‘Old Unhappy Far-off Things’: the ruin of Sir Charles Dilke


Anybody who compares nineteenth century newspapers with those of today can hardly escape being saddened by how little domestic news items have changed in 150 years. Drunkenness, white slavery, and wife-beating may now be called alcoholism, trafficking, and physical abuse but there are still the same unhappy victims and broken lives. As we shall see, even acts of terrorism are reported in the Victorian press, although their origin was Ireland rather than the Middle East. One area of progress to set against this dismal record is that over the last 50 years homosexuality has been treated first with increasing toleration, then with acceptance and finally, perhaps, with a gradual inching towards the celebration of difference.

Another clear parallel is that in both nineteenth century and contemporary public life reputations can be shattered by imputations, even wholly unproven imputations, of sexual misbehaviour. As I am writing these words a male artist has just been acquitted of sexually assaulting, ‘groping’, a middle-aged actress with whom he crossed paths on Waterloo Station concourse. There were no witnesses from the crowds of people also present, no forensic evidence, and analysis of the CCTV record (though imperfect) showed nothing to sustain the charge. Victorian train companies may have offered ‘women-only’ carriages and waiting rooms but even those facilities would not have prevented such a situation.

I am sorry to say that women are frequently subject to sexual harassment on crowded trains and, even more seriously, that the lives of thousands of women and children have been permanently blighted by physical and sexual abuse. Appallingly those responsible for sexual abuse against children are frequently people who young people would naturally look to for protection and guidance: teachers, doctors or clergymen. It is perfectly clear that many young victims require years to pass before finally feeling able to report their experiences. But what makes this historical abuse so very difficult for the legal system is that, if the perpetrator is still living, such claims almost invariably represent one person’s unsupported word against another’s. Naturally it is easier for the courts if one witness statement is confirmed by those of multiple victims. The huge practical problem which we have is that while every victim must be taken seriously we cannot ignore the fact that mistaken accusations are made, and that a public accusal alone is often irreversibly damaging to a reputation. Unproven allegations of child abuse also occur and I am thinking of some examples where these seem to have been an additional feature of adult relationship breakdown. In these circumstances some family members will believe the accusation and others vehemently refute it. The inevitable outcome, whatever happens in court, is that the family concerned is permanently damaged. A final complexity is that when accused of offences against person A the defendant may actually be innocent and must be acquitted, although exactly those same offences have been committed by him against other persons B and C which do not form part of the indictment.

The tradition of British justice is that a term of punishment begins when a jury has convicted and a judge has pronounced, not at the moment an accusation first appears in a daily newspaper. The presumption of innocence has proved its value, is society really being better served by an automatic assumption of guilt? The essential difficulty that applies in all cases of the sort I have described is that improved justice for the accused may involve denial of justice to the accuser. I must say at once that I have no solution to this impasse myself, and because I cannot resolve these problems in the present day I am going to discuss their operation in the past. You can decide whether you agree that there are close parallel processes in operation in the two time periods.

The case I wish to describe involves an extremely able Liberal politician of the late Victorian era, Sir Charles Dilke (1843-1911). His reputation is now in complete eclipse although he was once spoken of as a possible successor to Gladstone as Liberal leader, and thus as a potential prime minister. He did not feature at all in my school English History 1870-1914 ‘O level’ course, although many of his friends and contemporaries did, notably Joseph Chamberlain. At the time of my historical studies an excellent biography of Dilke was already in existence which was written in the 1950s by Roy Jenkins. Jenkins, who I remember very well, was a Labour MP and chancellor of the exchequer who later led the SDP. After many victories he was finally defeated by George Galloway at the Hillhead by-election, but ended his career as president of the European Commission. At the time I discovered Dilke’s biography I had completely forgotten that Roy Jenkins was educated at Oxford and had written several books on political themes, as well as being a noted historian.

The basic facts are simple. Charles Dilke had been born in 1843; his father was one of the promoters of the Great Exhibition of 1851. The son had a privileged childhood and a Cambridge university education. He journeyed round the world before inheriting a baronetcy, and a great deal of money, upon the occasion of his father’s death. He went in for politics like his father and in 1868, at the age of 25, he was elected for Chelsea as a Liberal MP. Dilke was a rentier who had never worked for his living, but to his credit he had travelled widely in the USA and Russia, had witnessed several battles in the Franco-Prussian War, and been present during the suppression of the Paris Commune. Dilke had certainly a great deal more direct experience of conditions abroad than most young MPs of his era and in fact, despite his affluence, he was on the radical left wing of the Liberal party. He gave his support to causes such as universal education, improving conditions for working people, municipal votes for women and, on one memorable occasion, republicanism. Consequently he was not Queen Victoria’s favourite person. Before I make him seem too attractive I should add that he was also an imperialist who believed that the British ‘race’ was superior to all others and was destined to rule the world.

Dilke spent a decade on the back benches but in 1880 prime minister William Gladstone brought him into the government as Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. He was still well under the age of 40 and in the next five years his rise was impressive. Even his one disappointment had a positive personal outcome. He had hoped for an appointment as Secretary of State for Ireland. The successful candidate, Lord Frederick Cavendish, travelled to Dublin and was murdered upon his arrival in Phoenix Park by Fenians. In 1882 Dilke was made a privy councillor and the same year entered the cabinet. He was evidently a coming man but in 1885, on the verge of a senior government post, Dilke’s career was destroyed.

The public facts that brought about his downfall were clear, but those who have commented on his case have recognised the existence of private facts which were very murky indeed. To attempt to understand what occurred his family life must be examined. Dilke’s first wife, who is sometimes omitted in brief accounts of his life, was Katherine Sheil. After two years of marriage she died in 1874 a few days after childbirth. For more than ten years Dilke had enjoyed a close friendship and correspondence with a formidable lady Emilia Pattison (born Emily Strong). The two finally married in 1884 after Emilia’s first husband, Oxford academic Mark Pattison, died. Emilia was a feminist, art historian and early supporter of the trade union movement.

The origin of Dilke’s subsequent problems must lie in the years 1874-84 when he was a wealthy and physically attractive widower who lived in London and had many important and powerful friends. The immediate cause of his downfall involved the family of a wealthy ship-owner, and Liberal Party grandee, called Thomas Eustace Smith MP (1831-1903). Charles had a younger brother, Ashton Dilke MP, a noted Russian expert, who suffered from tuberculosis and was destined to die young in 1883. Ashton had married Thomas Smith’s eldest daughter, Maye Eustace Smith (1856-1914). In 1885, after his brother’s death, it was claimed in a divorce court that Dilke had seduced one of the Smith’s younger daughters, Virginia Mary ‘Nia’ (1863-1948), who by this time was the wife of yet another Liberal MP called Donald Crawford (1837-1919). The relationship with Dilke, Donald Crawford stated in court, began in 1882 and had continued intermittently since, including occasions after the couple’s own recent marriage. Dilke was warned that these grave accusations were about to become public by a mutual friend called Mrs. Rogerson to whose significant part in events we shall eventually return.

On the basis of his wife’s statements Donald Crawford sued for divorce from Virginia. Neither Virginia nor Dilke were witnesses in court and the only ‘evidence’ of the affair was Crawford’s account of his wife’s testimony to him. Nobody has ever suggested that Crawford did anything other than honestly report what he believed to be true. It appears that, as well as hearing the facts from his wife’s own lips, he had received a number of anonymous letters critical of Virginia’s flirtations with Dilke and other men, including medical students. Crawford was duly granted a decree nisi.

Two obvious questions have been posed by those who have commented on this case: why did Dilke not give evidence on his own behalf and would his political career have survived if he had kept quiet and taken no further action? It is widely believed that Dilke’s silence arose because he did not wish to be questioned on a much more potentially damaging liaison; it is virtually certain, and perhaps not wholly surprising, that Dilke had other affairs in the decade between his two marriages. Remarkably Dilke seems to have had a sexual relationship with Virginia’s own mother, Martha or Ellen Smith. ‘Remarkably’ because Ellen, as she is generally called, was eight years older than Dilke and had had ten children. It does seem that the two were lovers briefly before and after Dilke’s first marriage. It is also generally considered that if Dilke had continued to deny everything privately, but had abstained from taking any public action, then the storm of innuendo would have eventually blown itself out.

Two factors counted against him. Firstly he had incurred the enmity of W.T. Stead, the famous investigative journalist, and secondly he adopted a complicated legal process, through an official called the ‘Queen’s Proctor’, in an attempt officially to clear his name of any taint of wrong-doing. During a second judicial process Virginia was able to evade any close cross-examination into her conduct. Dilke however was expertly questioned and made, by all accounts, an entirely unconvincing witness. He was reluctant to give a simple answer to a simple question, and his habit of cutting holes in the paper sheets of his diary seemed highly suspicious conduct to a hostile court. In the event Virginia was believed, the divorce from her husband was allowed, and Dilke’s career was consequently ruined.

Others were involved in these events. Virginia had claimed that a maid called Fanny Grey had once accompanied them to bed, and that Dilke had indulged in ‘French vice’, whatever that was. It all sounds rather implausible to me although I have admittedly led a very quiet life. Dilke narrowly lost his parliamentary seat at the 1886 general election. His late accuser in court, a barrister called Henry Matthews, was elected as a conservative and subsequently made Home Secretary. It is said that Queen Victoria insisted on his appointment, possibly she had not forgotten Dilke’s republicanism. Matthews occupied the position of Home Secretary during the Jack the Ripper murders and although not a huge success in the House of Commons he ended his life as a Viscount. So that was nice for him, but what happened to Dilke?

Remember that, even if true, Dilke’s only official misdemeanour was a heterosexual affair with a woman well past the age of consent which began when he was a single widower. The real ‘crime’ in Victorian eyes was that this affair continued after Virginia’s marriage; most of the rest was rumour and lurid supposition. He did have his supporters. Emelia Pattison, Dilke’s second wife, pointedly married him during his travails and they stayed together until her death in the early years of the twentieth century. Whatever they were prepared to say in public many of his colleagues, and much of the electorate (all men at that period of course), must surely have been guilty of similar blemishes. Perhaps time diminished the offence or possibly voters reflected on the reported behaviour of their future king. For whatever reason Charles Dilke was returned to the House of Commons six years later for the Forest of Dean seat. He remained an MP for another 20 years until his own death in 1911. He may even have been reconsidered for high office, although in the event he remained permanently on the back benches.

So, what really happened? There are many difficulties in establishing the true facts. The use of euphemism makes it hard to establish exactly what physical acts were being described. ‘Being made love to’ in 1880 involved no more than soft words and the touch of chaste lips. ‘Becoming a mistress’ would certainly involve an act of intercourse. A woman’s reputation could be ‘ruined’ by conduct in between these two extremes. This is quite important, and equally important is how certain acts would have appeared to the participants. It is possible to imagine sexual behaviour short of full intercourse that might have seemed like adultery to Virginia and Donald, but not necessarily to Dilke.

Be that as it may, Charles Dilke took every future opportunity, at considerable personal and financial cost, to refute the occurrence of any sexual relationship with Virginia Crawford whatsoever. Most historians agree that he was innocent as charged although a notable exception is Dr Grace Eckley in her study of W.T. Stead, Maiden Tribute. In the second court case Dilke did not exactly admit to adultery with Virginia’s mother many years previously, but was given every opportunity to deny it, opportunity which he did not take. Virginia Crawford may not have been harshly cross-examined on her statements but attempts to find corroborative evidence to support them was largely unsuccessful. One possibility is that Virginia used his name to deflect attention from another lover; the name of a soldier, Captain Henry Forster, is often used here and Forster also featured in the anonymous letters received by Donald Crawford. Why Virginia picked Dilke to blame, if that indeed is what she did, is a mystery. Dilke and Donald Crawford were related by marriage and were known to each other in parliament. If Dilke was privately known as a womaniser he was a plausible candidate but was Virginia especially outraged by his relationship with her own mother?

Mrs Rogerson, who broke the news to Dilke, was a confidante of both parties but had, to put the most charitable construction on her statements, an extremely unreliable memory. It is even possible that she was the author of some of the anonymous letters sent to Crawford. Her one reported rational comment was to say that ‘Virginia’s statements were inherently improbable, but why should she lie?’. Virginia did seem to know a good deal about Dilke’s domestic arrangements and it is hard to believe that someone, Mrs Rogerson or another, was not feeding her with information about the topography of his house. Inevitably some people said that Mrs Rogerson and the maid Fanny Grey (do you remember her?) were other mistresses of Dilke’s!

Donald Crawford obtained his divorce, had a short career as an MP, and held various legal appointments in Scotland. He married again a few years before his death in 1919. I find his ex-wife Virginia Crawford by far the most interesting person in this sorry story, just as I find Emelia Pattison the most sympathetic. After her divorce Virginia was briefly a journalist with W.T. Stead’s newspaper the Pall Mall Gazette. Stead continued his campaign against Dilke and regarded himself (using Roy Jenkins’s phrase) as ‘the chosen instrument of public morality’. Some years later Virginia was received into the Catholic Church by a Father Butler and spent much of her remaining 50 years of life devoted to Catholic charities. She was also an author and a noted literary critic, and at one stage a Labour Party councillor for St Marylebone. She never re-married and actually survived into my life-time. Whatever she may have said under the seal of the confessional to Father Butler remained secret. Virginia met Cardinal Manning regularly and the events I have described must surely have been touched on in their conversation. Yet so astute a man as the cardinal maintained friendly relationships with Dilke and his new wife when he was not compelled to do so.

It is certain that Virginia never publicly withdrew her accusation against Dilke although, as a new Catholic convert, she might have been expected to do so if he was indeed innocent. Could she have suffered from a temporary mental indisposition that led her to believe her own evidence? Some accounts claim she was suffering from syphilis but as a retired doctor I am extremely reluctant to make historical diagnoses on very limited evidence indeed. Whatever her reasons I’m as sure as I can be that Virginia perjured herself in court. Her husband Donald Crawford was 25 years older than herself and it seems likely that she married him, only fifteen months after her seventeenth birthday, purely to escape from her parental home. It seems clear that she soon wanted to escape from her marriage as well. Reading through her witness evidence I believe Virginia did admit to adultery with Captain Henry Forster although she was at some pains to minimise its frequency and extent. She probably wished to marry Forster but shortly afterwards he disappeared from her story. For Virginia to perjure herself for so long, and in such detail, was an extraordinary undertaking. But those of us who believe (despite a not-proven verdict) that another and unrelated Miss Smith, Madeline Smith of Edinburgh, murdered her lover with arsenic can find in her own trial a matching performance. Madeline also seems to have enjoyed four decades of blameless existence after a moment of calculated madness.

Who to believe? Neither Virginia nor Dilke committed a crime. Both offended public morality in ways outside any relationship they might have had together. Neither were completely honest in court for reasons that must have seemed sufficient to them. Their sworn statements are mutually incompatible yet both defended them for years afterwards, in Dilke’s case at considerable cost. Such prolonged dishonesty may seem inexplicable but when giving her evidence surely the unnamed actress from Waterloo Station must have known that a two seconds assault simply couldn’t have taken place in the way she described.



2 thoughts on “‘Old Unhappy Far-off Things’: the ruin of Sir Charles Dilke

  1. Fascinating stuff, as ever, thank you. Almost all of it new to me, apart from the recent sad Waterloo Station business. I can imagine all sorts of explanations that might make sense of what little information we do have.

    You open with “Anybody who compares nineteenth century newspapers with those of today can hardly escape being saddened by how little domestic news items have changed in 150 years”. I’m happy to grant you that – I’ve not done a lot of reading of C19th newspapers.

    But I’m often struck by how much domestic news has become less sad. Maternal mortality was shockingly common to modern eyes. You mention Katherine Sheil dying in childbirth, and that’s wholly unremarkable for any discussion of C19th family life. Infant mortality was even worse – possibly up to 1 in 5 children dying before the age of 5. These days the first year of life is still more perilous than any other until late middle age, but infant deaths are now rare tragedies that are often newsworthy simply because they’re so unusual. It was Darwin’s birthday the other day, and he was an uncommonly engaged father (for the time) of ten children, of whom two died in infancy and one died aged 10, which deeply upset him. It’s easy to imagine that because such horrors were more common, people were inured to them or cared less. Some of that happened of necessity, I’m sure, but reading accounts from grieving parents, husbands and children convinces me that they mostly cared about as much as we would.

    There is substantially less domestic tragedy now than in the nineteenth century.


    1. Thanks; you might well be right. In the absence of national broadcasting Victorian provincial newspapers tended to copy the same news items which may give one a mistaken idea of their frequency. The common occurance of death after childbirth in the nineteenth century was appalling; I was told as a medical student that given the choice of being a Great War subaltern for six weeks or going through a pregnancy it would be safer to choose the Western Front. My points were, as I’m sure you appreciate, that the same domestic tragedies occur in both epochs and that inexplicable ‘my word against yours’ sexual events are not unique to the modern era.


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