William Dobree, bankrupt, 1754

November the 2nd 1754 ex parte John de Sausmarez, Henry Brock, Matthew de Sausmarez: In the matter of William Dobrée a bankrupt. From Reports of cases argued and determined in the High Court of Chancery: in the time of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke. [1736-1754], Volume 1. William's debts would today be in the region of, at the minimum, ten million pounds, but as he was in effect a banker, the amount could feasibly be multiplied by ten.

Case 33, An Application that the allowance of the Certificate might be stayed.

On the 6th of April last a commission of bankruptcy issued against William Dobrée, who was declared a bankrupt. The petitioners, and divers others of his creditors live in Guernsey, and from time to time, before he became a bankrupt, remitted to him several large sums of money, in order to be invested in the funds in England, in their names.

Since the issuing of the commission, the petitioners have discovered that William Dobrée did not invest the money in the funds in their names, though he wrote them word from time to time that he had so done, and remitted to them the interest as it became due.The debts of the bankrupt amount to £81,009 and the debts of the creditors who have signed his certificate, to £22,904. 18s. 4d. Peter Dobree, nephew of the bankrupt, proved debts under the commission, amounting to £13,688, 10s 10d in different rights, part on his own account, part as executor of Nicholas Dobrée,1 part as guardian of Peter Dobree, another part as guardian to Rachel Carey Dobrée, another as guardian to Mary Dobrée, another as one of the executors of Martha Carey, and another as father of Judith Dobrée. He chose himself and two other persons assignees, and on the 18th of May last, the very day the bankrupt finished his examination, the certificate is signed.

Peter Dobree signed the certificate in right of other persons, four times, having proved debts in so many different rights, as guardian and executor to such persons.There were but 12 of the creditors of Wm. Dobree, who proved their debts under the commission, besides Peter Dobree, and if he shall be considered but as one creditor, there will not be four parts in five in number and value of the creditors, who have proved their debts under the said commission, that have signed the certificate; the greatest part besides of the bankrupt's creditors could not possibly prove their debts at the time appointed for his last examination, by reason that they did not know whether the money they had remitted to the bankrupt had been laid out in stocks in their names, or in the bankrupt's.

In 1748, Wm. Dobrée, the bankrupt, gave upon the marriage of his niece Miss De Havilland to his nephew Thomas Dobrée, £1000 as a marriage portion, at a time when he was insolvent.The major part of the creditors who had signed the certificate were nearly related to the bankrupt.For these reasons the petitioners pray that the allowance of the bankrupt's certificate may be stayed.

The second petition, ex parte John de Sausmares, and several other creditors of William Dobrée, states, that some short time before the commission issued, Dobree forgave two of his nephews £187 which they owed him, and transferred divers stocks to the amount of £6000 and upwards to several of his creditors, without their direction, in expectation of receiving favours of them in case a commission issued; and prays the matter of this petition might come on to be heard at the time of the former petition, and that the bankrupt's certificate might be disallowed.The counsel for the petitioners insisted, that an executor and guardian cannot sign a certificate.Lord Chancellor as to this was of opinion, that executors might sign, but that a person who has a debt in his own right, and another debt as executor, could not, as he apprehended, sign a certificate in two distinct rights, for both are to be considered as his own particular debt.The counsel for the petitioner likewise observed, that till they had sent over to England, they did not find out the fraud of the bankrupt in disposing of their stock for his own benefit, and that the assignees never once thought it proper to appoint any meeting, from the month of May till August, so that these creditors had no opportunity of proving their debts, which amount to £35,000, and instead of four parts in five in number and value, there was not one fourth part had signed the certificate.

That by giving a fortune of £1000 to his niece at a time he was insolvent, he seems to be within the meaning of the clause of the 5 Geo. 2. where a bankrupt is excepted from the benefit of this act, 'who hath or shall, for or upon marriage of any of his children, have given, advanced or paid, above the value of one hundred pounds, unless he shall prove, by his books fairly kept, or otherwise upon his oath, before the major part of the commissioners, that he had at the time thereof, over and above the value so given, advanced or paid, remaining in goods, wares, debts, ready monev, or other estate real and personal, sufficient to pay and satisfy unto each and every person, to whom he was any ways indebted, their full and entire debts.' Mr. Attorney-general for the bankrupt insisted, this is within the intention of the act of parliament, and was going to give his reasons, when Lord Chancellor interrupted him, by saying, it certainly was not; and as it was a penal clause, it ought to be construed strictly, and confined to the children of a bankrupt, and not to extend any further.

Mr. Attorney-general then observed upon other parts of the case, that though the debts are considerable, yet the deficiency will not be so, for there has been a dividend already of eleven shillings in the pound, and that there will be enough in the whole to pay three fourths of this large sum of £81,000.That there is no objection to the reality of any creditor's debt who has signed the certificate.That the greatest part of the persons in whose names the petition is presented, have by attorney signed the bankrupt's certificate, and know nothing of this application; and particularly one Burgess who, as appears by affidavit, is now upon a voyage to Newfoundland, and that upon application to his wife, for leave to make her husband a party to the petition, she positively refused to give her consent; so that the certificate has been stayed from August to this time, by false suggestions and allegations.

Lord Chancellor: I shall not go upon any particular niceties in determining the question which has been made upon these petitions. The bankrupt in general seems to have behaved very fairly, tho’ at the same time I cannot acquit him in the matter of the stock, after receiving express directions from his correspondents at Guernsey to purchase the stock in their names, and yet taking it upon him to buy it in his own, and then writing word that he had purchased it in their names; but be this as it will, I must not be induced to make a precedent, which, in my apprehension, will be a reproach to the justice of this court.The most important of the bankrupt's transactions, and the largest of his debts are in Guernsey, which, though part of the dominions of the crown of Great Britain, are at a great distance from hence; and yet notwithstanding the commission is taken out in April only, the certificate is signed on the 18th of May after. Such precipitation in a matter of this kind is very improper. I will put the case that these creditors in Guernsey had heard of this bankruptcy, still they could not come in as creditors, till they had first directed a search in the books of the respective companies, to see in what manner the stock was purchased, whether in their own names, or the bankrupt’s.The creditors who have signed the certificate, and have proved debts to the amount of £22,000 are in number eleven, but then only seven of them have signed for themselves, and in their own right, for Mr. Dobree the nephew has signed four times as guardian and executor, and the debts of the Guernsey creditors are £35,000.The admitting such a certificate as this, would be turning the edge of the law against creditors in favour of bankrupts, which is not to be suffered in a commercial country. All certificates formerly were referred to the judges; but the Great Seal finding this rather inconvenient, have of late taken the cognizance of it upon themselves, and they must execute this power in a discreet and equitable manner.

The Lord Chancellor stayed the allowance of the certificate.

For another important bankruptcy, that of Guernseyman James Le Couteur in August 1834, see for example The Spectator. It was ruled that as he had contracted his debts in England, he was subject to English bankruptcy laws.

¹ See Jamieson, A.G., 'Channel Island Shipowners and Seamen, 1700-1900,' in A People of the Sea, 1986, pp. 312-4. William Dobrée was the first of the entrepreneurial Guernsey merchants to make their fortune as agents and bankers in London, arriving there around 1700 to sell Guernsey's woollens, the product through which his family had become immensely wealthy. He soon changed direction (the trade in wool was dwindling) and became an agent for Guernsey privateer owners, eventually coming to own a handsome share for himself, and continued to be based in London, trading as an agent and banker for the Guernsey merchants. His bank's account books for 1779-84 are in the Guildhall Library, MS 3291. Nicolas Dobrée, an extremely important and influential functionary in Guernsey, was his brother; he was a wine merchant and privateer owner. He is well known for his work on the harbour of St Peter Port and for the chart he drew up (he served as agent for the Admiralty.) He died in 1751, 'leaving considerable wealth, including estates in Guernsey, the Isle of Wight and Hampshire.' (p. 314.) A short biography of William is given by R Hocart in 'A Guernsey merchant and his family in the reign of George II,' Report & Trans. Soc. Guern. 1983, pp. 361-2. The Guernsey merchant in question is Nicolas Dobrée.