The Will of Wilkie Collins

Note on the text

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Wilkie Collins had a complicated personal life which is reflected in his will. He lived with two women, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd. For nearly twenty years he had two homes, sharing one with each.

Wilkie probably met Caroline Graves in 1854 when he was 30 and relatively unknown. She was then a 24-year-old widow with a three-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Harriet. Caroline remained with him, apart from a short period in the late 1860s, for the rest of his life. He treated Elizabeth (at first called Harriet, later Carrie) as a step-daughter. Wilkie and Caroline had no children together.

Wilkie met Martha Rudd in the mid 1860s. She was about 20 years old and single; he was about 40 and famous. During 1867 or 1868 Martha moved to London and depended on Wilkie for the rest of her life. They had three children.

For the rest of his life Wilkie divided his time between these two households until his death on 23 September 1889. And his will divides his property between these two families in a complex and careful way.

The estate
Wilkie's estate was originally valued at £10,831-11s-3d. His books were sold by Messrs Puttick and Simpson on 20 January 1890 for £199-4s-6d and his manuscripts by Sotheby, Wilkinson, & Hodge on 18 June 1890 for £1310-0s-6d. In April 1892, after further property had been sold, it was revalued at £11,414-16s-1d. (For an explanation of the currency system in use in Victorian England click here)

He ordered a number of small bequests and then the rest of his estate was to be held on trust and used for the benefit of his two lovers and their children.

Specific bequests

Martha Rudd, at her own separate address with their children, already owned the furniture in that house.

The two annuities of £20 a year would have required £500 each to be set aside from the capital to provide that income until the beneficiaries died. So these bequests took about £515 out of his estate and tied up another £1000 until the death of those beneficiaries. The balance was then to be divided for the benefit of the two women in his life and, in different ways, their children.

Dividing it up
In Victorian times women seldom inherited estates directly. Instead, the property or money was held in trust by trustees who gave them the income but not the underlying capital. So it was with Wilkie's will. He divided his estate into two 'moieties' or equal halves. One half was for the benefit of Caroline and the other for the benefit of Martha. On Caroline's death her half was for the benefit of Harriet. But when Harriet died that half would be reunited with the rest and be used for the benefit of Martha and her children.

Martha's half remained with her while she lived. But on her death the money was for the benefit of their three children. If they were under the age of 21 the trustees could use the children's share of the money for their education. When they reached 21 they would get an equal share. Their son, William Charles, would become the owner of his share of the capital. But their two daughters, Marian and Harriet Constance, would, as women, only benefit from the income. A similar provision is made for his daughters' children. The capital would wait to be inherited by their male heirs or if they had none revert to their brother or his male heirs.

The clauses setting out his daughters' inheritance are the most interesting. They contain what one might call a Laura Fairlie clause. Laura, a key character in The Woman in White, was married by Sir Percival Glyde for her money and, in a striking scene, was almost persuaded voluntarily to allow her husband access to her wealth. Later he got it anyway by wrongly having her declared dead. In Wilkie's will he specifically states that each daughter's inheritance (and that of their daughters) shall be 'for her sole and separate use free and independent of any husband' and, crucially, 'she shall not have the power to deprive herself of the benefit thereof by anticipation'. In other words she cannot assist with her husband's debts by him or allowing anyone else to take a charge on her future income.

Sadly, all this care was to come to naught. Harriet's husband, Henry Powell Bartley, was one of the trustees of the estate and he seems to have made off with the half of the estate passed to Caroline and then Harriet. Certainly when Harriet died there was nothing of that half left to pass to Martha Rudd. It is possible that Henry Bartley, who had debts and left Harriet for another woman shortly before his death in 1897, took full advantage of the clause which said he 'shall be entitled to charge and shall be paid for all business done by him as a solicitor'. Fees do mount up. But it is more likely that he found a way to steal it directly.

Wilkie's son died suddenly in 1913, before his mother and so before he could inherit his share directly. His two daughters never married, perhaps too ashamed of or tainted by their illegitimacy to do so. They lived with their mother and then, after her death in 1919, together, retaining the name of Dawson to their death. They died in their eighties, within months of each other, in 1955. By then the value of their share of the estate was negligible.

Revealing the deception
Wilkie's will is remarkable too for identifying his children. While he lived he maintained a rigid distinction between his life with Caroline, whose status was disguised behind the title 'housekeeper' for most of the time, and his life with Martha. With her he became William Dawson, barrister at law, and she his wife Mrs Dawson. He appears thus on the birth certificate of their son in 1874. In his will he reveals this deception in detail, giving the Dawson alias, listing the children's names and birth places, and acknowledging his parentage. He knew well what legal difficulties could lie in wait for illegitimate children. No Name and The Dead Secret are just two of his novels to deal with the subject.

While he lived the contents of his will were a secret between him and his lawyer. Once he died the will was available to the public as it is today. If anyone looked, it confirmed the rumours about his lifestyle, and was probably a factor in the opposition by the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's Cathedral to a monument to him being erected there. The £300 collected was spent instead on founding a library for people in the East End of London. It was probably a more fitting memorial.

The burial
Wilkie's detailed wishes regarding his burial were respected, though even he could not stop crowds from attending. His grave remains in Kensal Green beneath a plain stone cross which describes him with the simple words he specified 'author of The Woman in White and other works of fiction'. Caroline was buried with him in 1895. Martha became the owner of the plot and tended it until her death in 1919. She is buried near her birthplace in Norfolk. Her heirs own the plot still.

Like all English legal documents the will contains no punctuation. Clues to the sentences are given by the occasional appearance of a capital initial letter and they have been used to insert full stops (periods) where appropriate to the sense.

Go to the text of the will

Paul Lewis
March 1997

All material on these pages is Paul Lewis 1997