By Haydn Brown.
The Windhams—the real Windhams that is—ended with William Windham; later versions were merely Lukins who assumed the name on inheriting the Felbrigg Estate.
William Windham, the statesman, who, having played a patriotic part as Secretary for War under Pitt from 1794 to 1801, and as Secretary for War and the Colonies in Lord Grenville’s Administration of 1806, died on 4 June 1810, ‘a sad loss to society’. Thomas Grenville voted him ‘a model of an English gentleman’, and Canning ‘the best-bred man in England’. A reflection of William Windham’s younger days was that he had all the outward advantages imaginable: To quote Fanny Burney, who had met him frequently in his capacity as a manager of Warren Hastings’s trial, he was, on first impression:
“one of the most agreeable, spirited, well-bred and brilliant conversers I have ever spoken with ….. a man of family and fortune, with a very pleasing though not handsome face, a very elegant figure, and an air of fashion and vivacity.”
However, his death signalled the end of the high reputation of the Windham’s; what followed was little more than a romance; but a romance which was peculiar. It arrived speedily and, whilst it certainly made the family name of Windham far better known than ever before, it also brought with it a huge chunk of notoriety – rather than enviable fame!
It remains true that the story is sordid, but what it lacks in good feelings, it fully makes up for in human interest – hence the retelling here. This story of Felbrigg and of “Mad Windham” in particular, was the talk of England in the early 1860’s; and, for a long time afterwards, was vividly remembered in Norfolk for it reeked with foulness far beyond the washing of dirty linen in public. It was a tale of family degeneracy, in which the honoured name of Windham should have had no part.
The Lukins – Come Windhams:
When the famous statesman died, the historic property went to his nephew, William Howe Lukin, who assumed the name of Windham, and he married Lady Sophia Hervey, sister of the Marquis of Bristol.
In November, 1854, this self-styled William Howe “Windham” died, leaving a widow and an only son, William Frederick, at that time fourteen years of age. At that tender age he was already, at Eton and elsewhere, an “ill-disposed and uncontrollable buffoon and vicious idiot”. His guardians were his mother and his uncle, General Windham, whose actions and motives were so severely criticised during the notorious “Windham Trial.”
William Frederick Windham would, in the ordinary course of events, have come of age and succeeded to his inheritance in 1861 without question; but his conduct as a boy and as a growing man was so outrageous that it was reluctantly decided by General Windham and others to petition for a judicial inquiry into the state of mind of this heir, who, they claimed – to be fully supported by future events by the way – could not be trusted with the management of his own affairs.
The Essential Details of the ‘Windham Trial’:
The “Windham Trial,” began on 16 December 1861, lasted thirty-four days and attracted hugh interest amongst the public; so much so that pamphlets were printed at the time, detailing the dreadful evidence, and selling by thousands.
The brief details of the case were that the alleged lunatic, William Frederick, was in line to inherit Felbrigg Hall and the rents that with it. In all, he would enjoy a considerable income which, in today’s terms would be around £700,000 per annum – according to one estimate. The petitioners sought to have their ward adjudged ‘incapable’ and for them to be made guardians of the property during his lifetime. To support that contention, they made a long series of allegations, showing that William Frederick had exhibited simple imbecility in childhood, and that with his physical growth his mental powers had declined.
The petitioners further recounted Windham’s idiosyncrasies. At Eton he was a buffoon and commonly known as “Mad Windham.” His indescribable habits led to his being early removed and placed under the care of a long succession of tutors, none of whom could make anything of him. Many testified that he was incapable of reasoning, addicted to low associates, filthy and profane language, and wanton and capricious cruelty to animals. He would gorge his food without using a knife and fork; eating until he was sick!
His violent temper had led to extraordinary scenes. For instance, at an evening party he had rushed at a gentleman whom he had never seen or spoken to before and, shrieking ‘like a wild Indian, had pinned him to the wall by his whiskers’. He was consistently exceptionally rude and offensive to ladies, and delighted to tear their clothes and make grimaces at them. He could not follow out any train of thought, and acted from one minute to another without reference to previous actions, becoming the laughing-stock of servants. He would also throw money away in the streets, and laugh when saner people scrambled for it. He would fondle a horse one moment and thrash it unmercifully the next. These actions, said Counsel, could not be those of a person enjoying reasonable use of his faculties, but there was worse to come.
It was only with apparent reluctance that General Windham was obliged to publicise these painful affairs of his unhappy nephew ……. there was no other course:
“for his nephew’s vile associates had persuaded him that all the efforts being made to prevent his moral, physical, and financial ruin were only part of a scheme by his uncle to deprive him of his liberty and property”.
But it was explained further in a statement that this was not the case because, whichever way the inquiry went – or whatever happened to his nephew, General Windham would not be the heir.
Witnesses were then called who bore out the opening statement, and added a great deal more. Some told how Windham would at times pretend to be a fireman, and, dressing in character, go about in a devastating manner with an axe and chop down doors and smash windows. At other times he would act the part of a railway guard. With uniform made for the character, he would frequent railway platforms, blow a whistle, and wave a flag. Once, performing these pranks, he nearly caused a railway disaster. At other times he would make off with passengers’ luggage. Altogether, from the family’s point of view and that of the public, William Frederick Windham should have been put under restraint. But it seems that the real compelling reason for bringing legal action was the connection young Windham had recently formed with a woman whom he had picked up in London, during Ascot week.
Agnes Willoughby, alias Rogers, in the words of Counsel:
“was not the chastest of the chaste; her favours in love-affairs were not few; she was known to the police.”
On 30 August 1861, having come of age on the 9th, he married her and settled £800 a year on her, to be increased in 1869 to £1,500. She had been, up to that time, living with a man named Roberts – after the marriage the three lived together!
The action was defended by Windham and his associates, who, in the event of his being declared a lunatic, would have lost “the rich harvest of plunder they were reaping.” A pitiful feature of the case, and one tending to prejudice the public against the petitioners, was that Windham’s mother, naturally unwilling to see her son branded as a madman, gave evidence in favour of him. Then, of the more than 150 witnesses called during the progress of the case, a number declared they had never noticed any peculiarity about young Windham, apart from:
“perhaps he was exceedingly high-spirited. He always behaved like a gentleman.”
It did not take the special jury of twenty-four “good men and true” very long to deliberate upon the concluding speeches of counsel. In half an hour they returned, with the astonishing verdict:
“That Mr. Windham is of sound mind and capable of taking care of himself and his affairs.”
This announcement was received with cheers!
On 2 February 1866 the Norfolk Chronicle published the following:
“Mr. F. W. Windham, who for five or six years had enjoyed unenviable notoriety, died suddenly at the Norfolk Hotel, Norwich. He had been unwell for several days, and was seen by his medical attendant, Mr. F. C. Bailey, on 31 January. Mr. Windham became better on 1 February, and still further improvement was manifested on the following day; but later in the same day his symptoms were completely altered, and became so alarming that Mr. Bailey called in Dr. Bateman and Dr. Eade. Every effort was made to restore animation, but without avail; this victim of an ill-spent life gradually sank, and in a few hours expired, in the presence of the medical men and of some of the servants of the hotel. Death was due to the obstruction of the circulation by a clot of blood in the pulmonary artery. On the 7 February the body was removed to Tucker’s Hotel, Cromer, and the interment took place on the 8th, in the family vault at Felbrigg.
Mr. Windham had completely dissipated the residue of the extensive property which he inherited, after payment of the law expenses contingent on the great suit, Windham v. Windham (q.v. November 22 1861), and became dependent for a livelihood on the little income he made as driver of the Cromer coach. His uncle, General Windham, had made arrangements by which he was supplied with the means of living respectably. He had rooms at the Norfolk Hotel, but generally spent his time in one or other of the low public-houses in the city. The effect of his death was to deprive Mrs. Windham of the annuity granted on Mr. Windham’s life, and of any interest whatever in the Hanworth estate.
Sources include: The Newmarket, Bury, Thetford, and Cromer Road, by Charles G. Harper-A Project Gutenberg eBook