Robert Dennis Chantrell was a surveyor and architect who was responsible for the design of several churches in the local area.
He was born on 24 January 1793 in Newington, Surrey, the son of Robert Chantrell and his wife Mary Anne (née Dennis).
He married Elizabeth Caroline Boham on 12 February 1814 at St Mary Magdalene, Bermondsey. They had eight known children:
His marriage failed in the 1840s after he took a "great interest" in 14-year-old artist Mary Elizabeth Dear. His wife reportedly objected to the frequency and nature of the girl's visits to their house and left him to live in Liverpool.
Elizabeth Caroline Chantrell died in 1863. Her estranged husband did not attend the funeral.
After reportedly acting as Mary Elizabeth Dear's guardian for many years, the 74-year-old married her on 2 November 1867. The couple had one known daughter:
From subsequent newspaper reports, it is apparent that they had a deeply unhealthy and troubled relationship, with the younger woman exerting a strong influence over her older husband. She kept hundreds of dogs and cats, but seemingly was happy to allow them to starve to death or eat each other. The couple were prosecuted on several occasions for cruelty to animals and it was even reported that she slept in the same room as putrefying dead cats.
Robert Dennis Chantrell of Ivy Cottage, Rottingdean, Brighton, Sussex, died aged 78 on 4 January 1872 at the Queen's Hotel, Norwood, Surrey. He was buried at Norwood Cemetery on 11 January 1872.
Initially probate was granted to Mary Elizabeth, but this was successfully contested in 1874 by his son Robert on the basis that his father "was not in a sound state of health" and that his young wife had coerced him into leaving her his estate. During the court case, numerous witnesses reported visiting Chantrell and finding squalid conditions and dead cats in every room — one of his daughters estimated "there were several hundred dead cats in the house" — and this was given as evidence of his poor state of mind. Another witness stated that on one instance, "over a thousand" dead cats were removed from the property and buried.
After eleven days of testimony, the jury returned a verdict that "the deceased [...] was of sound mind" but that his will had been "executed under the undue influence of Mrs. M.E. Chantrell, and that its execution was obtained by fraud".
Mary Elizabeth Chantrell was soon back in court, where she was charged once again with extreme cruelty to animals, and was declared bankrupt in 1875.
She was still living in the Brighton area in 1885 when she was charged with "keeping cats in a state of starvation". By the late 1890s, she was homeless and sleeping rough in London. She was likely the Mary Chantell recorded as being admitted to London asylums in 1898 and 1899, and presumably died a pauper's death.