In 1772 Robert Morris abducted his twelve-year-old ward Frances Harford, the illegitimate daughter of his recently deceased friend Lord Baltimore (and recent heiress to £30,000) from her Chelsea boarding school. The ensuing story and court cases kept the newspaper-reading public periodically appalled, thrilled and entertained over the next twelve years. Morris put Frances through two marriage ceremonies, at Ypres and Danish Holstein – she was too young to marry in Scotland where the age qualification was fourteen – but, after years of legal wranglings, the marriage was annulled in the English ecclesiastical courts in 1784.
The following are the particulars of the elopement of a certain gentleman and his ward.—The young lady (who is not quite fourteen years of age) was placed at a boarding school at Chelsea, where Mr. M had frequent opportunities of visiting her as her guardian, and from whence he frequently attended her to public places, after obtaining leave of her governess, who for a long time entertained no suspicion of his intentions. As last, however, his visits and applications for these liberties became too frequent to escape the prudent governess’s vigilance; and she at last gave him absolute denial, telling him that the young lady had been granted those indulgencies much oftener than was consistent with her age and situation. As Mr M. had previous to this refusal, planned his scheme of elopement, this unexpected refusal entirely disconcerted his measures, and the only measures left to him were intrigue and stratagem. The means he adopted to effect this, were not entirely honourable, for he drew in a woman of character to be unsuspectedly the abettress of his designs: he prevailed upon Mrs. V. to send a card to the boarding school, requesting the young lady’s company on a party to Ranelagh, which was assented to. Just before the appointed time, however, Mr M sent notice to Mrs. V. that the young lady was indisposed, and could not attend that evening; in the interim sent a carriage to the boarding school, with the livery servants, etc as if it belonged to Mrs. V and demanded the young lady in Mrs V’s name. She leapt in; and the coachman, as ordered, drove to Mr M who impatiently waited her arrival at a distance with post-chaise etc for the journey.
Oxford Journal, Saturday 30 May 1772
The secretary to the patriotic society, who lately eloped with a very young lady, set out last week from Isle, without his prize, on his way to Italy, he not being married to her as was reported.
Ipswich Journal, Saturday 13 June 1772
A late Secretary to a patriotic club, who eloped with his ward, exerted every art, we hear, to get her brother into his power, as the young lady is net heir to an immense property; but the other guardians interposed in time, and numbers say very happily for the safety of the young gentleman.
Caledonian Mercury, Wednesday 9 September 1772
The celebrated elopement of the patriotic secretary, which made so much noise, about a year and a half ago, has ended just in the manner as such hasty and imprudent matches usually do. Mr M. after having made the round of several gay cities, at last brought his young wife to the stiller satisfaction of Geneva, where leaving her in the society of his own sister, and another young lady, he with her permission, made a five weeks tour of Italy. In the mean while without any provocation upon Mr M.’s part, or warning upon her’s, she formed the resolution of writing to her relations in London, that her whole desire now was to get rid of her marriage; or, if that could not be effected, to live separate from her husband. Mr M. is hastening his return to England, and, in all probability, will be as eager to get rid of his marriage as he ever was before to celebrate it. The cause of this sudden turn in the lady’s mind, cannot be accurately determined.
The Ipswich Journal, Saturday 1 January 1774
Yesterday morning at 9 o’clock, the young lady who eloped some time ago with Robert Morris, Esq. quondam secretary to the Bill of Rights, appeared before the Lord Chancellor at Lincoln’s Inn Hall, when his Lordship, after asking her a few questions, and inviting her to call upon him, when he would give her some advice for her future conduct respecting her fortune, committed her to the care of her mother for a fortnight, and referred the petition to a master in the Chancery, to enquire into the case, and report the facts to the court. As soon as the report is made, other steps will be taken relative to the legality or illegality of the marriage.
Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, Thursday 27 January 1774
Lincoln’s Inn Hall. This day the case of R. Morris, Esq, which has been contended ever since the year 1774, was brought again before the Lord Chancellor, when a motion was made, de novo, to discharge so much of an order, issued by the Court of the 5th of August, 1774, as ordered the commitment of the said Mr. Morris for a contempt of Court, and which also went to restrain him from acting any longer as a trustee in care of the person and fortune of Miss Harford, agreeable to the will of the late Frederick Earl of Baltimore.
The motion being made by Mr. Macdonald with some pertinent arguments in support of it, the certificates and letters on which the said order had been granted were read. These consisted of a letter from Madam La Touche to Mr. Hammenley, informing him that Mr. Morris had taken away from her the person of Miss Harford (the young lady was then at her boarding-school at Chelsea) under pretence that she was to dine with Mrs. Vaughan of Berner’s-street, Oxford road, and go with her afterwards to Ranelagh;l another was a letter from Mr. Morris, at Ypres, in Flanders, to Mr. Hammenley, informing him that he had married Miss Harford at that place, the 21st of May; the third was a letter from that gentleman to Mr. Harford of the same purport; and the fourth letter was one written by Mrs. Morris to her brother, Mr. Harford. Besides these, a variety of other letters and certificates were read, which, connected together, served to make out a kind of history of Mr. Morris’s elopement with Miss Harford, their route to Dover, and over sea, their marriage, and the pursuit made, and steps taken by persons dispatched after them by the other trustees acting under Lord Baltimore’s will.
After these papers had been read, Mr. Selwyn addressed his Lordship in a short speech; in the course of which, he stated to his Lordship, that the counsel on behalf of Mr. Morris, wished to abandon so much of their motion, as prayed for a discharge of the order restraining Mr. Morris from acting as one of the trustees.
Mr. Erskine then spoke on the same side, and insisted upon it, as he had done on a former day, that the bill declaring Miss Harford a ward of that court, had been filed after the marriage between Mr. Morris and that lady, and that Mr. Morris had therefore been guilty of no contempt against its authority. This, he said, had been expressly insisted upon on several preceding days, and though the learned gentlemen on the other side saw the great force of this fact, they had never prepared themselves to combat it, by shewing, as he presumed it was incumbent on them to do, that the filing of the bill had not been ante-dated. The learned counsel insisted much upon this point, and contended that his client could not hav incurred any contempt of the court, for that he had never been conscious of any. The order, he further observed, had been issued, and served upon Mr. Morris, if served at all, for no other purpose than to bring the young Lady, Miss Harford, under the guardianship of the court, or the care of her trustees, and that being the case with respect to the young lady who [was] at that time in England, and [illegible] of the order was intended [illegible] had been answered. He therefore hoped that the motion for discharging the order for [illegible] Mr. Morris, woud be accordingly granted.
Mr. Solicitor General, on the other side, set out with observing, that it had put him to much difficulty to guess what could possibly be the motive Mr. Morris had in the motion he had made. If indeed, it had been to wipe away any imputations against his honour, or remove any injury his character might be likely to suffer, it was to be accounted for, in some degree at least; but Mr. Morris was so far from being conscious that he stood in need of any such vindication, that he swore in his affidavit, that he had discharged his trust to Ld. Baltimore to the best of his conscience, and had never used any deceit to the young lady he pretended he had married. Confident therefore of this, it was not to support his honour or character that he had come into court in the manner he had.
The learned counsel scouted the defence set up by the opposite side, that Mr. Morris had not been guilty of a contempt of court, because the bill for placing Miss Harford a ward of the Lord Chancellor, had not be filed till after the marriage. The marriage, he said was no part of the present consideration. The order issued by the court for his imprisonment, was not for having married Miss Harford, but for not bringing her into court when ordered to do so. That was the offence; and as to the date on which the bill had been filed, whether it was really subsequent tot he marriage, or not, signified very little, because it was incontrovertible, that the second marriage between Mr. Morris and Miss Harford, was not for many months after the order was served upon him.
On the 21st of May, 1772, the first marriage, as it was called, was solemnized at Ypres, in Flanders. On the 22nd of the same month, the order to Mr. Morris for producing the person of Miss Harford was sworn to have been served upon him, and yet he made no preparation, nor shewed any disposition of obeying it. On the 5th of August the order for his commitment was issued, and on the 3d of January following, the parties were again married at Wansbeck, in the Duchy of Holstein, belonging to Denmark. The learned gentleman deduced from this, that Mr. Morris must have been guilty of a contempt of court, for that his second marriage was undoubtedly long after he had notice that Miss Harford was made a ward of the Court of Chancery. The Solicitor General dwelt long upon this point, and represented it as an unanswerable confirmation of Mr. Morris’s contempt of court, for the second marriage he had recourse to, proved to the conviction of every hearer, that he, himself, thought, or knew the marriage at Ypers, was unlawful, and, for his own part, he should always consider the marriage at Wansbeck, on the 3d of January, 1773, as the first marriage, in which case, the bill, declaring Miss Harford his Lordship’s ward must have been filed in very good time.
The Solicitor General then adverted to the many ingenious arguments that had been used to make out that the order had not been served upon Mr. Morris. To do this, the oath of Mr. Brown, who swore that he served it upon Mr. Morris at Ypres, would be a sufficient answer. But what did Mr. Morris say to it? Why, that he never saw the order, not that he never received it. For in his affidavit he swore, that Brown gave him the packet, telling him it came from his Majesty’s minister at Hamburgh, but that he never saw the contents.
Mr. Morris confessed he had the packet. What did he do with it? Did he burn it? This Mr. Morris ought to have been more explicit upon, but for reasons pretty evident, he had chosen to be silent; but whether Mr. Morris really had the order, or chose to burn the packet, because he knew the order was in it, he submitted it to his Lordship, that it was one and the same thing. — Another thing, too, set up by the other side was, that if the order had been served, it was out of Mr. Morris’s power to comply with it. This the learned counsel thought extremely curious indeed. It was pretended, that if Mr. Morris had been served with the order, it would not have been consistent with the health and safety of the lady to have hurried her away to England; yet with was precipitancy did Mr. Morris conduct the same young lady out of England? On the evening of the 16th of May, she was carried away to Dover, where, after travelling [all] night, she arrived at six o’clock in the morning. At nine o’clock a boat was to sail, but Mr. Morris did not think it right to wait till that time, [and] therefore hired another boat, which conveyed him, with Miss Harford, to Calais; from Calais they proceeded to Boulogne, in their way to Paris; then they returned, and hastened to St. Omers, next to Dunkirk, then to Lisle, and lastly to Ypres, where they were married on the 21st of May. Yet out of tenderness to her health, Mr. Morris could not think of bringing her back to England. Mr. Brown, however, could arrive here in time, and Mr. Morris, might at any rate, have sent an apology for his non-obedience to the order, and have had further time allowed him.
It had been said on the other side, that the order was kept hanging over Mr. Morris’s head from the year 1775, and never serve upon him, though he had been openly in onion ever since. But how had that been made to appear? Mr. Morris was a barrister of long standing, having been called to the bar in the year 1771, when he was 31 years of age. Yet, had any gentleman of the profession with him, made an affidavit that he had ever been in his company? Was sort of proof was offered that he had lived openly in London? No other than that he was sometimes at the lodging of a Mr. Telson, or [illegible]; and that a Mr. Jackson, at that time editor of the PUblic Ledger, received letters and paragraphs from him. This is all the proof given, but no affidavit from any one friend or acquaintance that visited him, or transacted any business with him during the whole time. […]
But how did his lordship know that any marriage had actually taken place. Subjoined to the affidavits produced, the opinion of a lawyer in Flanders had been presented, declaring the marriage to be void and illegal. Mr. Morris had declared Miss Harford to have had no parent living, and to have been at the age of 16. His marrying again on the 3d of January, 1773, at Wansbeck, was a plain indication that he thought his marriage at Ypres a bad one, or no marriage at all. The marriage, indeed, had been sent here into the Ecclesiastical court, and the late Sir George Hay had declared it a good and valid marriage, but there was an appeal, and how it might be determined upon a final judgment, his lordship did not know. He therefore could not discharge the order that had been made for the commitment of Mr. Morris.
His Lordship gave an historical detail of Mr. Morris’s conduct towards Miss Harford, from his deceiving or trapanning (to use his Lordship’s words) her away from school, to the return of Mrs. Morris into England, and in the course of it, spoke of Mr. Morris’s proceedings in the strongest terms of reprehension and indignation. Mr. Morris had, himself, his Lordship said, sworn in his affidavit, that Lord Baltimore in the fullest confidence of his honour and integrity, left him a trustee and guardian to his daughter, and with his last words he sought him to watch over the honour and virtue of his dear child. This trust, his lordship said, Mr. Morris had accepted of, ad had taken a legacy of £1500 for it. What he had done was well known. Here his lordship went through the whole transaction, including the articles of marriage, by which of the £30,000 left Miss Harford, £20,000 was to be her jointure, Mr. Morris to receive the interest of it during life, £5000 too for pin money, and both remainders, in case of failure of issue, to Mr. Morris, and who was to have the other £5000 paid him immediately for his own life. Yet, said his lordship, after this conduct to a ward just turned of 12 years of age, Mr. Morris makes affidavit, and says, he has used her to the best of his conscience. The Lord Chancellor concluded, by observing, that Lord Baltimore had not only been unfortunate in the choice of Mr. Morris, he had been also so with respect to the other trustees, who, in his opinion, had not been so vigilant as they ought to have been, in rescuing Miss Harford from these paths of dishonour and misery into which she had been trapanned, and had neglected that course of justice open to them for punishing the man who had been guilty of one of the worst crimes, that of deceiving and trapanning his ward to her ruin and destruction.
The above affair is just as it was before it began.
Ipswich Journal, Saturday 23 December 1780
Yesterday Evening, at Six o’Clock, his Grave, the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of Peterborough, the Bishop of Rochester, the Earl of Hillsborough, Lord Galloway, Mr. Justice Willes, Mr. Baron Eyre, Mr. Justice Hotham, Doctor Marriott, &c sat in Serjeant’s Inn Hall upon the Appeal of Frances Mary Harford, and her Guardians, to annul the Marriage of the said Frances Mary, with Robert Morris, Esq.
The History of this well-known Transaction, from the Death of Lord Baltimore to the Elopement of Mr. Morris and Miss Harford, and from that Period till the Return of the latter form Paris, was read over in the Course of which was recited the Marriage at Ypres in Flanders, and the second Marriage in the Province of Holstein. The Petition to the King of Denmark, which obtained a Dispensation of the usual Forms, and the Edict of the King in Consequence of his being made acquainted with the full Merits of the Case. The Opinion of the several Civilians and Lawyers upon the Will of Lord Baltimore, upon the Infancy and Disparity of Years between the Appellant and Mr. Morris, upon the Method used to inveigle her into an Elopement, and upon the Failure and Abuse of the Trust reported in the said Morris, as her appointed Guardian. The whole of this long Reading, which continued until Ten o’Clock, tended to prove that the Appellant was fraudulently seduced into the different Marriages, and the Conduct of Mr. Morris was what the Civilians describe to be a ravishing of the Mind, or in other Words, a Rape of Seduction. After the Clerk had went through the several Papers, the Court adjourned unti this Evening at Six o’Clock.
Oxford Journal, Saturday 3 March 1781