19th Century

The Mystery of Susannah F. Reynolds | Robert J. Kirkpatrick

Robert J. Kirkpatrick has researched and published on the subject of Victorian popular literature for many years. His recent works include a biographical dictionary of forgotten authors as well as a bibliographical study of Victorian boys’ fiction. Reynolds’s News and Miscellany is honoured to showcase this contribution from Kirkpatrick which delves into the details of the life of a forgotten Victorian woman writer named Susannah Frances Reynolds who was married to George W.M. Reynolds.

An idealised image of potentially the only surviving picture of Susannah Reynolds which accompanied G W M Reynolds poem in The London Journal (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

One of the few unsolved mysteries surrounding the life of G.W.M. Reynolds concerns his wife Susannah Frances. Despite the best efforts of researchers such as Dick Collins, her true identity and background have never been established. All the available records give us is that she says she was born in London in around 1819. We know that she married Reynolds in 1835, but this was not her first marriage – she had married another man three years previously.[1]

I can now reveal the identity of her first husband, and this may provide some clues as to her early life.


Maiden name. Even Susannah’s maiden name is open to doubt. On 23 February 1832 she married Thomas Noel in the chapel of the British Embassy in Paris. There are two versions of the marriage register – the National Archives holds a set of Paris marriage registers covering the years 1828-1837 (ref. RG 33/65, UK, Foreign and Overseas Registers of British Subjects, 1628-1969 – available on the Ancestry website). The register for Susannah’s marriage to Thomas Noel shows her surname as PEIRSON. The London Metropolitan Archives holds a different version of the register (ref. DL/E/E/021/MS10891, Transcripts of baptisms 1816-28, marriages 1816-45 and burials 1815-28, with certificates of marriages 1824 at the British Embassy, Paris, France). The entry here shows her surname as PIERSON.

The first register was completed by the chaplain who conducted the marriage, but actually signed by both Thomas and Susannah. The chaplain and Susannah both provided the same spelling. The second register was not signed by either Thomas or Susannah, and was completed in full by the same person.

Three years later, on 31 July 1835, Susannah married G.W.M. Reynolds, at the Church of St. Michael, Rue d’Agguesseau, Paris. Again the first register shows her name as PEIRSON, and again Susannah signed her name giving the spelling of PEIRSON. This was also the spelling used by the chaplain. The second register, again completed in full by the chaplain, gave her surname as PIERSON. On the two registers where Susannah signed her own name, her handwriting is more or less identical.

According to Dick Collins, Reynolds had applied at the British Embassy for a licence to marry at the end of June 1835, but he was unwilling, or unable, to provide the details of Susannah’s age and parentage. Therefore the licence was not granted. Instead, Reynolds had banns read out in St. Michael’s Church, which were repeated on 19 and 16 July. As no-one came forward to object to the marriage (presumably because no-one in the congregation had ever heard of Reynolds or Susannah) they were able to marry unencumbered.

The Register for her first marriage records that they were married by Licence, with the words “with the consent of” crossed out. The marriage register for her second marriage records that she was a spinster and a minor, whereas the first marriage register records her simply as a spinster. The register has the words “by Licence” and “with the consent of” crossed out.

Susannah gave birth to a son, Edward George, in late 1835. There is a birth record for a George Edouard Reynolds in Paris on 14 November 1835, but this may be a coincidence (and note the French spelling). Dick Collins records that he was baptised on 20 January 1836, in Paris, and goes on to surmise that he must have been born on or before 23 September 1835. Either way, Susannah was well into her first pregnancy when she married Reynolds.

With certain caveats (see later) it therefore seems likely that her surname was actually PEIRSON, as that was the way she signed it herself.

Age. The marriage records give no indication of her age, other than the fact that she was recorded as a minor (i.e. under 21) when she married Reynolds. The record for her marriage to Thomas Noel omits this fact. Both records show she was a spinster. The only clues to her age, and therefore date of birth, are in later census records and the record of her death.

At some point after their marriage, Reynolds and Susannah moved to London, and the 1841 census shows them living in Suffolk Place, Bethnal Green. Her age was given as 20, although this was not necessarily accurate, as in that year’s census the age of an adult was rounded down to the nearest five years, meaning that Susannah was aged between 20 and 24, and therefore born between 1817 and 1821. Ten years later, her age in the 1851 census was recorded as 32 (i.e. born between 31 March 1818 and 30 March 1819).

When she died on 4 October 1858 her age was given as 40. This suggests that she was born between 5 October 1817 and 4 October 1818.

So, combining all the available evidence, it is fairly safe to say that Susannah was born between October 1817 and March 1819, which means that when she married Thomas Noel in February 1832 she was aged between 12 years 5 months and 14 years 5 months. It is stretching credulity to believe that a cleric would have conducted a marriage between a 57 year-old man (as Thomas was at the time) and a girl under 13, which suggests that Susannah was more likely to have been nearer 15.

Family background. The register for Susannah’s marriage to Thomas Noel stated that she was from St. Pancras, Middlesex. The register for her marriage to Reynolds stated that she was from St. James, Piccadilly. The 1841 census gave her place of birth simply as Middlesex (no further detail was required), and the 1851 census gave her place of birth as St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster. St James and St. Martin-in-the-Fields are less than half a mile from each other, so this is not necessarily suspicious. However, St. Pancras is two-and-a-half miles from Piccadilly, which begs another unanswered question – why the discrepancy?

As Dick Collins has shown, there are no birth records for a Susannah Peirson (or Pierson) anywhere in London between 1817 and 1819. Nor is there any record of a similar birth outside London. One possibility is that Susannah was the daughter of Samuel and Miriam Pierson, who had a son baptised on 15 August 1813 at St. Pancras Old Church, Camden. While there is no record of a daughter, it is possible they had one without registering the birth. (Samuel was a shopkeeper who lived in Kentish Town, and he and Miriam had married in St. Marylebone, Westminster, in 1805).

Of course, Peirson may not have been Susannah’s real surname, and she changed it simply to hide her real identity. One possibility would be PEARSON. There are several records for a Susannah Pearson being born between 1817 and 1819, although none in London, and two records for a Susannah Pearson born in 1820, one born on 20 January 1820 and baptised at St. Luke’s, Finsbury, on 20 August 1820, her parents being Edward (a bricklayer) and Susannah; and the other born on 26 December 1820 and baptised at St. Margaret’s, Westminster, on 21 January 1821. But either of these would have been too young to have been the Susannah who married in 1832.

Perhaps she had a completely different surname altogether, and Peirson was a complete fiction. There are several records for a Susannah Frances being born in London between 1817 and 1819, and similarly there are numerous records for a Susannah (and even more for a Susan) born in London at the same time. However, it is impossible to link any of these with the Susannah who married Reynolds.

Susannah Reynolds’s most widely-circulated book: The Household Book of Domestic Economy (also published as The Household Book of Practical Receipts) (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

In addition, Susannah may have been mistaken about her age in the two census records, as many people were, and the age given at her death may have been estimated, but even if she was slightly older there are still no relevant birth or baptism records. She may also have lied about her place of birth. The only clue as to where she lived came in an article she wrote for husband’s journal The Teetotaler in December 1840, in which she said she

“has passed the greater portion of her life upon the continent. She left England early, and without having formed any impressions relative to the manners of the inhabitants. In France, Switzerland, and Belgium, where she has resided……”[2]

It may be that we should be looking outside London, perhaps nearer to the home of her first husband.


Thomas Noel, born in St. Marylebone on 28 December 1775, was the illegitimate son of Thomas Noel (1745-1815), the 2nd Viscount Wentworth of Wellesborough. Leicestershire.[3] Thomas Noel senior was the son of Edward Noel (1915-1774), who entered the House of Lords in 1745 as the new Baron Wentworth, and was created Viscount Wentworth in 1762. He married Judith Lamb in 1744, with whom he had three daughters and one son, Thomas, who briefly became the M.P. for Leicestershire in 1774 before succeeding to the peerage on the death of his Edward. In February 1788 he married the widowed Dowager Countess Mary Ligonier. They did not have any children. However, Thomas Noel senior had already had two illegitimate children through Anna Caterina van Loo, a Belgian Catholic: Anna Catherine, born on 4 November 1769 in Noirefontaine, Bouilllon, Belgium; and Thomas, born on 28 December 1775 (exact place of birth not known). Following his mother’s death in 1781, Thomas junior was sent to Rugby School, entering in 1783.

On 25 April 1792 he was baptised in St. Marylebone, and two days later he entered Christ Church College, Oxford (where his father had studied), being awarded a B.A. in 1796 and an M.A. in 1801.

In the summer of 1795, on a trip to Ravensworth Castle, County Durham, the seat of Thomas Henry Liddell[4](who later became Sir Thomas Liddell, the 1st Baron Ravensworth) Thomas met Elizabeth Liddell, Thomas Henry Liddell’s older sister. They intended to marry, but when Elizabeth’s mother discovered that Noel’s father was not in a position to provide financially for his son (he had several debts and his properties were heavily mortgaged) she insisted that her daughter break off the relationship.

Seven months later, immediately after receiving his degree, Thomas Noel eloped with Catherine Smith, the 22 year-old daughter of Halled Smith, a Leicestershire attorney who had died the previous summer. She was a near-neighbour of the Noel family, and they were married on 7 May 1796 at St. Mary’s Church, Bucklebury, Berkshire, the marriage conducted by Catherine’s brother-in-law, the Rev. Richard Coxe, Vicar of Bucklebury. They went on to have ten children between 1797 and 1811.

In 1798, Viscount Wentworth presented Thomas with the livings of Kirkby Mallory and Elmsthorpe in Leicestershire. Three years later, Thomas received his M.A. from Oxford, and for the following twelve years served as the Rector of Kirkby Mallory. In 1812 he performed the marriage ceremony of his cousin Anne Isabella Milbanke, Viscount Wentworth’s legal hair (she was the daughter of Lady Judith Milbanke, Viscount Wentworth’s sister) to Lord Byron. However, Thomas’s subsequent life was blighted by disputes over his father’s will (he died in 1815), and the subsequent actions of Lady Milbanke, who had moved into Kirkby Hall, the Noel family home.

Eventually, Thomas became estranged from his wife Catherine, who died on 11 February 1832. Thomas, who by then was living in France, applied for administration of her estate, but this was blocked by Catherine’s trustee. In a case heard by an Ecclesiastical Court (date not known) Philp Smith Coxe, a solicitor and the son of the Rev. Richard Coxe, showed that Catherine and Thomas “had, for a considerable time before and to the time of her death, lived separate under a deed, of which he, Coxe, was the sole trustee, wherein it was agreed that she should received a certain income, independent of her husband.” Coxe was now in possession of about £148, the extent of her estate, which was not sufficient to pay her debts. He went on to say that he believed that Thomas was “in very embarrassed circumstances, residing abroad, and out of the jurisdiction of (the) Court.” One of the debts owed by Catherine was £76 lent to her by a bank, without security, and they were asking that Thomas should give security before he was granted administration of the estate. The court’s ruling was in the bank’s favour.[5]

When Thomas discovered that Catherine had died is not known, and neither is it known if he was in England or France. What is known, however, is that twelve days after she had died, on 23 February 1832 he married Susannah Frances Peirson in Paris. He was clearly, at that time, aware that Catherine had died, as the marriage register records him as a widower. It also records him as a clerk, by which was meant, probably, clerk in holy orders, and his place of birth as St. Marylebone.

Again, how, when and where Thomas and Susannah first met is a mystery. Did they meet in England, and elope to France, or did they meet in France? What were the circumstances of their first meeting? How long had they known each other? Was Thomas aware of Susannah’s exact age? Was Susannah pregnant, and Thomas felt obliged to marry her? Was Susannah a prostitute in Paris, and did Thomas get her pregnant or simply fall in love with her?[6] Or was he sticking two fingers up to Judith Milbanke and his family by marrying a bride much younger than himself? Did Thomas think Susannah was wealthy, and therefore an answer to his financial problems?

How long Thomas and Susannah stayed together is also unknown. Susannah went to marry G.W.M. Reynolds on 31 July 1835, eight days after he had attained the age of 21, and was able to marry without parental consent (although this did not, of course, apply to Susannah). There are no records of Susannah’s first marriage being annulled, nor is there a record of a divorce (although either is a possibility, and the relevant record has been lost or is not recorded), or Susannah’s second marriage was bigamous.

The marriage took place at the Church of St. Michael, Paris, and was conducted by the Rev. Matthew Luscombe, the British Embassy Chaplain.


Matthew Henry Thornton Luscombe was, by most accounts, something of a renegade cleric. Born in 1775 in Exeter, the son of Samuel Luscombe, a surgeon, he was educated at Exeter Grammar School and at Catherine College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a B.A. in 1798 and an M.A. in 1805. He was ordained to the curacy of Clewer, Windsor, and from 1806 to 1819 was the Master at the East India Company’s school at Haileybury, Hertford. He moved to Caen, France, in 1819, and subsequently to Paris. He had previously married Susannah Dawes in London in 1804, and they went on to have three children.

He quickly became critical of the few Church of England clergyman who were ministering in France, who he thought were dissolute and ineffective, and he felt that the country needed a Bishop. But this was diplomatically impossible, as the Church of England would not impose itself on a Roman Catholic country. In 1825, he was appointed Chaplain to the British Embassy in Paris, and at the same time side-stepped the Church of England by being appointed Bishop by the Scottish Episcopal Church, and he was consecrated at Stirling in March 1825. Many English Bishops were unhappy about this, but were powerless to act.

When he married Thomas Noel and Susannah Peirson in 1832 he simply referred to himself on the marriage register as Chaplain, presumably because the ceremony took place in the chapel of the British Embassy. (Some marriage ceremonies at that time were conducted in the French Protestant Oratoire, close to the Louvre). In 1834, Luscombe partly funded, out of his own money, a new church, St. Michael’s, on the Rue d’Aguesseau, which is where he married G.W.M. Reynolds and Susannah Peirson. This time the marriage register referred to him as Bishop and Chaplain. The following year, he officiated at the wedding of W.M. Thackeray to Isabella Gethin Shawe.

In 1840, following questions raised by Church of England clergy in France, his right to ordain was disputed, and in 1840 he was restricted to performing conformations only. This called into question the status of the clergy he had previously ordained, plus, presumably, the status of the marriages he had officiated at.

Luscombe died, of heart disease, in Lausanne, Switzerland, on 24 August 1846. No attempt was ever made to appoint a successor.[7]

Luscombe clearly had his own way of doing things, so perhaps it is not surprising that he appears to have turned a blind eye to Thomas Noel’s marriage to a girl barely in her teens. Thomas, who had very little money at the time, was not in a position to bribe Luscombe (unless Susannah came with her own wealth), so perhaps it was simply a case of Luscombe being wilfully careless, or taking pity on a fellow-cleric who was desperate, for whatever reason, to marry, and marry quickly.


Thomas Noel married for a third time on 1 March 1838, at the Town Hall in Calais. There is no doubt that this was the same Thomas Noel who had earlier married Susannah – his signatures on both marriage registers are identical. The register records him as a clerk and a widower (which was technically correct as his first wife had died, although the status of his second marriage is unclear).

His wife was Henrietta Elizabeth Fisher, born in Gravesend, Kent, in 27 July 1808, the daughter of Thomas Fisher and his wife Mary, née Milgate. They went on to have two children, Vincent Edmund, born in Plymouth in 1843, and who became a surgeon before dying in 1866; and Henry Anthony, born in Plymouth in 1845, and who became a clergyman, dying in 1893.

Thomas remained financially insecure for the rest of his life. Under the terms of his father’s will he should have received a share of the proceeds of the sale of his Gloucestershire estates – however, Judith Milbanke blocked the sale, and she refused to lend Thomas any money in lieu of any future sale, while at the same time giving financial support to all of Thomas’s children from his first marriage.

At the time of 1851 census, Thomas and his wife and children were living at 13 Torrington Place, Plymouth, with Thomas recorded as the Rector of Kirkby Mallory, although he had long since appointed another cleric to perform his duties there. Also present in the household was Elizabeth Moses, a 26 year-old servant.

Thomas Noel died in Plymouth on 22 August 1853, and was buried in Ford Park Cemetery, Plymouth, two days later. His will, under which he left less than £100, was not proved until 22 July 1862. His wife Henrietta died on 27 August 1878 in St. Stephen-by-Saltash, Cornwall, and was buried in Ford Park Cemetery three days later. She left an estate valued at £300.

One of Susannah’s later projects: The Weekly Magazine, a short-lived periodical which she edited (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)


Of course, none of the above solves the mystery of the identity of Susannah Peirson. One possible, and not unprecedented, scenario is that she was a domestic servant in whatever household Thomas Noel was living in after his estrangement from his first wife, and they embarked on an affair, culminating in both Thomas and Susannah fleeing to France to marry. They would certainly not have been in a position to marry in England.

There is also no indication anywhere as to how G.W.M. Reynolds and Susannah knew each other – where they met, what Susannah was doing for a living (if anything), and how long they were together before they married.

But at least knowing the identity of Susannah’s first husband may bring us a step closer to unearthing her background, as someone, somewhere – a descendant of Thomas Noel, or a descendant of someone who knew him well – may be able to shed some light on this intriguing mystery.

[1] For the most comprehensive study of Susannah’s life published up till now, see Dick Collins, “George William Macarthur Reynolds: A Biographical Sketch”, in The Necromancer: A Romance, by George W.M. Reynolds, Valancourt Books, 2007.

[2] Mrs Reynolds, “Intemperance in Woman” in The Teetotaler, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Temperance. Literature and Science, (edited by G.W.M. Reynolds), George Henderson (London), December 1840, p 203.

[3] For a full study of Thomas Noel see Brad Verity, “Descendants of Rev. Thomas Noel of Kirkby Mallory (1775-1853)” at https://royaldescent.blogspot.com/2016/05/descendants-of-rev-thomas-noel-of.html

[4] His nephew, Henry Liddell, became famous for his Greek-English Lexicon, written in conjunction with Robert Scott, and perhaps better-known as “Liddell & Scott,” first published in 1843, and for being the father of Alice Liddell who inspired Alice in Wonderland.

[5] John Haggard, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Ecclesiastical Courts at Doctors’ Commons, Vol. IV, Part 1, Saunders & Benning (London), 1833, pp 207-208.

[6] The average age of prostitutes in Paris in 1836 was 20, with 3% of prostitutes (who were legally obliged to register with the police) aged between 10 and 15. This was technically illegal, but children judged to be irremediably debauched were sometimes registered. See Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet, De la Prostitution dans la Viile de Paris, 1836.

[7] For more on Luscombe, see the essay on him at Anglicans Online, at http://morgue.anglicansonline.org/130728/