The Clandestine Marriage of 1774

The Norfolk Record Office (NRO) holds a large series of correspondence of Elizabeth Leathes, formerly Elizabeth Reading, later Elizabeth Peach, but known to her friends and family as Betsy. Part of the Bolingbroke Collection, these letters give us a glimpse into what life was like for this sociable lady who enjoyed moving in gentry circles, attending card parties and balls, and having a wide range of life-long correspondents.

This blog is concentrating on Betsy’s marriage to Edward Leathes, which took place without the knowledge of either of their parents in Holborn, London, in 1774 by licence. However, some background first. Betsy was an only child, daughter of Elizabeth and Revd James Reading of Woodstock, Oxfordshire and was born in 1748. James was a teacher at Woodstock Grammar School and the rector of nearby Stonesfield. Betsy was well educated, had a large circle of friends, played the harpsichord and corresponded with her friends regularly. In Celia Miller’s 2016 biography of Betsy, she says ‘By the time she reached her 20th birthday she had acquired all the social skills needed to function effectively in polite society, and knew how to present herself to the best advantage.’

Edward Leathes was the youngest son of Loveday and Carteret Mussenden (later Leathes) born 1747. Carteret was a wealthy landowner with property in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. He inherited the name of Leathes and the estate of his maternal uncle, which transformed him into a very wealthy man.

Betsy and Edward met in 1771 thanks to Betsy’s family connections. William and Catherine Nelson, Betsy’s uncle and aunt, had recently been giving the living at Strumpshaw in Norfolk and invited the Reading family to visit them. Only Betsy took up their offer, and met them in Bury St Edmunds at the house of their patron, Carteret Leathes. Edward was present, and spent time with Betsy at Bury St Edmunds, and then travelled with the family to Strumpshaw where he continued his studies for ordination as a priest under William’s tuition.

The path of true love didn’t run smoothly for Betsy and Edward, who had spent a lot of time together in the summer of 1771. Betsy wrote to tell her parents that she had found a potential suitor, but initially didn’t disclose who. The couple were engaged but this had to remain a secret. However, Betsy’s mother guessed it was Edward, and she had to reassure her mother that Edward wouldn’t need to wait long to receive a suitable living once he had been ordained, because his father Carteret had reserved two livings for his son, Reedham and Freethorpe, both being held temporarily by uncle William Nelson. Carteret was keen that Edward did not marry until he was able to support his wife, meaning that he first needed to be ordained and then at his church livings. This enforced the need for the engagement to be kept a secret until the time was right.

Unfortunately, for various reasons, Edward’s ordination took a lot longer than expected, and 1772 came and went. During 1773, both Betsy’s and Edward’s fathers expressed concerns and Carteret wrote to James advising him to ‘decline all closer connection with my son’ (link to Celia Miller). At the end of 1773, Edward was ordained a deacon and hoped to be ordained a priest within 12 months and take up his livings, which was one of Carteret’s conditions of marriage for his son. However, as 1774 progressed, the ordination was not forthcoming and as the pair ran out of patience, they began to plan their elopement. In his letter to Betsy on 3 September 1774, Edward said:

My Dearest Betsy

I most sincerely ask your pardon for my

long silence, but we have not been at home for near this

three weeks…

…this I hope will

arrive time enough to inform you that I will most

certainly meet you on Wednesday [should read Thursday] the 15th instant at Henly

at the house where the Oxford Coach stops or at Benson

if you can give me timely notice what house you will

be at. I will take care to have every other necessary quite

ready against Thursday morning…

…I hope I shall receive

your letter on Tuesday next however am determined to

meet you at all events so forgodsake do not disappoint

me. I would have you fix the plans for your reception in London

write to whatever friends you please I shall say nothing of

it to any person in this Quarter. Adieu my dear love

and believe me to remain with the greatest

anxiety for the completion of our happiness

your most truly sincere and constant lover

Edward Leathes

PS let me know whether

you will be at Henly or

Benson and what time

3 September 1774, letter from Edward Leathes to Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Reading. NRO, BOL 2/6/14

Edward’s reference to the ‘completion of our happiness’ presumably refers to the marriage itself, and he was keen to sort out the details of where they will meet.

This opportunity for marriage occurred while Betsy was visiting family friends near London. Edward arrived on the evening on 14 September with a marriage licence and left with Betsy to be married the next day. Friends were to conduct the service and give the bride away.

Marriage bond/allegation for Edward Leathes and Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Reading. 15 September 1774.
London Metropolitan Archives, City of London.

Once the couple were married, they wrote letters to Betsy’s parents to tell them of the news, both copied below. Edward Leathes to Betsy’s father James:

September 15th 1774

The Revd Mr Reading



Honoured and Revd Sir

When I consider the uneasiness that this

letter may occasion both to you & to Mrs Reading it gives

me no small concern, on the other hand when I reflect

upon the distant prospect there was of my being made

happy in the possession of your daughter, and also knowing how

much her health and happiness as well as my own depended

upon our union, I flatter myself that you will rather

pity than condemn our proceedings, we were this day

married at St Andrews Holborn, as she is now my wife you

may depend upon it, that I shall always do every thing in

my power to make her completely happy and to render

myself worthy of being called your dutiful son

Edward Leathes

Queens Head Holborn

September 15th 1774

PS we intend to set out for Norfolk some time tomorrow

where, if you will be so obliging as to write to us, we shall

esteem it as an addition to our happiness.

15 September 1774, letter from Edward Leathes to Revd James Reading. NRO, BOL 2/6/16

Betsy writes to her mother, also on the day on the wedding:

September 15th 1774

To Mrs Reading

My dear Mama,

I hope you and my Papa will not make

yourselves uneasy at our proceedings. We are obliged

to be at Strumpshaw by Sunday that Mr Leathes

may not neglect his churches, but hope soon

to have an opportunity of paying our respects

to you at Woodstock…

…We do assure you that Mr & Mrs Holloway

know nothing of the affair till the moment

we sat out. I hope you will excuse a long

letter now. I will write immediately from Strumpshaw

where we hope to hear from you. Adieu

my Dear Papa & Mama, I remain as much as

ever your dutiful & affectionate daughter

Eliz[abeth] Leathes

Pray make yourselves quite easy for I do hope

everything will soon be settled to the satisfaction of all parties

15 September 1774, letter from Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Leathes to her mother Elizabeth Reading. NRO, BOL 2/6/16

The fact that both Edward and Betsy write to her parents using the words ‘uneasy’ and ‘uneasiness’ is a strong indication of how they believed they would feel about the union. It had been obvious from previous correspondence that Mr and Mrs Reading were keen to know that Edward’s father was aware and approving of the match, which as we know, was not the case due to various factors.

The final letter included in this blog is from Betsy’s mother, who leaves it over a week before replying to her daughter’s letter. On 23 September 1774, Elizabeth writes to express her opinion on the secret nuptuals and also discusses domestic matters including sending clothes and furniture to Betsy. Elizabeth does not hold back in the first few lines:

Mrs Leathes at The Revd Mr Nelson

Strumpshaw near Norwich

Woodstock September 23 1774

My Dear Child,

I was very sorry and much concerned

to hear of the step you had taken. I think it might have

been conducted with more propriety and your own happiness

and your friends satisfaction if you had waited till

Mr Leathes had been in Priest orders, but now I fear it

will displease both your friends. I shall be very anxious

to know what Mr Leathes Father says to your proceedings.

I deferred writing till I had the pleasure of hearing from you

out of Norfolk, which I have this night, Thursday September 22

to my great joy, to hear that you arrived in health and

safety, after so much fatigue, and that you were so kindly

received by Mr & Mrs Nelson, to whom I am extremely obliged

for their civilities and goodness ro you and also

to Mr Leathes for his kind and affectionate letter, and your own which

gives me great satisfaction. I heartily wish you both the

enjoyment of many happy years in the state you are

just entered as do all your acquaintance here, who came

to congratulate me on the occasion. The bells rung on

Sunday. You Father received a very kind letter of congratulation from Mrs

Redwood. Mrs Humfryes and Ms desire their kind love and

wish you very happy. She wrote to Mrs Loveden on Saturday

to tell her. Mr H informed us with your proceedings by sending

a special messenger on Wednesday night which frightened me

so much I could not tell how to contain myself. I expected

you had been dead or some very bad accident had happened

to you, I wish you had not taken the opportunity when you

was with Mrs H as I think it was using her ill. I have not

seen her, I was low and could not go. Your father did, I was very glad

to hear you had wrote to her. Pray take care of yourself

and be happy and easy as I am now I hear you have met

with such a kind reception, and know where you are to

live till Mr Leathes is possest of his living.

I am very glad to hear Mr L[eathes] has wrote to his father

if he is not displeased I shall be easy and your father too I hope

don’t you think it would be better to defer sending

the drawers till the weather is better and to send

your portmanteau. I don’t know whether you have packed up

any thing in it, ready to be sent, and if you have

not whether I have the key or not, to put any thing

in. I will get your some more shifts would you have

any of these you have left sent. I am very sorry your

things were detained as it must distress you so and

make you in fear of their being lost, some of Garfields

people, had locked them up in their wear house at

Oxford he says they are sent from the Black Bull

in Bishopgate Street to Norwich, your father gave him a direction

but he says a Gentleman gave one to Jones’s Post Coach

who took your trunk to London from Benson. I hope you will receive it

safe this week. I won’t send your drawers nor Portmanteau

till I have the pleasure of hearing from you again.

Your father joins me in the kindest remembrance to Mr Leathes

Mr & Mrs Nelson, little Billy and your dear self.

Your ever affectionate Mother

E Reading

PS Charles has offered his service,

to live with you when you want

23 September 1774, Elizabeth Reading to daughter Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Leathes. NRO, BOL 2/6/18.

I felt it important to include the whole of Elizabeth’s letter to her daughter, because while she starts off expressing strong opinions about the timing of their marriage, she does also talk about friends and family members who have sent their good wishes upon hearing of the news.

Elizabeth and Edward had four children together before Edward died in 1788. Elizabeth remarried to Edward Peach in 1790, a man to whom she had been hoping to marry before she had even met Edward Leathes. However that story, and those letters, will have to be told another time.

For more information on the life of Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Reading, then Leathes, then Peach, see ‘The Amiable Mrs Peach’ by Celia Miller, or visit the NRO and read the letters of Betsy and her friends and family for yourself.

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

2 Responses to The Clandestine Marriage of 1774

  1. Rita Gallard says:

    I researched the Leathes correspondence for my dissertations for the Graduate Diploma and M.A. at UEA in 2005/6, the latter examining domestic medicine at this period and how she coped with four children, a frequently sickly husband, and the doctor eight miles away. It was like having your own unpublished Jane Austen novel. There is an entry in the Strumpshaw parish register for their marriage there by her uncle. Both her own daughters ran away to Scotland to be married without apparently having been aware of their parents’ elopement.
    As for the “various reasons” why Edward Leathes’ ordination took so long, a glance at his expenses at Cambridge make it pretty obvious – two foolscap pages and only one debt to a bookseller!


    • victoriadraper24 says:

      Hi Rita,

      Thanks so much for the information about her daughters- it looks like we might be doing some more research into the family in the near future!

      It definitely is like having an unpublished Jane Austen novel! Such an interesting story.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s