Rector of Wiveton and the Earl of Sandwich

                    (c) by John Ashley Photography

I came across an interesting story the other day in an old Norfolk publication about the Reverend James Hackman, rector of Wiveton and one Martha Ray (or Reay as some accounts spell it). I will begin my account with Martha Ray, who was born around 1744.

Martha's father was a 'staymaker' a delightful term for someone who makes corsets and her mother was a servant in a noblemans family. Martha herself is said to have been both pretty, intelligent and gifted with a fine singing voice. Her looks are said to have brought her to the attention of one of her fathers customers who was so impressed with her beauty that they mentioned her to the infamous Lord Sandwich.

So it was that at the age of 17 Martha became Sandwich's mistress (yes I do know how that reads!). Accounts show that the Earl fell in love with Martha and loved her deeply, so much so that they remained together for seventeen years, until her untimely death at the hands of the Rector of Wiveton. As Martha was gifted musically, the Earl even arranged for her to receive the finest musical training available at that time, and she embarked upon a career as an opera singer. 

John Montagu background was that of the British aristocracy he was the the Earl of Sandwich. He was born in 1718 and in his youth traveled widely both in Europe and the Middle East bringing back many treasures. At age 21 he entered the House of Lords and went on to become involved in government for the majority of his life. He was however far from being popular with his peers, the press and the general populace. He also had a dreadful reputation with women, his modern nickname was 'the Insatiable Earl'.

To his credit he was patron to Captain James Cook the explorer of Australia, Polynesia and New Zealand. Captain Cook named the Sandwich Islands in Hawaii, after the earl. I am sure that it is fairly well known but it bears mentioning, it was Lord Sandwich who reputedly placed a slice of salt beef between two slices of bread (accounts say the bread was toasted) whilst at the gambling tables and thus was born the term 'sandwich'. 

Martha was set up in a house in Westminster and given a generous allowance. Though she spent a considerable amount of time down in the Earls house at Hinchingbrooke. She bore Lord Sandwich five children all of whom survived into adulthood. Lord Sandwich did have a wife, but unfortunately she was considered to be mad and lived in an apartment at Windsor Castle. Here she remained until her death in 1797 surviving both Lord Sandwich and of course Martha. However, Martha effectively became the Earl's wife in all but name and they behaved very much like husband and wife.

Enter James Hackman from Gosport Hampshire. Son of a retired naval lieutenant who joined the 68th Regiment of Foot. Whilst in Huntingdonshire with some of his fellow army officers James were introduced to Lord Sandwich who invited him back to dinner. It was at this dinner that James first met Martha, Hackman became instantly besotted.
He became a frequent visitor to the house. Accounts appear to indicate that Martha was not totally immune to young James' charms (he was six years her junior). Perhaps this might be because although Lord Sandwich was generous, he offered her no long-term financial future or security. Lord Sandwich was always in debt and not known for his financial acumen, and there were of course other women.

James is said to have proposed marriage to Martha on more than one occasion but Martha continued to remain with Lord Sandwich. In 1779 James Hackman left the army and decided to join the church, perhaps he thought that if he could prove to Martha that he had a dependable income she would reconsider, his proposal. So it was that James Hackman became the rector of Wiveton in Norfolk. Though he was only rector for just fifty days. He continued to pursue Martha.

On 7th April Lord Sandwich told Martha to take herself off to the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden to see a comic opera, as she had not been out of the house for some time. As Martha was about to get into her coach Hackman appeared from nowhere and shot her in the forehead, within the foyer of the theatre, Martha died instantly. I have been unable to establish how Hackman knew she was going to be there. Was he stalking her? Or did she contact him and arrange an assignation. 

After he had shot her James Hackman took out another pistol and shot himself. However, he only managed to wound himself. He was apprehended and imprisoned. When Lord Sandwich heard of the death of Martha he was totally devastated. He directed that she should be buried in the clothes in which she was assassinated. Martha was buried in Elstree on 14th April 1779. 

Why James shot her we will never know, letters that he wrote to his friends around this time appear to indicate that the infatuation had gotten out of hand. On 16th April, two days after Martha was buried Hackman was condemned to die. He was taken to Tyburn and hanged before a large crowd.
John Montagu fourth Earl of Sandwich died in 1792. It has been speculated that George Bernard Shaw based his story 'Pygmalion' subsequently recreated as 'My Fair Lady' on a novel written in the 1920 about Martha Ray.

Picture (c) by John Ashley Photography