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  (William) Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838–1903), by Julia Margaret Cameron, c.1868 (William) Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838–1903), by Julia Margaret Cameron, c.1868
Lecky, (William) Edward Hartpole (1838–1903), historian, was born on 26 March 1838 in Newtownpark, co. Dublin. He was the only son of John Hartpole Lecky (d. 1852) and his first wife, Mary Anne Tallents (d. 1839), who he married in 1837. The Leckys were of Scottish origin and settled in the north of Ireland in the early seventeenth century. Lecky's paternal grandfather married Maria Hartpole of Shrule Castle, near Carlow. Lecky's father was called to the bar, but did not practise. He lived comfortably off the revenues of his properties in Carlow and Queen's county. Lecky's mother was the daughter of W. E. Tallents of Newark, Nottinghamshire, who was the legal agent of the duke of Newcastle. After her early death at the age of twenty-two, Lecky's father married Isabella, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Eardley Wilmot of Queen's county, in 1841. A son and a daughter were the issue of this marriage. The second Mrs Lecky treated her stepson well; he was fourteen before he was told that Isabella was not his natural mother, but this did not lead to any change in relations between them. They remained good friends until her death in 1902.


From 1847 to 1852 the Leckys travelled widely through the British Isles. During this time Lecky began his schooling, first in Sussex, then at Kingstown, near Dublin, and later at the Royal School, Armagh. In September 1852 he went to Cheltenham College. His time at Cheltenham, which he never enjoyed, started badly. His father died, at the age of forty-six, within weeks of his arrival there. Being unsporting and shy, he found himself often alone and any spare time he had he devoted to his hobbies of geology and poetry.

Lecky left Cheltenham in 1855 and prepared with a private tutor for the Dublin University matriculation. In the same year his stepmother married Thomas Henry Dalzell, eleventh earl of Carnwath (1797–1867), whose first wife had been the daughter of Henry Grattan. The family moved to Enniskerry, co. Wicklow.

Having obtained tenth place among forty candidates, Lecky entered Trinity College, Dublin, as a fellow commoner in February 1856. At Trinity he became more sociable and began to read widely. His chief companions were David Plunket, Edward Gibson (later lord chancellor of Ireland), and Gerald Fitzgibbon (later solicitor-general for Ireland and lord justice of appeal in Ireland). With these friends he attended ‘the Hist’, the Trinity College Historical Society, which had been founded by Edmund Burke, who was already one of Lecky's intellectual heroes. (Forty years later, when the centenary of Burke's death was commemorated at Trinity, Lecky proposed a toast to the memory of ‘the greatest of all modern political philosophers’.)

Lecky took great pains with his speeches for ‘the Hist’. He won its gold medal for oratory in 1859 and was on its committee in 1859–60. He engaged enthusiastically in the romantic rhetoric that was a staple of the society at this time, as it debated the great questions of the day: the nature of Irish and Italian nationality. In his commonplace book for 1859 he noted: ‘The great evils of Ireland are mendicity and mendacity … The great desideratum in Ireland is a lay public opinion’ (Lecky MSS, R.7.30). Such notes fed his speeches in ‘the Hist’, and those speeches formed the basis of his first published works on Irish and intellectual history.

Lecky selectively traced his early intellectual progress in an essay on ‘Formative influences’ in 1890. He acknowledged the particular importance of the writings of Richard Whately, archbishop of Dublin, and of Joseph Butler's Analogy of Religion (1736). To Whately and Butler, among others, he traced his inclination towards Christian rationalism. However, a college friend was to suggest that, at Trinity, Lecky read Shelley more than Whately and cared for the speeches of the Irish patriots Grattan and Curran above the sermons of Bishop Butler. Long before 1890, however, he was distancing himself from the romantic nationalism with which he had flirted in his youth.

Lecky graduated from Trinity College in 1859, content to take a pass degree. He then spent another year at Trinity and took a second-class divinity testimonium, before putting thoughts of a career in the church behind him.

Early writings

There was some expectation that Lecky would become a Church of Ireland clergyman and take up a family living in Cork, but he wanted to be a man of letters. His first publications were Friendship and other Poems (1859), which he published under the pseudonym Hibernicus, and an essay on The Religious Tendencies of the Age, published anonymously in 1860. The poems were derivative, patriotic verses which owed more to the influence of Sir Walter Scott than to a love and understanding of Ireland, and they fell stillborn from the press (some reappeared in Poems, 1891). The essay was no more successful (it sold sixty-eight copies), but it was notable for its religious tolerance. In Religious Tendencies Lecky gave a sympathetic analysis of the various approaches to Christian worship adopted by the major churches in Britain. His capacity for putting forward the strongest arguments for each side in a debate was a quality for which he was to be praised throughout his career.

Lecky's first work of Irish history, The Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland (1861), was no more successful than his poems or his theological essay. It sold thirty-four copies in 1861, but Lecky was to revise and republish it twice, and it became an important text in debates on the Irish question later in the century. The book traced the development of the idea of ‘nationality with loyalty’ in Ireland through essays on the political careers of Jonathan Swift, Henry Flood, Henry Grattan, and Daniel O'Connell. It also included a chapter on ‘Clerical influences’ (omitted in the revised editions), which argued that moral and political progress would only be possible in Ireland when the priest's influence in Irish politics had been curbed.

The book's patriotic purpose was to encourage a new secular national feeling, which would act as a check to sectarianism, and, earning the Irish the respect of England, lead to ‘the coalescing of the sentiments of the two nations’. In 1861 Lecky retained some grandiose political ambitions of his own, dreaming of becoming a second Grattan. The 1871 edition of the work remained committed to the idea of the emergence of a new rational Irish patriotism, but was less confident about its imminent arrival. The changes Lecky made to the 1903 edition reflected the growth of his unionism and pessimism. He had refused to countenance Longman's publishing a cheap issue of The Leaders in 1886, fearing that it would be put to propagandist use by the Parnellites during the first home-rule crisis.

The intellectual histories

Lecky travelled widely on the continent in the early 1860s. In the great libraries of Europe he read deeply into the history of the early middle ages and the development of the early church. His studies and his discovery of H. T. Buckle's History of Civilization (1857 and 1861), which he read and reread at this period, inspired him to continue with his literary career in spite of his initial disappointments. Buckle gave Lecky a sense of the grandeur of history and encouraged him to become a historian of ideas.

In 1863 Lecky proceeded MA at Dublin University and wrote an essay on ‘The declining sense of the miraculous’, which became the opening two chapters of his first successful book, The History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe (1865). This philosophical history examined, with many diverting asides (a characteristic failing in Lecky), the decay of superstition in the face of reason. Rational Christianity, Lecky claimed, had ensured ‘the moral development’ of Europe: he argued that the Reformation let loose ‘the germ of Rationalism’ and he examined the progress of the idea up to ‘the secularization of politics’ after the French Revolution. Lecky was a liberal optimist in the 1860s. He wrote of a coming union of nations as ‘the last and highest expression of the Christian ideal of the brotherhood of man’. The rights of nationalities, in the wake of Risorgimento fever, were described as the basis of political morality and he thought that the diffusion of the laws of political economy (already more subtle in Ireland than he knew) would eliminate war. He saw the dawning of a world of liberty, industry, and peace.

Rationalism, which was published fifteen times in Lecky's lifetime, raised him into the first rank of his literary contemporaries. It was an important contribution to history writing, which moved away from the great man theory to look at historical change as a result of impersonal and economic causes. There were some, however, who could not accept Lecky's complacency about the inevitable betterment of human character and society. George Eliot dismissed Lecky as a popularizer of the ideas of others and as an author who wrote for ‘the general reader’, who found in him an excuse for the ‘utmost liberty of private haziness’ (Fortnightly Review, 1, 1865, 43–55).

Lecky settled in London in October 1866 with chambers at 6 Albemarle Street and was elected to the Athenaeum in 1867. His next major work was his History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (1869), which expanded upon (and occasionally repeated) certain themes introduced in Rationalism. Indeed, it was a sort of prequel to Rationalism, examining the foundation of various moral codes and changes in standards of morality from the period of the later pagan empire to the re-establishment of the empire in the west. The book was criticized by the utilitarians, notably John Morley and James Fitzjames Stephen, for its attempt to unite a providential view of the progress of human affairs with a rational sensibility (Fortnightly Review, 5, May 1869, 29; J. F. Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 1873).

The message of European Morals was comforting for the mid-Victorians on at least two counts. Lecky implied that there could be a reconciliation of science and religion and counselled that old opinions did not need to be opposed but were made obsolete by the natural progress of civilization, perishing ‘by indifference not by controversy’. Lecky thereby assured the mid-Victorians that there was no need for a loss of faith, in science or religion, nor for political revolution.

Marriage and The History of England

On 14 June 1871 at the British embassy at The Hague, Lecky married Catharina Elisabeth Boldewina van Dedem, the eldest daughter of General Baron van Dedem (d. 1912) and his first wife, Baroness Sloet van Hagensdorp. Elisabeth was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Sophia of the Netherlands. With the queen's permission the wedding reception was held at the Dutch court. After a lengthy honeymoon in Europe, during which he corrected the proofs of the second edition of The Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, Lecky and his wife settled at 38 Onslow Gardens, London. Here they entertained many distinguished friends, including Carlyle, Leslie Stephen, Browning, Tennyson, Lord Derby, and Herbert Spencer. There was often an element of hero-worship and deference in Lecky's relations with such people. In 1873 Lecky was elected a member of the Literary Society and in 1874 of The Club, which had been founded by Dr Johnson.

From 1872 Lecky began collecting materials for his History of England in the Eighteenth Century (8 vols., 1878–90). This led him to do more archival work than was usual at this period, notably in Dublin, where he made those discoveries which gave the Irish portion of the history its particular and lasting value. Lecky determined that his History of England would relate not only the important political events of the life of the nation, but also introduce the reader to the moral, social, economic, and intellectual factors that shaped the country's progress. This, in part, he did, as well as illuminating numerous aspects of foreign and colonial policy.

Another purpose of the historical enterprise, however, was to refute the calumnies of J. A. Froude against the Irish. Lecky believed he had been set a personal challenge by Froude, who, in The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth-Century (1872–4), had written of the Irish as irredeemably degenerate. Froude's work, Lecky believed, could only open old wounds and further arouse sectarian passions in Ireland. In countering him, Lecky hoped to do ‘some real service to history to the cause of truth and to the reputation of Ireland’ (Victorian Historian, 122). To this end, he wrote a history of Ireland within his history of England. Irish matters took up over 40 per cent of the space in the first edition of The History of England, and a five-volume History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century appeared separately within a twelve-volume cabinet edition of the work in 1892.

The History of England occupied Lecky for almost two decades. Volumes three and four, taking the story up to 1782, came out in 1882 and Lecky particularly impressed American critics by his impartiality in writing about the American War of Independence. In volumes five and six, which appeared in 1887 and which dealt with the development of French revolutionary ideas and their impact in Britain down to 1793, Lecky was able to show his appreciation of and debt to Edmund Burke. The last two volumes were published in 1890 and were almost entirely devoted to Irish politics from the emergence of the United Irishmen in the early 1790s to the signing of the Act of Union in 1801.

The History of England showed Lecky's prowess in narrative history, but it was read increasingly in the 1880s and afterwards as a manual for Irish politics. Gladstone was one of a number of late Victorian politicians who confessed to reading Lecky to enhance their understanding of the Irish question. Yet the situation was complicated by the fact that there seemed to be a tension between Lecky's history and his own politics. Lecky was seen as the defender of Irish nationality in his history and as a defender of the Anglo-Irish union in his politics. It was a commonplace to suggest that Lecky was the best man on both sides in the Irish question, and his various Irish writings have been appealed to by every side in the Irish conflict ever since.


Lecky always saw himself as a Liberal, but he was wary of the party political manoeuvres of both Disraeli and Gladstone. The former he distrusted for what he regarded as ‘an act of political dishonesty’ which had no precedent in modern times: the overthrowing of the 1832 constitution by the passage of the 1867 Reform Act. The question of parliamentary reform, Lecky feared, was one upon which the Conservatives acted from ‘a simple desire of place’ (Lecky, Memoir, 52). Lecky was equally disgusted by what he believed to be Gladstone's attempt to buy the middle-class vote in the general election of 1874, with a promise of the abolition of income tax: the historian and the politician participated in a bad-tempered exchange over this issue in the Nineteenth Century in 1887. Two years later, in an introduction to a new edition of his Democracy and Liberty, Lecky offered one of the most critical contemporary assessments of Gladstone's work and character. He saw Gladstone as an honest man with a dishonest mind who, by skilful casuistry, could persuade himself that he was in the right, and then, his moral nature taking fire, act as if under a divine impulse.

Lecky had supported the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 and, with reservations, the Irish Land Act of 1870, but he disapproved of almost all later concessions to the Irish nationalists and, upon Gladstone's adoption of home rule in 1886, he became a Liberal Unionist. Lecky wrote influentially against home rule in a number of letters to The Times in 1886 and in other journals (notably the Nineteenth Century in April 1886). A number of his letters were subsequently published as pamphlets by the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union and the Irish Unionist Convention between 1886 and 1892. The main thrust of his argument in all these articles concentrated on his belief that an Irish democracy, motivated by a hatred of England, would never prove capable of governing Ireland as well as it could be governed from Westminster.

In October 1895 Lecky accepted an invitation to stand for parliament for Dublin University. He was proud to accept a seat that he saw as representing the property and intelligence of the Irish nation. He was elected by a majority of 746 in an unusually large poll of 2768 in a by-election in December 1895 (and he was unopposed in the general election of 1900). His first speech in the House of Commons in February 1896 was made on behalf of Irish prisoners condemned under the Treason Felony Act thirteen years earlier.

The debates in which Lecky engaged most prominently, in the relatively quiet years in which he was in parliament, were those on university education for Catholics in Ireland and the Irish land issue. On the university question, which had exercised parliament for many years, and which returned to its agenda in 1897, practical considerations forced Lecky to go against long-held principles. He had always been an advocate of non-denominational education and hoped that the tertiary education of Irish Catholics could be accommodated within Trinity College, Dublin. However, as Catholics were discouraged from attending Trinity by a church hierarchy that still perceived the college as a bastion of protestantism, Lecky supported a scheme for a Catholic university in Ireland. A denominational education was not likely to promote the highest intellectual standards, he believed, but it was better than no education at all.

On the land question, Lecky regarded himself as a representative of the besieged Irish landlords in parliament. Gladstone's Irish Land Act of 1881 and all his subsequent land legislation Lecky perceived as an invasion of the rights of property, motivated by a short-sighted and iniquitous desire to appease the Parnellites, the Fenians, and the Land League. He no longer differentiated between constitutional and violent Irish nationalism and saw all these forces as communistic in orientation. Indeed, the only Irish movement operating after 1886 about which Lecky was not dubious was Sir Horace Plunkett's co-operative movement. He called Plunkett ‘the only constructive statesman in Ireland’. Returning the compliment, Plunkett dedicated Ireland in the New Century (1904) to the memory of Lecky, whom he described as his best guide in Irish public life.

The other political issue with which Lecky's name was widely associated in the 1890s was the old-age pensions question. As he explained in the press and in parliament, he remained, on this matter, an old-fashioned laissez-faire Liberal who believed that pensions would impair the industry of the working classes and encourage state socialism. He was the author of the minority report of the third royal commission on pensions in 1899.

Later works

In 1896 Lecky published Democracy and Liberty, a long discursive treatise on contemporary politics in which the central question—the effect of democracy upon social and individual freedom—was obscured by many diversions. However, for all its faults in construction and some platitudinous sections, Democracy and Liberty did usefully explore such issues as the tyranny of the majority and the possibility of the democratic despot, and it included interesting reflections on proportional representation and referendums as means by which to limit the dangers of democracy. It also encompassed an early acknowledgement of the potential incompatibility of democracy and capitalism, pointing up the irony that the middle-class liberals, in rejecting economic democracy, thereby rejected the means to make political democracy significant. However, underpinning every chapter of Democracy and Liberty was Lecky's Burkean sense that the duty of parliament was primarily to represent the interests of property. This gave the book something of the quality of an elegy on the British constitution of 1832 to 1867, which Lecky described as the best the world had seen. This in turn revealed that Lecky, originally a prophet of progress, was, by the 1890s, crying out for the world to stand still.

In 1892, upon the death of E. A. Freeman, Lecky had declined the regius professorship of modern history at Oxford. He did not believe he had any great aptitude for lecturing or for academic duties and preferred to remain ‘an isolated author’. His solitary position meant he was always something of an intellectual outsider, however, and he probably had more readers but less influence than many leading academics of his day.

Fourteen of Lecky's Historical and Political Essays, most of which dated from the early 1890s, were posthumously published by his wife in 1908. The most valuable essays were those on the nature of history. ‘Thoughts on history’ (based on a lecture on ‘The art of writing history’ delivered to the Royal Institution in 1868) and ‘The political value of history’ (an address delivered in 1892) reveal that Lecky saw history as a science and an art. The historian had to be artistic in his approach, but was obliged to ensure that truth always stood above poetry. He discussed the complexities of history and stood against reasoning by analogy, using the case of how different the demand for Irish home rule under a democratic constitution would be to a restoration of the 1782 constitution. Other interesting essays in the collection include ‘The empire: its value and its growth’, an inaugural address to the Imperial Institute which he delivered in November 1893, and ‘Formative influences’, the important biographical fragment which appeared in Forum in June 1890. There were also pieces, originally published in various British and American journals, on Irish history, the state of the Jews, and some biographical sketches, whose subjects included Carlyle, Peel, and Queen Victoria.

In autumn 1899 Lecky brought out The Map of Life: Conduct and Character, a volume of reflections, based on the notes of a lifetime, which achieved some popularity (2000 copies sold in the first week after publication). There was some implicit criticism of modern politics in this Victorian manual of good manners and right thinking, but it is generally more optimistic about the state of the nation than Democracy and Liberty.

Illness and death

In the spring of 1901 an attack of influenza led to a weakening of Lecky's heart, from which he did not entirely recover. (Indeed, he had never been robust and there are abundant references to ill health in his commonplace books.) In the autumn of 1902 he took a cure at Nauheim, Germany, and in December he resigned his seat in parliament. In spring 1903 a third version of Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland appeared, with numerous alterations. However, if Lecky intended it to become another unionist pamphlet, he was unsuccessful. Even when Leaders directly advanced the unionist case, it indirectly encouraged the Irish to take pride in nationalist leaders of the past. While Lecky emerged as a leading Irish unionist in the 1890s, he could do little to alter the fact that no other historian had contributed so much to the concept of the moral and constitutional invalidity of the Act of Union of 1801.

On 22 October 1903 Lecky died quietly in his study at 38 Onslow Gardens. His body was cremated at Golders Green crematorium on 26 October and his remains, after a service at St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, were buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin, on 28 October. His wife, Elisabeth, with whom he had no children, died on 23 May 1912 and was buried beside him. The Lecky chair of history at Trinity College, Dublin, was endowed by his widow, from the proceeds of her husband's property in Queen's county and Carlow. All his manuscripts she left to the library of Trinity College.


Honours conferred on Lecky included honorary LLD (Dublin, 1879; St Andrews, 1885; Glasgow, 1895), honorary DCL (Oxford, 1888), and honorary LittD (Cambridge, 1891). He was elected secretary for foreign correspondence to the Royal Academy in 1895. He was sworn of the privy council in 1897 and in 1902 he became one of forty-eight original members of the British Academy and one of the first twelve recipients of the Order of Merit and a full member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques of the Institut de France in 1902, having been a corresponding member since 1893. He was the president of the Royal Literary Fund in 1903. He kept a fine art collection, and was a particular admirer of Velázquez.

Lecky was by nature rather reclusive and in no way a man of the world. He sometimes appeared cold, but once his shyness was pierced, he could be a good, undemonstrative conversationalist. His voice was rather high-pitched and sometimes weak, and he betrayed some nervousness when speaking in parliament, but was a good after-dinner speaker when he did not attempt humour. He was tall and thin, with rather disjointed limbs, flapping hands, and a high forehead. Long, fair hair covered a dome-shaped head, in which the eyes were gentle, the nose long, and the down-turned lips full. The front of his face was clean-shaven, but he wore side-whiskers which met under his chin.

Lecky thought himself objective, but to a greater degree than many of his more obviously partisan contemporaries, he unconsciously applied Victorian moral standards to every age. He was a representative rather than a great Victorian, and he remains interesting as such. He stood at the crossroads in the evolution of history writing between the age of the gentleman scholar in the library and that of the professional scholar in the archives. Lecky was, however, notable on two counts: as a British historian of ideas and as the writer of Ireland's first ‘philosophical history’ (he liked that Burkean phrase), for neither Young Ireland nor the Celtic revivalists produced a notable historian. His major narrative history was undertaken as a vindication of the Irish people, but he was a sharp critic of the careless or deliberately misleading application of arguments from Irish history to justify the patriotic cause. He was, therefore, both the first national historian of Ireland and the first ‘revisionist’ of the nationalist idealization of Ireland.

The biographical treatment Lecky has received has been scant. His widow produced a well-written Memoir in 1909, which is better than many such homages but which, in the nature of the enterprise, makes no effort to see Lecky in a wider intellectual context and conceals as much as it discloses. On the eve of the Second World War Lecky attracted interest, along with Henry Maine and J. F. Stephen, as one of the late Victorian critics of democracy (and as a prophet of the possibility of something like fascism growing out of democratic politics). Since 1945, while Irish historians have continued to refer to him as a founding father, there has been little attempt to gauge his importance as a historian of ideas.

Joseph Spence


D. McCartney, W. E. H. Lecky: historian and politician, 1838–1903 (1993) · E. van D. Lecky, A memoir of W. E. H. Lecky (1909) · DNB · J. J. Auchmuty, Lecky: a biographical and critical essay (1945) · A Victorian historian: private letters of W. E. H. Lecky, 1859–1878, ed. H. M. Hyde (1947) · The Times (24 Oct 1903) · L. P. Curtis, introduction, in W. E. H. Lecky, A history of Ireland in the eighteenth century (1972) · B. E. Lippencott, Victorian critics of democracy (1938) · ‘A college friend’ [A. Booth], ‘Early recollections of Mr Lecky’, National Review, 43 (1904–5), 108–22 · E. Lawless, ‘W. E. H. Lecky: a reminiscence’, Monthly Review, 14 (Feb 1904), 41 · W. A. Phillips, Lecky: a lecture in celebration of the centenary of Lecky's birth (1939) · J. Morley, Miscellanies, 4th ser. (1909) · TCD, Lecky MSS · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1903)


Hunt. L., letters · TCD, corresp. and papers, incl. of his wife |  ICL, letters to Thomas Huxley · NL Ire., Gavan Duffy MSS · NRA, priv. coll., letters to John Swinton · TCD, minute books of the College Historical Society · TCD, Hartpole MSS · TCD, corresp. with J. H. Bernard · TCD, letters to Knightley Chetwode · UCL, letters to Sir Edwin Chadwick · University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Henry Charles Lea Library, Lecky–Lea corresp.


J. M. Cameron, photograph, c.1868, NPG [see illus.] · M. Collier, pencil drawing, 1877, NPG · G. F. Watts, portrait, 1878, NPG · Elliott & Fry, carte-de-visite, c.1884, NPG; repro. in McCartney, W. E. H. Lecky · J. E. Boehm, bronze bust, 1890, NG Ire. · Russell & Sons, woodburytype photograph, c.1891, NPG · W. Rothenstein, lithograph, 1897, NPG · B. Stone, photograph, 1897, NPG · J. Lavery, oils, 1903, NG Ire. · Barraud, photograph, NPG; repro. in Men and Women of the Day, 3 (1890) · J. E. Boehm, bronze bust, TCD · J. E. Boehm, terracotta bust, NPG · G. John, bronze statue, TCD · W. Rothenstein, lithograph, BM · W. Rothenstein, lithograph, Bradford City Art Gallery · Spy [L. Ward], caricature, watercolour study, NPG; repro. in VF (27 May 1882) · G. J. Stodart, stipple (after H. T. Wells), NPG · H. T. Wells, drawing, Royal Collection · watercolour, NPG

Wealth at death  

£30,127 10s. 11d.: probate, 26 Nov 1903, CGPLA Eng. & Wales