Insanity and Inebriation at Lacock Abbey: the lives of John Ivory and Mary Talbot

on Tuesday, 30 August 2016. Posted in Archives

John Ivory inherited Lacock Abbey estate in 1714 on the death of his maternal grandfather, Sir John Talbot, and took the name John Ivory Talbot. The following year he entered Parliament as a Tory and served as MP for Ludgershall for 7 years. Later he served as an MP for Wiltshire from 1727 - 1741. His career as an MP was less than distinguished. His entry in 'The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754' is brief. It records that he voted consistently against the Government and made only one speech in the House of Commons, against the Quakers title Bill in 1736. It is also noted that he was a possible Jacobite supporter in the event of an uprising against the new Hanoverian king. The last remark in the entry is, however, intriguing and reads:

'In 1735 the mother of his nephew, Thomas, 2nd Lord Mansel, then aged 14, objected successfully to his being made sole guardian of her son because she ‘did not care that Mr. Talbot, whose wife is mad ... and is himself driven to drink, should have the sole management of her son’s education’.

Evidence for these assertions have been sought in the Lacock Abbey archives and is found in the Account Books of the Lacock estate and in the correspondence between John and his wife, with John's brother-in-law, Henry Davenport.

John Ivory Talbot. Image copyright National Trust.

In July 1716, John Ivory Talbot married the Honourable Mary Mansel, the daughter of Sir Thomas Mansel, 1st Baron Mansel of Margam in South Wales. Together they had 4 children; John (b. 1717), Thomas (b. 1719), Martha (b. 1720) and Ann (b. 1723). The early years of the marriage appear to have been happy and trouble free and Mary appeared to be running the household and engaging in country pursuits such as riding to hounds. However, problems with her health became evident within a few months. In a letter to Henry Davenport in January 1717, John noted 'you must excuse both me and my wife for not answering yr letters, for she has scarce been a day without some disorder, & yesterday worse than ever, but I thank God she is pretty well to day; these fitts follow her so fast' (1). Mary herself, in July 1717, at this time half way through her first pregnancy, wrote to Henry reporting that 'I have been extream ill all this week my self' (2).

Surprisingly perhaps, in view of this, the meticulous accounts that John kept of expenditures incurred in the running of his household and the Lacock estate show only one entry for a doctor's bill over this period so little medical help was thought necessary at this stage.

A page from one of John Ivory Talbot's many account books.

The birth of their first child, in November 1717, did not apparently pose any particular medical problems either, as judged by the total lack of doctor's bills, and there is no evidence that Mary's health was of concern during and immediately after her second child, Thomas, was born in March 1719. However, in November 1719, in a letter to Henry Davenport, John Talbot mentioned that 'My wife continues very weak in her limbs tho' well as to other respects' (3).

From this time on, Mary's health deteriorated. Doctor's fees and apothecary's bills began to feature prominently in John's account books from 1719 onwards with most of the entries being  'for my dear' or 'for my dear wife', rather than for the children.

In March 1720, John wrote that 'My wife is better than she was, but so weak as not to stir out of her room or dine at table, but I don't doubt but she will soon pick up if ye children do but continue well, for it is ye frights for them that is ye occassion of all her illness' (4). In August, he reported that 'she had a relapse almost as bad as ye former' (5).

This situation prompted a move to Bath, for in a further letter to Henry at the end of August, John records 'I took lodgings this day sennight, it was a sudden resolution taken, not for ye sake of drinking ye water but only that she might be near help in case of danger, & that she has been so open in that it has sufficiently terrifyed me. We were dissappointed of a horse litter after expecting one three or four days, but by filling up ye bottom of ye coach wth bedding & being near six hours in coming we made ye journey almost as easy to her wch she bore very well & is much better since her lameness still continues' (6). Mary, in her third pregnancy, and so big 'that some say I shall have two added to my family' (7), remained in Bath for several months and gave birth to a daughter, Martha, there in November 1720. A Doctor Bane was in very regular attendance, at a guinea a visit, during the period immediately after the birth and there were also expenditures recorded for nursing, although it is not specified whether this is for Mary or the baby. One entry in the accounts in December 1720 is half a guinea for 'bleeding Jacky', presumably their son John.

For most of 1721, Mary appears to have been better, although there are some entries in the accounts for medical expenses, specifically one in July for £5-10s 'for bleeding my dear'. The size of this bill would indicate that several bleedings were administered. John Talbot was not noted for paying bills on time so this payment could refer to an earlier illness. Letters between John and Henry Davenport during this year are largely positive about Mary. In October 1721, Mary is described as 'perfectly well' (8). In November, the reports are even better, John Ivory reporting that 'My wife thank God is very well & grows fatt' (9).

Within a few days, however, the situation changed, as, by mid-December, Henry was informed that 'My wife was yesterday a little out of order & has return of a giddiness & fainting again today I hope it will go off again for otherways she is in perfect health' (10). A month later, the message became 'My wife has been very ill these ten days, taken much after ye same manner she was before she went to Bath last year, but she mends now' (11). The name of Dr Bane appears in the expenditure column of the accounts in December 1721. It is clear that Mary's condition was now chronic.

No correspondence survives between John and Henry in 1722, but the accounts show numerous payments to doctors and apothecaries during the year, and also payments to a Mr Sagar (or Segar) for bleeding Mary. John conveniently provided a complete summary of his 1722 accounts (March 1722- March 1723) which included the entry 'Doctors fees, Sagers and Apothecarys bills & belonging to Illness £58-12-6'. Sickness clearly was not cheap at this time!

Mary was again pregnant and gave birth to Anne in April 1723 in Bristol. There is no evidence that John and Mary went to Bristol for better medical care and an entry in the accounts for April 1723 for duty paid on '20 dozen of French wine' may suggest the true reason they were there. However, they remained in Bristol until 9 June, had Anne christened and had need of almost daily attendance from a Dr Lane. Between 29 April, when Anne was born, until they returned to Lacock in June, Dr Lane received 23 guineas, at, presumably, a guinea a visit. In addition, a Dr Pye was paid 20 guineas in two separate payments and the apothecary's bill was in excess of £10. There is no certainty that these payments related to the health of Mary, it is conceivable that baby Anne was, in fact, the patient, but given subsequent events, it is probable that Mary was the one requiring attention.

In November 1723, Mary was described as well (12) but, in early December of that year, her father died, and Mary took it very badly (13). In January 1724, John wrote to Henry 'she has been ever since much out of order & I am now afraid she will miscarry' (14). Mary was clearly pregnant again and, at some stage, Mary must have, indeed, miscarried as there were no further children of the marriage. There is no confirmation of this fifth pregnancy in either the correspondence records or the account books.

The account books for 1724 show regular expenditures on doctors and medicines which increased markedly later in the year when Mary suffered a relapse. In November, John told Henry 'for these last five weeks past I have been under no small trouble occassioned by my wives illness She is excessive weak, as you may imagine one may be that has taken little or no nourishment except Drs prescriptions & has kept her bed about this fortnight. I don't see how it will end, if she is a little brisk one day she is sure to be worse for it the next. But still the Dr says there is no danger, no inflamatory symptom & nothing but time will recover her' (15). In early December 1724 John Talbot wrote 'My wife continues so bad that we are resolved to go for Bath next Tuesday to be nearer help & to have her arm pumped' (16).

By Christmas 1724, the news was better for in a further letter to Henry, John wrote from Bath that 'I have ye pleasure to tell you that my wife does at last begin to mend, I have been in so much trouble for her Illness since we removed here' (17). During the winter of 1724/25, expenditure on doctors, nurses and medicines increased. A number of women appeared to be involved in caring for Mary and the infant Anne and, among the payments for medicines etc was one for asses milk for Mary. One curious entry in February 1725, refers to a payment of 10 guineas to the regular doctor, Dr Bane and to a 'Dr Pye & midwife'. A further series of payments in March 1725 'to Dr Cheyne, Dr Bane, Dr Lane ye midwife' amounted to more than £23. Had Mary again become pregnant? Or where these delayed settlements of bills relating to Mary's miscarriage the previous year? Dr Bane was regularly being paid for Mary's care over the latter part of 1724.

The family may have remained in Bath for several months to take advantage of superior medical care as John wrote from Bath in May 1725 that 'My wife is rather mending but so slow, that she has not yett been able to putt on any cloaths or leave her bed' (18). In June, Henry Davenport was told 'my wife has another small relapse of her fever occasioned by taking a little cold by ye window being open' (19).

A few days later, the news was worse; 'my poor Wife is relapsed & I fear worse than ever she began to gather flesh & to be able to sett up in a chair when she gott a little cold about a week since, her fever returns & then two days has been quite delirious. Her groans would melt your hardest heart & ye convulsion motions of her hands and legs frighten ye most resolved. The Doctors do not apprehend immediate danger, but I am sure dread ye worst event' (20).

The full extent of Mary's condition was revealed a month later in June 1725 when John confessed his worries to Henry in a letter from Bath:

'I am much obliged to you .... for ye kind concerns you express for my troubles here & your offer to come over to assist me  I wish it were in your power, but ye giving health is in nobody but God. You are mistaken to think the waters could be of any service to my wife, our coming here was to be near immediate help only her sickness appearing under such variety of shapes. You ask whether she is still confined to her bed or can walk ye room. Since I came .... she has not been out of her bed more than on a pallet while her own was making & that perhaps not once in a fortnight. It is now ten weeks since her last relapse that she has not taken notice of any thing, never cares to speak even to me, & not twice in a day knows me or those about her. She lyes quiet eats & drinks what is brought her but is insensible her hands are convulsed & ye use lost. She has no sence her pulse good, & tho she has all ye most nourishing food, she getts no strength or appears better & yett they say she is in no consumption nor are her vitals touched. If ye fine weather continues she may recover by that, but medicins avail little & if she does not before winter I am sure she never will. This is ye whole of her deplorable case wch I believe is worse than you imagine......' (21).

Mary remained at Bath for several months under the care of 'Sister Ivory', presumably one of John Ivory's two sisters, and a host of doctors and nurses. The accounts show numerous payments relating to medical care and board and lodging. John Talbot travelled widely during this period, attending to affairs at Lacock and elsewhere, his travels being detailed in the accounts books. He was a regular visitor to Bath but was obviously bored by its attractions, for as he related to Henry Davenport, that in 'Bath my case is worse I can be of no service to my poor wife within doors for she hardly knows one & without ye know the diversions of this place are my aversion' (21). The evidence would suggest that the children were also at Bath as the Lacock household accounts show a paucity of payments for food and domestic wages, unlike earlier years and little sign that the family was in residence. John's travels included visits to his property at Salwarp and to his in-laws at Margam in South Wales. His visits are detailed in the account books at this period and it is striking that from early 1726 onwards, while Mary was in Bath, he was regularly visiting the homes of Lords and Dukes and various others of the nobility.

Christmas 1726 may have been spent at Lacock but whether Mary was present is not clear. However, on 26 February 1727, 'my poor wife went up to London'. Clearly the medical care at Bath was considered insufficient. The accounts show that the cost of board and lodging for Mary, her maid and her nurse and for Doctor's fees was £5-17s per week. Numerous other entries in the account books show other charges for Mary over the next two years.

At this time, the children were sent to boarding school, the boys at, possibly, Marlborough and the girls in Bath. Over the next few years there are many payments relating to the children's education. It is possible that the boys later went to school in London and that the girls, in October 1731, went to live with relations, almost certainly their aunts, also in London. Son John went up to Oxford University in January 1735; his brother followed a few years later.

Mary was cared for in London until 31st January 1729, when John 'sent her back to Lacock'. In a letter dated 1 March 1729, Henry Davenport related to his wife, Barbara, that 'this morning I went to Talbot with hume I was with two or three hours .... He has at last sent her down in to the country to Laycock where he designs to keep her, by building a roome on the top of the house, or at Week Farm, She continues entirely stupifyed and senseless to the world, this he relates without any seeming concerns' (22). This apparent indifference of John to his wife's condition is reflected in his lifestyle. With his children taken care of, he was free to pursue his own path as a well-to-do bachelor. He continued his travels with visits to the great and the good of the country, he attended to his Parliamentary duties in London, he officiated at the Wiltshire Assizes, and attended to his estates at Salwarp and Lacock. He started to spend more money on himself, regularly attending horse races and playing cards (he usually lost money!). The time he spent at Lacock was limited and, in fact, when Mary first returned home, John was away from Lacock for over a month. The conclusion must be that Mary was indeed senseless and unable to register whether John was present or not. Whether she was kept at Week [Wick] Farm or in the house at Lacock is not known.

The record of Mary's illness is sparse for the next few years with only a very few mentions of her in John's accounts, mainly for clothes. However, in October 1735, the accounts show the following stark entry:

'17th My poor dear Wife that was so unfortunate as to loose her senses by a fever ten years & half ago dyed of a mortification in four days occasioned by Pricking a Tendon in her arm in bleeding.'

Although Mary precise date of birth is unrecorded, based on the date of her parent's marriage, she was probably about 45 years old. She had spent half of her married life in a comatose state.  

Mary Mansel Talbot, died 1735 aged about 45. Image copyright National Trust.

The mother of Thomas, the 2nd Lord Mansell, made her allegation that Mary was mad a few months before Mary's death. The evidence is that Mary was not insane in any currently accepted sense and whatever the correct medical description of her illness is, her condition should not have necessarily have precluded John Ivory from becoming Lord Thomas Mansell's guardian. The second part of the allegation, that he had taken to drink, may have been the chief reason the guardianship was denied.

The evidence for this is, at best, circumstantial and is largely contained in the expenditures on alcohol in the account books and the lifestyle that John Ivory enjoyed while his wife was incapacitated. In the early years of the marriage, there were few recorded expenditures on drink but there must have been quantities of wine at Lacock during this period because in a letter in late 1716, John wrote to Henry 'you make no mention whether you continue in yr resolution of having any wine: I have bottled off two hogdds. wh. proves very good: ye four cost me in my cellar £95: they don't run above eighteen dozen & half of my bottles but I beleive full quarts: I beleive bottles and carriage included it would stand you in thre shilli & four pence a bottle wh. is more than I fancied when I offerred you some: but if you have occassion for a less quantity it is att yr. service' (23). Perhaps John inherited a full cellar!

Thereafter the expenditures on alcohol quickly increased, and the cellar account for the year June 1717 - June 1718 amounted to £69. In 1720, John paid £1-12s 'To ye fisherman (sic) for 5 gallons & 3 pints of Brandy' and there were various other payments around this time, including for 12 gallons of sherry, 3 dozen bottles of port and 3 dozen bottles of white wine, all from Bristol. In addition, John was brewing beer at Lacock and he wrote enthusiastically to Henry in November 1721 that he had 'never brewed so great a stock , in short every cellar is full, I consider I can never do it cheaper malt & hops being so reasonable. But I have one experiment more to try in brewing wch is but one hogshead, but of such liquor that ensures your life for fifty year..' (24). John was clearly a keen brewer and a note in the account book in June 1719 indicates that he tried a number of recipes, including some supplied by brother-in-law Henry. The output was considerable, with 16 hogsheads of small beer and 8 of ale being produced. A hogshead was variously 220-240 litres in the 18th century. Not all brews were, however, successful and some were noted as 'not so good'.

The beer was probably not for just for John's pleasure but may have been intended for the Lacock workforce.

Expenditures on malt, hops and cooperage continued on a regular basis, indicating that brewing was a regular practice at Lacock. There were also recurring entries in the accounts for purchases of wine, including Madeira and port and, on several occasions, John bought French wine by the hogshead. The latter were purchased when Mary was ill, and when there was little evidence of guests being entertained at Lacock. He was also buying wine from the local inn in Lacock, the Red Lion. All this would suggest that John could well have been consoling himself with the odd glass of wine, or three, while Mary was debilitated and absent in Bath and London.

John continued this behaviour up to the time that the accusation that he 'took to drink' was made in 1735. His brewing activities may have lessened, as judged by the less frequent purchases of malt etc, but the buying of wine was regular. His extensive travels over this period were taking him all over the country and his visits to the homes of the nobility can be assumed to have included entertainment and alcohol. He was, in short, adopting the lifestyle of a country gentleman, who was well-known in well-to-do circles, was an MP and presided at the Wiltshire assizes. After 1725, he was effectively a bachelor, unencumbered by his wife and with his children away at school or with relatives. He had time and the means to indulge himself and appears to have done so, as evidenced by his expenditure patterns.

The evidence of his own account books and the fact that he was not granted sole guardianship of Lord Mansell, his wife's nephew, suggest strongly that John Talbot had indeed been driven, or driven himself perhaps, to drink. If he had, it did him little harm, as he continued as Lord of Lacock until his death in 1772, aged around 80.

Roger Cripps, Lacock Unlocked volunteer

A referenced version of this blog is available at here

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