Ba­bette Smith

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The Miss­ing Mon­u­ment Mur­ders is a his­tor­i­cal de­tec­tive story writ large: Judy Stove presents the most amaz­ing ev­i­dence and in­vites the reader to be judge and jury. Two key ques­tions must be an­swered: Did Chan­dos, Lord Leigh, ‘‘the mild-man­nered, ec­cen­tric, lit­er­ary lord of Stoneleigh Abbey’’, while still a teenager, per­son­ally slaugh­ter sev­eral men? Did his mother, Ju­lia-Ju­dith Twisle­ton Leigh, who was Jane Austen’s aunt, or­der the deaths of up to 10 other people on the Stoneleigh es­tate?

And why? Well, if Stove’s ev­i­dence is ac­cepted, their mo­tives were the peren­nial rea­sons: wealth and power. At stake was in­her­i­tance of the large and rich Stoneleigh Abbey in War­wick­shire. No less en­tic­ing was the an­cient ti­tle Baron of Stoneleigh, de­funct when these events oc­curred around 1811-12 but re­vived for Chan­dos Leigh in 1839.

The cul­prit who cre­ated am­bi­gu­ity about who was heir to the land and ti­tle was Chris- The Miss­ing Mon­u­ment Mur­ders By Judy Stove Water­side Press, 235pp, $34.99 to­pher Leigh (1626-72). Some say a mon­u­ment to him had been fixed to the wall of Stoneleigh church that listed his two mar­riages and the chil­dren of these unions. The se­nior line of de­scent did not favour Ju­lia-Ju­dith and her son.

In these am­bigu­ous cir­cum­stances, James Henry Leigh, hus­band of Ju­lia-Ju­dith and fa­ther of Chan­dos, in­her­ited the es­tate. He dis­ap­peared in 1823; his fate re­mains un­known. Even while he lived, Ju­lia-Ju­dith was ef­fec­tively mistress of Stoneleigh Abbey from about 1811 un­til she died in 1843. Af­ter her death she was ac­cused of hav­ing or­ches­trated the fake fu­neral of her hus­band as well as sev­eral mur­ders.

Ri­val claimants to Stoneleigh in­cluded Leigh Per­rot, Jane Austen’s un­cle, and Ge­orge Leigh of Wi­gan. Leigh Per­rot died in 1817 but his widow was ‘‘duchessed’’ lav­ishly by Ju­lia-Ju­dith un­til her death in 1836. Ge­orge Leigh, who claimed de­scent from Christo­pher Leigh’s el­dest son, Roger, pur­sued his case pub­licly and for an ex­tended pe­riod. Ul­ti­mately, his ac­tions re­sulted in a House of Lords in­quiry in 1828 where the case was dis­missed.

The res­i­dents of Stoneleigh had their own opin­ion. A favourite ditty about ‘‘Lees be­ing as plen­ti­ful as fleas” cir­cu­lated in the vil­lage. Gos­sip was rife, as Stove re­counts, about ‘‘the pos­ses­sors of Stoneleigh Abbey not be­ing the right­ful own­ers’’.

No doubt anx­i­ety and fear among those ‘‘pos­ses­sors’’ prompted the ne­far­i­ous ac­tiv­i­ties be­tween 1811 and 1813. Ac­cord­ing to nu­mer­ous sworn state­ments, some­time in 1811 Christo­pher’s mon­u­ment was moved from the church wall in the dead of night along with nine in­crim­i­nat­ing cof­fin plates from the Stoneleigh vault. None of them was ever seen again. Sub­se­quent events in­cluded some­one drop­ping a huge stone on to a bridge abut­ment to kill two men who knew of the fam­ily’s di­rect in­volve­ment. Over time this crime was com­pounded by poi­son­ing, threat­en­ing and pay­ing off others who wit­nessed either the re­moval of the mon­u­ment or the mur­ders.

Stove is an aca­demic at the Univer­sity of NSW and a mem­ber of the Jane Austen So­ci­ety of Aus­tralia. One of the fas­ci­na­tions of this book to any egal­i­tar­ian-minded Aus­tralian is how it ex­poses the gross in­equities of power aris­ing from the Bri­tish class sys­tem. Again and again, mag­is­trates, politi­cians and judges dis­re­gard the tes­ti­mony of or­di­nary people. The Leighs’ rank su­per­sedes any other con­cern, in­clud­ing the pos­si­bil­ity they were mur­der­ers.

When Chan­dos was fi­nally tried for mur­der

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