The Warrants of Alexander Humphrys

Peter Symes

This story does not concern a bank note issue, but rather an issue of ‘warrants’ that were prepared by Alexander Humphrys around 1840 in an effort to raise money to support his various claims. Humphrys claimed to be the heir to the titles of William Alexander of Menstrie and rightful claimant to the estates of Nova Scotia, and while his claims have passed into history, the warrants he prepared remain an interesting relic of Scotland’s history of financial instruments.

            To tell the story of Alexander Humphrys it is first necessary to step back in time to 1621 when the fortunes of William Alexander of Menstrie had just changed for the better. William Alexander was a poet and courtier to James VI of Scotland, having been tutor to Prince Henry, son of the monarch. When James succeeded Elizabeth I as the English monarch, Alexander was one of many Scots who followed their monarch to the English court.

            In 1611 King James had established the order of Baronets of Ulster to promote the plantations of northern Ireland, and several years later William Alexander – now Sir William and a close confidant of the King – suggested that a similar project be considered for North America. The king looked favourably on the suggestion and in September 1621 granted Sir William a charter giving ‘his heirs and assigns, whomsoever, hereditarily, all and singular, the continent, lands, and islands, situate and lying in America ...’ which included most of what is now regarded as eastern Canada.

            Having achieved this grant, nothing was done to promote its use until 1625 when Charles I ascended the throne. In an effort to consolidate his position, Sir William sought, and was granted, a second charter which was broader than the first, not only in the lands it granted, but also by giving permission to establish an order of Baronets for what was now termed New Scotland or ‘Nova Scotia’. However the fortunes of Sir William and New Scotland did not run smoothly, by 1626 he had sold only 28 titles and had not managed to colonise the region, the French contested the Scottish claims to the lands in 1627 causing war, and King Charles ultimately took up the lordship of Canada in 1629.

            The war between England and France was settled by the treaty of Susa in 1629, and Sir William was forced to surrender his claims to New Scotland. In 1632 the entire grant of Canada was given to France as Charles the first’s marriage settlement, and the small Scottish settlements at Cape Breton and Annapolis Royal (Port Royal), which had been established in 1629, were ordered withdrawn. Despite the set-backs to his enterprises in the ‘New World’, Sir William’s fortunes in England seem to have grown, being appointed secretary of state for Scotland in 1626, promoted to ‘Lord Alexander of Tullibody and Viscount Stirling’ in 1630, and appointed judge of the Court of Session (the highest court in Scotland). However, the failures of New Scotland had left Sir William in financial difficulties.

            He was granted permission to introduce a copper coinage to Scotland but the money (nicknamed ‘black money’ or ‘turners’) was considered debased and caused a great deal of difficulty for Lord Alexander and the King. However his fortunes at the court of the King continued to grow, being given the titles of ‘Earl of Stirling’ and ‘Viscount Canada’ in 1633, and ‘Earl of Dovan’ in 1639.

            In a strange twist a ‘Patent in favor of William Lord Alexander’ was granted in 1635 confirming the claim to ‘the Countie of Canada’ in North America. However neither this belated patent (nor the various titles) bought any pecuniary advantage to William Alexander and when he died in 1640 he was insolvent.

            The titles gained by Sir William were passed through the family until 1739 when the fifth Earl of Stirling died without issue. Considered an extinct peerage for many years a claim was made by an American general – William Alexander – for the titles in 1762 but they were dismissed by the House of Lords’ committee on privileges. This is the background for our tale, and it is into the vacuum of the extinct peerage that the ‘hero’ of our story appears.

            Alexander Humphrys was born in 1783 to William Humphrys, a successful Birmingham merchant, and Hannah Alexander. Little is known of his early life until he accompanied his father to France in 1802, where they were detained by the French on the renewal of hostilities between France and England. His father died during their internment at Verdun and Alexander finally returned to England in 1815, becoming a teacher near Worcester.

            He would, in all probability, have passed his life in relative obscurity had it not been for a certain Mr. Thomas Christopher Banks. Mr. Banks was a genealogist who had written a volume on the ‘Extinct and Dormant Baronage of England’ and seems to have been the initial driving force behind the series of claims made by Alexander Humphrys. (How the two gentlemen met is uncertain, and who was the instigator of the claims is also uncertain, but both gentlemen certainly took to the challenge.)

            The first step in the progress of claims was to apply for a royal licence to assume the surname ‘Alexander’, which was granted in March 1824, due to the petitioner desiring to ‘perpetuate the surname of his ... maternal grandfather, John Alexander’. He then sought to be declared the lawful ‘heir-male’ of Hannah Alexander (his mother), which was granted before the Magistrates of Canongate in February 1826.

            The next step in his claims was to seek to be declared the nearest and lawful heir to the Earl of Stirling, and, with the assistance of Mr. Banks, his application was successful. Following the successful application, on 11 October 1830 he was declared the heir to William the first Earl of Stirling, and began to use the title ‘Earl of Stirling and Dovan’ while designating his mother ‘Countess’.

            Not content with having attained the peerage, Humphrys now sought to claim the Canadian titles and the territories which had been lost by the first Earl of Stirling. This pretension would at first sight appear to have been beyond his reach, as the charters granted to William Alexander of Menstrie had stated that the grants of land in Scotland and Canada could only be inherited by ‘heirs-male’. Since he was claiming descent through his mother, his claims would appear null and void. However in 1829 he had begun a process of circumventing this condition by claiming that in 1639 Charles I had granted a royal charter, or ‘Novodamus’, in which the estates of Scotland and America were not limited to male heirs.

            The charter of 1639 could not be produced and the action before the Court of Session to prove its existence failed in March 1830. Having been thwarted in this avenue, Humphrys appealed to the Sheriff of Edinburgh in June 1831 to be nominated heir to the North American possessions. In his appeal he produced evidence of himself being the rightful heir to William Alexander, the Register of the Great Seal, and the Register of Sasines. How he argued his case with respect to the condition of ‘heirs-male’ is unsure, but he was able to prove his case, and consequently on the 8th July 1831 he was invested with the North American property at Edinburgh Castle.

            Following this success the ‘new’ Earl of Stirling then granted to his abettor Mr. Banks 16,000 acres of land in Canada and created him a baronet, all being done under the terms of the 1625 charter. Mr. Banks then sought confirmation of the grant from the Lords of the Treasury, but they deigned not to reply. He then appealed to the Court of Session to validate the grant, but the proceedings were stayed due to an action brought against Humphrys and Banks by Officers of State questioning the validity of the documents by which Humphrys claimed right to assume the earldom.

            However, these legal manouverings had not stopped the aspirations of Humphrys and his accomplice. On the 12th July, immediately after his success at Edinburgh Castle, Humphrys issued a prospectus,

‘setting forth his rights, and offering for sale grants of land, in such quantities, and at such rates as the ambition of parties might require.’ (Turnbull 1839)

The prospectus was issued from the ‘Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Canada Hereditary Lieutenancy Office of the Lord Proprietor, for Sale, Grants and Locations of Lands, &c. &c. 53, Parliament Street, London.’

            He then followed this prospectus with a number of petitions; to the people of Nova Scotia he addressed his intentions on how he would deal with his new lands (indicating he would appropriate only vacant lands), to Earl Grey (Lord Commissioner of the Treasury) he protested against the government’s right to administer the territories of Nova Scotia, and in 1832 he protested to the House of Commons against the New Brunswick Company Bill. Obviously his activities were drawing attention and it seems that they were being observed with some amusement by the government and the press.

            The public was warned against subscribing towards any purchase of land by many newspapers and Humphrys was himself being held up to ridicule. However, he had many supporters who took every chance to write to the newspapers championing his cause and claiming that the opposition he faced was promoted by peers who wished to see his claims ‘reduced’, i.e. nullified.

            However, despite the amusement of the claims and counter-claims, the Crown saw the need to challenge the activities of Humphrys and Banks before the embarrassment became too large. Consequently, a number of court cases followed wherein the Officers of State tried to have the titles granted to Humphrys ‘reduced’ by showing that the claim was faulty. Ultimately the Officers determined that a number of documents relating to the claims of Humphrys were forged and in 1839 Alexander Humphrys was charged with forgery.

            The ensuing court case became a cause celebre and was followed with a great deal of interest throughout Great Britain. The crown charged Humphrys with forging documents, using and uttering a forged document, and fabricating ‘false and simulate writings’. During the trial many witnesses were called and cross-examined both for the prosecution and defence in an effort to determine the authenticity of the documents that Humphrys had used to claim the titles. One of the witnesses was W. H. Lizars, the celebrated Edinburgh engraver and bank note manufacturer, who was asked to determine whether an old document had been tampered with.

            After some days the jury delivered its verdicts on the several charges. Of the four questionable documents, two were unanimously found to be forged, and two ‘not proven’ Footnote to be forged. In all four instances Humphrys was found ‘not proven’ of uttering the documents as genuine knowing them to be forged, in two instances by a majority of the jury and in two cases unanimously. Humphrys was subsequently assoilzied (i.e. released) by the Judge.

            Soon after his release from custody Humphrys left for the continent where he lived in Brussels and Paris until 1851. However, the fight was not over! In 1842 he pleaded his case before the French Bar, and in March 1845 he appealed to the House of Lords against the act of reduction that had been passed while he was on the Continent (the appeal to the House of Lords being denied). In April 1851 Humphrys moved to America, where he died in Washington on 4 May 1859.

            Later, in one final challenge, one of Humphrys’s sons, Alexander William Francis, appealed to the House of Lords to have the act of reduction overturned. After having his case heard in February 1868 he received a judgement in April holding that the action of reduction was to be upheld, bringing to a conclusion the claims of Humphrys and his family.

            It is apparent that the claims made by Humphrys and Banks in seeking the titles and prerogatives of the Earl of Stirling needed to be financed, and it is also apparent that neither Humphrys nor Banks were men of independent means. It seems that Humphrys received financial support for his claims by way of loans from a Mademoiselle Le Normand between 1815 and 1837, by way of loans and bonds from a Mr. Ward between 1829 and 1831, and various other supporters including a certain Sir Henry Digby.

            Melle. Le Normand (of Paris) seems to have been a strong supporter of Humphrys and as well as being a sponsor, was evidently a fortune teller who predicted that Humphrys would succeed in all his claims. Most of the loans raised in England were arranged through a Mr. Tyrell who stated during the trial that Mr. Ward had given loans to Humphrys, as well as signing bonds for over £50,000 for the purchase of paintings, which were then sold to raise cash.

            However, the money supplied by Melle. Le Normand, Mr. Ward, and others, was only by way of loans, and it was imperative for Humphrys to find ways in which he might raise money to repay his debts. It appears that the program to sell tracts of land in Nova Scotia and the Baronetcies of Nova Scotia were designed to raise the capital to support his activities.

            It is not known whether anyone was tempted by the offers, but despite the history of failed colonies in the Americas (one as late as 1822 by a Gregor MacGregor in the Honduras), and despite the warnings in the press concerning the offers, it is likely that some people did subscribe money to the project and did support Humphrys. Unclear as the financial situation of Humphrys was during the period of his claims, it would appear that at the time of his trial for forgery he was still financially dependent on others.

            The ‘warrants’ (or ‘bond certificates’) that are dated ‘184_’ seem to have been yet another scheme promoted by Humphrys or his supporters in an effort to raise money for the cause. It is not immediately apparent when these warrants were prepared, but it would seem to have been after Humphrys’s trial in 1839. Humphrys had left for the continent soon after his release from custody on the charges of forgery, and it would appear that he was not directly involved in the preparation of the warrants, but this is not conclusive, as he may have had them prepared prior (or during) his trial as a show of confidence in his innocence. It is also possible that the certificates were prepared by Mr. Banks in Humphrys’s absence, but this is again uncertain.

            What is certain is that at some stage during or after the trial of 1839 Humphrys and Banks fell out, with Humphrys describing Banks as ‘a malevolent and mercenary agent’ and ‘a vindictive and treacherous being’. (There were many observers who saw Humphrys as an innocent foil to the wiles of Mr. Banks; however during his trial it became apparent that Humphrys entered into some of his money making schemes without the knowledge of his accomplice, and was quite capable of continuing his claims without Mr. Banks’s assistance.)

            Possibly the warrants were prepared before the falling out between Humphrys and Banks, or possibly they were prepared by other supporters – the fact remains unknown. What is known is that the warrants were printed in Edinburgh by Hector Gavin junior, and carry the following text:

‘Edinburgh ______184_

‘In virtue of full Powers Warrant & Commission granted to me by the Heirs of Sir William Alexander of Menstrie, I do hereby Promise to pay ___________________ or holder hereof at the Bank of Scotland the sum of Twenty Pounds Stg Three Months after the said Heirs establish their claim to the Territory of Nova Scotia and Dependencies as secured to them by the Original Charters, Deeds & Acts of Parliament, for the value received.

‘Given under my hand at Edinburgh of the above date.’

The coat of arms of Nova Scotia appear at the top of the warrants, and again in part in a panel adjacent to the counterfoil which includes a Scotch thistle. The warrants are known to have been issued for £20, £50, and £100.

            The scheme to raise money by issuing these warrants was as ill-fated as most of the schemes in this tale of ambition. The Bank of Scotland were not bankers to Humphrys or to the proposed scheme, and when they were notified of the existence of the warrants they took particular exception, threatening to prosecute for fraud should they be issued. Consequently they never were issued and exist today only as remainders.

            Minor as they are, these warrants are an interesting part of the history of Scotland, as well as a reminder of the avarice, ambition, and pretensions of men. Despite these characteristics being so evident in the claims and activities of Humphrys and Banks, many contemporaries saw Banks as the villain of the piece and Humphrys as an honourable (if somewhat naive) dupe, particularly as Humphrys was able to acquaint himself with so many reputable men. The following extract is from The Stirling Peerage - Trial of Alexander Humphrys or Alexander, styling himself Earl of Stirling, which was edited by William Turnbull a Scottish advocate at law. The book was written immediately after the trial from a transcript of proceedings.

‘In conclusion, we may express an opinion in conformity with that of the majority of the Jury [of the trial for forgery], for we think it exceedingly possible that this unfortunate gentleman has been the victim of an hallucination which has rendered him, as his counsel states him to have been, “the dupe of the designing, and the prey of the unworthy.” However strongly we reprobate his absurd and preposterous pretensions, we can, with difficulty, bring ourselves to believe that one whose character stood so high in the opinion of gentlemen of undoubted and unblemished reputation could ever have perpetrated the criminal actions laid to his charge.’ (Turnbull 1839)


- (1994) Correspondence on Alexander Humphrys, Archivist Bank of Scotland - Edinburgh

- Macaulay, Joseph Babington (1906) The life of the last Earl of Stirling, Paignton

- Turnbull, William (1839) The Stirling Peerage - Trial of Alexander Humphrys or Alexander, styling himself Earl of Stirling, William Blackwood and Sons - Edinburgh

This article was completed in October 1996
© Peter Symes