Gaile House, as it was in my grandfather's day
This is the story of my 4 x Irish great grandmother, Mary Max, who was abducted and forced into marriage in 1777at the age of thirteen. She lived in the Max family home at Gaile House, County Tipperary, and was an heiress to a £40,000 estate, including the hosue - worth over £6,000,000 in today’s terms. Her father and brothers had all died in quick succession, so now, as a young teenager, Mary would inherit the family fortune when she turned eighteen. Her only close relative was her mother and guardian, Joan Max.
At the time, abduction was rife in the heartlands of Ireland, and Mary was a tempting candidate. It had become almost acceptable as a way of securing a bride, and although it was a capital offence, the risk of conviction was low. Mary’s abductor was her first cousin-once-removed Samuel Phillips, from Foyle, Kilkenny. This was where the Phillips family had eventually settled; they had arrived in Ireland no later than 1600, probably from Wales.
By the 18th century, the family had some land and money, but not enough, it seems. And so a secret plan was made to grab the family fortune of the Maxes, their kinsmen, to add to their own. A raiding party was put together: Samuel Phillip, groom was then 21, and his supporters included his father Richard Phillips, who was a Magistrate and Justice of the Peace, his sister Frances, and, surprisingly, Dennis Meagher who was Mary’s uncle on her mother’s side.
Mary was snatched late one evening, as she was returning home from a ball. Samuel’s sister acted as the decoy, pretending to offer Mary a safe lift in her carriage back to her mother’s home. Instead, the coach sped away to Waterford, where the conspirators and prospective bridegroom were waiting. From here, they went by boat to Wales, and then by road to Scotland. All land transport was, of course, by horse and carriage. A hue and cry was raised, a magistrate’s militia sent off in pursuit, and the story was taken up by British newspapers, from which we’ve gathered many of the details. The Phillips family’s first aim was to get her married off to Samuel, before the pursuers could intervene. Many such marriages were conducted in all sorts of shady ways, with little regard for the legitimacy of the priest. In Edinburgh, Samuel procured a so-called clergyman, ‘a man of very indifferent character’.
Mr and Mrs Phillips then hastened to travel south with their ‘wedding party’. But by then, there was a price on their heads: Mary’s mother offered a handsome reward for Mary’s safe return, and a bounty price to anyone who could hand over Samuel Phillips or his father to the law. Knowing little of the geography, Samuel’s troupe made a strenuous journey by side roads down to Brighton, at the time a small fishing village known as Brighthelmstone, and from there set sail for France. All but one of the party – Mary’s uncle- escaped across the Channel. He however was arrested and clapped in jail in Dublin. It was a close-run thing: according to one newspaper report the abduction party was chased right to the edge of the water.
‘Before the packet in which they sailed was lot out of sight, two of Sir John Fielding's men arrived at Brighthelmstone, in pursuit of them, and offered any of the fishermen a large reward, that would give chase to the packet, and prevail on the Captain to steer back; but not one of them would attempt it.’
(Hampshire Chronicle, 15 Sep 1777)
Even in France they were not entirely out of reach of British law, either. As the Freeman’s Journal reported on Sep 25th 1777: ‘Application has been made by the English Ambassador at Paris to have the Phillipses who ran away with Miss Max delivered up if they could be found in the French dominions, and liberty given to have them transmitted to this kingdom to be tried for the felony.’
Within the space of a month, a thirteen-year-old girl had thus gone from living quietly with her widowed mother in rural Ireland, to being forcibly married to a cousin, and chased across four countries. But before the law could finally catch up with them, Mary’s mother Joan made them an offer. She was desperate to get her daughter back, having lost her husband and both sons in quick succession. She withdrew her threat of prosecution, and allowed Samuel to bring his under-age bride back to Gaile House, the Max family home.
Samuel Phillips now became head of the household in a dwelling that was most definitely superior to his father’s home at Foyle, Kilkenny, and he lost no time in using Mary’s money to make it even grander. He still however had to stand trial at Kilkenny Assizes for a hanging offence of abducting a minor, But as Joan Max refused to offer any evidence, he walked free. However, Samuel didn’t win hands down. Mary’s money and property was put in trust for her heirs, so he never had complete control of it. He did however secure Gaile house, which then became the Phillips’ family home for over 150 years after this. My grandfather was born there.
Samuel and Mary had three children (Richard, Joanna and Frances), before Mary died aged only 26. Who knows what a toll the early marriage and childbirth had put upon her system? She had her first child, Richard, when she was only sixteen years old.
But despite family papers and newspaper reports, we still don’t have the whole story. Was it a forced abduction, that ripped a young girl away from her mother, her only protector, and laid claim to the fortune? Or could it be that Mary and Samuel were indeed in love? Or, again, perhaps she was a headstrong young teenager with a thirst for an exciting adventure. They were not strangers; the families lived only forty miles apart and already knew each other well. According to the mores of the day, at thirteen she would be considered nearly ripe for marriage. But even for those times, she was still very young: most Irish abductees were under the age of 21, but very few indeed were as young as that. And it seems that Sam and Mary started sexual activity straightaway. One newspaper reports: ‘It appeared that when they left Ireland they sailed for and landed in Wales, that they crossed all England and made the best of their route to Scotland, where it is supposed young Phillips and Miss Max were married, as it also appeared they slept together at Kingston, and at Brighthelmstone.’
As her direct descendant, I’d like to think that Mary and Samuel married for love. Or at least, that there was some romance or sense of adventure on her side. One gossip column of the day suggested that they already had an ‘understanding’ and that when Mary’s relatives began to arrange a marriage for her to ‘a young Gentleman of a distinguished Family in Dublin’, Mary and Sam decided to secure their own marriage first. Nevertheless, would a thirteen-year old girl really understand what was in store for her?
My father was a keen genealogist, and he uncovered this story and pieced it together. I’ve added to it with the advantage of excellent internet tools now, and a rich trove of old newspaper reports available for searching online. A tantalising, dramatic, but still mysterious story has unfolded, to which we will probably never have all the answers. One question which springs to mind is why did Mary’s mother Joan drop the prosecution, and accept that her young daughter had contracted a dodgy marriage? For that, there is a historical answer: studies of abductions from the period reveal that a girl was often regarded as ‘damaged goods’ once she had even been alone with a young man, and that she would henceforth be rejected as marriage material. Parents usually decided that even a forced marriage was better than no marriage. And later reports do indicate that Mary and Sam did settle together quite happily, for the thirteen year period of their marriage.
I’d like to honour my grandmother by telling her story and keeping the memory alive. Researching it has led me into a fascinating area of history, when the law in central Ireland was largely disregarded, and old clan ways were still partially in force. I cannot help be somewhat uncomfortable, however, about the way my Phillips ancestors acquired their ‘forever’ home. Eventually, there was no one in the family suitable to take it on any more, and so it was sold. But from falling nearly derelict, it’s now under new ownership, and beautifully restored as a stud farm. The wheel of Fortune turns again.