Monday, 6 October 2014

Marriage is just a piece of paper - George William Lancaster and Louisa Mary Wilkinson (East Sheen Cemetery)

Chest tomb. Memorial to George William Lancaster (d. 1920) and Elisa (sic) Mary Lancaster (d.1922) by Sidney march (1876-1967). Portland stone and bronze. Comprises a loosely draped female angel in bronze, with roses gathered up in her skirt, mourning over a rectangular sarcophagus of Portland stone which stands on a coved base and rectangular plinth, also of portland stone: This work is influenced by North Italian tomb sculpture (especially Leonards Bistolfi) and is considered one of the most significant C20 examples of funerary sculpture. Memorable for the fluid positioning of the body and the weight-defying droop of the wings over the stone sarcophagus. Described by Hugh Meller as "Arguably the most dramatic sculpture in any of London's cemeteries". Sidney March showed regularly at the Royal Academy between 1901 and 1932 and his best known work was the Canadian National War Memorial at Ottawa (unveiled in 1939) made in collaboration with his brothers.”

George William Lancaster from Wigan in Lancashire was a successful mining engineer and colliery owner with interests in the Welsh and Kent coalfields. Despite taking George’s name and being buried with him.  Louisa Mary Lancaster was most definitely not his legal wife as a case brought at Mortlake Police Court in December 1922, six months after her death, showed. The case was brought by a Mrs Emily Lancaster of Riverside, Maple Road, Surbiton, the real Mrs Lancaster, against Captain Arthur Claude Lancaster, a decorated war hero and Louisa’s eldest son.  Captain Lancaster was summonsed on four counts of making false statements to the registrar of deaths at Mortlake – he had registered his mother’s death under the name Lancaster, given her title as Mrs, and said that she was the widow of GW Lancaster. When questioned by the magistrates Captain Lancaster had to admit that his real name was Jones and his father had divorced his mother on the grounds of adultery with George Lancaster.

Divorces were still relatively rare in 1896 when Mr Edwin Charles Jones, a commercial traveller, petitioned the courts in Bristol for a divorce from his 35 year old wife. The case was reported in detail in the local newspapers. Jones had married Louisa Mary Wilkinson in 1883 and the couple had three children, the oldest of them, Arthur, was just 9 at the time of the divorce.  According to Jones he had been formerly employed in his father’s ironmongers business but his father’s death had left him without employment and rather “badly off”. His wife’s affection for him cooled in the families new straitened financial circumstances. To try and improve his situation Jones had moved his family to London where he opened a small tobacconists in Finsbury Park. The business was not a success and unemployed again Jones moved back to Bristol with his two eldest children to live with his mother until he could find other employment. When he did find a job and wrote to his wife to join him in Bristol she refused. From the children’s nurse Jone’s discovered that his wife was frequently visited by George Lancaster, generally at her home but on at least one occasion spending the night at the Grosvenor Hotel. The nurse was produced as a witness and told the court that the children called the co-respondent ‘Uncle George’. The judge granted Jones a decree nisi with costs and custody of the children.  

George’s martial problems predated his liaison with Louisa. According to the 1891 census he was already living apart from his wife Emily in Acton and looking after their two children. The separation was never formalised and he remained married to Emily until his death in 1920. By the time of the 1901 census he was living at Greenford Hall in Middlesex with Louisa listed as his wife along with their two young daughters. They later moved to St Mary Cray in Kent where they lived with Louisa’s children and her widowed mother and finally to Clare Lawn, a mansion in East Sheen (now demolished). George was a successful business man and when he died he left a fortune worth £504880.0s3d of which the lions share had been bequeathed to Louisa under her maiden name of Wilkinson. His wife had been left a mere £700 annuity. No doubt this rankled with the legitimate Mrs Lancaster but there was little she could do. When, to add insult to injury Captain Lancaster registered his mother as George’s widow on her death and arranged for her to be buried with him (in some style), enough was enough and she commenced legal action against him for making false statements to the registrar. Captain Lancaster’s defence was that he did not realise that his mother had not married. He denied that the family had been driven from St Mary Cray by social disapproval and dismissed the idea that other parishioners resented his mother and adopted father  taking holy communion. He also denied knowing that George’s will had referred to his mother by her maiden name even though notices had been published in the press – he said that he did not read the papers. The magistrates chose to believe him and dismissed the case – the chair of the magistrates even going so far as to say that if a woman lived with a man for 20 years she was entitled to use his name and call herself his widow. Captain Lancaster went back to Tenby in Wales where he owned a garage. Sidney March’s monument is probably one of the most famous funerary memorials in London but the Lancasters have fallen into obscurity and the old scandals are forgiven and forgotten.


  1. they say behind every fortune there is a crime, maybe behind every grand memorial there is a story.

    1. That is probably true, and not just about the grand memorials, there are some fascinating stories behind some very modest ones. Not all of them are public though, so unless it came out in the newspapers or documentary evidence was left elsewhere, some stories do get buried with the deceased.