Alice Maud Roberts: scandal between the wars

Alice Maud Roberts (1881-1982) was the beautiful, but willful, younger daughter of Sir James Roberts Bt. of Milner Field, Saltaire. This great house had been built for Sir Titus Salt jnr, son of the famous alpaca magnate and creator of Saltaire. It was the very epitome of a ‘brass castle’ built in the late Victorian era with no expense spared, and with every possible modern contrivance. Alice’s father had come to Saltaire from Haworth where, in his youth, he had known the Brontes. The tradition is that he started as a mill hand and ended as a mill manager by the early age of 18 years. He is certainly known to have taught himself Russian a major intellectual achievement. In the period after the death of Sir Titus Salt and his son, Sir James Roberts came to own the famous Salt’s Textile Mill. He also gave his name to Roberts Park, Saltaire and bought that, and the Haworth Parsonage, for the nation and even founded a chair of Russian at the University of Leeds in 1916. He must have moved into Milner Field after the 1901 census, possibly when he became a baronet in 1903. Finally he retired to Fairlight Hall near Hastings and died there in 1935.

Alice had been born on the 27th June 1881 in Bingley. She received part of her education in Switzerland and was first proposed to by a Polish officer in Paris. She was 19 by the time of the 1901 census and in the following year (1902) she suddenly eloped and was married to a student doctor at Edinburgh University, Norman Cecil ‘Frank’ Rutherford. Rutherford was the elder son of Dr John James Rutherford of Rock Villa, Kirkgate, Shipley who was a local GP. It is quite likely that the two families had a connection, perhaps a professional one and the Rutherfords were apparently invited to the wedding of Alice’s sister Lillie, four months before the elopement. It is often said that Alice Maud married despite her parents’ disapproval. This must be true to some extent otherwise why elope? But the couple were not ostracised from family occasions. Rutherford graduated in 1903 and within a short time joined the RAMC. Possibly a qualified doctor and a British army captain was more acceptable than a medical student. Certainly by contemporary standards he was now an officer and a gentleman. In 1903 as Captain & Mrs Rutherford he and Alice sailed, separately, to Cape Town, South Africa.

It seems the Rutherfords came back to the UK in August 1904 when Alice’s brother Jack died. By 1905 they had returned to Orange River County in South Africa and it appears as if the family made the trip to and from the UK more than once, probably as Captain Rutherford wished to improve his education and experience. The couple eventually had six children; one was Sybil Margaret Rutherford whose own daughter has produced a website dealing with these matters. The last two Rutherford children were born in 1913 & 1915, in what was then rural Hendon, but something had seemingly gone very wrong with the Rutherford marriage. One theory is that Alice wanted to marry into a ‘title’ like her sister Lillie, and her father was more than willing to pay the costs of her divorce from a relationship of which he never entirely approved. Alice herself later claimed that Norman Rutherford had been unfaithful and cruel. However the Great War intervened and Norman Rutherford was called up to serve again in the RAMC.

During the war Rutherford did rather well. He served with Field Artillery regiments and rose to the rank of Lt Colonel being awarded a decoration, the DSO, in 1917. While Rutherford was serving in the RAMC did Alice ever form romantic connections elsewhere? In 1919 friends of the Roberts family were astounded when Lt. Col. Rutherford shot and killed a Major Miles Seaton, who was a popular Australian army doctor at the Weymouth Camp. Miles Seaton was a member of an old west country family and had apparently known Alice when studying as a medical student in Edinburgh. He has also known Rutherford who it is believed tutored him for his final exams. One story told was that Miles Seaton had also emigrated to South Africa and was surprised when Dr and Mrs Rutherford (as she then was) arrived at the same township. As a result Miles Seaton moved again, this time to Australia. At the outbreak of the Great War Seaton joined the AAMC and was sent to practice his surgical skills in France. There once more he met ‘Frank’ Rutherford and both were subsequently transferred to Weymouth. It appears that Miles Seaton was engaged to be married to a local woman, and of course he considered himself a friend of both Rutherfords.

Was Alice ever his lover, or was this a paranoid delusion on Rutherford’s part brought on by shell-shock? It does also certainly appear that Alice was trying to obtain a divorce towards the end of the war but if Alice loved Seaton then it does not seem that he could ever have provided the desired ‘title’, and in truth what opportunities would they have had to meet? The story widely believed was that Miles Seaton was invited to dine at his cousin’s (Sir Malcolm Seaton) house in Holland Park, London and so travelled up from Weymouth to Waterloo on the day of his death. During the evening he and Rutherford met and were in the Smoking Room together. A maid testified to the two men having met amicably, but shortly afterwards a shot rang out and Seaton fell dead, shot with a service revolver.

Rutherford never claimed that Seaton was his wife’s lover, only that he exerted an ‘evil influence’ on the family. In April 1919 Col Rutherford was convicted of ‘the murder of Maj. M Seaton of the RAAMC at 13 Clarendon Road, Holland Park, London, on 14 January 1919′. Although he had shot his victim five times Seaton was found to be suffering from the results of ‘shell-shock’ and was committed to Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Rutherford was a model prisoner in Broadmoor and was discharged in 1929. Remarkably his name was then restored to the medical register. He may have spent some time with his daughter in Canada but soon obtained an appointment with an oil company in Persia. According to one Family History website he was back in London before the Second World War teaching anatomy and practising eye surgery. In the 1950s he was retired and living in Coverham, Yorkshire but seemingly still had the energy to travel a final time to South Africa where he died.

We must now return to Alice Rutherford’s story. Alice had changed her name by deed-pole back to her maiden name of Roberts. She tried to obtain a divorce on many occasions, even petitioning the House of Lords, but murder and insanity were not considered to be sufficient grounds as the law then stood. She was finally granted a legal separation in 1922 and eventually (following a new Parliamentary Divorce Act) obtained a divorce from Col. Rutherford in 1938 on the grounds of cruelty, the suit being undefended. That was that you might think. But no, amazingly family history web sites suggest that she remarried one Archibald Stewart Clark, a local government officer, and they both settled down in the obscurity of the Isle of Man. Alice was still alive 40 years later when we came to Bradford in 1979 and died (at the age of 101), at Onchan, Douglas, IoM as recently as 1982, which was some 60 years after her legal separation. Milner Field had long since acquired the reputation of being an unlucky house and was never lived in permanently again. It was demolished in the 1950s but its extraordinary ruins remain.


David King, The Second Lord of Saltaire, The Saltaire Journal, Vol 1 No 5, 2012

‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave’:  Milner Field today


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