Preston Manor Hidden Stories: a real life Lady Chatterley?



Photograph of Ellen Benett-Stanford, c1868 (PMPHO000029)
Ellen Benett-Stanford, c1868 (PMPHO000029)

I chose this rather curious title for a new-season event at Preston Manor because the real-life story we tell is such an astonishing one I wanted something suitably eye-catching.

There are also intriguing parallels between fiction and fact in my account here, which is the background to the content of the event.

Firstly fiction: the eponymous Lady in DH Lawrence’s 1928 novel was infamously portrayed as having a passionate affair with her husband’s gamekeeper. So shocking was the book’s content that the unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned and became the subject of a trial in 1960 under the Obscene Publications Act. Objections were raised about the sexually explicit language used; words never before printed in a paperback book and which pass between the two protagonists, an aristocratic woman and a working class man, who are lovers.

The British class system is a key theme of Lawrence’s novel. 1960 was the start of ‘the modern age’, sometimes spoken of being heralded in by the Lady Chatterley trial. The ‘Swinging Sixties’ saw a further breaking down of old structures: love between the classes ceased to be impossible or taboo, or at least theoretically.

But what of people living in Victorian times?

Here we come to possible fact.

The question has long hung over Preston Manor: did Ellen Benett-Stanford, lady of the house, form a secret liaison with her butler and give birth to an illegitimate child in 1891?

Until recent times this proposition was considered so unmentionable it could not be discussed openly and certainly not told to members of the general public.

Times have moved on and Lady Ellen, as she became in 1929, has now slipped into near-obscurity. In her heyday around the period of World War One, Ellen was a highly-regarded local dignitary, and the wife of Brighton’s Mayor and Conservative MP (by this time she was Ellen Thomas-Stanford, having married again after being widowed in 1894).

Photograph of Ellen and Charles Thomas-Stanford, 1910s
Ellen and Charles Thomas-Stanford, 1910s

Being an elevated personage in society Ellen’s morality could not be questioned, and would not be questioned by a living soul. These were the days when the intimate activities of the upper classes or people in the public eye remained very much behind closed doors.

Lady Ellen is now over 80 years dead,  and there are no direct surviving descendants. But (and here’s the astonishing bit) in 1975 a woman from Canada walked into Preston Manor announcing herself to be Ellen’s grand-daughter, her father being the child born as a result of a liaison between Ellen and her butler. Even more astonishingly, I have been in recent written communication with our Canadian visitor who is still alive and well and eager for her story to be told.

Our visitor’s story is in the public domain, most recently told by Patricia Cleveland-Peck in a Sussex Life Magazine article (December 2012) but I will refer to her only as Esther in this account.

Esther was researching her family history and found that her father, Ernest Parry had a mysterious past. He’d been British-born in 1891 but records proved inconclusive as to his parentage. Further investigation led to the linking of Ellen Benett-Stanford and John Parry (Ernest’s father) butler in Ellen’s employ.

My fascination with this story is how the lives of two very different couples converged in the 1890s. On one level Ellen Bennet-Stanford and her first husband Vere; people of great wealth and social standing and John Parry and his wife Jane, domestic servants from the lowest social and economic rank.

The system of domestic servitude placed these couples under the same roof: butler and house-maid and master and mistress. One household in the Victorian age was not the one-family of today but a crowd of persons, some related and living in the grand room,s and some not related but equally resident housed unseen in attics and annexes, their purpose to labour and serve.

There are a great number of books on the subject of domestic service but very few, if any, cover the issue of genuine attraction between these two disparate groups of persons. We consider the subject in this Preston Manor event. Did gentlemen fall in love with housemaids or governesses? Would a lady of the house form a romantic liaison with her butler, Lady Chatterley style?

What also interests me, and this forms part of the event too, is what choices were available to you in the Victorian and Edwardian age when relationships went wrong? In the Victorian context, relationships meant marriage.

If Ellen did indeed form an attachment to her butler, John Parry, we can conclude perhaps that relations with her husband were unsatisfactory; Vere Benett-Stanford was mortally ill at the time, whereas his butler was young, fit and healthy.

We know as fact that John and Jane Parry’s relationship ended because they were divorced in 1895, a case so rare and sensational it was reported in The Times newspaper.

Divorce was a new option for Victorian couples, made possible by the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, though deemed an utterly scandalous and near-immoral option; a situation that remained well into the 20th century when ‘no fault’ divorces were introduced.

In Victorian times a marriage could not be dissolved through mere incompatibility. If you married someone to whom you found you were not suited then you had to put up with the situation for life. A couple could not collude to be divorced. One must divorce the other and one must be the guilty party – a boon for the gossip columns!

Reports from the new divorce courts filled the newspapers. A man could divorce his wife for adultery alone but a wife could only divorce her husband for the same if mitigating factors were also present: desertion, cruelty, incest, rape, sodomy or bestiality needing to be proved. All this occurred in an age when there was no state-funded legal aid and costs could amount to many hundreds of pounds. John Parry’s wages as butler were £60 a year. The new Victorian laws permitting divorce might have been technically available for all but the costs involved would have been prohibitive.

Less costly ways of escaping a marriage-gone-wrong were surprisingly varied. I counted ten options for escaping a Victorian marriage including poisoning your spouse (not uncommon when poisons were readily available from the chemist’s shop) and rural wife sales, as occurs in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Desperate measures perhaps but people in misery and desperation were sometimes led to such ends.

For me you don’t have to be especially interested in Ellen Thomas-Stanford’s life to enjoy this story. Whether Ellen bore an illegitimate child or not perhaps hardly matters today, although the case still divides opinion.

The real fascination in this case is peeping into the dark-side of Victorian morality and the debate that raged around the dissolution of marriage. Fascinating too is the opportunity to look at late Victorian life through the histories of two very different couples whose lives converged via the system of domestic service.

Esther has very kindly allowed access to her invaluable family papers and photographs. Since 1975 decades of research has been conducted by Preston Manor historians and by Esther herself, research that continues to the present day.

The event makes public many of the pertinent documents and they are a fascinating read, especially for people interested in genealogy and television family-history programmes such as Who do you think you are?

During the event we present the case ‘for’ and ‘against’ Ellen’s supposed liaison in 1891 leaving participants to decide for themselves based on the evidence. This is not as disingenuous as it sounds for there is no definite answer. Esther’s claim to kinship can only be proven by a DNA test, which she is happy to submit to. Sadly we do not have any of Ellen Thomas-Stanford’s DNA available (she was cremated in 1932) and, as we have heard, Ellen has no living descendants – except possibly through Esther’s family line.

To date we have run our Lady Chatterley event at Preston Manor to three audiences, all of whom I am happy to report have been as enthralled by the tale as we are in the house. More than once I have heard said “this story would make a fantastic book or film” and indeed it is a really thrilling mystery when you get to delve into the evidence. I often wish we could have a Hercule Poirot character walk in and regale us with the answer: did she or didn’t she?

The event runs in the form of a round-the-table talk and discussion during which time we examine documents relevant to the case. Perhaps understandably it is the photographs that have proven to be the most popular. Of these photographs the image of the butler in question has been the most-discussed especially by ladies present. Did this young man from the poorest of backgrounds win the heart of a woman of wealth?

We know the answer….or do we?

Hidden Histories: A real life Lady Chatterley? will be running at Preston Manor on Saturdays 8 June, 13 July, and 31 August.

Paula Wrightson, Creative Programme Officer, Preston Manor, May 2013

5 Responses

  1. SilverTiger

    “Did gentlemen fall in love with housemaids or governesses? Would a lady of the house form a romantic liaison with her butler, Lady Chatterley style?”

    The answer, most assuredly, is yes. Fashions in dress and social morality may vary continually but human nature changes very little. A difference between the Victorian age and our own lies in the ability of Victorians to partition life into public and hidden departments whereas we are only too ready to “let it all hang out” and expose the seamier side of life. The hidden side was nevertheless there, albeit often invisible to historical investigation.

    I hope we can visit your “event” which, I see, is on Saturdays. How ironic, given that we came down on Saturday to see the Manor, only to find it closed. What genius thought of closing it on a Saturday, of all days of the week!?

    Anyway, getting back to John Parry and Ellen Bennet-Stanford, I suspect that the case fascinates us precisely because it cannot be decided for certain. We cannot help looking for the missing clue that will solve the conundrum.

  2. SilverTiger

    Given my criticism of the Saturday closure of Preston Manor (which I still regard as a bad idea), I thought I would report that we finally managed to visit this fascinating house, having set aside a weekday for the purpose.

    Preston Manor is one of those relatively rare examples of an historic house in which the decor and furniture, the ornaments and even personal objects, have been preserved along with the building itself and this makes a visit all the more rewarding as we progress from room to room imagining the daily lives that were played out here. We also gain some impression of how the house changed through time – for example, as electricity, the telephone and (not least!) bathrooms were added. It must also have been one of the last great houses to maintain domestic servants under the rule of butler and housekeeper.

    I wish to make the special point that the two curators on duty during our visit were very welcoming, informative and generally friendly and helpful. Their interaction with us added greatly to our enjoyment of the house.

  3. Rashid


    Iam doing some research and I have been looking for Captain J.M. Bennet Stanford and his wife’s photographs from a hunting trip of 1899 in somaliland along V.C.Peel .

    Is there a collection donated somwhere of Mr and Mrs Bennet-Standfords’ African photograps.

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