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.

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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