The case of “VANE v. VANE,” on which Sir RICHARD MALINS gave judgment on Saturday, is one of those stories which sometimes make the Court of Chancery the best school even for the most ingenious masters of romance. All the materials of an exciting three-volume novel lie ready in the prosaic records of the trial which have appeared from day to day in our columns. Irregular connexions in a well-known county family, whispers of illegitimacy against the heir of a fine estate, family quarrels and a rich crop of family scandals, charges of fraud to keep the rightful heir out of his possessions, reports of what might be termed death-bed confessions – all this chain of circumstances, extending over three-quarters of a century, forms a tale which needs no embellishment from fancy. It is true that the attempt to prove the charge of fraud ignominiously failed; but none the less vividly does the story bring out the errors, the suspicions, and the resentments which are sometimes the price of coveted possessions. The narrative takes us back to the last century, when Sir FREDERICK FLETCHER VANE became the heir of the entailed estates in Cumberland left by his father, Sir LIONEL FLETCHER. Sir FREDERICK had formed an intimacy with a woman below him in life, HANNAH BOWERBANK, by whom he had two children. In 1797 she gave birth to a third child, and on the 9th of March in the same year Sir FREDERICK married her. The main question before the Court was whether that child was born before or after the marriage. According to the plaintiff, the birth happened before that event; according to the defendant, the date of it was the 29th of March, or about three weeks after the marriage. The child was baptized on the 18th of April under the name of FRANCIS FLETCHER, and the register contains the statement that he was born on the 29th of March; but these words are written in different ink from the rest of the record, and the theory of the plaintiff was that, after the register of the baptism, they had been added with a fraudulent intent. Some time after the marriage the parents went to live at the family seat in Cumberland, and, since the illegitimacy of their two eldest children was a matter of notoriety, Sir FREDERICK sought means, as far back as 1802, to put the legitimacy of his son FRANCIS beyond dispute by filing a bill in Chancery. The evidence of the nurse and the doctor who had been present at the birth, as well as of other witnesses, was placed in one of those “sealed packets” without which no case of a disputed succession would be complete. In 1807 Lady VANE had another son, FREDERICK HENRY, who was the plaintiff in the suit before the Court. But his elder brother, FRANCIS, was always treated as the heir. When FRANCIS came of age, in 1818, he joined with his father in the resettlement of the estates, and he was described in the deed as the “son and heir apparent” of Sir FREDERICK. A private Act of Parliament having been required in the same year to authorize the sale of a part of the estates, a certificate that Sir FRANCIS was legitimate came before the House of Lords, and it was deemed satisfactory. In 1823 he married Miss DIANA BEAUCLERK, and again his legitimacy was assumed in the marriage settlements. Knowing, however, that two of Sir FREDERICK’S children had been born out of wedlock, Miss BEAUCLERK’S father naturally wished to have the legitimacy of his daughter’s husband made as clear as possible, and hence, it is supposed, the fact that eight days after the marriage Sir FREDERICK VANE formally entered the date of his son’s birth at the Heralds’ College. On two occasions his mother also attested that he had been born after her marriage. One was in 1833, when a part of the family estates was sold, and the purchaser required some further evidence of birth than the entry in the register of baptism. Lady VANE then gave the requisite evidence on oath. On the eve of her son’s forty-third birthday she confirmed that testimony to himself. At the death of his father, in 1832, he succeeded to the title and the property without having to encounter a single challenge. In 1842 he himself died, and he was peacefully succeeded by his son, Sir HENRY RALPH VANE, the present owner. As the Statute of Limitations makes twenty years of possession a sufficient title to ownership, unless rival claimants have been minors or married women, or the tenure has been vitiated by fraud, the family might seem to have long outlived any of the fears which lie in a writ of ejectment.
But a wonderful charge of fraud was brought by Mr. FREDERICK VANE, the younger brother of the late Sir FRANCIS, and therefore the uncle of the present baronet. The Dowager Lady VANE, who long survived her husband, and who died at the age of 93, had said to several persons that her son FRANCIS was born before the marriage. She had said so years after he had succeeded to the estate. In 1866 the same admission was supposed to have been made by DIANA Lady VANE, the widow of Sir FRANCIS, in a conversation with the plaintiff’s wife, who had asked her what she knew about the date of her deceased husband’s birth. Showing signs of alarm, she admitted that there had been family irregularities; but she added, “My husband was all right.” However, she also, it was said, acknowledged, not only that he was illegitimate, but that she and her father knew of the fact at the time of her marriage. Armed with these reports, Mr. FREDERICK VANE searched for further evidence, and he gathered a good deal of the scandalous gossip which always floats about those country houses that are supposed to have skeletons in the closet. He then made a claim for the recovery of the estates; and, as his nephew declined to give them up, the case came before the Court of Chancery in 1872. If either the plaintiff or the defendant had then agreed to open the “sealed packet” containing the evidence taken in 1802, it is possible there might at once have been an end to the suit; but, unfortunately, first one of the parties and then the other objected, and hence a rich array of family scandals has been the theme of vulgar curiosity. Fortified by the researches of several years, the plaintiff came before the Court with an elaborate theory. His brother, he contended, was illegitimate, and he strove to prove that assumption not only by the admissions of his mother and his sister-in-law, but by an incident which occurred on his brother’s twenty-first birthday. The plaintiff, who was then eleven years of age, saw him coming out of his father’s study in a violent fit of grief. He had no suspicion of the cause at the time, but, by the light of later revelations, he infers that his father had made known to him the flaw in the succession. The gravity of the plaintiff’s counsel, Mr. GLASSE and Serjeant BALLANTINE, must have been severely tried by the necessity of deducing such a conclusion from such premises. Sir FREDERICK VANE, we are also told, strongly objected to the marriage of his son FRANCIS, and on two occasions prevented him from uniting himself to ladies of whom he had gained the affections. We are invited to infer that Sir FREDERICK, although determined to perpetrate an injustice by making an illegitimate son his heir, also wished to lessen the wrong by keeping FRANCIS unmarried, and thus leaving the reversion of the estate to FREDERICK. Unfortunately for that theory, FRANCIS did marry, with his father’s consent, at the not excessively late age of twenty-six years. Even had all these theories been accompanied by incontestable proofs, the plaintiff would still have been put out of court by the legal fact that the defendant and his father had possessed the estate unchallenged for more than twenty years. But an attempt was made to overleap that difficulty by one of the most complicated charges of fraud ever set before a Court of Justice. That Sir FREDERICK and Lady VANE had been guilty of fraud, not once, but many times, was assumed, of course, in the mere charge of illegitimacy. It was equally evident that the grossest fraud must have been committed by the doctor, the nurse, the solicitor, and the other persons whose evidence was laid before the Court of Chancery in 1802. As the ATTORNEY-GENERAL said, they must all have borne false witness with the rope round their necks. The same guilt must have been incurred in every successive resettlement of the family estate. The plaintiff’s brother, FRANCIS, was accused of fraud on the supposition that he knew himself to be illegitimate when he agreed to the resettlement of the estates. Mr. BEAUCLERK and Miss BEAUCLERK were likewise charged with fraud, on the presumption that they were made acquainted with the date of Sir FRANCIS VANE’S birth before the marriage. Mr. BEAUCLERK, a man of high character, had, it was argued, sanctioned the marriage of his daughter with a gentleman whom he knew to be illegitimate and who might be turned out of the estate by a younger brother. He had, it was assumed, looked carefully after marriage settlements which a word from Sir FREDERICK VANE, or Lady VANE, or any other of several witnesses – a word spoken in anger or remorse and therefore at the bidding of incalculable impulses – would make the idlest of formalities.
That was the plaintiff’s case. The VICE-CHANCELLOR said that it was one of the most hopeless ever laid before his Court, and that he would have decided against the plaintiff immediately after hearing his argument if he had not been anxious to stop the possibility of further dispute. The plaintiff had to prove, in the first place, that his brother was born out of wedlock. He could not offer one tittle of evidence for that cardinal assumption except the loose words spoken by his mother in her dotage. But it was shown that when she denied the legitimacy of her son FRANCIS in a gossiping way, she had partly lost her memory, and that she believed herself to have been unjustly dealt with in the settlements of the estate. She seems to have borne some grudge against her son FRANCIS. The loose evidence of her old age was also contradicted by the testimony which she gave on oath in 1833, and by her own letter to her son. The attempt to use the evidence of DIANA Lady VANE against her own husband must be set aside both because it is ambiguous even as cited by the plaintiff and because her own direct testimony is a clear denial that she knew him to be illegitimate. What evidence remains? A little loose country gossip. An estate worth £8,000 a year and carrying a title is, we admit, a tempting possession. The sense of personal wrong is also difficult to endure. If the plaintiff had possessed absolute proof that he was the legitimate heir, he would doubtless have been strongly induced to urge his claims. Yet even in such a case he might also have been held back by the fact that, as his nephew had no children, he himself was the presumptive heir; that his nephew at least was guiltless of any fraud; and that the title could be made good only at the expense of branding his own father and mother with fraud. Few men, we trust, would consent to pay such a price even for a baronetcy and £8,000 a year.