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Meaburn Tatham and the Lyne Stephens fortune

William Stephens, born in 1731 the illegitimate son of a Cornish servant girl, opened a glass factory in the village of Marinha Grande, Portugal. Through his friendship with the Marquis of Pombal, he was granted a monopoly of glass supply and exemption from all taxes, allowing him to build up enormous wealth.

Decades later, in June 1827, William Stephens' massive fortune passed to his cousin Charles Lyne. To his own assets of half a million pounds, he had added the Stephens wealth of several times that amount, giving him one of the largest fortunes in England.

After Charles Lyne's death on 9 May 1849, his lawyer Meaburn Tatham opened the will which Charles had written in his own handwriting nine years before. He had left the residue of his estate to his son Stephens Lyne Stephens.

His father's fortune having made him the richest commoner in England, Stephens set out to become a man of property. Meaburn Tatham had told him of land in Norfolk which his legal firm was handling and which was due to be auctioned in the summer of 1856. Stephens attended the auction and bought the Lynford estate.

Stephens died on 28 February 1860. In his will dated December 1851 and a codicil written eight years later, following his father's wishes, he had left the Lyne Stephens fortune in trust for his widow Yolande, and, after her death, to the living descendants of his four Lyne uncles, most of whom had little or no money of their own. Meaburn Tatham proved the will on 29 March 1860.

Stephens had made no mention of his Paris property, the Hôtel Molé, in his codicil, so Yolande searched his papers and found a document dated May 1857: "I give and bequeath to Madame Lyne Stephens, my wife, my house and messuage situate at Paris".

Yolande produced this paper which was, she informed the trustees, a valid will under French law. The trustees thought differently. At the same time they were daunted by the size and complexity of the administration. To relieve themselves of responsibility, they applied to have the will administered as a friendly suit in the court of chancery, a court renowned for its inefficiency, the court known to swallow up whole fortunes in legal charges.

The trustees approached the court in July 1860 with a bill of complaint filed by Meaburn Tatham. "The plaintiffs are advised," explained Tatham, "that they ought to convert the testator's residuary estate and invest the proceeds according to the trusts of the will and that, owing to its extent and magnitude, such conversion is attended with difficulty and risk. They therefore pray that the real and personal estate may be administered by this court and that the rights of all parties therein may be ascertained and declared."

Other issues brought up by the bill of complaint were the legal situation regarding the Hôtel Molé and the amount of interest and dividends that should be paid to Yolande. Stephens's was clear on this point (the income from his residuary estate was to be paid "into the hands of my dear wife"), but the trustees asked the court to vary this provision. The widow, they wrote, "claims to be entitled to the income of the residuary estate from the day of the testator's death but the plaintiffs are advised that, having regards to the nature of such estate, she is not entitled to receive such large benefits and it is doubtful what amount of income she ought to receive." [Chancery papers, Bulkeley vs Stephens, Bill of Complaint, July 1860]

Stephens's motives in leaving the whole of his residuary property to the issue of his four uncles were not as altruistic as supposed. He had prepared his will seven months after his father's death, instructing Meaburn Tatham to draft a clause that followed Charles's expressed desire that his son "should leave the bulk of the property to his and my near relations, the Lynes." Tatham had worked for Charles and his son for many years but, whereas Charles had written the will in his own clear and unequivocal language, Stephens had relied on Tatham to draft it for him. And since he had no business or legal experience, he had simply signed the will that Tatham had placed before him. This stated that his residuary estate, after the death of his widow, should be divided among "such issue" of his four uncles "as shall be living at my decease, share and share alike."

In February 1861, when the court of chancery ruled that those entitled to a share of the fortune should provide proof of their claims, Meaburn Tatham contacted the potential beneficiaries. "Amongst other enquiries which are to be made," he wrote, "the first is as to who were the issue at the time of the testator's death of the uncles named in the will. When the proper time arrives, I am directed to take in the claims of the great number of those who represent themselves as such issue, and I shall be glad to hear from you if it is your wish that I should carry in your claim also." [Letter, Tatham to R B Lyne, 16 Feb 1861. Meaburn Tatham Snr drafted the will; his son (and namesake) handled matters for the beneficiaries.]

That was a smart move, for the beneficiaries were compelled to employ lawyers to prove their claims and many of them did instruct him to act on their behalf. As Francis Lyne explained, "My cousin was not equal to his father in knowing the value of a word. The lawyer who made his will left out some words, which my cousin did not notice, hence it became what is called a lawyer's will and very materially frustrated the intention of my uncle and, of course, my cousin. The lawyer did much injury to the Lyne family and, not long after my cousin's death, he told me that he already had sixty of my relations as clients. The lawyers must make more than they ought out of this will and the Lyne family must very largely suffer."

The problem was that Tatham had failed to define the word "issue". Stephens had intended it to mean the children and grandchildren of his four uncles but, because the word had not been defined, the court gave it the widest possible interpretation. Since every beneficiary had to prove his or her pedigree, it was not until 1863 that a definitive list was drawn up with eighty-nine names. Later that year, after several families had queried the term "living at my decease", the definition was enlarged to include infants still in the womb at the time of Stephens' death. This added another four and there were rumours of lawyers attending childbirth to certify the safe arrival of a beneficiary.

The person who did most to help Tatham prepare the claims was Richard Lyne's eldest son who supplied information for a family tree several yards long. "It was at Mr Tatham's special request," he wrote, "that I undertook to procure the necessary information as to births, marriages, deaths, christenings, etc. It not only occasioned me much trouble but also subjected me to much expense and, despite Mr Tatham's repeated request, I refused all remuneration."

The beneficiaries on Tatham's pedigree were a diverse bunch. Many died during Yolande's lifetime. Meaburn Tatham advised on the matter of legacy duty. He recommended immediate payment. "The present value of a share may be taken at £3000," he explained , "and the duty valued thereon, at three percent, would be £90 if paid now. The share when it falls into possession will be worth (say) £9000 and the duty payable, at three percent, would be £270, supposing it not to have been already paid. If the course I have suggested be adopted, there will be a saving of much trouble bye and bye, and of some expense. I am of the opinion that, in order to keep matters clear, the duty should be cleared whenever a share devolves by death on others."

For Yolande, matters improved in 1870 when Horace Pym entered into partnership with Meaburn Tatham and took over the legal management. [Horace Pym is also remembered as book collector and the editor of the best-selling private journal of the Quaker writer, Caroline Fox: Memories of Old Friends, published in 1881.]

The firm of Tathams & Pym continued with the administration of the estate until the final distribution was made in May 1908. Although legal fees and court costs had depleted the fortune during the forty-eight years since Stephens's death, each share was still worth over £500,000 in today's (2003) values.

History of the Lyne Stephens Fortune
Source: Extracted and summarised from Jenifer Roberts, Glass: The Strange History of the Lyne Stephens Fortune, Templeton Press, Chippenham, 2003.

As reviewed in Eastern Daily Press:

Lynford Hall

Stephens had written for him a very bad will by an out-of-work lawyer, who made a lot of money out of it. Stephens meant it to provide for his wife for her lifetime and his four uncles - a poor clergyman and three bankrupt businessmen - who were supposed to share and share alike.

But the lawyer, Meaburn Tatham, wrote the money should be divided amongst "such issue" for his four uncles' descendants, failing to define "issue" leaving it open to interpretation - and chaos eschewed [sic].

When the courts ruled in 1871 Stephens' money be held until descendants could prove their claim, Tatham wrote to potential beneficiaries saying he would take on their representations. Many did employ him, making him a busy, and wealthy, man.

In the confusion following Stephens' death, lawyers even tried to sell Lynford Hall, offering it to Queen Victoria, who was looking for a country estate for her son. Apparently she considered the offer, but decided instead on the larger Sandringham estate in 1862.

[Lynford Hall, Norfolk: EDP 12 Mar 2003]