Marry a Former Chief Justice of Tobago in Haste, Repent at Leisure, 1840-55

There were many Irish barristers who took on the task of administering justice on foreign and often inclement shores in such a way as to do credit to their country of origin. Barristers such as John Jefcott, first Judge of the Supreme Court of South Australia, Henry Barnes Gresson, Judge of the New Zealand Supreme Court and Michael Hogan, Chief Justice of Hong Kong, to name only a few.

And then there was Robert Nicholas Fynn, whom Queen Victoria was pleased to appoint Chief Justice of the Island of Tobago in 1840, a mere four years after his call to the Irish Bar. Historic Irish judicial appointments usually received a mixed reception, but in Mr Fynn’s case the reaction was unanimous – he was absolutely unsuitable for the post. The Dublin Monitor of 15 October 1840 drew attention to the notable lack of congratulations, other than in the Galway Advertiser – Mr Fynn’s father was a Galway merchant – and remarked that there were some not very creditable rumours afloat concerning Mr Fynn’s peculiar claims upon the gratitude of a certain noble marquis, and that, in the total absence of all assignable reasonable motives for the appointment, there must be some truth in them.

The same publication the following week carried an effusive letter of thanks from ‘A Leinster Circuiter,’ saying that its criticism of the appointment deserved the thanks of every member of the Irish Bar, many of whom, being men of information and high moral character (the final three words highlighted), would have been far more suitable for the position accorded to Mr Fynn, to the extent that they were left outraged and indignant by being overlooked in his favour.

Though his name still appears on Wikipedia’s list of its Chief Justices, Robert Nicholas Fynn never actually reached Tobago, his appointment being revoked just as his intended ship was about to leave harbour, with all his baggage on board, already emblazoned with the grand seal to which his office technically entitled him.

Despite having been denied the opportunity to develop the law of the Caribbean, Mr Fynn did subsequently manage to leave his mark on English jurisprudence in the form of In Re Fynn, one of the earliest reported child custody decisions, the opposing parties being his estranged wife Emily (referred to in the judgment by her full name of Amelia) and mother-in-law Marian Ainsworth.

Robert Fynn first met Emily Ainsworth in Brussels in 1842, after his brief stint as Tobago Chief Justice had been followed by a lieutenancy in the 2nd division of the West Yorkshire Regiment and a period as promoter of the unsuccessful Galway and Ennis Grand Junction Railway Company. They married the following year. Emily’s mother had reservations about Robert from the start, which he temporarily quelled by producing a volume of his speeches, sealed with an official seal bearing his crest and the words ‘Chief Justice of Tobago,’ and telling her of an impending appointment as Judge Advocate in Malta, never actually to eventuate.

The morning after the wedding night Robert borrowed £50 from Emily for travel expenses; later, at Galway, when she remonstrated with him against what she thought his waste and extravagance, he struck her several blows on the head, kicked her, and threw a glass of hot spirits and water at her head and face, with so much violence that the glass was broken against her head, and at the same time threatened to thrust her head into the fire, and, on another occasion, threw her on the floor of a room with her infant child, with no other provocation than her having interfered to protect her nurse, a woman of nearly sixty years of age, from his violence.

Emily and Robert went to Plymouth, where Robert confessed that the bailiffs were after him for debts incurred before his marriage, and then to London, where Emily’s clothes were distrained for rent, before returning to Brussels. According to Emily, while in Brussels for the second time, Robert conducted himself in a most improper manner, drinking to excess, cursing and swearing and calling her a damned hypocrite, a damned bitch and a liar, before departing for Paris with their two sons, Alfred and Robert, aged three and two years old respectively, having pawned or sold certain articles of plate in order to fund the journey. Subsequently, in Paris, Robert was arrested for a bracelet that he had bought on credit, and sold on, but never paid for, and the boys had to be recovered by Emily from prison, where they had been incarcerated with their father.

Given that the above events were in no way seriously disputed by Robert Fynn, one might expect that Emily’s petition to restrain his application to regain custody of the boys would have succeeded. Such was not the case. Instead, Vice-Chancellor Knight-Bruce, despite a sympathetic initial ruling, ultimately refused the petition on account of Emily’s limited means. All the money originally settled on Emily had been expended by her on her husband, and Mrs Ainsworth’s suggestion, that she enter into a covenant to pay an annual sum to her daughter and the children, was rejected by the court as insufficient, as such a covenant was a personal one only, and would die with her.

There was, unsurprisingly, a minor kerfuffle following the Vice-Chancellor’s final ruling. Alfred Ainsworth, Emily’s teenage brother, hit Robert Fynn, and knocked off his hat. Robert justified a consequent application to have Alfred bound over to keep the peace by saying that he could forgive the contempt of court, but not the personal insult involved. His wife, he said, had also attacked him, but, of course, he was not applying to have her bound over. Possibly he felt it more appropriate to discipline her privately.

It is not reported whether the boys were subsequently returned to their father. An album of photos, entitled ‘Emily Ainsworth Fynn and family,’ was recently advertised for sale at an online auction. The album includes photos of three children who may have been Alfred, Robert, and little Emily, the latter fortunate enough not to have been included in the custody application, Robert having taken the view that, as a girl, he did not require her, and she could stay with her mother.

Robert Nicholas Fynn turns up again a few years later in the context of a private prosecution brought by him in respect of a stolen pocket knife. While admitting the item stolen was of trifling value, he stated that he had felt obliged to prosecute as a matter of principle. Unfortunately, Fynn’s own final appearance in the news, in 1855, was such as to call his own principles into question. Under the name of Captain RN Fynn, he had been advertising for governesses for two boys, requesting that successful applicants forward money for their travel expenses in advance, so that he could book their passage. Those who did, never received their tickets, though he did promise one of them that he would marry her when his wife died, which he anticipated as likely to occur within the next two months.

The governess scandal, as scandals often do, brought old history to the fore, in the form of two letters subsequently published in English newspapers, disclosing some interesting facts about Fynn’s abortive 1840 appointment. The first was a letter from Dominick Browne, 1st Lord Oranmore and Browne and former MP for Mayo, apologising for having nominated Mr Fynn for the appointment.

The second was an anonymous letter, circulated by the London Police as part of an investigation into Captain RN Fynn’s activities, which identified him as a member of the Irish Bar, referenced the Tobago appointment and stated as follows:

Mr Fynn appears to have had, at this time also, a hankering after governesses, for he inserted in the papers a notice to governesses, or something to the effect, as well as I recollect, that their position was to be more that of a lady in waiting than that of a governess, and that they were to have the same privileges as those attending on her Majesty. This having come to the ears of Lord John Russell, he immediately cancelled the appointment. Some time after this he left London for Brussels, where he managed to get introduced to some highly respectable families, and he passed himself off as Count Fynn, with many other etceteras, and contrived to get married to a beautiful woman, niece of a member of the House of Commons. We have reason to believe that very active measures will immediately be adopted upon this subject.”

Why did Mr Fynn require the company of a governess in Tobago if he had no children at the time? Was the motivation behind the 1840 advertisement similar to that of Gerald Kingsland, later to be immortalised in ‘Castaway’?

No matter how sympathetic one might normally feel towards impecunious 19th century barristers – then, as now, building a Four Courts practice could be a challenging task – it is hard to feel much sympathy for Mr Fynn.

Particularly when looking at the photos of his lovely family above.

Poor Emily! How careful a woman in those days had to be regarding whom she married!

Image Credits

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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