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William George Howard

William George Howard—the Pretended Earl of Wicklow

On the 22d of March, 1869, William, the fourth Earl of Wicklow, died, without male issue. His next brother, the Hon. and Rev. Francis Howard, had died during the late earl's lifetime, after being twice married. By his first marriage he had had three sons, none of whom had survived; but one son blessed his second nuptials, and he claimed the peerage at his uncle's death. A rival, however, appeared to contest his right in the person of William George Howard, an infant, who was represented by his guardians as the issue of William George Howard, the eldest son of the Hon. and Rev. Francis Howard by his first marriage, and a certain Miss Ellen Richardson. As to the birth of the former claimant there could be no doubt, and it was not denied that his eldest half-brother had been married as stated; but the birth of the infant was disputed, and the matter was left for the decision of the House of Lords.

The case for the infant was briefly as follows:—Mr. W.G. Howard, his reputed father, was married to Miss Richardson, in February, 1863. Four months after their marriage the couple went to lodge with Mr. Bloor, an outdoor officer in the customs, who resided at 27 Burton Street, Eaton Square. Here they remained only three weeks, but during that time appear to have contracted a sort of friendship with the Bloor family, for, after being absent till the latter end of the year, they returned to the house in Burton Street, and endeavoured to procure apartments there. Mr. Bloor's rooms were full, and he was unable to accommodate them; but, in order to be near his old friends, Mr. Howard took apartments for his wife, at No. 32, in the same street. Being a person of dissipated and peculiar habits, and being, moreover, haunted by duns, he did not himself reside in the new lodgings, or even visit there; but, by Mr. Bloor's kindness, was accustomed to meet his wife occasionally in a room, which was placed at his service, in No. 27. Still later, Mrs. Howard returned to lodge at Mr. Bloor's, and occupied the whole upper portion of the house, while the lower half was rented by one of her friends, named Baudenave. Mr. Howard, in the meantime, remained in concealment in Ireland, and thither Mr. Bloor proceeded in April or May 1864, and had an interview with him, at which it was arranged that the Burton Street lodging-house keeper should allow Mrs. Howard to be confined at his residence, and should make every arrangement for her comfort. On the 16th of May, Mrs. Howard, whose confinement was not then immediately expected, informed the Bloors that she intended to leave London for a time, and set out in a cab for the railway station. In a very short time she returned, declaring that she felt extremely ill, and was immediately put to bed; but there being few symptoms of urgency, she was allowed to remain without medical attendance until Mr. Bloor returned from his work at eight o'clock, when his wife despatched him for Dr. Wilkins, a medical man whom Mrs. Howard specially requested might be summoned, although he was not the family doctor, and lived at a considerable distance. At half-past nine o'clock Mr. Bloor returned without the doctor; and was told by his rejoicing spouse, that her lodger had been safely delivered of a son under her own superintendence, and that the services of the recognised accoucheur could be dispensed with. Proud of the womanly skill of his wife, and glad to be spared the necessity of another wearisome trudge through the streets, he gladly remained at home, and Dr. Wilkins was not sent for several weeks, when he saw and prescribed for the infant, who was suffering from some trifling disorder. Unfortunately, this fact could not be proved, nor could the doctor's evidence be obtained as to Mr. Bloor's visit, as he had died before the case came on. But Mrs. Bloor, who attended Mrs. Howard during her confinement; Miss Rosa Day, sister of Mrs. Bloor, who assisted her in that attendance; Miss Jane Richardson, sister of Mrs. Howard; and Mr. Baudenave, their fellow-lodger, were all alleged to have seen the child repeatedly during the three following months, although it was admitted that its existence was kept a profound secret from everybody else. The three women above-mentioned were placed in the witness-box, and gave their evidence clearly and firmly, and agreed with each other in the story which they told; and, although Mrs. Bloor was rigorously cross-examined, her testimony was not shaken. When Mr. Baudenave was wanted he could not be found, and even the most urgent efforts of detectives failed to secure his attendance before the court.

On the other side it was contended that the story told on behalf of the infant plaintiff was so shrouded in mystery as to be absolutely incredible, and that it was concocted by the missing Baudenave, who was said to have been living on terms of suspicious familiarity with Mrs. Howard, and who had succeeded in inducing the witnesses to become accomplices in the conspiracy from motives of self-interest. Evidence was also produced to show that the birth had not taken place. A dressmaker, who measured Mrs. Howard for a dress, a little time before the date of her alleged confinement, swore that no traces of her supposed condition were then visible. Dr. Baker Brown and another medical man deposed that they had professionally attended a lady, whom they swore to as Mrs. Howard, and had found circumstances negativing the story of the confinement; and Louisa Jones, a servant, who lived in the house in Burton Street shortly after the birth of the infant, said she had never seen or heard of its existence. After the hearing of this evidence the case was postponed.

On its resumption Mrs. Howard produced witnesses to show that she was at Longley, in Staffordshire, during the whole of that period of August, 1864, to which the evidence of Dr. Baker Brown and the other medical witness related.

At the sitting of the court, on the 1st of March, 1870, Sir Roundell Palmer (Lord Selborne), who represented Charles Francis Howard, the other claimant, gave the whole case a new complexion by informing the court that he was in a position to prove that, in the month of August, 1864, Mrs. Howard and another lady visited a workhouse in Liverpool, and procured a newly-born child from its mother, Mary Best, a pauper, then an occupant of one of the lying-in wards of the workhouse hospital. In support of his assertion he was able to produce three witnesses—Mrs. Higginson, the head-nurse, and Mrs. Stuart and Mrs. O'Hara, two of the assistant-nurses, of whom two could swear positively to Mrs. Howard's identity with the lady who came and took away the child. The third nurse was in doubt.

The Solicitor-General, who represented the infant-claimant, thereupon requested an adjournment, in order to meet the new case thus presented. Their lordships, however, refused to comply with his desire until they had had an opportunity of examining Mrs. Howard; but when that lady was called she did not appear, and it was discovered that she had left the House of Lords secretly, and could not be found at her lodgings or discovered elsewhere. The case was therefore adjourned. At the next sitting, a week later, Mrs. Howard appeared before the committee, but refused to be sworn, demanding that the witnesses who were to be brought against her should be examined first. As she persisted in her refusal, she was given into custody for contempt of court, and the evidence of the Liverpool witnesses was taken. As Sir Roundell Palmer had stated, while one of the nurses remembered the transaction she could not be positive that Mrs. Howard was the party concerned in it; but the two others, and Mary Best the child's mother, had no hesitation in asserting that she was the person who had taken away the infant from the hospital. Towards the close of the sitting it was announced that a telegram had been received from Boulogne, stating that the real purchasers of Mary Best's child had been found, and that they would be produced at the next hearing of the case to re-but the Liverpool evidence; but when the next sitting came no Boulogne witnesses were forthcoming, and the Solicitor-General was compelled to state that he had been on the wrong scent; but that he would be able to refute the story which had been trumped up against his client. Mary Best was placed in the witness-box, and, in the course of a rigorous cross-examination, admitted that she had left the workhouse with a baby which she had passed off as her own. She stated that this child was given to her while she was in the workhouse, but she could not tell either its mother's name or the name of the person who gave it to her. She had never received any payment for it, but had fed and clothed it at her own expense, had taken it with her to her father's house in Yorkshire, had represented it as her own to her family, and had paid the costs of its burial when it died. Her relatives and friends were produced, and corroborated these facts. The nurses, on the other hand, when recalled, denied all knowledge of this second child, and affirmed that a child could not have been brought to her without their knowledge.

The court delivered judgment on the 31st of March, 1870, when the Lord Chancellor announced that their lordships had come to the conclusion that Charles Francis Arnold Howard had made out his claim, and was entitled to vote at the election of representative peers for Ireland as Earl of Wicklow; and that the infant claimant, the son of Mrs. Howard, had failed in establishing his claim to that privilege. He said the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Howard was undisputed, and the real difficulty that surrounded the case was in proving the birth of this child without the evidence usually forthcoming of such an event—neither medical man nor nurse having been present at the birth, or having attended either the mother or the child subsequently. The fact that the existence of the child had been concealed from all the world, and that it had neither been registered nor baptised, increased the difficulties in the way of Mrs. Howard's case. It was a remarkable fact that, up to that time, with the exception of three persons who had undoubtedly sworn distinctly to certain circumstances, no human being had been called who had noticed that Mrs. Howard had shown signs of being in the family-way; and it was equally remarkable that those who had had ample opportunity of noticing her condition at the time, and who might have given distinct and positive evidence on the point, had either not been called, or had refused to give evidence in the case. Undoubtedly, as far as words could go, their lordships had had the distinct evidence of two witnesses, who stated that they were present when the alleged birth occurred, and of another who had stated that he had gone to fetch the doctor, who was sent for, not because the birth was expected to occur, but because Mrs. Howard was taken suddenly ill. Of course, if credence could be given to the statement of these witnesses, the case put forward by Mrs. Howard was established beyond a doubt, and most painful it was for him to arrive at the conclusion, as he felt bound to do, that those persons had been guilty of the great crime of not only giving false evidence by deposing to events that had never occurred, but of conspiring together to endeavour to impose upon the Wicklow family a child who was not the real heir to the title and estates attaching to the earldom. He was bound to add that the demeanour of Mrs. Bloor and her sister Rosa Day in the witness-box, was such that, if the case were not of such prodigious importance, and if it had not been contradicted by all surrounding circumstances, their statement, which they had given with firmness and without hesitation, would have obtained credence. It was, however, so utterly inconsistent with all the admitted facts, and with the rest of the evidence, that he was compelled to arrive at the painful conclusion that it was a mere fabrication, intended to defeat the ends of justice. The evidence of Dr. Baker Brown, who had identified Mrs. Howard as the person whom he had examined, on the 8th of July, 1864, and who had stated to him that she had never had a child, was very strong, and was only to be explained upon the supposition that it was a case of mistaken identity; and that it was her sister Jane Richardson, who was examined, and not Mrs. Howard. This supposition, however, was entirely set aside by the Longney witnesses, who stated that upon the occasion of the birth-day dinner party at Longney, which had been brought forward to prove an alibi, both Mrs. Howard and her sister Jane Richardson were present. It was evident, therefore, either that the story could not be true, or that the witnesses were mistaken as to the day on which that event had occurred, and under these circumstances the whole evidence in support of the alibi  broke down altogether. Having arrived at this conclusion with respect to the original case set up by Mrs. Howard, it was scarcely necessary to allude to the Liverpool story, which was certainly an extraordinary and a singular one, and had a tendency to damage the case of those who had set it up, although he did not see how they could possibly have withheld it from the knowledge of their lordships. Looking at the fact that Mary Best was proved to have been delivered of a fair child, and that the child she took out of the workhouse with her was a dark child, he confessed that much might be said both in favour of and against the truth of her statement; but it was, perhaps, as well that it might be entirely disregarded in the present case; and, at all events, in his opinion, there was nothing in its being brought forward which was calculated to shake their lordships' confidence in the character of those who were conducting the case on behalf of the original claimant.

Lord Chelmsford next delivered a long judgment, agreeing with that of the Lord Chancellor, and in the course of it remarked that it was impossible to disbelieve the story of the alleged birth, as he did, without coming to the conclusion that certain of the witnesses had been guilty of the grave crimes of conspiracy and perjury. With reference to the Liverpool story, he said he was satisfied that the child brought into the workhouse by Mary Best, and taken by her to Yorkshire, was not that of which she had been confined, although he did not believe her statement of the way in which she had become possessed of the child which she had subsequently passed off as her own.

Lords Colonsay and Redesdale concurred; and the Earl of Winchelsea, as a lay lord, and one of the public, gave it as his opinion that the story told by Mrs. Howard was utterly incredible, being only worthy to form the plot of a sensational novel. He regretted that Mr. Baudenage, the principal mover in this conspiracy, would escape unscathed.

Their lordships, therefore, resolved that Mrs. Howard's child had no claim to the earldom; but that Charles Francis Arnold Howard, the son of the Hon. Rev. Francis Howard, by his second marriage, had made out his right to vote at the election of representative peers for Ireland as Earl of Wicklow.