Much Ado About Nothing?

A Letter from Edward Harbord 3rd Baron Suffield, to his sixteen-year-old son starts ‘With an aching heart and a trembling hand, I take up my pen to reply to your note…’

The eleven-page letter written in 1829 and held at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO, MC 350/1, 711×2) describes the scandalous and dishonourable behaviour surrounding the Harbord Family of Gunton. The letter is addressed to sixteen-year-old Edward Vernon Harbord, later the 4th Baron Suffield (referred to as Edward in this post), from his father, Edward Harbord at that time the current 3rd Baron Suffield (referred to as the Baron Suffield, or Baron for the remainder of this post). It outlines how Edward broke his father’s trust, consequently leading to the threat he would be removed from the family inheritance.

First page of letter (1)
Letter from the 3rd Baron Suffield to his son on 23rd January 1829. NRO, MC 350/1, 711X2.

The 3rd Baron Suffield was a radical British politician, philanthropist, and campaigner for both anti-slavery and prison reform. He was a liberalist and was involved in the creation of a petition for the inquiry of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, causing an immense divide in his family, whilst leading him to become a distinguished public figure of the time.

Edward-Harbord-3rd-Baron-Suffield NPG
Edward Harbord, 3rd Baron Suffield after Abraham Wivell, stipple engraving, published 1823. Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D5191
© National Portrait Gallery, London

In January 1829, whilst residing in Gunton Park and Horstead Hall, the 3rd Baron of Suffield wrote a letter of outrage to his oldest son. The letter goes into depth about Edward’s deception and falsehood in consorting with an ‘artful’ girl from a dishonest family. A family the Baron had already had dealings with. The father of this ‘artful’ girl had destroyed the Baron’s sister’s heart and ruined her health.

‘It was not enough that her father should by his perfidy go near to break my sister’s heart, ruin her health and soured her temper for her remaining years. The daughter of this brute now practices her art upon her nephew my son and again disturbs the domestic peace of our family.’

The Baron had gone to great lengths to warn his two sons duly of this family, describing their members as a hated race. Referring to them as a separate species of humankind he emphasised his point, ‘It comes to be almost fated that a member of their hated race must now be at hand to rob, cheat and injure our family.’
The Baron Suffield continued, ‘I thought our family safe because I have personal experience to guide me and I thought I had confidence and affection of my children.’

After the first encounter with the girl’s family, Baron Suffield had diligently warned his children to avoid them, to prevent his family from being hurt again. In the letter Baron Suffield uses a metaphor referring to his family as a city, which he thought was impregnable but which his son has treacherously allowed this family into, ‘you have treacherously discharged an avenue of approach when I thought the city impregnable’.

The Baron Suffield emphasises the seriousness of Edward’s behaviour, by listing his issues with Edward’s courtship of the girl.

‘You have wilfully and artfully carried out an intercourse which you knew would be painful to me if I was made acquainted with it, 1 because in itself it is ridiculous and unworthy of you, 2 also because the object of your childish fancy is as you well know of all others in the world connected with a most unprincipled and dishonest family.’

Victorian morality placed a great emphasis on strict moral conduct. There was certain etiquette gentry had to follow and the Baron made it clear to his son that he must comply by virtue of his name and the rank he was born into. ‘The success of our united efforts to make you worthy of the names you bear and of the rank and elevation in life.’ This suggests the girl would have been below Edward’s rank.

In the eleven pages of unhappiness the Baron explains his love for his son and the betrayal Edward caused him. ‘The father who caused the hand of your birth till yesterday made you the object of his most care and solicitude.’ The Baron concludes that if Edward did not stop courting this ‘artful’ girl, it would not leave him with many choices but to deprive him of inheriting Horstead Hall and Gunton Park. ‘It is in my power to undo the entailed property a source of little or no profit and certainly prevent you from living at this place’. Later, he goes on to say ‘you have abused my confidence, you have forfeited your claim to it.’

Baron Suffield began to pray for Edward in the hope he would come to his senses. ‘Shame, disappointment, immoral the feelings supposed to be the lot of those consigned by divine vengeance to eternal punishment in another world, are now praying upon your father’s heart.’

It would seem that Edward did, by his father’s standards, ‘come to his senses’.
The Baron died on Edward’s wedding day in a horse-riding accident, requiring the marriage ceremony to be postponed for several months. However, Edward seems to have kept up the honour of his family in his choice of wife; the marriage records state that Edward married Charlotte Susannah Gardner a daughter of a British admiral from a wealthy family. It seems the episode with the ‘artful’ girl had been forgotten and the Baron died knowing Edward had become the man he had wanted him to and left him Horstead Hall after all.

Written and compiled by Rowena Watts, NRO Research blogger.

This entry was posted in NRO Research Bloggers, Snapshots from the Archive and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Much Ado About Nothing?

  1. Charlotte Gardner is a first cousin several times removed. Her father, the 2nd Baron Gardner had had his own woman troubles, divorcing his first wife by Act of Parliament, and a subsequent House of Lords hearing to establish that his first wife’s son was not his legitimate heir. Ironically the son by his second wife, Alan Legge Gardner (Charlotte’s brother), has no legitimate issue of his own, though he did have children by his mistress (an actress) who he married after the death of his first wife (who was of more aristocratic background). The 2nd Lord Gardner’s divorce was covered in Frances de la Tour’s “Who do you think you are?” As it turned out she was descended from the illegitimate son of his first wife.

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