Chapter 4: Martha
In spite of all the wrangling going on between Fisher, the partners and the uncles, it was Martha who held the winning card: in February 1805, she would be 21. At 21, she would legally be an adult, and could obtain letters of administration for all the personal estate of her father; she would be the legal representative of her father, and could take charge of all the money.
Within a week of her twenty-first birthday in 1805, she applied for letters of administration, and of course they were granted. Legally she was now in control of all the money. Her first action was decisive: she went to the bank and drew out every penny: £9,784, 15/6 – not to mention the dividends that had accrued in the meantime. Of course, she was morally entitled to only one third of the money, but she took the lot, leaving nothing for Mary Ann and Thomas. What did she do with it? Very probably she handed at least some of it over to Milburn, who was now desperate for money. When Fisher heard what she had done, he angrily told her to pay back the extra that she had taken, but she brazenly answered that she was entitled to much more than one third. Somehow or other, she also managed to get hold of most of the promissory notes which had been given to her father when he issued loans, so these people were now bound to pay her the money they had owed to her father. But there was more money which was not yet in the bank, which she couldn’t get her hands on. Fisher and the partners still held some of the money from the sale of stock, and from running the business, and from collecting in debts owed to William by tradesmen. Martha was, of course, legally entitled to claim it. She asked each of them in turn to hand over the money; Samuel Buxton paid her a few sums of money, and James and Robert paid various bills on her behalf, but as for the rest, she simply could not extract it from them.
On one occasion she went to see John Butler and asked him for a few worthless trinkets, as she put it – all her father’s gold rings. He refused to hand them over and sarcastically told her that she should go and ask for them in the Court of Chancery!
Poor Martha; at 18 years old, she had been left to look after her younger brother and sister, with no help from anyone else. The uncles did not come to see her, nor did they attempt to help her, or ask what difficulties she was having in looking after her brother or sister. Richard Fisher did not come near her, and neither did John and Mary Butler. No-one seemed to take an interest in what was happening to Martha, Mary Ann or Thomas. How could they pretend that this court case was for the benefit of the children, asked Martha, when they were not sufficiently interested in them even to pay them a visit? Martha must have felt bitter and abandoned, and out of her depth trying to be a mother to the two younger children. There was another problem, too: receiving only £15 a month from her uncles, she had no money to pursue her case in the courts – or at least that was what she told the courts. (She didn’t mention all the money she had drawn out of the bank.) And still she continued her affair with William Milburn. With all these problems, she could not have had much time for little Mary Ann, or for Thomas. They must have been horribly neglected.
There was another thing that Martha was legally entitled to do now that she was 21: she could marry, without needing to ask anyone’s permission. As soon as she married, Milburn would take over all her legal rights and would then be in control of all the money; and he certainly needed it. He owed money to many people now, and these people were getting impatient. They were threatening him with a court action; it was starting to look as though he would go to gaol for debt. The prospect of being put in Fleet prison – the debtors’ prison – must have filled Milburn with terror.
Had Martha started to realise that Milburn was almost bankrupt? Certainly the older members of the family knew that he had money problems, and they told her in no uncertain terms that he was only after her money.
So why didn’t she leave him? Perhaps she was pregnant, or had even had a baby by this time. Perhaps also because, after having antagonised and insulted the older members of her family and her father’s partners, she was virtually alone in the world, manipulated by a much stronger and more desperate character. Perhaps because her pride would not allow her to back down and admit that she had been wrong all the time. Perhaps she was very naive, and believed him when he said he would be able to sort out his money problems. Perhaps she was still in love with him.
In February 1805, very soon after getting letters of administration, Martha promptly went to court, and started an action against Richard Fisher and the partners, John Butler, Richard Butler and Samuel Buxton in order to force them to hand over the rest of the money. Her uncles Robert and James Habgood were also included in the action: she said that they must set forth their accounts. And for the first time, she turned upon her younger brother Thomas, saying that he should give reasons why he might be the one who was entitled to the whole of the freehold estate of her father – that is, the house in Cricklade and the land in Purton; she should have one third of the house and the rents, she argued. This was undoubtedly all done at the instigation of William Milburn. The case of Habgood versus Habgood entered a new and bitter phase.
The family must have been torn apart by the quarrels over money. Poor little Thomas; the young woman who should have been a second mother to him was opposing him in court, and trying to take from him what everyone considered was his natural right; he was the heir at law, and until now, no-one had questioned his right to the house in Cricklade.
Eventually, in June 1805, Milburn’s creditors caught up with him. He was thrown into prison for debt and declared bankrupt. The Bankruptcy Commission examined his debts, and over the next twelve months his assets were seized to the value of the debts, until the debtors could be paid off and a certificate of conformity issued. Each stage of the bankruptcy was announced in the London Gazette, so Martha must surely have known what was happening. Did she visit him in prison? Did his first wife, Henrietta, also visit him?
When Milburn was released from prison, Martha and he worked on the version of a story which they would present to the court of Chancery: Richard Fisher and the partners had plotted and conspired to defraud the children of their money by confusing the debts so that the accounts could not be understood. They had also cancelled the debts of old customers, so that when they started up their own company, the old customers would be grateful to them and would remain with them. In doing this, they had in a sense stolen the customers. Normally when a business is transferred into new hands, the existing customers are purchased as “good will”, which is paid for with money. In this instance, said Martha and Milburn, they should have paid about £1000 for the “good will” of the company, but they did not. Fisher might put on an act of having the children’s welfare at heart, but the truth was that “proceedings were taken with a design to give colour to the parties before mentioned, having so intermeddled with the estate that Richard Fisher, John Butler, Richard Butler and Samuel Buxton, under the authority of James Habgood and Robert Habgood, possessed a considerable part of the estate, and employed the same to their own use and did not invest it; Richard Barnard Fisher and the others paid claims and demands to a large amount, which they ought not to have done, but to have referred them to prove their debts before the Master…”.
Accusations became increasingly bitter and insulting. Martha said that “a plan was formed by … John Butler by the advice of Richard Barnard Fisher for the purpose of keeping (Martha), her brother and sister out of their money as long as they could”. They were only pretending to have the children’s welfare at heart; they obviously didn’t care at all about the children, because they never came to see them, or took any interest in them at all.
That was Martha’s story, and she stuck to it, to the anger of Fisher and the partners. And quite possibly it was true.
From now on, James and Robert did not send money to Martha for the other two children. It was Martha who decided what was to be bought for the children; she went shopping with them, and kept accounts of what she had bought, to present to the court later for reimbursement. The accounts may well have been grossly exaggerated.
In June 1805, Mr Stanley, the master of the court, was still struggling to cope with Robert and James’s accounts. He decided it was “necessary that a Commission should issue into the county of Gloucestershire” to question them. This was perhaps genuinely necessary, but it would also be a nice little trip into the country for the commission – it was summer, after all. Robert and James were now holding £3000, which they handed over to the court representatives, and in August this was added to the account in the Bank of England. This, and a further £5,000 would be used to buy annuities.
And what about that half pipe of wine that Robert and James also went off with, said Fisher? That should be sold and the money paid into the bank.
At this point, the court decided it was high time to have a more accurate and comprehensive inventory drawn up, listing every single item in the London houses, every debt unpaid to William, every penny he owed to others; it was to be a huge document, when it was completed: it would turn out to be thirty sheets of parchment, each measuring about 3′ x 2′, and compiled at huge expense. But that would cost thousands of pounds, protested Robert and James (and that was in 1805!). It was going to be a very difficult and complicated document to draw up, because the accounts were in such a muddle.
Back in 1803, when William died, lots of traders had owed money to William, and no-one had the legal right to collect it in. But it was collected, of course; the partners could not let the customers get away with the money indefinitely, so they asked some of them to pay up, and took the money at 2.5% commission. They had not kept clear records of what debts they had collected in, however. What had happened was that when they collected the money, they entered it as paid in the very books that William had used during his lifetime; it seemed a reasonable thing to do at the time. But now, a couple of years later, they couldn’t tell which debts had been collected by them, and which had already been collected by William; they hadn’t put in the date of repayment. Or at least, that was their story.
Martha later estimated that the partners had collected in about £10,000 in debts. They had officially been acting as the agents of Robert and James, so it was all their fault again.
Robert and James needed a solicitor in London to help them to sort out the accounts. Who could Fisher recommend? A Mr Joseph Mayhew. Now this was rather improper, because in fact, Mayhew was one of the partners in a firm of solicitors called Mayhew and Dove, and Mr Dove was the solicitor that Richard Fisher shared a house with, and he was the one that Fisher was employing to prosecute James and Robert. So the firm of Mayhew and Dove were acting for both the complainants and the defendants in the same case, and both for and against Robert and James.
At the instructions of James and Robert, Mayhew set one of his clerks, Joshua Gregory, to do nothing else but work on the inventory, day in and day out, for several months, and another clerk, Daniel Ashby, to work on it from the 10 August 1805 onwards, to say nothing of Richard Smith, another clerk, who joined in when it was obvious that the other two would never get it finished on time. And still they couldn’t complete it by the date the court had set. The clerks were of course only copying out the details the accountants gave them, and the accountants’ fees had to be paid as well. James and Robert had been right; this was going to be an appallingly expensive document.
Meanwhile, in November, Martha’s case against the uncles, the partners and Fisher, came to court. All of them, Fisher, the partners and the uncles, asked for more time to prepare their case; and no wonder; this series of cases, with everyone opposing everyone else in every possible permutation, was becoming a full-time job for all concerned. Hearings and appearances in court were coming thick and fast, sometimes as often as four times in one week. No doubt Richard Fisher regretted that he had ever interfered; his life, and the lives of all the others who were involved in the case, must have been taken over completely by it.
So the weeks and the months and the years dragged on, with no end in sight. The anger, bitterness and frustration must have been very difficult to cope with for each one of them.
On 14 February 1806 Richard Fisher was on the warpath again, but this time against his own solicitors, Mayhew and Dove. He complained to the court: how could the same firm of solicitors act for opposing parties? They were acting both for and against Martha. (He could just as well said that they were acting for and against James and Robert.)
What is more, he said, Mayhew and Dove had acted as administrators for the estate of William Habgood, when they were employed by James and Robert, and the solicitors had received quite a bit of money which they had not handed over. Could they please be told to give it back?
And that was not all; Fisher had asked Mayhew and Dove time and time again to make out their bill of fees and present all books and papers for verification, and they simply refused to do so. How could any check be kept on the costs of the case, if he could not find out what they were?
The court, always passively taking the line of least resistance, ordered the solicitors to put in their bill within a fortnight and to produce all books and papers which related to their fees. If the charges were too high, Mayhew and Dove would have to repay the excess. It is not clear whether Fisher was still sharing a house with Mr Dove, but if he was, relations must have been a bit strained.
On 7 June 1806, Martha was back in court. She related the entire history of the case, from her point of view. She complained that she was entitled to the money, but could not extract it from all the now unauthorised people who were holding on to it: she said she “hath frequently of late appeared .. to the said James and Robert Habgood, Richard Barnard Fisher, John Butler, Richard Butler, Samuel Buxton, and requested her third of rents, real estate, personal estate and effects. … Richard Butler and Samuel Buxton allege that they have carried and still do carry on the said trade for their own use and benefit and that they are not subject or liable to account with (Martha) for the gains and profits,” and the ultimate insult, ” … Richard Butler and Samuel Buxton were persons of little or no property or fortune”.
She openly accused the partners of embezzlement: “several of the debtors of William Habgood became the customers of Richard Butler and Samuel Buxton, and they in order to continue the favours of such debtors granted them indulgences … forbearing to use diligence in collecting the payment”.
Also, she reiterated that she was entitled in fee simple to a third of the real estate of her father, that is, the house in Cricklade and the meadowland in Purton. Why should Thomas inherit it all instead of her?
On 14 June 1806, in the midst of all this legal and emotional turmoil, Martha took the final step towards ruin, and married William Milburn. Signing his name in the marriage register of St Mary Lambeth, Milburn tried hard to disguise his handwriting.
Why had they both put off marriage for a year after Martha’s 21st birthday? Probably Milburn had been too afraid of the consequences of a bigamous marriage. Bigamy was a serious crime – although a fairly common one – which would normally be tried in the Old Bailey. If he were found out, he would be disgraced for life, quite apart from getting a long prison sentence. His wife Henrietta (now eight months pregnant with their third child and presumably feeling very suspicious of his constant absences) would lose all affection for him – if she had ever had any in the first place. She would not have left him, of course, for where could a married woman go if she left her husband? Married women had no money in their own right, and thus were totally dependent on their husbands for survival. A bigamous marriage was a terrifying step for Milburn to take, but it was now absolutely essential for him to get his hands on Martha’s money: he was about to be declared a bankrupt, and probably his creditors were getting dangerous.
As for Martha, she must surely have realised that Milburn only wanted her for her money. Why did she still marry him? Perhaps she was afraid to go through the rest of the court case on her own. Perhaps she thought that Milburn had embezzled so much that it was too late to leave him. Perhaps she had no money left at all, and dared not face her brother and sister without him.
As soon as she married, Milburn gained entire legal control of the fortune. His money problems were no doubt sorted out rapidly once Martha’s money was transferred to him.
They had married on 14 June 1806. It is to be hoped that Milburn managed to get back to his first wife, Henrietta, by mid-July, when she went into labour.
How did Milburn manage the practicalities of being married to two women, and keeping each one a secret from the other? It must have been very difficult. Being a dealer in commodities must have helped; he could make the excuse that he had to go on a six-month voyage to India, or a four-week trip to Spain. However, it is likely that both Henrietta and Martha had their suspicions.
It was very soon after his marriage to Martha that Milburn bought a magnificent house for himself and his first wife. There can be little doubt that it was bought with Martha’s money. It was a very beautiful residence in Bruce Grove, in the village of Tottenham. There was a breakfast room with a clouded ceiling and a marble hearth; a dining room with circular windows; a drawing room also with circular windows; five bedrooms, as well as a servant’s room. Milburn had a fine library of books on travel, and reference books on geography and medicine. They furnished the house with paintings, japanned furniture, silverware, raw silk bedding, satin-covered chairs; the wine cellar was particularly well stocked. There was considerable land with the house; an extensive garden with shrubberies, a carriage yard and carriage sweep infront, and large, iron folding gates. At the back, there was “an excellent and extensive garden productive Garden, well stocked and walled around, and a field of meadow land”. They also embarked upon improvements to the house. No expense was spared: they called in carpenters, builders, plumbers; – who were destined to join the list of Milburn’s creditors.
Meanwhile, Martha was living in the Crescent, in Kingsland. Over the next few years she moved address frequently. Perhaps this was because Milburn was forcing her to live in ever cheaper accommodation, as his money problems started to build up again. Probably she saw much less of Milburn as time went on; why should he be interested in her now that he had her money? In future, as the court paid out certain sums of money, it would go automatically to him rather than to Martha. He had no further need of her.
Until June 1805, Mary Ann had been at boarding school in Bromley. After leaving school, she came to live with the Milburns. Thomas was still attending Burlington House School in Hammersmith. During the holidays, he stayed with Martha and William Milburn – at least, when Milburn was around. Milburn was the head of the household, and was now responsible for the children’s upkeep. He was almost certainly allowing them no money at all, but was providing them with board and lodging. He charged them for board, lodging, washing and pocket money, but as he was in possession of their money (or some of it), this only meant that he could justifiably take some of it for himself. What an odd household it must have been; with a criminally irresponsible bigamist at its head, an infatuated and helpless young woman as the mistress of the household, and two very insecure children looking on and learning from their example.
In the following November of 1806, back in court again, John Butler gave his answer to Martha’s accusations in a statement full of errors and exaggerations. Now that Martha was accusing everyone of dishonesty, it was in their interests to make out that William Habgood had not had very much money at all in his lifetime. Trade had not been very good for William, John Butler said, since the time when Samuel Buxton had joined the business. He joined in the process of besmirching Martha and William Milburn: she should have been made a ward of court “to prevent her making an improvident marriage with a person who was at that time paying his addresses to her and who … was a person without property and was not a fit and proper match for her or fit to be trusted with her property, and which person … has since become a bankrupt”.
John Butler’s son Richard also spoke up, and backed up his story about the business being in decline when William died. Indignantly, he denied that they had allowed favours or indulgences to the customers; on the contrary, they had suffered great loss through their diligence in collecting the money. He had to admit, however, that “they have in some instances compromised and received compositions for such debts”.
To prove that they had not taken an undue number of William’s old customers, they made lists of who had been customers of William’s and who were now customers of theirs, laboriously listing about three hundred customers in all. There had been no need to buy the goodwill, they said; the goodwill became vested in Samuel Buxton by survivorship.
Now, for the first and only time in the Court of Chancery, someone cast aspersions on William’s sanity when he was making his will. John Butler’s son, Richard, told the court that William Habgood had not been in his right mind when he made his will. The court disregarded this statement; it sounded so much like spitefulness. No-one else ever referred to William’s insanity again.
The accusations became ever more vicious and the bitterness more intense. To the person making the accusations, it probably seemed at the time that they would be constructive, and would influence the court in their favour. In reality, however, this was not achieved. The result of the accusations was to slow the case down in court to the point where there was no end in sight. The original cause – to protect the children and safeguard their inheritance – had almost been lost sight of by all parties, as the level of accusations became ever more detailed, indeed almost trivial. Probably none of them really thought that the Master of the Court would consider every minor point that had been put to him; all the parties were simply lost in an ever-widening family quarrel, in which issues of increasing irrelevance were introduced. But though the issues were becoming comparatively trivial, it was still necessary for each party to defend himself against the accusations, and this often involved counter-attacks on the accuser. And as long as Milburn’s creditors were threatening him, he would scrape the barrel to produce more and more reasons why everyone else should hand over more money to Martha.
If the court had at any point made the decision that the case should be sorted out once and for all, come what may, all the varying arguments might have been of some use. However, hearings took place in front of the Chancellor or a Master of the Court without anything really being achieved. Progress was not just minimal; the end of the case actually seemed to become more remote as time went on.
The solicitors probably encouraged the increasing scope of the case and the lengthening time span, because this was obviously to their benefit. The solicitors, the clerks, all those whose livelihood was obtained from the administration of the law, were profiting greatly from the ever-increasing anger and frustration.
So it was that Martha made new accusations about missing sums of money. She told the court that Richard Fisher and the partners had “sold out £5000, part of the 3% annuities … and did not invest or replace it … (though they) replaced some at a much lower price than it sold for. The difference between selling and replacing was considerable, and the same was appropriated to the use of them”. Again she stressed to the court something she had already told them: when the partners arranged the sale of the house in Rood Lane, they did not publicise the sale sufficiently, and only gave a little notice of the sale, deliberately, “and therefore very few people except themselves attended and they at such sale purchased several articles and a great amount at very low and unfair prices”. And could they please tell her what was to be done with Thomas and Mary Ann?
In answer to Martha’s accusations of embezzlement, Fisher and the partners repeated that William’s estate wasn’t really worth very much; they didn’t know how much it was worth – perhaps £18000 or £20000; the goodwill wasn’t worth much; they had no idea how the company was run; they didn’t know what the debts were; they knew it had been failing for the last few years, and that was why William was giving up the business; he hadn’t really been very rich at all. And these were the very people who had made sworn statements two or three years before talking about “a very considerable personal estate and effects of great value”. And they had no idea what was to be done with the other two children; though Fisher said, of course Thomas was entitled to the real estate in Cricklade; he was the heir at law.
The repetition involved was enormous. Again and again, the history of the case was related to the court, and copied out meticulously by clerks, time after time. Occasionally new details would creep in, as the bitterness increased.
Poor James and Robert, back in Gloucestershire, accused no-one, but were accused by everyone: by Martha, who wanted them to hand over what money they had; by Richard Fisher, who also demanded the money of them; and by the courts, who obviously were dissatisfied with their previous incompetence, and who were requiring a reckoning of the money they had. It was a sad way for these old men to end their days.
James and Robert’s solicitor, Joseph Pitt, and others, had been working on the inventory for a very long time now. At last it was finished. It listed all William’s possessions and assets – the loans and mortgages he had granted, the annuities he had taken out, his gold, his silver, his cash – even the money that was found in his coat pocket after he died. It listed every item of furniture in the house in Rood Lane, and in the house in Stockwell. It listed every scrap of lace, ribbon, calico and linen, every piece of shelving in his two warehouses. It listed all the traders who had owed him money, and how much and what for; it showed the price of the bread that was given to the poor at his funeral, and the cost of inscribing his tomb. It showed the fees charged by the vicar who had visited him on his deathbed, and the surgeon’s fees, and the cost of medicine for William, and also for Mary Ann, because she had been ill at the same time as her father back in 1803.
It was a massive document. Thirty huge sheets of parchment, full of prices and valuations. Eventually it was presented to the court.