The Infamous Case of Sir Felix Booth, 1843

NOTE: The infamous case of Sir Felix Booth of Hull, reported in many newspapers across the north of England in 1843. The baronet accuses his good-for-nothing godson, who lived on his bounty for many years, of extorting money by threatening to accuse him of having sexual relations with his confidential clerk, his young protegé whom he also supported for many years. The case goes to court, and the godson maintains that his charge is true. This Dickensian case about an unmarried aristocrat's kindness to two young men has a surprise ending. Sir Felix Booth was famous for having financed an expedition to discover the North Magnetic Pole, for which he was knighted, and after which was named the Gulf and Peninsula of Boothia in Canada. At Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in May 1834 was exhibited a representation of Boothia, having icebergs, frozen seas, polar bears and an Eskimo village.

Friday 6 January 1843

INFAMOUS CHARGE AGAINST SIR FELIX BOOTH, BART. – The magistrates of this borough were on Wednesday engaged in investigating a charge preferred by Sir Felix Booth, against a young man named Felix Booth, second cousin and godson to the Hon. Baronet, and whom the latter charged with having a few days ago written a letter, dated Horner's-square, in this town [Hull], and forwarded through the general post to the London residence of Sir Felix, making a claim for money alleged to be due, and threatening, in case it were not paid, to bring Sir Felix before a court of justice on a charge of committing an unnatural crime in 1839. The letter, a long rambling one, having been read, the prisoner was asked what he had to say in answer to the charge of writing the letter. He admitted at once that it was his writing, and that he had written fifty such, but denied that the object was to extort money. He declared to the magistrates that the charge he had made against Sir Felix was true, and that he could prove it. Mr. Tilson, of the firm of Tilson, Squance, and Tilson, London, solicitors, stated that at the time the offence was alleged to have been committed, Feb. 21st, 1839, the prisoner was living upon the hospitality of Sir Felix, at the farm at Chatworth, Huntingdonshire, where, besides board, lodging, &c., he was allowed the profits of the poultry, about 30 a-year, for pocket money. In consequence of his disorderly conduct, including his drunkenness, and his prosecuting a neighbour for sporting, Sir Felix saw fit to remove him from the farm; he left in April, and in July Sir Felix advanced upwards of 300 to start the prisoner in the grocery line at Somerstown. In March following, the young man had got through all, and applied to his relative for a new stock. The concern was closed, and some further assistance given to the young man. But in October, 1840, finding persuasion and entreaty fail to extract more money from his benefactor, the prisoner began to hint that he had received letters which would prove something very dark against Sir Felix. An action was brought by prisoner for 455 11s. 6d. for salary alleged to be due at 100 a-year. Failing in this, the threatening letter system was pursued; at last the prisoner was apprehended. The magistrates having heard a full and satisfactory answer to the charge, committed the prisoner for trial at the next assizes, and assured Sir Felix that he left the court without the slightest imputation against his high character. (Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette) (This report was very widely reprinted. The Morning Post (among others) for 11 Jan. 1843 adds the information that "A very great amount of correspondence was read, all breathing affection and esteem, so long as pecuniary aid was given; when that ceased, every effort appears to have been made to extort money; an action was brought by prisoner for 445l. 11s. 6d. for salary alleged to be due at 100l. a year. Failing in this, the threatening letter system was pursued; circulars were printed, that a pamphlet exposing the base conduct of Sir Felix was in the press, and letters alleging the unnatural crime were addressed by the prisoner to Sir James Graham and Sir Robert Peel, and a magistrate of Huntingdonshire.")

7 January 1843

The Hull Advertiser of yesterday says, that Sir Felix Booth was examined before the Magistrates on Wednesday, on a revolting charge preferred by Felix Booth, his second cousin and godson. Sir Felix said that it was an attempt to extort money from him, and that he would have it thoroughly investigated. The young man is represented as a spendthrift, who formerly lived at his godfather's expense, and had been set up in business by him. The Magistrates assured Sir Felix, that he left the court without a spot upon his character. (The Spectator)

Friday 24 March 1843

(Before Mr. Justice COLTMAN.)
FELIX BOOTH (35) was charged with having, on the 15th of December last, at Hull, written and sent a certain letter to Sir Felix Booth, Bart., threatening to accuse him of an unnatural crime, with intent to extort money.
          Mr. J. S. WORTLEY and Mr. WILKINS were for the prosecution; Mr. BLISS defended the prisoner.
          The prisoner, on a previous day, pleaded not guilty.
          Mr. BLISS said he had advised his client to withdraw his plea for the present, and that he hoped to be allowed to make some objections to the indictment in this case.
          Mr. WORTLEY hoped the request would not be acceded to, as that might prevent the prosecutor from entering into a public investigation of a very important character. The prisoner had already pleaded, and the objections of his learned friend might be made in arrest of judgment.
          Mr. BLISS stated that the prisoner had pleaded before he had had the advice of counsel.
          Mr. Baron PARKE, after consulting with Mr. Justice Coltman, stated he and his learned brother were of opinion that the case ought to go on, and that any substantial objections might be made afterwards.
          Mr. WORTLEY then stated the case. He said, the case which it now became his duty to present to them was one of a most serious, and, at the same time, most painful nature – most serious, because it was a charge against the young man, the prisoner at the bar, of a crime which, with one or two exceptions at most, was of a deeper dye perhaps than any that was known, in our law; most painful, because it imposed upon the prosecutor, Sir Felix Booth, the necessity of appearing in the witness box against the prisoner at the bar, bearing his own name, being in fact his godson, and, he believed, a relation of Sir Felix. He (the learned counsel) wished to caution the jury against allowing the indignation which naturally arises in every man's breast at the very thought of such a threat being made as that maintained in the indictment – he cautioned them against allowing that feeling to sway them the least in forming their judgments on the evidence to be adduced. The charge was that the prisoner at the bar had addressed to Sir Felix Booth, his relation, a letter, in which he charges and accuses Sir Felix Booth of the most filthy, the most abominable crime which was known to the English law, and that he addressed that letter and used that threat and that accusation for the purpose of extorting from Sir Felix Booth money for his own purposes. By an act passed in the 7th and 8th of George III. that offence was made a felony, and if a party be convicted of it, he must undergo the punishment which all would feel was well deserved and most justly due for such an offence. His learned friend (Mr. Bliss) had been anxious, and in the discharge of his duty to his client was perhaps bound to make an application to his lordship, in order that the prisoner at the bar might revoke the course which he had taken, in putting himself on his trial before them, and that he might have an opportunity of taking some strictly technical objections to the indictment, and which he might hope might be successful. He (Mr. Wortley) should be sorry to think that the prisoner was deprived of any fair advantage on his trial, but he did feel it his duty to oppose his learned friend's application, which, if granted, would have been a mere act of grace on the part of his lordship, and the effect of which would have been to deprive the disstinguished gentleman whom he represented, the prosecutor, of the opportunity, before the face of his country-men and of the world, of vindicating himself from this beastly charge, and perhaps from being a witness in support of this prosecution. The prosecutor was a gentleman whose name might be well known to some of the jury: he was a gentleman advanced in life, who up to this time has lived respected and honoured by all who have known him. He had served the office of sheriff of London in 1828 and 1829, by the election of his fellow-citizens, has ranked in high society, and has been honoured by persons of high distinction, and has won for himself a name as a distinguished friend of science, having been in fact the individual who furnished the money for that expedition to the North Pole which resulted in the discoveries of Captain Ross, and to the giving of his name to newly-discovered land. [A report in the Bradford Observer for 23 March says that this was "the continent of Boothia".] Sir Felix is also a distiller, being one of those persons who have raised themselves to high station in society by their own exertions. He had a distillery in London and one in Scotland; he also had a large brewing concern near London. The prisoner was a relation of Sir Felix Booth; was, he believed, a cousin; his father kept a grocer's shop at Caistor, in the county of Lincoln, and at the time of the prisoner's birth application was made to Sir Felix Booth to honour the father by becoming the prisoner's god-father; in an unhappy moment Sir Felix consented to do that, and accordingly the prisoner at the bar was named after him. For some reason or other the prisoner was living away from home, and not under the protection of his father's roof. He had contracted a marriage, he (the learned counsel) knew not and cared not in what class of life. In the year 1835 he applied to Sir Felix Booth, to give him some employment, representing himself at that time to be in a state of abject distress. He was in the metropolitan police, and expressed great anxiety to leave it and get some employment from Sir Felix. After some time Sir Felix consented to give him employment in one of the distilleries with which he was connected; and a partner of Sir Felix, Mr. Grimble [another report says "Grumble"], undertook to give the prisoner employment, and to let him have such wages and such allowances as he (Mr. Grimble) thought proper. According to instructions given to him by Sir Felix, Mr. Grimble provided for the prisoner, gave him employment, and found lodgings and accommodation for him and his wife. He was provided for for a length of time, but afterwards the conduct of the prisoner became so bad, being very much given to drinking – which, of course, was not suitable in a large distillery – that he was discharged. Subsequently to that the prisoner again threw himself on the mercy of Sir Felix Booth. He entreated him to give him another trial, and to put him in a situation where the temptations would not be so great as they were at the distillery. Accordingly, Sir Felix Booth did consent to place him in a farmhouse, which Sir Felix had purchased, at a place called Catworth, in Huntingdonshire. A person, named Sadler, had the management of this farm, and there was a house there at which Sir Felix Booth occasionally resided when he had cause to be in that part of the country. The arrangement as to the prisoner's going to this farm was this, that he should live rent free, have board and lodging, and the profits of the poultry, amounting to between 10 and 50 a year. The only thing he was to do for this was to write a statement weekly of the work done upon the farm. He and his wife lived on that farm from the year 1835 up to the spring of 1839, and during that period he, from time to time, wrote letters expressing the deepest gratitude to Sir Felix for his kindness. In the early part of February 1839, the prisoner had got into some disputes with the neighbouring farmers and others at Catworth, which led to some correspondence bertween them and Sir Felix Booth, in the course of which Sir Felix found great fault with the prisoner. Sir Felix Booth went down to Catworth in consequence of these disputes, and there he remained three days making inquiries into them. The result of those inquiries was, that the prisoner got notice that he must prepare himself for leaving that place. Accordingly, in the month of March or April the prisoner was compelled, with his family, to leave Catworth. After he left Catworth, he did not cease to express his gratitude to Sir Felix Booth. Letters passed to Sir Felix from the prisoner, who entreated Sir Felix to give him something else to do, and in those letters there was not the slightest insinuation of the crime, to which he (the learned counsel) should presently call their attention. On the contrary, he expressed the greatest gratitude to Sir Felix Booth for his kindness, and the greatest veneration for his family. After that he again made application, in London, to Sir Felix for employment. Sir Felix then actually advanced to him somewhere between 200 and 290 for the purpose of purchasing for him a stock of groceries, with which he set him up in a shop in Chorlton-street, Somers Town. He went to that shop, and after that, a short time, he represented to Sir Felix Booth that he was in want of further assistance. Sir Felix then refused to give him further assistance, unless he would make out for him a statement of his accounts, to shew that he had been acting properly. The prisoner then made out a statement of accounts, and after a perusal of that statement Sir Felix advanced him 105. The prisoner carried on business, and applications were made from time to time of the most pressing character for further pecuniary assistance. But still no hint was given by the prisoner of the accusation which he afterwards made against Sir Felix Booth. On May, the 15th, in the ensuing year, the first letter arrived, which had the smallest allusion to that topic, and that was after application for pecuniary assistance had been made by the prisoner to Sir Felix Booth. But even in that letter, although he dealt in some dark insinuations against Sir Felix Booth, it was not until later that the letter arrived on which this prosecution was founded. This letter was received on the 23rd of December last, at the house of Sir Felix Booth, in London. Before he read that letter, he would tell the jury that they would find in that letter mention of a person of the name of Marr. Sir Felix was extensively engaged in business, and this young man (Marr) was a person whom he employed as a confidential clerk. That young man had, very early in life, left his parents, who resided in Edinburgh. He had run away from home, and had enlisted in the Yorkshire Greys. Sir Felix Booth had a very high respect for the mother of Marr, and paid for his discharge out of the regiment, and employed him in the capacity to which he had referred. That fact was known by the prisoner, and it was no doubt the fact of Sir Felix Booth's kindness to this young man, of whom the prisoner had entertained a strong feeling of dislike, which had suggested the infamous, the abominable accusation which he afterwards made against Sir Felix. In the early part of 1839, when the prisoner was at Catsworth, Marr had very receintly formed a marriage with a lady of the family of Mr. Stones, the banker. Marr had, in early life, committed many imprudencies, and, among others, had held out a promise of marriage to a party whom he did not marry. An action for breach of promise of marriage was brought against him, and the result was, that a verdict was found against him for 200 damages. On account of that verdict, Marr went down to Catworth in order that it might not be known where he was, and thus save his person from imprisonment. Quarrels took place between Marr and the prisoner, and from that time the prisoner seemed to have conceived a most violent hatred towards that young man. On the 23rd of December Sir Felix Booth received a letter which was dated "Hull, 15th December, 1842, 5, Horner's-square, Humber-street." This letter charged that Sir Felix Booth had been guilty of an unnatural crime with the young man Marr, and pressing for payment for alleged services of the prisoner and his wife at the farm. But they performed no services at the farm, and were not entitled to anything on that account. The letter also stated that the prisoner had written to the commissioners of police, the Secretary of State, Sir Robert Peel, and other influential persons, upon the subject, and that he would continue to do so until one or other was taken up. (The letter is quite unfit for publication, and therefore we decline giving it). They would find that in this letter the prisoner dealt in accusations which were without the slightest foundation, and upon the mere incentive of his own bad passions. The learned counsel then referred to some letters of the prisoner, for the purpose of showing that the prisoner himself had admitted that he had no claim for wages of services upon Sir Felix. The reason why this case was brought to York for trial was, that the letter upon which the charge was founded was written at Hull, where the prisoner was living.
          Sir Felix Booth was examined at great length in support of the opening of the learned counsefl. In the course of his examination, Sir Felix deposed that the prisoner had shown him a book which he (the prisoner) said would expose Sir Felix, and which, he said, he would publish unless Sir Felix purchased it, and it might then be destroyed. In his re-examination, Sir Felix stated that he had reason to believe that the young man Marr was his own son, and therefore he had a great respect for his mother. It was on that account that he had provided for the young man. Marr was 37 years of age; he (Sir Felix) 62, and the prisoner would be 38 or 39.
          Other witnesses having been examined in corroboration, the prisoner was found guilty, and sentenced to be transported for twenty years. (Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette)

Thursday 23 March 1843

. . . Sir Felix Booth, Mr. Grumble, his partner; Mr. Saddler, his bailiff; Mr. Tilson, his solicitor; and other witnesses were examined, to prove various parts of the case for the prosecution. When Mr. Wortley proposed to ask Sir Felix if there was a word of truth in the insinuations contained in the letter, Mr. Bliss objected, on the ground that it was not a fact in issue; and the Judge decided that the question could not be put, as the act made it penal to make the charge whether it was true or not. In consequence of the line of cross-examination pursued, Mr. Wortley, on re-examination, put questions to Sir Felix, which elicited that he had some reason to believe that the young man was his own son; and it was on that account that he had provided for him. . . . (Bradford Observer)

Saturday 25 March 1843

. . . Sir Felix Booth was then called, and detailed the history of the relations between him and the prisoner. – The learned counsel was proceeding to put questions to the witness as to the falsity of the imputations contained in the letter; but the counsel for the defence objected that this was no part of the issue. – His Lordship said the question could not be put if objected to. – Examined by Mr Wortley: You have stated, Sir Felix, you had a great regard for the mother of this young man Marr? – Witness: I had. – Mr Wortley: I must, now, Sir Felix, ask you a question which, for the sake of the feelings of others, I would gladly have spared; have you reason to believe he is your own son? – Witness: I have. – Mr Wortley: And it was on this account that you thought yourself called on to provide for him? – Witness: It was. – Mr Bliss addressed the jury for the defence. – The jury returned a verdict of Guilty – Sentence was deferred. (The Examiner)

SOURCE: Various newspapers, dates as given. (Many reports were repeated verbatim across several newspapers, but I have not included them all.)

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "The Infamous Case of Sir Felix Booth, 1843", Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 14 August 2016 <>.

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