Some Legal Byways J T McGovan1897
Many unusual conditions were attached to wills, particularly during the eighteenth century. Perhaps the strangest was a requirement for the legatee to investigate a murder.
From David Markham to Charles Bingham, September 3rd 1779
I must thank you for your great kindness which you did me last year, it has completely changed my fortunes from an impoverished minor gentleman into a great landowner. You are doubtless wondering what you did last year that has had such an effect. You will recall that I sent you a letter describing the eruption of Etna, which you forwarded to the Gentleman’s Magazine where it was published as An Account of the recent eruptions of Mount Etna described in a letter from a Gentleman to his Friend. Well, never can a friend’s idle action have had such an effect.
It appears that the letter was seen by my late uncle (I call him that though he was a very distant relation) who then decided to make me his heir, as I was apparently ‘the only member of my family to show any interest in anything other than wasting money, gambling or whoreing’ which is pretty hard on my other uncle the Bishop!. The first intimation I had of my good fortune was a letter from his lawyer which reached me in Vienna. I am now the owner of Bramlingham, and much else beside. So we are now neighbours, as there is but forty miles between us. There is a curious condition in the will which I will show you when we next meet, which will hopefully be within a few weeks.
Extract from the will of Ebenezer Williams, dated December 1st 1778
Within one year of my decease, or of his arrival in England if he be abroad when I die, he shall discover or cause to be discovered, the fate of my poor son, of whom no word has been heard these past four years. If he succeeds the estate of Bramlingham will pass to him unconditionally and the rest of my property will be disposed of in the way indicated in the enclosed document A, if he fails he is to receive one hundred pounds for his trouble and nothing more.
Letter from Nathanial Jaggers to David Markham
You asked what was known about the disappearance of George Williams? Unfortunately many of the relevant documents seem to have been destroyed by your uncle and my predecessor. All I know is this.
George Williams seems to have been a young gentleman of considerable abilities, he left Cambridge in the autumn of 1773 and was sent by his father to Bramlingham in order to learn something of the management of the considerable property of which he was the heir. From letters from the steward my predecessor made the following notes. He was well regarded locally and as a result spent some time visiting neighbours over Christmas, returning home in early January he seemed very distressed and uneasy. The following day he was seen to leave the house late in the afternoon when the light was beginning to fade. A servant reported that he saw him from an upstairs window ride from the stables, which lie to the west of the house, across the park to the south, where he disappeared into the gloom.
His horse was found on the far side of the park the following day, extensive searches were made for Mr Williams then and subsequently when the snow had gone, but no trace has been found of him, then or later.
You also enquire what will happen if he be found alive, as he would be heir to the estate of Bramlingham. First the late Mr Williams was convinced that his son would never be found alive, but if he be alive suitable provision has been made for you both.
From David Markham to Charles Bingham, December 4th 1779
I have been at Bramlingham for just over a sennight and find myself overwhelmed with my duties, almost immediately I had to dismiss the steward. I was suspicious as to his probity from the lack of ready accounts for the estate, and then yesterday I found he had given orders to evict a woman and her family from her cottage, when I chided him for doing so, especially considering the present cold weather, he replied that he had been very compassionate in not evicting them whilst her husband still lived, he was sick of a fever, and had allowed her to bury him before ordering him from her home.
He grew abusive and made veiled threats, but has removed to a small cottage, not unfortunately from the village. My removal of the steward has increased my popularity locally, it seems my uncle and his agent were not much liked in the village, but it has increased my labours as I am without any assistance.
So I am calling upon our ancient friendship, will you come to me in my hour of need? On the other matter I have made little advance, though here too you can help me. Upon your journey you will pass through Cambridge. Can you call on any of your college acquaintances and enquire as to George Williams, I am aware that they will have no knowledge of his whereabouts, but may be able to provide some information as to his character. If I am to hunt down Mr Williams I need to know more of my quarry.
From David Markham to Charles Bingham, December 9th 1779
I am delighted you will be able to accept my offer, and of course your sister will be most welcome. Had I realised she was at home I would naturally have included her in the invitation.
From Mary Bingham to Isabelle Rawlins, December 15th 1779
I write for the first time from Bramlingham, the house is a curious mixture of old and new. To one side is a tall brick tower, built like a castle, then a modern house has been added on. So different it is almost like old and new houses in a street. The rooms in the tower are mostly large, cold and inconvenient and only used for storage, though one upon the lower floor was used by the departed steward for storing documents. The modern house is as comfortable as possible, apparently our hosts uncle had the house built and fitted out, then took a dislike to it and never lived in it! Also in conversation with the housekeeper I find I am the first gentlewoman who has stayed in the house for over thirty years, I feel like the new bride in Bluebeard’s castle, though anyone less like Bluebeard than our host cannot be imagined.
I had met him one before, when he visited our parents, but he left for the continent where he has been these last two years. He was charming but distant when I first met him, he is still charming but now has an air of constant harassment. I suppose it is the round of duties that have fallen upon him as he entered into an estate for which he was completely unprepared. Charles and I do what we can to help.
We are also trying to help with the other business, in my last I described the unusual conditions of his inheritance, if he cannot succeed he will lose the house. Charles has discovered that the appellation ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ may indeed have been an apt name for the house in the past. He called upon several friends in Cambridge when we stopped there, and has discovered that the mysterious George Williams was in fact sent down, as the saying is, for disreputable activities. The menfolk tried to keep the details from me but I have discovered, ask me not how, that he was caught with two women of no reputation in his rooms in college!
This of course throws a new light upon the missing cousin which I shall hope to elucidate tomorrow, I will go and visit several of the women in the village, beginning with the vicar’s wife. I suspect that no one asked the local women when they were searching for Mr W, and anyway they are unlikely to tell a man what they know anyway.
To be continued…..