Chapter 7: William Milburn

Back in their luxurious home in Tottenham, Milburn and his first wife Henrietta must have been in despair as they sank ever deeper into a mire of debt. The creditors were demanding urgent payment. Among them was Andrew Nash, a glass manufacturer, who was owed £2713; William Gould, another glass manufacturer, who was owed £1525; William Alder, who was owed £3079; Buck, Chamber & Hobbs, who were owed £2000; there were a lot of unpaid insurance bills; there were traders of all kinds – confectioners, perfumiers, jewellers; there were builders and carpenters and plumbers who had done work for him on the house in Tottenham and who had never been paid. There was Catherine Warren, the owner of the school that the Milburn’s two daughters, Henrietta and Elizabeth, had been sent to: he owed her £123. Even his own servants were his creditors: he hadn’t been able to pay their wages. Some of the creditors were themselves about to go bankrupt because of the money that Milburn owed them. Yet it was not all Milburn’s fault; the traders that he dealt with in India owed him huge sums of money, and would not pay up.

It must have been a very frightening experience for Henrietta to encounter angry creditors; but even more frightening to consider what might happen to her family in the future. What would become of them?

Milburn too was frightened. He used to go to his office in Old City Chambers in Bishopsgate Street, worried that yet another burly creditor would arrive to demand and threaten. He told the porter that if anyone asked for him, he should say he was not in.

Several of the creditors started legal actions against him. He was put into King’s Bench prison.

On 10 November 1810, Andrew Nash, the creditor that Milburn was most in debt to, applied for a commission of bankruptcy to be awarded against him.

A bankruptcy commission was appointed to deal with his debts. It consisted of a group of the most important creditors, including Andrew Nash. The procedure for dealing with cases of bankruptcy was very clearly established, and they knew exactly what to do. So, on 7 November 1810, the members of the commission made their way to Milburn’s offices in Old City Chambers to start their investigations. Of course Milburn was not there, but the porter was. When the porter realised who these people were, he started to tell them all the gossip about Milburn, and how he had hidden in his office and told him to say he wasn’t in. The porter was probably surprised at how seriously they took this piece of information: hiding from creditors was known as “keeping house” in legal terminology, and was in itself an act of bankruptcy. They had the vital piece of information and could now proceed. They entered Milburn’s office, and searched through all his papers for dockets struck and paid. Then, taking the porter with them, they adjourned to Alice’s Coffee House in Westminster, where they spent the whole day listening to what the porter and others had to say about Milburn.

Next, it was necessary to call a meeting of the creditors to decide whether a certificate of conformity should be granted to Milburn. If it were granted, Milburn would no longer be officially liable for his debts. However, in spite of this, it was common for people with certificates of conformity to be pursued for years, and every penny they acquired would be taken from them to pay their creditors. So the commissioners went to the offices of the London Gazette, the Times, the Morning Chronicle and the Courier, and arranged for notices about the meeting to be publicised. Now Milburn’s bankruptcy was public knowledge.

Milburn was now having his third spell in gaol. When the commissioners wanted to question him, they had to go to King’s Bench prison to interview him.

The day came when Milburn was due to appear before the commission. On 24 November 1810, he was brought from prison to the Guildhall, and there, at 12.00 noon, he was questioned in front of his assembled creditors about his finances and his business deals. Then back to prison.

It was difficult for the commission to function without Milburn being present. They needed him there to give information and explanations. So on 27 November, Andrew Nash said that it would be “material for the benefit of the estate” if Milburn were released from prison. As a result, some of the commissioners went to see the solicitors of Mr Hardy (the person who had had Milburn put in prison) to ask them to withdraw their case and allow him to be released. They agreed. Though Milburn must have been relieved to get out of prison, his reunion with Martha and/or Henrietta could not have been very joyful.

On 4 December, the commission met again and decided to start collecting in all Milburn’s assets and selling what could be sold. They said that every time £100 was collected, it would be paid into the Bank of England, into an account held for that purpose. His assets were listed, and valued at £47,000. The creditors came before them one by one, and the commissioners took brief details: names and addresses, what they were owed, and how the debt was incurred, at what date. A form was filled in for each creditor. Form after form was completed, for poor common workmen, for rich city bankers.

Christmas that year could not have been very happy for the Milburns. On 26 December, Milburn had to appear again in the Guildhall at ten o’clock in the morning for more questioning. He asked to be allowed more time to collect all his documents before the examination. He was given till the 8 January; this would be the final appearance; a day to dread.

The creditors also had their own meeting with their legal advisers in Bream’s Buildings in Chancery Lane, to discuss whether Milburn should be allowed to pay his servants and pay money he owed to traders in India and China. Milburn was owed a lot of money from abroad, and one of the creditors was appointed to go and see whether he could sort it out and retrieve the money. It was decided that the beautiful house in Tottenham was to be sold as soon as possible, and Henrietta and the children turned out.

On 8 January 1811, Milburn was examined in the Guildhall. He handed over his books for examination, and his seals. They saw that he was wearing a gold watch, and told him to take it off and give it to them. Then they made him turn out his pockets, and hand over his last coins: £2. 12/-. Finally, he signed the papers with a very nervous, trembling hand. All that he was allowed to keep were the clothes he stood up in. Henrietta and the children were allowed to keep their “necessary wearing apparel”. Everything else was gone, including everything he had been able to get from Martha.

Now that Milburn had nothing, absolutely nothing left, the creditors agreed that a certificate of discharge could be arranged. A notice would be put in the Gazette to this effect. Accordingly, on 5 February 1811, his certificate of conformity was granted. Each stage of his bankruptcy had been diligently reported in the London Gazette.

Plans had been made by the creditors to sell the beautiful house in Tottenham. It was to be auctioned on March 12 at 12 o’clock. Advertisements were printed, and nailed up in various places. “Leasehold Residence, extensive garden, carriage yard, carriage sweep in front; shrubberies, iron pallisadoes and folding gates. …. spacious drawing room with circular windows … a breakfast room, tastefully papered, with clouded ceiling, marble hearth and jaumbs … arched wine cellar… stabling for three horses … an excellent and extensive productive garden, well stocked and walled around …”

So Milburn, Henrietta and their children had to get out of the house, leaving all the contents behind, and the house was duly sold. Where did they go? One may reasonably assume that they would not have ended up in the workhouse; relatives would have surely given them a roof over their heads rather than allowing that to happen. Had William Milburn managed to keep some money hidden, that the Commission did not know about? He certainly would have tried.

The Commission kept accounts, and whenever £100 was accumulated from repaid debts or the sale of Milburn’s property, they shared it out among the creditors. Repayments went on at regular intervals every few years.

What did Martha know of all this? During these events it must have been almost impossible for her not to discover what had been going on for the past few years. She had been through so much misery since her father died in 1803, that the eventual discovery of Milburn’s bigamy must have been the last straw. For the next few years it is not known what happened to Martha. As for Milburn, he certainly went back into business, undeterred by past events. So confident was he of his abilities in commerce that he decided to pass on his skills to others and wrote a book on trade, Oriental Commerce. Perhaps he had worked on it to fill the time when he was in gaol. The book described the various countries of the east from the point of view of trade, and displays a remarkable degree of knowledge. For each country and island, facts of commercial significance are given; so, for the coast of Coromandel, Milburn listed the local produce as cherry brandy, beetlenut, teas, redwood, drugs, nankeens, treasure, opium, ginger, raw silk, cow tails, pearls, diamonds and beads. It was a learned book, as well as a practical one, and to gather all the information Milburn had performed lengthy research on the records of the East India Company.

Some time later, a strange sequence of events took place. In 1818, seven years after the bankruptcy, Milburn was in the process of attempting to retrieve the money owed to him by some Indian tradesmen. It was 3 October, and he was actually on board the ship Rebecca, about to set sail for India. Several members of the Bankruptcy Commission went on board to discuss matters with him, and it was decided that it should be arranged for him to be granted power of attorney to go to India and try to get payment of the money that was owed him. He did not sail immediately; on 13 October, members of the Commission visited him in Pentonville (the town, not the prison) to discuss arrangements for his journey, and delivered to him the power of attorney. One would imagine that he would set off for India very soon after this, though the date of his departure is not recorded.

Within the next two or three days, Martha and a man called Thomas Porter visited the vicar of the church of St Bride’s in Fleet Street, to arrange for banns of marriage to be announced. Martha said that she was a widow. Accordingly, the banns were read out the very next Sunday and they were married one month later. Martha was now 32 years old.

Presumably Martha had by now discovered that her marriage had been bigamous; perhaps she had always known. Yet if she knew that the marriage was bigamous, why did she wait until the day Milburn had left England to start her wedding arrangements? Perhaps Milburn still had some power over her; perhaps he was threatening her with violence if she denounced him. Perhaps she still did not realise that he was already married, and thought she was the one who was marrying bigamously. She must have hated Milburn deeply for all the harm that he had done her and her family. It was Milburn’s presence that had caused the court case of Habgood versus Habgood to be initiated in the first place, and it was his debts which had caused her to lose every penny of her inheritance.

Her brother Thomas – by then grown up and working in Cricklade – travelled up from Wiltshire to be present as a witness at her wedding to Thomas Porter.

In 1820, William Milburn died in Liverpool. His will revealed that he had also been married to a woman called Isabella, and had several children by her. He had been married to her for a long time – probably early in the 1800s, before he met Martha. How many other wives did he have, scattered around the country?

Chapter 8: Thomas

Habgood versus Habgood in Chancery Index page

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