Vicar’s Wife goes to the Waterloo Ball: 1815

On 20 October 1990 Elizabeth Bennett marries Laurence Oliphant in Leigh Church.  Her connection with Leigh is well known as she lived for many years in Green View Avenue.  The bridegroom’s connection is remote but historically interesting, as it links Leigh with the rising of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 and with the battle of Waterloo in 1815.

He is descended from Laurence Oliphant of Gask who joined Bonnie Prince Charlie, when he landed in Scotland and, as his A.D.C. was with him during his advance into England and the retreat which ended in his defeat at Culloden.  Laurence had to flee the country and lived in exile for many years.  His younger daughter, Isabella, married Nathaniel May who, several years later in 1811 became Vicar of Leigh.  Her son succeeded his father as Vicar of Leigh from 1830 to 1872 – Thomas May.

Isabella who had been brought up with her father in exile must have retained her continental connections as she was present at the Waterloo Ball given by the Duchess of Richmond.

The Ball was interrupted by the sound of cannon from Waterloo and Isabella’s partner, a dear friend of the family, left her to take part in the battle and was killed.  She went into a decline and died ten days later.  Her grave can be seen with the other May graves to the north of St Mary’s churchyard.  The interruption to the Waterloo Ball was recorded by Lord Byron in his well known poem of which the following is an extract:

There was a sound of revelry by night
And Belgium’s capital had gathered then
Her Beauty and her Chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men;
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked over to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell:
But hush! Hark! A deep sound strikes like a rising  knell!

Did ye not hear it? – No; ‘twas but the wind
Or the car rattling o’er the stony street
On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with the flying feet –
But hark! That heavy sound breaks in one more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before!
Arm! Arm! It is – it is – the cannon’s opening roar!

Ah! Then there was hurrying to and fro,
And gathering tears, and tremblings of distress,
And cheeks all pale, which but an hour ago
Blushed at the praise of their own loveliness;
And there were sudden partings, such as press
The life from out young hearts, and choking sighs
Which ne’er might be repeated; who could guess
If evermore should meet those mutual eyes,
Since upon night so sweet such an awful morn could rise!

Last noon beheld them full of lusty life,
Last eve in Beauty’s circle proudly gay,
The midnight brought the signal sound of strife,
The morn the marshalling in arms, – the day
Battle’s magnificently – stern array!
The thunder clouds close o’er it, which then rent
The Earth is covered thick with other clay
Which her own clay shall cover, heaped and pent,
Rider and horse, – friend, foe – in one red burial blent!.


Lawrence Biddle  (Parish Magazine October 1990)

Additional Notes:

In “Leigh in Kent 1550-1900” Lawrence Biddle writes in chapter 14 p.67-69:

After Culloden Laurence Oliphant fled to hills near Aberdeen and remained in hiding until he took ship to Sweden in November 1746.  As a result of months in hiding, he became asthmatic and leaving Sweden he moved south to Avignon and Toulouse and later to Paris (source: The Jacobite Lairds of Gask by T L Kington Oliphant).   After Prince Charles had declared that he was a protestant it became safe for Laurence Oliphant to return to Gask in 1763, but his asthma meant he still made long visits to the continent.  It was probably on one of these visits that Isabella, accompanying her father, met Nathanial May.  Nathaniel married Isabella, took Holy Orders and became Rector of Digswell near Welwyn until he was instituted Vicar of Leigh in 1811.

Nathaniel and Isabella had two children, Jane who was born 5 May 1796 and Thomas who was born 21 March 1798.  Isabella was staying in Brussels in 1815 and attended the Duchess of Richmond’s “Waterloo Ball”, which took place on 17 June, the eve of the battle.  The family say she was wearing a white satin and silk gauze dress heavily embroidered with gold thread.  Some of the panels still exist and it must have been a very lovely and expensive dress. (Source: notes made by S I Hamilton, granddaughter of the Rev Thomas May).  The Ball was described in Byron’s poem above.

 The family tradition is it that someone very dear to Isabella, hearing the sound of guns, left the dance and was killed in the battle.  Isabella never recovered from the shock and went into decline.  She returned to Leigh and died ten days later.  Her grave in Leigh churchyard records her death on 29 June 1815. 

Nathaniel May bought Parsonage Farm from Richard Allnutt of South Park, Penshurst in about 1819.  Parsonage Farm included Old Kennards and the land where Upper Kennards, Kennards Cottage and the Forstall now stand and stretched out on the south east of the Hildenborough Road as far as a boundary roughly where the by-pass now runs.  Nathaniel also bought the advowson of Leigh from Rev. John Southan’s executor.  Nathaniel continued as Vicar of Leigh until his death at the age of 68 in January 1830.