Chapter 8: Thomas

To return to the case of Habgood versus Habgood, in 1810. For seven whole years, since April 1803, the courts had been meeting, listening to accusations, defences and allegations; they had been making reports, taking affidavits, studying exhibits. They had listened to desperate pleadings and also to suggestions for urgent courses of action. Sometimes they had implemented these suggestions, fairly passively and without looking into the matter too closely. Never did any Master of the Court put his foot down and refuse to be manipulated by people like George Muskett; never did anyone come to a decision which demonstrated any particular disquiet about the welfare of the children. They had complacently and unscrupulously accepted their fat salaries, without actually making any purposeful decisions or doing anything useful at all. If they had bestirred themselves simply to appoint a guardian (in the modern sense of the word) for the children back in 1803, all of this trauma might have been avoided. With proper care and advice at that early stage, Martha might have avoided being entrapped by William Milburn; if properly supervised, Mary Ann could never have eloped with George Muskett and might still be alive. The girls could now have been looking forward to making excellent marriages to good men. Thomas could have had a secure and happy childhood. The money could have been safeguarded, and those heartbreaking family quarrels avoided. James could have passed his last years in the peace of the Gloucestershire countryside. The lives of all concerned could have been enhanced, if only the court had given some protection to the three children, who were, after all, its wards. For seven whole years the court had sat back and done nothing that any common person, – uncaring, lazy and indifferent – could not have done. But the years were passing, and soon the pointlessness of the court’s existence would be exposed: on 9 February 1812, Thomas would be 21. The three children whom the court had been called upon to protect were no longer children, and had never been protected. As an adult, Thomas could dispose of the money as he saw fit, take all necessary decisions, and generally have very little need for the Court of Chancery.

Perhaps this was what encouraged the court to get down to making one or two minor pronouncements, of the kind that it could – with a minimum of determination – have made back in 1803. Or perhaps the court acted because someone felt ashamed that so much money was disappearing in legal fees, and when the final share-out came, their sloth and inefficiency would stand revealed.

The former Master of the Court, Mr Stanley, had now died, and a Mr Stephen took over. On Wednesday 28 November 1810, all the parties were instructed to pay into the bank the money which they were holding due to William’s estate.

Mr Stephen studied the lists of expenses that all the parties had handed in. Robert had listed all the money that he and James had given to Martha over the years, every bill they had paid on behalf of Mary Ann and all the money they had sent her; and the same for Thomas. Then Mr Stephen studied the lists submitted by Martha and Milburn of expenses incurred for Mary Ann and Thomas. Of course, the sums of money which the Milburns claimed they had spent on Mary Ann could not be verified at all. They said that Mary Ann had paid them £5 a month for board and lodging while she had lived with them, and at the same time they had given her £5 a month for her own expenses. This sounds rather odd, as it means that every month she paid them exactly the sum that they paid her; also, it contradicts earlier statements which they made. Some of the items they listed for her extra expenses seemed definitely questionable, but the Master approved them all, and everyone was recompensed for their expenses with no arguments or queries.

Then Mr Stephen considered what should be done for Thomas.

Thomas was not in court that day. Mr Stephens decreed that he would have £200 a year until he was 21, which now was only eight months off. And who should be his guardian? This had been a matter of some urgency back in 1803 when Thomas was only 12, but at the age of 20, it was no longer so. Nevertheless, the Master listed his nearest relatives, and considered their potential as possible guardians: there was Thomas’s sister, Martha Milburn – she was totally unsuitable; and then there were his father’s brothers and sisters, that is, his uncles Robert and Edward Habgood, and his aunt Mary Butler. There were also the relatives from his mother’s side, William Cook of Bristol, baker; Thomas Cook of Latton, farmer, and Martha Cook of Latton, spinster. Someone suggested that Robert Habgood should be guardian, and Mr Stephen accepted this.

George Muskett’s claim that he was entitled to one third of the house and land in Wiltshire could not legally be allowed. The Milburns’ claim to one third of it had been accepted, however, so they owned one third of the house and land; therefore Thomas would get two thirds, and also two thirds of the rents which had accumulated on these.

Next, Mr Stephen did a little bit of arithmetic. How much money had the court collected so far from William’s estate? People had unwillingly been paying money into the Bank of England account for some years now; it was time to count it up, divide by three and hand it out. There was £8663 in 3% consolidated bonds, £16209 in 3% bonds and a further £9784 in 3% bonds. There should have been more, of course; James and Robert had collected in money which they had still not handed over, and as for Martha and her husband, no-one would ever really be sure how much they had managed to get their hands on. Mr Stephen remarked in his report that what James and Robert, and Martha and Milburn had, “cannot be ascertained with precision, their accounts not being taken”. All the legal costs of each party were accounted for, and the money refunded to them without question. Neither the Milburns, nor George Muskett, nor Richard Fisher had been one penny out of pocket by employing expensive solicitors; it was all deducted from the funds held by the court for the children. But as for the money which the court was holding in its special account with the Bank of England, Mr Stephens continued, if they divided by 3, each 1/3 amounted to £8664 13/6, and £2887 15/3in 3% annuities, plus of course, 1/3 of the balances held by the Milburns and by James’s executors, whatever they turned out to be. To pay everyone their share, the annuities would be sold and any other cash in the Bank of England account would be drawn out.

And that really was that; all sorted out, without really any great problem. It could have been done years ago.

So finally, between 1811 and 1813, the money was gradually handed over to each party. Martha’s share presumably went to William Milburn, and thence straight to the Bankruptcy Commission. Mary Ann’s share went to George Muskett. Thomas’s share went to his uncle Robert Habgood, to be held for him until February 1813, when he would be 21.

Thus the terrible court case ended. What had it achieved? In spite of being made wards of Chancery, the children had not been protected at all; Martha had married a bigamist and a bankrupt, Mary Ann had eloped with a villain and had perhaps been murdered. Huge sums of money had been wasted in legal fees and probably in bribes. The family had been torn apart by quarrels. The emotional stress must have been unbearable. It had taken up ten years of their lives, from April 1803 to June 1813. Not bad at all, by the standards of the Court of Chancery.

In May 1811, Thomas had finished his three-year training in Gloucestershire and had probably learnt a great deal about the new methods which were being introduced into agriculture at that time about how to look after the soil, fertilize it, rotate crops, and grow crops that were suited to the soil in any particular area. However, he must have felt that farming was not for him, because he moved back to London, and the following September he started upon a 22-month course in Veterinary Science.

This was a very new area of knowledge. There was only one veterinary college in England at this time, and that was the one in St Pancras Fields in Camden Town. It had opened in 1792, when it had a total of four students. Since then it had expanded, and in order to spread qualified vets as widely as possible over the country, applicants were chosen from many different counties. Students were required to have a good basic education, and those with some medical knowledge were preferred. However, during the short period that the college had existed, standards had deteriorated rapidly under the professorship of Edward Cole. Courses were becoming shorter, as that was a means of increasing the intake of students and thence profits from fees. Little progress was being made in knowledge about the treatment of sick animals, and some of the treatments prescribed were barbaric.

The course concentrated on the study of horses, because they were of such importance in wartime on the field of battle, and also because they were the chief means of transport in everyday life. Horses were expensive, but until the advent of veterinary science, they had been allowed to die in large numbers quite unnecessarily because people did not know how to care for them. The government of the day looked for economies in wartime and decided it would be cheaper if horses could be cured, rather than shot, when wounded. Students at the college had to learn how to operate on horses, and also to perform the practicalities like shoeing, and docking tails and ears. Most of the students kept their own horses in the stables attached to the college, and probably performed these minor operations on their own beasts. Apart from horses, there was some study of epizootic diseases of farm animals, and botany.

Thomas started his course in September 1811. For twenty-two months he lived in the college, as most of the students did. His final examination was a viva, and took place in the Freemasons’ Tavern on 16 July 1815. There he was questioned by a board of five, including Professor Coleman, the principal of the college. He answered satisfactorily and passed the exam.

Back in Cerney Wick in 1814, Robert was 64 years old. Perhaps some degree of tranquillity had returned to him now that the court case was finished, and the constant harassment had ended.

However, he had not been well for some time. Back in 1812, he had made his will. His second wife Hester was still alive, so he left almost everything to her for as long as she lived, but after her death it was to be passed on to those named by Robert in his will. Like his elder brother James, he and his wife had not had any children, so after making special bequests of his real estate and certain sums of money, the rest was to be divided into five parts and shared equally between the children of his five of his brothers and sisters. With great impartiality and forgiveness, the children of Martha and Thomas were included in this arrangement. For all the children who would one day inherit, the money was to be held in trust by his executors until the age of twenty one. In the case of Martha’s children (if she ever had any), this put the money out reach of William Milburn and his creditors.

Robert died on 8 March 1814.

Thomas was 22 years old when he finished his course at the veterinary college. The burden of the court case had been lifted from him, though no doubt it had left its mark on him. He returned to Cricklade, where he started to practise as a vet. He also married: a young woman called Anne. Over the next few years, at very short intervals, Anne gave birth to four children: Mary Ann, William, Martha and Thomas.

It was in 1819, when Ann was pregnant with their fifth child, that Thomas became ill. He wrote his will on 28 October 1819, and died early in November, at the age of 27. His short life, so full of suffering, was over. He was buried in the graveyard in Latton, in the same grave as his father and mother. Ann later had an inscription put on his grave:

Thomas Habgood, Son of William and Mary Habgood. He departed this Life Nov 2nd 1819, Aged 27, Leaving a Widow and Five Children to Lament his Early Dissolution.

Chapter 9: George Alfred Muskett

Habgood versus Habgood in Chancery Index page

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