NOTABLE SUSSEX WOMEN
580 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES
by award-winning author Helena Wojtczak
From NOTABLE SUSSEX WOMEN
Georgina Weldon née Thomas; later Treherne (1837–1914) musician and litigant
One of seven children, she was born in London and raised in Florence. In 1852 her mother, Louisa Dalrymple, inherited the 1,600-acre Gate House estate, between Cross-in-Hand and Framfield. It comprised a twenty-three bedroomed mock-Elizabethan mansion, three farms, numerous cottages and the manors of Isenhurst, Downash, Bowly and Possingworth. By law it passed immediately to her husband, Morgan Thomas MP, JP, DL. The family settled on the estate and in 1856 changed their surname to Treherne. At a ball in Brighton Georgina met Lieutenant Weldon from Preston Park barracks, but her father forbade their marriage because he had no money. After she was caught in flagrante delicto with another man her father imprisoned her at home. Once free she married Harry Weldon in 1860 and her father disowned and disinherited her.
In 1863 Mr Weldon secretly took a teenaged mistress, who bore him a daughter and was his partner for life. His grandmother’s death placed £10,000 a year at his disposal and in 1870 he leased Tavistock House, London, which included a small theatre added by Dickens, a former occupant. Mrs Weldon was by then a spiritualist and vegetarian and an adherent of rational dress for women as well as a singer, composer and teacher. As a vocalist she had ‘few equals and very few superiors’ and she sang at prestigious venues in London and Paris. She published Hints for Pronunciation in Singing (1872) as well as songs and memoirs, and turned Tavistock House into a residential school of music for young orphans. The French composer Charles Gounod was a house-guest for three years.
In 1875, by mutual agreement, Mr Weldon left, giving her the house lease and £1,000 a year. Three years later he offered eminent psychiatrist Dr Forbes Winslow £400 a year to incarcerate her in his private lunatic asylum. Using false names he and his colleagues visited, engaged her in a few minutes’ chat about spiritualism, and left. They signed a lunacy order, forced their way back in and tried to take her away to the asylum. She barricaded herself in a room until they left then went into hiding for a week until the lunacy order expired. As a married woman she could not sue anyone [see page 7] so she published The History of my Orphanage, or The Outpourings of an Alleged Lunatic and How I Escaped the Mad Doctors (1882) and spoke publicly to expose the scandal that owners of private, profit-making asylums could certify anyone as a lunatic for personal gain.
In 1882 she made a legal application for her husband to return, but he ignored the magistrate’s order, which normally led to a prison sentence for contempt of court, but to keep him from prison the law was changed in 1884 (it was even nicknamed ‘the Weldon Relief Act’). During the two years that case made its way though the course, the law changed in 1882, allowing wives to sue. Mrs Weldon was unshackled:in her first year she initiated twenty-five legal actions and founded a newsletter, Social Salvation. One of the first women to represent herself in court, she met her costs by appearing in music halls, earning a massive £70 week. She successfully sued all the participants in the plot to certify her a lunatic. Her first case against Dr Forbes Winslow failed, but cost him his professional reputation; her second resulted in her winning £1,000 damages. Later she won £1,000 from her husband and substantial sums from the other three doctors and was awarded a record £10,000 damages for being libelled by Mr Gounod. By 1900 she had brought over a hundred cases to court. She was herself sued for libel and served a month in Newgate in 1880 and six months in Holloway in 1885. On each release she was cheered by thousands of well-wishers. She retained her prison clothes and wore them while delivering public speeches on judicial and prison reform.
Georgina Weldon’s name and image became ubiquitous: she was reputed to have filled as many newspaper columns as a cabinet minister, was featured in magazines, poems and cartoons and her face — fifty times larger than life — appeared in adverts on London buses. Despite being severely criticised, mercilessly lampooned and deeply insulted by the popular press, she was nevertheless much in demand as a speaker, became vice-president of the Magna-Chartists and was invited to debates in the House of Lords.
Her musical career was not entirely abandoned; she continued to perform until 1884, singing at promenade concerts with a women’s choir that she trained and directed, composing children’s songs using her own translations of French texts and, as ‘Grannie Weldon’, publishing Cradle Song, Pussie’s Christmas Song and The Song of the Sparrow (1908).
She moved to Brighton when she was seventy and lodged with Mrs Gunn at Sillwood House, where she died. Her body was taken by train to Mayfield, where she was interred in the Dalrymple family vault in St Dunstan’s Church. A painting of her, dated 1845, is in the Watts Gallery. (Her husband, by then Sir Henry, married his mistress in 1915 and died four years later.)
Further reading: Grierson, E. (1959) Storm Bird: The Strange Life of Georgina Weldon. Thompson, B. (2001) A Monkey Among Crocodiles.
Only the first of these cuttings is in the book.