For over a year I had been attempting to trace my father’s ancestors, the Habgoods, but with very little success. The earliest ancestor I could find was one Thomas Habgood, who had died in 1819. I knew he had been a vet in Cricklade in Wiltshire, where many Habgoods lived, but there was no trace at all of his marriage or birth. Doggedly I searched for and kept records of any Habgoods who had lived anywhere at anytime, and gradually found that I had the makings of a One Name Study. Having registered with the Guild of One Name Studies, I was in the habit of reading a few PCC wills every week in the Rolls Room in the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane. It was there that I happened to come across the will of a certain William Habgood who died in London in 1803, and was struck by the similarity of the names of his children, and those of my ancestor Thomas. My hopes started to rise that this William might be Thomas’s father. Another point of interest in the will was that it appeared to have been administered twice, the second time in 1805. I ordered a photocopy of the will, and said I would collect it later in the day.
At 3.30 that day, I decided to go home. I called in to the Reprographics Room to collect the photocopy, but was told that it was not ready, and that I should come back in half an hour. Too tired to do any more research, I wandered aimlessly into the Long Room and started lifting books from the shelves at random, just to fill in the remaining thirty minutes. On the whole, most of the books were fairly meaningless to me at that time; some were simply page after page of dates and reference numbers. At one end of the room were shelves full of books labelled by year, 1753, 1754, and so on. I took down the book labelled 1805, simply because the date of that will was fresh in my mind. The book was divided into 4 separate alphabetical sections. Turning to the first H section, I was dumbstruck to see a reference to what looked like a court case – Habgood versus Fisher; then another, Habgood versus Habgood. Turning to the next alphabetical section in the same book, once again, there was Habgood versus Habgood. In all, there were six Habgood entries in a single year …
Of course, I did not know who these particular Habgoods were, but I was eager to find out, to put it mildly. I hurriedly took the book to the assistant at the desk. Could I see the documents that this book referred to? You could, I was told, but we don’t give out documents after 3.30.
That feeling of frustration mingled with almost unbearable curiosity was to remain with me for several years, as I read through document after document, and discovered such vast numbers of records that they seemed unending and overwhelming. Soon it was confirmed that this was indeed Thomas’s family, that William Habgood was his father, and that he had two sisters, Martha and Mary Ann, and the court case was the result of William Habgood’s will – the one that had intrigued me. Of course, like all genealogical finds, the documents did not turn up in a convenient, chronological order: they appeared in the random order in which I happened to come across them. This had its problems. Entering the case at the point at which Martha was becoming very aggressive and accusing all and sundry of deceit and embezzlement, I accepted as true everything she said. It was only at a later date that it became clear that she and her husband were among the chief culprits when it came to deceit and embezzlement. I was shocked that, after such a painstaking struggle to understand the documents, I had misinterpreted events so completely due to a combination of inexperience and natural family loyalty.
From then on, I tried to be more perspicacious. In a sense, in trying to narrate the story of subsequent events, I have taken upon myself the role of Lord High Chancellor. I may not always have made a very good job of it, but at least I couldn’t have done worse than Lord Eldon, the chancellor of the day. It has been a hard task. I have tried meticulously to narrate the bare facts of what happened, inventing nothing, imagining nothing. Speculation is a different matter: I have constantly guessed at motives, feelings, reactions, but always indicated this clearly by phrases such as “he must have felt …”, “No doubt …”, “presumably …” and so on. However, it is inevitable that errors and assumptions will creep in. It is possible to find a fact in a document, and then record it incorrectly without being at all aware that this is happening. For instance, having found Mary Ann’s burial record in the parish registers of St Mary Magdalen’s church, I originally included the phrase, “Mary Ann was buried in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen’s”. This seemed quite logical at the time, but later turned out to be incorrect. There must be many more errors which have not yet come to light – but I hope that readers will be willing to bring them to my attention.
The biggest problem in trying to get at the facts was that so many people were intent on hiding the truth. It was only when I had almost completely finished my research that by sheer chance I discovered the coroner’s records on the death of William Habgood. From this is becomes clear that the will – the lynch pin of all that followed – was not even valid and should have been discarded. Naturally the family kept this a very dark secret from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and from the Court of Chancery, and I had not had the least suspicion that William’s death was anything other than peaceful and natural. It also took me a long time to realise that Martha’s first marriage was bigamous. I had originally thought that there were two people by the name of William Milburn, both living in London; which was exactly what William Milburn intended everyone to think! He covered his tracks so well that, in the absence of a prosecution for bigamy, it took a great deal of detective work for me to discover that the two William Milburns who headed two – or three – different households concurrently, were one and the same, and that therefore his marriage to Martha was bigamous.
It has also been difficult to cope with the many contradictions found in the documents. Sometimes these contradictions occurred because people felt threatened by the truth; for instance, Richard Fisher originally told the courts that William possessed “a very large personal estate and effects of great value”. Later, when it seemed that he himself was being accused of dishonesty, he contradicted this flatly, maintaining that little had been left of William’s wealth at the time of his death.. Also, Martha’s account of her spending on Mary Ann and Thomas could probably be described as creative accounting. Scepticism has been constantly necessary.
At other times the contradictions in the documents were simple mistakes. There was great confusion over the date of such a central event as William’s death. Was it the 10th, 11th, or the 17th of April 1803? Fisher declares that the court had been wrongly informed that it was the 11th; he says it was in fact the 17th. The coroner’s records, however, and the burial registers of Latton, show that he was wrong. Again, George Muskett’s death was recorded correctly by the London newspapers, but their account was rejected by the local newspapers in Hertfordshire. There are several other instances of errors of this kind, and I have pointed out discrepancies in the footnotes.
It has been very difficult to be impartial about the character of George Muskett. Even though I have indicated in the text what is speculation and what is recorded fact, it is quite possible that my suspicions about him are incorrect. Certainly Thomas would have said I was wrong about him. Mary Ann may well have died a natural death; there is evidence that the doctor had been called to treat her at least twice between 1803 and 1808, so perhaps she had always been physically weak. However, in view of the fact that she died at a moment which was extremely convenient and profitable for George, and in view of the terms of the settlement, in view of the speed with which he proved her will, in view of his later unscrupulousness in his treatment of his banking customers, and in view of the opinion of George’s character held by The Times, it is hard to imagine that his actions were innocent. I have several other dire suspicions about George’s activities which I have not expressed because they could never be proved. What a dangerous and dynamic character he was. I imagine that he had tremendous charisma and was extremely good-looking. How else could he have manipulated people as he did?
I have been quite unable to discover certain events and outcomes, and apologize for the incompleteness of the story. What did happen to Martha in the end? I would love to know, but cannot buy every death certificate in the record office relating to a Martha Porter; the name is much too common, and anyway, how would I know when I had found the right one? Martha’s life is only revealed as a reflection of the lives of men: her father, her two husbands, and George Muskett, and when the men disappear, so does she. Did Martha ever have any children? Was Milburn ever prosecuted for bigamy? What happened to Thomas Porter? Was George Muskett ever openly accused of murder? Was he appointed by the courts to be the guardian of Thomas’s children? Did he have access to their money? Where did Ann live in Cirencester? How did she die? What was her relationship with George Muskett? Someone, somewhere, can fill in these gaps, or will be able to do so at a later date. I will be very grateful if they will pass on their knowledge to me. I wait with great curiosity to hear the final episode.
I must point out that this book is not a novel. It does not have the structure of a novel, nor the continuity. It starts with several pages of necessary background information, which in a novel would be seen as a slow, unsatisfactory beginning. I did in fact consider making William Habgood’s death the first chapter, in order to grab the reader’s attention, but decided that this would be to cheapen the sufferings of a real person. I hope that the book may rather be viewed simply as a piece of research.
I must however admit that many more years might usefully be spent on research. There are still so many unchecked sources, from (for instance) records of the mines of Cornwall and the manorial records of Rickmansworth, to the quarter sessions records for St Albans and Liberal Party records, that I suspect I could spend the rest of my life on research. The quantity of material I have already unearthed has been daunting. For instance, as regards court records alone, I have either found, or found evidence of the existence of, the following: four cases in Chancery (Habgood versus Clarke, Habgood versus Habgood, Hill versus Muskett, Woodman versus Smith); two bankruptcies (Milburn 1805 and 1811), of which one is fully documented with the files of the Bankruptcy Commission; two coroner’s court records, of which only one still exists; three cases in the Court of Common Pleas (Beavan against Muskett, Walker against Milburn, and Muskett versus Hill), of which I found the first only; and two further cases in an unidentified court resulting from the case of Woodman versus Smith. There must also have been a series of prosecutions for debt and bankruptcy of investors following the death of George Muskett, and the bankruptcy of the younger William Habgood in 1846 was probably also connected to the failure of George’s bank. Apart from court cases, there was a multiplicity of records of many other kinds, which I have listed in an appendix.
The sheer physical size of the documents was also daunting. For instance, the most important documents of all, the bills of complaint (C13), are handed to the researcher in the Public Record Office in great rolls, like rolls of carpet. The individual sheets of parchment in the rolls are about 3′ x 2′ – massive things; how did the clerks ever manage to write on such enormous sheets? The inventory of William’s goods (C13 2746) took up 30 of these huge sheets in closely written lines and columns, while one of the Master’s Reports on the Muskett case (C38 2127) took up 140 sides of foolscap. William Milburn’s bankruptcy has an entire volume to itself (B3 3231). Everywhere I looked, there were records; in his parish, William Habgood was overseer of the poor, constable, questman; in his guild, he was Master. Lengthily inscribed gravestones and memorials had survived; houses – including the mansion in Rickmansworth – still existed. With this quantity of research to do, there is no way that any one individual could gather up all the most relevant information, reject the least relevant, interpret thoughtfully, and write up carefully, without taking many more years over it than I am able to give. By the time I discovered the mansion in Rickmansworth, I had done a two year course in genealogy run by Birkbeck College, passed the exams, and become a lecturer in genealogy for the local authority, and then for Birkbeck. Genealogy had taken over my life completely.
Normally genealogists expect to unearth records with some degree of difficulty, but in this research I found that documents avalanched down on me. There were several occasions when, being unaware that certain records existed and so not even looking for them, the records themselves seemed to jump out at me, to my great astonishment.
Much has been omitted from this story, for a variety of reasons. I have related the cases of Habgood versus Clarke and Habgood versus Habgood as thoroughly as possible while trying to sustain a readable narrative. Keeping it readable has meant omitting a mountain of detail. For the case of Woodman versus Smith, I have related only the events which took place up to the time of George Muskett’s death. I know that the latter case spawned two further court cases, which I have not attempted to investigate at all; and, as mentioned above, there must be at least two more court cases involving William Milburn – one in the court of Common Pleas in 1808 and one in the Bankruptcy Courts in 1805 – which I have simply not been able to find.
There are also two deliberate omissions. These I decided upon after some thought. One person involved in these events made a pathetic attempt to hide something, and had my full sympathy. I felt it would be mean to reveal it.
What are we to make of the goings-on described in this book? How are we to interpret them? It is hard to imagine such a sequence of events taking place in the twentieth century, from William Habgood’s suicide (his illness could probably have been easily cured with modern medicine), to bigamy, elopement, and the scandal of a private individual setting up a bank and then going bankrupt. Such events were not uncommon in those days. Society was less organised, less regulated then than it is now. Deception was easier because communications were so limited. Ignorance too played its part: in an era before forensic medicine, the coroner would not always be able to detect murder by poison – especially by a chemist. Children were not as well protected; and women had few legal rights where money and personal freedom were concerned. In an age when it was perfectly legal for a man to batter his wife, women were necessarily regarded as objects, chattels, a means to an end. It would be easy to interpret this story as an example of cruel and unscrupulous men exploiting naive young women, and that would certainly be a very valid interpretation as far as it goes; but while roundly condemning those men, it is also necessary to attempt to understand the terrible pressure that men were under to obtain money to support their families. Money had a supreme importance in those days, an importance which we can hardly imagine today: money meant survival. In those days there was of course no unemployment benefit, no old age pension, no NHS, no state support for the poor or the sick. The only safety net against death by starvation was the workhouse or the handouts from the overseer of the poor. These would be enough to keep body and soul together, but probably in a state of severe malnutrition. In those circumstances, a man’s responsibility to provide for his wife and children must have been crushing. Once debts started to mount, the situation would have become desperate, and any solution, however criminal, would be grasped at. The very survival of a family might depend on the father’s ability to acquire money, by whatever means. Failure meant shame, punishment, hunger, perhaps death; success meant survival, comfort, public respect.
Perhaps one should not attempt to interpret these events. It was a different age, and this narrative simply demonstrates the desperate measures needed for survival for those who lived in the first half of the 19th century.