Researching a plaque about West Hackney National Schools we did not expect to find the supposed straight-laced Victorians gleefully publishing a booklet giving the details brought out in the trial of a curate having “criminal conversation” (adultery) with the wife of his vicar.
To set the scene: Rev. Edward Birch married in 1829 and was a vicar in West Hackney. The couple met the widowed E. P. Neale in 1832 when he became Birch’s curate. Neale “took lodgings in a house situate No. 9 Trafalgar Place, Shacklewell Lane, within half a mile of the Rectory House, which immediately adjoins the church”. The Rectory is still there, now 306 Amhurst Road, see this 1870 map. We can’t see Trafalgar Place but British History Online puts it at the west end of Shacklewell Lane, about a ten minute walk from the church and rectory. As was common for vicar’s wives, Mrs Birch worked in the parish, alongside her husband and the curate.
In the summer of 1833 Birch was going to be away for 8 days and suggested that his curate should stay at the rectory during this time. The two servants were already suspicious and so took the opportunity to spy on the wife and the curate and saw them moving between bedrooms. In the booklet Neale insists that Mrs Birch was infatuated with him and arrived in his bed, unbidden, at which, after a brief wrestle with his conscience, he insisted she leave.
During “a steam excursion, for the benefit of the West Hampstead National Schools”, Neale claims that he pleaded with Mrs Birch’s sister to help prevent further such behaviour. After Neale was found guilty and charged damages of £200 (c.£20,000 today), he published the 91-page booklet in which he declares his innocence: “I am an honest man!”.
That’s just our brief summary – plenty more juicy details await in The Trial of Birch v. Neale, for criminal conversation; in the Court of Common Pleas, June 25, 1835, before the Lord Chief Justice Tindal, from the notes of a short-hand writer’ with explanatory remarks by the defendant, and extracts from his brief, as laid before counsel on 6hth Feb. 1835 ... With explanatory ... By Rev. Edward BIRCH (of West Hackney.)