Why Our Family Isn’t Rich

She was a lady, the daughter of a nobleman, and a keen horsewoman. He was a humble groom in her father’s stables. Both young. They fell in love, which wasn’t the done thing, and eloped. Her father was so furious he cut her off completely, without even a penny, and she was wiped off the family records.

“Love in a hut with water and a crust
Is – love forgive us! – cinders, ashes, dust, ”

wrote Keats a little later, about a similar situation.

But these two were resourceful and determined to make a go of it, so they hopped onto a ship heading to the New World, probably working their passage, and once in the Land of Unlimited Possibility they made a fortune.

Sadly, they had no children, so when they died their executors had to seek out next of kin back in the Old Country. The groom had had siblings who had had children, so the heir to the American estates was his nephew, a man who lived a simple life and earned his crust breaking stones for those who built the roads. For the sake of the story, let’s call him John.

John was sitting in his usual place by the roadside, smashing stones with his hammer one day, when up rode a man wearing a cocked hat. He pulled up his horse beside the workman, and asked him his name. Our hero looked up at the horseman and identified himself.

“Your uncle in America has died and left you his entire estate,” declared the stranger. “You are now a millionaire.”

John stared at the horseman. He recalled the story of how his uncle had eloped with the lord’s daughter, and the lord’s wrath that had descended on his entire family, depriving them of their homes and livelihoods on the lord’s estate. It had been a very difficult time for them all, and it was all his uncle’s fault.

John looked at the horseman and shook his head.
“‘Tis the devil’s money,” he said. “I want none of it.”

And that is why our family isn’t rich.

It was a story told by my mother’s grandma to her children and grandchildren, and to me by my mother. I have also told it to my children and grandchildren. A romantic tale, a wry family legend.


1031094 (Photo credit: El Bibliomata)

Did it really happen?

The teller of this tale, my great-grandmother, was born in Lincolnshire in 1848, her mother in 1811 and her father in 1813, and she reckoned “John” was either her grandfather or a great-uncle. However, we have no way of knowing which side of her family these ancestors were on: maternal or paternal. The cocked hat is a clue to the period, as is the road building, so I have always placed the story around 1800.

The nobleman in question was the Earl of Yarborough, who was born, lived and died in Lincolnshire, but since the errant daughter was allegedly purged from the family records, there is no indication of whether she actually existed or not. There are, however, other obstacles to credibility.

The earldom of Yarborough wasn’t created until 1837, but Charles Anderson-Pelham was actually made first Baron Yarborough in 1794, so Grandma can be forgiven for muddling the titles. By the time she was born, the Baron had become an Earl.

But if the errant daughter and her groom had managed to elope, emigrate, make a fortune and die, all by 1800, that would place their births well back in the eighteenth century, let’s assume around 1750. And Charles Anderson-Pelham, first Baron Yarborough, wasn’t born until 1749. So was our disgraced Hon. Lady his sister rather than his daughter? He did have two sisters: was there a third?

On the groom’s side, research is even more difficult since we don’t know his name or lineage at all. Great-Grandma’s parents’ family names were Flight and Leedham, both from peasant stock in villages in the Glanford Brigg area, but my inquiries have hit a blank wall. Even if we can find male relatives living around 1800, who is to say who “John” was, and who the adventurous groom?

Never mind. The fascination lies in the tale itself, and whether there is any underlying foundation of truth is totally irrelevant. I have had a picture in my mind of the final scene since early childhood, and somehow the idea that the romantic couple ended up on a tobacco plantation in Virginia.

Perhaps someone else somewhere has a similar legend in their family, and it will turn out that our lovers really did exist. That would be nice. And perhaps we’d find out who actually inherited the fortune in America?

3 thoughts on “Why Our Family Isn’t Rich

    • I used to think I’d write a novel about it – till I reached adolescence and realized the novel had alrerdy been written about 100,000 times! Move over, Barbara Cartland!

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