Looking again at Colonel Wintle’s problems over the will drawn by solicitor Nye (30 August), I thought of one from the end of the 19th century when one of the more outrageous frauds was attempted by a Liverpool solicitor, John Hollis Yates. It concerned the estate of Helen Blake, née Sheridan, who had come from the west of Ireland and married a young officer Blake, then stationed in Dublin.
The husband subsequently attained the rank of lieutenant general and died in 1850. Helen died in 1883 intestate and consequently, unless heirs could be found, the considerable fortune of £200,000 would be forfeit to the Crown. The wrangle over the estate continued for over a decade before Yates found a family of Sheridans in Liverpool and came to a profit-sharing arrangement. If he could establish their claim, they would pay him a percentage of the estate.
Yates went to Ireland where he interviewed many of the ‘oldest inhabitants’ and sent their statements to counsel to ask what further evidence was required. Advised that birth and marriage certificates were almost essential, he accepted that these would be difficult to forge and as an alternative set about preparing a family bible.
He found one of the correct age and began the entries, including a note purporting to be by old Martin Sheridan’s daughter, reading: ‘My daughter Helen has run away with a young officer staying in Dublin Castle and has married him privately in Scotland.’ It also recorded the death of Martin Sheridan and the births of the Liverpool Sheridans. Next, he had coffin plates prepared and a drawing of a tombstone to bolster the claim.
But his final coup was his undoing. He purchased a silver watch and had it engraved ‘from Helen Blake to her dear nephew Patrick Sheridan, 1886’. Thinking this was wrong the engraver made the date 1896. When Yates took the watch back to be altered the man, now suspicious, contacted the police.
A warrant to search Yates’s offices uncovered the bible and the watch as well as the coffin plates. Unfortunately, Yates had used a Protestant bible, an unlikely possession for a poor Catholic family in the first half of the 19th century. He was sentenced to penal servitude for life in 1896.
Today, it would have been a community service order if, indeed, the DPP thought it worth prosecuting at all.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor