The day Harold Fielding Hall died was not short on drama. Just hours before drawing his final breath, he wrote, or dictated, a new will which left everything to the four year old daughter of his cousin. His wife and children were to receive nothing.

It’s a bit of a cliché in fiction, the deathbed altered will – I used it myself in my first psychological thriller, Dora’s Room – useful in a book, but horribly cruel in real life. His daughter Margaret was ten, his son just nine. Neither of them ever understood the reason for his decision, but the rejection hurt for the rest of their lives. 

Harold died on 5th May 1917 at the Bell Inn, Brooke, a hamlet on the northern edge of the  New Forest. It’s a tranquil place now, and must have been even more sleepy then, the horror of the First World War and the recent turmoil in Russia for the most part far away. Its main claim to fame was its golf course, one of the oldest in the country, which had recently been extended to 18 holes. A photograph taken at about this time shows a solid, brick building which stands at the junction of three roads, with window boxes on the first floor, trimmed hedges and a sign advertising a tea garden at the back. 

The Bell Inn, Brook, on the edge of the New Forest, at about the time Harold died there in 1917

The main building remains little changed on the outside, though new buildings have been added to the side and the interior is much altered. 

The Bell Inn when I visited in May 2022. The main building has changed very little.

His will was clear, brief and uncompromising: once funeral expenses and debts have been paid, all the residue is to be placed ‘in trust for Nancy the daughter of my cousin … for her own use and benefit absolutely … ’ There’s no mention of his wife Evelyn or of their children. Harold and Evelyn were not divorced – she would never have countenanced that – but she had taken the children to live with her mother and sister a few years before, when it became impossible for them to continue living together as a family. 

Looking out from the Bell Inn at the New Forest ponies beside the road.

The will was witnessed by two people. One was H B Lawford, a solicitor whose address is given as 12 New Court Carey Street, London WC. Herbert Bowring Lawford had been born in 1864, so was five years younger than Harold. He was educated at Marlborough and at Trinity College Oxford. In 1915 he was listed in the London City Directory as a parliamentary agent with Sharpe, Prichard and co, 12 New Court. Like his father, he was a member of the Company of Drapers. Unlike Harold, who was almost entirely self taught and had begun his career in the colonial civil service at such a lowly level it had a Burmese name – myôok. For Harold, having such an eminent and established solicitor to draw up his new will was a sign of the progress he’d made in his life.

The second witness was ‘A E Tyrell, Grosvenor House Southampton (Nurse)’. Grosvenor House in Southampton had recently been established as ‘a nursing home and private nurses’ institution’ by Julia Mocatta. It’s possible that Harold had been a patient there, as his health had been poor for many years. Or that he had been staying at the Bell Inn for some time and when his health deteriorated, a nurse was sent for. 

Harold’s final will is unusual for another reason: he names ‘The Public Trustee’ as sole executor. The Public Trustee was to ‘sell call in collect and convert into money my said estate and effects in such a manner as he shall think fit’ and to invest the residue, after all necessary expenses had been met, ‘in trust’ for his cousin’s daughter. 

Nancy, his cousin’s daughter was a pretty child (and my mother) – but why disinherit his own children and his wife in favour of a four year old?

The Public Trustee had been established in 1906, to provide for people who had difficulty finding a friend or relative to be executor. Generally the Public Trustee was appointed when the deceased had no known relatives. Harold had plenty, including a sister and Nancy’s father, his cousin, Thomas Myers.

So why did a man well-provided with friends and relatives hand responsibility to the public trustee? Did he know that his friends and close relatives would disapprove of what he was doing so much they would refuse to act as executor? Or did he simply hope to spare them the controversy that was sure to follow?

His death certificate is even more unusual. The cause of death is given as 1) Capillary Bronchitis and 2) Pulmonary Oedema, certified by Syer B White MB. That, and the fact that he is said to be a male of independent means are about the only sections that were correct in the original.

The date was wrong: 4th May was written down – which was clearly impossible as his will was dated the following day. His age was given as 65 years; amended to ‘about 57’. His name was given as Harold Fielding Hall, but, the note beside in the margin stated it should have read ‘Harold Fielding Patrick Hall otherwise Harold Fielding-Hall’.

An experienced genealogist said they’d never seen a death certificate that had been so much amended.

All these corrections were made by ‘William Holloway Registrar’ who had drawn up the original document. His note reads, ‘corrected on 11th August 1917 by me W Holloway Registrar on production of Statutory Declarations made by Herbert Bowring Lawford and Amy Edith Tyrell’. 

Someone familiar with these kind of records declared Harold’s to be the most amended death certificate she had ever seen. 

All of which points to a degree of rush and confusion surrounding his death. It’s possible that in this third year of the war the Registrar was no longer competent, all the able younger men having been called up. It may be that when she learned what had happened Harold’s wife was threatening to contest the will, which given that it was dated the day after his apparent death, would indeed have been suspicious. It may be that the eminent HB Lawford, having witnessed the will, raced off to catch the last train back to London leaving the nurse to stay with the dying man and deal with the form filling that followed, and that she was over-hasty and got into a muddle.

The details of that final day are both vivid and obscure. Trying to unravel them is critical to understanding much that went before. It’s a work in progress – and slow progress, at that.