One of the more well-known elopements of the 1790s involved a precocious 14-year-old girl named Clementina Clerke and a handsome Bristol surgeon-apothecary Richard Vining Perry. Clerke who was described as “modest, amiable … obliging, timid and not forward,” eloped from a boarding school in Bristol operated by the Mills sisters (Selina and Mary). She was the niece of George Ogilvie of Banff, Aberdeenshire, Scotland and he “made … [his] fortune in the West Indies, and left it to … [Clerke], whom her friends, after the fashion of the day, sent from her native place to an English boarding-school, to finish her education!“
It was while Clerke was attending boarding school and during one of her regular promenades with her fellow classmates, that she and Perry claimed to have first seen each other. The pair supposedly never spoke, but Perry bowed twice to Clerke and from these small interactions the pair “saw and mutually affected each other by the sweet, but indiscribable [sic] passion of love.”
Struck by love, Perry could not resist Clementina Clerke. One day, he “slipped a note into her hand proposing that she should go off with him to be married at Gretna Green.” Their elopement scheme was facilitated by bribing Clerke’s maid, a Betty Baker, who acted as the lover’s go-between. On 19 March 1791, Perry appeared at Clerke’s boarding school with a carriage, horses, and livery servants that looked exactly like those of Clerke’s guardian, a man named Mr. W. Gordon.
“They drove up to the Boarding-School, the servant producing a letter in the name of the guardian, well counterfeited, requesting that Miss Clerke might be suffered to spend the evening at his house at Clifton; that a relation of her’s who was just arrived, and under the necessity of leaving town that evening for London, might have the pleasure of seeing her.”
Clementina Clerkee was permitted to go, along with her maid. However, instead of visiting Clifton, Clerke went to the house of her admirer located in Stokes-Croft. From there the lovers left in a post-chaise and four, accompanied by Baker and a friend of Perry’s, an attorney named Baynton. Later, when Mary Mills, the schoolmistress, discovered the precocious heiress missing, Mills claimed:
“There [was] every reason to believe, that [Clementina Clerke] … was in the most violent and outrageous manner kidnapped and taken away by the said R. Perry.”
In fact, Mills was so concerned about Clerke, she and her brother, along with several other people, decided to track Perry down. They followed the couple to Belgium and elsewhere but did not find them. In the meantime, an indictment charged Perry with removing Clerke “feloniously, by force, and without her consent.” So, when Perry and his new wife returned to England, they were met by Miss Mills and her search party near Carlisle.
“Miss Mills … begged she might speak to ‘the child’ but for an instant … Perry assured her there was no person to answer that description in his company; he said he had Mrs. Perry and a servant in the carriage, and that he knew of no business Miss Mills had with either.”
However, Perry finally relented and allowed Mills to speak to his wife but held a pistol on Mills during the conversation. Whatever was said did not sway the new Mrs. Perry. When the conversation was finished, the newlyweds drove off towards London.
The elopement of Clementina Clerke was well publicized by papers. So, when Perry was arrested and charged with her abduction, the public was intensely interested in the outcome of this passionate love story.
At trial Perry was represented by attorneys Messrs. Hearne and Pearce, who were later Under Sheriffs for the city of London. Perry was also charged with three counts:
“The first, … forcibly carrying away from the house of Miss Mills … Clementina Clerke … The second, for … taking her and marring her against her consent, and the third, for … taking and marrying her for lucre thereof.”
The prosecution claimed that from the moment Perry learned of Ogilvie’s death and that Clerke had received a generous inheritance from her uncle, a dark plot was formed. This plot was to carry off the innocent Clerke on 19 March 1791, which was the same year that Napoleon Bonaparte was promoted to lieutenant and transferred to the 4th artillery regiment at Valence.
Despite the prosecution’s allegations of a dark plot, the defense countered it. They claimed that on the contrary a true love story developed. According to the defense, when Clerke and Vining saw one another their “eyes met in attraction …. [it was] with a kind of electric fire [that] shook them to their souls.”
In the Bristol courtroom, Clementina Clerke backed up the defense claims that it was love. She asserted under examination that she left the school voluntarily and that she knew who sent the chaise, and that she was going to Mr. Perry’s to wed him. Mrs. Perry also claimed her husband did not love her for money and that when he suggested an elopement, she agreed to marry him without qualms. She also testified that
“[Her governess went along with her] to avoid suspicion ... and that she was perfectly satisfied in every respect … Thus, Mrs. Perry’s testimony completely exculpated her husband, insomuch, that the Recorder deemed it unnecessary to recapitulate the evidence … and the Jury being of the same opinion, delivered their verdict Not Guilty, without going out of Court.”
Hearing the verdict the couple embraced tenderly. As for the populace that had been so intrigued by the case, they were ecstatic.
“They took the horses from the carriage in which Mr. and Mrs. Perry went from the hall, and drew them through some of the principal streets of the city, amidst the acclamations of mobility [which were said to have resounded joyously for at least half an hour].”
-  “Bristol Sessions, April 14,” in Caledonian Mercury, 21 April 1794, p. 3.
-  “Elopement,” in Leeds Intelligencer, 29 March 1791, p. 4.
-  The Trial of R.V. Perry, 1794, p. 11.
-  Latimer, John, Annals of Bristol [17th to 19th Century], Vol. 2, 1893, p. 493.
-  The Historical Magazine, 1791, p. 104.
-  “Sunday and Tuesday’s Posts,” in Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 28 March 1791, p. 2.
-  “Bristol General Gaol Delivery,” in Hereford Journal, 23 April 1794, p. 3.
-  The Historical Magazine, 1791, p. 127.
-  The Trial of R.V. Perry, p. 15.
-  The Critical Review, Or, Annals of Literature, 1795, p. 423.
-  “Bristol General Gaol Delivery,” p. 3.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.