Chapter 9: George Alfred Muskett
All these years, from the time of the court case until his death, Thomas had remained in contact with George Muskett. Did he have no suspicions about George? Did George manipulate him, the way he had already manipulated Mary Ann years before, the way he had manipulated the solicitors, his partners and colleagues, to say nothing of the Court of Chancery? Whatever the case, Thomas saw quite a lot of George Muskett in the intervening years, and put a great deal of trust in him.
George himself had remarried back in 1811, before the court case had finished. He married Sarah Cook, of Upper Slaughter in Gloucestershire, a cousin of Mary Ann on her mother’s side. When in March 1815 Sarah had given birth to a their first child, a baby girl, George had christened it Mary Ann Habgood Muskett. When Thomas heard this, perhaps it had touched his heart; he probably took it to mean that George was still grieving for his lost love. It probably did not touch Sarah Muskett’s heart, to name her first baby after his dead bride, but it was a good piece of public relations on George’s part, and perhaps helped to dispel lingering suspicions that people had about him.
A few years later a second daughter, Selina, was born.
George was busy impressing everyone with how decent and respectable he was. In his local church, St Mary Magdalen, in Bermondsey, apart from the eye-catching memorial saying what a devoted husband he had been to Mary Ann, his name was also recorded, with the names of some others, in gold letters, as being a benefactor of the local charity school.
When Thomas was dying, he had made a will leaving everything to his wife and children. There had in fact been quite a lot to leave. In spite of having lost so much money in the courts during the years of the case, Thomas had still been left with enough to lead a very comfortable life. He had land, houses and capital. He had his earnings as a vet. He was certainly not poor.
In his will he had named three executors, and one of them, amazingly, was George Muskett.
George Muskett and the other two executors were now in control of the finances of Thomas’s family. Which one of the three executors took on the responsibility of administering the money? Later, very clear indications emerge that it was probably George Muskett. Thus, as well as inheriting Mary Ann’s third of the Habgood fortune, he now had his hands on Thomas’s third. Ann and her five tiny children, – all under 6 in 1820 – must have seen quite a lot of George, and been quite dependent on him. Sometimes he came to Wiltshire and stayed in Liddiard Hall in Wooton Bassett. He probably came to see Ann about money matters, and no doubt his wife Sarah would want to visit her family in Gloucestershire. And he had other reasons for visiting; he was branching out, and now had important business interests in the west country. He was making a lot of investments with the money that he had inherited from Mary Ann.
* * * * *
Ann left Cricklade, and moved to Cirencester. Now her years of sorrow started. In 1823, her daughter Mary Ann, who was 9 years old, and her son Thomas, who was 4, both died. Their bodies were brought back to Latton, and were buried in the graveyard near their father.
In the last twelve years, Ann had seen her husband die, and also two of her five children. She had probably been ostracised socially; perhaps this was the reason why she had left Cricklade. On 28 March 1832, she herself died at the age of 42. Four months later her other daughter, Martha, died, aged 14. They were of course all buried in Latton.
Who would take care of the two remaining children, William and John?
Who else but the man who, as one of their father’s executors, quite possibly was in possession of every penny of their money: George Muskett. William and John went to live with their uncle George.
With the passing years, George was becoming a very rich man. He still had the factory in Snowsfields, but as well as that, he had become a landlord. He bought property; he let property; he sold it on at a profit. When he himself was considering buying property, he adopted a “take it or leave it” approach. He took on the lease of a house in Leicester Square. He had five cottages in College Place, Dagnall Lane, St Albans. He owned the Hartshorn Inn in South Mimms, and a valuable plot of building land in Worthing. He bought the right of fishery in part of the Grand Junction Canal and the river Colne. He bought a wharf and premises at Batchworth in Rickmansworth. He bought 22 Poland Street in Oxford Street. He had a piece of land in Brickwall Close in St Peter’s, Canterbury, and premises there. He had a piece of land situated between Green Street and Doddington Grove in Newington, and two houses in St Mary’s Newington, and four in Henry Street in Upper Kennington, four houses in Great George Street, and Grange Cottage in Fendall Street in Bermondsey; an estate in Peckham, an estate in Kent Road, Camberwell, and more in Bishopsgate, Kingsland and Brighton; and a pair of houses at Bushey Heath. He bought Finsbury Place, east side, which was part of the Manor of Finsbury, and a house in Store Street. Some of these were on long leases, and some were freehold.
He was certainly enjoying spending Mary Ann’s money – and perhaps Thomas’s too.
He expanded into mining. He bought three tin mines, Wheal Martha and Wheal Edward in Stoke Climsland in Cornwall, and Wheal Friendship in Lamerton in Devon. He probably felt that with his financial power, and his knowledge of chemistry, this was a good investment. He also bought a quarry in Carnarvonshire, called Braich Rhyd, on Kilgwin Mountain in Landwrog and Llanllyfin. He bought shares in the Penoles goldmine, and in the Monmouth Iron and Coal Company.
He entered the world of finance and granted mortgages. He became the chairman of the Family Endowment & Life Assurance and Annuity Society in Blackfriars. In 1834 George started his own bank in St Albans, the Bank of St Albans, at the top of Holywell Hill. He issued promissory notes, which were very similar to bank notes, and were interchangeable like modern notes. By 1839 he was one of the directors of the Surrey, Kent & Sussex Banking Company, and for a while there was a possibility that he might merge the Bank of St Albans with them. By 1840 he was a director of the Commercial Bank of London. He invested in Spanish passive bonds, Mexican Bonds, and Mexican deferred bonds. George was wealthy and powerful. People came to him for loans, or to rent his property, or fearfully to admit that they could not pay the rent; they treated him with deference, and his confidence grew accordingly.
The more powerful he became, the smaller his handwriting became. The man who had signed the marriage register in 1808 with such a huge flourish to his signature that it partly obliterated the record below, now wrote in tiny, spidery writing, and often only signed his initials.
The years passed. He moved house, away from Bermondsey, away from the factory, to the pleasant and genteel area of Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire. There he bought a very beautiful seventeenth century mansion house, The Bury, in Bury Lane. This was part of a large estate which included several cottages, twenty six acres of land, and a wharf in Rickmansworth Park. He also owned an island in the River Colne at Rickmansworth. It was in this house that William and John Habgood, the orphaned children of Thomas and Ann, spent their early years.
He became a Justice of the Peace. When wrongdoers came before him in the courts of law, before he threw them into gaol, he gave them a long talk to make them understand why what they had done was morally wrong. He liked to educate his criminals, and he gained a lot of respect for this. It was said of him that “Acting upon the well known opinion that the people ought to be more fully instructed than they are at present, as to the laws which are laid down for their obedience, he never came into the justice-room without a disposition to regard an offence against the law as a matter not to be passed over without serious comment. He, accordingly, brought himself into more conversable communication with the offender, than was usually the case, and he was wont, when it was suitable, to explain to the person in fault how he had been wrong, and how he might become a better man. Uniting mercy with justice, clearly expounding the facts of each case, and in his own deportment being wholly untainted by pride, he seldom failed to make an impression upon those he addressed”.
He might have made less of an impression if those he addressed had known that he himself had done a spell in Fleet prison, or that his first wife had died in very suspicious circumstances; or that his own present business transactions were of such a nature that their own petty thefts were as nothing by comparison.
Settled as a wealthy and thoroughly respectable member of the gentry, he decided to go into politics. This was the era of parliamentary reform. At this time the majority of the population did not have the right to vote, and many of the new towns which had sprung up in the industrial revolution did not even have an MP. The Liberal party, under its leader Earl Grey, attempted to bring in reforms so as to provide MPs for all areas, and give everyone the right to vote. After many difficulties in getting a bill through the House of Commons, the Reform Bill eventually became law in 1832. This gave the vote, not to the whole population by any means, but to the upper middle class, and to industrialists, people like George Muskett’s banking customers. In 1837 George decided to stand as the liberal candidate for St Albans.
Along with all the other candidates, he wrote a short speech to be printed in the local paper. He obviously put a lot of thought into the speech, but was so careful not to antagonise any section of the public that it is hard to make out what on earth he did, or did not, believe in:
To the Independent Electors of the Borough of St Alban. I beg leave most respectfully to announce myself a Candidate for the high honour of becoming one of your Representatives in the next Parliament. I found my pretensions on an identity of feeling with a large portion of your body, and a community of interests with you all. Born and educated in the Protestant Faith, my duty and my feeling induce me to give to the Established Church every legitimate support; but as a decided Friend to religious toleration, I wish those who differ from me to have the same liberty of conscience I prize so highly for myself. Equally removed from either extreme of Toryism or Radicalism, I object to all crude and speculative change, and advocate a course of inductive legislation, based on the deliberate opinions of the sound and enlightened, and supported by the feelings and convictions of the People. If these sentiments accord with yours, I shall be proud to receive at your hands the important Trust I solicit. I have the honour to be Your faithful Friend and humble Servant, George Alfred Muskett. St Albans, July 8th, 1837.
The nominations for the candidates took place in June at the market cross in St Albans. Early in the morning on the day of the nominations, the town was full of excitement, with bands and processions parading through the streets. By 11.30 a crowd of George’s supporters had gathered at Holywell Bridge to meet him as he arrived from Rickmansworth. When he arrived, they formed a procession and walked up Holywell Hill – past George’s bank – following a brass band which had been brought in specially for the occasion from Watford. Each candidate was to make a speech to the crowd asking for their support and their vote. The Mayor asked the crowd to give each of them a fair hearing; as well he might; the rabble regarded party political speeches as entertainment in those pre-television days, and if a speech was boring they might well end up throwing eggs or tomatoes, or worse.
George stated his policies: he was for voting by ballot – something never tried at that date in England; he was for household suffrage, and for more education by Normal Schools. He voiced some criticism of the Board of Guardians and of the Earl of Verulam and his relatives who held seats on the board but hardly ever attended. It must be said that all his policies were fair and egalitarian. How sincere he was one cannot tell.
The elections were duly held, and George was voted in as an MP. All the other candidates put notices of thanks to their supporters in the newspaper, but George did not acknowledge his gratitude at all.
He did not take a very active role in Parliament. He either never spoke at all, or at least made no speech regarded as particularly significant. It looks as if he became an MP for the glory rather than to help to effect real reforms. At the next election in 1841, he was defeated and lost his seat.
In 1841, the first modern type of census was taken. There had been several censuses before this date, but they were only a collection of statistics and facts, and did not give the names of all the people who lived at specific addresses. The census enumerator came round to George’s mansion in Rickmansworth, and George gave him details about each person who lived in the house. He gave his own name, age and occupation: 55 years old; banker. Then there was his wife Sarah, and his daughter Selina, now 28 and still unmarried. The eldest daughter, Mary Ann Habgood Muskett, was not there; she had married a Henry Woodman, and left home. Amazingly, there was Martha, now age 55, living in George Muskett’s house. Her husband, Thomas Porter, whom she had married as soon as William Milburn died, was presumably also dead by now; or perhaps their marriage had broken up. She was probably living in the house as a poor relation, yet was not penniless; she was now “of independent means”. So after a lifetime of trauma (the death of her parents, the court case, the bigamous marriage, the bankruptcy, the death of her second husband) she was living in the greatest possible luxury once again. The two surviving children of Thomas and Ann Habgood, whom George had taken in when their parents died, were now grown up; John was 21, and was still living in George’s house; the older child, William, was not there; he had married the daughter of a wealthy landlord and machine maker from Gloucester and had moved up to Manchester, where he had gone into partnership in a textiles company which made underclothes, lace, umbrellas and so on. John and William were both now over 21, and had inherited their father’s money, their mother’s money, and the money left to them by Robert in his will. What did they do with all that money? Did George advise them that it would be safe in his bank? A bank owned by one’s guardian would seem to be a natural place to keep one’s money. Then there was a Thomas Smith, a young man of 24; apparently no relative, but a capable young man whom George trusted. Then there was a manservant – probably the butler; and three women servants.
However, everything in the garden was definitely not rosy. Things had started to go wrong for George in the last two or three years. Colossal financial worries beset him, but what had caused them is not clear. There was a great deal of gossip circulating about his money problems. He took out huge loans; there was a “bond or obligation” taken out in 1839, where, if he didn’t pay the interest on time he would have to pay a penalty of £5000. All this was probably connected with problems with the mines he had bought. It is not completely clear what had happened, but in 1839 George had started an action related to a mine called Wheal Concord in the Court of Common Pleas against a Mr Hill. George had won the case, and there had followed great celebrations in Cornwall. The miners employed by George gathered at Wheal Friendship and marched in procession towards Tavistock. They were accompanied by a band, and they carried flags; as they arrived at Tavistock, the local people came out to watch them marching past. The miners cheered and shouted “Muskett for ever!” and the local people joined in the cry. Then they marched on to Callington, where there was more cheering and shouting, and the miners all went to the New Inn for a good dinner. After the meal there was a toast to the Queen, then to the Queen Dowager and the rest of the royal family, and then the toast was, “Mr Muskett, a long life to him, and a happy one – may he live to reap the fruits of his perseverance.” There was more cheering, followed by a speech reminding everyone how much good George had done to the local community, and how he provided employment for many people. There were many more toasts to be drunk before eleven o’clock, when the celebrations came to an end, and the happy miners staggered home.
However, the celebrations were premature. Mr Hill, who had lost the case in the Court of Common Pleas, appealed to the Court of Chancery and the previous judgement was overturned. The mining company was now in financial trouble.
His bank in St Albans was in deep trouble, too; it had a huge overdraft with the London & Westminster Bank. George was sternly told to reduce the overdraft, but instead he transferred all his dealings to the Commercial Bank of London. As he was already a director of this bank, it was for a while easier to overdraw, and he also took out a loan from the Commercial Bank of London for £9,000. For this the Commercial Bank required sureties to cover the loan, so he gave them the title deeds of various places that he owned, such as the Hartshorn Inn in South Mimms. By 1841 he was insolvent. He was still running the bank, and various authorities knew that he was as good as bankrupt; but his customers presumably didn’t, and that was the important thing as far as George was concerned. By the unscrupulous use of bank post bills, which he exchanged for cash, he was able to hang on from day to day by the skin of his teeth.
In 1841, when he was 55 years old, he wrote his will. He said that he wanted to be buried in St Mary Magdalen’s in Bermondsey, where his first wife, Mary Ann, was buried. He didn’t make any individual bequests. All was to go to his wife Sarah, and she could distribute it as she saw fit. The executors were to be Sarah, Thomas Smith, and also John Cook, who was one of Sarah’s relatives who lived in Down Ampney.
Perhaps he felt it was not worthwhile leaving sums of money to various people, because there was nothing left of all his wealth; or at least, there wouldn’t be once his debts were paid. Nor would there be much left of all the money that other people had confidently put into his bank; once they tried to cash in all the promissory notes that he had issued, there would not be enough money to pay them all. If he were to go bankrupt now, how could he live with it? How could he endure the shame of seeing all his possessions taken away; how could he bear to go to prison – he who had sent so many others off to prison, accompanied by pious lectures? How could he ever start again, at his age? The horror of his situation must have appalled him. He must have searched desperately for a solution to his money problems.
Worse was to come. On 13 December 1842, George opened The Times newspaper, only to read there a report apparently about himself. The report claimed that George had been arrested for ‘keeping a bad house’ or brothel. Apparently two young prostitutes had caused a disturbance outside a certain house in Regent Street; neighbours had complained to the police, and the women were taken into custody. The Times reporter stated in the news report that George Muskett was the owner of the house. George was furious; he maintained that he was not the owner of the brothel and had not been arrested. He started a legal action against The Times, and in January the case came to court. The representatives of The Times withdrew their accusation; it transpired that it was a Mr Charles Muskett, not George Muskett, who was the owner of the brothel. The outcome was reported in the newspaper, but George was still angry; he wanted a formal apology to be printed. The editor of The Times refused. The whole episode must have been extremely embarrassing for George, and distressing for his wife and family.
With all his money problems getting worse daily, life must have been almost too stressful to bear.
On 31 January 1843, George was at the house of his brother Thomas, in Brixton. They had dinner, and George seemed to be in good spirits. The next morning, the others got up, but George did not appear. When Thomas went into his room to waken him, it was found that he was dead, and indeed he had been dead for some time.
Immediately, his brother left for St Albans, and closed the bank, so that no-one could withdraw their money. The local paper, the County Press, reported that “the town and neighbourhood of St Albans were thrown into the utmost state of confusion … The melancholy tidings had scarcely reached the bank, ere the town had become possessed of the circumstance, and rumours were rife in regard to his lamentable and sudden demise”. The rumours probably concerned suicide and bankruptcy.Chapter 10: William, Maria and John
The coroner was called in and there was an inquest into his death. No account of the inquest was ever published, although the local paper had wanted to report the findings. The coroner signed the death certificate, giving the cause of death as heart disease. Had George committed suicide? At an earlier stage in his life, a certain death had solved all his money problems; perhaps he felt that death was the ultimate solution where money was concerned. And of course he probably still had access to all those dangerous chemicals, which a coroner with only nineteenth century standards of forensic medicine probably could not have detected. On the other hand, the stress caused by his money problems might genuinely have brought on a heart attack. Whatever the truth of the matter, by dying at that time, he escaped bankruptcy, prison, and terrible humiliation. He had always had the knack of timing things well.
As he had requested in his will, his body was taken to Bermondsey and buried near that of Mary Anne. Beneath the marble memorial that George had had put up all those years ago in memory of Mary Ann, another was now put up:
Erected to the Memory of the above named George Alfred Muskett Esquire Of the Bury Rickmansworth
For seven years Representative in Parliament Of St Albans Herts Who died on the 31st day of January 1843 Aged 57 years
A Life Beloved and Respected and in Death Lamented.
He was certainly lamented by his banking customers. People who had deposited money in his bank could not draw it out. Rumours circulated that they would never be paid. People who had bank notes that he had issued started to sell them for much less than their face value to anyone who would accept them. Other banks refused them. Savings and investments were wiped out overnight, and people were ruined. The bank went into receivership.
The local paper reported: “The Late Mr Muskett’s Bank: It now appears that the affairs of this Bank are not likely soon to be arranged, as was so much wished for, and generally expected… the fact has very naturally caused much chagrin and inconvenience to those who have had any dealings with the firm, and many in consequence have been induced to part with the notes they possessed at a serious sacrifice, in order to meet the demands made upon them”.
One of the creditors that George Muskett had owed money to was his own son-in-law, Henry Woodman. (Henry Woodman was the husband of Mary Ann Habgood Muskett.) George had issued him a promissory note for £75, and of course it was now worthless. Henry Woodman went to see the executors of George’s will, Thomas Smith and John Cook, and asked them to refund his £75, but they said they couldn’t; there wasn’t enough money left to start paying out all the banking customers. They maintained that although George still had a lot of assets left when he died, mainly in the form of houses and other property, some of this was tied up as security by the Commercial Bank of London for the £9000 loan it had granted to George. It looked as if the executors had no intention of paying up.
Henry Woodman and some of the other creditors met together to discuss the problem of recouping the money they had lost. Henry Woodman was adamant that the right procedure was that all George’s assets should be seized, listed in an inventory and then sold by public auction to pay off the debts. This would include the bank, the land, the houses, the mines, the quarry, the bonds, the mortgages, and all his personal possessions. His mansion in Rickmansworth, where Sarah, Martha and the others were still living, should certainly be sold. Sarah and Martha would just have to get out. The executors, Smith and Cook, should be forced, claimed Henry Woodman, to compensate him and all the others whose money George Muskett had lost.
To this end, Henry Woodman and the other creditors started a court case, Woodman versus Smith, in the Court of Chancery.