Pirate's heirs win right to raid New York

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A COURT has ruled that the descendants of a 17th-century Welsh pirate may have a legal claim on large chunks of New York, including Wall Street, Broadway and the World Trade Centre.

The federal court ruling, made last week in Pittsburgh, paves the way for a full hearing into the claim by descendants of Robert Edwards for some $680bn (pounds 430bn) of Manhattan real estate - 77 acres - in a dispute that dates back some 300 years. If the claims were to be met in full, each of about 5,400 descendants would be entitled to up to pounds 80m.

The court ruled that a group of would-be claimants based in Pennsylvania were defrauded by some of their representatives, who had set up a $1.4m fighting fund to pursue the claim but instead embezzled the money. In reaching its decision, the court took into account new evidence uncovered at the public record office at Kew, which proved that Edwards actually existed and owned land in New York in the late 1690s.

The 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.

More than 2,000 people in Wales and England claim to be descended from Edwards, while there are a further 3,200 in the US.

In the unlikely setting of a detached house in suburban Coventry, one of the claimants, Glynn Powell, yesterday clutched a copy of his family tree, purportedly showing him to be the great, great grandson of the buccaneer's brother. "I never thought it would get this far so soon. I do believe there's a rightful inheritance but quite how it will all play out I just don't know," he said.

Mr Powell believes he should be one of the first in line to reap the benefit of one of the most astonishing property claims in history. "I would love to go to New York and listen to the hearing," he said.

In the past 300 years, thousands of people claiming to be Edwards' heirs have lost vast sums of money in a quest to establish the legitimacy of their claims.

"Many people have become suicidal over this and others have spent the money already," said Mr Powell. "My grandmother made many journeys to solicitors in South Wales to establish that we were the rightful beneficiaries of the estate. I don't expect the claim will ever be met in full but I'm quite sure now that some settlement will have to be made".

Legend and fact are difficult to separate in the life and times of Robert Edwards. He is believed to have been born in Llanmynech 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 sons - leased this land to church wardens of Trinity Church, now a big 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.

Land grants in New York in the 18th century were a shambles. In the case of Edwards' claim, researchers think that the governor of New York, Colonel Fletcher, got wind that he was about to be sacked and so gave away every inch of the city he could lay his hands on. One of the groups to get some of this land was Trinity Church, but an act of Parliament later revoked Fletcher's deals, partly, it is thought, on the grounds that he had a penchant for being arrested for cross-dressing and walking down Broadway.

Until now Trinity Church, which disputes the claims of the 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 believe they can overturn the statute if they are able to demonstrate there was an error in the way in which the leases were handed over.

Philip Berrill, an author and broadcaster who is researching the history of the Edwards heirs, believe the descendants have a strong case. "Until now, not a single document has gone before a court of law in the United States," he said. Mr Berrill added that until the issue of the land grants was settled, the case could not be laid to rest, because it could be argued that the claimants were being defrauded.