Illegitimacy and inheritance

on Thursday, 07 May 2015. 1

The Lacock archive has thrown up some really interesting documents and stories including about illegitimacy. We have been able to find out information gained from wills and other legal documents about the identity of illegitimate children of John Talbot (1717-1778), one of the owners of the Lacock estate.

John Talbot

John Talbot married in 1742 but was widowed only two years later, and there were no children from the marriage. However, later in his life he had at least four illegitimate children with at least three women.

Why he did not marry one of his mistresses to ensure his estates passed down to his children rather than his nephew, we can only speculate but it is assumed that the reason was because his mistresses were all working class village women and of course it would have been frowned upon to marry someone so low-born. We can also only speculate as to why, when he was widowed so early in his marriage and at such a young age, he did not choose another wife from his own class, simply for the purpose of having an heir.

Luckily, John Talbot’s children appear in the Lacock archive, particularly the two children of Catharine Jones, who were called Ann and John. They were both baptised at Lacock but not given the name Talbot: instead they are listed in the baptism register as bastard children of Catharine Jones. This did not mean that they were not provided for, however, and John Talbot acknowledged them in his will and ensured that they were cared for. Little is known of Ann Jones beyond her childhood, but we do know that John Jones ended up having a successful career in the East India Company, which had earlier been the basis of success of a member of the Davenport family, Henry, back at the start of the 18th century. In the archive we have several letters referring to John Jones, who was obviously well connected through his father’s influence, even though he did not carry the name Talbot. His father left him and his sister a share of the sale of the Salwarpe estate, from which they probably did fairly well.

Of John Talbot’s other son, Thomas Elms, less is known and it can be assumed that, at least whilst John Talbot was still alive, he lived in the Lacock community and then either continued to live in Lacock and learn a trade, or died. Thomas was baptised in 1758 (as the bastard son of Susannah) but there is no record of a burial in Lacock so presumably he moved away. There is a record of a burial in Corsham of someone of that name, but without further investigation it is not possible to find out if this is the same person. As he is not mentioned in his father’s final will, it is possible that he died before his father but there are various other reasons why this could be the case.

One interesting thing has come to light about Thomas, however: in 1775, a bill was written from William Little to Thomas Chubb, who appears on lots of bills as the person to whom board and lodging expenses were paid for the maintenance of Thomas. According to the bill, William Little went after Thomas when he eloped, and brought him back: the bill is for the expenses incurred in going after him.

Documents that show evidence and allow us to speculate about John Talbot’s children include his many wills, and a memorial by Martha Davenport which mentions the fourth known child, Louisa, who died aged three weeks only shortly before John himself died. Martha and several others were involved in a court case over John Talbot’s will. There are various legal papers in the archive concerning the problems caused over John Talbot’s will, with reports and bills being documented. They show not a rift in the family but certainly a problem caused by the inheritance conditions. There is also a touching letter written by John Talbot to John Santer just before his death asking him to perform various duties for him: he knows he is very ill and may soon die, and is putting his affairs in order. It shows the care he takes of his family despite them actually having no legal position. He writes: “For Gods sake remove my poor girl to some private family ‘till a proper one can be got where she may board – The furniture of Greek Street is hers which together with the arrears of Lacock Charlton and Salwarp and the sale of the last, will give a pretty fortune both to her and brother who I could wish if possible tho very expensive might compleat his education at Lochees – Dr Davenport my brother in law will be a friend to him and his sister or he breaks his word ... Dr Davenport is in town make it your business to consult him for gods sake take care of my poor girl – my boy is safe at Lochees – the girl should have a weekly allowance or it may be bad.”

Letter from John Talbot to John Santer

Most letters in the archive are matter-of-fact, although there are many between members of the family which do show emotion. Many have a suggestion of the author being really desperate, as this does but for different reasons. This letter is to a friend, who was to be the legal guardian and representative of John Talbot’s boy and girl. It is not a pleading letter from a daughter who has eloped and wants her father’s forgiveness, or from a family member grieving over the death of a loved one. It is simply a desperate letter from a father realising his own mortality and realising his role as a provider for his children, even if he could not provide for them officially as he did not marry their mother.

Ally McConnell, Archivist

More information on John Jones can be found in an article by one of our volunteers: read it here.