Robin Longbottom examines how a marital scandal rocked a well-known textile family

IN 1958, Queen Elizabeth II abolished the annual ceremony of presenting debutantes at court.

At the event, young women were introduced into society for the first time.

Whilst the aristocracy paraded before the monarch, other smaller events for the gentry, and wealthier classes, took place at balls throughout the country.

The tradition had begun in the late 18th century and was the first step to finding daughters a suitable husband and of ensuring that sons ‘married well’. It is the theme of many period novels, and was epitomised in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

At these occasions parents colluded to introduce their sons and daughters to one another, hoping to secure advantageous marriages. If a match was made, ‘marriage settlements’ were agreed in which money and property were placed in trust to give financial support to the couple. In the Keighley district, the daughters of the gentry and wealthy industrial classes also went through the process and by the end of the 19th century most of the leading families, such as Sugden, Haggas, Blakey and Hattersley, were related to one another by marriage.

Marriages acceptable within a social class were not always accomplished and scandals were inevitable, most notably that of Edward VIII who gave up his kingdom to marry Wallis Simpson. Less well known is the marriage of Billy Cavendish, the eldest son of the Duke of Devonshire, to the American socialite Kathleen Kennedy (eldest sister of John F Kennedy, future president of America). The union caused eruptions on both sides of the Atlantic because the Devonshires were protestants and the Kennedys were Catholics.

The Keighley area was not immune from its own marital dramas. The most controversial occurred 30 years before Edward VIII abdicated, and it rocked the Merrall family in Haworth. The Merralls owned Ebor and Lees mills and had been worsted spinners and manufacturers for three generations. In 1900 the head of the family was Edwin Merrall, who lived at Longlands on the outskirts of the village. When he died suddenly in 1904 his eldest son, Charles Edwin, known as Charlie, was expected to step into the business.

Charlie had been educated at private school but, now in his early 20s, showed little inclination towards taking on his responsibilities. Quite the contrary, he spent his time at music halls and theatres and dining with his friends. He also bought himself an open tourer motor car and quickly attained notoriety after being ‘clocked’ several times by the police for exceeding the speed limit.

In December, 1906, he became “infatuated” by Miss Lily Langdon, who played Princess Prettysing in the pantomime Robinson Crusoe at the Theatre Royal in Bradford. The couple were soon linked romantically and during the eight-week performance his motor car was regularly seen outside the theatre. Miss Langdon, whose real name was Mona Marjorie Muriel Deacon, was a Canadian by birth and had been touring the country in theatre productions over the past two years.

It was a whirlwind romance and within days of the performance closing, Charlie obtained a special licence and the couple were married at Bradford Registry Office in March, 1907. No members of his family attended and his attempt to keep the marriage secret failed. The press reported that the groom, dressed in his motoring outfit (Norfolk jacket, knickerbockers and gaiters) left the ceremony with his wife under a shower of confetti and later that day set off for a honeymoon in France.

On their return to England the couple set up home in Shipley but later moved to the south of England. During the Great War he served as a private in the Army Service Corps and afterwards disappeared into obscurity. He never reconciled with his family and is said to have died penniless in 1934.