So far, it had been Martha who had been at the forefront of the power struggle and had taken the brunt of the quarrels through her relationship with Milburn. It was she who had probably suffered the most; it was she, of the three children, who had had the most involvement with the money, and had, despairingly, watched it disappearing down the black hole of her husband’s debts. Mary Ann and Thomas had been too young to understand the full seriousness of the situation, and in any case they had been away at school for at least some of the time. They had never been personally involved in the wrangling with the uncles and the partners, and had rarely had to deal with solicitors or speak in court.
But Mary Anne was growing up, and now it was her turn to suffer.
She was 18 years old in 1808, and in her short life she had seen her mother die, her father die, her home disappear, her uncles accused of embezzlement, her sister causing scandal and universal condemnation, and her brother-in-law threatened by creditors and imprisoned. Since she left boarding school at the age of 16, she had lived with Martha and William Milburn, and had witnessed the trauma of their lives. It is possible that she had even seen the inside of Fleet prison, visiting her brother-in-law with Martha. During all this time, she had probably looked to Martha to be a substitute mother. But what an example of immorality and reckless regard for convention Martha had set her! And what neglect Mary Ann must have suffered, with Martha too worried and impatient to give her any love or security. No wonder things were to go wrong for her. Just as one man had seduced Martha for her money when she was 18, now another, probably much more dangerous and more cunning, was to do the same to Mary Ann.
George Alfred Muskett arrived on the scene.
At the beginning of 1808, George Muskett was 22 years old. He was a chemist, and with his partners, William Varnham and Frederick Beavan, owned a factory in Snowsfields, in Southwark, which refined camphor, and produced varnish, oils and dyes. The process by which this was done was kept a close secret; George would not reveal it even to his own business partners. The chemicals and substances used were very dangerous to those who did not understand them. The business was worth £5,000, of which two thirds was the property of George Muskett.
George Muskett started to pay his attentions to Mary Ann. He came to the house, he courted her; soon he talked to her of marriage.
William Milburn was outraged at this talk of marriage. If Mary Ann married, one third of the money would immediately be removed from his grasp; then there would be nothing to save him from another stay in the dreaded Fleet Prison. He had to stop the marriage. He probably thought that any man who wanted to marry such a rich young heiress must only be after her money. Perhaps he recognised a kindred spirit in George Muskett.
There were terrible family scenes as he tried to put an end to their relationship. He told them that, as head of the Habgood household, he would never give his permission for them to marry. Mary Ann was a ward of court, and the courts would never give permission for her to marry so young; he would see to that. He would oppose the marriage, if they applied to the court for permission to marry. And, he went on, if they did marry, without the permission of the court, or of her guardians, what did they think would happen to them? Why, George would be thrown into prison, into that terrible Fleet Prison, and might stay there for years … Desperately, he put pressure on them to give up all thoughts of marriage. Would they both swear that they would not attempt to marry without permission? And so George and Mary Ann both pledged that they would never attempt to marry without the permission of the court.
Milburn was relieved, but still on his guard. He did not trust George; no doubt he watched them both very carefully, in between watching out for his own creditors, who were now hounding him more than ever, and occasionally seeing his first wife Henrietta, who was in the last months of pregnancy once again.
On 10 May 1808, one of Milburn’s creditors had him arrested. Martha was frantic; she had no money to bail her husband out. Who could she get the bail money from? Not Richard Fisher, certainly. Not Samuel Buxton or John Butler; they would be gleeful that Milburn was getting his just desserts, and that all their dire warnings had been proved right. Not her uncles James and Robert; even if they were willing, they were much too far away to be able to help in an emergency. Who could she turn to? Eventually she found two people: her brother Thomas, now 16 years old, and – the only other person she could think of: George Muskett. Each paid up £444, and Milburn was allowed out on bail.
How galling and humiliating it must have been for Milburn to find himself thus indebted to George Muskett. How upsetting for Martha, not only to have her husband threatened with prison, not only to realise that all her wealth was gone, but also to be indebted to her younger brother in this way, when her own husband was in the process of trying to take from him the property which he should have inherited in Cricklade.
The bail money kept Milburn out of prison, but only for a week; on 16 May, he was “rendered in discharge of his bail … whereupon committed to His Majesty’s prison of the Fleet, there to remain until Etc”. This was Milburn’s second visit to Fleet prison.
“Number 9 Fleet Street”, as the prison was jokingly called, was a place to dread. It was the prison for debtors and bankrupts.
On arrival, prisoners would have to pay an entrance fee to the warden for the provision of food. They could then make a choice to spend the time of their imprisonment either in the cellars, or on one of the other four storeys, or galleries, of the prison. The poorest prisoners who had no money at all would go to the cellars. There they would be with the roughest and coarsest inmates of the whole prison, male and female all in together. There was a tradition that in the cellars all newcomers were made to pay the other prisoners. If they had no money at all, their clothes might be taken from them and sold; then gin would be bought and there would be a night of drunkenness. The naked prisoner might well die of cold in the meantime. Sometimes a prisoner would be tortured to death by sadistic cell-mates. Those newcomers to the prison who still had some money left would avoid the cellars and pay to go to a cell in the galleries. There they might share a room with another prisoner, or if they paid more, could have the luxury of a cell to themselves. Anything could be bought with money: food, drink, women. Within this building the warden had vast powers; he could allow people freedom to go out into the open air, take exercise and play various games, or stand and talk and smoke, or see their families; but if he took a dislike to someone, he might decide to torture them, or manacle them by the wrists or ankles or neck. If he thought they were dying, he might send them to the “strong room” – a vault for the bodies of the dead, or for those being punished. The prison was supposed to have been reformed years ago, but as far as the prisoners were concerned, the effects of the reforms were largely negligible even at this time. Vermin, smallpox and prison fever spread uncontrollably through the prison population. The conditions of life were hideous, with noise all day and all night, and despair evident everywhere.
With Milburn out of the way, and Martha distraught, this was the moment when George Muskett decided to strike. He eloped with Mary Ann.
This must have seemed wildly exciting to Mary Ann. Not that they eloped to some distant, romantic setting: only to Bermondsey! There they married, in the church of St Mary Magdalen, on 23 May.
George Muskett was taking a big risk in marrying without permission an ‘infant’ who was a ward of the court of Chancery. By doing this, he was putting himself in contempt of court. He could expect a very long spell in gaol. Perhaps he reckoned that it would be worth it in order to get her money; after all, her deceased father’s assets were about £40,000, so she stood to inherit about £13,000. He would have to work for many, many years in his factory to amass that kind of wealth. He would be well paid for his time in gaol.
When it was discovered what George and Mary Ann had done, things moved very rapidly. George was arrested, and thrown into Fleet prison – where Milburn already was – to await trial on 25 July. The charge was that George had married a ward of court without the permission of the court or of her guardians. Mary Ann was taken back to Martha’s house, where a reunion full of tears and reproaches would have awaited her.
So now both William Milburn and George Muskett were in Fleet prison at the same time. One can only try to imagine their reaction when they met.
William Milburn must have been in despair when he heard that George had married Mary Ann. There was now no hope that Milburn could avoid a second bankruptcy. One third of the money would now go to George Muskett; or would it? If the courts believed that he had only married her for her money, they might deny him access to the money. That was always a real possibility.
What was happening meanwhile to Henrietta, Milburn’s first wife? She had given birth to a little girl while her husband was in prison. The baby was so weak that she had to be baptised at home; it was three months before it was considered safe to take her to church. The child was given the name – perhaps ironically – of Mary Ann.
On 3 June 1808, from Fleet prison, Milburn had given a statement to the court. Obviously there was some criticism of the respectability of his household and the way he had looked after Mary Ann, because he answered, defensively, that “Mary Ann Habgood never did sleep from the house previous to her leaving his house except twice when she was protected by her brother Thomas Habgood and then she slept at most respectable families”.
What effect was this all having on Thomas? He was now 17 years old, and must have been in a very bad emotional state after witnessing all the traumas that had afflicted first his father, then his two beloved sisters.
At this point arrangements were already in hand for him to start training for a career. Perhaps this was because he had just finished at school and it was the normal time to start his professional training; perhaps he had asked to be removed from Martha’s house; perhaps he was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
What career should he take up? Not his father’s haberdashery business; that had been completely closed down now, and the premises and the stock all taken over by others. Anyway, it had brought the family nothing but unhappiness since his father died. He would return to the work which his grandfather had done, and his fathers before him: farming. He would go back to the west of England, because that was the place that his father and mother had always referred to as home. There was the house in Cricklade, which he would be able to live in as soon as probate was completed: he was due to inherit that as his father’s heir at law. There he would be near all his uncles and aunts, and only a mile away in Latton lay the earthly remains of his mother and father, their parents, and their ancestors before them for generations.
But having been born and brought up in the City of London, what did he know about farming? Nothing at all. It would be necessary for him to learn it, as if it were a school subject.
Arrangements were made for Thomas to start learning the science of farming the land. At his own request and desire, he would be articled to a Mr John Davis, a farmer who rented an estate of a thousand acres, and “a gentleman of the utmost respectability” of Hinchwick in Gloucestershire, for a period of three years. Probably his uncles James and Robert had a hand in influencing his choice of career; perhaps they knew John Davis personally. Robert said that this three-year period would be greatly to Thomas’s benefit and advantage.
Thomas had gone to see Mr Davis on 11 June 1808, three weeks after Mary Ann had married George Muskett. Fees were arranged: £300 was paid to Mr Davis by James and Robert, of which £180 was for 3 years’ maintenance, and the rest for tuition and training. So Thomas started his formal training on 11 June 1808; probably he had left Martha’s house at the beginning of June.
This meant that for the next 3 years until 11 June 1811, he would be removed from the scene and would be spared some of the grief that was to come. He would only hear about his sisters and about the court case as the news reached him, slowly, and at a distance. He would be living in a tranquil rural environment, and his mind would be on different things. He would have his own horse; he would travel to fairs and markets with John Davis; he would be able to recover from the horror of the last few years.
Meanwhile, back in London, George’s friends and colleagues were working hard to get him out of Fleet prison; no doubt George had arranged all this beforehand.
On 17 June, George’s partner, Frederick Beavan, made a sworn statement saying how essential it was to let George out of prison; without him, the business could not survive; the nature of the process was so secret, and the chemicals so dangerous that assistants and servants could not possibly be allowed to use them unless he were there, he said.
On 18 June, William Hiscox, a chemist and druggist friend of George’s, spoke up for him: he was a “person of strict integrity and irreproachable manners … a person of very good circumstances and of good reputation”.
William Varnham, the other partner, kept quiet: George had more important work for him to do later on. On 8 July 1808, after nearly two months in prison, Milburn was let out. Who did he go home to, Martha or Henrietta? Whatever the case, his next meeting with Martha and Mary Ann would have been full of anger. Perhaps he used violence, as men were legally entitled to do against their wives.
On 25 July George appeared in court before the Lord Chancellor himself and was formally committed to the Fleet for an indefinite period of time. However, George had worked everything out in advance and was thoroughly prepared. He had already made very detailed plans as to how to get out of prison quickly. He had also got a very good and very expensive solicitor, Sir Samuel Romilly. Before they led him away to prison, George asked permission to submit to the court proposals for a settlement for Mary Ann. With surprising speed, exactly one week later, the court considered the settlement. (The expensive solicitor was obviously a good investment.)
George’s settlement for Mary Ann took into account only the money her father had left; his own money, which constituted his share of the business, did not enter into the settlement. He explained that he could not draw upon that; it would be bad for business!
What George was proposing in his settlement was this: whatever money was due to Mary Ann from her father’s estate would go to her for her sole and separate use during her lifetime; he would not use it or be in control of it. If George died first, Mary Ann’s money would go to her children, if she had any; but if Mary Ann died first, half the dividends would go to the children, and half to George. If however there were no children, she could leave the money in her will to anyone she liked.
To the court this must have seemed a very reassuring document. It was rare for a man not to lay claim to his wife’s money. Yet even in the event of her death, George was only asking for half of the dividends from the capital. A very unselfish settlement, they must have thought. As for the condition about her leaving her money to whoever she liked in her will if there were no children – well, she was only 19, and had twenty or more years of childbearing before her.
The court agreed to the settlement and nominated three trustees: James and Robert, and also William Varnham, who was one of George’s partners. Mary Ann made the formal gesture of ‘selling’ them all her capital for ten shillings. They would hold the capital for her, and would pay her the dividends from it at regular intervals. On the strength of this, George was released from prison the next day. He had spent only a few weeks in prison.
George now had severe money problems. Perhaps he had to pay that expensive lawyer; or perhaps his spell in prison had caused cash-flow problems. Whatever the case, a week after getting out of prison, he asked his partner, Frederick Beavan, to lend him some money. The loan was made out to George, and to George’s brother Thomas, to his mother Frances, and to his other partner, William Varnham. It was a large loan: £2,800.
A few weeks passed. George and the others didn’t repay a single penny. Frederick Beavan dissolved the partnership and took them all to court.
The case was heard in the Court of Common Pleas in the autumn. George was told to repay the money, and Frederick Beavan’s court costs, and also a fine. Whether he paid up or whether he went to prison is not known., but it is obvious that George needed a lot of money very quickly indeed. Where could he get it from?
On his release back at the end of August, Mary Ann had naturally gone to live with George in his house in Bermondsey. Now she was alone with him. What happened, we shall never know; but after two months, on 5 October 1808, she made a will saying that if she died without issue everything was to go to George, who was also to be the sole executor, and six months later, on 22 April 1809, she was dead.
One can imagine how aghast her family were when they heard the news, and the hideous suspicions that would enter their minds. What remorse they must have felt that they had not taken better care of Mary Ann, that they had not given more time to protecting her, that they had allowed her to fall into the hands of George Muskett. They must have remembered how he had boldly told the court what dangerous chemicals he had in his possession, how he had presented the court with a marriage settlement which would only allow him access to her money if she died before having children, how at 18 she had written a long and complex will leaving George everything. Doubtless they would have whispered their fears to each other, searching in each others’ eyes for reassurance. Martha must have been beside herself with grief and self-reproach.
George did not sit beside her coffin weeping for very long. She had died on the Saturday, and on the Monday, 24 April, before she was even in her grave, he was in the probate court proving her will. Legally, her money was now his.
She was buried on 30 April 1809 in the vault of St Mary Magdalen’s church, where she had been a bride less than twelve months before.
George had a white marble memorial tablet erected in the church, prominently, just beside the pulpit, where the straying eyes of bored parishioners simply could not miss it during the sermon every week. It must have brought a tear to the eye of many a lady churchgoer over the years, while the gentlemen must have thought what an excellent chap that Muskett fellow was. The inscription reads:
In the Vault of This Church Are Interred
The Remains of Mary Ann Muskett
The Beloved Wife of George Alfred Muskett Of this Parish
Who after a Short But Happy Union of Eleven Months
Departed This Life On the 22nd Day of April 1809 Aged 20 Years
To the Revered Memory Of Her Whose Amiable Qualifications Adorned Human Nature
and Displayed A Bright Example of Female Excellence
This Tribute To Departed Worth
Is Paid By An Affectionate Husband
Who Thus Records Her Virtues And His Loss.
His grief might have been more convincing if he had not proved her will with such indecent haste. At that time he had obviously been more interested in the money than in taking one last look at her.
George was now legally entitled to all Mary Ann’s money, that is one third of William Habgood’s entire fortune, but actually getting hold of it might prove to be difficult. By the terms of the settlement, the three trustees (James, Robert and William Varnham) were officially in control of Mary Ann’s money. George was clear about his rights: Mary Ann left him all her money in her will, so it should all come to him without delay. James and Robert understood the settlement differently: they had bought Mary Ann’s share of the 3% bonds for 10/-; the money was for them to hold permanently, and they were to give George only the half the dividends. George complained to the court: they “do make objection to undertake to execute the conditions of the Marriage Settlement”. Could the court please tell them to hand the money over? William Varnham, of course, was willing to pay all the money to George: that had certainly been arranged beforehand, and anyway, he was George’s stooge.
George Muskett knew that Martha had started an action against her brother Thomas because, she said, she was entitled to a third of the house and land in Cricklade; so he decided that he too would be entitled to a third, through Mary Ann, and joined her in this action. In this he was destined not to succeed. Real estate could not be bequeathed by law by a minor, and Mary Ann was still a minor when she died. The real estate of minors was always passed to the heir at law, who was certainly Thomas. Thomas was away in Gloucester now, but the court ordered that he should be called back to choose a guardian, so that the guardian might answer the bill of Martha and George on Thomas’s behalf.
George struggled to get a response from James and Robert, but as usual it took time and great effort. In the first nine days of December alone, there were eight court orders and hearings. When James and Robert did eventually answer, they made it clear that they thought they were entitled to keep Mary Ann’s money; they had bought it for ten shillings!