In Bruges, Father Gezelle was always helping his parishioners. In 1872 a rich English lady, the mysterious Lady Smith, became his neighbour. Their relationship was quite intense. This was a reason for gossip, scandal and mystery. Was the gullible Gezelle manipulated or did he merely help a lady in distress?
Lady Smith was born as Lucy Weguelin. Her parents, the Reverend William Andrew Weguelin and Emma Hankey, were married in 1834. After the marriage, they left London high society and moved to Stoke, where they lived in a rectory with a few servants. Lucy was born in Brighton on October 27th, 1839. In the meantime, her mother was no longer living at home. In the beginning of her pregnancy she was expelled from the rectory. William Weguelin filed for divorce on grounds of adultery and he remarried shortly afterwards.
Lucy grew up in the Hankey family in Brighton and London. This family had developed a trading empire in the West Indian colonies and was now leading a life of luxury. Her uncle Thomson Hankey was head of the family. He was very strict. He was a businessman as well as a prominent banker and a member of Parliament.
“no sacrament only a legal business which Ernest took a false oath to effect”
When Lucy’s grandmother died in 1862, the lives of both mother and daughter changed. Emma married John Gripper who was ten years her senior. Lucy married Ernest Albin Smith on the 8th of July. He was still underage. The marriage was a legal commitment that would allow Lucy to stand on her own feet. She called it a "clandestine" marriage.
“she and her family have a fair right to expect that you will work”
In January 1863, Lucy received an annual allowance set by the court. The funds came from the family fortune and Thomson Hankey was responsible for the distribution. Ernest Smith had no more than a limited income. Thomson Hankey warned him in a letter that the couple should learn to support themselves. The family could no longer help. On June 10th, 1864, Ernest Smith passed a bank clerk exam and held this position for six years. A lung disease forced him to resign. From then on, the family started to wander from one city to another, always leaving behind a mountain of debts.
On February 6th, 1872, the Smiths moved from London to Bruges, Hoornstraat 9. Consequently they became neighbours of Gezelle, who lived on the corner of the street. Smith was registered as a rentier without a profession. The family already had three children: Frank was born in 1863, his younger brother Cecil in 1866 and his sister Edith in 1869. At the time of their move, Lucy was six months pregnant with their fourth child.
“un joli mobilier, neuf depuis six mois”
The apparently well-to-do family settled in the medium-sized house with much splendour. They bought a lot on credit. From the sales advertisement only six months later we know what their fine household goods consisted of. There were, among other things, fashionable mahogany coloured seats, a table and chairs, mirrors and mantelpiece ornaments, curtains and carpets, iron beds, all kinds of functional furniture and a special upright piano in rosewood.
Slanderers claimed that Lucy Smith gave birth to her daughter Lilian on May 14th, 1872 in Gezelle's house. It is certain that Gezelle became the baby’s godfather and that his name is on the birth certificate as a witness. On June 3rd, Lilian was baptized as a Catholic by Gezelle in St. Walburga's Church. The girl died shortly afterwards on July 23rd, 1872. Gezelle reported the death and signed the death certificate.
Another spicy conversation topic was a 65 franc golden watch. Two weeks before childbirth, Lady Smith bought a precious golden watch on credit as a gift for Gezelle. When Gezelle refused to return the unpaid watch, the merchant turned to bishop Faict to reclaim his money, . The Smith family kept on living above their means and they were indebted to the merchants of Bruges. Ernest Smith regularly asked Gezelle for money. Gezelle gave the family personal loans. Unable to pay the house rent in the end, they moved with the children to another house situated in the Sint-Jorisstraat in Bruges.
“Stefanie said that you would certainly run after the Englishwoman if she were to leave.”
Due to the death of his parents, a lawsuit concerning his newspaper, gossip, debts and domestic problems, Gezelle was quite depressed during that period. His maid Stephanie Hendryckx’s gossiping was jeopardizing his reputation. She was jealous of the close relationship between Gezelle and Lady Smith. Stephanie also created debts in Gezelle's name. We can find various allusions to Lady Smith and the maid in the rival liberal newspaper De Westvlaming. All this reached a peak in July 1872. Following the advice of Ferdinand Van de Putte, the dean of Courtrai, Gezelle's sister Louise removed the maid on August 9th.
“For the love of God and for your and our wellbeing [...]: break off the relationship with that Englishwoman and go to the bishop and ask him for another position, if you do not do this be assured that I will do it in your place, no one will stop me because if you do not take care of your and our reputation, I will do so.”
On Friday, the 17th of September, Bishop Faict asked Ferdinand Van de Putte, the dean of Courtrai, to consider Gezelle to become an assistant priest. Gezelle was appointed on September 20th, 1872 in Courtrai. The bishop also dealt with all his financial problems.
In spite of his departure from Bruges Gezelle did not break off his relationship with the Smith family. He tried to assist them by mediating, by granting loans of his own and by giving Ernest a job. Gezelle also helped them to find a house in Courtrai. He met Lucy Smith just before their arrival at the hotel Aux Armes de France in Rijselsestraat 15, Courtrai. Mid-January 1873 the Smiths moved to a furnished building in Stasegemstraat 51. Gezelle was immediately summoned by the bishop. Further contact with the Smith family was prohibited.
Meanwhile, Ernest Smith tried to provide an additional income in Courtrai by teaching English and importing beer. Although there was no personal contact, they continued to correspond with Gezelle.
Lucy Smith was pregnant again. The Gezelle Archives preserve a poetry album of Lucy Smith containing love poems. On the last page there is a list of baby clothes. The family wanted to go abroad, but they had no money and Ernest's health had deteriorated so much that he could not travel. Gezelle again tried to intervene by writing to Thomson Hankey, the rich uncle. Hankey responded that the Smiths got what they deserved, as they maintained a lifestyle that did not match their income.
Eventually the Smiths took refuge abroad to get rid of their creditors. In September 1873 they left for Bath, where their daughter Mathilde was born. It was a rather short stay. In 1874 the family left for France. Lucy remained in Dunkirk with the children, while Ernest Smith moved to Pau where he hoped to recover from his lung disease. On the 6th of September 1874 he wrote his last letter to Gezelle from London, announcing his departure to Queensland, Australia. There he lived as a farmer and he even founded a new family. Later he became known as Pegasus, a horse racing reporter. He died on December 21st, 1930, leaving behind a widow and eight children in Australia.
Meanwhile Lucy was left behind with the children. In 1875 she lived in Belgium again. On the 25th of May 1875 her eldest son Francis Spencer wrote to Gezelle that he had enrolled in the Jesuit College in Antwerp. In 1876 she met Charles Bertram, with whom she had two more children: Charles Reginald (1877) and Hilda (1878). History repeated itself as Charles Bertram and Ernest Smith were cut from the same cloth. Moreover, Bertram behaved badly towards the children. At the end of 1879 or in early 1880 Lucy wrote to Gezelle from Liverpool.
On December 10th, 1880, Lucy returned from Liverpool to Bruges. She moved into a house in the Hoogstraat, nr. 1 with Bertram and her family. Four months later they left for Steenbrugge, a district just south of Bruges. As her previous marriage had not yet been dissolved, Lucy was registered in the population register as “Veuve” (Widow) Smith. Moreover she wasn’t allowed to receive Holy Communion. She wrote to Gezelle asking for help to find a solution. From then on the Gezelle connection is missing.
We can read in some newspaper reports that the couple followed the usual pattern. Charles Bertram was sued for bankruptcy in 1888. In 1891 Lucy Smith moved to Scarborough under the pseudonym Mrs. Brooke. Having furnished her home and having lived on credit for several months, she absconded without paying her debts. The census reveals that Charles and Lucy Bertram were staying in Cornwall in 1901. They were living with their son Charles Reginald and a maid. In 1911 they moved to Bournemouth. Lucy Bertram, Lady Smith, died in Bath, in the spring of 1932.