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A very Victorian Scandal

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Frederick Waller

When Cuckfield born Frederick Waller QC died in Belgravia aged 70 in 1893, he left almost all of his considerable fortune (an amount equivalent to over ten million pounds in today’s money) to his only sister Louisa Eyre-Maunsell (nee Waller).

In addition to his home in Chester Square, he owned several properties in Cuckfield including: The Rose and Crown Inn, Rose Cottage, Percy Cottages, Vine Cottage, Oaklands North and South, Leyton House (now Cuckfield House), Northern Breach, Southern Breach, Waverley and Kingsleys.

However, Louisa predeceased him by several months and his estate passed on to her two daughters Florence (Boughton-Leigh) and Alice (Wilde).

This life-changing legacy came to Florence while she was married to the Reverend Theodosius Boughton-Leigh, vicar of Rodmersham; their only child, Elsie, was an infant. Four years later Theodosius died suddenly aged 42; Florence was clearly devastated and vulnerable; she gave instructions for his body to be buried in Cuckfield Churchyard with an extraordinarily large and striking memorial (a human-sized Christ figure holding a crown,

Florence, Elsie and Theodosius Boughton-Leigh

now broken, mounted on a large rock quad kerb), close to the vault which held the remains of Frederick, Louisa and other Waller family members.

Predictably the extremely wealthy widow, now living in a substantial ancestral mansion in Cuckfield High Street (1), immediately attracted suitors; one, a Mr Jenkins, who seems to have been in ‘pole position’, was only waiting for a decent interval of mourning to pass before being proactive in securing Florence as his wife.

However, several twists and turns changed the entire course of Florence’s life. Exactly a year after Theodosius died, she travelled to Hove and visited a clairvoyant calling himself ‘Frank Vaughan-Powell’. He read her palm and recorded his observations - a mixture of character analysis and fortune telling. From the surviving written document he sent her, it is obvious he was ‘fishing’ and attempting to present himself as her ideal partner. He immediately invited her to ‘take tea’ with him and his mother, Harriet Neville-Powell and within the space of six weeks he had proposed and whisked her off to France to be married.

A brief courtship and faraway wedding ceremony are of course suspicious, but two more documents provide extremely persuasive evidence that ‘Vaughan-Powell’ was a calculating ‘gold digger’. One is a letter by Florence’s solicitor responding to the bridegroom’s enquiry (while on honeymoon), asking how quickly he might withdraw money from his new bride’s bank account; the other is a telegram to Florence from a woman claiming she had been made bankrupt as a result of being duped by ‘Vaughan-Powell’. A contemporary newspaper article at the bankruptcy court suggests that the clairvoyant used his dubious powers to trick the defendant into giving him her life savings in return for ‘inspired assurance’ on speculative share purchases….and she claimed in court that she was ‘not the first woman’ to be conned in this way by ‘Vaughan-Powell’.

‘Vaughan-Powell’ didn’t live long enough to spend any of his newly acquired fortune or to answer accusations of fraudulence; he fell ill with typhoid in France a week after his wedding, was conveyed as an invalid back to Cuckfield and within a couple of days died in considerable pain and distress at Leyton House.

Tragically, Florence had become widowed for a second time in less than two years; but perhaps the most extraordinary turn of events was still to come. Now her mother-in-law, Harriet Neville-Powell moved quickly, both literally and metaphorically, to ensure that if her son’s prospects for advancement were lost, they would not be forfeited by her.

Curiously, ‘Vaughan-Powell’ was buried in the same distinctive plot in Cuckfield as Florence’s first husband Theodosius Boughton-Leigh; with apparently unrecognised irony the controversial Roman Catholic fortune-teller now lay alongside the conventional Anglican rector.

Harriet Neville-Powell comforted her bereft daughter-in-law both day and night, moving into Leyton House with her and even sharing her bed! According to Neville-Powell, she felt Florence needed twenty-four hour protection both from suicidal thoughts and from unscrupulous interlopers. She soon dismissed Florence’s solicitor and advised in the appointment of a replacement named Mr Crowe, with whom she had previous dealings; and for the next twenty nine years, she remained a constant companion and advisor, the two esteemed ladies attending a wide range of blue-ribbon events throughout the country. In return for her close attention, Florence gifted her friend shares worth over a million pounds by modern valuations and a property in Eastbourne.

However, four years after she had died in 1928, Florence's daughter Elsie, now a 40 year old married woman, reflected on her mother’s unconventional relationship with Neville-Powell and the latter’s influence on the family’s finances; she decided to look more closely into it. A private investigator was employed to research Vaughan-Powell’s background and he discovered that ‘Frank Vaughan-Powell’ had lied on several biographical details; his real name was James Powell, not a ‘gentleman’ as he had claimed in the marriage licence, but a plumber’s son; nor was he 29 at the time of his marriage, as recorded in the same document, but just 25. The Reverend and Mrs Waller-Bridge decided to take legal action against Mrs Neville-Powell, accusing her of colluding with her son to exploit the vulnerable Florence Vaughan-Powell.

The High Court Petition against Harriet Neville-Powell

The now wealthy defendant responded robustly through her solicitors and after due consideration the judge ruled that too much time had elapsed for any ‘safe’ judgment to be made in support of the Waller-Bridge case. Harriet Neville-Powell was free to continue enjoying her good fortune for several more years until her death. Florence Vaughan Powell was buried with her two former husbands and the memorial has the following inscription:-

To the glory of God and sacred to the deeply loved and ever present memory of the Revd. THEODOSIUS COTTERELL HENRY BOUGHTON-LEIGH born May 6th 1854 who departed this life at RODMERSHAM VICARAGE SITTINGBOURNE KENT December 14th 1897 To the inexpressible and everlasting grief of his widow & little daughter to whom he was their all in all. Also of GLADYS EILEEN BOUGHTON-LEIGH the beloved infant daughter of the above, born June 10th 1895, died July 23rd 1895 at TUNBRIDGE WELLS. Also of BASIL FRANK VAUGHAN-POWELL, the dearly beloved husband of FLORENCE CATHERINE VAUGHAN-POWELL born Sept 10th 1873 passed away LEYTON HOUSE CUCKFIELD SX April 9th 1899 "For as in Adam all die even though in Christ shall all smile which I have loved and lost a while."

Christ memorial in Cuckfield

“ In everlasting memory of FLORENCE CATHERINE VAUGHAN-POWELL and formerly widow of the above FRANK VAUGHAN-POWELL and formerly widow of the Revd. T. C. H. BOUGHTON-LEIGH, who departed this life at WORTH RECTORY SX, the home of her only surviving child ELSIE NOELINE WALLER-BRIDGE (2) on August 29th 1928 "Father into thy hands I commend my spirit To that brightness of all meetings Bring us Jesus Christ at last By Thy cross through death and judgement Holding fast "

(1) Leyton House

(2) Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather to actress and writer of 'Fleabag' Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Elsie Boughton-Leigh and Horace Bridge successfully petitioned to assume the surname of Waller-Bridge shortly after their marriage in 1913; this was in recognition of their inheritance from Frederick Waller.

Please contact me through this website if you would like to know more about any aspect of this story, have a Cuckfield story to tell or are just generally interested in Cuckfield local history.


1 Comment

Unknown member
Apr 20, 2019

Let me know what you think of the story and if you would like to know more!

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