- Jack Binns
Hatfield, John (c. 1758–1803), impostor and forger, was born at Mottram in Longdendale, Cheshire, one of the many children of a poor estate woodsman. His mother, the daughter of a schoolteacher, taught him to read and write but he received no formal education. After the imprisonment of his father and the death of his mother he was apprenticed to a Chester linen draper. At the age of fifteen he married a natural daughter of Lord Robert Manners, who gave him £1500 as her dowry. Hatfield took his bride to London, where they rented a house in Mayfair and lived in luxurious style. Trading on his Manners connection, Hatfield ran up heavy debts which Lord Robert settled on condition he left the capital. The Hatfields emigrated to the American colonies but, after his wife had given birth to three daughters, John deserted his family and returned alone to England. The first Mrs Hatfield was said to have died broken-hearted and destitute.
In 1782 Hatfield reappeared in London where more debts landed him in the king's bench prison. Again he was bailed out by Lord Robert. Still exploiting the Manners name, he followed the duke of Rutland to Dublin in 1784, when the duke was appointed lord lieutenant. Another unpaid bill put him in the Dublin Marshalsea until rescued by the duke and escorted to the packet boat bound for Holyhead. For a time he frequented the resorts of southern England before making his way north to Scarborough. There, still claiming falsely that he had Rutland's favour, he presented himself to the corporation as Major Hatfield, prospective parliamentary candidate for the borough. Failure to meet the New Inn's bill led to his arrest, and from 1792 until 1800 he languished in the local debtors' gaol. During his incarceration he somehow succeeded in publishing anonymously A New Scarborough Guide (1797), dedicated to John, duke of Rutland, who failed to respond with the necessary release money. However, across the street from the prison were rooms occupied by a Devon woman, Michelli Nation, and almost every day for more than six years John and Michelli gazed at each other until finally she secured his freedom by satisfying all his creditors. The next morning, 14 September 1800, they were married by special licence in St Mary's parish church. Soon afterwards the couple left Scarborough to live in Tiverton, but within eighteen months Hatfield had abandoned his pregnant wife and daughter without a penny and resumed his life of deception and extravagance in London. To circumvent the demands of a growing number of creditors he tried and failed to get himself elected MP for Queenborough.
In July 1802, now posing as the Hon. Colonel Alexander Augustus Hope, brother of the earl of Hopetoun and MP for Linlithgow, Hatfield arrived at Keswick in a handsome carriage. He carried off his new role with such skill that all the neighbourhood accepted it without question. At Grasmere he duped John Crump, a wealthy Liverpool merchant, into advancing him money, but his scheme to marry a rich heiress was frustrated by her guardian's insistence on proof of identity. Nevertheless, Joseph Robinson, landlord of The Fish inn at Buttermere, was delighted to agree to the marriage of his only daughter Mary Robinson (1778–1837), shepherdess and social celebrity, to ‘Colonel Hope’ on 2 October 1802 in Lorton parish church. Mary was already famed as ‘the Maid of Buttermere’ and the wedding of a supposed earl's brother to a shepherdess aroused widespread public interest. Under the heading 'The romantic marriage', Samuel Taylor Coleridge's report of the event was soon printed in the London Morning Post. George Hardinge, senior justice of Brecon and an old friend of Colonel Hope, sought out the bridegroom at Keswick. Confronted by Hardinge, Hatfield said he was Charles, not Alexander, Hope, MP for Dumfries, but his lies were exposed when the real Charles Hope denounced him as an impostor in a letter to the Morning Post. None the less Hatfield eluded arrest by taking a ‘fishing trip’ on the lake which turned into a successful flight. Letters he left behind at Buttermere revealed him as a forger as well as a bigamist and a police notice was circulated describing his appearance in detail and offering £50 for information regarding his whereabouts.
Hatfield was finally caught in south Wales, questioned before Bow Street magistrates, and sent for trial at Carlisle assizes. Though neither Michelli Nation nor Mary Robinson would condemn him, he was found guilty on two out of three indictments for forgery, and was hanged at Carlisle on 3 September 1803. His corpse was buried in the town's St Mary's churchyard in a place reserved for criminals. Hatfield's ‘widow’, Mary Robinson, won the sympathy and admiration of poets, dramatists, journalists, and biographers. Public subscriptions were raised for her benefit. Four years later she married Richard Harrison, a prosperous farmer of nearby Caldbeck in Cumberland; they had four children. The death of ‘the Beauty of Buttermere’ was considered sufficiently noteworthy to be published in the Annual Register.
Hatfield was a professional liar constantly on the run from law officers, creditors, and victims of his deceits. It is therefore impossible to be sure of his exploits and movements. His 'extraordinary career' is 'veiled in mystery and will, most likely, remain so' (Annual Register, 1803, 422).
- Annual Register (1802)
- Annual Register (1803)
- Annual Register (1837)
- W. Boyne, The Yorkshire library (1869)
- C. Medley, Memorials of Scarborough (1890)
- The life of John Hatfield (1846)
- priv. coll., corresp. and MSS
- J. Chapman, stipple, pubd 1803, NPG
- stipple, pubd 1810, BM
- line engraving (aged forty-six), BM, NPG; repro. in R. S. Kirby, The Wonderful and scientific museum, 1 (1803)