Music and Murder, Christopher Elrington


At the Society’s annual meeting in 1999 Rosemary Dunhill, then county archivist of Hampshire, gave a talk on the Harris family of Salisbury and London. She spoke of the musical interests of the Harrises and mentioned their connection with George Frederic Handel. Afterwards my wife Jean told her of the friendship between Handel and a distant relation of hers, Elizabeth Batt, wife of John Mayne. (Elizabeth’s son John died childless and his heir was his cousin, whose great-granddaughter was Jean’s great-grandmother.) Rosemary Dunhill put us in touch with an American musicologist, Professor Ellen T. Harris (no relation of the Harrises of Salisbury), of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was working on Handel and his circle of friends.

Professor Harris has been digging deep in the records concerned with Handel’s friends, and in the Public Record Office at Kew (which we now have to call The National Archives) she found an account of a homicide committed, as a young man, by John Mayne, Elizabeth Batt’s future husband. John Mayne was born in 1788 and baptised at Teffont Evias, where his father Christopher bought an estate in 1692, having moved there from Exeter a few years earlier.

The Maynes retained property in Exeter, and in 1711 John, aged 23, went there to collect the rents. After he had done so he visited a tavern and drank too much, to the extent that he could not easily find his way at night back to where he was lodging. In the street he was met by Margaret Richards, ‘who officiously pressed upon him’ that she ‘would conduct him: which he (being a stranger and unhappily in drink) admitted her to do.’ She took him not to his lodgings but to hers, an ‘infamous house’ or bawdy house, and in an unlit room robbed him of a silk handkerchief and of money in coin and notes, presumably the rents which he had collected. He demanded them back, and when she refused he drew his sword and ‘in the confusion and surprise he was then in was the unfortunate occasion of her death.’ John was to be tried for murder; the report of the killing is phrased in the way it is because it comes in a petition to the queen for a royal warrant for a stay of execution in case John should be found guilty. Had that happened the sentence would ordinarily have been carried out very quickly, and a stay of execution would be necessary to allow time for organising a case for a free pardon or a conditional pardon, which was often granted to people found guilty of capital offences. We do not know whether the matter actually came to trial, and if it did what the verdict was.

John Mayne married Elizabeth Batt in 1722 and died in 1726. It would be interesting to know whether Elizabeth knew of the scandalous episode in his bachelor days. Having had a son John (1723–85) and a daughter Elizabeth (1724–73), wife of Samuel Berkeley, she survived her husband by more than forty years, living mostly in Kensington, and died in 1768, aged 73. Her friendship with Handel was presumably part of her London life. Family tradition has it that Handel gave her a harpsichord, and when he died in 1759 he left a considerable sum of money to her. In the British Library Professor Harris has found a music commonplace book containing pieces progressing from the simple to suites by Purcell. It bears the title ‘Elizabeth Batt 1704’, and is just the sort of book that a young girl of nine studying the harpsichord would keep. So the presumption is that it belonged to the future wife of a man who may have been tried for murder.

Professor Harris plans to be in London again before long, so we may hope to learn further details, disreputable or otherwise, about Jean’s distant relations. She may have discovered the answer to the question why one of Handel’s hymn-tunes is called Trowbridge, which Ken Rogers raised at last year’s annual meeting.