A score of Irish murders – more from Skeffy

” The people are getting prodigiously enlightened ; nor do I think that their propensities are so vicious as they were some years back. ”  This is more from the ” Recollections of Skeffington Gibbon. ”  published in 1829, a book best taken with less a pinch, and more like a sack, of salt, and stories embroidered enough to fell all but the stoutest Archbishop under the weight of all that thread. This is what he has to say about his father’s memories of murders in county Roscommon in the late eighteenth century.

“ For instance,” said my father, “ how many heinous murders have occurred in this country in my own recollection, the like of which are now seldom to be heard of ? “

At one time a whole family was murdered near Carrick-on-Shannon; among whom was a Mr. Lawder, the kinsman of the immortal Goldsmith, and the Croftons, of Moate, near Roscommon.  [ This turns out to be just the murder of James Lawder himself.]

Roscommon Castle. It was partially blown up by Cromwellian “Ironsides” who then had all the fortifications dismantled. The castle was burned down in 1690 and ultimately fell into decay.

Several murders were perpetrated by the notorious Anne Walker and her sanguinary husband ; they kept a public inn or half-way house at a place called Boxford — I believe part of the Coote estates, in the vicinity of Roscommon. In this den of murder, and rapacity for the goods and chattels of others, they perpetrated, unsuspected from their opulence, the most ruthless crimes; when detected in the very act, from the cries of a gentleman in bed in their house, at two o’clock at night, the sanguinary husband got off in a beggar woman’s apparel, and evaded being brought to justice for his dark offences ; but his infamous wife was burned at a stake near that old ruin of the Dillon family, about half a mile from Roscommon, the county town from which they take their title. [ The Dillons had a number of different peerages, but one of the principal ones was Earl of Roscommon, who held Roscommon Castle.]

That Daly, who committed a rape on a girl of ten years of age, and, from the violence he used on so young an infant in putting his wicked desires into execution, for fear, according to his own confession, that it would lead to a discovery, murdered her, and hid her under his bed, in which place she was found by her disconsolate parents, kept a country shop near Cloughan, in the Barony of Athlone, and suffered the sentence of the law at the usual place of execution at Roscommon, in the year 1780. I knew his sister, a widow, named Madden, a respectable and industrious woman, who lived many years on the lands of Baslick, near Castlerea, in this county.

Her daughter [Mrs Madden’s], an innocent young woman, was, not many years back, seduced by a pious Dignitary of the Church, not more than one hundred miles from the See-house of Elphin. Not only that, the Reverend Doctor took under his pious care the wife of a man well known in the Whip Club, of the name of Dalton. This is but an outline. [ This is also a perfect example of Skeffy’s bitchy best, managing to mention a child rape, and murder alongside the seduction of Mrs Madden’s daughter, and naming her, and the parish she lived in. How many Widow Maddens are there likely to be in a parish of less than 15,000 people? ] 

“ Children,” said my father, ” of the many revolting massacres committed in this and the adjoining- counties within these few years back, I do not recollect any of them so heinous as the horrible murder committed on the body of young Mr. Bellew, at the great fair of Ballinasloe, and the chief of the gang his own domestics and dependents.

Mr. Bellew was respectably connected in the County of Galway, being lineally descended from Earl Bellew, as also allied to the house of Mount-Bellew, one of the first Catholic families in that county. He lived with his father, (as single gentlemen generally do in this kingdom,) at a beautiful seat, now in ruin, called Drum-House, on the road leading from the village of Creggs, on the Burke manors, to the Town of Tuam, a Bishop’s See, both in that county.

Ballinasloe October Horse Fair

Young Bellew, unfortunately, accompanied his father to this celebrated meeting, well known as the October Fair. I think it was in 1786. Mr. Bellew got a large sum of money for fat cattle the two first days of this meeting, which his own cotters and the stable men of his household saw him making up in the inn where he stopped, and which money they thought the young son retained in his possession ; consequently, a gang (about nine) of those fellows planned a scheme to induce the young gentleman to come to the stable where he kept his horses, about nine o’clock in the evening, saying that they would have a fascinating young woman to meet him. To this he agreed; and to jog his memory, an infamous villain of the name of Greaghan, his own stable-boy or helper, came at the appointed hour, and sent word up by the waiter that he was below stairs, and wished to see his young master.

On Mr. Bellew receiving the message, he desired the waiter to order the man his dinner, which was accordingly obeyed. When the dinner was laid before the monster, who was bursting, like Judas, with evil thoughts, the maid who served him went in search of a knife and fork, sometimes scarce articles at this great fair ; however, to her surprise, at her return, though only about a minute absent, Greaghan had the meat cut on his plate with a large knife commonly called a jack knife, and with which he murdered Mr. Bellew in a few minutes afterwards.

The River Suck, forms much of the border between County Roscommon and County Galway, flowing along the western side of County Roscommon.

Young Bellew had asked his father’s permission to go and see the curious scenes at such large meetings, which gentlemen about his age (not more than twenty- one), are generally anxious to view. His father reluctantly complied, but not until one or two gentlemen who dined with them, and were enjoying themselves at their wine, interfered, by which the unfortunate young man was allowed to go out for a short time. He asked his father for some pocket money ; to which he complied in no pleasing terms, and threw him a purse across the table, containing some silver and sixty guineas in gold. On leaving the inn, Greaghan met him at the door, and conducted him to a lonely stable in a remote lane, within a few paces of the great River Suck, which moves in all its magnitude through part of this town, and empties its copious influx into the noble Shannon, about four miles from Dunlow, commonly called Ballinasloe, where the unfortunate Mr. Bellew entered this horrible den.

He was conducted to a dark corner, in which one of those demons, named Cusack, was seated on a bundle of straw, dressed in woman’s clothes. This villain (Cusack) was selected from the other gang to personate a female, in consequence of his feminine appearance, having no beard, being of fair complexion, and particularly as Mr. Bellew had no knowledge of his exterior. Mr. Bellew advanced towards the young lady, as he thought, to embrace her and put his hands round her person ; but the reception he met for his caresses was a mortal stab of a large knife in his abdomen. He screamed, and called upon Greaghan to come to his aid; but the assistance he met with was the whole of the gang coming and stabbing him in various parts of the body. As he lay prostrate on the floor, even when dead, a young man, who happened to come into the stable at the moment, was obliged to give him three stabs, and take his oath that he would never divulge the secret. They rolled the body in some hay, tied it up in a sheet, and threw it into the River Suck. “

Amongst the murderers was a farmer’s son of the name of Lyons, from the village of Croswells, on the Caulfield estate near Donamore. Lyons was the only son, and what I may call a spoiled child, of respectable and industrious parents far above want, and how he could bring himself to be guilty of so atrocious and sanguinary an action, and to join such a group, who had no stake or dependence in the country, save the general lot of those serfs and peasants who possess no other means but their scanty earning from one meal to another — their residence a filthy, smoky hut, their companions a pig, a cat, and a-half starved mangy dog — some may have a cow, a goat or an ass, which is driven from the wretched abode of its nominal owner, (as it generally happens that the latter is more indebted to the rackrenter or landlord than the animal is worth,) to some barren moor or noxious marsh, apparently sinking as a swamp ready to swallow in its stagnated mire the skeleton, which, from its craving maw and the pangs of hunger, is obliged (not that any thing delicious is in the soil) to feed on its unwholesome weeds.

I don’t impute to the oppressed peasant or rustic that these miseries are solely caused by his not reading extracts from the New Testament; far from it, they spontaneously grow with his growth: he is born in poverty — to comfort he is a stranger; and, inundated in want and wretchedness, he closes his eyes in the arms of death upon a world that afforded him no other soothing consolation but ail the pangs and horror that middlemen, rackrenters, rapacious tithe proctors, and the unceasing demands of the voluptuous absentee, can inflict upon a well disposed people. To these misfortunes the unfortunate Lyons was a stranger, as his parents were in comfortable circumstances, and possessed that state of mediocrity that they neither felt the pangs of keen distress nor the sudden surplus of overgrown wealth. The whole of this infamous gang who murdered the much and justly-lamented Mr. Bellew were executed in the town of Galway, and their bodies hung in chains in the town of Ballinasloe for many months afterwards.

In talking of the horrible murder of eighteen of the Bodkin family, by a step-son and a nephew, near Tuam, which gave to the perpetrators of that massacre the never-forgotten appellation of the “Bloody Bodkins” — the murder of Randal M’Donnell, Esq., by the notorious Captain Fitzgerald of Turla, in Mayo — the murder of Squire Reynolds of Litterfine, by the sanguinary and cowardly Kean of Newbrook, in the County of Leitrim, and many others, my father repeated a few days before his death, in 1812, with as much novelty as on the days they respectively occurred.

“ My children,” said he, “ My days in this world are coming to a close; so far you have made me happy; poverty is no crime, let not your thirst for opulence and comfort ever cause you to be guilty of a base or contemptible action; if you raise yourselves by your industry, as I have very little more to bequeath you than my blessing, I entreat of you never to leave yourselves in the power of your friends, much more your enemies, as many false friends and false prophets are abroad;  therefore, be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves ; don’t disgrace the memory of your ancestors by any ignoble or ruthless action; rather receive an insult than give one. “

These words from an aged and affectionate parent made no small impression on my mind at the time, but from several circumstances that occurred since that period, they have been doubly impressed on it; more so, when describing the barbarous and inhuman murder of my brother, at his residence near Castlerea in the County of Roscommon. [ This is even more of a curiosity, given that Skeffington Gibbon is a pseudonym. Dr. Patrick Melvin, speculates that he (Skeffy) may be either James or Augustus O’Kelly, a brother of Patrick O’Kelly, who was a somewhat eccentric poet. But either way, there doesn’t seem to have been an O’Kelly murder near Castlerea at the right time.]  I recollect one day when living at Fairfield the observations my father made about the Glinsk family. [ These are the Burkes of Glinsk Castle, Galway, and Skeffy will deliver a huge hatchet job in a few pages time.]

Mount Mary, Galway

On walking to the summit of Mount-Mary, he pointed to several green fields that were reclaimed in his time, which he said he seen covered with heath and brushwood ; as also to some deep pits that the late Major Waller of Rookwood sunk to get coals, but failed, by which he lost a considerable sum of money ; and added, that his gambling in London and Paris was the principal cause of his handsome estate being sold, the chief part of which was purchased by the humane and benevolent Mrs. Walcott, the sister of Judge Caulfield of Donamon Castle, who bequeathed the rents of those manors for charitable purposes, and with which the Gaol Infirmary and Charter School of Roscommon are liberally endowed.

When he came in sight of the cottage and garden wherein he was born, he seemed greatly affected and shed tears. After a pause of some time, ” My poor mother,” says he, ” breathed her last on this spot where I now sit : how often my two brothers and only sister, now mouldering in the grave, sported at our innocent amusement round these ruinous walls : but why should I grieve ; what is this world but vanity, and the longest that lives must only consider it a dream. I have no reason to complain : I have good children, and I know if your mother survive me that you will all endeavour to make her happy ; she is a worthy, humane woman, a virtuous exemplary wife, and a good mother. What would I not sacrifice, consistently with my salvation and the character of an honest man, for the welfare of my family; I have laboured incessantly for their support, and would at this moment lay down my life for their happiness.“

“As to the Burke family,” added he, ” the most powerful feudal lords at one time in this country — who possessed that wide district of a beautiful and diversified vale, a land flowing with milk and honey — where is all their pomp and grandeur now? The auctioneer’s bell ringing every other day to sell those manors that they possessed for eight hundred years. Nothing is certain (says he) in this uncertain world.

Grant William Edwardes 1830 – 1877

Every so often an exceptional character leaps out, Grant William Edwardes (1830 – 1877) is one of those characters. He turned up just by chance, and he gives every impression of being a very bad boy.

Grant was born in London in 1830, and baptised in St Martin in the Fields in September that year. In Pallot’s Baptism Index, his parents are listed as John and Ann, and John’s profession is given as “gent”. In his brother Alfred Edmund Edwardes’ entry two years earlier, John Edwardes describes himself as a merchant,  and the family are ascribed to the parish of St Paul, Convent Garden, a five minute walk away. St Martin in the Fields church had existed in its current form for just over a hundred years by that time. But Trafalgar Square had yet to be laid out, and the National Gallery hadn’t been built.

Their parents were John Mortimer William Edwardes who was born in Pembrokeshire in 1804, and Ann Wills who had been born into a Baptist family in Cornwall in 1798. They had married in London on the eleventh of October 1827 at St George’s Bloomsbury. Alfred, their eldest son, was baptised five months later on the 16th March 1828.

The Edwardes family seem to have been at one time landed gentry in Wales, and John Edwardes’ great-uncle Francis had been the M.P. for Haverfordwest, and his first cousin once-removed, William Edwardes succeeded his father as M.P. for Haverfordwest, and was later became Baron Kensington, rather oddly as an Irish peerage. He had also inherited his maternal grandfather’s estates which included a large chunk of present day Kensington, including Holland House. So, technically, a junior branch of the Edwardes family, Francis Edwardes’s family had done very well from a good marriage.

Back to Grant’s parents, they don’t seem to be hugely prosperous, but they’re not the struggling poor either. In 1851, John and Ann Edwardes are at 22 Edward Street in Marylebone. Beyond Wells Street, the eastern portion of present-day Mortimer Street W.1 was originally developed as Charles Street, part of the Berners estate, and named after the landowner William Berners’s son and heir. The Middlesex Hospital was built there in 1755–7, house-building following on from 1759. Rather more importantly, Edward Street was at the northern end of Newman Street, Oxford Street being the southern end, and by the mid-1850’s the British and Foreign Marble Galleries of Edwardes, Edwardes & Co were at 17 Newman Street. 

Grant Edwardes seems to slip under the radar rather between his birth, and a legal notice in the London Gazette on the 5th August 1862 was the first major clue about him.

His parents, and brother Alfred show up in the 1851 census at Edward Street, where John Edwardes is described as an “invalid”, and Ann Edwardes is described as a “milliner and dress-maker”. Twenty-three year old Alfred Edwardes is living at home, working as a “marble clerk”. The rest of the household comprises one female house-servant, and three of Ann Edwardes sisters who are visiting. There is no sign of Grant.

Where he next re-surfaces is startling. On the 31st May 1855, he gets married in Bathurst, in The Gambia, on the west coast of Africa. He is twenty-one, almost twenty-two years old, his bride Rosette Lloyd who was born in 1840, was probably only just sixteen. Neither gave their age on the licence, and neither of their father’s names, or professions were recorded. A Francis Lloyd was one of the witnesses, so one can assume some sort of family consent.

Grant married in an Anglican ceremony, and his elder brother Alfred Edmund Edwardes married the following year, 1856, at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, in Brook Green in Hammersmith in a Catholic wedding ceremony.

Grant and Rosette’s marriage did not go well, and on Christmas Eve, 1864, Francis Kearsey, a City solicitor filed her petition for divorce. He was thirty-three, and she was only twenty-four. Her grounds for the divorce were cruelty, and Grant committing adultery throughout the marriage. Rosette got her decree absolute on the 9th November 1865.

I suspect Grant’s behaviour caused a certain amount of tension within the family, to put it mildly. His partnership with his brother had ended by 1862, and the remaining partnership with Henry Burke would have been complicated. Henry Burke became Alfred Edwardes’ brother-in-law in October 1861. So rather awkwardly, Alfred had broken up the partnership with his brother, and brother-in-law, only for them to remain in partnership without him. But by 1865, a further split must have happened because Henry Burke was in sole charge of the premises at 17 Newman Street operating as W.H. Burke & Co.

Grant re-married three months after his divorce on the 8th February 1866 at St Mary’s, Paddington. He was thirty-five, his bride, Elizabeth Ponsford was twenty one.

The whole marriage seems peculiar. Elizabeth Ponsford appears to be quite respectable. Her father William, is described on the register as a “builder”, which is sort of what he described himself in the 1851 census, where he says he is a “proprietor of houses (builder out of business)”. At her brother Thomas’s marriage in 1860, William Ponsford is described as an “architect”. In 1851, the Ponsford family were living at East Lodge, in Acton. The family had three house servants, and East Lodge also had a separate gate house where the coachman/gardener lived with his family. At that point Acton was a village outside London, and comprised about 135 houses. By 1861, the family were in Sheffield Terrace, just off Kensington Church Street, where Ann Ponsford described herself as a “land proprietor”, and both her daughters Mary, and Elizabeth were described as “ladies”. William Ponsford seems to be dead. All the female members of the Ponsford family are describing themselves as “annuitants” in 1871.

So, a respectable bride, and a bridegroom who seems to be the reverse. Every detail of the marriage says something’s wrong. Every other entry on that page of the parish register is a marriage completed after the banns have been read three times in the church. Grant and Elizabeth’s marriage is by licence. Every other entry to the parish register is a marriage conducted by the vicar or curate at St Mary’s, Paddington. Grant and Elizabeth’s marriage is by a former chaplain of the Gold Coast, Africa. Grant and Elizabeth also appear to be rather grander than the vast majority of the people being married at St Mary’s Paddington.

The choice of church is also strange. St Mary’s, Paddington is about two miles away from Elizabeth Ponsonby’s family home, the much more obvious choice would have been St Mary Abbots, the local parish church, which is only half a mile away. But given that Grant and Rosette had lived at various times during their marriage in Aubrey Road, and Brunswick Gardens, the former 700 yards, and the latter 350 yards away from the Ponsford family home, perhaps the risk of getting married in St Mary Abbots was too great

The next significant problem is that Grant Edwardes calls himself a widower, but presumably this is the only way he could get married. Is it legal? I doubt it. Were the Ponsfords aware the Grant was a divorcé, almost certainly not. William Ponsford junior, Elizabeth’s brother was one of the witnesses

Grant and Elizabeth next appear in the 1871 census living at 83 Landsdowne Road in north Kensington. Grant is described as a “wine and spirit broker”. Six years later, they are to be found in Campden Hill Gardens, about a quarter of a mile away from Elizabeth’s family in Sheffield Terrace. Grant dies there on 3rd January 1877, aged forty-seven. He didn’t leave a vast fortune leaving Elizabeth just £ 450 [present-day value £325,000].  Elizabeth remained a widow for nearly forty years, dying in Brighton in 1916. She left £ 4,731 [present-day value £1.8m].

Rosette Edwardes reverted to her maiden name, and in 1871 was living in Woburn Place between Tavistock Square, and Russell Square, and just round the corner from the British Museum. She described herself as a widow aged just 31.


Burke v. Keith

This is the final post, at least for now, in a series called “A deeper look at the Will of William Henry Burke (1792-1870) ” . To re-cap slightly, my starting point for looking at William Burke was one of his sons-in-law Basil O’Bryen. Almost from the start of my research, Basil has been a source of fascination. Certainly a bigamist who abandoned his [second] wife and three children from two marriages. He appears to be fairly wealthy, though rather curiously, he seems not to be a beneficiary of his father’s will. Married at twenty-two to a woman ten years older, widowed, and remarried at the age of twenty-five. But, seemingly, well-thought of by William Henry Burke. As detailed in part four, I had gone to the National Archives to see whether Burke v. Keith could shed any light on the story. It does, and doesn’t, and here’s why.

The front page of the court case was a surprise.

1872-B-No 246 Filed 28th November 1872 pursuant to order dated 1st November 1872

In Chancery


William Henry Burke – plaintiff


Wilson Keith

Basil William O’Bryen, and Harriet Matilda, his wife

Mary Ann Burke, the wife of William Henry Burke.


William Donald Henry Burke

Edmund John Burke

Kate Alice Burke (spinster)

Sarah Elizabeth Burke (spinster)

Walter Keith Burke

all infants


So Burke v. Keith and others is a case where Henry Burke is in a legal dispute with his sister, and two brothers-in-law, [Wilson Keith is Mary Ann Burke’s brother] and his wife, and children are also defendants in the case. Prior to this case, there had been the settlement of a caveat against the proof of WHB’s will by Henry Burke, and agreed in November 1870. More detail can be seen in “A deeper look at the Will of William Henry Burke (1792-1870) ” part four. Burke v. O’Bryen followed some time before August 1871, though very frustratingly I still don’t know what it was about. It is, however, safe to assume Henry Burke is still not happy, and, by 1872, Henry is back in court again.  There is a reference to Burke v. O’Bryen 1871 B no 80, which he partly won, in the Burke v. Keith papers, where the Vice Chancellor Sir John Wickens “recognized his right to the residuary estate” but the order was expressly made “ subject to any arrangements the parties may have made between themselves as to the same”.

This time Henry is trying to get the trust for his wife and children set aside. To summarise some of  the key parts:

William Henry Burke of 17 Newman Street, St Marylebone filed his bill of complaint in Chancery on 30th July 1872, amended 3rd October 1872. Essentially his complaint was against the trust his father set up for his daughter-in-law, and grandchildren.

“An indenture of voluntary settlement dated 6th May 1870 was made and executed between and by William Henry Burke since deceased the father of the plaintiff William Henry Burke of the one part and the said William Henry Burke the father, the defendant Harriett Matilda O’Bryen (therein called Harriett Matilda Burke), the defendant Wilson Keith, and the defendant Basil William O’Bryen on the other part as follows: – “

All their addresses are given, William and Harriett Burke are at 32 Thistle Grove, South Kensington, Wilson Keith “of Earls Court, esquire”, and Basil O’Bryen at 18 Gunter Grove, Chelsea. The settlement document was witnessed by John Roche O’Bryen at 28 Thistle Grove, and Corinne O’Bryen who was at 18 Thistle Grove on or about 6th May 1870. 

The “ indenture witnesseth that in pursuance of the said recited desire on the part of the settlor and in consideration of the love and affection which the settlor has and beareth towards his daughter-in-law Mary Anne Burke, the wife of his son Henry Burke, and her issue by his son”

It’s all slightly strange, initially it seems to be WHB looking after his daughter-in-law, and some of his grandchildren. The question is why? Henry Burke was thirty-five years old, he was first a sculptor, and then set up his own firm W. H. Burke & Co.,  who were “at first sculptors and importers of marble and bronze before becoming one of the pioneering firms of the Victorian mosaic revival.” By 1871, he was occupying all of 17 Newman Street, just off Oxford Street  ” these ‘very extensive premises’ included an octagonal modelling room and a large ‘marble yard’ extending behind the neighbours at Nos 18 and 19, reached via Newman Passage.”  In the late 1850s the main premises had become the British and Foreign Marble Galleries of Edwardes, Edwardes & Co., boasting the largest stock in Europe of marble sculpture, and by 1865 were Henry’s workshops. In 1851-2, the octagon room had been used as a studio by Ford Madox Brown, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Henry Burke had been in partnership with the Edwardes brothers, and Alfred Edwardes was married to Henry Burke’s elder sister Elizabeth. Henry was recorded in the 1871 census as employing 28 men, and 1 boy. So he appears to have been doing quite well, so why did his father feel the need to provide for Mary Burke separately?

The settlement was arranged to pay Mary £ 300 a year in equal quarterly payments for her “sole separate and inalienable use” with a further caveat that if Henry becomes bankrupt then Mary Burke gets all the income over and above the £300 per year [using the same methodology as elsewhere in these posts, it is a modern-day equivalent of £ 224,000]. Otherwise, the rest of the income is to be invested until the youngest child is 24 or in the case of girls married. The trustees can dispose of assets as they see fit. 

Henry and Mary Burke’s children were

  • William Donald Henry Burke , then aged 10
  • Edmund John Burke then aged 8
  • Kate Alice Burke (spinster) then aged 6
  • Sarah Elizabeth Burke (spinster) then aged 3
  • Walter Keith Burke  then aged 1
  • and George Arthur Burke who died, aged four months, in July 1868

Henry claims that he is entitled to the residuary estate of his father, and the trust funds should be part of it because the length of the entail is so long as to make it ” void ”, and he should get the income apart from Mary’s £ 300 p.a.

This is where it all gets unbelievably frustrating. Three large archive boxes full of papers, most of which were un-related to the case, and crucially NO VERDICT.

It still sheds very little light on why twenty-two year old Basil O’Bryen was regarded as a suitable trustee. Wilson Keith, Mary Burke’s younger brother seems slightly better, but even then he’s only twenty-six. It does make one wonder if part of Henry’s case was simply pique at having to deal with two much younger trustees?

A deeper look at the Will of William Henry Burke (1792-1870) part 4, Burke v. O’Bryen

A little over a year ago, I came across this in the national Archives catalogue,  ” Cause number: 1872 B246. Short title: Burke v Keith.”  Basil and Harriet O’Bryen were somehow involved in the case. I registered for a reader’s ticket, given the required notice because the records were stored off site, and was booked in for a visit to the National Archives in Kew.

National Archives, Kew

My original plan was to see if anything about Burke v. Keith could shed any light on Burke v. O’Bryen. It was a rather odd experience. Very close, in fact only a few stops on the Overground. Almost airport-style searches for entry into the reading rooms, and then a collection of the materials ordered via a rather strange two-way locker system.  Everyone else seemed to be either collecting books, or A4 box files, or even large heavy-duty brown envelopes. What I seemed to be collecting was larger. “Ah, the large order” was what the lady at the desk said ” I’ll bring the trolley round to your locker. It’ll probably be best if you take the boxes out one at a time, and return each one before you collect the next.”

What turned up was three cardboard archive boxes, each tied with rather elderly bits of string, and after a lot of looking through irrelevant, unrelated cases. I found this

1872-B-No 246 Filed 28th November 1872 pursuant to order dated 1st November 1872

In Chancery


William Henry Burke – plaintiff


Wilson Keith

Basil William O’Bryen, and Harriet Matilda, his wife

Mary Ann Burke, the wife of William Henry Burke.


William Donald Henry Burke

Edmund John Burke

Kate Alice Burke (spinster)

Sarah Elizabeth Burke (spinster)

Walter Keith Burke

all infants


So Burke v. Keith and others is a case where Henry Burke is in a legal dispute with his sister, and two brothers-in-law, [Wilson Keith is Mary Ann Burke’s brother] and his wife, and children are also defendants in the case. What follows is fairly full and verbatim:

The joint and several answer of Wilson Keith, Basil William O’Bryen, and Harriett Matilda, his wife, three of the above-named defendants to the amended bill of complaint of the above named Plaintiff.

In answer to the amended said bill we, Wilson Keith, Basil William O’Bryen, and Harriett Matilda O’Bryen, say as follows-

  1. We believe the statements contained in the first eight paragraphs of the Plaintiff’s Bill of Complaint are correct.
  2. The said William Henry Burke the testator in the Bill named made his will dated the 6th day of May 1870 and thereby after making certain bequests and devises he gave all the residue of his real and personal estate to his daughter the defendant Harriett Matilda O’Bryen then Harriett Matilda Burke absolutely and he appointed the defendant Harriett Matilda O’Bryen and George William Wood and the defendant Basil William O’Bryen, executrix and executors of his said will.
  3. The said testator died on the 17th July 1870 without having revoked or altered his said will except so far as the same was revoked or altered by a codicil thereto which did not affect the disposition of residue or the appointment of executors in the will contained.
  4. Upon the testator’s death a caveat was entered by the Plaintiff William Henry Burke  against the proof of the said will and codicil. The said caveat was however withdrawn and the said will and codicil admitted to probate upon an arrangement being come to between the Plaintiff and the defendant Harriett Matilda O’Bryen then Harriett Matilda Burke. The said arrangement was embodied in the following agreement which was duly signed by the solicitors of the parties on 19th November 1870.

“Miss Burke to assign Green’s mortgage debt and the West Drayton mortgage and the securities for the same”

“Miss Burke to take upon herself payment of Mr and Mrs Shea’s annuity”

“Mr Burke to provide for the child Rhoda and to pay Messrs Jenkinsons’ and Mr Lovejoy’s charges and expenses in respect of Green’s mortgage.”

“Miss Burke to pay all debts and charges out of residue, The household furniture, plate, linen, brougham, and horse and things in and about the house and premises not to be considered residue but to be the property of Miss Burke.

“Miss Burke to be entitled to retain out of residue £200 and £500 to dispose of as she sees fit.”

“The balance of the residue (if any)to be handed to Mr Burke.”

“Miss Burke to execute deeds in accordance with drafts marked, A,B, and C. Mr Burke to execute deed in accordance with draft marked D.

“If residue insufficient to pay the debts and charges including the £200 and £500 Mr Burke is to make up deficiency to the extent of £1000 to be paid in equal instalments in one and two years. If the deficiency should not exceed £500 to be paid within one year and if not exceeding £250 to be paid on demand.

It’s not Burke v. O’Bryen, in fact it seems to be rather the reverse. An out-of-court settlement between Henry Burke and his younger sister, which seems to be very much in his favour. Harriet does get most, if not all, of the house contents, but by and large, Henry Burke seems to have got his way regarding the residue.

It still leaves the question about what exactly Burke v. O’Bryen in 1871 was about. It must have happened between the 1st February, when Harriet and Basil were married, and 8th August 1871 when the notice was published in the London Gazette. 

There are two other major questions raised by Harriet and Henry’s settlement. First,  why does Henry agree for “Mr Burke to provide for the child Rhoda.” Who is she, and why does she need to be provided for? Secondly, who are Mr and Mrs Shea, and why does Harriet ” take upon herself payment of Mr and Mrs Shea’s annuity” ?

The other person who doesn’t really seem to appear much is Elizabeth Sarah Burke. In 1870, she was forty years old , and had been married to Alfred Edwardes for fourteen years, all five of their children had been born, and their eldest son was about eleven years old. Both Elizabeth and Alfred seem to have avoided the dispute.

But the next step is to look in greater detail about what Burke v. Keith can tell us.

A deeper look at the Will of William Henry Burke (1792-1870) part 3, the court cases.

Part of the William Henry Burke story  [If you haven’t seen part 1 and part 2 use the links here]  was always going to come from what the court case was. Quite early on, I had come across this cutting from the London Gazette.

So it’s quite clear that there has been some sort of argument about the will. Given the title of the case referred to “Burke against O’Bryen” and that George Wood is “one of the defendants and executors”, it must be the case that either Basil or Harriet O’Bryen, or, most likely, both, were also defendants. The only close adult member of the Burke family likely to be the claimant is (William) Henry Burke, and it appears from this notice that he had some sort of dispute with his sister, and a brother-in-law. So the search was on for what the case was about. We knew from the details in the ” Illustrated London News “ in January 1871 that WHB left about £ 18,000. The only figures in that clipping were that Henry Burke received shares worth £ 6,070 ” beyond any other provision made for him “. We also know that he made “provision and settlement for his two daughters, and daughter in law,” , and that Harriet received £ 500 to give to charity as she saw fit, and that she was the  “residuary legatee of both his real and personal estate “. So the bulk of the estate, almost two-thirds in fact, are either settled on the daughters, and daughter-in-law, or part of the residual estate. Harriet also seems to get the family home, and potentially other property as well.

32 Thistle Grove [now Drayton Gardens] in South Kensington was a fairly new-built house, construction had started in 1845, with the majority of the houses completed by the end of the 1850’s. It had probably cost in the region of about £ 600 to build. So not a bad thing to inherit. All in all, Harriet and Basil seem to have done fairly well from her inheritance, certainly well enough for Henry Burke to feel hard done by.

The next step was to try to track down the details of Burke against O’Bryen. After a lot of fruitless searching, I finally came across something in the National Archives catalogue, having searched under O’Bryen. The following came up:

Cause number: 1872 B246. Short title: Burke v Keith.

Plaintiffs: William Henry Burke.

Defendants: Wilson Keith, Basel William O’Bryen, Harriett Matilda O’Bryen his wife, Mary Anne Burke (wife of William Henry Burke) and William Donald Henry Burke, Edmund John Burke, Kate Alice Burke spinster, Sarah Elizabeth Burke spinster and Walter Keith Burke.

The title of the court case isn’t Burke v. O’Bryen exactly, but it’s definitely a court case involving Henry Burke, his sister Harriet, and Basil O’Bryen. It had to be worth looking at, so a little over a year ago, I’d registered for a reader’s ticket, given the required notice because the records were stored off site, and was booked in for a visit to the National Archives in Kew.

A deeper look at the Will of William Henry Burke (1792-1870) part 2, Basil and Harriet.

For reasons I’m not entirely sure why, there has been a large increase in interest in the post I did just over two years ago about the will of William Henry Burke (1792-1870).  This got me to look at him again, and to see what else could be put together. This is the second of a series of posts that should explain a lot more. If you haven’t read the first one you can find it here. My starting point for looking at William Burke was one of his sons-in-law Basil O’Bryen. But everything is much more complicated than that.

To re-cap slightly.

William Henry Burke and John Roche O’Bryen [Basil’s father] were neighbours in South Kensington. Both men drew up new wills in May 1870, and died in July that year. What raised my curiosity was the fact that neither of WH Burke’s elder children, or their spouses were made executors, and he chose his youngest daughter, and her twenty-two year old fiancé Basil. Basil O’Bryen had stood out very early on. Mostly, because he is a wrong’un; he married three times, at least once bigamously [at least according the English law] in Australia. He abandoned his son from his marriage to Harriet, and his second wife and their two children, and moved to Australia, where he married his third wife. There is also signs of at least one court case, with reference to a court case Burke v. O’Bryen in a London Gazette notice in August 1871.

So on with the story.

There’s something about the Basil and Harriet story that I just can’t get at the moment. In brief, it reads like the plot of a novel. They marry when he is twenty-two, and she is thirty-three. I still can’t work out whether it’s love, money, or both. His father left  £1,000 [present-day value £750,000] to the trust Harriet was a beneficiary of when he drew up his new will. The other parties to the settlement being his daughter Corinne, and Basil’s step-mother Celia. Presumably, there were already funds in the trust, initially I thought it seemed to be a Marriage Settlement, but I am beginning to think that it was a settlement to provide income for both Corinne, and Harriet. John Roche O’Bryen’s will is very detailed, quite long, and very specific with regard to provision to the children of his second marriage to Celia Grehan. There is a great lack of detail about any of his adult children, apart from the reference to the settlement.  The reason, I now think, it may be a settlement for adult female members of the family is the will very clearly states that any sums provided for daughters should besettled upon daughters in manner following, that is to say. Upon trust, to pay the income thereof respectively to such daughter for her sole and separate use, free from the control of her husbands.” But this doesn’t really help with where Basil got any money from, and when. The best guess is that there was money from Eliza Henderson [ JROB’s first wife], his mother, and that both Henry Hewitt, and Basil had benefitted from that already.

The marriage lasted just thirty-one months, and Harriet was dead by the end of August 1873, leaving Basil a twenty-five year old widower, with an eleven-month old son Basil John. All very tragic, but Basil bounces back, and is re-married within nine months of Harriet’s death. He is now twenty-six, and his bride Agnes Kenny is twenty-three.

Basil and Harriet’s marriage also raises questions about who the families are. The main one is why were they married by the Archbishop of Westminster? Marrying in the pro-Cathedral makes sense because it is fairly close to Thistle Grove, and was probably the parish church at the time. Archbishop [later Cardinal] Manning seems to be a rather grand celebrant for the wedding, particularly as Harriet had been christened as an Anglican, at St Leonard’s Shoreditch, as had her brother, and sister. But perhaps, as Manning was a convert himself, he looked fondly on bringing Anglicans to the true Church. Elizabeth Burke, Harriet’s sister also married a Catholic.

What is interesting is how connected to the Burke family he seems to remain, at least initially. Or possibly more correctly, how connected to Burke property he is. According to the London Gazette  William Henry Burke of No 32 Thistle grove South Kensington, had his will proved by amongst others, Harriet Matilda Burke of No 32 Thistle grove  and Basil William O’Bryen of No 28 Thistle grove. So in December 1870, they each gave their father’s addresses as theirs. On the census date, April 2nd 1871, they both were listed at his step-mother’s address No 28 Thistle grove, where they were described as “visitors”. But the probate record for Harriet – slightly strangely not proved until 30th August 1875, two years after her death, gave her principal address at the time of her death as No 32 Thistle grove, which was also the address that Basil gave when he proved the will.  So five years after William Henry Burke’s death, and two years after Harriet’s, her widower is apparently still connected to the Burke family home. Even though during that time, Harriet had given birth to their son Basil junior in Torquay, and she died at 34 Cavendish Place, Eastbourne. Her probate record recorded her as “late of 32 Thistle grove”. She left just £100.

The next nugget came from a small story in “The Tablet” [The International Catholic News Weekly.]

THE PRO-CATHEDRAL—A pleasing addition has lately been made to the Pro-Cathedral of Clifton. The side chapel, dedicated to St. Joseph, has been entirely renewed and decorated, and a marble altar erected, the reredos of which was executed in Belgium. The whole has a very pleasing effect. It is the gift of Basil O’Bryen, esq., as a memorial of his late wife Harriet Matilda O’Bryen, who died August 23, 1873, and whose remains are buried in the cemetery at Fulham.  [Page 18, The Tablet, 5th February 1876.]

This is also very curious. There doesn’t appear to be any family connection between the Burke family, and Bristol. In fact, far from it. William Henry Burke gave his birthplace as the “City of London”, and Sarah Burke (neé Penny) and all the children were recorded as being born in London in the 1841 census when they were living in Noble Street in the City. [Noble Street is north-east of St Paul’s]. There is an O’Bryen Bristol connection, John Roche O’Bryen had practiced medicine there from at least 1841, and Basil himself was born there, and his mother, and six brothers and sisters, are buried in the city. But by the time Basil was 10 the O’Bryen family were in Liverpool, and by 1861, when he was 12, the family were in London, and he was at boarding school at Ratcliffe College.

It’s an interesting public gesture, and all the odder for the eccentric choice. A memorial in the Pro-cathedral in London would have seemed more obvious, given that Basil and Harriet got married there, or a memorial at St Thomas of Canterbury in Fulham, where John Roche O’Bryen, Basil’s step-brother Walter, and Harriet were buried; followed twenty-five years later by his step-mother Celia, and, later still, by another step-brother Philip. Perhaps Basil felt the need to try to repair his father’s somewhat sullied name in Bristol.

But there is still the question about why Basil and Harriet were her father’s executors, and more particularly, in a rather patriarchal age, WHB didn’t choose either his son, or a long-established son-in-law.

The Burke children were

  • Elizabeth Sarah (1829 – 1889)
  • William Henry ( 1835 -1908)
  • Harriet Matilda (1838 – 1873)

In 1870, the eldest daughter Elizabeth Sarah was forty years old , and had been married for fourteen years, all five of her children had been born, her eldest son was about eleven years old. In one of those nice twists, and coincidences, Elizabeth and Alfred Edwardes’ second son, nine year-old, Henry Grant Edwardes would go on to marry Lucy Purssell, whose sister Gertrude married Basil’s step-brother Ernest O’Bryen in 1898. So Basil’s nephew was his step-brother’s brother-in-law.

His only son William Henry, known as Henry, was thirty-five, had been married nearly nine years, and was the father of four children, with another one on the way. Yet the choice of executors was the youngest unmarried daughter, and her much younger fiancé.


So is the answer to be found in Burke v. O’Bryen ?

A deeper look at the Will of William Henry Burke (1792-1870) part 1.

For reasons I’m not entirely sure why, there has been a large increase in interest in the post I did just over two years ago about the will of William Henry Burke (1792-1870). In fact there has been a 375% increase in views this year, compared with 2016. Neither the post about his will, nor another one about him posted about the same time give many, or indeed any, clues as to why it is there. Both posts were very early ones in the history of this site, and like a lot of the early posts are almost like cuttings in a scrapbook, not clearly explaining themselves. This is the first of a series of posts that should explain a lot more. My starting point for looking at William Burke was one of his sons-in-law Basil O’Bryen.

William Henry Burke and John Roche O’Bryen [Basil’s father] were neighbours in South Kensington, both living in Thistle Grove [now Drayton Gardens, not to be confused with the current Thistle Grove, parallel with Drayton Gardens]. Both men drew up new wills in May 1870. On the 6th May in  William Henry Burke’s case, and ten days later  on the 16th May by JROB. William Burke witnessed John Roche O’Bryen’s will, and John Roche O’Bryen’s youngest adult son from his first marriage, Basil O’Bryen, was one of the executors of William Henry Burke’s will, along with WHB’s daughter Harriet, and an accountant. JROB also drew up a Deed of Settlement on the 13th May 1870, in favour of Harriet Burke, with his wife Celia, and daughter Corinne [Basil’s older sister] as trustees. This was presumably a Marriage Settlement as Basil O’Bryen and Harriet Burke married in 1871.

So far, it all appears fairly straightforward. Two families who have grown close, and about to be linked by marriage. But something about it just niggles slightly, and has almost from the start. The closer one looks the more of a story there seems to be.  For a start, both men were dead within months of drawing up the wills, and trust settlements. With almost perfect symmetry, William Henry Burke lasted seventy-two days, dying on the 17th July 1870, at Queenstown [now Cobh] in Cork; John Roche O’Bryen lived a day less, dying seventy-one days after signing his will, on 26th July 1870 at home in Thistle Grove in London. William Burke was seventy-eight years old, and JROB was sixty.

So both men may have just been putting their affairs in order, and a forthcoming marriage, and the need for a marriage settlement may have just prompted the work, or it might have been something else.

This prompted me to look at the families, and to who in each family was doing what. John Roche O’Bryen had a lot of children, well more accurately had had a lot of children. In total, he had sixteen, starting in 1833, when he was twenty-three, and finishing thirty-four years later in 1867 at the age of fifty-seven. There were ten children from his first marriage to Eliza Henderson, of whom only three survived to adulthood, and six children from the second marriage to Celia Grehan, of whom five survived to adulthood. At the time he drew up his will, JROB had three adult children, and six under the age of twelve, the youngest being two and a half.

William Henry Burke’s family is easier. He had three children with Sarah Penny, who he married in 1827. All of William’s children were over thirty, and at the time of his death, his eldest daughter was forty.

Both men had three adult children to choose from as executors, and trustees, and they appeared to make some slightly odd choices, given the possibilities. The Burke children were

  • Elizabeth Sarah (1829 – 1889)
  • William Henry ( 1835 -1908)
  • Harriet Matilda (1838 – 1873)

and JROB’s adult children were

  • Henry Hewitt (1835 – 1895)
  • Corinne Margueritte (1837 – 1907)
  • (William Gregory) Basil (1848 – 1920)

So the next step was to look at the trustees and executors. The Illustrated London News, on  Jan 14, 1871, told us that William Henry Burke’s will was proved by “Miss Harriett Matilda Burke, his daughter, George William Wood, and Basil William O’Bryen, the joint acting executors.” John Roche O’Bryen’s will was proved eighteen days after his death by his widow Celia, and Rev. Henry Hewitt O’Bryen D.D. the executors. This seems perfectly suitable, Henry is the eldest son, thirty-five years old, a doctor of divinity, and a Catholic parish priest just outside Wigan. How close the relationship between father and son was is never really that clear. Henry started training for the priesthood in his late teens, and aged twenty transferred his sponsoring diocese from Clifton, where the family home in Bristol was, to Liverpool. He then studied, and was ordained in Rome, before returning to Liverpool in 1858. Their paths crossed for a couple of years in Liverpool between 1858 and 1860, when JROB practised as a doctor there, but by 1861 John Roche O’Bryen and his family with Celia Grehan [Henry’s step-mother] had moved to London.

William Henry Burke’s executors are much odder. Here’s part of the reason why

WHB’s executors are his youngest daughter, her fiancé Basil, and an accountant. This always seemed to be slightly strange. William Henry Burke had three children, and at the time he wrote his will, his eldest daughter Elizabeth Sarah was forty years old , and had been married for fourteen years, a mother of five, her eldest son was about eleven years old. His only son William Henry, known as Henry, was thirty-five, had been married nearly nine years, and was the father of four children, with another one on the way. Yet the choice of executors was the youngest unmarried daughter, and her much younger fiancé.

Right from the start, this raised the question – Why these two? Basil O’Bryen had stood out very early on. Mostly, because he is a bit of a bounder, to put it mildly. Basil married three times, at least once bigamously [at least according the English law] in Australia. The legal position in Australia was more complicated. Apparently re-marriage after seven years of no contact with a previous wife was legal in Australia. What is beyond dispute is that he abandoned his son from his marriage to Harriet, and his second wife and their two children, and moved to Australia, where he married his third wife.

So with the benefit of hindsight, Basil does appear to be a wrong’un; which brings us back to WHB’s will, or more specifically, at this stage to the probate notice. Two things stand out, the first is that Basil is described as an accountant, and the second is his address is given as 18 Gunter Grove.  In 1870, Basil is twenty-two, and four years into an apprenticeship with Charles Rowsell, an accountant based in Walbrook, in the City, just down from the Mansion House. So maybe he is just being economical with the truth, he is a sort of accountant. But the Gunter Grove address is very confusing. It’s about three quarters of a mile away from Thistle Grove, but it does seem peculiar that he is not in the family home. He’s fairly young, as yet unmarried, and it seems unlikely that he would bother living away from the family home. 18 Gunter Grove, if he was living there, is a big house. The next piece of the jigsaw came from in a notice in the London Gazette

The London Gazette, December 9, 1870


Pursuant to the Act of Parliament of the 22nd and 23rd Vic cap 35 intituled An Act to further amend the Law of Property and to relieve Trustees

NOTICE is hereby given that all persons having any  claim, debt, or demand against or upon the estate of William Henry Burke late of No 32 Thistle grove South Kensington in the county of Middlesex Esq (who died on the 17th day of July 1870 and whose will with a codicil thereto was proved in the Principal Registry of Her Majesty’s Court of Probate on the 3rd day of December 1870 by Harriet Matilda Burke of No 32 Thistle grove South Kensington aforesaid Spinster George William Wood of No 4 Sambrook court Basinghall street in the city of London Accountant and Basil William O Bryen of No 28 Thistle grove South Kensington aforesaid Accountant are hereby required to send in the particulars of their claims debts or demands to the said George William Wood one of the said executors at his office No 4 Sambrook court Basinghall street in the city of London on or before the 1st day of February 1871 after which day the said executors will proceed to the assets of the deceased among the parties entitled thereto having regard only to the claims debts or demands of which they shall then have had notice and the said executors will not be liable for any part of such assets to any person or persons of whose claim debt or demand they shall not then have had notice Dated this 7th day of December 1870.

WILLIAM GILLS Solicitor, No. 26, Old Broad –street, E.C.

So perhaps the National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations) entry is wrong, but it is surprising that a formal legal document would get something so basic wrong, and also then place Basil O’Bryen quite so geographically close. By the time of their marriage, both Basil and Harriet are described as being in Thistle Grove again.

The Medical Press and Circular Advertiser Feb 8 1871

On the 1st inst at the Pro Cathedral Kensington, by his Grace Archbishop Manning, assisted by the Rev Fathers Foley and Conolly. Basil, second surviving son of the late John Roche O’Bryen Esq MD to Harriet Matilda, youngest daughter of the late William Henry Burke; both of Thistle Grove South Kensington.

They marry almost exactly six months after JROB’s death, and therefore six months and two weeks after William Burke’s death. This would be the expected period of “full mourning” after the death of a parent, but still relatively soon after both fathers’ deaths. It might explain the somewhat low-key, and under-reported, wedding. Having said that, one or both of them are sufficiently well-connected for them to be married by the Archbishop of Westminster himself. The Pro-Cathedral was, what is now Our Lady of Victories on Kensington High Street. But there is still the nagging question about the age gap. Basil is twenty-two, and Harriet is thirty-three. The marriage does seem to have been approved of by both fathers, or at least one can surmised that from the deed of settlement drawn up by John Roche O’Bryen in May 1870.

The next step came from the London Gazette

This looked interesting. It was something to hunt for, given the names involved, it’s a dispute about William Henry Burke’s will, and as George Wood is one of the defendants, someone is suing the executors. Are Basil and Harriet too good to be true?