One visitor to Scarborough, who spent much more time there than he ever intended or wanted, was John Hatfield, variously described as arch impostor, skilled forger and notorious bigamist.
We know much less than we would like about John Hatfield because he was a professional liar about himself, constantly on the run from law officers, creditors, victims of his deceit and wronged ladies, so that his extraordinary career and exploits were deliberately “veiled in mystery”, as the Annual Register reported in 1803.
The following, therefore, might very well be inaccurate because he concealed his tracks with consummate cunning and success. He was born about 1758 at Mottram in Longdendale, Cheshire, one of the numerous children of a poor estate woodsman. His mother was the daughter of a schoolteacher and taught him how to read and write. He received no formal education. After the imprisonment of his father and the early death of his mother, he was apprenticed to a linen draper in Chester.
At the age of 15, having seduced the natural daughter of Robert, Lord Manners, he was rewarded with her dowry of £1,500 and took his bride to London. The newly-weds rented a house in Mayfair and lived in luxurious style.
Trading on his connection with the powerful and rich Manners family, Hatfield ran up heavy debts which his father-in-law settled only on condition that they left the capital. In fact, the Hatfields then emigrated to the American colonies across the Atlantic. However, after his wife had given birth to three daughters, John deserted them all and returned to England. The first Mrs Hatfield was said to have died destitute and broken-hearted.
John Hatfield next reappeared in London in 1782. There he again lived a life well beyond his means and was bailed out of the King’s Bench prison by Lord Robert. Still exploiting the Manners association, in 1784 when the Duke of Rutland was appointed Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant in Dublin, Hatfield followed him there.
Once gain, he was released from his unpaid debts by the duke, but this time escorted on to the packet boat bound for Holyhead. Arriving in England, Hatfield toured the fashionable resorts and spas, such as Bath, Tunbridge Wells and Epsom, targeting the rich and gullible, until finally, like a bad penny, he came to Scarborough. Still claiming falsely that he enjoyed the personal favour of Lord Rutland, at Scarborough he presented himself as “Major Hatfield” to the members of the Common Hall. He would stand, he said, as prospective parliamentary candidate for one of the borough’s two seats in the Commons.
However, the proprietor of the New Inn, where he was lodging in Newborough, had him arrested when he tried to abscond without paying his bill. As a result, now without anyone to rescue him, Hatfield spent the next eight years, between 1792 and 1800, “languishing” in the town’s debtors’ prison at Newborough Bar.
Hatfield’s time in gaol was lengthy but comfortable. Somehow he managed to write and publish anonymously A New Scarborough Guide in 1797, which he dedicated to John, Duke of Rutland. No doubt, he expected the duke to acknowledge him, pay his debts and have him freed, but now there was no response from Belvoir Castle.
Across the street from the debtors’ prison in Newborough Bar were rooms taken by Miss Michelli Nation, a wealthy lady from Devonshire. For more than six years and almost every day John and Michelli gazed at each other until finally she settled his accounts and agreed to marry him. The day after his release, 14 September, 1800, their wedding by special licence took place in St Mary’s parish church.
Soon afterwards the Hatfields left Scarborough for their new home in Tiverton; but within 18 months John had abandoned his daughter and pregnant wife without a penny. Once again he resumed his extravagant, profligate, deceptive life in London.
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. Nobody there questioned his identity. At Grasmere he duped an opulent Liverpool merchant into “lending” him a large sum of money. Then, on 2 October, 1802, Joseph Robinson, landlord of the Fish Inn at Buttermere, gave away his beautiful daughter Mary to “Colonel Hope” at Lorton parish church. This sensational event won national interest and publicity.
But time and luck had run out for the bogus colonel. He was denounced as an impostor in a letter to the Morning Post and was forced to take flight. Letters he left behind at Buttermere revealed him to be a forger and bigamist as well as an impostor. A police notice, carrying a detailed description of his appearance and misdeeds, offered £50 for more information about his whereabouts:
John Hatfield, notorious impostor, swindler and felon, who lately married a young woman, commonly called the Beauty of Buttermere, under a false name.
Height about 5’ 10”, age about 44...fine teeth, a scar on one of his cheeks near the chin, very long, thick, light hair, done up in a club, stout, square-shouldered, full chest...great command of words...attentive in the extreme to females and likely to insinuate himself where there are ladies...
Hatfield was finally arrested in South Wales and tried for forgery, then a capital offence, at Carlisle assizes. Neither Michelli nor Mary the Beauty of Buttermere, agreed to give evidence against him, but he was condemned to hang at Carlisle on 3 September, 1803.
Afterwards, Mary married a prosperous farmer at Caldbeck in Cumberland and they had four children. Her death in 1837 was reported nationally in the Annual Register.
The fate of Michelli is unknown, though she probably died on her way to Carlisle in what was then the wilderness of the Lake District.
During its time as a resort and refuge for the rich, weak and credulous, Scarborough has attracted many rogues to feed on them, but none were so artful, skilful and unscrupulous as John Hatfield.