The Marrying Kind, or, Mr Godley BL and the Two Wives, December 1903

From the Belfast News-Letter, 4 December 1903:

At the Commission Court last evening, before Mr Justice Kenny, the jury found John Godley, Barrister-at-Law and Alice Lilian Pritchard, trading as Leigh, Moore & Co, 6 Westland Row, Dublin, guilty of obtaining money by false pretences by means of cheques.  They strongly recommended the female prisoner to mercy.

Today, John Godley was indicted for having on the 16th October 1900 at Southsea, Portsmouth, bigamously gone through a marriage in the registry office with Alice Lillian Pritchard, his lawful wife, Cecilia Julia Hitchcock, being still alive.

Mr Woods appeared for the prisoner and said that he desired, on behalf of Godley, to withdraw the plea of not guilty which he had entered the previous evening. He wished to say a few words in mitigation of the crime to which the prisoner had pleaded guilty.  His client had undoubtedly been in technical breach of the law, but his Honour would remember that the bigamy acts were for the protection of innocent persons and in in this particular case the woman Pritchard had knowledge of the fact that Godley was a married man.  That was a fact that should merit consideration.  Most unpleasant relations existed between the prisoner and his former wife…

Mr Justice Kenny – You mean his wife.

Mr Woods – Yes his wife. Now in relation to his wife, Mrs Godley, I have to make a statement which I feel may have some influence –

Mr Justice Kenny – Be careful; I won’t have things to go out broadcast to the public which cannot here be contradicted.

Mr Woods – It is only in so far as it is by way of extenuation.

Mr Justice Kenny – I do not know what you are going to say or to refer to as to the relations between Godley and his wife.  There is no evidence to contradict it, and your statement may go out to the public.

Mr Woods – I shall not press it if your Lordship so desires.  My only desire was to show that certain special circumstances exist which might I submit mitigate the guilt, the actual moral guilt which existed and which is to be attached to a technical breach of the law.

Mr Justice Kenny said that he needed to tell the jury that this was a case which, to him and those who conducted it, was one of an extremely painful nature, by reason of the fact that the prisoner Godley was a member of the Bar.    In the case of the female prisoner, Mr Woods had stated that she was in delicate health and he would sentence her to one month’s imprisonment, dating from today.  

 As regards Godley, there was nothing to mitigate his conduct and he would be sentenced to twelve months imprisonment in respect of each offence, the two sentences to run consecutively, the second sentence to commence at the expiration of the first.”

The former Godley home in Upper Leeson Street

What were the chain of events that had brought John Godley to this pass? In 1884, while still a student at Trinity, he had married Cissie Hitchcock, from a renowned Irish legal family. The Godleys wintered in Upper Leeson Street and summered at John’s family estate, Fonthill, Lucan. Cissie’s extensive wardrobe of watteau jackets and heliotrope satin regularly made the news, most notoriously in 1888 when John had to smother her in a curtain after her evening dress caught fire at a party.

But all was not well behind the Godley facade.   Law was only one of John Godley’s many interests.  Rathmines Commissioner, Guardian of the South Dublin Union, swimmer, lawn tennis player, cricketer, golfer, horseman, rabbit breeder and enthusiastic organiser of amateur theatricals – all these things cost money, as did a social life, a townhouse and a wife in heliotrope. When John went bankrupt in 1890, his father William stepped in to guarantee his debts, becoming insolvent himself in the process.  When William died in 1894, the creditors were again circling, and Fonthill was only saved through a purchase by Cissie’s relatives; the Godley carriages were repainted to bear her name and not that of her husband.

Fonthill House, Lucan

John continued to hold his head high, turning part of the estate into a golf-course and setting up his own hunt kennels, the Cursis Stream Beagles; the Sporting Gazette was sufficiently impressed to publish the portrait above.   He changed his politics from Unionist to Nationalist Labour, running unsuccessfully in the Dublin County Council elections of 1899.  But once again financial doom was looming; more proceedings for debt, this time over horse fodder ordered, but not paid for, and the appropriation by the sheriff of a beloved horse as a result. The following year, reports of proceedings brought by an aggrieved creditor disclosed that John had now left his wife – and Fonthill.

What did he do next? The Army and Navy Gazette of February 1900 records a John Godley, gent, as an officer in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers.  Miss Pritchard, a butcher’s daughter from Hampshire, was working as a book-keeper in a hotel in Portsea in 1899.  Could he have met her there? Their bigamous wedding of October 1900 was followed by an extended honeymoon in the bride’s home town of Lymington, where ‘Captain and Mrs Godley’ hosted an invitation-only dance in the Town Hall. The 4th VB Hants Regiment was impressed enough by the town’s military guest to invite him on a time march, subsequently toasting his health in its Drill Hall to the accompaniment of bread, cheese, ale and ginger beer.  In reply, the Captain complimented the regiment’s performance, saying that he had been in many time marches in line regiments but had yet to see one better arranged.

The Town Hall, Lymington

Meanwhile, not a million miles away, the Field and the Western Daily Press were advertising the following recommendation for dog biscuits from one John Godley, barrister-at-law, resident of Fonthill, Lucan, and master of the Cursis Stream Beagles:

“Dear Sirs, I am very pleased with the dog cakes, the hounds eat them eagerly and seem to be greatly improved in condition since they have been getting them.  I enclose an order for more.”

Subsequently, the happy couple left Lymington for Ireland, kick-starting the inexorable chain of events that led to their conviction in 1903.

What to make of all this? Was John Godley an incurably dishonest bounder or just a man looking for love and hopeless with money? What did he want to tell the court about Cissie? Had she been unfaithful? Had he been bankrupted by her dress bills?  Or had the sight of her name on his former carriages at Fonthill simply been the last straw?!

But we must not forget to investigate what happened after the 1903 trial.   Were there any subsequent developments?  Of course there were – a man like John Godley never disappears for good! Did I mention that he was also a keen letter-writer?  The final instalment of the Godley saga may be found here!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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