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The villain in our Berkshire midst

Posted in This months highlight on 09 Feb 2022

The writings of Charles Dickens contain some of the most well-known characters of Victorian literature, such as David Copperfield, Ebenezer Scrooge and Oliver Twist. Every good story needs a villain and Dickens’ work is no exception. 7th February 2022 marked the 210th birthday of Charles Dickens, so it seemed appropriate to highlight the Berkshire link with one of Dickens’ most notorious villains. 

We hold a copy of a marriage settlement between Henrietta Villebois and Sir Francis Sykes made in 1821 (shown below; catalogue reference D/EX2717/1/3/23/1). Marriage settlements were commonly used from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. They were a way of settling key questions, such as the maintenance of the wife and future children. It was these settlements that frequently entailed estates to eldest sons, making it impossible to sell estates without an Act of Parliament, if the heir was not of age. 

1821 Marriage Settlement with old English handwriting for marriage between Sir Francis Sykes and Miss Henrietta Villebois

Along with the Gillingham Estate, Dorset, Sir Francis Sykes, 3rd baronet, also inherited ‘the Manor and Lordship of Baseldon otherwise Bastledon otherwise Bassingdon and all and singular other the manors rectory advowson messuages lands tenement and hereditament in the said County of Berks’. 

Print showing Bailsdon Park, Berkshire. Reference written D/EX1130/3/5/1

This land had been purchased by the 3rd baronet’s grandfather, Sir Francis Sykes Baronet, a Member of Parliament and Governor in India. He started building the house in 1776 but financial difficulties meant the building work continued all his life. After he died in 1804, it was ‘Francis William Sykes (eldest son of the said Francis Sykes and Father of the said Sir Francis Sykes party hereto)’ that inherited the estates. However, he died a few weeks later of scarlet fever so Sir Francis Sykes, 3rd Baronet, inherited the Basildon estate in 1804, aged only 5. 

Money continued to be an issue for Sir Francis Sykes, so it is unsurprising that when he came to look for a wife, it was a factor taken into consideration. Henrietta Villebois was the daughter of ‘Henry Villebois of Gloster Place in the Parish of Saint Mary le bone in the County of Middlesex Esquire’. The Villebois family had their county seat in Marham, Norfolk and had attained their wealth by marrying into the Truman Brewery in a previous generation.

English handwriting from marriage settlement of 1821 detailing that the sum of ten thousand pounds should be advanced as a marriage portion for Henrietta Villebois

According to the settlement, as seen above, ‘upon the treaty of the Marriage it was agreed that the said Henry Villebois should advance the sum of Ten thousand pounds as and for the marriage portion of the said Henrietta Villebois and that the same should be settled upon certain trusts for the benefit of the said Sir Francis Sykes and Henrietta Villebois or the issue of the said intended Marriage’.  

The intended marriage did produce issue with the couple having four children: Francis-William, Frederic-Henry, Henry and Eva-Maria. However, it was not a love match, with both being known to partake in affairs. Henrietta’s affair with the future Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, was immortalised in his novel Henrietta Temple, about a secret love affair with a married woman.

Another of Henrietta’s affairs was with the painter, Daniel Maclise, a friend of Charles Dickens. Sir Francis publicly denounced his wife over this affair in a notice in the newspaper:

‘WHEREAS, HENRIETTA SYKES, the Wife of me, Sir FRANCIS SYKES, Baronet, hath committed ADULTERY with DANIEL McCLISE, of Russell-place, Fitzroy square, Portrait and Picture-painter (with whom she was found in bed at my house, No. 20, Park-lane, in the parish of St. George, Hanover-square, in the county of Middlesex, on the 4th day of July, 1837) -

This is to give Notice, that hereafter I shall not be ANSWERABLE for any DEBTS she may contract, or for GOODS which may be supplied to her.

Dated this 25th day of July, 1837. FRANCIS SYKES’

(Entry from ‘The Sun’, Friday evening, July 28 1837, p.1.)

This scandal ruined Lady Sykes’ reputation and harmed Mr Maclise’s business. However, insulting a friend of one of the most popular authors of the day did not turn out well for Sir Francis. Even changing a letter in the name was not enough to disguise the fact that one Bill Sikes of Oliver Twist was most likely inspired by Sir Francis Sykes. 

Sources for further reading:

Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage, 1871.