Madeleine Wardle

Madeleine Wardle

9, Charlotte Street, London, Middesex


Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

Geo. Y. Wardle





Leek, Stafford

Madeleine Wardle






Mary Wardle





London, Middlesex

Thos. Wardle





Southwold, Suffolk

Mary Bobyer





Guildford, Surrey

Lena Wardle is at home, in Charlotte Street, a small but buzzing household: she is known as a hostess, as an organiser, as a woman to be trusted with ordering goods, and managing her household. The walls are gorgeously papered, in the medieval, revivalist style of William Morris. Old and new combine. The table is fashionably, almost shockingly bare of a cloth or covering: there are settings instead (it is a fashion she has pioneered). Her children, Tom and Kitten, are almost the age she was herself when - when she was sent from Glasgow to London, to Clapton, to learn the arts of decorum, the way in which to hold oneself still, to be modest of manner, demure of demeanour. That was thirty years earlier, at Mrs. Alice Gorton's Academy for Young Ladies, at the time of the Great Exhibition, at the time of Wellington's funeral, which she watched, together with the other sixteen girls. She can recall the early morning prayers, the pleasant hours of needlework, of tatting. The piano lessons. All the way from Scotland she had come, the better to impress Society when she returned: as the ball's belle, as the glossy apple of her father's eye, as the first-born, as the proud inheritor of the grand tradition. Lena reads; she plays the piano; she paints - watercolours - which she shows to her friends. Her husband George is a fop - he wears a Spanish cloak, and a broad-brim hat in the street; he has a thin grey beard. The heads turn in the street. Lena herself, with her quick grey eyes, her almost-oval and fresh, fair face, has had her dark hair fashionably frizzed. She looks ten years younger than her age. Kitten is growing like Lena - stubborn, bright, a little sulky when it suits. Tom is restless. George's talk of America, of his trip there, has already given him ideas. And Lena too is restless, thinking of the new, political causes about which the men and women talk at her table. And yes, many of them know her secret. She herself has calmly folded it away in her memory, like the brown silk dress, like the fawn bonnet. She is not Mimi; she is not Madeleine; she is Lena.

Lena Wardle was born Magdalene Hamilton Smith, although Magdalene - her grandmother's name - was amended in childhood to Madeleine. She was born on March 29th, 1835, in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, the eldest of six children. As Madeleine Smith, she was to become the focus of obsessive conversation, prurient gossip, and sentimental melodrama, since her trial for the murder of her lover Emile Angelier in April 1857 possessed all the ingredients of the ultimate cover-story. She was young and attractive; there was a cache of letters which revealed that she had not only had a sexual relationship, but that she had enjoyed it, had even initiated it; she had an eminent forebear, David Hamilton, her grandfather, one of Glasgow's most successful architects. The weapon was arsenic. And - best of all, for sensation-seekers - the case against her had been found to be "not proven". To add to this already heady confection, Madeleine - or Mimi, as she had been known by Angelier - remained defiantly cool before, during, and after her trial.

Lena at the time of her trial

The public applauded the verdict. Her defending counsel, John Inglis, who had put forward a virtuoso defence, considered her guilty. So too did a succession of armchair criminologists, from Henry James and George Eliot and Jane Carlyle, to professional murderphiles like William Roughead (one of several to enjoy the Madeleine-Magdalene name, possibly in ignorance of the fact that she had indeed been a Magdalene). George Sims, the young journalist, held forth enthusiastically at the dinner-table about the case. At the dinner-table in Charlotte Street, to be precise, blithely unaware until kicked in the shins that his hostess was the scarlet woman to whom he alluded. Belfort Bax, the socialist writer who nevertheless held profoundly anti-feminist views, believed that Madeleine Smith had been exonerated because of false sentiment for the fact that she was female. He discovered that she had cooked some food for a socialist club Lena briefly managed. Consternation! They would all be poisoned! He was ridiculed by another acquaintance of Lena's - George Bernard Shaw, who found Lena rewardingly ordinary.

The judges at Madeleine's trial scrupulously refused to allow Angelier's diaries (in which he records feeling ill after meeting 'Mimi') to be used, on the basis that they were not susceptible to cross-examination, and could not therefore be considered reliable. Nor, under Scots law, could Madeleine be interrogated herself. These were the factors which saved her. No proof linked her to Angelier on the three dates on which he had allegedly been poisoned by someone. Madeleine herself had openly purchased arsenic (to dispose, she had told the apothecary, of some non-existent rats; to use as a cosmetic, as recommended by Chamber's Journal and other unreliable sources, she had claimed). The possibility remains that Angelier poisoned himself, to draw sympathy from Madeleine, who had already been instructed by her father to reject her lover, which she had done. His ardour persisted; she was busy getting on with her life, and the prospect of engagement to an older and socially acceptable man called William Minnoch.

To say that, after three months in prison, Madeleine was unfazed, is an understatement. She wrote polite thank-you letters to the prison matron and chaplain, indicating displeasure with the judge and jury (the verdict "not guilty" would have been more to her taste), and admitting that she might have to move away for "a few months". In the event, her father provided her with the wherewithal to move from Scotland. In him there must have competed a mixture of shame, tenderness, relief and distaste. The principal exhibits were the 198 letters his daughter had written, in which she described her feelings, sexual and emotional, with embarrassing candour. He had shelled out on her education at Mrs. Gorton's finishing school so that she would impress the socialites (as she did with her ringlets, her thin muslin dress, and her white silk stockings), and make a good marriage. But James Smith had already recovered from the embarrassment of a bankruptcy to make good his position as an architect. He had enough money to have a gig as well as a carriage, to have a holiday retreat in Rhu. It was not in his nature to buckle. He paid for Madeleine and her younger brother Jack to take a flat in Sloane Square, in Chelsea, and the end of the 1850s saw Madeleine ensconced again in London, where elocution had already smoothed away what little trace remained of her Scottish accent. She had the literate, intellectual company she craved (she was well-read, and interested particularly in art. Vasari's Lives Of The Painters had started her along this path).

As an architect, James Smith had had contact with young men like Philip Webb, and it was almost certainly through Webb that Lena met George Young Wardle, a painter whose connections included not only Webb but William Morris (whose Red House was designed by Webb). Smith did not disown his daughter. When George Wardle and Lena were engaged to be married - the wedding was in 1861 - he not only acted as one of the witnesses, but settled on her a capital sum which provided an annual income of £100 a year. Wardle's father was a druggist; what James Smith made of that, it is hard to imagine. It seems possible, too, that her sisters Bessie and Janet were also at the marriage, and perhaps her mother (also Janet) as well. It was Bessie, incidentally, who christened her sister 'Lena' in childhood. At any rate, it is clear that there was plenty of family reconciliation (and not, as several writers insist, a succession of deaths. James Smith died in 1863, but his wife survived him by over 20 years, and all of his daughters survived well into the twentieth century).

1861 was the year that William Morris's firm first came into operation, although it would seem that Lena may have been employed there before George - as an embroiderer. She stitched alongside Jane Morris. George was an enthusiastic sketcher of medieval buildings (and a lifelong member of the society Webb formed for their preservation). His drawings of East Anglian churches impressed Morris; in about 1866, he was employed as a book-keeper and draughtsman, when Morris's first book-keeper died. George was to prosper again by another's misfortune. When the firm's first manager died in 1871, it was George Wardle who was chosen to take over. From then on, he was indispensable. Morris was a profligate businessman; Wardle spoke constant caution in his ear. Morris's letters often instruct clients to "leave it with Wardle", or comment, for instance, that he cannot move until "Wardle has done the arithmetic". In 1883, of a colour-mixer called Kenyon, we find that, to ensure "this is done properly, either Wardle or I have to stand over him all the time." In the same fortnight as the census, Wardle effectively vetoed a proposal by Morris to move his works to Blockley, near Chipping Campden. By this time, Wardle was earning £1200 a year, second only to Morris (£1800). His position in the firm was one factor in another Morris-Wardle connection. George Wardle's sister had married a distant cousin, also called Wardle, and, like George, from the Leek area of Staffordshire. He was called Thomas Wardle, was a dyer, and an authority on the process of vegetable dyeing and fabric. Morris found Thomas Wardle cantankerous, but their business association and Thomas Wardle's experiments with colour were fundamental to Morris's increasing success and profit. (Lena, unlike Morris, liked her brother-in-law very much).

Life at Charlotte Street was comfortable, and stimulating. There were exhibitions, books, and theatre visits - indeed, in November 1882, Lena found herself next to the Marquis of Queensbury at Tennyson's new play, The Promise Of May. The Marquis, later of course the persecutor of Oscar Wilde, was as ever up in arms. He loudly objected during the performance to the main character, whom he thought travestied free thinkers. Lena therefore witnessed this performance within a performance at close quarters. We also know that Lena - and apparently Kitten - were enthusiastic about Ibsen's A Doll's House (1879), a litmus test for radicals, particularly in its heroine's rejection of marriage and motherhood.

For Lena, the early 1880s were times of new and restless interest. George was travelling more; Morris was becoming engaged by socialist ideas. Lena, her children grown up, found a new niche. By the second half of the decade, she was treasurer of the Bloomsbury branch of the Socialist League, and its librarian; and treasurer too of a group of socialist parliamentarians headed by Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx. Her son Tom was also actively involved in the Socialist League. In 1888, Tom was married to Annita Bied-Charreton, a young singer of Italian extraction, whose stage name was Anna Di Fiori (Tom was a dramatic agent known as "Thomas Edmunds"). Curiously enough, the other witness at their wedding - the principal one being Lena - was a Pasquale Novissimo. He too was a right-hand man, like Tom's father. He was the principal assistant of the jeweller Giuliano. In 1889, Kitten married John Scarratt Rigby, a young decorative designer whom she had met through the Staffordshire Wardles. George and Lena had skilfully helped to make these matches, but it was their last joint project. They were drifting apart.

Wardle retired from Morris and Co. in 1889, and took himself to Naples. Lena (whom George continued to maintain) spent some time in Staffordshire with her in-laws. A story did the rounds that he had feared murder at her hands when Lena gave him a meaningful "look". Old gossip was further stirred up in 1890 when some of the murder case letters were stolen, and found for sale in an Edinburgh bookshop; a court case raked over the still-glowing embers of Lena's past; the embarrassment certainly affected Bessie, Janet and their mother, in their Falkirk home, Belmont. In 1893, Lena left for New York, where her son Tom had already emigrated with Annita and her first two children, and where he worked at a variety of jobs - as a carpet layer, as a carpenter. Whilst it is possible that Lena came back on more than one occasion (Kitten had a son, Stephen), it was in America that she made her home. And it is more probable that when she arrived, on the Arizona on September 11th of that year, it was for good. A self-protective instinct made her capitalise on her extraordinarily youthful appearance (which she accentuated with a henna wig). She sliced twenty-two years from her age on the immigration documents - on the ship's manifest, she is shown as 36, when she was actually 58. Presumably this was done with Tom's connivance, since he was now technically "older" than his mother. It may have helped her to take out an insurance document. (Her sisters Bessie and Janet were also busy slashing their ages for the census, although not quite so drastically!)

After so many years of having been guyed in the pages and on the stages of Britain, the anonymity may well have been a relief. She had the new pleasure of three grandchildren, Violet, May, and her third grand-child, John. George, meanwhile, did not stay in Italy, and was soon living again in London, and active in the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (for whom he wrote an anniversary pamphlet in 1899). In the last years of his life, it was George who helped Kitten through her own separation from John Rigby (who emigrated to South Africa). His last home was in Fowey, in Cornwall; he died in late 1910 in a Plymouth nursing home. For Lena, now seventy, the news opened a surprising new chapter. She married again, to a New Yorker called William Sheehy, a concrete contractor, the Catholic son of an Irish immigrant, and some twenty-five years her junior. Probably the marriage took place in 1911, which also appears to be the year of Lena's naturalisation. Lena and William had, however, been living together since about 1898, and it seems most probable that her new partner was a friend of her son's.

In 1920, Lena and William were living on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. They visited, and were visited by Tom's family. In 1926, Sheehy died. Lena was 90, although she still claimed to be in her sixties. She moved to a small flat in Park Avenue in the Bronx district. About this time, a film company is alleged to have found her whereabouts, and to have threatened her with exposure, even extradition, if she did not put in an appearance (in a closing shot, one assumes) in a projected film. The "interview" she is alleged to have given is, however, highly suspect. She appears not to be able even to remember Angelier's first name correctly. If the tale is true, then it must have seemed to her that she would never be safe. On April 12th 1928, looked after by her grand-daughter Violet, Lena Smith, Lena Wardle, Lena Sheehy, died. Her death certificate maintains the fiction of her comparative youth.

In 2003, the magazine Nature revealed that Morris and Thomas Wardle had received complaints in 1885, from a customer, that his wallpaper was making him and his wife feel ill. Morris tetchily dismissed the complaint. As a former member of the board of his father's company, Devon Great Consols, however, shares in which provided Morris with considerable income, he must have known what was in the green pigment he and Wardle had been using - since it was from DGC that he bought his supplies. Of arsenic.


Lena Wardle's children did not outlive her long. Tom died in 1931, Kitten in 1935. Kitten's son Stephen died in 1967, leaving no children. Tom's descendants - both John and Violet had children - still live in the USA, in the eastern states of Maine and Connecticut.


Notable British Trials, Vol. 1, The Trial Of Madeleine Smith, by F. Tennyson Jesse, Hodge, 1927 - later republished as the first case in Vol. 1 of Notable

British Trials ed. Harry Hodge, Penguin, 1941

Madeleine Smith, by Henry Blyth, Duckworth, 1975

Madeleine Smith, by Geoffrey L. Butler, London, 1935

"To Meet Miss Madeleine Smith", in Mainly Murder, by William N. Roughead, Cassell, 1937

The Madeleine Smith Affair, by Peter Hunt, Muller, 1957

That Nice Miss Smith, by Nigel Morland, Frederick Muller, 1957

Victorian Studies In Scarlet, by Richard D. Altick, J.M. Dent, 1970

Murder In Victorian Scotland: the trial of Madeleine Smith, by Douglas

Macgowan, Praeger, 1999

A Most Curious Murder

(website written and maintained by Jimmy Powdrell

Campbell, also the author of a musical based on Madeleine Smith's life)

William Morris, Romantic To Revolutionary, by E.P. Thompson,

Pantheon, 1976

The Letters of William Morris, ed. Philip Henderson, Longmans, 1950

South Lodge: reminiscences of Violet Hunt, Ford Madox Ford and the

English Review Circle, by Douglas Goldring, Constable, 1943

Nature, June 12, 2003

conversations with Jimmy Campbell, Doug Macgowan, Gwyneth Nair,

Peter Faulkner, Pieter and Doreen Betlem, Shirley Thompson and Robert Wardle


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