The story so far.

By 1786 John Cree, a Dubliner born John McMahon, has returned home from India, where he has made his fortune as a merchant of the East India Company. He is now married and has a legitimate son, William, by his wife Carolina Matilda, in addition to his two "natural" children by Nancy, his earlier partner in India. He is anxious to spend his fortune on something which he can pass on to his son and heir. He obtains a coat of arms from the Ulster King of Arms in his native Dublin, and in 1787 buys an impressive mansion, Thornhill House, in Dorset. He is all set for the life of a country gentleman and has a son and heir to inherit it.

Almost immediately it all starts to go sour. In 1788 his son William dies, taking with him John's hopes of an heir. In 1791 he is in Brussels and gets into a fight with a Mr Macnamara over a matter concerning the honour of Mrs Cree. He publishes a long and vitriolic paper about the matter in order to justify his position but we do not know what the insult to Mrs Cree was. We may suspect, with hindsight, that it concerns Carolina Matilda's behaviour with other men, for in July 1795 John and Caroline are legally separated in Copenhagen. (By 1799 she marries George Elphinston, a Danish-born Hussar of Scottish parentage.)

The wills of John Cree

John Cree made two wills that we know of, in July 1794 and October 1795, and there is confusion about their relative status. The 1795 will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury on 26 Feb 1796 (Source PCC Will proved 26 February 1796, TNA Ref PROB 11/1271 Harris Quire Numbers: 49 - 97). However the earlier, 1794 will was stated to have been "attested as by Law required... and that the same hath been established in his Majesty's High Court of Chancery..." (Source: Reports of cases argued and determined in the High Court of Chancery... 1789 to 1817, Vol 4, Vesey, F., London, 1824.)

I have not yet traced a full copy of the 1794 will, although it is summarised in later documents. However the October 1795 will was the one which was proved for certain. It leaves Carolina Matilda only what he is obliged to by their marriage settlement. John directs that his entire estate be sold and the money invested to provide ten annuities, some for friends and others for family members, though neither his brother Terence McMahon nor his nephews John and James McMahon are so much as mentioned. See the will of John Cree. A month after making the will John is dead.

The will is important because it suggests something about the political views and outlook of John Cree. Philip Francis whose heirs are to be the ultimate beneficiaries of John's estate once all the annuities have "dropped in", is well-known as a political figure of the period. He is now known to be the anonymous author of the "Junius Letters." John probably met him when both were in Calcutta, John as a merchant and Philip Francis as a member of the newly constituted Supreme Council of Bengal at a salary of 10,000 per annum. Francis was in Calcutta from 1774 to 1781 during which time John Cree was also there. Francis had a prolonged and bitter struggle with Warren Hastings, the governor-general of India and was later, in England, to be the moving force behind Hastings' impeachment. Later, in 1792, he was also a founder member of the radical society, the Friends of the People.

From this we may deduce that John Cree was also politically radical during the heady period following the French Revolution. He certainly associated with the proponents of radical political reform, an association not without danger. In the trial of Thomas Hardy (another radical, not the author) for High Treason in 1794, the Declaration of the Society of the Friends of the People (dated 1792) is presented in evidence. The declaration is signed by the members of the Society, led by Earl Grey, and including James Archdekin, David Godfrey, Philip Francis and John Godfrey. These last four are all beneficiaries of John Cree's will, and two as we have seen are close friends (Source: "Cobbett's complete collection of state trials and proceedings for High Treason..." by Howell and Howell, London, 1794.)

Probate of the 1795 will was granted in February 1796 but it is a rambling and complex document and soon gives rise to litigation between various beneficiaries and potential beneficaries. A Chancery case heard in 1798 concerns a promissory note from one of the beneficiaries, John Byrn. John Cree had verbally cancelled the note, but had been unable to return it because it was still at his bank and so it was declared valid. The interest of this case is that it declares that the October 1795 will "was not executed as is by law required to pass real estates." (Source: Reports of cases argued and determined in the High Court of Chancery..., Volume 2 page 5, Vesey, F., London.)

A further Chancery case arose out of the will in 1801.This concerned the illegitimacy of a residuary legatee (see Godfrey v Davis). However the main mysteries arising from the will are, firstly, why John's brother and nephews, his next of kin, are to receive nothing, and secondly, why the eldest nephew John McMahon is later found to have ownership of Thornhill House (apparently from 1795) and in 1815 obtains the right to bear the arms and surname of Cree.


 

This page should be regarded as a sort of progress report on our researches into the complex and amazing life of John Cree (alias McMahon). It is linked to the pages giving the texts of John Cree's will and the case in the Chancery Court of Godfrey v Davis and to the details of John Cree in the Cree Online Genealogy Database.

This page will be updated as the "work in progress" continues.

An Act "to enable the Commissioners... to sell His Majesty's Interest in the Thornhill Estate"

I believe I have now (1st June 2011) found part of the answer, and it adds perhaps the most surprising twist yet to the story of John Cree, the East India merchant. A couple of days ago I found that an Act of Parliament was passed in 1815 specifically to enable the Crown to sell Thornhill House. The Act (55 Geo. III.) states that the Crown had acquired the estate of Thornhill House in 1799 for the period of the "natural Life of Carolina Matilda Elphinston (now the Wife of George Elphinston Esquire, residing at Copenhagen, in the Kingdom of Denmark, and late the Widow of John Cree, deceased), subject to a Lease thereof granted by His Majesty unto James Archdekin."

On reading this my mind went into overdrive with the number of questions that arose. Having recently transcribed John Cree's will, I knew that James Archdekin, now the lessee of Thornhill House, was John Cree's "ever respected Friend" and now sole executor of the will, as well as being amongst the main beneficiaries. (His "dearest Friend" David Godfrey had died in 1798.) So the Crown leasing Thornhill House to James Archdekin might in some way be part of the mechanism by which it came to the nephew John McMahon.

But the main mystery is why the Crown had taken possession of Thornhill in the first place. Trevor had found a document that showed in 1799 the Crown had held an Inquisition at Stalbridge as to the possessions (none found) of Carolina Matilda, the wife of George Elphinston and previously the wife of John Cree, an alien. The are three documents in the National Archives and it seems that there was a campaign targetting aliens. However as no possessions of Carolina were found this does not help us.

Suddenly I remembered the circumstances when estates were forfeited to the Crown. It was when the owner had committed suicide. This was the law until the passing of the Forfeiture Act of 1870. The explanation of the possession of Thornhill House by the crown from 1799 to 1815 could be that John Cree had committed suicide!

It is certainly possible to imagine that he was in the state of mind to do so. In his will, written a month before his death, he had stated that "the unexampled misconduct of my Wife Carolina Matilda Cree compels me in Justice to Society and my own honor to revoke the will made in her favor... I hereby declare that the said Carolina Matilda Cree having to the utter astonishment of every one that knew her and my unspeakable Grief undergoing in the space of a few months such an unhappy change from Virtue to Vice that she is no longer worthy of my Bounty and therefore I abandon and punish her for her vicious Courses."

Prior to 1870 in the case where the property of a suicide was forfeit, "the King would normally pass the property to the Lord Almoner, to be used for 'charitable uses,' which could mean the surviving members of the family." (Source: The Diary of Samual Pepys web site quoting L & M whom I cannot yet trace.) It is possible that the leasing of the estate to James Archdeakin the main surviving executor was part of a process of ameliorating the effects of forfeiture on the heirs.

This still leaves many questions unanswered. Why was the Crown possession limited to the life of Carolina Matilda?

It has been written that, "The legal situation in 1765... was that forfeiture because of suicide applied to personalty, but realty passed to the heirs." (Source: Amer. Bar Assoc. Journ., Sep 1968). Realty being land, buildings, etc., was it deemed that in law Thornhill House should go to Carolina as the next-of-kin, or that she should have a life interest in the house, in spite of the legal separation? Did her subsequent remarriage nullify the life interest? Was the Act of Parliament therefore considered necesary to subvert that arrangement, perhaps relating to the action against her as an alien. We know that in the event Thornhill passed to the nephew, John McMahon, so the annuities detailed in the will could not have been financed from its sale. The "personalty" is the remainder of the estate, perhaps a substantial fortune that John Cree had amassed as an East India merchant. So it would be that fortune that was used to provide the annuities that were being argued about in the Court of Chancery in 1801.

 
 

55 Geo. III. A.D. 1815

An Act to enable the Commissioners of His Majesty's Woods, Forests and Land Revenues, to contract for the Purchase and Surrender of Crown Leases; and to sell His Majesty's Interest in the Thornhill Estate, in the Parish of Stallbridge, in the County of Dorset, and in certain small Parcels of Land belonging to His Majesty's Subjects within the Royal Forests; and to remove Doubts as to Estates of The Crown, sold by Order of the said Commissioners, being exempted from the Auction Duty. [12th May 1815]

...

VIII. And Whereas The King's Most Excellent Majesty is seized in Right of His Crown of an Estate called Thornhill, situate and being at Thornhill, in the Parish of Stallbridge, in the County of Dorset, for the natural Life of Carolina Matilda Elphinston (now the Wife of George Elphinston Esquire, residing at Copenhagen, in the Kingdom of Denmark, and late the Widow of John Cree, deceased), subject to a Lease thereof granted by His Majesty unto James Archdekin Esquire, for a Term of Ninety nine Years, commencing from the Tenth Day of October One thousand seven hundred and ninety nine, if the said Carolina Matilda Elphinston should so long live, at the yearly Rent of One hundred and one Pounds Thirteen Shillings and Four pence: And Whereas the said Estate is detached from any other Possessions of The Crown, and His Majesty's Interest therein being of so limited a nature, it is not desirable that the same should be held or retained by The Crown: and it is apprehended that the same may be sold to advantage; and it is therefore expedient that Powers should be given to the Commissioners of His Majesty's Woods, Forests and Land Revenues, for the time being, to sell and dispose of His Majesty's Interest in the said Estate and Premises; Be it therefore enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for the said Commissioners of His Majesty's Woods, Forests and Land Revenues, for the time being, with the Approbation of the Lord High Treasurer, or of any Three or more of the Commissioners of His Majesty's Treasury for the time being, to contract and agree for the Sale of and absolutely to make Sale and dispose of all His Majesty's Interest in the said Estate...

IX ... the Sale of the said Mansion House, Farm, Land and Premises called Thornhill...

(Source: Raithby, J., The Statutes of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Volume 6, p 111, London, 1816)

My ever respected Friend James Archdekin

James Archdekin had a hand in all this. He was executor of the will and lessee of Thornhill House from the Crown. We know that the house passed next to the nephew John McMahon, he being the next-of-kin to John Cree after the latter's brother Terence McMahon who died in 1813. We must remember that John McMahon only came of age (21) in 1801, and had been engaged in a military career in Holland and Egypt until that time. So who was in charge of Thornhill from John Cree's death in 1795 until John McMahon took over in or about 1801. John married Ann Stickland in Dorchester in 1805 and children were baptised at Stalbridge from 1806 onwards. Clearly John McMahon was Master of Thornhill by then but the Act of Parliament passed on 12 May 1815 shows that James Archdekin was the actual lessee.

Licence to John McMahon to take the surname and bear the arms of Cree only

It would surely have been in response to the passing of the Act of Parliament on 12 May 1815 that John McMahon, the nephew of John Cree, applied for a licence "that he and his Issue may assume and take the surname of Cree only, and also bear the arms of Cree only" for that Licence was granted on 8 June 1815. The Licence (which is in the possession of Martin Cree) refers to the "will of John Cree Esq bearing date 16 July 1794." This is surprising since we thought this will was revoked by the will of 20 October 1795. The licence refers to "the petitioner (John McMahon) by the description of his, the testator's, eldest nephew, then living with and under the care of James McMahon, and the heirs of the Body of his said nephew with other remainders over."

Importantly, John McMahon was "declared to be intitled to the Interest in the real Estate." In 1826 he was able to put Thornhill House up for sale. In 1827 he purchased Moignes Court at Owermoigne near Dorchester and moved there with his growing family.

 

The next stage

If John Cree did commit suicide there should be some documentation of the fact and we should now search for that. We should not assume it is so without finding some firm evidence. At the moment it is just a hypothesis. The most likely sources of evidence would be parish records (Stalbridge), newspapers, an inquest report (Dorset record office?, etc.


Database details of John Cree
The case of Godfrey v Davis
The will of John Cree