Poor Oscar Wilde, he died as he lived – beyond his means

Christmas Miscellany 2010

Poor Oscar: Despite his great success he died in poverty.

Poor Oscar: Despite his great success he died in poverty.

Before his untimely demise Oscar Wilde was one of the most successful authors and playwrights of his generation, but he managed to leave only a paltry will, according to documents just released online.

The index of some six million English and Welsh wills is being published online for the first time today on the website Ancestry.co.uk, including information on Wilde's modest bequest.

The Irish author died in exile in the Hotel d'Alsace in Paris in November 1900, a broken man after his unsuccessful libel trial against the Marquess of Queensberry and his subsequent imprisonment for gross indecency.

When a doctor came to attend him in his final days and demanded a fee, Wilde joked that he would die as he lived – beyond his means.

Though he spent his final years in penury, he still managed to leave £250 in effects – the equivalent of €28,272.31 today, but a pitiful sum given the money he earned from some of his best-known works.

He left the administration of his will to his 14-year-old son Vyvyan Beresford Holland, who changed his name from Wilde after his father's trial had scandalised British society.

Other famous wills

The records published today cover 80 years from 1861 to 1941 but only comprise the published notices of the wills.

Copies of the full wills can be obtained by writing to the Probate Registry in London. Ancestry.co.uk allows registered users a two-week free trial. After that, there is a subscription service, or pay as you go, at a cost of £6.95 for access to 12 documents.

Though the records cover wills of people who were resident in England and Wales at the time of their death, they include many prominent Irish figures.

Charles Stewart Parnell left a substantial estate of £11,774, 7s and 3d (the equivalent of €1.33 million ) when he died in 1891 at Wallsingham Terrace, Brighton, at the age of 45. He left the administration of his estate to his wife of just six months, Katherine Parnell, better known as Kitty O'Shea, the woman who was his downfall.

Dracula author Brom Stoker, who was born in Clontarf, left £5,269 (now €550,000 ) when he died at St George's Square, London, in 1912.

Adventurer Sir Earnest Shackleton left only £556 (€23,000 ) when he died prematurely in 1922 on board the Quest in South Georgia. He left the administration of his will to his wife Emily.

He lost his fortune in failed money-making schemes while allegedly trying to recapture the adventure of his youth.

The records indicate how many famous and influential people died, having made fortunes.

Charles Dickens left the equivalent of €8.5 million, and naturalist Charles Darwin was even more successful, leaving nearly €15 million by today's standards. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, left the equivalent of €3.6 million when he died in 1931.

Karl Marx died as he lived – true to his socialist and anti-capitalist beliefs. He left just £250 (€27,000 ) to his youngest daughter Eleanor when he died in 1882. (Irish Times, Aug 11, 2010 )

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