Pirate's family say: 'New York is ours'

Mark Rowe reports on a pounds 400bn property claim by an adventurer's descendants
Click to follow
A 17TH-CENTURY buccaneer reputedly given a large chunk of New York, including what is now Wall Street, as reward for raiding Spanish galleons, has inspired one of the world's biggest ever property claims.

In March a New York court is to hear new evidence backing the descendants of Welshman Robert Edwards, who are claiming about $680bn (pounds 414bn) of New York real estate in a dispute that dates back 300 years. They believe they are the legal owners of 77 acres of what is now Manhattan, an area which includes Broadway, Wall Street and the World Trade Centre.

Around 5,400 descendants of the sailor are preparing for the case, which could pave the way for a full investigation into the history of their claim. If it were to be met in full, each descendant would be entitled to up to pounds 80m.

Their claim dates to the reign of Queen Anne. Edwards is said to have received a parcel of land as a reward for raiding Spanish galleons loaded down with treasure from the New World, though researchers believe he may actually have had a more mundane existence as an officer in the Royal Navy.

Legend and fact are difficult to separate in the life and times of Robert Edwards. He is believed to have been born in Llanymynech (now in Shropshire) and is thought to have arrived in New York in the late 1690s. His descendants believe he was given 77 acres of prime land by the British Crown. They say he - or his son - leased this land in 1778 to churchwardens of Trinity Church, now a substantial real estate owner in New York. At the end of the 99-year lease, the land was supposed to return to Edwards' six brothers and sisters or their descendants - but this failed to happen.

"This is one of the last great mysteries of this century," said Philip Berrill, an author and broadcaster who is researching the history of the Edwards heirs. "It's like a 10,000-piece jigsaw with little bits put into place as I go along." More than 2,000 people in Wales and England claim to be his descendants while there are a further 3,280 in the US, mostly in Pennsylvania. There are others scattered across the world, from Gibraltar to South Africa.

Until now Trinity Church, which disputes the claims of Edwards' heirs, has relied on the statute of limitations, which means that a claim must be made within 15 years of the start of the dispute. But the heirs of Robert Edwards would be able to overturn the statute if they can demonstrate that there was an error in the way in which the leases were handed over.

"Trinity Church is an honourable body but in the late 1600s and early 1700s the land grants in New York were in a total mess," said Mr Berrill. "The governor of New York, Colonel Fletcher, got wind that he was about to be sacked and so gave away every inch of New York he could lay his hands on. One of the groups to get some land was Trinity Church but an Act of Parliament revoked his deals.

"In 1702 Lord Cornbury, Queen Anne's cousin, was made governor and gave the church some more land. But he had a penchant for dressing up in his wife's clothes and was allegedly arrested for posing as a prostitute on Broadway."

The confusion surrounding the circumstances under which the church was given the land has fuelled the hopes of thousands of Edwards' descendants. "At no time has one single shred of evidence relating to the original deeds granted to the church been tested in a US court of law," said Mr Berrill.

The March case deals with an alleged fraud in which descendants of Edwards are said to have lost millions of pounds from their fighting fund. It is not the first time they have been defrauded and lawyers will argue that the only way to avoid future fraud is to hold a full investigation into the legitimacy of their claims.

The lawyers will use the March hearing to bring forward new evidence uncovered in New York and the Public Record Office at Kew proving that a man called Robert Edwards actually existed and owned land in New York in the late 1690s. Up until now, Trinity Church has argued that Edwards never existed.

"This will really give us a lever to set up an official investigation," said Mr Berrill. "We now have evidence that Robert Edwards really existed at the right place, at the right time and paid taxes. There is no reason on earth why he shouldn't have owned any land. In the past lawyers have said this could lead to business panic in New York."

But the legacy, if it exists at all, has been a curse for many descendants. Many have fallen prey to fraud while others chose to live beyond their means, anticipating a windfall. "There was a real passion and belief among many people that their boat would come in," said Mr Berrill. "A number of Edwards absolutely believe they will get their money. If this claim proved to be more than a scam we'll have one of the sensations of the century. But even if an investigation is carried out, you can bet your boots that there will be a long battle in court to try and overturn any such decision. The heirs should keep buying their lottery tickets."