IT was a case that was sad as it was unique.

"The facts that I am about to mention are very peculiar," declared bemused solicitor Mr Pocock. "In fact the most peculiar I have ever heard."

A Victorian melodrama indeed.

The plot - a loving mother of two cruelly separated from her children and kidnapped to America, enabling her villainous husband to pursue an affair with a conniving woman who was to be publicly shamed by her step-father in disowning her.

But was it true? Why would a woman hitherto devoted to her husband and children suddenly leave?

Or did she go of her own volition because she no longer felt worthy of him in a loveless relationship?

It all began in 1851 when Joseph Stuart, a commercial traveller, met Sarah Oliver. Within months of courting, they were married and settled in Bugle Street, Southampton, where she she bore him two children.

Then onto the scene comes Mary Anna Miall with whom he becomes infatuated and flaunts convention by walking the streets with her. She in turn slowly turns the household against her.

Time passes but one night in March 1858 Sarah is put on a ferry to Cowes where she boards a ship called the Fulton bound for America.

News reaches her father, retired trader Tom Oliver who rushes from his Cambridge home to Southampton, only to tragically discover it had set sail hours before.

His only hope is to approach the town magistrates for assistance, placing his faith in Pocock who is less then confident of success.

"She was taken away from her two young children to whom she was fondly and devotedly attached," he claims. "They are now in his house and it is a most monstrous thing that a young woman should be taken away, shipped off so unceremoniously without means and unprotected."

Pocock fears the court is powerless to intervene - and so it transpires, though they think it is only right for Stuart to attend court to offer an explanation for his wife's abrupt departure.

Oliver bemoans: "I have every reason to believe from corroborative circumstances she has been taken on board without her consent."

The chairman Captain Breton inquires: "Is she weak minded?"

Oliver replies: "Trouble has preyed on her mind, she has been most cruelly treated. All I could get from her husband is that he had paid her passage. I said 'Have you given her any allowance whatsoever? How is she going to support herself?' He said they had agreed between themselves and he was to give her £10 a year. He had an income of £400 a year.

"A long continued series of worrying, mental torture and bothering, carried out in connection with Ms Miall, seems to have thrown her mind off its balance, though we cannot say she was absolutely insane."

In emotional scenes, bystanders are reduced to tears as the broken hearted father exclaims of his daughter: "A more correct young creature there never was from her earliest infancy. She was the last of my family and I had many. She was not likely to go astray."

Breton directs a police officer to go to Bugle Street to persuade Stuart to come to court but he is on the Isle of Wight.

Consequently the court is adjourned for four days but on its resumption Stuart and Miall are conspicuous by their absence, solicitor James Sharp Jr having been instructed to represent them.

He immediately submits the Bench has no power to deal with the complaint but that is swiftly rejected by Breton as the magistrates are bound to investigate a complaint once it has been lodged.

His objection overruled, Smart reveals the couple had found it impossible to live together and he had offered her the opportunity to start a business in London, Birmingham and elsewhere but she wanted of her own free will to join her brother in Boston where "in a strange land, she might forget what has happened here" and a deal has been arrangement with a gentleman in Bridgewater to afford her an allowance.

But Pocock ridicules the statement: "There is an air of mystery hanging around the whole affair. She was not permitted to see her friends."

Though Smart emphatically denies it, Mr Gorsuch, who has been sitting with Oliver, is adamant Sarah had been afraid of coming to see him and his wife.

"I am prepared to say on oath that she was in that state of mind the last time she was with me she would do anything, short of losing her life, to get rid of him." Another friend Mrs Dudman concurs: "She told me before she had to put up with such things she would go mad and I must not be surprised one day if she came and asked for my protection."

Though the court expresses sympathy, Breton reiterates they are powerless to intervene, which leaves to Oliver expressing his fears she will do herself harm before the Fulton reaches New York.

The chairman suggests the best solution is for Oliver to accompany Sharp to personally seek an explanation from his son-in-law and accordingly adjourns the matter.

The parties return to court four days later and once more Stuart is not present.

Instead Smart reads a statement. Lauding him as a man of the highest respectability, he says Stuart came home one afternoon to find his wife highly distressed, feeling she was no longer worthy of his confidence and affection between them has died.

"If he publicly mentioned it, his wife would only deny it and people would say he had become jealous of her. Mr Stuart adopted a very prudent and humane course in taking care to always have at her elbow Miss Miall, a lady of mature age, refined mind, highly educated and elegant accomplishments, intimate with his family and Mrs Stuart's family who had previously resided under the same roof. It was not possible to select a more proper or more competent person."

Stuart had urged his wife to write to her family and friends but she refused to do so because of the shame it would bring on them and she "dreaded to meet her father's eye."

However he concedes Stuart was to blame that when she decided to go to Boston, he endorsed her wish that her family would not be informed. "There he made a mistake which he perhaps would not have fallen into if he had any judicious friend at his elbow."

His wife, Smart adds, travelled on the Fulton as a first class passenger with a new outfit and sufficient expenses support herself on arrival.

"There is no proof whatever she was concealed and people were not permitted to see her. She had given orders to her servant that she would see no one. Mr Stuart is not the man who comes here to proclaim his wife's shame. I have no doubt there is sufficient evidence in the hands of her father to satisfy any reasonable and unprejudiced mind."

Expressing his sympathy for Miall whose reputation has been maligned, he scorns: "Whatever the public may say, it was at all events premature for Mr Oliver to come here and make an application without having previously in a quiet and fair way gone to seek an explanation from Mr Stuart."

However at this point the hearing takes an astonishing turn.

A man called Billingsley steps forward and reveals himself to be Miall's step father before launching a devastating attack on Stuart and then her.

He describes how he had once contentedly lived with Stuart and his family for five years until his step daughter arrived.

"His conduct was enough to break the heart of any stout woman and he paid sickening attentions to her in spite of his wife because she was always intent to be alone with him at every opportunity."

The situation became so intolerable he challenged her: "Either you leave or I will."

But Stuart takes her side, telling him: "She will not leave at any hazard."

Billingsley plaintively asks: "Is this the conduct of a young woman of a respectable family and the conduct a husband ought to to exhibit towards a wife whose devotion was profound and whose affection was most deep?

"I have never seen an occasion when she has not endeavoured to make him happy and comfortable but my daughter found fault with her in every department of the household and told her own servants not to be obey her.

"I told them both 'You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. God only knows what criminality there is between you both."

Billingley denounces his conduct into driving Sarah away as "abominable and unheard of and like a coward he sneaks about."

His final words are to condemn his daughter.

"You have lost your respectability, you have forfeited your character. I disown you."

And there the matter appears to rest - the Bench powerless to act, leaving a potential postscript with Gorsuch promising to do his utmost bring her home.