In Regency England, the eldest son usually inherited almost everything while his younger brothers, left with little inheritance, had to make a crucial decision: what should they do to make an independent living? In his new book Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune, historian Rory Muir weaves together the stories of many obscure and well-known young men, shedding light on an overlooked aspect of Regency society.
Two such stories are that of the successful Benjamin Smith and the impatient William Yescombe, both country attorneys. Read on for Part I of our extract to learn more about Benjamin Smith.
Benjamin Smith: A Regency Attorney
The experiences of two country attorneys in the second half of the eighteenth century give some idea of what life had to offer for those lucky clerks who succeeded in becoming attorneys. Benjamin Smith was born in 1731 in St Peter’s Eastgate in Lincoln. We know nothing of his family background: he may have been a tradesman’s son, an illegitimate child of a member of the Brown family, or from a humble background; certainly, he was not well-born. Nor do we have any record of his early life or legal training, but he may have worked as a clerk (articled or not) for Matthias Brown, an attorney at Walcot in Lincolnshire, who was the agent for the Brown estates, and whose business Smith eventually took over. It is clear that by 1761 Smith was acting as an attorney, although he was not formally enrolled as such until 1767 – an irregularity which seems to have been unusual. His work seldom involved litigation; rather he prepared wills, mortgages and marriage settlements; did much conveyancing of land; and collected rents, prepared leases and presided over manorial courts for a number of landowning families in the country around Horbling, Walcot and Donington, south of Lincoln. Far from being tied to his desk, he spent many hours on horseback, visiting clients, attending manorial courts, traversing all the country within 30 miles or so of his office at Horbling, and getting to know the land well. He corresponded with Robert Kelham, a solicitor in London who acted as his agent, obtaining counsel’s opinion on difficult questions and also handling much business for Smith’s clients.
However, Smith’s most profitable activity – as it was for most country attorneys – was that of a money scrivener, acting as the middleman between those with money to lend and those needing to borrow. In such transactions, he drew up the bonds and other legal documents and collected a brokerage fee for arranging the loan, but did not himself act as a principal in the transaction. Typically the lenders were widows, retired officers of the army or navy, retired tradesmen or farmers: people living on the income derived from a modest capital, who wished to lend part or all of it locally rather than putting it into government bonds, East India stock or other national investments, and who relied on their attorney’s knowledge of local affairs for the security of their money. The borrowers were generally local landowners looking to raise money to pay off existing debts, to cover the cost of enclosing some of the land, to pay for election expenses or the marriage settlement of a daughter or daughter-in-law or establish one of their sons in a career. Local businessmen might also borrow money for commercial purposes, but this does not appear to have been as common, probably because their security was regarded as less reliable than that of the landowners.
Many local attorneys played an important role as clerks of the Quarter Sessions, but there is no evidence that Smith did so. On the other hand, he was heavily involved in the legal processes surrounding several enclosure acts affecting the district. Each enclosure required detailed planning, the appointment of commissioners, the agreement of the affected landowners including any clergyman, and precise listing of a mass of information ranging from the route of new roads to manorial rights, while the costs then had to be apportioned among the petitioners. Such work was perfectly suited to a country attorney, and it was well paid. In 1764 Smith became clerk of the Horbling Enclosure Commission; three years later he was appointed to a similar position on the Newton Enclosure Commission; in 1769 the parishes of Thurlby and Threckingham followed, with Helpingham coming in 1772 and Wilsford and Surfleet in 1775. The regularity with which new work arrived almost suggests that local landowners were willing to wait until he was free to undertake the task. He was equally enmeshed in a number of local turnpike trusts and projects to drain the Fens, notably the splendidly named Black Sluice Drainage Trust where he was clerk and managed most of the business. And he acted as clerk to several local charities, often established long before to provide funds for the needs of widows or the education of poor children, while he also served as clerk and treasurer of the Folkingham Association for Prosecuting Felons. All these activities made him a significant figure in the district and brought him into close contact with the gentry of the neighbourhood who, presumably, were impressed with his capacity for business.
Inheritance and Heirs
Benjamin Smith did well and by the time he died in 1807 he had taken two partners into his practice: his eldest son and namesake, and William Worth, formerly his clerk. In his will, he left his widow an annuity of £100 and his sister £24 a year. His daughter Elizabeth received £7,000; his son Edward, who had gone to St John’s, Cambridge and been ordained in 1807, £8,000. Another son, Francis, who became a grazier, received £2,500 but also properties that made his inheritance at least equal to Edward’s, while Benjamin Smith Jnr inherited his father’s share of the practice and also quite extensive property. In the following year, the practice made a profit of just over £2,200 of which Benjamin Smith Jnr received £1,657 and William Worth £552. Figures for the next decade show that this was not untypical, although the profit varied quite sharply from year to year (that for 1809 being half that of 1808). The younger Benjamin Smith carried on his father’s example of hard work and diligence, and reaped ample rewards, dying in 1857 worth approximately £140,000.
Find the story of William Yescombe in Part II.