Saint or Sinner?

Some time ago I wrote about the Reverend William Thompson Sankey, Stony Stratford’s great benefactor of the 19th century. The vicarage, New Street, and St Paul’s School (later Fegan’s Homes) re all part of his legacy. The earlier post can be read here.

But all was not sweetness and light after all. I have just read the petition for divorce which Mrs Sankey made in 1871 and a very different picture emerges.

Just to recap, Sankey was born in 1829 and in 1858 married Jane Royds, a very wealthy widow. She was then about 40 and already had four children. She gave birth to another son by Sankey in 1859.

She was the source of all the money for his building program in Stony Stratford and now appears to have been a source of friction between them. No doubt she was willing to fund his projects in the first years of their marriage, but by 1867 she was drawing in the purse strings, and this drove Sankey to inexcusable behaviour.

If the divorce petition is to be believed (and it certainly bears the ring of truth) Sankey turned to violence. She claimed in the petition that he was a man of violent temper who had frequently abused her and her children, used threatening language and on one occasion in 1867 struck her in the face and left her with a black eye. This apparently was after he had asked for money and she had refused. There were other incidents: he snatched a chair that she was sitting on away from her and caused her to fall on the floor; he kicked a candlestick out of her hand in a fit of temper; he threatened her with a poker and when she said that she would write to his mother to complain, threatened to cut her throat. On one occasion he dragged her around the room by her arms and put his foot upon her face.

She was granted a separation but not a divorce in 1871. Sankey died only a few years later in 1875 so she was relieved of any further burden. He was only 46.

William Thompson Sankey is regarded as one of Stony Stratford’s greatest benefactors and I suppose this still holds true, but there was a darker side to his character, which is now revealed. We may regard him partly as a product of his times – a Victorian male, who believed he had an absolute right to spend his wife’s money – but this hardly excuses his violent behaviour towards her.

The school that W E Sankey built with his wife’s money