Jarett Henderson

On May 27, 1838 well-known reformer Lord Durham, reached Quebec City where, two days later, he was officially installed as British North America’s new governor general. Durham had no knowledge then of the debate that had erupted in the British Parliament and the metropolitan press following his departure over a long-time friend, Thomas Turton, and a rumour that he had appointed Turton as his legal advisor. So when days later Durham appointed Turton to his administration, he had not yet received the anxious warnings of Colonial Secretary Glenelg and Prime Minister Melbourne that were making their way across the Atlantic. “You must hear me out in this,” wrote Melbourne in his letter, “and must, by no means, put Turton forward in any manner….Beware of scamps and rogues, whatever their ability may be.” Glenelg so loathed the situation that he only alluded to a “Mr. T—n” in his despatch. Following his appointment of Turton and still unaware of the uproar in England, Durham wrote to Melbourne that this first act of his administration was designed to inspire “confidence – to infuse a higher description of political feeling.” Such sentiment did not last long. [1]

Image1.Confidence
Image 1. Inspiring Confidence. LAC, Durham Fonds, Reel C-1859.

Here I revisit what Chester New identified in the 1920s as “the scandal of [Durham’s] aides-de-camp” to shed light on the sexual politics of Lord Durham’s administration. [2] I explore how the politics of colonial rule as manifest through the “Turton Job” intersected with shifting notions of gender, sexuality, and independence. The public, transimperial debate that erupted over Durham’s appointment of Thomas Turton, then, not only offers students of colonialism an opportunity to interrogate the history of sex alongside that of self-government, it also draws our attention to the ways that matters of intimacy could be used as politicized tools to question the fitness of selves, governments, and even the empire itself.

“Degraded in the Eyes of the World” 

Born in England in 1790, Thomas Turton, was educated at Eton College where he and Durham first became friends. In 1812, Thomas Turton married Louisa Browne. Thomas was twenty-one, Louisa was eighteen, and he was then a practicing lawyer with a promising career. Between 1815 and 1845, Turton held prominent legal positions across the empire that linked him to political debates over the changing nature of imperial and colonial rule. It was Turton who drafted the first Reform Bill Durham presented to the British House of Commons in the 1820s. In 1837, Turton returned to England from India and within months he had agreed to accompany Durham on his mission to British North America.[3]

While I have located only a few of Turton’s private letters, two moments in his life – his appointment to Lord Durham’s administration and his divorce – are well documented in the colonial-state archive. The Turton Divorce, initiated by Louisa in 1831 shook the gender, familial, and sexual hierarchies that preserved status and respectability across the nineteenth century empire. According to the claim Louisa filed before the House of Lords, she and Thomas “lived happily together until 1821” when she first learned that Thomas and her younger sister, Adelaide, were involved in what the London Times called: “an adulterous intercourse.” [4]

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Image 2. Turton’s Divorce Bill. Credit. London Times, 17 August 1831. 

As Louisa worked to conceal the affair and protect her reputation, Thomas determined that they ought to leave London for India. Louisa reluctantly agreed, especially when she learned that Thomas insisted that Adelaide, who was “far gone in the family way” ought to accompany them to Calcutta! Thomas argued that this was “the best means of concealing the scandal and infamy of her situation.” Months later Adelaide gave birth to a child and Louisa decided to return to England where she lived alone, until late-1828, when Thomas, Adelaide, and three young children returned from India. Divorce proceedings followed, eventually culminating in a bill that dissolved the marriage between Thomas and Louisa and enabled Louisa to remarry. Louisa had become the second woman in the empire to successfully sue their husband for divorce. [5]

“The Most Infamous Degradation of the Honour of Civil Government” 

The scandal that erupted seven years later suggests that Turton’s sexual transgression – and his reputation as a “man of infamous immorality” – retained its currency across time and empire, with responses shaped by geography and local politics. While those in the metropole generally believed Turton’s adultery ought to disqualify him from holding public office, especially given Durham’s mission was to preserve, not undermine, the integrity of the British empire. This would not be the case in British North America. [6]

Two days after Durham and Turton left England ‘Vigil’, a moral and diligent observer, wrote to the London Times wanting to know if a “man of flagrant immorality” had been sent to North America with Durham. ‘Vigil’s query eventually made its way to the bureaus of the Colonial Office and the halls of parliament where a series of questions – about Turton’s fitness for public office and if Durham and Melbourne ought to retain theirs – were raised. “The appointment of Mr. Turton is literally, in our eyes, the most infamous degradation of the honour of civil government,” charged ‘Vigil’, “the most shameless prostitution of the Royal patronage and power, and the most pointed insult to the Queen, that we have read or heard of.” ‘Vigil’ had stopped just short of calling Victoria a whore. [7]

Within forty-eight hours of the publication of ‘Vigil’s letter, peers in the House of Lords began to debate the “Turton Job.” The Earl of Winchilsea, who brought the rumour to parliament, wanted to know if “the individual mentioned in that paragraph was the same individual who had been at the Lordship’s bar three or four years ago in a case of shameful adultery?” Melbourne, who knew Turton had gone to Lower Canada as Durham’s “private friend”, stated only that “no appointment took place.” Though Winchilsea appeared satisfied and dropped the subject in parliament, ‘Vigil’ was not. In a second letter ‘Vigil’ charged that the very possibility of Turton’s appointment ought to offend the sensibilities of the British nation, the empire, and Canadians. “Mr. Turton’s offence is ‘rank’…It is a moral plague-spot, a leprosy which puts him out of the pale of society.” ‘Vigil’ lamented Durham’s “total disregard for private character,” and predicted that it would encourage the “simple-hearted” and “misled” Canadians to embrace such practices themselves. “Does his democratic Lordship take Turton with him as a private friend, to show to the inhabitants of North America his utter indifference to moral conduct?” [8]

“They Have Done No Mischief Here”

News of the metropolitan uproar over the “Turton Job” arrived with the London Times on June 9, 1838, less than a week after Turton’s appointment. Because Lower Canadians had more pressing concerns – a rebellion had just occurred in their colony, their constitution had been suspended, and they anxiously awaited Durham’s proposals to remedy the problem of irresponsible governance – their responses to Turton were significantly different from those in England. The Montreal Gazette, for example, reprinted metropolitan reports of Turton’s “continued adultery” and his “highly controversial” divorce alongside others detailing the “highly respectable” men appointed by Durham, leaving readers to make their own assessments. [9]

In contrast the Montreal Herald expressed outrage. The paper racialized Durham’s administration as “half-Russian and half-Hindoo [sic]” and considered it “better, far better for his Lordship’s fame and felicity to send home Mr. Turton.” One perceptive reader, frustrated by the paper’s use of Turton’s adultery to undermine Durham’s administration, explained that had Turton “been appointed to the Bishoprick [sic] of Quebec” such a reaction would be warranted. Only then would there “be some excuse in tearing off the veil from his alleged errors; but, as his office is not ecclesiastical, that veil should have been left undisturbed.” That most newspapers choose not to condemn Turton reminds us that the ties of manners and morality that bound metropole and colony could crosscut domestic and political worlds in unpredictable ways. [10]

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Image 3. General Disgust. LAC, Durham Fonds, Reel C-1859.

Durham’s reaction to the “Turton Job” shared much with that of British North Americans: he was occupied by more “herculean” matters and contended that private life ought to be considered separately from one’s qualifications for public office. “The proceedings about Turton in England have created general disgust here,” Durham impressed upon Melbourne, “and the strictest people in the Province have gone out of their way to be civil to mark their sense of them.” Durham refused to rescind Turton’s appointment, insisting that to do so would inspire doubt in his ability to act independent from local and imperial politics. “You provide me with…inadequate means from yourselves,” Durham charged, “and you then interfere with the arrangement I make to supply myself with the best talent I can find.” Lady Durham was also irked by this “Turton business.” “I am very sorry for the attacks on Mr. Turton,” she told her mother, Lady Mary Grey, “but happily they have done no mischief here.” [11]

It is near impossible to know how Turton felt about the debate that erupted around his appointment: only a single letter preserved among Durham’s papers offers us a glimpse. In it, Turton offered to resign, return to England, and thanked Durham for his years of friendship. “I cannot but feel that your confidence in me and in my capacity to serve my country more than counterbalances the censure of those who unhappily know little of me but from circumstances which I must always deeply deplore. To me, my Lord, this will always be a heartfelt solace to the hour of my death.” Durham did not accept Turton’s resignation. [12]

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Image 4. Turton’s Rejected Resignation Letter. LAC, Durham Fonds, Reel C-1856.

Conclusion

Public discussion of the “Turton Job” had long since ended when on February 19, 1839, metropolitan statesmen once again broached the subject in parliament. This debate shared much with the earlier debates sketched here, but with one significant exception. After Winchilsea, Melbourne, and others had their say about Turton’s fitness for public office, Lord Durham rose to address the matter publicly. He insisted that he had made Turton’s appointment at his own “liberty” and if one’s character ought to be criticized, it ought to be his. But Durham was not done. As he spoke he wove together the politics of gender, sexuality, and empire in ways that surely made his metropolitan colleagues anxious. What ought the relationship be between sex and fitness for office, he wondered out loud in Parliament? This question cannot stop with Turton alone. There ought to be an examination of the “general question of adultery” in reference to the “conduct of public men.” There ought to be “an inquiry into the case of every public man who may have received official employment after having committed adultery.” Radical Jack was back. [13]

Hansard reports that a laugh – certainly an uncomfortable one – echoed throughout parliament that evening. “I tell the noble Lords, that I utterly disregard all their sneers and interference, and I give them this notice … that if this condemnation of Mr. Turton continues, it is to be followed up, by an examination of every individual who has been employed in an official situation, and who has been guilty of an adulterous act. They shall all be brought forward for inquiry.” Parliament was awed by Durham’s challenge and Winchelsea, who had prodded parliament into action in April 1838 after ‘Vigil’s letter appeared in the London Times, stood and declared that he thought it best to withdraw his motion from further consideration. The “Turton Job” was not spoken of again. [14]

 

Jarett Henderson is an Associate Professor of History at Mount Royal University (Calgary, Alberta, Canada) where he teaches Canadian and colonial history in the Department of Humanities. His research explores the social and cultural history of the politics of settler self-government in 1830s British North America, and how that history was linked to larger, empire-wide debates over the nature of freedom, liberty, and colonial rule.


Notes

[1] Jarett Henderson, “Uncivil Subjects: Metropolitan Meddling, Conditional Loyalty, and Lord Durham’s 1838 Administration of Lower Canada,” (PhD Dissertation, York University 2010); Melbourne to Durham, 1 May 1838, reproduced in, Chester New, Lord Durham, 383;  Glenelg to Durham, 4 May 1838, reproduced in New, Lord Durham, 384; Durham to Melbourne, 1 June 1838, Reel C-1859.

[2] New, Lord Durham, 362–3; Only the appointments of Charles Buller and Edward Ellice junior had been announced before Durham departed for BNA. Debates, Parliament of Great Britain, House of Commons, 3 April 1838, 385–422.

[3] See, for example, Arthur Collins, The Baronetage of England: Containing a New Genealogical History of the Existing English Baronets, (London: 1806), 463–4; John Debrett, Debrett’s Baronetage of England: Containing their Descent and Present State, Their Collateral Branches, Births, Marriages, and Issue, From the Institution of the Order in 1611, Volume 2, (London: 1815), 1032; and John Reid, Sketch of the Political Career of the Earl of Durham, (Glasgow: 1835), 67, 75.

[4] Journals, Parliament of Great Britain, House of Lords, 30 March 1831, 399; London Times, 1 April 1831.

[5] Journals, Parliament of Great Britain, House of Lords, 5 September 1831, 959; Sybil Wolfram, “Divorce in England 1700–1857,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 5:2 (Summer 1985): 155–86.

[6] London Times, 26 April 1838.

[7] London Times, 27 April 1838. See also, Allan Greer, “The Queen is a Whore,” in Patriots and the People: The Rebellion of 1837 in Rural Lower Canada, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).

[8] Debates, Parliament of Great Britain, House of Lords, 27 April 1838, 623–4; Debates, Parliament of Great Britain, House of Lords, 27 April 1838, 624; London Times, 30 April 1838. Melbourne and the Queen were aware that Durham intended to take “Mr. Turton out with him as a private friend,” and both agreed that this was something that “need not be mentioned.” LAC, MG24 A29, Victoria, Queen of Great Britain fonds, File 1, 12 April 1838, 25.

[9] Quebec Mercury, 5 June 1838; Montreal Gazette, 9 June 1838; Bathurst Courier and Ottawa General Advertiser, 15 June 1838.

[10] Montreal Herald, 9 June 1838; Letter to Editor, Montreal Herald, 9 June 1838.

[11] LAC, MG24 A27, Lambton fonds, Vol. 46, “Correspondences,” Durham to Melbourne, 1 June 1838;  Durham to Melbourne, 15 June 1838; and LAC, MG24 A27, Lambton fonds, Vol. 48, “Lady Durham’s Journal,” Reel C–1859.

[12] LAC, MG24 A27, Lambton fonds, Vol. 26, Turton to Durham, 7 June 1838, Reel C–1856, 589–95.

[13] Debates, Parliament of Great Britain, House of Lords, 19 February 1839, 588-600.

[14] Debates, Parliament of Great Britain, House of Lords, 19 February 1839, 600.

Cover Image: Lithograph by John Doyle. Lord Durham, the Governor-General of the British provinces in North America, sits beside E. Ellice on a ship as Turton vomits over the side, 1838. Wikimedia Commons.