An author’s fascination for a subject does not end once the book in question has been published.  My great  hope was that the release of  The Water Doctor’s Daughters would  produce new information.  There were undocumented periods in the lives of the chief protagonists that  I longed to know more about.  One of these involved Dr Marsden’s lengthy stay on Malta in the winter of 1853/54.  The visit took place  at  a particularly sensitive time in the story of the surviving  Marsden children.   The doctor was being pressured by Mlle Doudet’s Paris  accusers (including his sister-in-law Fanny Rashdall),  to have Doudet  charged  over the deaths of his daughters Marian and Lucy, which had occurred  in July (Marian) and September (Lucy) of 1853.   Fearing  that  his own harsh treatment  of his daughters would be aired, Marsden strongly resisted.  Then, on  December 20th,  the girls’ maternal uncle, the Reverend   John Rashdall, wrote the following entry in his diary;  ‘In much trouble at the determination of James that is necessary at once to take his wife to Malta…..’   The wife referred to was Mary, the children’s new stepmother.  Given the circumstances,  Rashdall’s  ‘rebuke’ was mild in the extreme.  At home in Great Malvern,  Emily and Rosa Marsden were struggling to come to terms with the loss of  their siblings. They were also recovering from measles.  Spending a winter in Malvern without their parents was hardly conducive to their wellbeing!


Recently I was contacted by  researcher Gill Fitzpatrick, who had been reading the diaries of a Manchester cotton manufacturer by the name of William Armitage. William had been advised to spend the winter on Malta due to serious ill-heath.  As an engaged and loving father, he found it difficult to be parted from his family, especially as his wife was expecting her ninth child.  He left  England  on December 30, travelling first class on the steamship Euxine.  Among his fellow passengers were James and Mary  Marsden.  Apparently the  ship was overloaded with armaments bound for the Crimean war,  and  almost foundered in the Bay of Biscay.  Mary Marsden was so upset by the near disaster that the couple stopped off in Gibraltar for a couple of weeks until she felt able to continue on a new steamship, the Himalaya.

SS Himalaya

SS Himalaya

Upon arrival they took lodgings in the capital, Valletta.


Valetta, Malta

Valletta, Malta

William  Armitage  was a disciple of homeopathy. He was treated  during his stay on the Island by Dr Marsden, with a blend of homeopathic remedies and elements of the water-cure.  He also socialized with the  Marsdens, recording   shared dinners and outings.   With this in mind, and given his  preoccupation with his own wife and  children, it  is odd that his diaries make no mention of Dr Marsden’s family.  Surely if he had been told  of his doctor’s   terrible loss,  particularly the disturbing circumstances of the deaths,  he would have  recorded  it.  There is no hint that the Marsdens were in mourning, or leading a secluded life.  Armitage mentions that after one  convivial dinner at Dr Marsden’s lodgings there were five other  callers.  On another occasion Mary waited in their carriage while Dr Marsden examined his patient, but came in afterwards and had ‘a merry chat’.  Nor is there any mention of Mary’s baby Isabella,  just two months old when her parents left England.  I can only conclude that  Isabella too, had been left in England.

As the months went by, Armitage began  lose confidence in Dr Marsden, and certainly the doctor’s  bedside manner was lacking.  In April, when  the patient complained of coughing up blood from his throat or lungs  Dr Marsden reportedly made light of it, laughing and saying it could be from either, but that  at least he was better than when he arrived (which the patient doubted).   He also began to doubt the doctor’s sincerity. There was talk that he might  accompany the Marsdens on the journey home to England, but  the doctor and his wife prevaricated, until William  began to look at alternatives.

Towards the end of April the doctor  suddenly announced that he and Mary were returning home on the Himalaya.   Shortly afterwards it was revealed that he had managed to have himself engaged as the ship’s doctor.   The ailing William Armitage wrote wryly ; ‘Thus I suppose getting free passage for self, wife and maid , how fortunate, but how this money changes people’s minds.’


The doctor and his wife did not return direct to England, but via France.  From Marseille,  they made their way to  a hotel in Paris,  where John Rashdall was ‘surprised’ to find them in early May.  No doubt Rashdall was even more surprised, albeit relieved, when his brother-in-law  now  (very belatedly) pressed charges against Mlle Doudet.  She was accused of causing the deaths of Marian and Lucy, and   of mistreating   their sisters;  Emily, Rosa and Alice.  Presumably, pressure for Dr Marsden  to do so had continued throughout the long stay  on Malta.  Despite their  apparent calm enjoyment of  the island, letters from Mlle Doudet’s accusers must have caused James and Mary Marsden great angst.   Mind you, there would be far more angst to come, when governess  Celestine Doudet finally stood trial in 1855.

My sincere thanks to Gill Fitzpatrick for bothering to contact me, and especially for providing me with William Armitage’s diary entries relating to Dr Marsden.

Dr James Marsden

Dr James  Marsden









  1. I am seriously starting to wonder if Dr Marsden was a pyschopath, with his callous disregard of his patient’s obvious TB. He plainly cared nothing about his poor little daughters either. My best friend was married to a doctor who was later diagnosed as a psychopath. I dare not say more here, but I assure you that this is true. He was also obsessed with money.

    • Oh dear, your friend’s ex does sound a bit similar. Dr Marsden was the epitome of selfishness and hypocrisy at the very least.

  2. Marsden is so cold hearted and obviously Mary wasn’t much better. I can’t imagine anyone leaving a 2 month old baby behind and setting off for a jolly round the med’. Pity they didn’t drown en route!

    • Yes, I hope I haven’t done Mary a disservice, but note that William Armitage only mentioned Mary and her maid leaving on the Himalaya…no baby or nursemaid. And of course Dr Marsden left his very young children behind years earlier when he and his first wife spent nearly a year abroad. Rosa was only two then.

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