It’s early morning on March 7th, 1826, in the city of Liverpool in northwest England.
A carriage pulls up outside a grand, three-story villa. This place, Breck House, is an elite boarding school - where the wealthiest people send their daughters to prepare them for marriage and motherhood.
An elderly servant climbs out of the carriage, walks to the front stoop of the school, and knocks on the door. After a few moments…
A doorman peers outside. The servant explains that he has a letter for the principal of the school regarding one of her pupils. In a forceful voice, the servant says, “it’s urgent.”
Inside, the doorman shows the servant to an office where the principal, a 40-year-old woman named Elizabeth Daulby, is waiting.
As the servant introduces himself, Miss Daulby notices his foreign accent. She can’t quite place it, but it sounds like it might be French. Though his English is impeccable.
Concerned, Miss Daulby watches as the servant reaches into his waistcoat, pulls out the letter, and hands it to her.
As she reads, her concern deepens. The mother of one of her students has fallen ill; struck with sudden paralysis. In the letter, her doctor requests that the woman’s 15-year-old daughter, Ellen, be sent home with the servant at once.
Miss Daulby doesn’t hesitate. She sends for Ellen, instructing the child to gather her things.
A few minutes later, Ellen hurries out the front door of her school - wearing a traveling cloak and stout boots. As Ellen follows the servant outside, she realizes she doesn’t recognize him or the green carriage he’s come in. The servant explains he’s only recently been employed by the family and that the carriage belongs to her mother’s doctor, who they’ll meet in Manchester on their way to the family estate further south.
The servant opens the door to the carriage. And for a moment, Ellen hesitates. The servant offers her his hand and a comforting smile, reassuring her that “everything will be fine.” So Ellen takes his hand and climbs inside.
Miss Daulby watches from the front stoop of the school as the green carriage disappears into the morning mist. She prays that Ellen will reach her mother before it’s too late. But what Miss Daulby doesn’t realize is that the elderly servant is lying. The letter he showed her is a fake. And she’s just handed Ellen Turner over to a gang of kidnappers.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 7th, The Abduction of Ellen Turner.
Act One: The Wedding
It’s March 8th, 1826, one day after Ellen Turner was kidnapped from her school in Liverpool.
In the far north of England, the elderly servant drives the green carriage along a bumpy, muddy country road. Inside, 15-year-old Ellen Turner shifts in her seat, sore and tired from the hours of traveling. But Ellen isn’t alone in the carriage. She has the company of two men: a slender, handsome fellow and his younger brother.
After leaving the school in Liverpool, the elderly servant drove Ellen to Manchester. But he didn’t take Ellen to see her mother’s doctor as promised. Instead, he took her to meet two men: 30-year-old Edward Wakefield and his younger brother. Not long after, the elderly servant collected his fee and went on his way.
In Manchester, Edward told Ellen that he’s a business associate of her father. He confessed that the story about her mother’s illness was a lie, but he explained that it was a necessary evil meant to protect her family’s reputation. Hearing this, Ellen was confused, but Edward implored her to be patient; all would be made clear after they rendezvous with her father, who was waiting for them in a town further north.
But today, after a long night of travel, Ellen’s patience is running thin. She demands answers. To calm her down, Edward finally gives her more information. He tells her that her father is broke, deeply in debt and that if he doesn’t come up with the money he owes his creditor soon, he could lose the family estate including Ellen’s childhood home.
Ellen is devastated. But Edward assures her that there is a solution. If Ellen were to marry, then the estate could pass to her husband, where it would be protected from the clutches of her father’s creditors. Furthermore, Edward tells her, if Ellen marries a man of honor, then that man would certainly let her father live out his days in the family home.
When Ellen asks where in the world she’s supposed to find such a man of honor, Edward explains that her father’s lawyer already asked him if he would be willing to marry her. With a charming smile, Edward offers that he would be honored to have her hand in marriage.
In spite of the circumstances, Ellen does find Edward charming and grows more enamored with him with every hour that passes. But still, she’s cautious. She insists that before she agrees to anything, she must speak with her father. Undaunted, Edward replies that her father is waiting for them in the next town – Carlisle.
But when they stop at the inn there to change horses, Edward doesn’t let Ellen out of the carriage. She waits alone for fifteen minutes until the young man and his brother return. Without so much as a word, Edward orders his driver to take the carriage north.
Ellen asks, “Where is my father? You said we would see him”. Edward apologizes - he tells her that they did see her father, and his lawyer, but he couldn’t let her see them. Ellen demands to know why. Edward explains that the sheriff's men came looking for her father, and he was forced to hide. He continues that the family lawyer did sneak him a letter though. And then he fishes a piece of paper out of his pocket and passes it across the carriage to Ellen.
Edward watches as Ellen reads the letter. There’s a moment of silence, then the girl asks: “Will marriage really save Papa?” Edward nods “yes”, but he insists that if she does not want to marry him, he’ll turn the carriage around, return her home and find some other way to help. Ellen cuts him off, saying “For Papa’s sake, I consent.”
Edward embraces her, a smile creeping across his face. His plan is working.
Almost none of what Edward told Ellen over the past day is true. He isn’t a family friend. Her father isn’t in financial difficulty, and he isn’t hiding from creditors. Her father is filthy rich. And Ellen is the sole heir to his estate. Which means whoever marries her, will inherit a fortune.
Edward’s plan is to abduct Ellen, seduce her, and then force the family to accept their marriage. But Edward is fully aware that the laws of England prohibit anyone under the age of 21 from getting married without parental consent. But in nearby Scotland, no such restrictions apply. There, Edward doesn’t even need a priest to marry Ellen. He just needs a handful of witnesses.
Not long after leaving Carlisle, Edward holds his bride-to-be tight as the green carriage trundles across a small stone bridge stretching over a river that marks the border between England and Scotland. From there, the carriage makes its way to the small, Scottish village called Gretna Green, a hub for fly-by-night marriages.
Edward is confident his plan will work. After all, he’s done this before. A few years earlier, Edward married another young, wealthy heiress without her family’s permission. Her family was furious but ultimately accepted the marriage to avoid embarrassment. But then, Edward’s young wife died. The money he inherited from her was not nearly enough to achieve his grand ambition to launch a political career. So Edward decided to pull off another con.
And now, Edward smiles at his new naïve bride-to-be as the carriage pulls up to the town hall in Gretna Green. Soon, they are ushered inside where they meet David Lang, a ruddy-faced, local blacksmith who will perform the ceremony, and declare Edward and Ellen man and wife.
Act Two: The Turners
It’s March 11th, 1826, four days after the abduction of Ellen Turner.
In Macclesfield in the northwest of England, Ellen’s father, William Turner, steps down from a London mail coach. The 50-year-old man has been away on business and is looking forward to the comforts of home. But then, through the throng of people at the roadside, he spots a familiar face. It’s his lawyer and friend, Thomas Grimsditch. Grimsditch pushes his way through the crowd toward William, brandishing a newspaper and calling out “Have you seen this?”
William takes the paper from his friend, who stabs his finger at a wedding announcement halfway down the page:
“On the 8th, Edward Gibbon Wakefield Esquire to Ellen, only daughter of William Turner Esquire of Shrigley Park, in the county of Chester”.
William goes pale. It’s only been three weeks since he dropped his daughter off at school in Liverpool. It doesn't seem possible that she's married to a man he’s never heard of. William suspects foul play. He asks his friend to accompany him home, to help him work out what this all means.
Shrigley Park is just a short ride from Macclesfield. The Turners have owned the estate for almost a decade. They’ve spent those years renovating its rundown buildings and bringing new life to its parks and gardens. William Turner made his vast fortune in the textiles business and this rebuilt house is testament to his status as a self-made country gentleman.
But when William reaches the stately Shrigley Park, he breaks devastating news to his wife. Then at his lawyer’s urging, he sends a letter to his daughter’s school. Soon, the embarrassed and ashamed principal, Miss Daulby, confirms William’s worst fears.
Now, William is faced with a difficult dilemma. He’s about to become the county’s High Sheriff, a ceremonial position of great honor. A scandal over the marriage of his daughter could ruin his reputation. He has a decision to make. He can accept the marriage to avoid embarrassment, or he can fight back.
It’s a few days later in Calais, a city on the north coast of France.
A group of dock workers and passengers gather by the quayside. Among the crowd is Edward Wakefield and Ellen Turner.
After their marriage at Gretna Green, Edward, and Ellen traveled here to Calais. Edward has assured Ellen that her father will arrive by boat any moment. The girl peers through the cold mist on the water. She prays her father makes it safely so she can tell him how she married Edward to save the family from ruin.
Edward still hasn’t told her the truth. Nor has he told her that a few days ago, he sent a letter to her family. To get his hands on the Turner fortune, Edward needs to make the marriage official in England. And in order to accomplish that goal, he needs to secure the acceptance of the girl’s father. So, in the letter Edward wrote, he asks William forgiveness for his deception. He assured the Turners of his honorable attention, and of his deep affection for Ellen. But despite Edward’s silken works, his true hope is that Ellen’s father will be too embarrassed to put up a fight.
When the boat finally approaches the pier in Calais, it carries neither Ellen’s father nor a reply to Edward’s letter. Instead, on board is the family lawyer, Thomas Grimsditch, Ellen’s uncles, and a police officer from London. They’ve come to bring Ellen home.
But Edward doesn’t run away. He hides Ellen in his hotel and goes to meet with Grimsditch and the rest of the Turner party alone.
At the meeting, Edward speaks with a flowery tongue of his abiding love for Ellen and his heartfelt desire to make her happy. Grimsditch isn’t buying it. And neither is the police officer. Grimsditch makes it clear that Ellen is coming home with them that day. The police officer produces a warrant and threatens to place Edward under arrest.
Edward realizes he has no choice but to let Ellen go… for the time being. But Edward refuses to go back to Britain with them. He argues that the warrant has no legal standing in France, and, as such, they cannot arrest him or force him back to England. Grimsditch, satisfied with getting the girl back, begrudgingly lets Edward walk away.
But first, Grimsditch must tell Ellen the truth. When she learns that her marriage is a sham and that her husband is a conman, she breaks down in tears and falls into the arms of her uncles. She spits out her last words to Edward in anger: “I am not your wife. I will never go near you again!”
And with that, Ellen will return to her mother and father at Shrigley Hall. Edward will remain in France, safe from arrest and prosecution. But before long, Edward will have to make a choice: accept a life of exile, or travel back to England and try one more time to seize the Turner family fortune. For the ever-confident Edward, it’s an easy choice. But his decision to return to England will backfire and deliver him into the hands of the law.
Act Three: Trial
It’s May 23rd, 1827. More than a year has passed since the abduction of Ellen Turner and, in a courtroom in Lancaster, the trial of her kidnappers is underway.
Edward Wakefield and his brother listen from the dock as their lawyer pleads their case. He tells the court that Ellen was never threatened or mistreated. She entered in the marriage willingly. Therefore, the lawyer argues, there are no legal grounds to prosecute Edward or his brother.
Across the packed courtroom, sitting with her father is Ellen Turner. The young teenage girl doesn’t even look at Edward - if there was ever any warmth between them it’s long gone now.
After Ellen returned home with her family, Edward spent a few months in France before returning to England himself to persuade the Turners to accept the marriage and avoid the public embarrassment of a lengthy legal proceeding. But Ellen’s father William refused. And soon, Edward was arrested and charged with abduction.
The trial lasts just a day. After 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury returns with a verdict. Both Wakefield brothers are found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison.
But despite the jury’s verdict, the marriage between Edward and Ellen remains valid. There is no easy path to divorce in England at this time. A marriage can only be annulled by a special act of parliament, an obstacle that staves off all but the richest and most determined. But William Turner is both of these things. Immediately after the trial, he wields his influence and within a matter of weeks, parliament officially dissolves the marriage.
After his release from prison, the ever-ambitious Edward Wakefield will travel overseas. Working in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, he will become an influential and respected figure in the expanding British Empire.
Ellen Turner will not live to see her con artist ex-husband go on to great success. Just two years after the abduction, she will be married again – this time to a man approved of by her father.
But not long after her second marriage, Ellen Turner will die in childbirth at the age of 19. The tale of the Shrigley Abduction, as it will come to be known, is a reminder that like many Georgian women, Ellen was brought up to be a dutiful wife and mother. She had little say over her life and little control over her destiny. And her death at such a tender young age was a sorrowful ending to a story that was set in motion when Ellen was kidnapped on March 7th, 1826.
Next on History Daily.March 8th, 1917. Demonstrations in St. Petersburg mark the beginning of the February Revolution; the first stage of the Russian Revolution.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.