The Much Maligned Mary Pike

Over the coming weeks I will offer a chapter of a new book I am writing about Mary Pike, abducted in July 1797 by Sir Henry Brown Hayes. Please comment .

This is the introduction :


Part  One – the Abduction


A Closer Look


There is something about Mary. Mary Pike, the young, incredibly wealthy heiress who was  kidnapped late at night on July 22nd 1797, by a middle aged knight and a gang of armed, masked men, hoping he could force her to marry him. He was a widower with a number of children, both legitimate and “others”. He was a militia officer but had been court-martialled and dismissed for attacking his commanding officer, Lord Doneraile. He actually punched him in the face!


He had serious gambling debts, a quick temper and an empty purse. A successful abduction would solve many of his problems.   If he could marry a wealthy woman he would own all her property and her money.  That was the law in those days.  It would be almost one hundred years before a married woman could own property in her own right. He decided to abduct Mary Pike and make her stay the night in his house at Vernon Mount, and try to force her to marry him.


Abductions, in Ireland, were common but dangerous. Abductions occur throughout history and around the world but there were situations particular to Ireland which made abductions more common. The issue of dispossessed Catholics who would acquire property by abducting and marrying a wealthy Protestant woman added considerable fuel to the controversy, although in this case, Henry Brown Hayes was a Protestant and a landowner himself. The law tried to protect “women of fortune” by making it a capital crime to abduct a wealthy woman. She had to be wealthy!


Once a woman was abducted her reputation was at stake. Virginity was a prized commodity. If she didn’t marry her abductor she might find it difficult to marry anyone else. It was a major gamble for the the abductor, but needs must! Hayes deluded himself into thinking any woman would accept the title of Lady Hayes.


Mary Pike’s father died leaving her the sole heir to his money. It was a huge amount of money, bringing Mary, it was said, about £20,000. The following April 1797 she “came of age”.  Fair game.  Eligible. There were non stop callers to the family home. She moved to her uncle’s house probably for respite. He was Cooper Penrose, living in Woodhill, a large beautiful mansion off what is now called Lover’s Lane, just outside Cork city.


Late, one dark, stormy night a caller told the Penrose household that Mary Pike’s mother was dying. This wasn’t unexpected news. Mary Pike’s mother was always dying. But… you never know. This might be the one time.  By the way, the mother did survive the night and lived for several years after the incident. Mary rushed home but was stopped on the way by an armed, masked gang. One of them identified her in her carriage, pulled her out and put her in a waiting carriage.


She was dragged off to Vernon Mount, outside Cork, the home of Sir Henry Brown Hayes where some form of marriage ceremony was performed in a language she did not understand. She did recognise her kidnapper. He was the unwanted guest who had wangled an invitation to dinner a few weeks previously at Woodhill. He was Sir Henry Brown Hayes.


Mary refused to accept the marriage, even threw the wedding ring he forced on her finger on to the floor. She was dragged upstairs and he “behaved very rudely towards her…… We don’t know exactly what that means but “The cock would not crow that morning m’lud” the judge was told. Even the dogs in the street knew what that meant. An unsuccessful attempt at rape. The little poems and doggerel of the time, like “Merrily Kissed the Quaker”, thought it hilarious and worthy of comment. Mary was rescued and Henry fled the country, an outlaw, with a price on his head.


The story has been told by many people, but really they are telling the story of Henry Brown Hayes, her abductor, whose story is far more interesting than hers. He is page one national tabloid news. Mary is a minor character in a big play. She is what French journalists call one of the “chats écrasés” – a minor road accident, barely worthy of comment. Because she is a “detail” there is little fact checking. One historian suggests she was raped, another says she may have had a child as a result of the rape.


 Mary made a complaint about the abduction, naming Sir Henry as the perpetrator of the abduction. He was declared an outlaw by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the Privy Council. Her actions were not appreciated. She doggedly and without a “particle of humanity” pursued her quarry, a “gallant gentleman” who had only been engaged in “boyish capers”. The italics are used to quote from published comments on the story.


Many people viewed abductions as some sort of admirable demonstration of love by someone not in a position to pursue a normal suit. Mary, God help us, was “supposedly not the most attractive” lady to grace this earth so it was really a romantic action to sweep the young maiden off her feet, carry her away to live happily ever after. But the ungrateful girl did not appreciate what was being done for her. It was a man’s world. In the various accounts of the incident there is no trace of any sympathy for Mary Pike, in fact, she becomes the negatively perceived party in the story.


In Mary Pike’s case there was a Government reward but Mary, it is said, “doubled it” even publicly encouraged people to kill her kidnapper. And the “esteemed but unfortunate” Sir Henry returned to Cork and walked freely around the streets of Cork with a huge reward on his head and nobody would hand him in. Surely even the most stupid of females would accept that everybody was on his side and nobody on hers. He was an important man, a former sheriff of the town.  His brother in law was the mayor of Cork. No jury of his peers would convict him, he was certain of this, so certain was he, that he wrote to Mary Pike challenging her to take him to court, confidant that his peers would stand by him.


His legal team believed they would win – how could anyone prove their client himself kidnapped Mary if they were all masked, and, more importantly, how could anyone prove intent to defile? He might have known about the abduction but could it be proved he was actually one of the gang? Mary Pike’s legal time tried to have the case heard in Dublin but this was overruled. They had argued that there was a substantial possibility of jury bias in Cork. The judge would not tolerate such an affront to British justice. Overruled!


The defence team were so confident at the trial that they offered no defence to the charge.


While awaiting trial in prison Hayes was nominated to replace a deceased member of the Cork Corporation.  This was seen as a public affirmation of his innocence. Another good omen. He stood confidently in the dock, one legitimate son on one side and an illegitimate son on the other. A good family man. He smiled at Mary Pike. A little wink. She shuddered.


Mary Pike’s barrister was John Philpot Curran. He defended the Sheares brothers and other prominent United Irishmen. Curran was a very popular figure among the largely Catholic population ever since he represented an elderly Catholic priest in a case against a landlord, Lord Doneraile, of which more later. Henry Brown Hayes had been court-martialled for belting the same Lord Doneraile in the jaw. He was dismissed from the army.


Going in to court, to prosecute Henry Brown Hayes, where the judge was Robert Day, the very popular barrister was surrounded by well wishers – one of whom hoped “he would win the day”. Curran quipped back “If I do, you will lose the knight!”


The trial took place in 1801. Curran first of all asked the judge to drop the “intent to defile” charge. The defence objected strenuously to this but were overruled.  Curran skilfully based his case on the abduction charge alone and Henry Brown Hayes was, to his great astonishment, found guilty and sentenced to death. Mary Pike could not resist a little smile. There was no wink this time! He produced an outrageous display of histrionics, his cell was draped in black, the Death March was played, he was dumbfounded. How could they treat him like that? Did they not know who he was? His world was collapsing around him.


After intervention by the Freemasons, and due consideration of the fact that Mary Pike was not raped, the sentence was commuted to transportation for life to New South Wales. For the shenanigans on board the ship to Australia and his adventures over in Sydney, read Rolf Grunseit’s account.  Henry Brown Hayes was a convicted felon but managed a private cabin with a servant and was invited to dine with the Captain!


Hayes built a beautiful house, which he called Vaucluse, outside Sydney. Some years later, he was pardoned and allowed return to Ireland.  On his journey back to Cork he was shipwrecked.  His story is fascinating but Mary, poor, plain, homely Mary is, at best, a forgotten, minor character in a man’s play, “her very homely and ordinary figure considered as an object of contempt than compassion”.  She cannot have been very attractive if no one commented on her good looks.


She was raped.

She was not raped.

She had a child

She never married.


But then, the story continues, Mary got an even bigger shock after the trial.  She swore an oath, it is said, in order to give her testimony.  This was totally contrary to her Quaker beliefs and her co-religionists expelled her.   A distraught Mary suffered a catastrophic breakdown, “developed a pathological fear of the male sex”, and ended her life in a mental hospital, ironically run by the same Quakers who had expelled her. She died, coincidentally, on the same day as her abductor.


“She died in Cork”. 

                             “She died in Dublin”


A letter by Richard Cooke to the Society of Friends, in December 1983, enquiring about Mary Pike reveals how unimportant her story was considered to be.  They really could not help him very much.  The letter refers him to an article about Mary Pike written in 1904 and another in 1969. The letter confirms her birth in 1776 and a death of a woman called Mary Pike, aged 56, in Bloomfield Retreat and concludes that as the birth and name tally with the deceased, it probably was the Mary Pike he was enquiring about. They knew nothing more.


“When Mary Pike died she was apparently not a member of the Society of Friends and we are going through our Cork minutes to see if we can find any record of her having left the Society. If we find this we will let you have a copy.”


There was no further correspondence. Accounts vary, after all she is the detail, Henry is the main story.  Nothing was found in any Quaker record. A lot of things are assumed about her. She was from Cork, therefore she died in Cork. She had some sort of a mental breakdown, that must have been because of the abduction and her expulsion from the Quakers. The comments and “facts” about the case and the conclusions drawn have not been challenged.  They should be.  In the words of television host Seth Meyers, it is time to give Mary Pike “a closer look”.


The social and political context in which this event occurred should be examined – the events leading up to the Great Rebellion of 1798 must have impacted on life in Cork. The people in the story – Sir Henry Brown Hayes, Cooper Penrose, Mary Pike lived during those times. Yet when you read the various accounts of the abduction, it seems to have happened in a vacuum. In this account, it is hoped to rectify this lacuna.