I recently happened upon some material which piqued my interest: it was a small envelope of correspondence 1896-1900 relating to a former governess to Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe’s daughters at Calke Abbey, named Miss Adams, who was involved in a court case. If you’ve read my blog posts about Elizabeth Appleton, you’ll know that governesses have a particular fascination for me, so I felt compelled to find out more about Miss Adams.
There was a suggestion that Lady Crewe might have to testify at the court case and letters from his daughter to the governess might be produced as evidence. Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe was clearly trying to prevent this happening and distance his family from any scandal. With a bit of judicious searching on Ancestry, Findmypast, and the British Newspaper Archive (all free to use at the Record Office and your local Derbyshire library) I found a wealth of information about Miss Adams, also known as Sarah A’Court among other names, which paints an interesting picture of her.
Within the envelope were three notes from the governess herself to Sir Vauncey in 1896, just before she left his employ. Sir Vauncey had obviously dismissed her, as her notes show she is unhappy to be leaving. Her writing is difficult to read, but one letter reads ‘Believe me when I tell you I am so bitterly miserable’:
As Sir Vauncey was a notoriously difficult man, the fact that he decided she had to go wouldn’t necessarily count against her. As it transpires, however, Sir Vauncey may have had good reason to dismiss her .
Sarah Elizabeth Hamp Adams was born in 1868, the daughter of a solicitor, Francis Hamp Adams, in Upton Bishop near Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire. She claimed to have married on 19 December 1892, which is how her name changed to Sarah A’Court, but had separated from her husband. The marriage apparently didn’t take place in England and she would give no further details about this mysterious husband; it’s unlikely he ever existed.
In 1900, under the name Sarah A’Court, she took a Mr and Mrs Denny to court for false dismissal and slander. They had employed her as a governess the year before, but had dismissed her on the grounds that she had been previously employed as a parlour maid by a friend under a different name, Susan Adams. They therefore didn’t believe any of her references that stated she had worked as a ‘high class governess’ to families like the Harpur Crewes, although as we know, at least some of those references were actually true. She lost her case, however, when the supposed real ‘Susan Adams’ refused to testify in court.
The case caused something of a sensation in the press, as did its sequel when the governess was tried for perjury at the Old Bailey. Newspapers reported that Sarah A’Court had tried to pay a young woman to say that she was Susan Adams. In fact, Sarah had taken the job as a parlour maid under the name Susan Adams and had written her own reference as ‘Countess A’Court’. She was convicted and sentenced to eighteen months’ hard labour.
You would think a perjury conviction might be the end of Sarah A’Court’s desire to take people to court but not so! With the help of the British Newspaper Archive it’s possible to trace at least some of her further career through her legal actions:
In August 1907 she sued the Great Western Railway Company for damaging some furniture and in December of the same year she was herself successfully sued by two former staff of her dressmaking business, ‘Madame Elizabeth’, for wrongful dismissal. In 1908 she also sued Messrs Debenham & Co for damages to her business from their delivery of goods – a case which the judge clearly found frivolous. In June 1911 she sued a former employer for the balance of her salary as governess in Scotland and in December 1915 she sued Lady Elsie Arrol for running her over in her car. By this time she had a business in Great Portland Street, London as a dressmaker, masseuse, and teacher of Swedish Drill.
She finally appears in court in March 1928 when she is a boarding house keeper in Golders Green and has been accused of falsifying a cheque from one of her tenants. She is described as hitherto of good character but somewhat eccentric. She died in 1939.
We often have a mental picture of a governess as a worthy but down-trodden woman. Not so Miss Hamp Adams alias Mrs Sarah A’Court alias Susan Adams alias Miss Marcia alias Countess A’Court!