"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Great Swinfen Case; Or, Why You Should Never Cross Those Welsh Parlormaids

Patience Williams Swinfen

One of the major legal scandals of the Victorian era, famed as "The Great Swinfen Case," began on a deceptively romantic note. In 1830, a wealthy country landowner named Samuel Swinfen went up to London to consult with his lawyers over some business matter. Accompanying him was his son Henry.

Upon arriving in the capital, father and son found lodgings in a Bloomsbury boarding house run by a Miss Ayers. The parlormaid in this establishment was 18-year-old Patience Williams, the daughter of a Welsh farmer.

Young Henry fell in love with Miss Williams almost at first sight, and in March 1831, this--by the standards of the day--highly mismatched pair secretly married. Possibly with a view to letting the scandal over their m├ęsalliance die down, the couple spent no less than thirteen years touring the Continent and the more obscure corners of Britain. They finally returned to Henry's family seat, Swinfen Hall, in 1844. Samuel Swinfen--who had threatened to disown his son after Henry's marriage--became so fond of his daughter-in-law that he invited the not-so-newlyweds to live with him permanently.

Swinfen Hall, circa 1900

In 1852, Samuel made a will, leaving all of his substantial estate to his son Henry. This would not have been a problem, except Samuel neglected to make any provision for the possibility that his son might predecease him. And, sure enough, in 1854 Henry was disobliging enough to do just that.

Soon after his son's death, Samuel made a new will, naming his son's widow Patience as his heir. Just three weeks after signing this new document, he too died. The former Welsh parlormaid was now owner not only of the grand Swinfen Hall, but of over 1200 acres in Staffordshire.

Well,she wouldn't be owner for long, if some of the other Swinfens had anything to say about it. Samuel Swinfen was the eldest child of his father John's first marriage. John Swinfen had had a second marriage, which also produced children. John Swinfen's eldest son from his remarriage, Francis, was by now dead, but Francis' widow Marianne saw their son Frederick as Samuel's rightful heir, last will and testament be damned. However, legally speaking, the only way she could overturn this will was if she could prove Samuel had not been in his right mind when he wrote this document.

When money is concerned, family sentiment has a way of going out the window. In 1855, Marianne and Frederick Swinfen brought a suit in front of the Court of Chancery that was, in effect, a posthumous sanity hearing for Samuel Swinfen.

At the time of his death, the eighty-year-old Samuel was known to be weak in both body and mind, of "eccentric habits," and completely dominated by his formidable daughter-in-law. Patience's lawyer, Sir Frederick Thesiger, felt Frederick Swinfen had a strong case, so he neatly stabbed his client in the back. Without her consent, Thesiger negotiated a deal where she would give Swinfen Hall to Frederick Swinfen in return for an annuity of £700 a year. When Patience heard of this, she blew her stack and flatly refused to agree. She promptly dumped Thesiger and took on new legal counsel, Charles Rann Kennedy. Patience did not pay Kennedy, but promised he would be amply rewarded when she was able to take control of her rightful estate. In the meantime, Frederick Swinfen attempted to move into Swinfen Hall, but backed off after Patience met him at the front door and fired a pistol at him.

Frederick Swinfen next filed for a rule of attachment, which would have taken Swinfen Hall from Patience by force. The Court of Chancery declined to grant this request, but one of the judges in the case cautioned both sides that they should come to some sort of agreement, lest the entire Swinfen fortune wind up going to no one but their lawyers.

Neither side heeded these wise words. Frederick Swinfen appealed this ruling, and lost. Then, in 1858, Patience and Charles Kennedy filed a new lawsuit seeking to have her ownership of Swinfen Hall well and truly established. Thanks to Kennedy's remarkably skilful--and perhaps not altogether ethical--legal maneuverings, they succeeded. Just for good measure, Kennedy publicly attacked Sir Frederick Thesiger--who was by now Lord Chancellor--for what he saw as Thesiger's unforgivable act of treachery in having tried to broker a deal with Frederick Swinfen. Kennedy's assaults on this now-powerful figure were so immoderate and insulting that they turned him, and not Thesiger, into a legal pariah. Kennedy never found work at the Bar again. He did, however, publish a book of poetry, which included this tribute to his famous client:
England hath need to thank thee, suffering Dame!
For thou shalt purge the volumes of her laws
Of many an idle page, of errors, flaws
By Ignorance traced, the record of her shame.
Thine was a courage singly to exclaim
'Gainst Might perverting Justice. For thy cause
Truth, Wisdom, Virtue, stand. The glad applause
Of millions greets thee. Honour'd be thy name!
The canting tones of dull Servility
In halls of Themis shall be heard no more;
And tricksters shall unlearn their crafty lore:
So potent is thy spell! At sight of thee
Behold where Treason skulks with conscious dread,
And base Corruption hangs her guilty head.
The Great Swinfen Case destroyed Kennedy not just professionally, but personally as well. During the years he acted as Patience's lawyer, the two had become romantically involved, despite the fact that he already had a wife and six children. Patience began to tire of an affair that was clearly destined to go nowhere--or perhaps it was her lover's poetry that cooled her affections--and in 1861 she unceremoniously broke things off with Kennedy and married a wealthy widower named Charles Wilsone Broun.

Kennedy was enraged by what he saw as the gross ingratitude of the woman for whom he had sacrificed so much. He published a pamphlet giving his side of the story where he rechristened his former "suffering Dame" as "The Serpent of Swinfen." He put up libelous posters about her all over the neighborhood of Swinfen Hall. He sued her for £20,000 he claimed she had promised him for his legal services. During the trial, Kennedy mercilessly aired every detail of their relationship--even reading her love letters to him aloud in court--in the hope of using this proof of her "immorality" to utterly destroy her credibility. He won his case, but the new Mrs. Broun was more than a match for him. She appealed the verdict so successfully that the court wound up deciding that not only that Patience didn't owe him a nickel, but that Kennedy must pay all the court costs. Furthermore, they made the landmark ruling that an English barrister's fees were an honorarium, and thus could not be the subject of a legal claim. Upon hearing this verdict, Kennedy made what we are told were such "unsavory statements" that he was disbarred altogether. In 1867, this talented and once highly-promising man died bitter, disgraced, and utterly broken, cursing Patience and the whole Swinfen clan to the last.

Patience Broun was clearly not a woman to be trifled with. She outlasted all challengers and lived quietly and prosperously in Swinfen Hall until her death in 1876. She never had any children, so the Swinfen estate passed to her widower, Charles Broun. After his death in 1883, the property went to a son from his first marriage, Colonel Michael Swinfen-Broun. The Colonel was also childless, so after he passed from this world in 1948, the once greatly prized Swinfen Hall, the center of so much legal bitterness, became a mere abandoned wreck. It was unoccupied until 1987, when it was transformed into a lovely Edwardian-style hotel.

During those years that Swinfen stood empty, it was said to have harbored a ghost. It has been suggested this was the uneasy soul of Charles Kennedy, vainly seeking the vengeance he had never been able to find in life.

1 comment:

  1. Since Samuel Swinfen and his daughter-in-law lived in what we must assume to be in peace for ten years (certainly he liked her enough to invite her and his son to live with him, as you pointed out), there doesn't seem to be much cause for thinking he didn't really want everything to go to her, though it's unusual for a landed proprietor in those days to pass over his living relatives for one who might eventually take the property out of the family.

    It's too bad the house and estate aren't still intact. Seeing houses meant for families become hotels or, worse, some business headquarters or hospital, is sad.


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