William Carr he ordered Clara to leave the house and so on the morning of 6 April 1793 she left Stockeld in the family coach, never to return.
Almost immediately Middelton began proceedings to be legally separated from his wife. Clara continued her denials that she had been having an affair with the groom and some of the allegations the servants were making about her conduct were shown to be false. This led to some doubt about the outcome of the separation proceedings. To add to the confusion and torment Clara gave birth to a daughter almost exactly nine months after being thrown out. But whilst the denials were being made in court, Clara continued to meet the groom in secret. The immense risk she was taking in doing this demonstrates the intensity of her passion for Rose. Soon Middelton had found out about the renewed liaison and produced enough evidence in court to win his case.
Middelton was devastated by the whole business. He couldn't bear to live at the family home of Stockeld Park any longer and made his home at Myddelton Lodge in Ilkley. From that time onwards the Lodge was the main residence of the family and for much of the time Stockeld stood empty or was let out.
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