John Henry de la Poer Beresford, 5th Marquess of Waterford (1844-1895), had an ostensibly modest political career as a Conservative MP serving as Master of the Buckhounds under Prime Minister Lord Salisbury from 1885-6. But though his political footprint on the history of late Victorian Parliament is light, episodes in his life as reported in the London newspapers reveal a rather melodramatic private life beset by illness, suicide and a posthumous court case.
In his youth the Daily Telegraph reported that Beresford was ‘one of the handsomest officers that ever wore the uniform of the Household Brigade’. He was a fearless horseman and rode with his uncle the hell-raising 3rd Marquess of Waterford’s Curraghmore Hounds on the family’s Irish estates. The 3rd Marquess’s drunken antics coined the phrase ‘paint the town red’ after an episode in Melton Mowbray following a boisterous fox hunt when the Marquess and his cronies appropriated pots of paint and vandalised the town for which they were fined £100 a piece. The 3rd Marquess died in a riding accident in 1859 though his untimely death did nothing to temper his nephew’s recklessness in the saddle.
Three years after Beresford became 5th Marquess in 1866, he absconded to Paris with the wife of a Captain John Vivian who pursued the couple and brought them to ground in the Hotel Westminster on the Rue de la Paix. Florence Vivian attempted suicide by swallowing chloroform but when brought round refused to reconcile with Captain Vivian despite abandoning four children as well as her husband. Captain Vivian successfully sued for divorce in the London law courts in 1869 and the 5th Marquess was named in the newspapers as co-respondent. The Marquess did the decent thing and married Florence Vivian in 1872. They lived at 7 Upper Brook Street in London and at the Waterford’s ancestral home Curraghmore House in County Waterford on estates owned by the family since 1167.
The new Marchioness of Waterford spent a sojourn in London’s Carmelite Convent in 1872 taking instructions to the enter the Roman Catholic church and was accompanied by her maid/companion a Mrs Priscilla White. This brief residence would ignite a conspiracy theory that saw the Waterford name dragged through the law courts forty-five years later. In 1873 Lady Florence gave birth to a stillborn child and three days later died at No 27 Chesham Place in Belgravia. Her body and that of the dead infant were interred beside the family tombs in Clonegam Church and the 5th Marquess commissioned a magnificent marble effigy of mother and child.
The 5th Marquess remarried in 1874 choosing Lady Blanche Somerset, daughter of the 8th Duke of Beaufort, with whom he had four children. In 1883 the 5th Marquess was galloping home to Curraghmore House after dining with a large party and was thrown from his horse injuring his spinal cord. The injury deprived the sporting Marquess of the use of his legs and he spent the rest of his life undergoing unsuccessful operations that failed to liberate him from a wheelchair.
In 1895 the 5th Marquess was found dead in the library at Curraghmore with a fatal bullet wound to the head. The inquest recorded suicide. The London Standard wrote ‘his fine physique, healthy appearance and buoyant spirits would by no means suggest that he was anxious to terminate his existence but those more intimately associated with him recognised the acuteness of his suffering and the depth of his despondency for a long period. For weeks past he had never left the grounds of his residence, and spent the greater part of the day in a rocking chair on the lawn silent and depressed’.
In a curious twist to the 5th Marquess’s suicide, it emerged that gardener George Beresford of Sydenham had written to the invalid Marquess in 1895 claiming to be the legitimate son of he and his first wife Lady Florence. He took the case to court in 1917 claiming the Waterford title and estates on evidence that while in the Carmelite Convent in 1872 Lady Florence had given birth to a son. The child was allegedly handed over to a maid Mrs Duncan who brought him up under the name George Tooth. Beresford claimed to be the missing Tooth.
The petitioner alleged that John Henry De La Poer, 5th Marqess of Waterford, had married Florence Vivian on August 9th 1872. Had he been born before 1873 the inference was that the child had been conceived before the couple was married thus giving an explanation why Lady Waterford gave up her son. The court called Priscilla White who was the only witness to Lady Waterford’s sojourn in the convent still living. Mrs White’s evidence told a different tale.
A sister of the Waterford family cook called Georgina Tooth had fallen on hard times and given birth to an illegitimate baby boy in the Holborn Union Workhouse and promptly died. The infant christened George Tooth was raised by Lady Florence’s maid Mrs Duncan and his board and education paid for by the magnanimous 5th Marquess and Marchioness. Though Mrs White did not know of the whereabouts of George Tooth – it being forty-five years since his birth – it was proven that Beresford was an impostor.
A Times leader in 1918 thundered ‘the gardener named Tooth, who claimed the Waterford peerage has lost his case and he cannot have the satisfaction of knowing that the result raises the slightest doubt in the mind of any reasonable person. It is hard to believe how he found anyone to support his impudent pretensions. No feebler attempt to obtain a title and estates has ever been recorded’. Tooth was later arrested for sending threatening and libellous postcards to Mrs White and the Waterford heirs. He was arrested, tried at the Old Bailey, bound over to keep the peace and vanished from history. The descendants of the 5th Marquess of Waterford still reside at Curraghmore Castle.