In my book, Devil Takes a Bride, old Lady Strathmore uses her last will and testament to force a bit of matchmaking between her wild nephew, Devlin, and her sedate companion and caretaker, Lizzie. This month, in keeping with the spirit of the book, I am privileged to bring you a sampling of real Georgian-era wills, shared with us courtesy of The Regency Library, an online research service that I highly recommend to all students of early 19th century England. Enjoy!
David Davis, late of Clapham in Surry. Proved January 1788. – “I give and bequeath to Mary Davis the sum of 5 shillings, which is sufficient to enable her to get drunk for the last time at my expence; and I give the like sum to Charles Peter, the son of Mary, whom I am reputed to be the father of, but never had or ever shall have any reason to believe.”
William Darley, late of Ash, in the County of Hertfordshire. Proved May 1794. – “I give unto my wife, Mary Darley, for picking my pocket of sixty guineas, and taking up money in my name, of John Pugh, Esq. the sum of one shilling.”
(Comment: If a person wished to disinherit someone from their will, the custom was to leave them one shilling, as in the above example. Otherwise, the lawyers for the disinherited could argue that the deceased was not in his/her right mind at the time of writing the will, due to illness or senility, for example, and thus simply forgot to mention a spouse or important family member, etc. in their will. The ‘one shilling’ was to make certain the person understood he or she had been deliberately left out. )
The Right Honourable Henry Earl of Stafford. Proved July 1719. – “I give to the worst of women (except being a w-o-e), who is guilty of all ills, the daughter of Mr. Gramont, a Frenchman, who I have unfortunately married, five and forty brass halfpence, which will buy her a pullet for her supper, a greater sum than her father can often make her; for I have known when he had neither money or credit for such a purchase, he being the worst of men, and his wife the worst of women, in all debaucheries;–— Had I known their character, I had never married their daughter, nor made myself unhappy.”
Charles Parker, Bookseller, New Bond Street, in the County of Middlesex. Proved March 1785 – “I give to Elizabeth Parker the sum of fifty pounds, whom through my foolish fondness, I made my wife, without regard to family, fame, or fortune; and who, in return, has not spared, most unjustly, to accuse me of every crime regarding human nature, saving highway robbery.”
Joseph Dalby, of the Parish of St. Mary-Le-Bone, in the County of Middlesex. Proved July 1784 – “I give to my daughter Ann Spencer, a guinea for a ring, or any other bauble she may like better; — I give to the lout, her husband, one penny, to buy him a lark-whistle; I also give to her said husband of redoubtable memory, my fart-hole, for a covering for his lark-whistle, to prevent the abrasion of his lips; and this legacy I give him as a mark of my approbation of his prowess and nice honour, in drawing his sword on me, (at my own table), unarmed as I was, and he well fortified with custard. I give to my son, Joseph Dalby, on the Island of Jamaica; one guinea, and to balance accounts with him, I give him forgiveness, and hope the Almighty will give him a better understanding.”
(That’s right, folks, he said fart-hole. So much for the proper Englishman stereotype!)
Richard Crawshay, Esquire, late of Cyfarthfa, in the County of Glamorgan, Proved July 1810. –
“To my only son, who never would follow my advice, and has treated me rudely in very many instances; instead of making him my executor and residuary legatee (as till this day he was) I give him one hundred thousand pounds.”
(This was obviously a very wealthy man, if 100,000 pounds was only a portion of his property at the time of his death. I wonder what the son did that made his father so angry!)
Philip Thicknessar, Esquire, formerly of London, but late of Bologne, France. Proved January 1796. – “I leave my right hand, to be cut off after my death, to my son, Lord Audley; and I desire it be sent to him in hopes that such a sight may remind him of his duty to God, after having so long abandoned the duty he owed to a father, who once affectionately loved him.” (Eww.)
Advice to a Baronet from his Dead Boot-Maker
From the Will of John Moody, Boot-maker, late of Carnaby Street, St. James’s, Westminster, County of Middlesex. Proved October 1806. – “To Sir F. Burdett, Bart. I give this piece of friendly advice, to take a special care of his conduct and person, and never more to be the dupe of artful and designing men at a contested election, or even among persons moving in a higher sphere of life; for placement of all descriptions (i.e., everyone) have conspired against him, and if prudence does not lead him into private life, certain destruction will overtake him.”
(In other words, get the heck out of politics. Sentiments with which those of us enduring another mud-slinging election year can no doubt sympathize.)
From a Young Sailor in the Royal Navy to his Shipboard Mates
Samuel Jeffrey, Purser of His Majesty’s Ship Amphion, Proved July 1812. – “To my friends, Jack Dalling, Joe Cape, and Tom Boardman, the sum of 10 pounds between them, to pay for a good dinner, which I wish them to have in remembrance of me, and request they drink a speedy and safe passage to me to the other world.
My rings, etc., to my brother, William Henry Jeffrey, to do with them as his own saucy fancy may direct: I particularly wish him to get a bit of my hair, (from what part of me I don’t care), to put into a locket; And my grand request is, that when it shall please God to call me aloft, that some good fellow will stow my corpse into my great strong chest:—If I die straight, they will, I know, have occasion to force me in; but, never mind, I’ll promise not to sing out and then, after securing it well, to keep me safe from all intruders, launch me overboard in good deep water, with plenty of ballast. And now, as I have nothing more to give, bequeath, or request, I will finish by putting my hand and seal to this, my royal will, 10 o’clock, 10th January, 1810.””
(Very touching. He uses the same terminology for going to Heaven that they used aboard the ships when they were ordered up into the rigging to work the sails,“going aloft.” Note that the will was made in 1810 and he died only 2 and a half years later. The Navy was very active in this period patrolling the coast of Europe, where Napoleon was at the height of his power, as well as fighting the Americans at sea in the War of 1812.)
Provisions for Pets
Catherine Williams, late of Lambeth, in the County of Surry. Proved July 1796. – “To Mrs. Elizabeth Paxton, ten pounds, and five pounds a year, to be paid weekly by my husband, to take care of my cats and dogs, as long as any of them shall live; and my desire is that she will take great care of them, neither let them be killed or lost. To my servant boy, George Smith, ten pounds, and my jackass, to get his living with, as he is fond of traffic.”
(This lady doesn’t mention any children—apparently her pets were her ‘babies’ instead. I can relate to that. Note that she leaves her donkey to her servant boy so he can use it for work, perhaps providing cargo transport to and from market for sellers of some item, or selling something himself in the streets off of the donkey’s back.)
And the Winner of Crazy Regency Wills
(The last will and testament of surely an old dragon lady, to whom the formidable Aunt Augusta in Devil Takes a Bride could relate! Classic.)
Elizabeth Orby Hunter, Widow, late of Upper Seymour Street, in the County of Middlesex. Proved June 1813.
“I give and bequeath to my beloved parrot, the faithful companion of twenty-five years, an annuity for its life, of 200 guineas a year, to be paid half yearly, as long as this beloved parrot lives, to whoever may have the care of it and proves its identity; and if the person who shall have the care of it should substitute any other parrot in its place either during its life or after its death, it is my positive will and desire that the person or persons doing so shall be refused by my heirs or executors the sum or sums they may have received from the time they did so; and I empower my heirs and executors to recover said sum from whoever would be base enough to do so.
And I do give and bequeath foresaid parrot, with its annuity of 200 guineas a year, to Mrs. Mary Dyer, widow, now dwelling in Park Street, Westminster; and I give to Mrs. Mary Dyer the power to will and bequeath my parrot and its annuity to whomever she pleases, provided that person is neither a servant or a man—it must be bequeathed to some respectable female.
And I also will and desire that twenty guineas may be paid to Mrs. Dyer directly on my death, to be expended on a very high, long, and large cage for the aforesaid parrot; it is also my will and desire that my parrot shall not be removed out of England.
Whoever attempts to dispute this my last will and testament, or by any means neglects or tries to avoid paying my parrot’s annuity, shall forfeit whatever I may have left them; and if anyone attempt to bring in any bills or charges against me, they shall forfeit whatever legacy I may have left them, for so doing, as I owe nothing to anyone, — many owe me gratitude and money, but none have paid me either.”
(To put 200 guineas in perspective, the amount this woman is leaving for her parrot is the same amount that an average middle-class family would have needed to live for a year, including pay for their servants!)