The Supreme Court – Central District, St. John’s
In the days of greatest interest to this family history project, most of the persons who are of special interest to us were located on the Southern Shore. This meant that, when they had occasion to bring a matter before the court system, or for that matter, when they were called before the court system, most of the time this occurred in the Southern District Courts, either the Surrogate Court or the Supreme Court in its Southern District Circuit.
But this was not universally true. Important matters of law were always forwarded to the headquarters of the Supreme Court in St. John’s for attention there. At least one major court action and a number of minor court actions involving Matthew Morry were heard in the Supreme Court, Central District. In addition, certain key players in the Morry saga were already based in St. John’s in the late 1700s and early 1800s when court records were being compiled and their involvements in the court were all recorded in the annals of the Central District in St. John’s.
As was the case for the Supreme Court, Southern District, no official attempt has ever been made to make a detailed index to these court documents by the custodians of them. The only way to search for these records, until recently, was to visit both the Registry of Deeds and the Provincial Archives Division in The Rooms and pore over their volumes of preserved documents or microfilms of those documents considered too fragile to be handled by the public any longer. But recently the Family History Society of Newfoundland and Labrador (FHSNL) has begun the process of photographing the volumes of court documents held at The Rooms at least and rendering each volume as a PDF file available to its members on a private part of the FHSNL website. These large files (some nearly half a gigabyte in size) can be downloaded from there and, utilising PDF software such as PDF converter, individual pages or groups of pages related to a case of interest can then be extracted and saved as separate smaller files. I have begun the process of doing just this.
GN 5-2-A-1 Box 24 (1795-1798)
All of these cases were in fact the recording of wills and associated probate. There were no cases of interest to my line of research in this volume.
GN 5-2-A-1 Box 24 (1798-1803)
There were only two cases that caught my eye in the review of this volume and one of them had nothing to do with my line of research but was of interest nevertheless.
This summary table gave me reason to halt in my tracks because of both he stern treatment of those found guilty of what would not even be crimes today (check out the sentence for “sodomy”) and at the same time the laxity leading to the dismissal of two cases of murder due to lack of evidence. The legal term, “Ignoramus”, from the Latin meaning “we are ignorant of the details”, could equally well be applied to the author of the system of justice in those days.
This case is over a relatively trivial amount of the wages of John Robertson, a crew member of a fishing boat operated by William Collins. The amount in question was half of what had been assessed five years prior as being owed to Robert Carter of Ferryland but that had not yet been paid by Robertson. The timing of this case is particularly sad and ironic as it was only three days later that Robert, my 5th Great Grandfather, passed away.
GN 5-2-A-1 Box 24 (1802-1805)
Of the cases found in the volume for the years 1802-1805 (GN 2-2-A-1 Box 24), only eight were found that were of any significance to my line of research. These are presented in PDF form regardless of whether they are a single page or multiple pages but of course PDFs are easily converted to JPG files should anyone prefer that format.
The Peter Winser implicated in this case was my 5th great grandfather from Aquaforte. This is a rather complicated case to follow, but fortunately the judge went to great lengths (four pages) explaining his understanding of the situation and the reasons for the verdict. Put simply, the defendants had won a case the year before claiming they had made payment of a bill to Peter Winser by drawing a draft on a firm in Waterford, Pennell and Waldron. Winser accepted the draft and returned it to Britain for payment. But as was the custom in those days, bills were often bought and sold because currency was not easy to come by and a bill of credit was a useful surrogate. Thus the bill was transferred by Pennell and Waldron to Wilcox and Phelps in Dublin for payment to Peter Winser. But they delayed payment of it for a longer than normal time and then became insolvent. Peter Winser argued in this case that the defendants were still liable for payment to him because he was not able to claim payment in this situation. The judge recused himself since he had heard the earlier case and a panel of seven esteemed local businessmen were asked to pass verdict. They agreed with Peter Winser, particularly in view of the length of time that the bill had remained unpaid before the firm became insolvent, which was highly irregular. The defendants were ordered to fulfill their debt.
Later, in the cases presented below, we will see that Col. Thomas Skinner, founder of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, had a bad habit of running up debt during his time in Newfoundland and almost always found himself on the receiving end of bad judgments by the courts. His son, Lt. Col. William Thomas Skinner likewise followed in his father’s footsteps in the court system. But in this case, in which a property owner accused the elder Skinner of failing to pay his rent, the Plaintiff failed to show up in court and so the case was dismissed. The house in question was a small property in Bonavista. Skinner always remained in St. John’s during his tenure in Newfoundland, so it would seem that this may have been a country retreat.
The spelling of the surname has changed but the person is the same as above. Peter Winsor (as he now appears) apparently was insolvent in this period, though I think it was only a temporary setback as he and his family continued to be mainstays of their community for generations to come. This case stems from his insolvency and the trustees attempting lay claim to his share of the Brig SALLY, but the sly old fox contended that his share of this vessel was a gift from his son and that he wasn’t even sure what portion of the ownership was his. Therefore the vessel was not attached as part of the settlement of his accounts. The name of the son is not mentioned and it could have been any one of several who were all ship owners and merchants.
George Hutchings was not an ancestor of mine but, through the complex intermarriage of the few merchant class families that existed in Newfoundland at the time, several of his descendants married into families of my antecedents. He was a wealthy and prolific landowner who left a goodly portion of the downtown of St. John’s to his heirs when he died in 1807, which in turn lead to numerous court cases. This rather ordinary case involving the pursuit of unpaid rent on one of his many properties shows that he became wealthy by not allowing even the smallest amount to go unclaimed. The judge ruled in his favour, demanding payment of the £8 back rent but also awarding him £1 – 2 Shillings – 6 Pence for his costs, which were most likely nil.
John Broom was another famous name in the early years of commerce in Newfoundland and contributed his surname to several members of my ancestry, notably in the LeMessurier line. In this case he has been found to be insolvent, a situation which seemed to afflict all business people at least one time in their careers in those years, without great hindrance to their personal well-being or future business dealings. He was a forefather of politicians, ministers and businessmen, including the Bowrings and Rennies. His son in law, Thomas Williams, was a trustee in the sale of the residue to settle his debts after his brother John Williams purchased some of the assets at court agreed prices. John and Thomas Williams were sons of Lt. Col. George Williams and Mary Monier and hence represented the best of the bourgeoisie in St. John’s at the time.
Two nearly identical cases heard on the same date of sitting of the court involving Lt. Col. William Thomas Skinner. These are both cases of bad debt. It is notable, I think, that in these court records at the time, the Lieutenant-Colonel’s rank and affiliation with the British Army (Artillery) is not mentioned, perhaps to preserve the reputation of the armed forces. In later cases, this delicacy was not observed so assiduously. In the former case, it being found that the Plaintiff was not the only creditor, some of Skinners property was sold to pay the debts. The second case was for a smaller amount and the judge awarded payment of the debt (£9-2 Shillings-11 Pence) plus costs (£1-2 Shillings-6 Pence) to the Plaintiff. Since the costs awarded were the same as in the case involving George Hutchings above, this would seem to have been the normal practice of the court at the time.
GN 5-2-A-1 Box 27 (1811-1820)
Below are a selection of files, in photo or scanned form, taken from the Supreme Court, Central Circuit records now housed at The Rooms. They were collected by me in the summer of 2016 but only recently (May 2018) examined for their content of interest. A brief synopsis of their context and relevance to this family history project is given for each of the files. They are listed chronologically and not by the name of the person(s) involved or the subject in dispute.
Only two files were found this early in the Supreme Court – Central District documents at The Rooms that were found to be relevant, though only incidentally in both cases.
This file is only of interest because it introduces us to the firm of Paint and LeMessurier. These two partners, Jean Paint and Pierre Broom Le Messurier (known in Newfoundland as Peter) were from the Channel Islands and they began business in Newfoundland more or less at the same time as Matthew Morry. Jean Paint married Pierre’s sister Elizabeth. Later, the son of Pierre Broom LeMessurier was given the name Peter Paint LeMessurier in honour of his father’s partner and his uncle by marriage. Peter Paint LeMessurier married Mary Morry, the granddaughter of Matthew Morry. In this action, Paint and LeMessurier were suing the other company for the cost of carriage of their fish, which was in dispute. The judge awarded the costs to the Plaintiffs (a substantial amount in excess of £1000) and also awarded them £6 18 Shillings for their court costs.
This case is primarily of interest because of the fact that the action involves the vessel the HMS Hazard. Dad Morry contended for years that this vessel had overwintered in Ferryland one year at about this time and that the captain had meted off stiff justice on several fugitives who had run away having been pressed into service on the vessel. It is said he hanged four of them from the yardarm. The story also goes that one had been hidden by one of Dad Morry’s female ancestors (the name is lost to time but is believed to have been Anne Carter, the wife of Surrogate Carter) and that she was only saved from similar rough justice because of the family’s station in Newfoundland at the time. Although Dad Morry had only oral history to support this claim, Nimshi Crewe later found evidence that this vessel had indeed overwintered in Ferryland, though the rest of the story remains unproved.
Here we have the kind of trivial case that occupied almost all of the time of the Supreme Court in those days. In this instance the dispute was over the paltry sum of £10. It seems there was no such thing as small claims court and no form of mediation available to settle such matters so they all wound up on the agenda of the Supreme Court. The person known as Peter Lemessurier was correctly Pierre Broom LeMessurier. He is the same person named thus in the subsequent documents below.
Another minor dispute over £9 and 11 Pence. The Plaintiff was vindicated.
GN 5-2-A-1 William Carter & Thomas Stabb and Hunt Stabb Preston & Co vs Lieut Col Thomas Skinner 25 Sep 1815
As has been previously observed on this site, Lt. Col. Thomas Skinner, like many of the senior officers of the British Army and some in the Royal Navy, acquired both a great deal of property and a great deal of debt during his sojourn in Newfoundland. There are numerous cases in various levels of court bearing testimony to this fact, both during his time in Newfoundland and long afterwards, as in this case.
Here Thomas Skinner admits through his attorney that he was greatly indebted to the Plaintiffs for mortgages that had issued him for several substantial properties including the “Cottage Estate” on Quidi Vidi Lake (£1100 mortgage), all of Belle Island (£250 mortgage) and Striplings Plantation in St. John’s (£500 mortgage). Not being able to raise the funds to settle these debts, and most likely not being interested in so doing since he had already left Newfoundland permanently, he relinquished ownership and the properties were put up for public auction to raise the amounts owed plus interest.
GN 5-2-A-1 John Square v Matthew Morey & Co 25 Aug 1817
From the point of view of the Morry family history, this is part of one of the most important court records found in any court in Newfoundland, It represents a vital part of the trials and tribulations of Matthew Morry on both sides of the Atlantic brought on by his former business partner, Walter Prideaux and his henchmen, following the dissolution of their partnership beginning in 1813.
Here I present the document in both photographic and scanned form to ensure that this important document can be easily read and fully comprehended by those interested.
A second element of this attack on Matthew Morry is found immediately below, dated 30 August 1817 and a third element in this complex set of proceedings is presented further below amongst the documents of the year 1818.
GN 5-2-A-1 John Square v Matthew Morey & Co 30 Aug 1817
Here is the second element of the plan by John Square, orchestrated by his banking partner, Walter Prideaux, to seize all of the assets of Matthew Morry & Co. in Newfoundland and deprive Matthew Morry of any part of the proceeds. Again, I present the document in both photo and scanned form.
GN 5-2-A-1 Peter Le Messurier Memorial Estate of Butler & Sodridge 15 Sep 1817
This is a three page “memorial” by Peter Le Messurier (the same man as above). Lemessurier had been appointed as trustee to settle the affairs of the insolvent company of Butler & Sodridge. In that capacity he had ordered an accounting of the books as they stood at the time the company ceased operations in 1816 but this had not taken place. It was the purpose of this memorial to obtain a court order demanding that the two principals of this company be made to appear before the Supreme Court and to submit a full and accurate accounting of the financial accounts of their company at that time. Le Messurier was likely one of their major creditors, which would explain why he was appointed trustee and why the principals in the company were not cooperating with him.
GN 5-2-A-1 James Shaw v Peter Le Messurier 9 Dec 1817
Again we have a rather complex three page case involving Peter Le Messurier (Pierre Broom LeMessurier), this time as the Defendant. Peter Le Messurier was a ship owner as well as a merchant in his own right and this capacity he carried cargo for other merchants, James Shaw being one such merchant, Shaw contracted with Le Messurier to bring to Newfoundland from PEI a load of potatoes, turnips and other sundry vegetables. Although the voyage was rapid, due to clement weather (only five days), according to the Plaintiff the potatoes arrived in unmerchantable condition due to being frozen. The turnips were also frosted but this did not impair their sale-ability. The argument was made that the cargo was well protected and must have been loaded frozen. Nevertheless the judge found for the Plaintiff and ordered he be reimbursed the £100 paid for the shipment, less the value of the turnips.
The Plaintiff in this case was indebted to Peter Le Messurier and in an effort to settle the debt and earn some additional funds, he entrusted Le Messurier to sell a vessel on his behalf for £350 with £100 being in cash and the remainder in goods (rum, sugar and molasses). The cash was deposited with Le Messurier to cover the debt. When the Plaintiff requested that Le Messurier obtain for him the promised goods from the purchaser, Le Messurier refused to do so as they were asking too much for these goods. It was for this reason that the Plaintiff was suing Le Messurier. But the judge did not find in his favour because it was learned that the purchaser stood ready to provide the Plaintiff the promised goods, albeit at an inflated valuation, if he should so desire. The judge indicated that if there any consequential damages occasioned by Le Messurier’s refusal to acquire the goods at the time requested, despite the inflated value being demanded by the vessel purchaser, the Plaintiff was at liberty to sue Le Messurier for these damages.
GN 5-2-A-1 John Square v Matthew Morry & Company 14 Sep 1818
We now hear the rest of the story pertaining to John Square’s case against Matthew Morry & Co. at the instigation of Walter Prideaux. In this four page court record (presented once again in both photographic and scanned versions) the court records in great detail the evidence supporting the case of the Plaintiff and the arguments presented by the Defendant that this was in fact a conspiracy to defraud him of his fair share of the assets of the now dissolved firm of Matthew Morry & Co. The judge’s deliberations are recorded and clearly show that he is dubious about the merits of the Plaintiff’s case but that he also does not think that the Defendants are blameless or completely innocent of collusion in the whole affair. He therefore finds for the Plaintiff in the full amount of the suit £3713 and 16 Shillings. Elsewhere, in the records of the Southern District Court in Ferryland, we see that this action to seize the property of the company was essentially put in abeyance whilst Matthew Morry theoretically appealed in London to the Crown. But it was known from court records in the High Court of Chancery that no such appeal against a decision of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland would be entertained by any court in Britain. Therefore, it seems that the justices in Newfoundland used this as an excuse to stymie the intent of John Square and his partner Walter Prideaux without ruling their case was invalid, resulting in an inevitable appeal.
It should be noted that this same case file is found in multiple places at The Rooms. In addition to the court register referred to as GN 5-2-A-1 Box 27, it is also found in GN 5-2-A-1 Box 28 under Folio 145. It isn’t clear to me why this is so since the two records appear to date from about the same time, though there are slight differences between them. And a copy of the Box 27 version exists on microfilm GN 180. I have taken images of all of these versions at one time or another because of the importance of this case to the Morry family history.
This case represents a slight departure from the others covered so far. In this instance what caught my eye was the name of the defendant, Joseph Wheeler. If he is the same person, this would be my maternal third great grandfather. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing for sure because other documents indicate that there were at least two Joseph Wheelers in St. John’s in the early 1800s and quite probably more. The matter was a trivial one with the case going for the Plaintiff but only in half the amount he was seeking. But the details are not given and thus the mystery of the identity of Joseph Wheeler may never be resolved.
This is not one of those minor disputes over a trivial amount as seen above. Here Hunt Robinson & Company are suing Peter Le Messurier for the princely sum of £813 18 Shillings and 1 Pence for goods sold to him in this one year alone. Not only that, but LeMessurier admitted the debt and produced in court witnesses from other businesses with whom he was also in debt to the combined total of over £4000. Clearly there was no way that he would ever be able to clear such a huge debt. All of his effects had in fact been attached and they were insufficient to cover this indebtedness. It was determined that he was unable to cover more than 20 Pence in the Pound. He was declared insolvent by the court, trustees were appointed from amongst his major creditors and he was ordered to provide a full account of his finances.
It is worthy of note that not only did this formerly significant merchant become insolvent at this time but so did Matthew Morry and many others. This was a very difficult time to be a merchant in Newfoundland.
Sydney Carter was a woman. This is notable because so few cases in the annals of any court in Newfoundland in these early days involved a woman on her own behalf. For the most part, such cases were presented on her behalf by her husband. But Sydney Spear Livingstone, as she was known before her marriage to Peter Weston Carter, was not like other women of her day. She insisted on having what was essentially a prenuptial agreement to protect her own assets from being exploited by her husband. This was extremely unusual, especially since he was a man of means in his own right.
In this case, Sydney is suing for her entitlement to an annuity paid for from the rent of “Short’s Building”, of which the Defendants became owners via a will on condition that certain trusts, including that of Sydney Carter, be paid each year. Evidently they neglected to do so for 3 years and the court demanded they do so without further delay.
GN 5-2-A-1 Hunt Stabb Preston & Co vs Peter Le Messurier 6 Jan 1820
Here we have the denouement of the sad case of the insolvency of Peter Le Messurier. The details take four pages in the court ledger to record. Hunt Stabb Preston & Co. were the landlords of Peter Le Messurier in both his residence and business premises and were owed back rent. Before he was declared insolvent the previous November, they attached his property then in these premises against the debt owed to them. After he was declared insolvent they again attached his property on their premises believing that in this way the debt owed to them could be recovered without having to take part in the division of his assets with other creditors. However, during the course of this case being heard they agreed to allow the trustees to sell off these goods on condition that their prior claim be taken into consideration during the division of the proceeds. The judge agreed and gave reasons in law why this was justified. So the landlords were the only creditors whose debt was fully repaid.
I am including the two cases below because of the name of the Plaintiff in both cases. Even though the surname is spelled Morrey, I am sure that this is Matthew Morry of Ferryland, either father or son. There is nothing in the limited information given in these two routine cases to help ensure that my guess is correct however. In the second case, the Defendants name is Maurice Jordan and there was indeed a man of this name living in Ferryland at the time.
The cases are for paltry sums so the actual details of the cases are not really relevant but I did find it interesting that such picayune cases apparently involving people from Ferryland would be heard in the Supreme Court, Central Division, in St. John’s, rather than wait for the circuit court to visit Ferryland. It is possible that too long a time would have to be attended before the next visit and Matthew decided to go to the trouble and expense of having the cases heard in town.
GN 5-2-A-9 – Supreme Court – Central Circuit Box 101 1798-1804
This box is presented here in numerical order of the file number but it is out of sequence chronologically and the reason for this is explained in this hand written notation found inside the cover of the volume:
“This book was found in the Lower (?) of the Court House at Duckworth Street, St. John’s, December 1969. F. B. Gill, Administrator.”
The contents were primarily if not exclusively documents pertaining to Wills and Probate. Only two of these documents pertained in any way to my line of research and one of them is only of interest because of who the executor and witnesses were.
These two documents form a part of the settling of the estate of one Peter Winsor by his cousin and partner, another Peter Winsor. This is one of those cases where you cannot tell the players without a score card! There were at least half a dozen Peter Winsers, Peter Winsors and Peter Windsors living in Newfoundland at about this time and they were all related to one another. We can pretty well guess which one of them is the deceased, even though neither document gives his precise date of death, because only one of the Peters we know died in 1798. He was the son of Matthew Symons Winsor and his wife Charlotte Taylor but was raised by his older cousin, Capt. Henry Winser (that is how he chose to spell his name) and his wife Ann Coulman when his parents were both drowned in 1844. And if that is not confusing enough, he was a business partner with another cousin Peter Winsor, who served as his executor. But which Peter Winsor was that?
Of the several possibilities, all of which seem likely from one point of view or another, I believe that this was Peter Windsor (yes that is how he spelled his name) who was married to Anna Jennings Winsor (yes that is how she spelled her name), his first cousin! In addition to not being able to settle on the spelling of their surname and constantly using the same Christian names, this family was almost incestuous in their choice of mates. They all originally hailed from Aquaforte, but this particular Peter Windsor wound up living in St. John’s and we know from the court documents that he was considered to be “of this town”.
In the end it probably doesn’t really matter from a family history standpoint who stood in as the executor but it would have been helpful and far less confusing if the documents had given some more precise indication of the identity of the deceased and his executor.