August 1838 saw an extraordinary riot in Rochester by a mob comprised of an estimated thousand respectable persons, principally women, intent on executing summary vengeance on the bigamist John Alexander Willmett (jnr), the son of a local solicitor of the same name.

This is a true story – the stuff of Dickens – or for writers seeking a plot for a novel concerning the ‘exploitation of an innocent maiden by a villain who gets his comeuppance’.

But this is real-life and although the villain got his comeuppance it would not have reversed the damage suffered by his victim who was had her happiness destroyed, and perhaps her life ruined.

The dastardly deeds that led to the riot.

The classic set-up for a ‘seduction & con’.

What brought John Alexander Willmett (22) back to Rochester around December 1837 is a matter of conjecture. Differing accounts were, not unsurprisingly, offered during subsequent court hearings. The facts of his ‘return’ though are not significantly different – only the possible motives.

After an absence of two years Willmett called upon Miss Gallons, an old acquaintance, who lived at Star Hill / Star-lane Rochester. [Some papers used Star-lane, others Star Hill. Looking at old maps they could well be the same ‘street’]. Willmett told her that he had been a Captain in the 17th Lancers[1] and had been involved with the Spanish Service.[2] This was not honest as other reports stated that he and his father, of the same name, had taken ‘French Leave’ from Rochester – ‘French Leave’ being a euphemism for leaving a place without informing others. It is possible, based on other reports, that Willmett and his father, who had been an attorney in Rochester, were needing to avoid creditors. Willmott had also not serviced in the army.

Willmett explained to Miss Gallons that he was planning to spend a while in Rochester and requested her assistance in finding lodgings. Settled at St. Margaret’s Banks he commenced upon gaining the affections of Eliza Crispe (24) who he had known since before 1833, and who happened to live at Ms. Gallons; she also happened to be in receipt of an income of around £750 / annum from interests in a brewing company that her father had set up.[3] This was not, as Willmett was later to suggest, a serendipitous meeting as Eliza claimed when he called upon her he told her that he had always loved her and wished now to offer her marriage. He told her that he had inherited a vineyard in France from an aunt, and now wanted to lay all his property and wealth at her feet.[4]

Eliza who was described as “a highly respectable and interesting looking girl”[5] accepted the proposal and within a matter of weeks of his return to Rochester Willmett’s marriage to Eliza was arranged.  However, as the relationship progressed towards marriage Eliza appears to have become coy about the possibility. Willmett therefore took her to meet a Mr. Monk who he described as his agent. Probably acting in collusion with Willmett, Monk reassured Eliza of Willmett’s circumstances and urged her “very much” to marry Willmett[6] – and so they were married on 13 January, 1838, at St. Margaret’s parish church.

Willmett lived with the “confiding and affectionate girl”[7] for about one week in a property in London, before he returned to the embraces of Hannah Hodgson. “Ruined and with a loathsome disease” Eliza returned to Rochester to discover or in the knowledge, that Willmett may be a bigamist.[8] Intent on bringing Willmett to justice, Eliza’s mother and ‘stepfather’ retained Mr. Edward Birch, a solicitor from Rochester, to “spare no expense in procuring evidence” to prosecute Willmett.[9]

From various reports it is clear that Willmett had a cavalier attitude to women and marriage. Not all his ‘marriages’ involved getting married but he lived with a number of women as ‘husband & wife’.

Willmett’s first ‘marriage’ may have been with an Ellen ?Orlape?. How that marriage was concluded, if it ever was actually a marriage, is unknown. Willmett then lived as a ‘married couple’ with Rachael Lamb (24?) from around 1835.  They took lodgings in London and had a child together. The couple though appeared to have financial troubles – or perhaps more accurately Willmett had financial problems as he had a period confined in the Queen’s Bench Prison for debtors.

It was whilst incarcerated in a debtor’s prison that Willmett met Hannah Hodgson who he subsequently married on 6 April 1837. Hodgson although a debtor was clearly a lady who had experienced better times as details of her marriage to Willmett were later confirmed in court by her servant who was in the debtor’s prison with her.

In all probability Willmett was aware of Eliza’s situation in terms of her income and, having known her from some years back, he would have also known something of her ‘interesting appearance’. It is perhaps not difficult to infer from this description that Eliza may not have been ‘conventionally attractive’ and thereby susceptible to the attentions of a charming young ‘army captain’. Could it therefore be possible that Willmett and his wife conspired to seduce Eliza into a marriage that would give the ‘Willmetts’ access to her ‘wealth’? This was the view proffered later in this sad story.

The arrest and trial for bigamy.

With the evidence probably gained through the endeavours of Mr. Birch – that took him to Yorkshire and beyond – a warrant was issued for Willmett’s arrest.

Mr. Cork the local superintendent of police was given the task of apprehending Willmett. Acting on information given by an unnamed Rochester man Cork passed the warrant to a Bow-street constable who was able to make the arrest.

Willmett was brought before Bow-street magistrates on 12 April 1838 on the charge of bigamy. Despite Willmett’s plea for the case to be heard at Bow-street, where he felt he would get a fairer hearing, it was decided that the case would be best heard in Rochester where the witnesses resided. Superintendent Cork who was sent to bring Willmett to Rochester, reported that Willmett spoke freely of events whilst they travelled back on a steamer. Mr. Cork reported that he told the prisoner that “Mrs.Willmett [Hannah Hodgson] behaves very kind to you in your unfortunate situation.” In reply Willmett answered, “Yes, she is a very kind creature indeed”.

When asked what had induced him to marry Miss Crispe, Willmett said that when he married Mrs. Willmett he did not suppose that she had another husband living. On learning that was not the case they had a tiff and out of revenge he came to Rochester and married Miss Crispe. Pending his hearing before Rochester’s magistrates Willmett was held in the station house [police station]. During this time he received visits from Hannah and whenever they met they always flew into each other’s arms and embraced.[10]

On Saturday 21 April 1838, Willmett who styled himself as a captain, late of the 17th Lancers, and of the Queen of Spain’s service, was finally brought before the magistrates at the Guildhall to be examined on several charges of bigamy.[11] The court was crowded with about 300 people in attendance. Willmett’s first wife, Hannah also attended along with a female friend – both were elegantly dressed[12] – their style clearly marked them out as belonging “to the gang of the swell mob”.[13]

On coming to the Bar, Willmett bowed to the Court and the ladies present. He was, as usual, dressed very dashingly in the first style of fashion. On his left hand he wore a lavender kid glove which was ornamented outside with a superb gold ring. During the hearing, that he treated with great levity, he often produced a smelling bottle which he occasionally smelt.[14]

Willmett’s representative, Mr Wooler, tried to get the case dismissed but it proceeded. Mr. Birch then called Sarah Short, Anne Knight, Rachael Lamb alias Mrs Willmett the third wife, Mary Garrott, milliner, and Jesse Nicholson to give evidence against Willmett – but none of the infatuated ladies would do so.[15] (Indeed some news reports describe three of these women as being a wife of Willmett. However although the women were not prepared to give evidence two registrars were able to provide documentary proof that Willmett was married to both Anna Hodgson and Eliza Crispe.

On the strength of this evidence the magistrates ruled that Willmett should be sent for trial. He was held in the station house until 25 April to allow time for the bail to be organised – two sureties of £100 and £200 from Willmett himself. When the bail was not forthcoming Willmett was transferred to Maidstone goal for trial in a chaise; it was though not long before he was freed as the bail was paid.[16]

Willmett eventually appeared before the Maidstone Assizes on 6 August 1838 – having been released from the Fleet prison on 2 August 1838. Willmett, who was described as a “young man of effeminate appearance”, successfully argued that his marriage to Eliza Crispe was not bigamous as his marriage to Hannah Hodgson was not valid as he was at the time, unaware that William Hodgson who had married Hannah Vollans in Yorkshire in Christmas Day 1828, was still alive. On being acquitted Willmett left the court in a ‘coach & four’ in the company of Hannah and a girl named Sophia Short – who may have been Sophia Hart, the adopted daughter of Hannah Hodgson.[17]

To many, and some members of the press and particularly the Weekly Dispatch, the Court’s verdict was regarded as ‘unjust’ as it was believed that Willmett had managed to falsify evidence.

The gallant captain was admitted to bail in £400, and the only inference is, that by the law of England, any man may marry as many wives as he pleases, and of course swindle them out of their property, provided he chooses or can afford to forfeit recognisances to the amount of £400. Our magistrates are extremely adroit in fixing a price for almost every crime, and it appears from this committal to have been proclaimed that a man may indulge in polygamy to the extent of three wives at a time at the price of £133. 6s. 8d. per wife.”

The ‘Riot’

[Details of the Riot were extensively reported but varied in some minor details. The following is a composite of various reports.[18] Whether there were thousands or hundreds involved is probably of little matter – there were a lot and they were angry! It is perhaps worthy to note that most reports were very sympathetic to the Willmetts whose treatment they thought, at the hands of the mob, was inexcusable.]

On 23 August 1838, Willmett on a type of parole from the Fleet debtors prison, decided to return to Rochester in the company of Hannah Hodgson, to ‘resume’ his relationship with Eliza Crispe – to whom the Court had decided – on false evidence – that he had not bigamously married.[19] Does the fact that Hannah accompanied Willmett suggest she could have been complicit in the seduction of Eliza?

Willmett and his father booked into the Crown Inn and before dinner, decided to parade the streets of the City. Unsurprisingly word of the arrival of “the man with a dozen wives” spread like wildfire.[20] Matters began to turn ‘hostile’ when the Willmetts were spotted parading up and down opposite Miss Crisp’s house in Star-lane.[21] Soon a large crowd collected which quickly increased to several thousands. The crowd was largely made up of women who seemed determined to execute summary vengeance on the notorious visitor. The riotous confusion was much heightened by the presence of Rachael Lamb who abused Willmett to such a degree that it added further to the fury of the crowd.[22] During her struggle with Willmett she managed to take his watch. He demanded its return but hundreds of people in the crowd encouraged her to hold onto it. [How Rachael happened to be in Rochester was not explained.]

During the ensuing melee both the Willmetts were severally mauled, knocked down, pelted with mud, hit with sticks and had their clothes torn. Eventually they were able to make an escape – probably towards Delce-lane and then returning across some fields via New-road to Star-lane/Hill – only to be met by a large number of old women who were waiting for them in Star-lane with the intention of putting both men into a stagnant ditch in Ironmonger-lane [23] [now Corporation Street].

As public order had completely broken down the police courageously intervened and took both men into their ‘safe custody’ – or so they thought!

The intention of the police was to escort Willmett and his father back to the Crown Inn however as they arrived at Bull Inn – still followed by the angry crowd – they encountered a dense mass of people that completely blocked the road. When it was clear the police were in some difficulty in protecting them, the Willmett’s ran into the yard of the Bull. Young Willmett managed to scale a 10 foot wall which had glass imbedded along the top, but ‘old’ Willmett was apprehended by the landlord of the Bull who handed him over to the police. Clearly concerned for their property the landlord of the Bull requested the police not to allow Willmett to return, and the landlord of the Crown, where the Willmett party were staying, ordered them to leave. Around midnight the Willmett’s party departed for Gravesend.[24]

The aftermath

Instead of ‘retiring’ from Rochester Willmett chose to return in order to sue Rachael Lamb for the return of the watch that he claimed she stole from him during the ‘riot’.[25]

On Wednesday 5 September 1838, the Guildhall Court was packed with spectators expecting to see Willmett and Rachael Lamb who was required to attend to answer the charges made against her by her ‘husband’. The anticipation steadily grew amongst the crowds whilst awaiting the arrival of Willmett – who for whatever reason chose to arrive an hour late. When Willmett finally arrived, he was dressed as usual, very fashionably, with a beard a la Courtenay, silver spurs and a riding whip.  [Courtenay is a reference to ‘Sir William Courtney’ who appeared before magistrates in 1833, extravagantly dressed – but that’s for another blog!]

Willmett’s arrival caused considerable confusion in the Court – to such an extent that the magistrates and the police had trouble maintaining order. However, that was nothing to the scenes engendered when Mr. Wooler, Willmett’s professional adviser presented himself to the Court. The crowds immediately accused him of being drunk which based on his subsequent behaviour may have been true.

As Wooler rose to address the Court Rachael Lamb struck him with tremendous force. The tall & mighty Wooler see-sawed backwards and forwards between the magistrate’s table and the wainscot partition which divides them from the body of the hall, like a tottering post loosened by the workman. Roars of laughter and tremendous cheering followed this most extraordinary exhibition. On regaining his composure Wooler requested that the witnesses be removed from the Court before Willmett gave his evidence. Mr. Birch who was representing Rachael then addressed the bench on the impropriety of a man like Wooler who was not on the rolls of any court being allowed to act for Willmett. To great cheers Birch went on to say that he would as soon go out of the Court himself as stand there to fight a man on unequal ground. Wooler in reply said he would accept no insult from anyone in Rochester, and his pistols were loaded. This created much uproar and cries of “your stomach’s well loaded”.[26]

Proceedings finally got underway and Willmett stated in evidence that Rachael had stolen his watch during the extraordinary mobbing he experienced. However, under cross-examination he acknowledged, as evidenced by two others, that he had told Rachael she could keep the watch to help maintain his child.  Willmett also confirmed that when he complained to the Police about Lamb his complaint was about her assaulting him – not that she had stolen his watch.

With the case going somewhat against Wooler he began to insult the magistrates[27] – claiming they were all of a kidney, policemen, magistrates, Birch and all. This created great laughter, confusion, and crises of “Turn him out!” On being advised by the magistrates that he should desist or he would be removed from the Court, Wooler said he would walk out himself – and accordingly did so – leaving the Court little choice but adjourn and reconvene the following week. After waiting a very considerable time for mob to disperse Willmett, accompanied by 20 policemen, and three of the magistrates managed to get out of the Guildhall. Unexpectedly Willmett got on horseback followed by his servant and took the road to Maidstone – thus avoiding the large mob that had collected on the Bridge that was armed with rotten eggs and who intended to throw him off the bridge.[28]

When the Court reconvened there was less confusion but no less interest. At the appointed time Rachael Lamb presented herself at the Court accompanied by two women – Ann Petherick and a Miss Gallant.

Details of the relationship between Rachael’s two companions and Willmett is unclear. Petherick was a witness at the marriage of Eliza & Willmett, and Gallant had some involvement in securing Willmett’s release from the Fleet. Mr. Birch had also acted on behalf of someone called Gallant when Willmett was successfully sued before the Court of the Queen’s Bench for £76 in August 1838.

Perhaps to try and keep emotions under control the Mayor addressed Rachael and told her that it could be wise not to annoy Willmett as he seemed intent on proceeding against her at the sessions. In an act of superb-polite-defiance Rachael curtsied to the Mayor and said “she was determined to annoy him at any time that offered, and as much as she could”![29]

The conclusion of this hearing is unclear but it appears that a police officer was sent to search the lodgings of Rachael and her friends but found nothing to incriminate them. It would be somewhat unreasonable for Rachael to have been found guilty of stealing a watch that Willmett agreed she could keep – but then again, she was being egged on by the crowd not to return it.

Final observations

There is enough circumstantial information to suggest the only innocent victim in this story was Eliza Crispe. Although other women were named and clearly suffered loses, as a consequence of their relationship with Willmett, they may have had some collusion with him – whether that was voluntary or coerced can only a matter of speculation.

What happened next?

John Alexander Willmett – younger

Despite the clear hostility shown towards Willmett by the public, and the evidence strongly pointing to him to having exploited Eliza Crisp, he decided to sue the Weekly Dispatch for the report detailed above.

Willmet claimed he was libelled on 6 May 1838 by the Weekly Dispatch and sought compensation for damages to his reputation. The paper admitted the publication of the article that was the basis of the complaint, but pleaded justification. The information given in the above account of the various events were rehearsed. The judges were not persuaded by Willmett or indeed that he had a reputation that could be damaged but had to agree that he had been acquitted by a court and it was not then for a newspaper to argue he was guilty. So unimpressed by Willmett – and quite possibly agreeing the paper was not wrong – the judges awarded him damages of the “smallest coin in the realm – one farthing”. Further they refused his request to be awarded costs and commended the paper on bringing the matters to the public’s attention. [30]

What happened to Willmett after the hearing is less clear but could be extremely dramatic – if it’s the same man! Based on ‘Ancestry’ searches, a John Alexander Willmett born 1815 (same year as ‘our’ Willmett) went to Australia in 1840 where he married again and had two children. Whilst en route from Australia to China in 1846, the ship on which he was on travelling, a barque called the Peruvian, struck a reef known today as Minerva Shoal. The lifeboat was launched but was destroyed and 21 people, including Willmett and his Australian family, clung to a raft for 42 days. Many died and their body parts were used as bait to capture sharks that surrounded the raft. Seven of the 21 were washed up on a shore but Willmett died a few days later.

John Alexander Willmett – senior

Willmett’s father, also John Alexander Willmett, who was described as a respected attorney at Rochester, was no less of a ‘Sir Jasper’ than his son. He was made bankrupt – possibly as a consequence of his son not winning expenses in his libel case. A news report of him assaulting a woman confirms that at the age of 60 he was in lodgings in London. He proposed marriage to his landlady, Mary Ann Stamp, professing to be a man of means and property and who could give her an allowance of £50/year.

I suspect that Mary Stamp was suspicious of Willmett snr., so she went through a sham-marriage with him so her family thought they were married – they could then live together as ‘husband & wife’ without attracting public censure. Willmett snr., then persuaded Mary to sell the patent of a machine her husband had registered and that was providing her with an income. Willmett snr., then walked out of her life leaving her with debts, a child, and no means.[31]

One day whilst out walking Willmett snr., disguised in a cap and moustache, approached Mary saying “Pray take pity upon a poor man.” When she refused he questioned whether she recognised him and then struck her two or three times. He also assaulted her on other occasions near her home. For these offences Willmett was fined £4 , 40 shillings for each assault. In default of payment he was to be committed to the House of Correction.

And finally

There are many gaps in this ‘story’ that curiosity demands be filled. If you wish to undertake further investigation Willmett is often named Willmott, Ann Hodgson as Hannah/Anne/Ann. Eliza Crispe as Crisp and occasionally as Elizabeth Crisp, she was born in 1814.

The names of Willmett is correct as is Eliza Crispe – as detailed on their marriage record. I’ve been unable to determine whether Hodgson is Ann/Anna/Anne but Willmett certainly married a Hannah so the variants are probably diminutives of her forename.

Geoff Ettridge aka Geoff Rambler

6 March 2018.

[1] Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette – Saturday 08 September 1838.

[2] Kentish Gazette – Tuesday 24 April 1838.

[3] Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser – Tuesday 19 February 1839.

[4] Morning Chronicle – Friday 15 February 1839

[5] Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser – Tuesday 19 February 1839.

[6] Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser – Tuesday 19 February 1839.

[7] London Evening Standard – Friday 15 February 1839.

[8] Bell’s Weekly Messenger – Sunday 17 February 1839.

[9] South Eastern Gazette – Tuesday 30 July 1839.

[10] West Kent Guardian – Saturday 28 April 1838

[11] Kentish Gazette – Tuesday 24 April 1838.

[12] South Eastern Gazette – Tuesday 24 April 1838.

[13] Kentish Gazette – Tuesday 24 April 1838.

[14] Kentish Gazette – Tuesday 24 April 1838

[15] The Evening Chronicle – Monday 30 April 1838.

[16] Canterbury Journal, Kentish Times and Farmers’ Gazette – Saturday 26 May 1838.

[17] Morning Advertiser – Thursday 09 August 1838.

[18] West Kent Guardian – Saturday 01 September 1838.

[19] London Dispatch – Sunday 26 August 1838.

[20] Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette – Saturday 08 September 1838

[21] Globe – Friday 24 August 1838.

[22] West Kent Guardian – Saturday 1 September 1838.

[23] Globe – Friday 24 August 1838.

[24] West Kent Guardian – Saturday 1 September 1838

[25] West Kent Guardian – Saturday 1 September 1838 – various reports in same paper.

[26] West Kent Guardian – Saturday 1 September 1838.

[27] West Kent Guardian – Saturday 1 September 1838.

[28] West Kent Guardian – Saturday 1 September 1838.

[29] West Kent Guardian – Saturday 1 September 1838.

[30] Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser – Tuesday 19 February 1839. (Provides a lot of background to the principal actors in this story.

[31] Evening Mail – Monday 20 September 1841.