Jephson v Brenon, 1909, Pt 4: The Outcome

Chiswick, where the remarkable Edward St John Brenon ended his days, as depicted by Camille Pissarro, 1897. Image via

From the Chiswick Times, 9 July 1909:




The remarkable law suit against a Chiswick gentleman, which had been before the Courts in Dublin for many days, was concluded on Friday last by the Master of the Rolls setting aside a deed of February 20th, 1875, by which John Boyce, now an imbecile in a Dublin institution, who was found starving in a Naples garret, conveyed all his property to Mr. St John Brenon, a native of Dublin, and now residing at 21, Airedale-avenue, Chiswick.

In giving judgment, the Master of the Rolls said, ‘I set aside this deed because of the overwhelming evidence before me of the imbecility of John Boyce’s dealings with St John Brenton.  I have striven to give some effect to the stray rays of intelligence emanating from some of his letters, and to the other evidence in the case, but I am convinced that when John Boyce executed this deed forty years ago, he was not at the time a man of sound mind and understanding.  The deed was conceived in fraud, it was carried out by fraud, it was bolstered up for a series of years by imprudent fraud, and I don’t know that I have ever had to use such words in connection with the conduct of any man or woman.’

Referring to the defendant Mr. Brenon, his Lordship remarked, ‘I have seen a great many witnesses examined and cross-examined, and I feel bound to say that I have never seen in the box a witness who so nearly missed greatness; and it is vanity that has caused him to be a failure.  Whether he formed too high an estimate of himself and of his powers or not, I don’t know, but I can say that for quickness of intellect, for keen intelligence, for rapier thrusts – lightning thrusts, delivered all round, not excepting the Bench – (laughter) – I never met a witness of his class.  He exercised over me, as I think he must have over many people in court – he threw over me the glamour of his personality.’

Extraordinary remarks, but then, as those who have been following previous posts on the saga of Jephson v Brenon will know, it was a really remarkable case. Not its least extraordinary feature was that no one knew the whereabouts of the actual 1875 deed the subject of the proceedings, which had gone missing many years ago. Thus, although the Master of the Rolls made an order setting aside the deed, he did not make the usual ancillary order for its delivery up into court.  

A week or so later, it was reported that Edward St John Brenon had made an unsuccessful application to the Registrar in Lunacy to be allowed to see John Boyce, now confined to the Stewart Institution for Imbeciles.  It was also separately reported that Brenon had instructed his solicitors Messrs. Horan and Devine to enter an appeal against the decision of the Master of the Rolls, but it seems that no appeal was ever actually entered.

There was, however, a sequel.

In 1912, Messrs Vincent and Beatty, who had previously acted as solicitors for the family of Brenon’s wife, moved their premises from Eustace Street to Dame Street.  In the course of the move, a box was discovered containing the 1875 deed.   The Master of the Rolls being now deceased, Boyce’s committee applied to the Lord Chancellor for an order for delivery up of the deed into court.

Mr Longworth, who had acted as counsel for Mr Brenon in 1909, was present at the application, and  told the Lord Chancellor, that, in justice to his client, he wanted to say that the actual terms of the deed, which no one involved in the case had ever previously seen, threw an extraordinary new light upon the charges of fraud.  It gave Mr. Brenon absolutely no interest at all.  It was simply a deed conveying to Brenon the estate of a trustee for Boyce, who was then abroad, and contained a very proper power of revocation. 

Had the 1875 deed been available to the court in the 1909 proceedings, would there have been a different result?  Probably not; the deed would still have been set aside on the grounds of Boyce’s unsoundness of mind, but without the same tarnishing of Brenon’s reputation.

Boyce survived his old friend Brenon, dying in April 1921, still at the Stewart Institution.  In August 1922 an application was made to the Probate List of the High Court by Mr Poole BL, counsel for Boyce’s nephew, Captain William Finch, to take out letters of administration in respect of his estate. In the course of making the order sought, the Probate Judge, Mr. Justice Dodd, was told of the earlier proceedings. 

On being informed that one of the grounds on which the Master of Rolls had set aside the 1875 deed was that that Boyce was not of sound mind, memory and understanding, Mr Justice Dodd made the following remark:

It was never suggested that Brenon was of unsound mind?

Mr. Poole – Brenon appears to have been a man of exceptional intelligence.

And there the story of the fascinating Edward St John Brenon might appropriately end, were it not for the fact that his son Herbert went on to become a noted US film director, actor and screenwriter.  Clearly he inherited some of his father’s charisma!

More about Herbert Brenon here.

Jephson v Brenon, 1909, Pt 3: The Evidence of Edward St. John Brenon

Rome, as it was in the 1860s, when Boyce and Brenon first travelled there together. Watercolour by I Martin, via Meisterdrucke.

From various Irish and English newspaper reports of 26-30 June 1909, including but not confined to the Daily Mirror, the Dublin Daily Express and the Northern Whig, Part 3 of the saga of Jephson v Brenon, edited and abridged (links here to Part 1 and Part 2):

“As part of his case that a deed executed in 1875 by John Boyce, now a lunatic, transferring his property to Edward St John Brenon should be set aside, Sam Brown KC, appearing, with Tim Healy KC, for Boyce’s committee, called a number of witnesses to establish Boyce’s eccentricity.

They included Boyce’s brother-in-law, CS Finch, who gave evidence that Boyce had never smoked, but used to carry a cigar with the end painted red in his hand and never drank anything but ginger beer.

Mr. Brown also called Fanny Croker, daughter of Major Croker, of Lawrenny Castle, who against her father’s wish had gone out walking with Boyce when she was a girl.  Miss Croker described him as much below other men in his ability to express himself.  They thought him a very queer specimen.

‘Not a young man that a young girl would admire’ suggested Mr. Brown

Certainly not! replied Miss Croker.  She explained that it was just after the Crimean War, and she was just back from school at the time.

The defence case then commenced.  Mr Longworth KC, counsel for Brenon, provided an initial narrative of the career of his client, who had met Boyce as a child, lived with him in London, Naples and Rome as a young man, but who had been the victim of persecution and sinister rumours from other members of the Boyce family.

According to Mr. Longworth, Boyce believed that Brenon, ‘a man of remarkable promise at the time,’ showed capacity for becoming one of the great men in English history.   Boyce, beginning to get a little disappointed with his own ambitions, became taken up with the idea that he should take a great part in the shaping of Brenon’s character.  He also wanted to secure Brenon’s lasting friendship. During the year 1873 Boyce made a proposal to put practically all he had in Brenon’s possession, saying to Brenon, ‘I want you to have these lands.  I know you will always keep me well supplied,’ the entire conversation being based on the idea that eventually, at some later date, he would come in for other property in case anything went wrong. It was so, and not as a result of any undue influence from Brenon, that Boyce stripped himself of all his property.

Examined by Mr Longworth, Brenon said he had been the principal boy soloist in the Chapel Royal, Dublin.  He first met Boyce when he was about twelve years of age at the Dargle.  He remembered the occasion, because he sang for him the song ‘Faithless Emma’ which he had often sung afterwards at the Catch Club.  From 1861 to 1865 Brenon played the organ and gave piano lessons, his last pupil being Lord Farnham.  He left Dublin for London in 1865. He had saved up some money, and intended to go to the English Bar, but he went to Italy with Boyce.  There were other reasons why he did not go to the Bar.

Mr. Longworth: Is there any truth in the assertion that you enticed Boyce to Rome – Not an atom.

At that time was Boyce a person of sound mind? Very.

You knew he was a painter? Yes, he studied with Brocas in Dublin.

Was he capable of understanding business? Thoroughly

Was he capable of understanding business – Thoroughly.

Was he capable of acting on his own initiative? Certainly, and did.

Brenon went on to state that in 1867 he began his political work in England, and contested Gloucester as a Conservative in 1868.  In 1867 he wrote a book of poems ‘Ambrosia Amoris.’  He had previously published ‘Bianca, the Flower girl of Bologna.’  While in Rome he and Boyce had become constant companions and steadfast friends.

Mr. Longworth – Had you a conversation with Jack Boyce about your future? Many.

Was he anxious as far as possible to help you? Yes. He knew I was ambitious to stand for parliament, and I had to have some influential means to do so. 

Witness was married in Kill of the Grange Church, Carrickmines, in October 1868.  He and his wife returned to Rome to live in the same house as Boyce.

Mr. Longworth – During your stay in Rome was there anything about a duel?  I sent my seconds to a man called Daniel.

Master of the Rolls: Did you kill him, or did he kill you? They did not let me have a chance of killing him.

Mr. Longworth? Was the duel broken off? Mr. Daniel did not come in to meet me but had me arrested – the old game.

The Master of the Rolls – You were arrested?  It was merely a formal arrest to stop the duel. 

Witness produced an Italian newspaper.

The Master of the Rolls said he did not want to see it.

Witness – It was that that attracted Boyce.  Everyone was talking about it in Rome.

According to Brenon, the Boyce family had colored his antecedents with falsehoods of the grossest kind in order to bury him in contempt in Rome and everywhere else they could.  He had only discovered that Boyce could not spell in 1863.  Whenever Boyce went to write a letter, he shut himself in a room and studied there for hours with books and a dictionary, working very hard.  He constantly asked Brenon how to spell so and so, and Brenon told him whenever he was in trouble to ask him.

Mr. Longworth? From 1868 you began to assist him in spelling.  Yes.  He read well.  That was the extraordinary thing.

Did he submit drafts of letters to you for you to correct the spelling? Generally.

What was the character of Boyce in Rome?   He was a man liked by everybody.  He was a bright conversationalist, satirical, witty in his own dry way, a constant worker at his studies morning and night.  He was a popular man; everybody liked Jack Boyce.  He used to dress himself out in his best to promenade on the hill. He never missed the promenade at four o’clock. He was well known by all the artists.  Every night he used to be in the British Academy of Arts.

Describing the house Boyce resided in from 1882 until 1907, Brenon said it was in the most aristocratic quarter in Naples, with one of the greatest nobles in Naples occupying the first floor, the the second floor also occupied by a noble and the third floor by a captain in the army.  The rooms where Boyce lived, and where Brenon and his family also lived with him for a time, the so-called garret, was opposite the rooms of a famous painter.

Brenon went on to state that he and his family had left Naples in 1873, around the time that he received a transfer of 9,647 pounds from Boyce and also around the time Boyce made a will in his favor.

He went back to Naples in September 1875 and again resided in a room in the same house as Boyce and was there when the deed was executed by Boyce transferring Brenon the remainder of his property.  There was always an honourable understanding between him and Boyce.  It might not be appreciated by a court of law.

Brenon was then brought through his newspaper career.  He had been for a time a leader writer on the Irish Times and entered into politics in Ireland where he had unsuccessfully stood as a candidate for Tipperary under Isaac Butt.  He then became an intimate friend of Parnell, who, in a letter written by Tim Healy KC, had offered him any constituency he liked.  When Mr. Healy (in court as second KC for Boyce’s committee) speedily intervened to say he had prevented Mr. Parnell from having anything to do with witness (laughter), Brenon responded that the letter did not show that.

Brenon further gave evidence as to his supply of money to Mr. Boyce, and said the latter asked him for 5 pounds a month, but often asked for more, and Brenon sent more when it was asked for.  Since the death of his wife in 1904, Brenon had been absolutely a dying man, with moments of revival like the present; it depended on the atmosphere.  There was no truth in the allegation that he had tried to keep Boyce’s family in ignorance of the deed.  It had nothing to do with him.  It was a spontaneous matter by Boyce.  At all times that he knew Boyce the latter was of sound mind, memory and understanding.

 Mr. Healy began his cross examination of Brenon by pointing out that his own evidence that he was in Naples at the time of the execution of the deed by Boyce contradicted an earlier affidavit he had sworn saying he was residing in London at the time.  Brenon explained this as a lapse of memory.

Mr. Healy then passed on to another branch of the case, and read letters from Boyce to Brenon, complaining about the worn-out state of his clothes, and asking to have a pair of trousers sent to him, commenting on Boyce’s lack of ability to spell ‘trouser’ and his writing of ‘British’ for ‘breeches’ and ‘hegionously’ for ‘hideously.’ 

Brenon – There are men know neither how to read or write, and who are millionaires.

The Master of the Rolls – With regard to this matter of spelling, I don’t think that the spelling, which is of the most extraordinary kind, can possibly help either one side or the other in the case.  I have formed a very decided opinion that Mr. Boyce was the worst speller in the world, but I have also formed the opinion that when you read the letters, or most of them, aloud, his composition is not so bad…”

What would the final opinion of the Master of the Rolls be on the extraordinary case of Jephson v Brenon?

Click here to find out the outcome… and the sequel!

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!

Discovered in a Garret in Naples: The Case of Jephson v Brenon, 1909, Pt 1

The Bay of Naples, by Olaf Arborelius, 1872. Image via

From the Daily Mirror, 18 June 1909:



The hearing of the strange case of Jephson v Brenon, described by counsel as one of the saddest tragedies ever told in a court of justice, was continued by the Master of the Rolls in the Four Courts, Dublin, yesterday.

The plaintiff, the committee of John Boyce, a man of infirm mind, seeks as against Edward St John Brenon, of 21, Airedale-avenue, Chiswick, London, to set aside a deed of 1875, whereby Boyce conveyed lands in Waterford and Cork on trust for Brenon, as fraudulent and void.

He also seeks an account of rents and profit received by Brenon.

Boyce is now seventy years of age, and the plaintiff alleges that he was purposely induced to remain for forty years in Italy, where he was recently discovered, destitute, sick, and almost an imbecile, in a garret in Naples, while the moneys of his estates were being misapplied.

Mr. Browne, K.C., resuming his address for the plaintiff, said that, owing to infirm health and mental weakness Mr. Boyce was never sent to school.

He was forty years in Italy, and up to the day he left he could hardly speak a word of Italian.  He was unable to transact any business without assistance, and he could not even do his own shopping.  He had no initiative or will of his own, and yet he was not an imbecile or a lunatic.

He was entitled in 1859 to a life interest in lands producing £310 a year.  These lands were the subject of the deed impeached.

Besides this, he was entitled to other property, making his income altogether between £750 and £800.

Into whose hands did he fall?  He was guarded and watched by Brenon, an extraordinarily clever and attractive man, who had a gift for music, and had been a choir boy in the Chapel Royal, Dublin.

This Brenon was a Bohemian and had a brilliant and frequently vitriolic pen.  He made two unsuccessful attempts from different platforms to enter the House of Commons, and he was the editor of a periodical known as ‘Piccadilly,’ and author of a production entitled ‘the Morals of Merrion Square.’

In the hands of this extraordinarily clever individual John Boyce would be like wax.

Brenon was divorced from his wife in 1894, and he had a very variegated career.  Poor Boyce described this man in one of his letters ‘his only best friend next to God.’

John Boyce unfortunately left the care of his family in the sixties, and until he was found in Naples in 1907, he had no friend at all, and no intimate but Brenon.

From the time Boyce left his family Brenon never let him out of his control.  In Italy and elsewhere Boyce was deliberately kept from friendly communication with his family, and when he was found in a garret in Naples in 1907 and brought to Ireland, all the documents and papers that had come to him in these forty years were found there also.

Counsel then proceeded to read a vast amount of correspondence that had passed between Boyce and Brenon. 

In this Boyce exhibited an utter inability to spell properly.  ‘Fated’ was spelled as ‘fatted,’ and ‘criticised’ as ‘cristed.’

Continuing, Mr. Browne said that in 1873 Brenon conceived the idea of getting the entire property of Boyce into his hands, and that design he carried out.  The hearing was adjourned.”

The saga continued in a subsequent report in Reynolds’s Newspaper of Sunday 4 July 1909 which detailed interchanges between Mr Longworth, on behalf of Mr Brenon and Mr Tim Healy, on behalf of Boyce’s Committee:

‘Mr Longworth… had one of Boyce’s letters from Naples and analysed it with the object of showing that Boyce was not a weak-minded man, but a man of very great mental power.  Counsel read this letter, written in Boyce’s queer phonetic spelling, and represented it as the description of a dream, in which the illusion was kept up with great power. 

Mr Healy said it was a nightmare. 

Mr Longworth read an extract in which Boyce dreamed of refreshments – counsel said this was like a picture of still life by a painter – and helped himself to ‘lostor’ (lobster’)

Mr Healy – Ham and eggs!

Mr Longworth continued to read from Boyce’s letter a description of a rat in the dream he was describing.  Boyce killed the rat, and his meaning for that was that he was crushing the baser passions.

Boyce killed the rat, and his meaning for that was that he was crushing the baser passions.  Boyce also described a steam-engine ‘with a green eye at the end of her tail’ (Laughter.)

It was impossible (said counsel) to conceive that Boyce was ever a man of weak intellect after reading that letter.  It was merely an attempt at weird or sensational writing.  Boyce wanted to benefit the man whom his friends had pursued for years with slanders. In order to do that he did two things – he remained himself nominally the owner of the land, and he at the same time acted as trustee for the defendant, handing over the rents and profits.

The Master of the Rolls: This is the most astounding thing one ever heard of.  Did you ever hear of such a case?

Mr Longworth: It is an astonishing thing, and extremely difficult to express in legal language, but that is what happened.

Mr Healy, on behalf of the plaintiff, said Mr Longworth had said that they must admire Mr Brenon’s courage.  The courage of Mr Brenon he (Mr Healy) regarded as the courage of a rat in a trap, snarling and biting when driven to bay.  The defendant, a man of great shrewdness, had for over forty years had entire possession of the plaintiff Boyce, body and soul.  The plaintiff was a lunatic, a defenceless lunatic, defenceless but for the providentiall circumstance that after forty years there was found in Brenan’s box in Boyce’s’ room in the Naples garret, letters that the defendant would have destroyed if he had had an opportunity of doing so.”

What was in those letters? 

And what exactly was the relationship between the handsome and charming former choir boy Brenon (now best known as the father of a famous early Hollywood actor, director and producer) and the dyslexic Boyce claimed by one side to be a lunatic, the other a genius?

And would the deed be set aside?

More tomorrow…

Country Litigants, and Other Frequenters of the Four Courts, 1822

A Flat Between Two Sharps’ by Rowlandson, via Rare Old Prints. The background is Westminster Hall, not the Four Courts, but the litigant seems to fall into the same category as the Irish country litigant described below.

From the Yorkshire Gazette, 21 December 1822:


Some very able papers are now in the course of publication in the New Monthly Magazine entitled ‘Sketches of the Irish Bar;’ giving an account of the various forensic characters in our sister country, and of the mode of practice in the Courts there. The following animated account of the scenes daily occurring in the Hall of the Four Courts is from the last No. of the above-named miscellany:

‘The law, and the practice of the courts, in Ireland, are with some trivial exceptions, precisely the same as with us, but the system of professional life in the sister island is in some respects different. One of the particulars in which they differ may be made a source of interest and recreation to a stranger in Dublin, at least it was so to me. I allude to the custom, which the Irish Bar have long since adopted, of assembling daily for the transaction of business, or in search of it, if they have it not, in the Hall of the Four Courts.

The building itself is a splendid one… in the centre of the interior, and o’er canopied by a lofty dome, is a spacious circular hall, into which the several courts of justice open. I was fond of lounging in this place.

From the hours of twelve to three, it is a busy and a motley scene. When I speak of it as the place of daily resort for the members of the legal profession and their clients, I may be understood to me, that it is the general rendezvous of the whole community; for in Ireland almost every man of any pretensions that you meet, is either a plaintiff or defendant, or on the point of becoming so, and, when in the capital, seldom fails to repair at least once a day to the Hall, in order to look after his cause, and by conferences with his lawyers, to keep up his mind to the true litigating temperature.  It is here, too, that the political idlers of the town resort to or pick up the rumours of the day.

There is also a plentiful admixture of the lower orders, among whom it is not difficult to distinguish the country litigant. You know him by his mantle of frieze, his two boots and one spur, by the tattered lease, the emblem of his tenement, which he unfolds as cautiously as Sir Humphry Davy would a manuscript of Herculaneum, and, best of all, by his rueful visage, in which you can clearly read, that same clause in the last ejectment act lies heavy on his heart. 

These form the principal materials of the scene, but it is not so easy to enumerate the manifold and ever shifting combinations into which they are diversified. The rapid succession of so many objects, passing and repassing eternally before you, perplexes and quickly exhausts the eye. It fares still worse with the ear. The din is tremendous. Beside s the tumult of a thousand voices in ardent discussion, and the most of them raised to the declamatory pitch, you have ever and anon the stentorian cries of the tipstaffs bawling ‘The gentlemen of the Special Jury to the box’ or the still more thrilling vociferations of attorneys and attorneys’ clerks, hallooing to a particular counsel that their case is called on, and all is lost if he delays an instant.  Whereupon the counsel, catching the sound of his name, wafts through the hubbub, breaks precipitately from the circle that engages him, and bustles through the throng, escorted, if he be of any eminence, by a posse of applicants, each of them trying to monopolise him, until he reaches the entrance of the court and plunging in escapes for that time from their importunate solicitations. 

The bustle among the members of the Bar is greatly increased by the circumstance of all of them, with very few exceptions, practicing in all the courts.  Hence at every moment you see the most eminent darting across the hall, flushed and palpitating from the recent conflict and, no breathing time allowed them, advancing with rapid strides and looks of fierce intent, to fling themselves again into the thick of another fight. It daily happens that two cases are to be heard in different courts, and in which the same barrister is the client’s main support, are called on at the same hour… On such occasions it is amusing to witness the contests between the respective attorneys to secure their champion…

The preceding are a few of the constant and ever-acting elements of noise and motion in this busy scene; but an extra sensation is often given to the congregated mass.  The detection of a pickpocket (I am not speaking figuratively) causes a sudden and impetuous rush of heads with wigs and without them to the spot where the culprit has been caught in flagranti.

At other times, the scene is diversified by a ground of fine girls from the country, coming, as they all make a point of doing, to see the courts, and show themselves to the Junior Bar.  A crowd of young and learned gallants instantaneously collects, and follows in their wake; and even the arid veteran will start from his legal reverie as they pass along, or, discontinuing the perusal of his deeds and counterparts, betray by a faint leer, that, with all of love of parchment, a fine skin glowing with the tints that life and nature give it, has yet a more prevailing charm. 

Lastly, I must not omit, that the Hall is not infrequently thrown into ‘Confusion, worse confounded’ by that particular breach of his Majesty’s Irish peace, improperly called a ‘horsewhipping’.  When an insult is to be avenged, that place is often chosen for its publicity as the fittest scene of castigation. Besides this, particular classes in Ireland, who have quarrels on their hands, cherish certain high-minded and chivalrous notions on the subject – The injured feelings of a gentleman, as they view the matter, are to be redressed, not so much by the pain and shame inflicted upon the aggressor, as by a valiant contempt of the laws that would protect the backs of the community from stripes; and hence the point of humour is more completely satisfied by a gentle caning under the nose of justice, than by a sound cudgeling anywhere beyond the sacred precincts.”

The above was the Hall of the Four Courts before the Irish Famine, and the establishment of County Courts, which combined to make the Four Courts a less attractive destination for pickpockets, country litigants, and young ladies seeking husbands among a significantly depleted Junior Bar! The occasional horsewhipping, however, continued to take place in its vicinity…

Sketches of the Irish Bar, available here, was co-authored by Richard Lalor Sheil and John Philpot Curran‘s son William Henry Curran. A statue of Sheil stood in the Hall of the Four Courts for many years, until it was destroyed in 1922.