Monday, July 22, 2019

Elihu Yale and his “Wicked Wife”

By David Ebsworth

Elihu Yale should be one of our better-known historical celebrities, yet he’s now largely forgotten. And perhaps there’s justice in that. Born in Boston, in 1649, to a Welsh family of merchant adventurers, but raised in London, Yale was perhaps the first true nabob, eventually becoming the Honourable English East India Company’s Governor at Fort St. George, Madras.

And there he made a fortune, buying and selling diamonds and also managing the lucrative trade in Indian slaves. This aspect of Britain’s involvement in slavery may be less familiar than the African trade, but Elihu Yale exploited it to the full, returning to England in 1699, a multi-millionaire by today’s standards.

That wealth allowed him to make significant donations to the Church and to the Collegiate College of Connecticut – later to become Yale College, now Yale University.

Author's own 1933 Elihu Yale Toby Jug -
More Famous Then Than Now

His biography has been written many times, yet Yale’s biographers have consistently paid scant regard to his wife, Catherine, who was married to him for 41 years. If Catherine gets a mention at all, it’s because of Yale’s last will and testament in which he most notably wrote: To my wicked wife… and then left a very large blank, not even giving the poor woman her name. Yet Catherine’s story turns out to be at least as intriguing as Elihu’s own tale.

So, this is what we know about Catherine from the available archive evidence.

She was born Catherine Elford in 1651, the daughter of Walter and Anne Elford. Her father was a merchant who had traded in Smyrna and later in Alicante. Their whole world revolved around that spider’s web of international commerce – not just the East India Company, but also the Levant, Hudson’s Bay, Muscovy and Royal African Companies, plus all those others that would provide Britain with the roots from which to build her empire. Yet Catherine certainly grew up in London, where Walter Elford later acquired a famous coffee-house.

In 1669, aged 18, Catherine married Joseph Hynmers, ten years her senior. He had already been to India twice, and was now scheduled to return there for the East India Company. Catherine and Joseph sailed together for the Company’s outpost at Fort St. George, Madras – then a tiny village on the Coromandel Coast.

Parish Record of Catherine's Marriage to Joseph Hynmers, 1669

Joseph’s position was important, Second to the Governor, and they enjoyed a comfortable house with several Indian servants. Catherine gave birth to their first child, Joseph Junior, in 1670; then to Richard in 1672; Elford in 1676; and Benjamin in 1678.

The journey to and from Madras was a hazardous one, at least six months at sea and often much longer. Once there, the residents were at risk from the wars raging between the Muslim Mughal Emperor and the armies of the Hindu Marathas. But mortality rates at Fort St. George were high from sickness too, forcing Catherine to send her boys home when she felt them old enough – usually by the time they were ten.

Then, in 1680, after a prolonged fever, Joseph Hynmers died and left her a considerable fortune. He bequeathed sums of money to the oldest three boys but not the youngest – since he had written his will before Benjamin was born. But Joseph was buried in a fine mausoleum, beneath a tall pyramid that still stands in modern Chennai.

Within six months of Joseph’s death, however, Catherine had married again, this time to Elihu Yale. Yale had gone out to Madras as a clerk for the Company in 1672 and in 1680 he still held a relatively junior position. But over the next few years he invested the wealth gained from his marriage to become a very prominent trader in his own right and, eventually, Governor of Fort St. George – by this time the centre of an astonishingly expanded Madras.

Now married to Yale, and her eldest boys sent back to England, Catherine began a second family – David Yale born in 1684; Katherine in 1685; Anne in 1687; and Ursula, probably in 1689. Tragically, little David died at the age of three and is buried in the same mausoleum with Joseph Hynmers, at Chennai.

Mausoleum for Joseph Hynmers and David Yale
at Fort St. George, Chennai

In 1689, Catherine returned to England with her girls and one Hindu servant. Her boys were already with her mother. Things were not going well for Catherine at Fort St. George and we know that, by then, Elihu was sharing a second home with a Portuguese woman called Jeronima de Paiva, with whom he had another son, Carlos Almanza. It’s likely he was also having a further relationship with a woman named Katherine Nicks.

We know little of Catherine’s life back in London, but it would have been a city she hardly recognised – rebuilt after the Great Fire and occupied by William the Third’s Dutch troops in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution. She settled in the parish of St. Peter-le-Poor, and soon her eldest son, Joseph Junior had also joined the Company and sailed for Madras. Meanwhile, around 1697, Catherine’s second son Richard died, probably abroad.

By now, Elihu himself had come under suspicion from the Company’s Directors, accused of financial irregularities and even the murder of three witnesses against him. He was replaced as Governor while the investigations took place and though the charges had all been dropped by 1696, his days at Fort St. George were numbered. He sailed back to England, as we’ve already seen, in 1699, along with John Nicks, Katherine Nicks’s husband, plus her youngest children – those that, according to rumour, had actually been sired by Elihu. Personally I think this is unlikely but we know that, when John Nicks returned to Madras, the children remained, in boarding school and pretty much at Elihu’s expense.

From the time of his arrival in London, Elihu kept up a steady flow of correspondence with Katherine Nicks in Madras (over fifty letters during the following eight years) and from these we know that he bought a house in Austin Friars to accommodate his family – so, back with Catherine, though it seems this did not last long. He was soon dividing his time between a new property in London (Queen Square) and Plas Grono in Wrexham.

Sample of the letters from Yale to Katherine Nicks, Courtesy of Yale University Archives. 

Catherine’s remaining sons began a law suit against him, claiming they should have been entitled to a larger share of their father’s inheritance, and the youngest son, Benjamin, testifying that he had never received any of the inheritance due to him through his mother’s marriage settlement with Elihu. The cases would rumble on for many years.

The biographies refer to tragedy striking again in 1704 when news arrived that Joseph Junior had died in Madras. But it’s likely that Catherine would actually have received news of Joseph’s death in 1706. The biographies are usually equally careless about Yale’s money-lending practices and, most notably, in the case of Josiah Edisbury, Yale’s neighbour in Wrexham, and the man who originally built the fine mansion known as Erddig Hall. Edisbury needed a loan to complete furnishing of the house but Yale called in the loan at such an extortionate rate of interest that Edisbury was bankrupted and ruined.

In 1706, Catherine and Elihu’s daughter Katherine married Sir Dudley North and, in 1707, the first of Catherine’s grandchildren was born. In that same year, yet another of Catherine’s sons – Elford – also died, again, probably abroad as a merchant adventurer. Catherine herself was now just 56 and four of her sons – David, Richard, Joseph and Elford – were already dead.

On 6th July 1708, their second daughter, Anne Yale, married Lord James Cavendish, younger brother of the 2nd Duke of Devonshire. Lord James leased his property, Latimer House in Buckinghamshire, to Catherine, where she lived for the rest of her life, along with her only surviving son, Benjamin, and her youngest daughter, Ursula.

In 1711, the courts finally decided that Benjamin was entitled to £8765 as the portion from the estate of Joseph Hynmers, his father, owed to him by Elihu Yale. The current equivalent value of that settlement is about £1 million.

In the following year, news arrived that the illegitimate son of Elihu Yale and Jeronima de Paiva, Carlos Almanza, had died in Cape Town. Jeronima died soon after and, by that time, the other alleged mistress, Katherine Nicks, was also dead in Madras.

Elihu himself died in 1721, having earlier made many philanthropic donations – one of which went to the college in New Haven, Connecticut. He was not the biggest benefactor, however, and that honour fell to a gentleman called Charles Dummer. But the governing body of the establishment felt that “Yale College” had a better ring to it than the alternative.

Elihu was buried at St. Giles in Wrexham, where his impressive tomb still stands. It’s a famous landmark inscribed with an equally famous poem. The poem was probably penned by Yale himself, and this is how it reads now:

Born in America, in Europe bred
In Africa travell’d and in Asia wed
Where long he liv’d and thriv’d; In London dead
Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all’s even
And that his soul thro’ mercy’s gone to Heaven
You that survive and read this tale, take care
For this most certain exit to prepare
Where blest in peace, the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the silent dust.

Elihu Yale's tomb in Wrexham

He left behind too, of course, that last will and testament: To my wicked wife… Why? Had she supported her sons’ Chancery Court claim against him? Or is there a clue in one of those letters to Katherine Nicks? The only reference, it seems by the context, to his wife: “I have got my old affliction by me, a hair-brain’d crazed ill-natur’d toad that loves nothing so well as her bottle. God rid me of her, for she makes me very uneasy.” Is this Catherine? It seems likely. And, addicted to her bottle? If so, more probable that she might have suffered from that curse afflicting women of her class far more than alcohol, the curse of laudanum.

The will, however, was never signed and the probate battle therefore raged for some while.

Catherine’s youngest daughter, Ursula, also died in 1721, at Latimer, where Catherine remained with her son Benjamin until her own death on 8th February 1728. Catherine and Ursula were both buried at the Latimer House chapel.

Despite the number of grandchildren to Catherine and Elihu Yale, their line now seems to have vanished, with no direct descendants still surviving. So what is their legacy?

Yale University is synonymous with liberal education, regardless of any flaws there may have been in the character of the man whose name it bears. And it is therefore nonsense that the name should be changed, as some have suggested, because of Elihu Yale’s involvement in the Indian slave trade. Our inconvenient truths need to be explained, rather than airbrushed away, and Elihu, I think, still deserves his place in history.

Like Robert Clive, Elihu Yale is also a controversial figure in helping, through the East India Company, to lay the foundations for the British Raj. Historians and social commentators, both in India and Britain, are still at odds about the various pros and cons of British colonisation in the Sub-Continent. Yet, warts and all, this was a hugely significant period in the history of both nations and, as such, Yale deserves his place there too.

[all above images in the public domain unless otherwise stated]


David Ebsworth is the pen name of Liverpool-born author Dave McCall. Currently living in Wrexham, North Wales, with his wife Ann. He was asked in 2018 to consider writing a novel about Elihu Yale but initially declined, due to Yale’s involvement with the Indian slave trade – though he later decided the story could perhaps be told through the eyes of Yale’s much maligned and largely forgotten wife, Catherine. The result is The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale – the first part of David Ebsworth’s Yale Trilogy. More details of the novel and its buying links can be found on the author’s website: This is Dave’s seventh novel, his previous titles including the Jack Telford series, set during the Spanish Civil War, as well as historical fiction set variously in 6th Century Britain, the Anglo-Zulu War, the Waterloo Campaign of 1815, and the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.


  1. Fascinating, and I am ashamed to say that I have never thought about slavery on the Indian continent. Were they also "exported," and if so, where to? I know about the caste system, which is a form of slavery, and assumed the HEIC took advantage of that system for their own enrichment. What an incredible time in history this was. This was a great start to my week.

  2. Hi Sally. Indian slaves were routinely sent to St. Helena on HEIC ships heading west and to Sumatra on vessels sailing east. For much of the 1680s, every ship sailing from Madras (there were many of them) was obliged to carry 10 slaves. At its height, 660 Indian slaves were dispatched from Madras in one month alone. There would have been similar trade from Bombay and later from Calcutta. It wasn't particularly the caste system that John Company exploited but, rather, the endless wars (and consequent famines) between the Muslim Mughal Emperor and the Hindu Marathas. The HEIC's "excuse" was that those displaced by the conflicts "opted" for slavery rather than starve to death. Hmmm. Glad you liked the piece though. Dave

  3. Excellent post David. I learn so much from you. Good luck with the book!

    1. Thanks Paula. I think we all learn from each other here.

  4. Hey Paula. I posted a reply and thanks for those comments but can't see it here. Anyway, thanks again and, as I said before, we all learn from each other on here, I reckon :)


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