Edward Bearcroft was born in 1715: the first son of John Bearcroft and his wife, Jane Parrott. He was baptised at St Marys, Hanbury on May 29th and grew up with a brother John and three sisters: Jane, Frances and Maria.
As a young man he was charged with the murder of his own child, born out of wedlock, and appeared at Bristol assizes. It is said that his mother paid a large sum of money to have the charges dropped.
In 1754 Edward, an acting attorney, took a lease for 21 years on what became 64 FRIAR STREET from George Woodcock, innkeeper of Worcester. This included a pew in St Andrew’s church, barns, stables, gardens and courtyards. Edward wrote to George Woodcock in Worcester stating that he was not paying the rent as the house was in a poor state of repair and he was afraid that it would fall down. Repairs were carried out in 1760 and in 1764 after the death of George Woodcock, his widow and son sold the property to Edward Bearcroft.
In 1758 Edward befriended the 19 year old Sir William Compton of Hartpury Court, in Gloucestershire. Sir William’s father had not long died and Edward attempted to have his will set aside on the grounds of incompetence. The trustee of the will, Robert Berkeley, persuaded Sir William’s mother to agree to testify that Sir William was born out of wedlock. She had been a dairymaid that Sir William’s father had married and it seems likely that the allegation was true. If this was revealed in court Sir William would lose his inheritance and Edward would not have been able to take advantage of him. Edward dropped his claim and began manipulating Sir William to his advantage. He encouraged William’s drinking and introduced him to Duddeston Hall in Vauxhall Gardens, near Birmingham. This house was used as a hotel where one could stay whilst enjoying the gambling and drinking. There Sir William met Anne Bradnock whom Edward had chosen as a bride for him. The couple eloped to Scotland where in August 1759 they were married by the innkeeper of the Red Lion in Edinburgh, according to the rites of the Church of England. The marriage was announced on the 6th August 1759 in the Scots Magazine and in September in the Gentleman Magazine. On his return to Hartpury Sir William tried to have the marriage annulled. However, although William was under 21, the marriage was valid because the Marriage Act of 1753 did not apply to Scotland. He became seriously ill towards the end of the year, at his other estate at Hindlip, and died in April 1760. Edward was appointed receiver of the revenues of the Compton Estates but in July was discharged by court order.
Edward Bearcroft decided to play court to Sir William’s eldest sister, Catherine Maria, who was 19; he was 45. Her mother, Dame Sarah, refused permission for him to become her suitor and Catherine was sent to stay with one of her guardians, John Dalby, in Berkshire but in 1761 she travelled to see her mother at Hartpury.
By March 1762 it seems that Catherine had been persuaded to elope with Edward. They travelled together to Dumfries without the knowledge of her guardians. There they were married by a minister of the Episcopal Congregation in Dumfries, Richard Jameson, who lodged in the house of Thomas Huddleston, a cook and confectioner. They returned to England the same day, to Edward Bearcroft’s house in Droitwich. He asked Dame Sarah to forgive him but she had him committed to the Fleet Prison, for marrying a ward of court. He was released from prison after promising to make a marriage settlement, which he never did.
Edward and Catherine’s marriage was not a happy one and after a few years she went to live in Gloucester in a rented house. The Compton estates passed to William’s brother Walter, and Edward began to exert his influence over him as he had over William. He encouraged Walter to drink and gamble in excess, introducing him to Duddeston Hall. He allowed Walter’s debts to accumulate, frightening him with tales of debtors’ prison. By the time Walter came of age in April 1770 he was incapable of managing his affairs. Edward provided papers for Walter to sign, which put him in charge of the estates. Walter was not well at this time but did recover. Edward managed the estates by issuing verbal agreements with the tenants which could be easily reneged on. This put the tenants in a precarious position and encouraged them not to oppose him in any way. He changed the day of expiry of tenancies from Lady Day (25 March) to Candlemas (2 February) and moved fields from one farm to another making it difficult to calculate and compare income. He failed to pay bills and involved Sir Walter in lawsuits with creditors. He also sold timber from the estate said to be worth about £2,000 which released ready cash, which he used for his own purposes. Edward seems to have been a careless manager and had no interest in running the estates properly and in 1773 Sir Walter, probably at his mother’s suggestion, asked Robert Berkeley to help him reclaim his estates. Edward had embroiled Sir Walter in 29 suits with creditors. He was advised to file a bill in Chancery, using Robert’s own solicitor, Charles Welch of Evesham. Sadly in August that year Sir Walter died before his plans were fully realised. He left his estates to his two surviving sisters: Catherine Bearcroft and Jane Compton. Edward now became the owner of half of the Compton estate in right of his wife. Robert Berkeley’s younger brother, John, had been widowed for about eight years and now was attracted to the charms of the young heiress, Jane. They were married in October 1773 and John became the owner of the other half of the Compton Estates in right of his wife, subject to the provisions of the marriage settlement.
In January 1774 Edward had a chance encounter with his wife. Catherine was driving her chaise near Hindlip when she met Edward with his Bailiff, George Bourne, and two servants. She was being chaperoned by her confessor, Father James Young. Edward asked Father Young to get down from the chaise and he then got in and drove to his house in Droitwich. At Catherine’s request he sent for her maid and Father Young later that day.
The next morning Edward insisted that Catherine copied out some letters and signed them. Catherine’s maid said that her mistress was in hysterics by the time the letters were written. Edward had arranged to take her to London later in the week and she feared that they would be meeting lawyers to transfer the property she held in her own right to Edward, and then she would be put in an asylum as Edward’s mother had been.
In the afternoon John Berkeley arrived with William Welch, the son of his lawyer. They both spoke to Catherine and Edward but Catherine was in tears and so frightened she could not speak while Edward was in the room. Welch and Berkeley made to leave but Father Young called them back and Catherine whispered that she wanted to flee the house. John Berkeley asked Edward if he could have a private word with him before he left and they moved into the dining-room. The door was then locked from the outside by an unknown person. Catherine was to leave in the carriage which was waiting outside the front door but she asked for it to be moved away as she thought that if Edward saw her leaving from the window he might shoot at her. As Catherine left with Welch, Edward saw them through the window and ran to the door but finding it locked he tried to climb through the window. Berkeley stopped him and there was a struggle in which Edward said that Berkeley threatened him with a pistol. Berkeley admitted that he was armed but said he did not draw the pistol and had only defended himself with his stick.
Edward tried to get Catherine back by a writ of habeas corpus(1), but John Berkeley again rescued her and took her to Hartpury Court. There, on the advice of the attorney general, she drew up a deed of settlement securing all her property to herself for life and then to her sister, Jane Berkeley.
In 1775 her agent at Hartpury, William Holder, wrote to John Berkeley to say that her friends and servants were afraid that Catherine might be abducted again. She insisted in going out in the chaise but only went in the grounds of the house and armed servants were with her. However her health was deteriorating and it was reported that her hands and feet began to swell, giving her great pain. She died a few days later aged 34.
From the death of Sir Walter in 1773 until 1783 Edward refused to account for his income as manager of the estate and held onto the profits. In 1775 he was still holding on to the £896 which he had acquired 15 years earlier during his three months receivership after the death of young Sir William. Suits in Chancery were pursued at considerable expense. Edward seems to have grossly exaggerated his expenses, ignored his income from the estates and disregarded court orders if they did not suit him. John Berkeley died in 1778 and his brother, Robert, carried on with the law suits. It was not until the mid 1780s that all the matters in contention were settled by arbitration and Robert Berkeley had to pay Edward about £10,000 in addition to his own legal costs. Following this Edward himself was the subject of a law suit brought by his former law clerk.
Edward Bearcroft suffered from ill health in his later years. He wrote a memorandum in 1786 which listed his wishes concerning his burial and the management of the estate after his death. In the memorandum he left specific instructions and money to his Executors and niece to build a monument to himself, his mother, father and brother in Hanbury Church over the family vault. He wished to be placed in a lead coffin and to be taken ‘in the dead of night’ to Broughton House where he wanted to lie in the hall. From there he wanted to be taken to Hanbury Church with a hearse and six and a mourning coach and six. He wanted the pall bearers to be his tenant farmers, who were to have hatbands and scarves and all his tenants and cottagers to be invited to the funeral and given hatbands and gloves, as he regarded them as his best friends. He left his clothes to his mourners Tom and Jem, who were probably his servants, and also bequeathed them £10 each. He was concerned about the welfare of one Betty Heming. If she was turned out of Broughton House after his decease then he wanted her to live rent free in one of his houses at Broughton Green.
Edward was concerned about the management of his estate and gave instructions to Frances Dickenson, his niece, on employing a suitable steward, ‘bred up in the farming line’, recommending George Fownes the younger, at a salary of 30 guineas a year. He was also involved in a Court case with the Earl of Coventry and the rector William Burslem, concerning the tithes in Hanbury.
Edward wrote his will in February 1792. He listed his real estate: several Manors of Broughton and Hollow and capital mansion houses, messuages, tenements, farms, lands, hereditaments and freehold estates situate in the parishes of Hanbury, Feckenham, Stock and Bradley, Kington, Salwarpe, Himbleton, Bromsgrove, Kings Norton, Coughton Hackett, Rushock, Astley and Droitwich in Worcestershire; Highley in Shropshire; his Manor of Shurnock in the parish of Feckenham in Worcesteshire together with all his leasehold estates in the Parish of Feckenham; and also all his copyhold estates in the parish of Inkberrow and estates held of the Manor of Pensax in Worcestershire.
Edward’s niece, Frances Dickenson, daughter of his eldest sister Jane, was his main beneficiary. He wanted all the diamond earrings, necklace, hoop or bow and other diamonds which he had allowed her to wear to be deemed heirlooms, for her use. She was to have his embroidered waistcoats and the fine clothes of her grandmother and of Edward’s late wife, Catherine, and his coach and horses. All his other household possessions were to be taken to Broughton House. Broughton House, at Broughton Green, near Hanbury, is now renamed Becknor Manor.
Edward Bearcroft died in January 1793 and Frances Dickenson, at the age of 41, took possession of Broughton House and the house in Friar Street.
(1) Habeas corpus: a person can report an unlawful imprisonment before a court, usually through a prison official.
Edward Bearcroft Will & Memorandum Proved 29 April 1793
A Practical Treatise on the Law of Marriage and Divorce. Leonard Shelford Esq. 1841
The Compton Family of Hartpury Court. John Berkeley 2013
Visitations of Worcestershire 1682-3