Debt, Law, Scandal and Horses: The Strange Saga of an Irish Female Moneylender and her Descendants, 1830s-1929

The Royal Hotel, Norwich, to which intoxicated non-practising Irish barrister Verner Russell had to be returned in a handcart in 1911, after purchasing two horses sight unseen for the sum of £300. The horses were worth £55. Image via Ebay.

From the Galway Express, 7 December 1912:

“At a special court held at Lucan on Monday, Mr Vernon Russell, described as a member of the Irish Bar, living in Leeson Street, Dublin, was charged with attempting suicide by jumping into the Royal Canal.  After evidence the defendant was returned for trial to the County Commission, bail being allowed.”

Mr Russell’s trial a few days later was recorded in the Freeman’s Journal of 11 December 1912:

“Vernon Russell, a young man, pleaded not guilty to an indictment on which he was charged with having on the 10th of November, attempted to commit suicide.

Mr Ronayne (instructed by Mr MJ O’Farrell) appeared for the accused.

Mr Bushe KC and Mr Dudley White KC (instructed by Sir Malachy Kelly, Chief Crown Solicitor) conducted in this and the other cases.

Mr Bushe said the prisoner threw himself into the canal.  He didn’t think there was evidence of an attempt to commit suicide, because when he got into the water he swam to the other side of the canal.  The really serious charge against the prisoner was that when he came out of the water, he was found to have in his throat five different wounds inflicted with a knife.

Patrick Purcell stated that on Sunday afternoon between 4 and 4.30 o’clock on November 10th, he saw the prisoner throw himself into the canal at Gallowstown, about two miles from Chapelizod.  The man swam across and got on the opposite bank.  Witness went round to him, and he noticed blood flowing from wounds in his throat. Witness asked him what had happened him and he made no answer.  He only said, ‘Don’t touch me.’ He seemed dazed.  Witness took him to a neighbouring house and sent for a policeman, after having bound up the wounds.  The prisoner had a penknife in his hand. 

Dr Henry Smith, resident surgeon at the Steevens’ Hospital, having described the wounds on the prisoner’s throat said that the man was so dazed that he did not know where he was and did not answer questions.  That condition might have been produced by depression, family trouble or alcohol.”

In fact, there was far more to the story of 36-year-old Vernon (in fact Verner) Russell than indicated by the above.

In October 1912 he had, sensationally, been acquitted at the Norwich Assizes of forging a bill of exchange for £300 in the name of his mother Cornelia Russell.  The bill of exchange had been given to Charles Wright, horse dealer, Norwich, in return for a pair of horses. A few days later Mr Wright received a letter from Verner saying that his mother had asked him to compile a list of debts so that she might settle them, but there was a £10 item he could not let her know anything about, as it would be fatal or distressing.  Therefore, he asked witness “like a decent sport” to wire him £10 to the GPO Dublin.  After some references to betting and to bookmakers, the letter concluded.

‘Add this favour to the list of past ones, and you will not regret it, but will make a life-long friend of Verner W Russell.’

Subsequently Verner wrote to Mr Wright again, stating that he was taking his mother to Brighton for Coronation Week and after that he would come to Norwich “to square up.” The Brighton jaunt obviously did not have the anticipated effect (or perhaps Mrs Russell found out about the £10!) as the bill given to Mr Wright was subsequently dishonoured.  At Verner’s committal proceedings, Cornelia Russell gave evidence that the signatures on the bill had been forged without her authority.

Verner’s subsequent trial at the Norwich Assizes received extensive newspaper coverage, perhaps because he had earlier fled to Glasgow following his charge, only to be apprehended by police on foot of an anonymous letter giving his residence as Hill Head, a fashionable district in the West End of the city.

At the trial, Verner gave evidence that Cornelia had ‘brought him up to an idle life’ and that he had been regularly given authority to add her signature to bills.  The jury also heard that the accused had been so drunk the evening he signed the bill as to necessitate his return on a handcart to the Royal Hotel, Norwich, where he was staying, and that he had never even seen the horses he was buying, which were afterwards sold for a much lower price.  Verner – who must have had a good defence counsel, or perhaps it helped that Cornelia had passed away by the date of the trial and was not able to give evidence to rebut his assertions – was acquitted of forgery, and of the subsequent suicide attempt, on the basis that he obviously did not know what he was doing at the time.

It was, however, not long before Verner was back before the Dublin Police Court.  In March 1913 he and Water JH Clarke both of 8 Nottingham St, North Strand, were remanded on bail on a charge of having unlawfully obtained from Arthur Statham, tobacconist, the sum of £2 by false pretences.  Mr Statham stated that, on February 10th, Russell had asked him to cash a cheque for £3 3s drawn by Clarke in his favour of Farrow’s bank.  According to Mr Statham, Verner told him that the Clarke who had drawn the cheque was a solicitor in Westmoreland St, adding ‘I am a barrister, and the cheque was given me this morning on a brief.’  Mr Statham subsequently gave Verner £2 on account.  Verner’s defence was that he had received and cashed the cheque in good faith. 

Verner’s false pretences case was listed among the Crown Cases for trial at the Dublin County Sessions in October 1913, but there is no record of the outcome.  He subsequently moved abroad and died many years later.

But Verner’s story is only the tail end of a long saga relating to a forgotten family of note, or perhaps notoriety, who kept Dublin lawyers in business for many years.

It began when a woman, later to become well known as Mary Anne Murphy, gave birth to a son, Thomas Joyce, in the 1830s.  Some years later, Mary Anne married Peter William Murphy.   They had two surviving children: William and Cornelia.  Over the next five decades, Mary Anne was to become one of Dublin’s best-known moneylenders, carrying on business from ‘a small dark parlour’ in Fownes Street.

Fownes Street, Dublin, where Mary Anne Murphy carried on her extensive moneylending business for many years. Image via

How Mary Anne got into moneylending is unclear, but she may have inherited the business from her husband, Peter William.  A Peter William Murphy, solicitor’s clerk, features in an 1840s inquest report regarding the sudden death of his uncle, a solicitor in Ormond Quay, whom it was alleged Peter William had poisoned, though medical evidence failed to corroborate the allegation.

Newspaper accounts from the 1850s contain records of proceedings taken by Peter William Murphy for recovery of debts due to him.  In the 1860s, records of Peter’s debt collecting cease, but Mary Anne’s name, and that of her son Thomas Joyce (who eventually set up his own, separate, moneylending business, the Accommodation Bank), start to feature instead.

Both of Mary Anne Murphy’s children by Peter William married into the Irish gentry.  Cornelia’s first marriage to Charles Verner Wallace in 1872 ended with his death after two years, and in 1876 she married a Mr Russell.  Her brother William Murphy, a solicitor, married Lucy Eyre, of Galway.  Both marriages ended in legal proceedings.  Lucy sued William for custody of their son, claiming that he was an unfit father.   After she left him in 1880 and went back to live with her mother, her second husband, Cornelia’s second husband brought legal proceedings against Mary Anne for enticement.  Both sets of proceedings were unsuccessful; both involved scurrilous allegations.  Lucy accused Oliver of dissipation; Mr Russel asserted that Mary Anne was a miser who locked food away from Cornelia and his children.

In 1893 there is a brief reference in the Social Review to Cornelia, still living with her mother:

Mrs “Cornelia” Russell, of Sunny Bank, Bototerstown, enterprised by engaging rooms at the Royal Marine Hotel Kingstown and inviting a hundred or so of guests to a feast of reason and a flow of soul. By this it will be see that Mrs Russell is an inviting lady.  She looked very vive and well in black satin, trimmed with sequin fringes and gave a highly amusing recitation, the only weakness about which was decidedly on the author’s side.”

Mary Anne continued in business as a moneylender until her mid-80s.   Her death in 1901 provoked a family dispute between Thomas and Cornelia, more litigation, and even more scurrilous allegations.

Thomas, now well known to the courts as a ‘notorious moneylender’ charging 60% interest, was very keen that his mother make a will, to the extent that he forwarded his own draft of the proposed will to William Wylie KC for an opinion.  However, he could never get Mary Anne to execute the draft will.  In fact, she called a family meeting to say that she was never going to execute any will.

Mary Anne, who did indeed die without a will, left a very large estate of £70,000, a huge fortune in those days. Three-quarters of the estate, however, consisted of stocks and shares, to which Cornelia claimed full entitlement pursuant to a donatio mortis causa.

The war between Thomas and Cornelia started almost immediately.  Each alleged that the other had poisoned Mary Anne Murphy.  Cornelia also alleged that Thomas was, in her own words, ‘a bastard’, and not entitled to inherit on intestacy as Mary Anne had not been married to his father.

An inquest into Mary Anne’s death took place in the drawing room of Sunnybank, described by the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph as “a detached house situated in its own grounds, off the main road, almost immediately opposite the Booterstown Station.’  The same newspaper remarked that ‘far from there being anything in the house or its surroundings to indicate that the old lady was possessed of such enormous wealth, the residence both in its exterior and interior furnishing wears an appearance of neglect suggestive rather of poverty than of extreme opulence.’

At the inquest, evidence was given that there was no sign of poison in Mary Anne’s body.  The coroner, solicitor Christopher Friery, said that it was as well that everything had been thrashed out, having regard to the rumours which had circulated regarding the cause of the deceased’s death.  Cornelia subsequently withdrew her assertion that Thomas was illegitimate.

But there remained the question of whether ownership of the share certificates had passed to Cornelia by donatio mortis causa.   At the hearing in the High Court, ‘Verner Wallace Russell’ (whether Verner was a child of Cornelia’s first husband Mr Wallace, or her second husband Mr Russell remains unclear) and his wife Mena gave evidence of the alleged donatio mortis causa

According to Mena, after summoning them to her room, Mary Anne told them that she had called them in to witness her ‘dying gift’ to Cornelia.  She then handed to the latter the brown paper parcel containing the share certificates, saying ‘Take this keep it; it contains nearly all my means in scrips and certificates of my shares and when I am dead it and gone it is yours.’  The deceased then signed a memo, allegedly subsequently destroyed, which stated: “I this day give you all my scripts stocks ad shares to kept by you when I am dead”.

One can only be impressed with Mary Anne’s knowledge of the correct procedure for donatio mortis causa. Did she get advice from Verner, studying to be a barrister at the time? Or did someone use Verner’s knowledge of the law to assist in retrospectively fabricating a donatio?

During the trial, Thomas Joyce suffered a son’s ultimate ignominy of having several of his youthful letters to his mother read out in the High Court.  They disclosed a surprisingly romantic side to a man alleged to have once told a debtor seeking additional time that even the sight of a beautiful woman on her knees pleading could not move him.  In September 1895, he wrote to Mary Anne from Marienbad:

“Nothing in this life is of value or has such a hold on your heart and interest as those hours you are making a slave of yourself and denying yourself the privilege of seeing and enjoying your health and the gifts of God in this world.  Well, I won’t scold you anymore.  I never made a slave of you; others did.  What are you eating? Get a partridge or grouse or a Bordeaux pigeon for yourself at the poulerers.  The latter is cheap – 1s.  Best love my dear mother.”

The case was eventually settled with Cornelia receiving £5000 more than the other next of kin.  Verner was allowed to keep the sum of £500 allegedly given to him by way of a similar donatio.  Legal disputes between Thomas and Cornelia regarding implementation of the settlement continued for some years thereafter, until Thomas’s death in 1904.

It is unclear what happened to the share of Mary Anne Murphy’s estate received by Cornelia under the settlement.  Perhaps Cornelia left it to her other son, Bartholomew Campbell Russell (‘Campbell Russell’), a man who overcame minor scandal in his youth to produce an acting dynasty of stunning daughters.

Campbell Russell, Cornelia Russell’s other son, who preferred horses to moneylending. image via Abe Books.

In 1893, Campbell, then a 15-year-old schoolboy, had been charged along with Robert Gardiner, a clerk, with having stolen a silver watch the property of James Tyndall, appropriated in a garrotting incident.  Campbell, who claimed to have purchased the watch from Gardiner, was arrested after having brought it to a Grafton St jeweller to have it repaired.  It is not reported whether he was convicted. 

Some years later, Campbell was fined 20s for driving his horse and trotting trap in a furious manner on the Stillorgan road.  Far from being a confirmation of troubled youth in further disarray, this latter appearance before the criminal courts was a harbinger of a remarkable career in the horse business.

Already well known for his ‘jumpers’ by 1914, the Great War proved to be the making of Campbell, who retired as a Major.  The following letter published in the Sport (Ireland) of 1919 gives some insight into both his military success and the ebullient personality of the man known by his friends as ‘BCR’.

“Headquarter, 17 Div BEF France 26th January 1919

Dear Mr Editor – This morning by chance I got a copy of SPORT (Jan 18) in which “the Sud” Gave me a notice.

Yes, dear old “Wild Aster” proved himself to be a delightful charger, and I rode him during my 15 months’ service at Grantham, but when I left there last February for service overseas I was not allowed to take him with me, so he returned to Victor Tabor, his old trainer, who, by the way, wrote me a few days ago (see enclosed letter) saying he had great hopes of winning another race with him now that Percy Woodland has returned from the Turks, after being a prisoner of war for over two years.

Well, I’m pleased to see some of the Dublin friends still remember me, and it may be news for you to know that I am now a Major and am at present the “Deputy Assistant Director of Remounts” for the 17th Division.  And when I have demobilized all the animals (roughly 5,500) I may be dispensed with myself, – if so, there are more unlikely things than my doing as your paragraph suggests “running a few animals in dear old Ireland again.

I am yours truly.

B Campbell Russell.

PS We have a race meeting every Saturday for the men, and jolly good sport, since 26th December.  I will send you a programme of our next meeting.”

An earlier report in the same paper of 1917 had stated:

“Lieut. Campbell Russell is the military lecturer at Grantham.  I wouldn’t mind being a soldier in Campbell’s crowd, for it is a certainty he won’t allow things to idly flap… If anybody can evolve a plan of campaign to put the Kaiser down the course, it is ‘BCR’.”

Campbell was married to an actress, Elaine Spearing, and both their daughters, Patricia and Hilda, went on the stage  The family suffered tragedy in 1928 when Campbell’s teenage son, Bartholomew ‘Bubbles’ Campbell Russell suffered a heart attack as a result of a car accident.  Patricia was later engaged to the youngest son of Lord Lygon (of the family of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ fame) but the marriage did not proceed.  

News of Patricia’s engagement as it appeared in the Daily Mirror. image via British Newspaper Archives.

Campbell was to achieve fame following the publication of his book, ‘Triumphs and Tragedies of the Turf,’ in 1929.  He died in the 1970s at the age of 97, having achieved the rare distinction of being banned from Tattersalls.

Although younger generations opted for the stage and turf in lieu of the witness box, Mary Anne Murphy and her descendants merit recognition for the number, variety and colour of their appearances in the Irish courts during the period 1860-1913.  Leaving aside the criminal charges and inquests, their marital, probate and debt litigation alone must have served to supplement the incomes of manifold Irish lawyers.  Although the settlement of Joyce v Russell precluded any reported judgment on the law of donatio mortis causa as applicable to that case, Thomas Joyce did make it into the Irish Law Reports in Rae v Joyce (1892) 29 LR Ir 50, which reformulated the law of unconscionable bargain.  Did it perhaps involve one of his beautiful lady debtors?

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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