The ghost of Kitty Canham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The funeral procession signifying the end of the life of Catherine “Kitty” Canham on 6th July 1752 is the stuff of legend, but let us start at the beginning.

Kitty Canham was born in 1720 to Robert and Judith, who ran a prosperous farm, living in a Tudor manor house known as Beaumont Hall, in the parish of Beaumont-cum-Moze adjoining Thorpe-le-Soken. The only surviving child, Kitty was extraordinarily beautiful and had an array of admirers. Kitty turned down the advances of many men. Her parents became worried she would be left on the shelf, reputedly warning her that she should not turn down the next man who offered his hand in marriage.

In 1745 one such suitor was the Reverend Alexander Henry Gough, the vicar of Thorpe-le-Soken, and an educated and older man. Alexander asked his younger brother, Maurice, also a cleric, for his opinion as to Kitty, and Maurice is alleged to have described her as ‘a beautiful creature who will play you a trick’. After a year’s courtship, he and Kitty were married in the small local church in the mid-1740s.

Kitty found life as a vicar’s wife boring and was a constant source of gossip in the village. It was a stormy marriage of bitter rows. The reverend did not care for entertaining or for society, and when Kitty defied him by attending a ball, there would be quite an argument upon her return. Kitty was unsuited to a quiet life as a parson’s wife in such rural surroundings. The marriage lasted three years before Kitty ran off to London in 1748.

One version of Kitty’s disappearance tells how she made a trip to London to consult a doctor, but did not return afterwards. Another version suggests Kitty disappeared from a masquerade with a mystery companion.

While at a party in London, Kitty caught the attention of John Primrose, Lord Dalmeny (1725–55), son of the 2nd Earl of Roseberry of Fife. When Lord Dalmeny offered her his hand in marriage, despite already having a husband, Kitty could not refuse. The second wedding of Kitty took place in secret to avoid John’s father, Lord Rosebery, serving a writ of lunacy on him. Dalmeny was oblivious to her deception and the couple enjoyed a prolonged honeymoon touring Europe.

Kitty had not been in good health and fell ill, of what many claim to be galloping consumption, in Verona. On her deathbed, Kitty signalled for pencil and paper, being incapable of speech.

The words she wrote were:

I am the wife of the Reverend Alexander Gough, Vicar of Thorpe-le-Soken, in Essex. My maiden name was Catherine Canham. My last request is to be buried at Thorpe.

Her young “husband” loved her so much that he forgave her and promised to fulfil her last wishes. Her body was embalmed and encased in an elaborate coffin with large silver plates. This was then put in a plain wooden chest, her clothes and jewellery were packed up and her grieving husband left Italy for France. There, using the pseudonym Mr Williams, he set sail for Dover, where he then boarded another ship bound for Harwich. However, there was rough weather and the boat was driven into the mouth of the River Colne and customs officers boarded it and suspected the chest was contraband.
Customs men opened the coffin and found the body but now believed there had been foul play. Dalmeny admitted he was not in fact Williams of Hamburg, but a person of quality taking his English wife home for burial.

The coffin was placed in the vestry of Hythe Church and remained there until someone arrived to identify Kitty. The General Evening Post 15 August 1752 reported that the actual husband was obliged to go and identify Kitty. Gough threatened to kill Dalmeny for marrying his wife bigamously. However, their love for this lady was so strong it united them.

Dalmeny said, “affections for the lady was so strong that it was his earnest wish not only to attend the grave but be shut up forever with there with her”.

Both husbands, united in grief, followed the magnificent hearse hand-in-hand to her burial in the churchyard. Lord Dalmeny died three years later aged only 31, but Gough survived for another 22 years.


Essex Villains: Rogues, Rascals and Reprobates by Paul Wreyford, PUBLISHER: The History Press RELEASED: Jan 31, 2012, ISBN: 9780752482255

Infamous Essex Women by Dee Gordon, PUBLISHER: The History Press RELEASED: Jan 1, 2009, ISBN: 9780750952408

Fenella J Miller, An Essex Ghost Story — ‘Catherine Canham — a beautiful bigamist.’ Friday, August 09, 2013

Rosebery Family History