How I met a traveller from an antique land
27 Sep 2010
Posted by: Anna Stone
Subjects: Interesting stories
I often tell people that I have the best job in Aviva because I come into the office every morning not knowing what I will discover or be asked to do. A few months ago I was investigating the Dublin agency of D C Roose in the early Norwich Union Life board minute books when I came across another name I recognised – Percy Bysshe Shelley. The board minute was from 21 July 1823 and read as follows:
That if Messrs Nash are satisfied of the fact of the death of Mr Shelley and of the precise time and manner of his death and will make a statement on the subject the directors would give immediate attention thereto, policy 2257 - £61 72s 6d. Eighth payment to 11 July 1822 £495. One payment since the decease of the party insured, total £556.17s 6d.
My continued search for Mr Roose yielded one further reference to Shelley dated 1 December 1823:
Nash on Shelley No 2257 - £3,000. A certificate signed by Capt David Roberts of the Royal Navy dated 3 September 1822 and sworn before the British Council Jonathan Faulkner Esq at Leghorn on the same day was read also letters of Messrs Alliston and Hundley dated 21 May and the Memorial of Messrs. Nash dated July last.
These documents the board having maturely considered and compared the facts stated in the aforesaid certificate with maps of the coast of Italy are unanimously of the opinion that however disposed on all occasions to consider the claims made on them with the utmost liberality the directors cannot in the present instance depart from the line of duty which they conceive the trust reposed in them requires that they should pursue.
It is therefore ordered that the claim for the amount of the sum insured be disallowed, that the premium paid after the decease of Mr Shelley together with the interest thereon be forthwith repaid to Messrs Nash.
Knowing nothing about Shelley beyond his name I set out to discover the reasons behind the taking out of the policy and to see if we had any surviving policy documents in the archive.
Starting with the policy number given in the minutes I narrowed down the date that the policy might have been taken to July 1814 when Shelley was nearly 22. I had high hopes of finding something in the series of referees’ letters we hold which comprise replies to enquiries made of friends and doctors about the health and habits of proposed policy holders.
Having reviewed the series of referees’ letters in the course of this research I decided to improve their storage by having our conservator make custom fitted boxes for them and while I was getting out the volumes for her to work on I came across a series of books which were not yet catalogued.
On examination these books turned out to be a related series of records consisting of early proposal documents called declarations and forms completed by the insurance agents on the physical appearance and suitability of the life to be insured. I unwrapped all my new found books and found to my delight a volume covering the date of the Shelley insurance.
The information in these newly discovered documents gives the full names of Mssrs Nash as Andrew John and George Augustus of Cornhill London who are described by the insurance agents as “highly reputable people known almost by every merchant in London.” The documents also provide more information on the life to be insured – Mr Shelley.
We learn that (as far as the insurers were aware) he had had small pox, measles and whooping cough and did not suffer from asthma, gout, spitting of blood or pulmonary complaint. His date of birth is given as 4 August 1792 in the parish of Warnham in Sussex and his address in July 1914 is Bracknell.
The agent’s report gives an interesting insight into Shelley’s physical appearance and suitability as an insurance risk, his complexion is described as fresh coloured, somewhat freckled and sun burnt, he is thin and stoops rather, his neck is rather long and his chest middle-sized.
His great grandfather was a long liver, his grandfather is aged 101 and his parents both still alive. The referees listed are Mr Lawrence, Mr Hookham, Mr Godwin (father of Shelley’s future wife Mary) and Mr Clairmont (his future brother-in-law), both the latter living at 41 Skinner Street.
I was keen to discover more about the Nashes who took out the policy and what their “insurable interest” in Shelley was, ie, what it was that allowed them to claim his death would cause them to suffer a loss to the value of the £3,000 for which the policy was taken out. My initial limited research on the internet only found them as defendants in a suit brought by Shelley in 1816 and I was about to concede defeat when, more in hope than expectation, I decided to contact a Shelley expert for advice.
The expert I selected was Donald H Reiman, one of the editors of the Shelley and his Circle series, who not only replied straight away but kindly sent me a list of references in various volumes of Shelley and his Circle which referred to Mssrs Nash who were, he informed me, professional money lenders.
I have, to date, only been able to get hold of one of the volumes he suggested but it actually refers to the policy being taken out and explains the insurable interest I was keen to discover. Andrew and George Nash certainly did stand to lose out to the tune of nearly £3,000 in the event of Shelley’s death because, in March 1814, they had purchased at auction for £2,593.10s a post obit sale of securities worth £8,000.
In simple terms a post obit was designed to give an heir an advance, at high interest, on a future inheritance. In this case the vendor, Shelley, sold the Nashes a share of £8,000 in his possible future inheritance for £2,593.10s. For Mssrs Nash this was a gamble that Shelley would outlive his grandfather and father (whose ages are given in the sale particulars as between 80 and 90 and 60 plus respectively) and obtain the inheritance from which he would then pay them.
In the event that Shelley died before inheriting they would have lost the advance and their claim on the £8,000 they had purchased so to protect their investment they took out a policy on his life for £3,000 with “Norwich Insurance Company located in London”, better known as Norwich Union.
Volume III of Shelley and his Circle explains that the court case to which I found reference in my early research also related to the post obit sale and was an attempt by Shelley to cancel his arrangement with the Nashes on the grounds that they had defrauded a minor, this following a failed attempt by his father to buy back the reversion for £4,500.
There are also references to two of the referees from whom the insurers would have sought assurances as to Shelley’s health and suitability for insurance. Naturally William Godwin as part of the “circle” is studied in great detail and it is revealed that he was closely involved in arranging the post obit sale and in fact received half of the money raised – his share after expenses coming to £1,120.
It is suggested that his focus on raising the money blinded him to Shelley’s interest in his daughter Mary with whom he eloped (although already married) in the summer of 1814.
The principal medical referee given was a Mr Lawrence and it is probable that he is the same physician to whom Shelley credited his good health in August 1815 when he wrote “My health has considerably improved under Lawrence’s care, and I am so much more free from the continual irritation under which I have lived”. This Lawrence is identified as William Lawrence who, according to Mary Shelley’s later Note on the work Alastor, had diagnosed Shelley in spring of 1815 to be “rapidly dying of a consumption”.
Sadly volume III of Shelley and his Circle does not include letters from the latter years of Shelley’s life and cannot shed any light on why Norwich Union decided not to uphold the claim made on the policy by the Nashes in 1823. However, their decision may perhaps lend credence to the conspiracy theories surrounding Shelley’s death, off the coast of Italy on 8 July 1822, the explanations for which, according to my internet research, range from misadventure and accident to suicide, piracy and politically motivated murder.
It is rare for me to get the opportunity to study the insurance documents of an individual whose life is so well recorded and researched and to see the information the original insurers were denied. I suspect that Shelley was typical of many subjects of insurance in being economical with the truth at his interview with the insurance agents. His statement that he had “no indispositions, not even a cold,” is different from the man Mary Shelley later described as a “martyr to pain and debility” and who himself referred to “constant irritation” cured by Mr Lawrence during 1815.
The fact of his grandfather being 101 may also have been an exaggeration, although it may perhaps have referred to a maternal grandfather, as his paternal grandfather was only 84 when he died in 1815. The agent himself felt unable to strongly recommend Shelley as a subject after such a brief interview and suggested that the references would enable a clearer decision to be made.
That one of the referees had a vested interest in the successful acquisition of the insurance, the bulk of the post obit sale money was not paid until after the insurance had been accepted, is perhaps also not as unusual as it may seem nor that one of the medical referees had, less than a year later, diagnosed (mistakenly as it turned out) a serious illness in the insured. One might almost feel sorry for the insurers…