Stories from Hospitalfield: Eliza Fraser Baker

In an unassuming edition of The Pleasures of Hope & other poems by Scottish poet Thomas Campbell held at the Library at Hospitalfield, is an inscription written in the hand of Elizabeth Fraser that reveals a turbulent story of the erasure of an ill-fated marriage. On the flyleaf we can see how she has tried to scratch out her married name ‘Baker’.

When Major John Fraser of Hospitalfield died unexpectedly in 1809, he left a widow, the former Elizabeth Parrott of Hawkesbury Hall in Warwickshire and their only child, a four-year-old daughter, also Elizabeth but known affectionately as Eliza.

Having no relatives locally Elizabeth Parrott Fraser decide to take Eliza to the family home in Warwickshire where she could live with her family. Both Mother and child had income, Eliza, the child, receiving the income of Hospitalfield estate under her father’s Will which paid for a private education by tutors, including music and piano of her scores are still in the library at Hospitalfield.

Through Elizabeth’s brother Francis Parrott, the Frasers were introduced to local society and in 1825, at the age of 19, Eliza met military man Arthur Baker, aged 29 and a Lieutenant in the 3rd Dragoons Guards who, on the evidence of a letter from Mrs Fraser, had ‘taken a great liking to Eliza’.

Arthur Baker was born into Irish gentry at Kilcoran House in Callan, County Kilkenny. He was enlisted as a Lieutenant in the 5th Dragoons Guards aged only 16 and his military campaign began with service under the Duke of Wellington at Toulouse in 1814 during the Napoleonic War.

Eliza Fraser reciprocated the feelings of Arthur Baker but was reluctant to take matters further without the advice and support of the Hospitalfield Trustees of her father’s Will. In response, the Trustees suggested a marriage settlement which would protect the Hospitalfield estate. Arthur Baker, though he had perhaps no option if he wanted to take Eliza’s hand in marriage, agreed to what we would think of today as a prenuptial agreement..

The marriage settlement was therefore signed, and the wedding could proceed. Baker proposed it take place in London when he could get leave from his regiment. However, an unexpected move of the regiment to Newcastle upset his plans and the wedding took place in Coventry on 1 October 1825.

It seems that Eliza, now Mrs Baker, remained with her mother in the Coventry area rather than follow her husband to Newcastle as would have been the regular procedure but there is no sure evidence. What is certain is that Mrs Fraser and Mrs Baker returned to Arbroath for the first time in March 1826 to meet the Trustees in connection with a request from Baker to lend him £3000, a relatively substantial amount, to purchase a troop and captaincy in the 3rd Dragoons. It was the sort of transaction that was common enough in those days but should perhaps have set alarm bells ringing with the Trustees. Baker did not attend the meeting, much to the annoyance of the Trustees, as his regiment had just been ordered to Ireland. However, the £3000 was made available by the Trustees and Baker duly purchased the troop resulting in his promotion to Captain.

The 3rd Dragoons remained in Ireland for three years but there is no evidence that Eliza ever joined her husband there. What is certain is that by September 1827, Mrs Fraser and Mrs Baker were in Warwickshire, without Arthur Baker. Mrs Baker was taking legal advice on drawing up a new Will which would not be in her husband’s favour. Mrs Fraser signed a new Will specifically excluding Baker from any benefit in her estate. Clearly therefore, the marriage had collapsed.

There is little information about Arthur Baker after the marriage but from his military records, held in the War Office records at the National Archives, Kew, London, it is known that he retired from the Captaincy in 1829 when he would have sold his troop. There is then a gap in records of his military career until March 1833 when he purchased a Cornetcy in the 15th Light Dragoons Guards, a Cornetcy being the lowest officer rank, costing very little, a strange move for a former Captain. There is evidence that his wife was concerned about his mental health at this time, perhaps accounting for the change of status, but in any event this was overtaken by Arthur Baker’s death from cholera, then endemic in Britain, in Kent on 8 July 1833.

Apparently, Eliza did not attend the funeral, but she did send her Arbroath solicitor down to London to deal with the administration of Arthur Baker’s estate to which she was entitled on his death without a Will. The estate of Arthur Baker comprised his uniform, minor personal effects, and a holding of government stock worth about £3000 which almost certainly represented the proceeds of sale of the troop and captaincy that ought to have been repaid to the Trustees. The personal effects in a large truck were shipped up from London to Arbroath but there is nothing now at Hospitalfield that is known to have belonged to Baker.

There is however in the Library a book of poems originally inscribed ‘E Fraser Baker’ but with the Baker name emphatically erased by Eliza after her marriage foundered to show her anger, or perhaps sadness, about what had happened.

Ten years after Eliza’s permanent return to Hospitalfield with her mother in 1833, she met and married Patrick Allan, later Allan Fraser, in what was a happy union and of course, Eliza’s second marriage.