People attending the dental surgery in Vicarage Street, Barnstaple may not realise it was once the fairly opulent vicarage that came with the post of vicar of St Peter’s church.
Vicars are seen by many as pillars of society and as such scandal rarely touches them but in June 1839 the then occupier of the house was sued by Elizabeth Irwin for ‘breach of promise of marriage’ – then possible in a civil court action.
The sensational case created huge interest not just in Barnstaple but across the county.
Elizabeth was the rich orphan daughter of a Barnstaple merchant and was ‘a lady eminent for her virtues, beauty and accomplishments’ who had first met the Rev Henry Luxmoore when he was a curate at St Peter’s.
He courted her and ‘pledged to her his heart and future fortunes’ which weren’t bad as he was appointed vicar soon after.
They never became officially engaged as ‘their immediate union was out of the question by reason of peculiar obstacles’ put in their way by Luxmoore’s family.
What these were is never made clear, but when Elizabeth went to the continent for two years Henry wrote her a string of ‘love letters’.
On her return there followed 10 years of courtship during which the vicar often ‘walked out’ with Elizabeth up to four or five times a day ‘always professing the same ardent attachment.’
In 1837, however, Luxmoore suddenly announced he was engaged to another and indeed he married his new love on June 7, 1838 – upon which Elizabeth decided to sue him.
In court it came out that the vicar had asked her to keep their tryst secret which she did though she referred to it as 12 years of silent torture’. Luxmoore could only say ‘he should never forgive himself for having acted so....no, not to the day of his death’.
The jury took just 15 minutes to find in favour of Elizabeth and set damages at £400 (some £46,000 today).
Luxmoore was probably treated as a pariah after this but he still managed to remain vicar of Barnstaple for another 21 years!
(Many more articles like this appear in Peter Christie’s book Even More North Devon History £7.50 post free from the author – 01237 473577).