History is littered with stories of families feuding over family fortunes. For Margery Jackson, victory after a sixteen-year legal battle brought moral satisfaction but little worldy comfort, as her scarred psyche and frugal ways offended servants and society alike.
Margery's father, Joseph, was a property-owning draper and Mayor of Carlisle, but when he and his wife Isabella died in quick succession their four children were not provided for equally. Orphaned at the age of ten, Margery was sent to live with a stern young aunt, while her eldest brother Revd William Nicholson Jackson managed the family's affairs, inheritance and all.
Records of household expenditure show that Margery enjoyed or endured the typical entertainments of the day, dressed in petticoats, hooped dresses, ruffles and stockings and taking lessons from a dance master. But the regime at Aunt Elizabeth's home was unusually strict. This caused Margery to viewed her expected inheritance through a lens that provided no scope for ambiguity or equivocation. Her parents' wills provided adequately for Margery and brothers Joseph and Jerome, and she grew up determined that their wishes would be respected, whatever reasons or obstacles William put in the way.
William was not so sure. As time passed he began to get a taste for money. In addition to inheriting his father's wealth he had married the well-endowed Margaret James of Croglin Hall. Their fortune grew in proportion to the time William spent exploiting his loans and mortgages, tenants and borrowers. They extended their Carlisle townhouse - opposite the Town Hall on the site of the entrance to the Lanes Shopping Centre - and filled it with expensive trappings. In spite of William's ordination there was little time for sermons and church affairs except in as much as they conveyed financial advantage. To his mind his siblings were insufficiently experienced or mature to manage their own affairs and could be better served by his greater financial nous. He would fund Joseph's commission in the 24/41st Foot Regiment and Jerome's studies at Queens College, Oxford but would overlook the stipulation in his mother's will that required the inheritance to be paid out within a year of her death.
Margery spent the last few years before she came of age at 21 living with her brother and Margaret. They were moving up in the world and courted Carlisle society. Margery on the other hand was an unwanted distraction, showing no signs of attracting a suitable husband in spite of considerable expense on a wardrobe of fine dresses. One of these, a spectacular blue silk affair known as a Court Mantua, is the widest type of skirt ever worn and was usually the preserve of married women at Court. It now hangs in Carlisle's Tullie House museum.
Although a long way from the capital, the border city of Carlisle could provide its own brand of excitement across the centuries as it passed back and forth from Scottish to English hands. In Margery's time rumours of Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobite army were enough to send William and his wife fleeing to relatives in the country. Margery was made of sterner stuff and remained behind to marshal the household. She made sure that when the Scots retreated and the Duke of Cumberland re-occupied the city, his officers paid a fair rent for their lodgings in William's house.
Margery's agitation over her inheritance started as a mild itch but without the relief that justice would have provided, it grew and grew until her life was entirely devoted to its resolution. Her mind gnawed at three bones of contention. First, the money left to Margery by her mother had not been settled. Second, her brothers' deaths in their twenties required their entitlements to be shared with her. And third, her share of her father's bequest had not adequately been boosted by the interest steadily accrued in the years before her coming of age. Brother William underestimated Margery's shrewd understanding of each of these and tried to fob her off.
The more she pressed her claim the more William evaded the question, arousing Margery's suspicions. Eventually he all but turned her out of the house they shared, sending her away to London.
There she passes out of our story for a decade. We can only wonder whether her resentment festered over the years or whether she put her grievance aside. Either way, in 1762 a chance encounter at an election in Durham briefly reunited the pair and they spent a little time together engaged in friendly familial conversation. No mention was made of the inheritance and they parted amicably. Six months later Margery appeared unexpectedly at her brother's house in Carlisle, her interest perhaps piqued by the previous encounter. This time her approach was decidedly businesslike: she demanded William respect his parents' wills and settle what he owed. His response was uncharacteristically open as he allowed Margery to know that he respected her claim. However, he would need time to realise the sum involved. Strangely, Margery did not pursue the case, disappearing again to London and leaving William to settle thankfully back into Georgian society.
Another decade passed, but on the next occasion when the pebble of her claim dropped heavily into the pool of William's comfortable life the ripples spread uncontrollably. There seems little doubt that William's sense of status and self-importance eventually caused his own downfall.
In the summer of 1773 Margery visited her cousins in their fine house above the River Eden at the Nunnery, Kirkoswald. While there it would have been odd if conversation had not turned to her brother and she duly discovered that he was installed for the summer at his wife's family seat, Croglin Hall, only a few miles distant.
The letter she wrote to William can be seen at the Cumbria County Archive in Carlisle. It reads innocuously enough, she being 'desirous of seeing you which I have long wished for as the only person in this world I hold dear to me'. We will never know if she intended to use the opportunity provided by a social visit to re-open the question of her inheritance because William's reply left her in no doubt that she would not be received. In a terse paragraph William let her know that 'I do not want any correspondence (with) you. My house at Carlisle shall not hold you and me after so barbarous treatment.' In his house William could accommodate seventeen beds, five dining tables and fifty dining chairs but could not find space for a brief visit from his sister.
Returning to London and now in her fifties, Margery finally took recourse to the law. She lodged a Bill of Complaint at the Court of Chancery, Westminster Hall, in January 1774. William's response stressed his generosity towards Margery and her 'uneven and dissatisfied temper.' He artfully claimed that his mother's affairs had been a mystery and that once costs had been paid, Margery's share amounted only to a few shillings. Thus began a pattern of claim, counter-claim, deceipt and foot-dragging that would run on and on, to the benefit of the lawyers and at the cost of William's health.
A year and a half later William received news that the case was decided in his sister's favour. The shock profoundly affected him and even before the amount he owed could be finalised he was dead, frustrating Margery's claim. Margery hurried north in the hope that his last will and testament would settle matters but arrived to find not only that William had excluded her entirely but that Carlisle society blamed her for his death.
A cold fury settled on her. Nursing her sense of injustice she set off back to London, but rather than incurring the expense of another coach journey she chose to walk. It was unheard of for a single, respectable woman to travel in this way. The road was arduous and all sorts of moral and physical perils lay in wait. Margery would have set out along London Road and the course of today's A6. The first night on the road was likely spent with relatives in Penrith, the second at Appleby before her route took her over the wild fellside at Stainmore and on to Bowes and Catterick. Remarkably, she covered the three hundred miles in a fortnight, arriving home unscathed and ready to renew the fight. There can be little doubt that she used the journey to nurse her sense of injustice, because immediately she arrived back in the capital she lodged a new case in court.
The dusty records of Margery's successive court actions - Jackson vs Jackson, Jackson vs Richardson & Hodgson, and Jackson vs Hodgson - extend across page after page of handwritten affidavits and evidence, documenting the sixteen years of Margery's life spent in relentless pursuit of what was rightfully hers. At every turn her relatives tried to frustrate her, lying brazenly, bribing officials and witnesses and refusing to comply with the court's demands, but she would not be frustrated. The court ruled in Margery's favour on three occasions but each time the respondent in the case died before settlement could be paid: first, as we have already heard, William; then Tom Richardson and Bill Hodgson, being the executors of William's will; then his heir, Squire Tommy Hodgson.
Her constant presence in court and the twists and turns of the case began to attract wider attention. In his novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens introduces Miss Flite, 'a little mad old woman in a squeezed bonnet, who is always in court from its sitting to its rising, always expecting some incomprehensible judgement to be given in her favour'. The resemblance to Margery is too close to be coincidental.
At last, in 1791 the family surrendered. Margery took the deeds to the entirety of William's estate including the Carlisle townhouse on Scotch Street. She planned her triumphal return to Cumberland carefully, determined to enjoy her victory parade. In spite of her reputation for miserliness she ordered a splendid carriage to be built, pointedly re-using the plate glass windows from William's own chaise.
Anyone living alone in the townhouse with its seventeen beds and fifty dining chairs would have rattled around. For Margery, her personality shaped by sixty years of worrying about money, and now shunned by Carlisle society, pilloried in the local press and tormented by local boys, the experience drew out the worst side of her character.
The little pleasures that wealth enabled began to seem profligate and needless. Why ride in a carriage when one could walk? Why pay to have the windows cleaned when one could close the shutters and conceal the dirt? Why employ a maid when one's tenants could wash the linen?
Gradually Margery's servants left or were dismissed and her growing reputation dissuaded others from taking their place. Eventually she was left with only Croglin Watty, a simple boy brought up on the Fellside near her sister in law's home. His experience was captured in verse by Robert Anderson, the Cumberland Bard, who recounted her bearded, frosty face; her hard words and hard looks; and her miserliness. The rhyme portrays her buying the smallest piece of mutton available at Carlisle Market and making it last a whole week for her, Watty and the cat.
She would take her dog out scavenging for scraps and when it found a morsel she would stand guard, fending off the local mongrels with her gold-handled cane.
Margery's lifestyle and prominent house in the heart of Carlisle meant that she was a constant topic for gossipmongers. Unluckily, her nearest neighbours, the Jollie family were not only political opponents but prioprietors of the Carlisle Journal which reported frequently, and in unflattering terms, on her habits. They had no need for the paparazzi's long lenses as their upstairs windows afforded a clear view into Margery's parlour where she could be seen tending her accounts and fortifying herself with a cocktail of wine and cognac.
The more that people treated her in line with her reputation the more she retaliated in kind. The fine dresses that hung in her wardrobes were forgotten as she went forth in a faded yellow dress beneath an old duffel coat waisted with string. On her head was the bonnet she had worn to court twenty years earlier. Passing shopkeepers' wifes dressed glamourously she would screech, 'Trash! Upstarts! Tradesmen's wives with their pockets stuffed with money, rasiing prices in the markets! Trash!'
And all the time her fortune grew. The schedule of her property includes six houses in Carlisle, Garnett House near Burneside, Ambroseholme at Rickerby and mills, barns and farms in Botcherby and at Skelton Wood End. She managed her estate strictly but fairly, without sparing her tenants a little moral education as she interrogated them as to how many 'toads' (or children) they had spawned. Given her experience of trying to secure her inheritance Margery had more confidence in hard cash than legal title deeds or bankers' deposits. She kept every gold guinea, half guinea and third guinea that came her way, caching them in an iron trunk.
The trunk accompanied Margery when in 1809 she finally moved out of the townhouse to stay with her one constant friend, Joseph Bowman, who had supported her from the early days of her legal campaign. It took four burly men to lift the iron box, filled with coins and weighing a quarter of a ton. Margery joined Bowman and his wife in Botcherby in a house in Wood Street that stands today. The long and detailed correspondence that passed between him and Margery has also survived in the Cumbria Archive.
Margery lived another couple of years before she suffered a paralytic stroke. Within a day she was dead, but not before she had signed her last will and testament. Hundreds came to see her coffin interred at St Mary's church and her neighbour Jollie provided her obituary in his paper. Joseph Bowman meanwhile had the job of settling her estate. Not only had she left property valued at over £50,000 but there was also the small matter of the gold coins in the trunk. Counting the coins proved to be a full day's work. Eight hours later Joseph could report that there were nine thousand guineas - the equivalent of three quarters of a million pounds in today’s money.
For someone pilloried as a miser, Margery's gifts out of her estate were generous to a fault. In marked contrast to her brother's parsimony sums of hundreds of pounds were given across the board, from her milliner to her attorney, from her God-daughter to her distant relatives.
Nowadays the details of Margery's story can be found in letters held by the Cumbria Archive, in London court records and in the clothes and household goods preserved at Tullie House in Carlisle.