A vast British estate that had fallen into ruin after its American heir refused to claim the land can finally be divided among relatives after 80 years of legal wrangling.
The Hoblyn estate in Cornwall, with its enormous manor house set in 3,000 acres of lush English countryside worth $7.5million, has been inherited by two elderly sisters in California.
However the women’s cousin and next male heir – the only person who wanted to restore the estate to its former glory – has been left with a vastly reduced sum because of a change to the century-old will.
The estate, with its 19th-century Fir Hill manor house, belonged to the Figg-Hoblyn family who first moved to the property in 1856.
After decades of being handed down to ancestors, Hoblyn Estate had been unclaimed for 40 years. The rightful heir John Paget Figg-Hoblyn refused to sign title deeds because it is believed he did not want to pay the property’s death tax.
John Paget never indicated to the British High Court that he wanted to accept Hoblyn Estate after the death of his father Francis in 1965.
However his refusal to inherit the estate, close to the village of Colan, meant it was prevented from passing to the second-in-line, his cousin and only male heir, John Westropp Figg-Hoblyn.
The century-old will had a clause which said the estate must pass to the next male heir which was Mr Westropp.
The retired farmer and father-of-four from Missouri said that wanted to live and work on the family estate, restoring it to its former glory and becoming a pillar of the community. The British courts recognized Mr Westropp as a legitimate heir.
However because of the legal impasse caused by Mr Paget’s refusal to make a decision, Hoblyn Estate lay empty. Over the years, the mansion fell into disrepair after lying empty and unloved while the land and gardens became overgrown.
Parts of the estate were sold off to pay death duties and administration costs. The estate, which has shrunk to 1,000 acres, is still valued at £5million.
John Paget had a PhD in marine biology from the prestigious Stanford University. He worked as a marine biologist and held a post at San Francisco State University in California. He also served in the military during World War Two.
Mr Paget opted for a low-key existence with his sister Peggy in California, traveling around in an old RV. The brother and sister lived an organic lifestyle and were involved in farmer’s markets in California.
At one point, there were claims that the pair had been evicted from a trailer park in Santa Barbara, where they were living in two trucks after failing to pay $200 rent.
He died on June 12, 2011 at the age of 85 after being placed in a nursing home.
His death allowed the destiny of the estate to be decided by a judge at the Court of Protection in London. The century-old will was rewritten as if John Paget were in his right mind to settle the century-long impasse.
An original clause which said the estate would pass to a male heir was cut out and the sale proceeds of the estate split between John Paget’s next-of-kin, his elderly sisters in California.
His sister Margaret, who is believed to be in a nursing home, and Anne, are to share the million-dollar inheritance from the sale of Hoblyn Estate after legal and doctors bills are paid.
They are expected to receive £1.3million (close to $2million) each.
Only £130,000 (around $200,000) will go to the closest surviving male heir, John Westropp, their cousin.
It was thought John Paget, who is thought to have visited the property in the 1960s, had disputed paying death duties in England and would not sign legal documents.
In 1985, the Official Solicitor wrote: ‘John Paget Figg-Hoblyn, by the stroke of a pen and by meeting some other details, can take over the property.
Yet I do not know his address.’
The history of Hoblyn Estate has long been marked with scandal and family tragedy.
In 1856, William Paget Hoblyn was the first to move into Fir Hill Manor. He lived there in grandeur with his wife, son and four daughters.
However their idyllic life came to be tainted by a bitter legal battle surrounding William Paget Hoblyn’s will.
The estate, according to legal documents drawn up by a previous owner, was intended to pass to the eldest male heir. However William Paget Hoblyn also wanted his daughters to share in the property.
However Hoblyn’s eldest son Ernest, a known heavy drinker, challenged the legal changes while his father was still alive. Ernest lost the battle against his sisters soon after his father died and shortly before his own early death.
The Cornish estate was then thrown into turmoil. With only four Hoblyn daughters left – all spinsters and with no male heir – no one could inherit the house and lands.
Two remained spinsters and one married but did not have children. And the fourth sister scandalized local society with her love life.
When she was 19, she ran off to South Africa with coachman John Jones who was in his thirties and married with four sons. Rosalind soon regretted her actions.
She found a more suitable partner in Thomas Richard Figg, a tea broker’s son, and they married in March 1884.
The couple moved to Canada and then to California, and their four children took the surname Figg-Hoblyn.
Rosalind’s eldest son Francis Figg-Hoblyn, a gold miner in California, was due to take over the estate on the deaths of his mother and Cornish aunts.
In 1947, he visited the estate and invited the tenant farmers to a meeting at Colan to announce his intention of restoring the estate to its former glory.
However Francis was annoyed that his elderly aunts had let the estate become run down. He would not sign a document saying that he was satisfied the estate and would take it on.
He returned to California and died in 1965. The estate then passed to his eldest son John Paget where the legal wranglings continued until this year.
Derek Luscombe, vice-chairman of Colan Parish Council said recently that he was delighted the long-running will dispute was finally settled. He said it gave a chance for the estate to be rejuvenated.
Mr Luscombe said that just before Christmas, Charlie Hoblyn, a distant cousin of John Paget, addressed Colan Parish Council with plans to open a new campsite on part of the estate he had just bought. That plan will be subject to planning approval from Cornwall Council.
‘Most people have forgotten the estate is there because the dispute went on so long,’ Mr Luscombe added. But I think locals will be pleased to know it’s finally been settled.’
How a £5m, 3,000-acre estate fell into ruin after American heir refused to inherit property for 40 years because he didn’t want to pay death tax
Mark Duell/Louise Boyle
March 14, 2013