Today we mark the anniversary of the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo by recalling the eventful life of the Dartmouth MP, Edward Schenley (1799-1878), who as a boy was severely wounded in that campaign, yet through his elopement with a Pittsburgh heiress ended his life as a millionaire.
Schenley came from an old Devonshire family and appears to have been born in Woolwich in 1799. The younger son of an artillery officer who died at Cadiz in 1813, he served as a volunteer in the Peninsular War before joining the Rifle Brigade as a 15-year-old lieutenant in 1814. He was severely wounded in the Waterloo campaign, and afterwards became a friend of Lord Byron. In 1822 he attended the cremation of Percy Bysshe Shelley at Leghorn (Livorno) in Italy and was present when the poet’s ashes were buried in Rome. In 1823 he eloped with Catherine Inglis and was married at Livorno. The couple subsequently lived in Edinburgh but within three years both his wife and son were dead.
In July 1825 Schenley was appointed vice-consul at Guatemala and was presented to William IV in March 1828. That June he became the British consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, and by the end of that year was promoting the Swan River settlement in western Australia, for which the government granted half a million acres of land. After further consular service at Haiti and Panama he travelled in Europe and in 1833 eloped with a cousin of the earl of Fife. His new father-in-law, Sir William Pole, was a Devonshire baronet and in 1835 Schenley took an active part in Lord John Russell’s election campaigns in Devon. The following year he was appointed as arbitrator to the mixed British and Spanish commission for the repression of the slave trade in Havana, where his wife died in April 1837.
Schenley was next appointed as commissioner of arbitration to the British and Dutch court of commission at Surinam, where he took office in July 1841. He was, however, soon travelling in America where he was taken ill and offered accommodation by his sister-in-law, a Mrs. Macleod, who ran a fashionable girls’ boarding school on Staten Island, New York. Here the 43-year-old foreign office official embarked on his third elopement by taking off with Mary Elizabeth Croghan, the 15-year-old heiress of Pittsburgh’s largest land holder. Despite her father’s efforts to prevent a marriage the couple were wed in New York before moving on to England. This union proved to be a lasting one and produced eleven children.
Schenley soon returned to Surinam but became embroiled in controversy with the Dutch planters for supporting compensation claims made by liberated slaves who had been forced to work on the plantations. Frustrated by the government’s indifference and feeling that his family was now in danger, he returned to England on leave of absence in June 1845. In August 1847 his actions were finally vindicated by Lord Palmerston, and he retained his post until it was abolished in 1849.
Their poor financial circumstances prompted the Schenleys to visit Pittsburgh for a reconciliation with Mary’s father, who relented and bought them a house at 14 Prince’s Gate, Hyde Park, later the official residence of ambassadors of the United States. On his death in September 1850 Mary came into her inheritance and derived a sufficiently large income from her American estate to allow the family to flourish in England. Schenley’s daughter by his first marriage was presented at court in 1853, the scandal surrounding his elopement with Mary Croghan having died away by that time.
Schenley had also established himself as ‘an old and respected liberal’ in Devon and persuaded the party’s candidate for the venal borough of Dartmouth to retire in his favour at the 1859 general election. Arriving in the town with a letter of introduction from Lord John Russell, he promised to restore trade to the port and reportedly offered an advance of ‘at least £3,000’ to complete the Dartmouth and Torbay railway. As a major shareholder in the Electric Telegraph Company he was also eager to promote transatlantic telegraphic communication. He assured the electors that he would seek to extend the franchise to ‘the industrial classes’.
Returned after a contest with a Conservative, Schenley took his seat at Westminster, where he backed the Liberal government on the queen’s speech and twice voted in favour of the abolition of church rates. However, his parliamentary career was cut short when he was unseated because of bribery on 26 July 1859, after an election committee found that his agents had paid as much as £100 for a single vote. With his political ambitions thwarted, Schenley pursued his interest in sailing by becoming a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, and the family cemented its place in London society by placing their Pittsburgh residence at the disposal of the Prince of Wales during his visit to the United States.
When Schenley died in London in January 1878 he was said to possess a personal fortune of between £1,400,000 and £2,000,000. He was survived by his widow, who subsequently proved to be a generous benefactor to her native city, and at the time of her death in 1903 was thought to be worth more than £12,000,000. Two of Schenley’s daughters married into the aristocracy: Elizabeth Pole Schenley, his daughter by his second marriage, married a son of the 3rd Baron Suffield in 1865, while in 1906 Hermione Schenley became Lady Ellenborough.