The tabloid press is vilified today for its obsession with scandal, but salacious tittle-tattle was just as attractive to the papers back in the middle of the 19th century. Then, as now, the facts mustn't be allowed to get in the way of sexing up a story. As successive newspapers covered the stories of the day they embellished the tales and stretched the facts to entice their readers to purchase the latest edition.
So when it comes to the account of Felix Lough and Jane (or Mary) Jackson, how much do we really know and how much is simply tabloid exaggeration?
The titillating version has all the hallmarks of a good story. Well-bred Felix and lax-moralled Jane (or Mary), approaching their sixtieth years, connive to abscond from the Penrith Workhouse in order to consummate a childhood romance. They march thirty miles to Gretna Green in anticipation, deceiving the Minister there into marrying them without a fee being paid. Then reality hits home and they trudge thirty long, footsore miles back to Penrith, where, for want of better lodgings they trick their way back into their single-sex Workhouse dormitories.
The documents held by Cumbria Archive Service give an historical reliability to the tales from Beneath the Beacon, but in the case of this romantic couple, only the bare facts are contained in official records, leaving the reader to decide how much journalistic licence was applied in the telling of their tale.
We know quite a lot about Penrith in 1850, the original market town where people had been trading corn and wool and butter, potatoes and pease, live cattle, horses and hogs for over a century. Along with this commercial hustle and bustle came the social problems that have afflicted every community since the industrial revolution: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. And with these problems came the first attempts to tackle the symptoms and the causes. Records show that as early as 1777 there had been workhouses in Ainstable and Hesket and by 1829 at least one was operating on Middlegate in Penrith.
At the time Felix and Jane entered the Penrith Union Workhouse it had only been in existence for around a decade, replacing the older establishment. Built on Greystoke Road, to a model design at a cost of £3,000, the institution was nevertheless intended to be the last resort for those unable to fend for themselves. The regime there was intended to be so off-putting that able-bodied men would never contemplate submitting to its privations. Only the old, the physically and mentally incapacitated and unmarried mothers would choose life inside.
The way in which Felix Lough, a Middlesex tobacco spinner and the son of a Penrith solicitor, returned to his home town was not as he had hoped. After being wed once (or perhaps twice) and fathering five (or perhaps six) children, three of whom died in infancy, he ended up a pauper in Doncaster workhouse. In April 1850 he was removed to Penrith, presumably because that was where his family originated. Charity was supposed to start at home, with the local parishes responsible for the costs of looking after their own.
We can only guess at the circumstances that led Felix to be there. As a man in his forties he was the sort of person who should have been deterred from claiming Poor Relief. But Felix's condition or approach to life must have caused him to accept the regime with its cold dormitories, back-breaking physical labour, rough uniforms and thin gruel. Perhaps a recent widower with the three surviving children in tow and no wife to care for them, and the nascent welfare state his only hope of maintenance. We can suppose that once inside, even inside the Workhouse, there was scope for romance and desire. And so Felix encountered Jane and an attachment ensued.
Jane had entered the workhouse in the 1840s and was a good dozen years younger than Felix, so the idea that they were childhood sweethearts is invented - by the couple or the papers. Her sister, possibly a twin, was Mary, hence the journalistic confusion over her name. More likely that Felix and Jane turned to each other for a little comfort in the midst of their trials. Or perhaps Felix was a persuasive and persistent suitor.
Certainly they were determined enough to go on and seal their match before God. How they managed to discharge themselves from the Workhouse leaving behind up to seven children is a mystery. There is no doubt that they arrived at Gretna Green unconjoined and left as man and wife. And no disputing that they found their way back into the Workhouse and that there Jane stayed until her death two years later.
Those two years appear not to have held unalloyed married bliss, though again the details are lost in the mists of time. The bare facts are that just two months after the wedding the Kendal Mercury reported that the ‘celebrated Felix Lough, formerly of London, a tobacco spinner, was charged with neglecting to maintain his wife and children.' The case was discharged. Whether this complaint was brought by Jane or by an aggrieved previous wife, alerted to Felix's place of abode by his new celebrity we cannot tell. What we know from the following year's Census is that Felix was living in lodgings while Jane, now Lough, remained in the workhouse, between them supporting seven children. Of Felix's ultimate end we have no knowledge.
In the 21st century our greedy interest in the same issues continues, fed by reality television. In 2014, Channel 4's Benefits Street, portraying a community dependent on welfare payments and lacking the motivation to seek employment, gave the broadcaster their highest viewing figures of the year. And today, as in 1850, we cannot be sure whether the news we consume is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The hapless residents of Benefits Street claimed to have been misled by the programme-makers. How can we tell what is reality and what is staged and what quantity of less juicy material ended up littering the cutting room floor?
As for the conclusions each of us takes from our Penrith morality tale, only our imaginations can help us fill the gaps and our prejudices inform our conclusions. Would the most world-weary cynic begrudge Felix and Jane a brief interval of happiness in their relentlessly hard lives? Surely even the credulous romantic would admit to suspicions that our couple were work-shy, feckless scroungers, living their lives on the make?
The full text of two of the newspaper articles of the day are set out below to help you, the reader, come to your own conclusions.
The Kendal Mercury Saturday 24th August 1850.
Elopement from a workhouse
In April last, Felix Lough whose father was formerly a solicitor in Penrith was removed from Doncaster to the Penrith Union Workhouse. Felix had three children; but shortly after his removal to the workhouse aforesaid, he began to whisper soft things to Jane Jackson who was also an inmate of the said workhouse, and had four pledges of an earlier affection, in the shape of four healthy boys. Felix and Jane were both up in years – on the shady side of 60. One day last week, having procured leave of absence, the amorous couple cut off to Gretna, while Vulcan’s priest united the banns which death alone can sever, after which they returned quietly back to the Bastile. It appeared that Felix and Jane had been acquainted in better and brighter days; and that in the dark hour of adversity they resolved to consummate affections of earlier years; and we may say, as Felix says, they pleased themselves, and who has anything to do with it?
The Northern and Leeds General Advertiser Saturday 31st August, 1850.
Two Penrith workhouse inmates, Felix Lough, a widower with three children, and Mary Jackson a widowed mother of four, eloped to Gretna Green. After discharging themselves from the workhouse – the couple - both of advancing years had made the thirty-mile round trip to Gretna on foot. On their arrival, they found that they lacked the means to pay the officiating priest, who demanded a fee of twenty times what cash they had. However, Felix Lough, in a most melancholy strain, explained that his wife was dead, as was Mary Jackson’s husband and that they were both paupers from the Penrith workhouse. Then becoming quite convulsed and letting flow a flood of tears over his wrinkled cheeks, in the most affecting manner exclaimed, ‘For goodness sake do marry us because Mary was the first sweetheart I ever had, aye, long before I was married to my first poor wife, but then she would not have me; now she has consented to be my wife. Oh do marry us’. ‘Yes, yes, it is all true do wed us’ said Mary Jackson. The priest was moved with compassion and he wed them. Soon after, they set off on their return walk to Penrith, arriving there footsore and completely exhausted. Having no place to lay their heads, they applied to the relieving officer for assistance. The newly married couple were now spending their honeymoon in the workhouse – apart from each other.