In 1891 a scandal took place in Torquay’s polite society when a young and beautiful woman sued her aunt for slander. This became known as the Great Pearl Mystery, writes local historian Dr Kevin Dixon.
It all began in February 1891 when Torquay’s Major and Mrs. Hargreaves invited their young cousin, Ethel Elliot, to visit them at their home. Ethel and Captain Osborne, her fiancée, stayed with the Hargreaves for several days.
Mrs Hargreaves had a fine collection of pearls and diamonds, valued at around eight hundred pounds, which she kept in a secret drawer in a cabinet. She, perhaps unadvisedly, showed the jewels and their secret location to Ethel. The day after Ethel and Captain Osborne left, the jewels were found to be missing. The stolen valuables included a pair of earrings "with pearls as big as filberts" - filberts are apparantly hazlenuts.
Mrs. Hargreaves advertised her loss and soon heard from the London jewellers, Spinks. They reported that the day after Ethel had left Torquay, a young lady calling herself ‘Mrs Price of Radcliffe Hall in Bradford’ sold the jewellery for £550 in gold sovereigns.
The money was paid by a crossed cheque but the bank refused to cash it. ‘Mrs Price’ then returned to Spinks and received a replacement cheque which she successfully cashed. Accordingly, the staff at Spinks saw ‘Mrs Price’ twice. The woman had given a name and address that proved false, but the staff later identified her as Ethel Elliot.
Spinks returned the jewels to Mrs. Hargreaves who didn’t press charges due to the embarrassment of labeling a family member as a thief.
Yet, she did speak publicly of "this sad business with Ethel Elliott." She told her friends, "Of course, she took the jewels."
Ethel, now married to Captain Osborne, sued for slander.
This caused a great deal of scandal with the public taking sides. Some gossiped that Mrs Hargreaves was envious of the younger and more attractive Ethel. The Hargeeaves appear to have been a litle negligenet about who they invited into their home as there were also rumours about another of their guests who was there at the time of the theft and who was known to have gambling debts.
During the trial, and despite being identified by witnesses, Ethel made a positive impression during her two days of questioning. The Spectator remarked:
"With her look of innocence, and her frankness in meeting cross-examination, she had carried the audience by storm."
It, therefore, looked as though Ethel would win her case for slander against her aunt. Then, in a scene which could have come froma John Grisham novel, a piece of damning evidence was discovered. This was reported by the Colonist magazine in 1892:
“During the trial some private written evidence was handed to the Judge which showed that a Bank of England note bearing the endorsement of Ethel Elliott had been traced as being one of five hundred and fifty which she had received for gold. Her council threw up his brief, Mrs Hargreaves recovered her jewels, Messrs Spink had to stand the loss of £550, and Mrs Osborne at once left for the Continent”.
So, knowing she had lost, Ethel went on the run. Her respected barrister, Sir Charles Russell, wept as he informed the court of his client’s guilt. However, the Hargreaves decided not to prosecute the matter further.
But the affair wasn’t over. The embarrassment to all those concerned caused Justice Denman to issue a warrant for Ethel's arrest for perjury and she was soon captured.
Though Ethel was pregnant and claiming ‘hysteria’, she was sentenced to nine months hard labour. She served eight months before being released due to poor health.