No. 148.
Mr. Lowell to Mr. Frelinghuysen.

No. 895.]

Sir: Referring to your instruction No. 974, of the 8th September last, I have now the honor to inclose a report, drawn up, under my supervision, by Mr. Henry White, one of the secretaries of this legation, on the subject of unclaimed estates in England, which, I believe, covers the whole field of inquiry.

I hope it may be of some use in saving the money of those foolish dupes in the United States who have not already thrown it away in the worse than useless pursuit of imaginary fortunes in Great Britain. They might as well seek to recover possession of a castle in Spain through the intervention of our minister to that country,

I may as well mention that in a letter received within a few days with relation to a non-existent estate here there was inclosed a lithographed circular in the name of an equally non-existent firm of solicitors. I have already communicated with the police in respect of these swindlers, [Page 225] and have some hope that we may be able to break up one, at least, of these dens of thieves.

I cannot close this dispatch without commending the industry and intelligence shown by Mr. White in performing the task assigned to him, and the highly satisfactory manner in which he has acquitted himself.

I have, &c.,

[Inclosure in No. 895.]

Mr. White to Mr. Lowell.

Sir: I have the honor, in accordance with your instructions, to submit to you the following report in reference to unclaimed estates and property in this country, and to the claims thereunto which are continually addressed by our fellow-citizens to this legation, together with a few details tending to show the utter hopelessness of most of these claims, and the means necessary to establish such as have any validity, instances of which are, however, extremely rare.

The archives of the legation show that a considerable proportion of our miscellaneous correspondence is composed of letters upon this subject. The writers in some instances furnish a few details as to the nature and locality of the property to which they imagine themselves to be entitled; more frequently they merely state that, according to an advertisement in some local newspaper, a very large sum of money or landed estate was left, at a period more or less remote, either to a person of the same name as their own, or to one of different name from whom they believe themselves to be descended; and, with very few exceptions, they ask the legation to make immediate inquiries in the matter, frequently even to bring the case before Parliament.

It is evident that most of these correspondents imagine that the prosecution of their claims must be comparatively easy, and that they are lamentably ignorant not only of the great difficulty in finding out the whereabouts of the estate referred to, but also of the absolute necessity that not one link should be missing in the chain of evidence as to their descent, identity, and right to the property claimed; otherwise its recovery is impossible. It never appears to enter the minds of those who write to us in reference to estates that their claim, however good originally, may be rendered valueless by a statute of limitations; neither are they apparently aware that they should not apply for information or assistance to diplomatic or consular officers of the United States, who have no facilities, even had they the time, for making the minute investigations requisite, but to a lawyer, whose particular business it is to attend to such matters, which require special training and long experience.

It is the invariable rule of the legation to acknowledge promptly the reception of all these communications, to acquaint those who furnish any details whereby the property claimed may be traced that our staff is totally inadequate to undertake such laborious researches as the prosecution of their claim would involve, and to refer them to reputable solicitors who make a special study of business of that kind. To correspondents who furnish very meager details, or none at all, an answer is sent to the effect that the data furnished are totally insufficient to enable the legation to be of any use to them.

There seems to be no doubt that many are led to believe themselves heirs to vast estates in Great Britain by designing persons on both sides of the ocean, who, with a view to personal gain, insert notices in local newspapers in the United States to the effect that a large property left by a person of the same name with that of some well-known family of the district, or of some exceedingly common name likely to occur anywhere, such as Smith or Jones, or who distribute far and wide lists of unclaimed estates which do not exist. Large sums of money are annually thrown away by the dupes of these advertisements and fictitious lists, and a handsome revenue is made by the agents, as they call themselves, for the discovery of lost heirs and the recovery of unclaimed estates. The modus operandi usually adopted by these agents is to ask first for a remittance of £2 or £3, to cover the cost of copying the will upon which the claim purports to be based; then a larger sum for the expenses of instituting inquiries; and at each successive stage more blackmail is levied, the correspondence being so cleverly conducted that several years frequently elapse before the fraud is discovered. None should contribute a dollar to unknown agents, especially towards any expenses [Page 226] connected with establishing claims to estates in this country, until inquiry has been made of counsel here, first, as to the existence of the estate, and then as to the chances of its recovery. I am told by reputable solicitors that not one claim in a thousand of all those referred to them by the legation has had any validity whatever, and very few, during their long experience of claims from America, have been successful.

Unclaimed estates may be divided into several classes, but the claims which the legation is requested to investigate consist (1) of estates reverting to the Grown through the owners thereof dying intestate, without known heirs or next of kin, and of estates of which possession has been taken by some person not the rightful heir, because such heir was unknown; (2) of unclaimed deposits and dividends on Government stocks in the Bank of England; and (3) of unclaimed funds in chancery.

(1) Until recently there was no limit to the time during which estates which had reverted to the Crown through the death of the owners intestate, without known heirs, might be recovered. Towards the end of the last session of Parliament, however, the “intestate estate” acts (47 and 48 Vict., chapter 71) was passed, by which the statute of limitations is applied to this class of unclaimed property, whether real or personal, and the presentation of petitions of right with reference thereto prohibited, “except within the same time and subject to the same rules of law and equity in and subject to which an action for the like purpose might be brought by or against a subject.” In short, estates such as the foregoing are now subject to the same law with those in the possession of individuals not originally the rightful owners, but whose ownership becomes absolute after the lapse of a certain period during, which no claimant appears.

This period is fixed for real estate by the “real property limitation act of 1874” (37 and 38 Vict., chapter 57), which provides that no land shall be recoverable but within the next twelve years after the time at which the right to bring an action or suit for the recovery thereof shall have first accrued to the person making or bringing the same. Should such persons be under any of the following disabilities: Infancy, coverture, idiocy, or unsoundness of mind, at the time when the right to bring an action for the recovery of such land first accrued, this act provided that they shall have the same rights in the premises as though the twelve years had not yet expired, during the six years next after the time at which they shall cease to be under such disabilities up to a limit of thirty years, after which no action can be brought for the recovery of land, even though the person having the right to bring the same may have been laboring under the disabilities mentioned during the whole period.

No action maybe brought for the recovery of personal property after a lapse of twenty years (23 and 24 Vict., chapter 38).

Any attempt, therefore, to recover real estate from the Crown or individuals after a lapse of twelve years (which may be extended to thirty under certain circumstances), and personal property after a lapse of twenty years, however valid the claim of the person making the attempts may have been originally, is certain to end in failure.

All members, consequently, of the “Jennens Association of the United States of America” may rest assured that their subscriptions are simply money thrown away, if their object be the recovery of the Jennens estate. Recently a letter was received here from a member of the aforesaid “Jennens Association,” who had just been notified that a general assessment of $5 had been levied for the year ending June 30, 1884, and who, before paying the same, inquired whether the legation could furnish any information regarding the Jennens estate, “said to be pending before the court of chancery in England.”

The letter inclosed sundry interesting documents emanating from the “association,” in one of which it is stated that “the finance committee are fully satisfied with our agent’s progress in the case,” and, further on, that “it becomes necessary for each and every member of this association to respond with cash as liberally as their means will afford, to carry our case to a final issue, which we have every reason to believe will be successful provided the funds be furnished.” I can only say that the finance committee of the “Jennens Association” must be easily satisfied, as an official of the court of chancery recently informed me that, to the best of his belief, there is not a sixpence in chancery belonging to the “Jennens estate.” So many letters of inquiry have been addressed to the legation during the past forty years (possibly longer) respecting this estate, that I venture to give a few particulars on the subject.

William Jennens, a bachelor of Acton, Suffolk, and Grosvenor Square, London, died in 1798, possessed of about two millions sterling. He left a will, which unfortunately he had forgotten to sign. Consequently his landed estates passed, contrary, I understand, to what would have been the case had the will been valid, to his heir-at-law, George Augustus William Curzon, and they now belong to Earl Howe, the head of the Curzon family. Mr. Jennens’s personal property passed to his cousins, and part of it now belongs to Earl Beauchamp and others.

From that day to this there have been periodical attempts on the part of real or imaginary connections of Mr. Jennens to dispossess the actual owners of his estates. The case has been repeatedly before the courts and the decision has invariably been [Page 227] against the claimants. The most recent occasion, I believe, was the case of “Willis and others v. Earl Howe and others,” in November, 1880, before Vice-Chancellor Malins, who, in giving judgment against the claimants, is said to have remarked, “If such a claim could be allowed after a period of eighty-two years, no one would be safe in possession of his property.”

A similar case to this is the “Hedges estate,” claims to which are frequently addressed to the legation.

The deputy governor of the Bank of England wrote to us, in reference to this, not long since, that he had “caused a careful search to be made in the books of the bank, and no trace of any funds standing in the name of Sir Charles Hedges can be discovered,” Our fellow-countryman the late Colonel Chester, a genealogist of great repute, carefully investigated this claim, and reported that Sir Charles Hedges’s will was duly proved by his son William, who inherited all his property and left a number of descendants; therefore, if Sir Charles left an unclaimed estate in the Bank of England, it was not for want of legal heirs.

The claims to the two estates which I have described at some length, those to the “Bradford estate,” the “Hyde estate,” the “Home estate,” and to many others, may each be described, in Colonel Chester’s words, as “one of the ordinary myths by which so many of our countrymen have been beguiled.”

(2) We receive frequent applications for large deposits said to be awaiting claimants in the Bank of England, and also inquiries with regard to unclaimed stocks and dividends in the Bank of England, the dates, when given, being often, if not generally, anterior to that of the charter of the bank.

I recently addressed a letter with regard to a claim of this kind to the chief accountant of the bank, and he informs me, first of all, that, in the absence of full particulars (i. e., the name and address in full, with the approximate date of the supposed investments) it is impossible to identify any depositor. Our correspondents very rarely favor us with these particulars; but they usually state that very large sums are lying in the bank unclaimed, the fallacy of which will be shown by the following extract from the chief accountant’s letter:

“There are no large amounts of unclaimed stock or dividends standing in our [the Bank of England’s] books. Speaking generally, without having made an exhaustive research, which would involve some considerable labor, there are very few amounts of £1,000, and probably none that exceed this sum by more than £100 or £200. There are many small amounts both of stock and dividends, and in order to facilitate there-claiming of these by the persons entitled to them a memorandum has been drawn up on the subject,” of which the following is a copy:

unclaimed stocks and dividends.

“Persons inquiring for unclaimed stocks and dividends in the public funds of England and of India, to which they believe they are entitled, must supply the following particulars: (1) The names in full and addresses of the persons in whose names the stock is supposed to stand; (2) the name of the stock and its amount; (3) the approximate date of its investment.

“As the bank have nothing to guide them in these searches but the names of the stockholders, and as the same or very similar names often recur a great number of times, it is essential that the above information should be given with approximate correctness.

“The bank are bound by law not to permit any dealing with stocks and dividends except by the persons in whose names they stand, or, in event of the decease of those persons, by their legal personal representatives (so constituted by the high court of justice, probate division). Failing either qualification, a claimant may institute proceedings in the court of chancery. It is, therefore, indispensable that applicants should establish their right to deal with the fund in question either as stockholders or as such representatives, as well as show that the said fund is identical with an account in the bank books.

“The bank are in no way custodians of any real property whatsoever; nor have they any knowledge of any of the property of persons dying intestate, nor of the proceeds of estates in chancery, nor of unclaimed dividends or estates in bankruptcy; and, further, as they have likewise no knowledge of the purposes for which investments are made, it is useless for claimants to inquire for deposits or investments supposed to be in existence for their benefit or for the benefit of other persons.

Chief Accountant’s Office,
Bank of England, May 30, 1881.”

All stock and dividends not claimed for ten years are transferred at the end of that time to the commissioners for the reduction of the national debt. Whenever this occurs, notice of the transfer is sent to the stockholder, at the address of which he is [Page 228] described in the bank’s books, and if this notice fail to reach him, it is subsequently sent to the banker or agent whose name may appear as having acted as attorney for effecting the purchase or receiving the dividends.

It was formerly the practice to print and publish lists of unclaimed stock and dividends, but, according to an official of the Bank of England, “it was found that the information contained in these lists was made use of tor purposes of fraud, and the publication was discontinued about the year 1845. The stock and dividends in these lists have, most of them, been reclaimed long since. But some of the lists have been subsequently reprinted by unauthorized persons, and are, no doubt, the base of many of the applications now being made. From the nature of the inquiries constantly made of us [i. e., the bank] from the United States we have little doubt but, that stories of unclaimed property existing in the bank are circulated for the purpose of obtaining fees from the supposed heirs.”

There is no limitation to the time during which persons furnishing satisfactory proof of their title to stock or dividends transferred to the commissioners for the reduction of the public debt may reclaim them from the latter. The moment a claimant appears, full particulars are published in the leading newspapers of the stock or dividends claimed in that particular case, and further, claimants are admonished to bring forward their claims; but unless all the particulars required in the foregoing memorandum be fully complied with, the attempt to establish such a claim, however valid it may be, can only result in signal failure.

(3) To judge from the letters received at this legation from the United States in reference to unclaimed funds in chancery, many of our countrymen must imagine that institution to be a depository of incalculable millions, a goodly share of which can be easily withdrawn upon the mere institution of a claim to the same by the American minister, and without requirement by the court of any particulars as to the name of the suit, the relationship of the claimant to the parties mentioned therein, or to the original owner of the estate claimed. It is very rarely that in any communication sent us on this subject a smaller sum is mentioned than “several millions,” and frequently our correspondents state that they are entitled to twenty, fifty, and even more millions.

It will doubtless cause surprise and disappointment to such as these to be informed that the whole amount of money in the custody of the court of chancery at the present time is about £84,000,000, of which £83,000,000 belong to owners who are known, leaving about one million only of unclaimed or dormant funds. According to the last annual statement of the paymaster-general, published pursuant to act of Parliament (35 and.36 Vict., chapter 44, section 20), as to the securities and money appearing by the books at the chancery pay office to be in court at the end of February, 1883, £63,641,655 of the £84,000,000 are invested in Government 3 per cents, and the balance is divided among railway, insurance, and other securities.

It is very difficult to obtain accurate information with regard to the unclaimed funds, as, in order to ascertain whether there be any in the court of chancery belonging to the heirs or representatives of a particular estate, it is indispensably necessary that the title of the suit in which such funds have been deposited should be stated. It is quite useless to hope that such information may be obtained by supplying only the name of the original owner of the property. Thus, an estate originally the property of Brown may appear under the name of “Jones v. Smith,” or “Robinson v. Jenkins.” Prior to 1872 no list was published periodically of unclaimed funds in chancery, but in that year the “court of chancery funds act” was passed, by the rules of which a list of dormant funds was ordered to be published every three years in the London Gazette. The last list appeared in the form of a supplement to that journal on the 27th of June of this year, a copy of which I append to this report.

It will be found of little use to claimants, however, for the reasons aforesaid, and also because the amount in each case is not stated.

The following circular will show the steps which must be taken in order to obtain information as to the suits mentioned in this list.

chancery funds.

“An alphabetical list of the accounts of chancery causes and matters in the books of the pay office of the supreme court of judicature on the 1st of September, 1883, of which the funds had not been dealt with during the fifteen years immediately preceding that date, with cross-references to the subtitles of the several accounts, has been prepared, in accordance with the instructions of the treasury and the supreme court fund rules of 1884, and published as a supplement to the London Gazette of Friday the 27th of June, 1884.

“Every request for information in respect of the accounts mentioned in this list should be addressed to the assistant paymaster-general, royal courts of justice, London, [Page 229] subject to the following provisions of the one hundred and first of the supreme court funds rules of 1884, viz:

“‘The paymaster shall not give any information respecting any funds in court mentioned in such list or statement, except upon a request signed by the person applying for such information. If such request be made by a solicitor, such information shall not be given unless the request states the name of the person on whose behalf it is made, and that such person is, in the opinion of the applicant, beneficially interested in such funds. If such request be made by any person other than a solicitor, such information shall not be given, unless the applicant is able to satisfy the paymaster that the request is such as may in the particular case be properly complied with.’

“Every petition or summons affecting any money or securities to the credit of a cause, matter, or account inserted in this list should contain a statement that it has been so inserted.

“In cases in which the money or securities affected by such petition may amount to or exceed in value £500, a copy of such petition or summons, and notice of all proceedings in court or at chambers, unless the court otherwise directs, should be served on the official solicitor of the supreme court.”

“In addition to the three classes which I have described at length, there are also unclaimed funds in the shape of dividends in bankruptcy, surplus assets of companies, dividends generally, army and navy prize money; but as the legation rarely, if ever, receives any claims to such as these, I do not deem it necessary to furnish any particulars in reference to them. The same rules with regard to identification and full details as to right of claimant are absolutely indispensable to establish a claim.

With regard to wills, it may be well to state that, prior to the passing of the probate act, they were admitted to probate and filed in local courts, chiefly under the jurisdiction of the bishops, and vast numbers of old wills are still to be found at York, Chester, Lichfield, and other cathedral cities.

For this reason a search for walls admitted to probate more than thirty years ago is often attended with great difficulty. They are now proved in the district registries or at the principal registry of the probate division of the high court of justice. Copies of wills proved since 1858 in the district registries are sent up to the principal registry at Somerset House, London, where they are easy of access on the payment of a small fee, and copies of them may be obtained at a very reasonable cost.

In Scotland wills are registered at the commissaries’ court for each county, and also in the commissaries’ office in Edinburgh; in Ireland, at the different district registries and at the principal registry office at Dublin.

I append a memorandum issued by the authorities at Somerset House to assist those who are in search of wills and records of marriages and deaths.

From the foregoing report I trust it will be thoroughly understood (1) that the time of anyone wishing to prosecute claims to an estate in Great Britain will be wasted by addressing the legation on the subject, and (2) that if those who happen to imagine, from some advertisement or for any other reason, that an estate is awaiting them in this country, wish to save themselves much unnecessary outlay and the pain of hope long deferred, they will address an inquiry upon the subject to any well known and trustworthy solicitors, and not to any of the “agents” previously described, who, in England certainly, and I doubt not in our own country also, derive a large income from the fictitious lists which they publish of unclaimed property, and from the fees paid to them for the investigation of claims to estates which have no existence whatever.

I have, &c.,