The actor Frances de la Tour has a head start on most of those who take part in Who Do You Think You Are? Many years ago, her grandfather drew up a family tree. Nonetheless, Frances, who first sprang to fame in the sitcom Rising Damp, doesn’t “know an awful lot” about the stories behind the names on the document.
Two figures in particular intrigue Frances: her 3x great grandmother, Maria Elizabeth Gardner, née Adderley; and her 4x great grandmother, Sophia Ann Delaval, who was an aristocrat to judge by a notation on the family tree. Their stories will turn out to say much about the lives of well-to-do women in the late 18th century and the early 19th century.
First, Frances explores Maria’s life. The stepdaughter of an earl, the teenage Maria first married a Royal Navy officer, Captain Alan Hyde Gardner. However, the marriage clearly wasn’t happy. In 1805, Gardner obtained a court verdict against the man who would become Maria’s second husband, Henry Jadis, for “criminal conversation”. He wanted £20,000 in damages, but received £1,000.
This was an era when women were considered to be the property of their husbands, and the case, which would have been scandalous, revolved around adultery. A servant’s account offers more clues as to what happened as it talks of Maria and Henry leaving a bed “tumbled”. Maria became pregnant, and was so desperate to hide her condition from her husband that, after giving birth to a son, she had the child carried secretly out of the home.
In 1805, the couple divorced, which at the time required an Act of Parliament. A bastardisation clause, which would have declared Maria’s son illegitimate, was removed from the Act, which suggests doubts over the identity of the father. Also in 1805, Maria married Henry Jadis. In 1825, her son claimed the peerage but it instead passed to a son from Gardner’s second marriage. Frances sees a memorial to Maria in a church. The mournful tone suggests the scandal in her earlier life left deep scars.
Next, Frances sets out to learn more about Sophia Ann Delaval, which means heading for “monumental” Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire. “Why isn’t it mine?” she jokes. One answer may lie in a reference to Sophia’s “horrid misconduct” in a letter. Another letter refers to a “rash marriage”.
Gradually, Frances teases out a tragic story. Sophia’s first child, it seems, may have been illegitimate. Perhaps because of this, she didn’t make a socially advantageous marriage, but instead married a junior office. Archive documents suggest John Jadis was a drunk.
The couple separated, but worse was to follow. An apothecary bill suggests Sophia became addicted to laudanum, a tincture of opium. In 1793, she died and her father, Sir John Hussey Delaval, spent more than £300 on the funeral, a huge sum at the time. Frances thinks he may have been putting on a good show for the sake of appearances, but her attitude softens when she visits the family seat, Seaton Delaval Hall, in Northumberland.
Here, she learns how John had to rescue the family fortunes because his dissolute elder brother ran up debts of £45,000, equivalent to £3.5 million today. While Frances doesn’t identify with John’s concerns about a “place in society”, or her grandfather’s excitement at having aristocratic forbears, her attitude softens: “He saves his family.”