Scandal of the woman in the fox fur
While working on the latest Esme Quentin novel this week, I wrote a scene where someone’s Last Will and Testament comes into the plot. It reminded me of a curious story I uncovered a few years ago involving a will and a scandal in my husband’s family history.
In 1941, my husband’s great-grandmother’s brother, Thomas Banner Viner, died aged 67. The probate record showed that his sole beneficiary was a spinster 20 years his junior called May (surname withheld to protect the innocent!) even though Thomas’s wife Alice was still alive, as were his two sons, Harold and Cecil, and his three daughters, Gladys, Doris and Mabel.
So who was this mystery woman?
Thomas’s death certificate revealed that he'd died in St Mary Abbot's Hospital on 19th November 1941, of stomach cancer and "senility."
Thomas’s address is recorded as 39a Paddington Street, Marylebone, the same address as the informant, who was none other than his lady friend May. The entry beside her name reads, causing the body to be buried.
The usual interpretation of the phrase is that the deceased has no close family members to arrange the funeral. But as we know, Thomas did have family, which suggests that at the time of his death they were estranged.
When we got sight of Thomas's will, the mystery deepened. It was dated the year before his death and the opening paragraph said, This is the last Will of Mr Thomas Banner Viner, the husband of Alice Viner... Uh? Why highlight the fact that he was married to Alice and then promptly declare everything is to go to May? Was he trying to make a point? Was it Alice who had rejected him? The actual wording is difficult to decipher but there's no question of his intentions. Alice doesn't get a look-in.
There appears to have been no rift back in 1934 when his daughter Doris married Thomas Newnham, as the register clearly shows her father’s signature.
Strong ties to Marylebone
Thomas had strong ties with Marylebone, the place he’d lived with May, as he'd been baptised in St Mary's church in 1874. He'd married Alice at St Luke's church and all his children had been born in Paddington.
In later years, however, he'd moved away from this area of London, appearing on the electoral register as living in Harrow along with Alice, as late as 1938. So whatever happened between them must have occurred in those two years between 1938 and writing his will in 1940.
Well, you know how I love a good mystery, and keen to know more, I contacted May's family through Ancestry and asked if they knew of any link between her and Thomas Viner.
Who was May?
I had a friendly email from a descendant of May’s living in New Zealand who promised to ask his 90-year-old cousin, the only member of the family still living who might remember May.
I was delighted to receive another email a short time later telling me that his cousin did indeed remember May, that she was a kind and generous lady who never forgot Christmas and birthdays. She was also large lady, apparently, who wore fox furs over her shoulders, the sort with a snap-clasp in the fox's mouth which closed over the tail.
As for her relationship with Thomas Viner, the old lady said that May had "man-friends with whom she lived at different times" and this was frowned upon by certain members of the family, some of whom even refused to allow her in the house!
It was understood that May had received an inheritance from one of her men-friends and was thought to have been cited as the "other woman" in the case. She used the money to buy herself a house in Wembley where she lived with another “man friend” called Basil, who turned out to be her last. He wasn't liked by the family and they might well have had a point, as after May died he cleared out the house and promptly disappeared. Perhaps he already knew that May had not remembered him in her will, having left her entire estate to her brother.
As for why Thomas turned to May for his home comforts, I guess we'll never know, but it's an intriguing story nonetheless and it was brilliant to find out as much as I did. Now, though, having revisited the mystery again, my curiosity is roused once more. Is there any more to uncover, I wonder?
When I wrote about Thomas’s will on my old blog back in 2015, I commented that it had stirred my writer’s brain and that I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar might appear in an Esme plot at some point in the future. And it did! And I don’t mean the one I’m writing at the moment… as you’ll know if you’ve ever read Legacy of Guilt, the prequel novella to the Esme Quentin series. And if you haven’t read it, you can get your very own copy completely FREE. Just click on the image below.