Wednesday, July 27, 2011

August 5, 1885 --- The Member for Chelsea

Sir Charles Dilke - a leading Liberal MP and on the shortlist to succeed the aging Gladstone as party leader - is served with papers naming him a co-respondent in a sensational divorce.   A Tory MP, Donald Crawford received anonymous letters about his wife's alleged philandering.  One letter read: “Beware the Member for Chelsea,” Dilke’s London constituency. 
Crawford would tell the Divorce Court that when he confronted his wife, Virginia, she admitted: “The man who ruined me was Charles Dilke.”  But, beyond her word, there was no actual proof of Dilke’s involvement and taking legal advice, Dilke opted not to testify.  Mrs. Crawford had been unfaithful with others and her husband got his divorce.  The judge declared, “I cannot see any case against Sir Charles Dilke.”   It proved a disastrous “victory.”  The unfriendly segments of the press wondered why Sir Charles had not demanded the opportunity to clear his name.  The Pall Mall Gazette said Dilke's career could not remain under such a “black and hideous suspicion.”  Dilke finally asked that the divorce be reviewed by the office of the Queen’s Proctor.  It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. 

Victorian divorces were granted conditionally, a decree nisi.  During the time period before a decree absolute was issued, any member of the public could ask the Queen’s Proctor to determine if the divorce should be prevented for any reason, usually fraud, connivance or condonation.  Dilke’s appeal came on before the Queen’s Proctor in July, 1886.  The Crawfords, desperate not to be re-linked, were vigorously represented.  When Dilke did finally take the stand, he funked it.  He rambled, evaded and “forgot.”  His appointment diaries, with key portions “cut out,” were certainly not helpful.  Then, the blushing ex-Mrs Crawford took the stand, asking “My Lord, is it necessary that I should give all the details?”  And, with what was described as “marvelously little embarrassment,” she did.  She gave dates, locations, and floor plans.  She accused Dilke of introducing her to “every French vice” including a threesome with a maid named Fanny.  The latter had conveniently “disappeared.” And, to gasps in the courtroom, she testified, “Sir Charles told her he had been her mother’s lover, and that she was very like her mother, that being why he had taken a fancy to her.”  The jury took a quarter-hour to put a final stake in Sir Charles Dilke’s career.  It is no wonder that a friendly newspaper deadpanned:  “It would have been far better if the case had not been reopened.” 

The keeper of the Dilke papers says the Crawford divorce was the most notorious politico-social drama of the 19th Century.  Was Dilke framed?  No brief survey can even turn the first wheel within the wheels of the sinister conspiracy Dilke partisans insist was set in motion to crush him.  The villain, to many, was his rival for Mr Gladstone’s chair, Joe Chamberlain.  Chamberlain stood best man at Dilke’s wedding and Dilke himself thought Joe C was “incapable of such treachery.”  But why was Mrs Crawford seen skulking from Chamberlain’s home only days before confessing her adultery to her husband?  In later years, Mrs Crawford converted to Catholicism and unburdened her sins and secrets upon her confessor.  He’s not talking.

Dilke was soon no longer the member for Chelsea.  He did return to the House in 1892 but was never again a figure of any influence in politics.  So, who was Sir Charles Dilke?  Was he, in the words of the Crawford’s counsel, “a coarse brutal adulterer more befitting a beast than a man?"  Or, was he, as he told his rapidly dwindling band of supporters, “A sick and sleepless man supported by a sick and sleepless wife … crushed by a monstrous slander.”


  1. Crawford was actually a fellow Liberal MP not a Tory.

  2. Crawford was actually a fellow Liberal MP not a Tory.