The Strange, Sad Case of Jephson v Brenon, 1909 – Pt 2, The Cache of Letters

Not the acttual trunk and letters, but perhaps not dissimilar. Image via The Smithsonian

Described as ‘the strangest, saddest case’ ever to have been heard in the Four Courts, Dublin, the 1909 proceedings of Jephson v Brenon sought to set aside a deed executed many decades earlier by eccentric Irish expat John Boyce in favour of journalist and politician Edward St John Brenon, his best friend and ‘the person closest to God’ to him.

By 1909, Boyce had been declared a person of unsound mind, and conveyancing specialist Sam Brown KC and politician barrister Tim Healy KC appeared for his committee in lunacy.

Brenon was represented by Mr Longmore KC.

Yesterday’s post gave a brief introduction to the case. Today, we look in more detail at the evidence given against Brenon, which consisted mainly of a large cache of letters between the two men found in a trunk in Boyce’s Naples garret.

From the Irish Independent, 21 June 1909:






The story of the Boyce-Brenon romance was continued in the Four Courts yesterday by Mr. Brown, KC, before the Master of the Rolls. Mr. Brown is seeking to prove that John Boyce, now a person of unsound mind, while under the undue influence of Edward St John Brenon, assigned to the latter his property in Cork and Waterford in February 1875. The defendant denies the allegations made and pleads the Statute of Limitations.

Mr. Brown resumed his opening statement, and said he wished, before going through the remaining letters which he thought it necessary to read, to mention two matters that he omitted the previous day. It appeared from an entry in Mr. Brenon’s diary that he himself called personally at Mr. Ruckley’s office on 30th April 1875, and executed this deed. Counsel had argued the previous day that in no sense was Mr. Ruckley an independent solicitor, that he was not the family solicitor of the Boyces, but he was the family solicitor of Mrs. Brenon, and on the occasion of her marriage with Mr. Brown he acted in preparing the marriage settlement.

Mr. Brown – Every search that could have been made for the deed has been made by Messrs. Vincent and Beatty, the successors to the business of Mr. Ruckley.

Mr. Longworth – We have also made search among the papers. The deed, it will be proved, was left with Mr. Ruckely.

Mr. Brown said it was alleged in an Affidavit which Mr. Brenon made in the lunacy matter that the deed was left by him with Mr. Ruckley for safe keeping. There was one curious letter of 13th September 1881, which was found in Naples. It was addressed to Mr. Brenon but was never posted. Counsel only used it for the purpose of showing the mental condition of Boyce six years after the deed. It was a long production, stitched together.


Counsel read from the fourth page of the letter a rambling statement as to the dinner supplied, prior to eating which he steadily looked at a portrait for ten minutes. ‘I by degrees see the mouth move and the voice whispers in my ear to this effect: ‘You are an ass and a stupid ass, go ahead and eat your dinner,’ so I laugh to myself and eat my dinner.’  Then there was a great deal of extraordinary stuff about a rat, and there was a reference to something in the shape of a full moon. Then he had a small picture. Counsel then asked his lordship to read a passage in the letter (letter handed to the judge). The man who wrote that letter, said counsel, was a man whose mind was entirely diseased. He was living what he described as that Bastille life, and it was no wonder that at times his intellect became unhinged, the result being productions like the one now before the Court.

The Master of the Rolls said it was right to say that the passage to which counsel had referred him could not in any way be said as implicating Brenon.

M Brown – Oh no, and I distinctly disclaim any such intention.

The Master of the Rolls – it shows absolute degeneration, mentally and physically.

M Brown – It Is very striking evidence of degeneration. Counsel then read a letter of 8th November 1888 written to Brenon by Carmela Alesso, the lodging housekeeper in Naples, reporting Boyce’s condition and conduct, and asking Brenon to telegraph ‘if you will have him put in an asylum before he is prosecuted.’

As showing that Boyce was absolutely under the dominance of Brenon, counsel said that, from 1896 out, nearly every letter that was written to anyone, except to Brenon himself, was written from a draft which they found in Naples in Brenon’s own handwriting. All his life Boyce was a man who was extremely easily affected by drink and his lordship would hear from one of the witnesses who knew him intimately when he was young that he had a horror of both liquor and tobacco. The next letter read by counsel was from Brenon to Boyce remonstrating with him in consequence of a report he had got from Carmela Alesso and saying.

‘Please do not compel me to go to Naples, because I you do you will find me a man of my word this time. Don’t play your last year of game, and not reply to my letters.  If I don’t hear from you by return of post, I will come to Naples.’


Brenon again wrote to Boyce saying he had received more complaints from Carmela, and continuing:

‘You ought to leave Naples. You have some bad companions, and I suppose when you are drunk, they rob you. I you don’t mend your ways I will have no more to do with you.  I am writing Carmela. Let me hear your version of this disgraceful affair. Cheque enclosed.’

In January 1898, Boyce wrote in reply.

‘I would be delighted to leave Naples. I am sick of it, but I do not think I get drunk. I am writing in a cafe, as I cannot do anything in my lodging, as the hall-door is banged all day by soldiers. I owe Carmela 300 francs. I will be hard up soon.

To this Brenon wrote

“Jack – the letter of the 18th of January which I received from you is the production of a man who is evidently a drunken cad…. I will stop supplies.’

Was that a fair description of the poor fellow’s letter of the 18th? They could not help remembering that the man who was threatening to stop the supplies was the man who was in receipt of every penny of this poor man’s income, and that he had left his friend all this time in Naples with no one to look after him, and with a monthly dole of 5 pounds or so.  Amongst the other letters which counsel read was one in which Carmela Alesso wrote to Brenon asking for money and saying:

‘Absolutely I will not support him anymore, so I beg of you either send me at once my money or you will come at once, otherwise some of thee days I will do what I can to sever myself from this poor wretch, who is abandoned by everyone.’

At this time Boyce seemed to have given up his fits of drinking and never went out anywhere.

The Master of the Rolls said the original defence delivered by Brenon, which alleged he had been transferred the lands outright, never alleged that there was any legal or moral obligation to provide one sixpence for this man Boyce. The amended defence which Mr. Longworth now asked to be admitted [which alleged that Brenon had been transferred the lands on trust for Boyce, to look after for his benefit while he was alive, and then receive them after his death by will] was a defence which was very remarkable. A good many of the facts of the case might be explained if the amended defence was a true one. What appeared to be a mystery might be perfectly true, and honourable, and straightforward conduct, but it was a curious thing that Mr. Brenon did not think of the contents of the original defence when his original defence was being prepared.

Mr. Brown said the only trouble was to know which was the worst defence.

The Master of the Rolls said the amended defence was a very much better one, because it afforded some reasonable explanation of the secrecy in reference to the execution of the deed – of the fact that Boyce was held out as the owner of the lands but Brenon his attorney for the receipt of the rents.

Mr. Brown – all I can say is that the defence is a credit to the ingenuity of whoever invented it.

Mr. Longworth – I do not think, my lord, that that is a remark that ought to be made.

The Master of the Rolls – I may say, Mr Longworth, that I never saw a case more ably conduced than you have conducted this case under exceptional difficulties. I am sure Mr. Brown did not mean any personal reflections.

Mr. Brown – I referred to the defendant, Mr. St John Brenon.

Mr. Brown said that all letters after 1890 sent by Boyce were in Brenon’s handwriting. Counsel read a letter in which Boyce stated that any communication he had to make with reference to the estate he was to make to Mr. Brenon. I may add, the letter concluded, you will find him a very courteous gentleman, who has had my friendship and confidence for very many years.

The Master of the Rolls [presumably as a hint to Mr Brown to hurry up] remarked that he really could not devote the remainder of his life to this case.

Mr. Brown said that the one he was referring to was the last of these letters, and he might remark that it was a curious commentary on this performance of Mr. Brenon that this letter was written on notepaper bear his crescent and motto the motto being ‘Amiticia Sine Fraude’ [Latin for Friendship Without Deceit] (laughter)

Mr. Brown said that in May 1907, his clients Mr. Jephson and Mr. Foley, went to hapless, and arrived there on the 3rd of May 1907. Brenon had got wind of it, because he wrote to Boyce on the 17th May enclosing a copy of a letter to Mr. Rennison telling him not to pay the rents any longer to Brenon as attorney for Boyce. In the accompanying letter to Boyce Brenon asked

‘And who certified to you that you were unable to look after your affairs? What medical man examined you? The Lord Chancellor will make no order until he has heard me, and I will make revelations that will astonish him as regards some of you relatives on and off for near 60 years. Take my advice, and don’t stir out of Naples.  Who was able to say that you were in a neglected condition and destitute of means?’

Among the papers Mr. Jephson and Mr. Foley discovered in Naples was a memorandum in the handwriting of Brenon which had been sent out to be copied by Boyce. It was written in Paris because the printed address on the papers was ‘Le Boulevard de Capuchin.’ It contained the words ‘Edward St John Brenon; not to be opened till my death.’  That endorsement was faithfully copied into the envelope by the pupil, and that envelope was what was known as a sealed copy.

The will left ‘everything I possess my dear friend Edward St John Brenon’ and was duly executed and witnessed. In a codicil enclosed in the sealed packet Boyce confirmed this deed of gift of his land property made ‘many years ago to my dear friend Edward St John Brenon,’ and in case Benon should die before he succeeded to Boyce’s estate, stated ‘I desire that the whole of my property shall pass to his daughter Kathleen.’  The daughter was then a child of five years of age and could never have been seen by the testator.

Mr. Brenon not only concealed the fact of this deed of 1875 from the Agent for the Boyce family, and from the world, but when he came to make an affidavit in the course of proceedings taken against him by his first wife, he concealed it from the Court. At that time, he had for 20 years been in receipts of the rents of the Boyce estate.

In the lunacy proceedings Brenon was summoned for cross examination   He refused to attend and was still in contempt to disobeying this order. On January 15th, 1909, in reply to an order for an account, he wrote.

‘My obligatory compliance with an order is amply protected by the Statute of Limitations which I plead.’

In the same letter, Brenon said he had no need of or documents relating to any property of John Boyce save the deed by which Mr. Boyce conveyed the property in trust for him. The charge made against him, he said, was only a variant of lies promulgated by the Boyce family for upwards of 40 years.

Counsel had not completely concluded his address when the further hearing was adjourned until Wednesday next.”

A further account of Saturday’s proceedings in the Daily Mirror of 19 June 1909 stated as follows:


Strange Letters from Naples Read in Irish case.


The remarkable case in which is at stake the estate of an imbecile, found destitute, sick and dirty in a garret of a Naples lodging house and rescued by his friends, was continued in Dublin yesterday.

Mr. R.P. Jephson, suing as the committee of the estate of John Boyce, now an inmate of an asylum, is the plaintiff, and Edward St John Brenon, of 21, Airedale-avenue, Chiswick, is the defendant.

It is alleged that a deed of 1874, conveying all Boyce’s property to Brenon, was obtained by fraud and undue influence, and should be set aside; and it is further alleged that Boyce, after ceding his property, was left in poverty by the defendant. This the defendant denies.

Resuming his address, counsel for the plaintiff read more correspondence, chiefly letters sent by John Boyce to the defendant, and relied on various expressions in them as establishing the weak-mindedness of Boyce.

He referred in a will made by Boyce, in which he made a disposition in favor of ‘Brenon, the poet.’ ‘The poor devil,’ said counsel ‘did not know which county his lands were in.’


There was one letter of July 1874, from Thomas Boyce to his brother John in which the latter was advised to come home from the Continent and see his tenants, as they had never seen their landlord, and did not believe there was such a person. It ran.

‘You ought to come and see your tenants.  They have never seen their landlord, and don’t think there is such a person.  Many of your friends in Ireland don’t believe in your existence, or that if you were alive, you were a free agent.”

Indeed, added counsel, it was not until his return to Ireland in 1907, when he was made a Ward of Court and declared a person of unsound mind, that his relations had heard of the deed conveying away his property.

How completely under the influence of Brenon was Boyce appeared, said counsel, from other letters. One of them was a request for a new pair of trousers.

After asking for them, Boyce added ‘What about a whole suit? Would the sinews of war permit? Do Ned, think it over, you know I take great care of my clothes.”

In 1877 Boyce even had to apply to Brenon for a second toothbrush, added counsel.


In another letter Boyce referred to a visit he paid to a restaurant, where some French dancers and a prima-donna were dining.

He saw a beautifully decorated table with a bouquet of flowers in the centre, at which, he wrote, he sat down.

The waiter requested him to take another table, but he refused to move, and the lady and gentleman for whom the table had been intended were obliged to sit at another table, so that he had his dinner at the decorated table and contemplated ‘the vanquished couple.’

Later on, counsel said that Boyce was writing for three years to Brenon for clothes and got none, yet he was a man who should have had 800 pounds a year.

Having denuded Boyce of all his property, except 1000 pounds owed to him by his brother Tom, and of the income of that, Brenon proceeded to live in luxury in London and elsewhere, leaving his victim in this poor lodging-house in Naples and doling him out his 5 pounds a month.

Why did this poor devil not leave Naples all these thirty years? The answer was obvious. He had no initiative; he was in no real sense a free agent. He was under thrall and spell of Brenon.

It appeared, continued counsel, that Boyce prepared a lecture on art for delivery to a Young Men’s Christian Association.

The Master of the Rolls said that Mr. Boyce’s views on art were by no means bad, as he cited Raphael as the king of the painters, the greatest in drawing, though inferior to Titian as a colourist.

Mr. Browne KC, plaintiff’s counsel, said that the good part of the lecture might be copied out of some book, or it might be the essay of Brenon.

The Master of the Rolls said the members of the association could not have considered Boyce an imbecile if they wanted his views on art.

Mr. Browne: They might be pulling his leg.

Other letters, counsel suggested, were composed by Brenon.

In 1881 an attempt was made to obtain information from Mrs. Brenon as to her husband’ relations with Boyce by a Mr. Sharp. Describing the interview with him, Mrs. Brenon wrote to her husband; –

‘He asked me if I knew Mr. Boyce, and I replied ‘Yes, perfectly well.’  He then asked me if he were a free agent, and if I knew whether he was in a lunatic asylum. He desired information concerning him, as his family were most unhappy about him (Boyce) believing that he was either mad or confined in some sort of asylum or under the influence of some unprincipled persons, who were robbing him, and that any information received would be sacred.

I was much stricken by this interview, and when I thought of all you have said of me falsely and who you are trying to murder my life and my reputation, I thank God that in all I said I remembered you were the husband and my father of my children.’

Counsel was still speaking when the Court adjourned.”

Clearly, all this left Mr Edward St John Brenon with a lot of explaining to do.

Read about his response in the witness box here!

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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