Martha Davenport –The difficulty in Selling an Estate, The Complications of Inheritance and a Decree of Lunacy

on Thursday, 12 November 2015. Posted in Beyond Wiltshire

When Reverend Dr William Davenport (1725-1781) died he left his wife Martha (1720-1790) with his substantial debts. As well as her own finances Martha had to consider the inheritance due to their five children, including the care of two sons with mental health incapacities. The youngest son William (1763-1800) had been made heir to the Lacock estate by Martha’s brother, John Talbot (1691-1772) and was considered to have generous provision. The youngest daughter, Mary (1757-1793) was married to John Shakespear, but Barbara (1754-1812) the eldest daughter, was single as were the two sons Prideaux Sutton (1752-1807) the eldest son and John (1759-1809). Although Martha had been given a life interest in the Lacock estate in the will of her brother, John Talbot, she was acting as custodian for her son William.

Reverend William Davenport

 Reverend William Davenport

Shortly before his death in 1772 Talbot wrote to Martha detailing changes to his will (1). He expressed concern that her marriage settlement left her with poor provision: ‘I am determined you shall have a provision fit for my sister.’ He explained that Reverend Dr Davenport had told him the settlement allowed her was ‘£120 on Cheshire and the interest of £3000 funds which I suppose after your decease goes to your two daughters as he told me he can only give them £1500 each’ (2). Marriage settlements were drawn up in order to secure the estate for the eldest son. This empowered the male line ‘to raise jointures – capital sums – for their daughters and younger sons. The amount of jointure and portions were specified in the settlements’ (3). It was a means of keeping estates intact, and the money was often raised by mortgaging properties. In 1782, the year following her husband’s death, Martha Davenport began to explore the possibility of selling the Coole Pilate estate in Cheshire which belonged to the Davenport family and was part of Martha’s settlement. Martha could little have realised the legal complications which would ensue from what seemed to be a straightforward transaction. The main correspondence concerning the sale of the estate spans six years (4).

The estate, which consisted of a main house and a 228 acre farm, was not in good repair. In a letter dated 1781 the estate manager, Samuel Harding, warned Dr Davenport that ‘the buildings are becoming dilapidated’, in the same letter he enclosed 3 years of ‘unsigned repair bills’. Samuel Harding had been the manager for many years. In a letter he sent to Dr Davenport on 21st March 1764 he outlined a 21 year plan for managing the estate. The plan included incorporating land from the village. He also suggested letting the farm to John Walker on a 21 year lease at £130 per annum ‘excluding land tax and building repairs’. The decision to grant the lease was made, as in later correspondence Harding informed Martha that Mrs Walker’s lease ended on Lady Day 1785. John Walker died in 1781 and his widow Mary took over the tenancy and was assisted by her son. The leasing of the farm became a bone of contention between Harding and Martha.

In a letter dated October 1782 Samuel advised Martha that ‘the land is not worth more than £3000 in the present climate’. He also suggested extending the lease to ‘widow Walker’ as the family knows the land. By February of 1783 it is apparent from the exchange of letters that Martha had sought the advice of her son-in-law John Shakespear. He in turn enlisted the aid of his brother-in-law Reverend Lloyd who lived in Aston, Cheshire. The distance between Lacock and Coole Pilate meant that the family had insufficient knowledge of the property market in Cheshire so the views and interventions of a trusted friend with local knowledge became desirable.

Coole Hall Farm

Coole Hall Farm, in 2011 as a bed and breakfast, now a private residence. Reproduced by kind permission of Keith Wild.

Between March 1783 and November 1784 the correspondence reveals the contradictory advice given to Martha. With the permission of the family Reverend Lloyd had employed Mr Vernon to measure and survey the land for sale at auction. Vernon thought the estate would sell and strongly advised against extending the lease as a long term sitting tenant would devalue the property and make it unattractive to potential buyers. He advised that any lease should be only on a yearly basis. However Mr Harding was advising against a sale and suggested extending the lease to Mrs Walker for a 25 year term as her current lease would end on Lady Day 1785. He constantly warned Martha that the property was unsaleable, citing the dilapidation of the buildings, the poor state of the roads and that the farmland was on poor clay. Samuel Harding must have felt vindicated in his opinion when the estate was offered at auction in January 1785 and received no bids. In March 1785 he wrote to Martha telling her that Mr Vernon advertised in the wrong places and in a statement revealing the strained relationship between the men says of Vernon, ‘he has never thought me worth his notice’.

The saga of the feasibility of selling Coole Pilate continued throughout 1785 and 1786. In June 1785 Harding reiterated his advice to Martha that the letting of the property on a yearly basis would be injurious to the Estate and result in further depreciation of the buildings. There is a fragment of a copy of Martha’s reply to this letter which reveals her frustration. She states that it is a year since he received her answer concerning the tenancy and sale, ‘I think it is a great impropriety of conduct in you – I receive daily acc[ounts] of depredations committed on the estate by only letting it by the year that by and by it will be worth but a Title.’ During the same period there was a correspondence between John Shakespear and Reverend Lloyd concerning the tenancy. The latter voiced suspicions about Harding’s motives in promoting a long tenancy. On 5th July 1785, Lloyd wrote of Harding, ‘I am informed that he is connected with the tenant’ and he believes ‘They seek a longer lease to get preferential terms’. In a later letter to Martha, Lloyd reported Vernon’s view that ‘he strongly suspects that advantage is taken of your being at such distance by your agent and tenant.’ In December 1785 Barbara Davenport wrote on behalf of her mother to Samuel Harding stipulating that the lease must be let on a yearly basis and that if the Walkers did not agree to the arrangement he must find new tenants, she gave an expected sale price of £4000. Barbara concluded her letter ‘You have long been a faithful agent we will not suffer any private pique or misunderstanding between yr self and Mr. Vernon to injure or perplex our business’.

During 1786 Martha received one query and an offer to buy Coole Pilate, the first in February from Reverend John Broadbent who wrote directly to Martha requesting details of the price. Barbara referred him to Harding who dismissed Broadbent on the grounds that he was in no position to buy but was hoping for a bargain as he had heard ‘the title is not complete’. The second was in December from Mr Hunt of Northwich who offered £3000 which Harding thought to be a reasonable price. Martha refused the offer as the property had already been advertised for two months to be presented at Auction in January 1787. The family was expecting to make a greater price by acting on Reverend Lloyd’s advice and selling at auction. As a result of preparing for auction the correspondence of the final three months of 1786 became more frequent with Harding still resisting the sale despite clear instruction.

There is a copy of a letter written by Barbara to Mr Harding on 6th September 1786. She informed him that the whole family have now been consulted and agree that Coole Pilate should be auctioned after two months of advertising in various London and local newspapers as well as handbills in the local major towns. She assured him ‘We have no fear of our being able to produce a good Title to the Estate but as Evil Report by your last letter seems to hint to the contrary being doubted it need perhaps not be amiss to mention that a fair and good Title will be given’. Harding replied on the 17th September that he needs exact instructions for the advertisement as the late Mr Vernon had never consulted him. He goes on to say that the estate cannot bring more than £3700 because of its condition and that Mary Walker finds the yearly tenancy unfair. These letters were forwarded from Martha to Barbara, at the Shakespears’ home. In the cover letter Martha complains that Mary Walker is mentioned ‘as if her consent were needed’. She confirmed that she had provided four copies of the letter to Barbara’s brother and Mary.

In October 1786, Harding still seemed to be under the impression that the estate would or could not be sold. Although he sent the lease from Mary Walker to Martha he also suggested repairs which would have required the building of a brick kiln at the cost of £166. There is no recorded response to the suggestion however it can be surmised if there was an answer it would have been negative. In the meantime Martha’s London lawyer, Mr Stokes, was preparing an abstract for the title. On 17th October 1786 he informed Martha that there was a lease of 1000 years which had been created in 1699 which was as good as a freehold and that he has created a good title. He also requested a deed between her parents respecting £3000 and a copy of her grandfather Talbot’s will. In the eighteenth century property was transferred by ‘Lease and Release’ which required two separate documents to change hands to create a title deed. In order to sell a leasehold property the vendor had to produce deeds by which the land was acquired (5). If a title was not considered legally robust it was feared that the land could be taken by the Crown (as all land was ultimately considered Crown property) or a later demand could be made upon the estate by members of the vendor’s family. Martha’s cousin Thomas Mansel Talbot was able to produce deeds for Mr Stokes and assured Martha that he was satisfied with Stokes’ progress. Unfortunately this complicated legal process created even more protracted difficulties after the sale of Coole Pilate.

The Coole Pilate estate was auctioned at Audlem, Cheshire on 4th January 1887 overseen by Samuel Harding and Reverend Lloyd. The sale price of £4020 exceeded everyone’s expectations. Far from celebrating Mr Harding continued with a note of pessimism. Only four days after the sale, he complained that they would have reached a higher price if it had been a freehold property. Though he grudgingly admitted it sold well considering the state of dilapidation, he omits to mention that a few weeks earlier he thought it worth only £3000. In the same letter of 8th January 1786, he raised some legal questions to help him to prepare for the completion of the sale. He requested details of Trustees from a 1774 abstract, and to explore aspects of Martha’s marriage settlement. He noted that £3000 from the sale or mortgage of the Cheshire estate should belong to ‘the younger children of the marriage on a share and share alike basis’. However he noted that sums of £2000 and £500 were in trust for the eldest son and he asked for that son’s name and contact details.

At the end of January 1787 Harding requested yet more documents including a deed of settlement from 1668, when the property was owned by Ralph Horton, and a copy of John Ivory Talbot’s will. He concluded the letter by writing ‘I presume your two daughters are of age and also your oldest son Mr Prideaux Davenport whom, by what it appears is entitled to the residue of the money.’ Prideaux was the eldest son of Martha and William he was deemed medically ‘incapable’ of acting on his own behalf as was a younger son, John. The precise condition is not named, however the law of primogeniture meant that Prideaux as the eldest son should inherit any property not settled elsewhere.

On 1st February 1787, Martha wrote to Thomas Mansel Talbot who was a trustee and guardian with Martha for both Prideaux and John. She wished to check that she had correctly understood the distribution of money from the sale. ‘To pay to Babs and Mrs. S. [Mary Shakespeare] the £1500 that is their undoubted right after my death…’ she continued that she should have a bond for interest on the sum for her life and that any residue may not be used to pay her husband’s debts as it belongs equally to the younger children. Thomas replied that Mr Stokes had informed him that ‘the overplus at £3000 certainly belonged to Prideaux after your decease, but that it might be lent on the security at the mortgage at the Lacock Estate’.

The buyer was unhappy with the legal complications. On 3rd April Harding reported that the buyer had taken two legal opinions and both agreed that all of the children must be made parties. ‘I’m afraid that as you say two of them are incapable of Acts for themselves, that they must join under a special order of a Court of Chancery’. The letter continued that Harding disagrees with Martha’s interpretation of the settlement and goes on to enquire ‘under what Infirmities of mind yr two sons labor under’. In the same letter he wrote that William may release any interest in the ‘defective appointment to the £3000. Martha replied that although Cheshire was not part of the title she and her husband had power to dispose of £3000 on any child or children adding ‘two of my poor children not being capable of acting for themselves and the youngest being amply provided for by his uncle’. Martha obviously found the constant references to her disabled sons hurtful and intrusive: ‘I don’t rightly understand what is intended by the purchaser interfering in family affairs’.

Addressing the problem of the defective appointment on 19th April Mr Stokes, the London lawyer, found that Mr Parsons, who drew up the document, had ‘departed from the form prescribed’, he goes on to describe a form of amicable settlement in which William can sign away his portion to his sisters, he hoped that this would dispense with ‘a commission of Lunacy’ (6) which would incur more expense. In the same letter is a copy of one sent to Mr Harding asking him to ‘dispense with Prideaux and John executing the Purchase Deed as they lay under legal disabilities.’

Barbara, who was staying with her sister and brother-in-law wrote to Martha on 28th April telling her that John Shakespear ‘will manage this plague of a business’ and that she should now leave all correspondence to the Lawyers. On the same day Shakespear wrote to Stokes saying; ‘our great object is to spare our mother’s feelings’ asking for all correspondence to be sent to him. He also says that he has written to Harding. The copy of this letter reiterates Martha’s distress; ‘At the same time her feelings are exceedingly alarmd that any Public acts be necessary to expose the unfortunate infirmities of her children’. Family tensions were running high as in the letter from Barbara earlier in the paragraph she had to explain to her mother ‘we only joked when we talked that 750 was a tempting son for a young man’. She assured Martha that she knew that William would release his share of the money and that she had every affection for her brother. Although it is only one side of the exchange between mother and daughter Barbara’s response infers that her mother was distressed by the apparent slur on her son. Indeed William signed the necessary document in the following month.

In a letter dated April 1787 Barbara suggested that Martha should write to Mr Harding explaining that she and Thomas Mansel Talbot are guardians to Prideaux and John and that the whole family will ‘do everything reasonable that the perchaser can wish for but that you hope he will befriend you as much as possible’. She later opines ‘the Lawyers seem all pleas’d to have Started fresh game’. Barbara also tells her mother that she has spoken to Mr Parsons and he suggested a bond of indemnity signed by William Davenport Talbot and Thomas Mansel Talbot as gentlemen and land owners as a means of protecting the purchaser from future claims on the estate by Prideaux and John.

Unfortunately Martha’s wishes to avoid a Chancery commission were to no avail. In 1787 a decree of lunacy was granted for Prideaux and John naming Martha as a legal guardian. The legal term lunatic was used to describe a person who was ‘sometimes of good and sound memory and understanding and sometimes not’ whereas ‘idiot’ described ‘natural fools from birth’ (7). The Lord Chancellor was responsible for appointing commissioners to hold an ‘inquisition’ to establish whether a person was of sound mind; he then appointed a ‘committee’ that is ‘those to whom care of the lunatic and their Estate was committed’: this was usually the next of kin whose accounts could be examined in order to establish proper administration of the estate (8). At the time of Prideaux and John’s committal the Lord Chancellor was 1st Baron Edward Thurlow.

It is important to stress that in the case of Prideaux and John the family seemed to just accept that they lacked legal capacity as a matter of fact. Certainly they are acknowledged in letters from both Barbara and Thomas Mansel Talbot who send love to ‘Prid’ and Martha returns the sentiment in her own letters, ending ‘Prid sends love’. Barbara also sends ‘kisses to sweet John’, therefore it seems likely that the sons remained with Martha rather than being committed to an asylum. In the Coole Pilate letters their disability is referred to in respectful terms with consideration given for their care. Although Martha wished to spare the expense of Chancery and had a distaste for public exposure the letters also show evidence of her wish to protect her sons.

The legal arguments had not ceased by 1788. John Shakespear had requested that Mary’s money should be paid to trustees. The purchaser, Mr Sherritt of Nantwich, refused to transfer the money on advice from his attorney as one of the trustees resided abroad (9). Harding wrote to Martha telling her that if Shakespear took the case to Chancery Mr Sherritt would defend it rigorously. In a rough copy of a note from Shakespear he agreed he would gladly remove the name if it was legal but was perplexed as that particular trustee was his rather than Mary’s. It is not apparent from the documentation if this point was resolved.

Barbara was not free from the legal system either. Martha died in 1790 and Barbara proposed herself as guardian to Prideaux and John. This was not contested by the family, who no doubt were pleased that she was prepared to shoulder the responsibility. However accounts show that the process through Chancery took a year to complete, incurring sizeable legal fees. The account also included legal representation against Drummond’s bank to release her Settlement following Martha’s death (10). The lengthy legal proceedings certainly proved profitable for the lawyers involved in the sale of Coole Pilate.


1. WRO 2664/3/2B/11
2. As above
3. Marriage Settlements in the Eighteenth Century author H.B. Habakuk, 1949
4. WRO 2664/1/4G/7 – Except where otherwise referenced the quotes and information of events from correspondence can be found in this bundle.
5. http// and property7
6. The eighteenth century legal terms are used throughout the descriptions of this part of the proceedings. 
7. ‘National Archives Research Guides for Records of Mental Health’
8. National Archives Research Guide for Records of Mental Health – ‘Property of Lunatics and the Role of Chancery’
9. WRO 2664/1/2G/8
10. WRO 2664/2/1B 

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