“A Shocking and Fatal Accident”

The Pursuit of Mary Cathcart — part 1

At about half-past three one afternoon in early January 1846 a man on a black horse, riding alone, took the road from Chesterfield, where he had been to the Saturday market, towards Brimington, which lies about two miles to the north-east. In those days Brimington was a village of fewer than 1,000 people, divided from Chesterfield not by built-up outskirts of supermarket, town-edge hotel and crematorium, but by fields, sufficiently lonely in places for some gypsies to steal horses from them a few weeks later. John Archer, a farmer from Barlborough, another village lying further to the north, who had also been to Chesterfield market, was riding his pony along the same road. He saw the man on the black horse a little way ahead as he crossed the railway bridge, built only a few years earlier when the “stupendous work” of the North Midlands Railway, its route surveyed and chosen by George Stephenson himself, had first opened between Derby and Chesterfield. John Archer noticed that the black horse was playful and prancing on the road. He heard the rider whistling as he overtook him, as they descended the hill to a stream called Tinker Sick, close to the junction where the road turns to the north-east along what is now the A619 towards Brimington. As he overtook the horse and its rider, he also noticed that the man was riding very loosely in the saddle and holding the horse’s reins quite slack, whilst the horse “danced in all directions”. John Archer made some remark about its being a dullish afternoon and that it would soon be dark. The man commented that it was exceptionally mild weather for the time of year, and each continued on their way, or as John Archer said of himself, he “shogged” (jolted) on.

A moment later, John Archer heard a clatter of hooves behind him, followed by the sound of a heavy fall onto the road. Turning, he saw the black horse coming towards him at full gallop, its rider thrown to the ground with his arms and legs beneath him; his head, from which his hat had fallen, in the middle of the road, and his feet in the gutter. Quite certain that the man was seriously hurt, John Archer called for assistance and people rapidly gathered. The fall had happened at the foot of some steps leading to a cottage. A chair was brought outside and the man put in it. John Archer took the man’s arm and tried to pull him up, but he was unconscious. Blood was flowing in all directions from his forehead and from his right ear, and his skull was so visibly fractured that as John Archer attempted to raise him, he “thought the man’s brains would fall out”. John Holmes, a butcher from Brimington, who was also making his way home from Chesterfield market, stopped his horse and cart and the man was lifted into it, his head resting on John Holmes’s knees so as to be as little jolted on the road as possible. The man who had fallen could not speak but kept placing his hand on the wound on his head. The butcher knew and recognised him, and had attempted to speak to him. He was James Wheeler Unwin, the gentleman tenant of Brimington Hall. Another passer-by on the road who recognised him was the Reverend Marsh, perpetual curate of the parish church at Brimington. The church and rectory were close to the Hall. And he had baptised James and his wife’s baby son Charles at Brimington only that past September. The child had died five days later.

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Brimington Hall l. and carved overmantel dated 1645, depicting one of Francis Quarles’s Emblems (1635) r. (images courtesy D Coke-Steel)

The Reverend Marsh was on his way into Chesterfield but immediately turned round and rode ahead of the butcher’s cart to Brimington Hall to break the news of her husband’s terrible accident to his young wife. Brimington Hall was in the centre of the village, behind a high wall and arched gateway. Emily was at home with their little daughter, Mary. Another man galloped into Chesterfield to seek out a doctor, finding a Dr Boddington, who in turn borrowed the man’s horse and rode at full speed to Brimington. Two other Chesterfield doctors, a surgeon, Mr Botham, and a Dr Walker followed, and later, a Mr Thomas, another surgeon, from Sheffield. The men who remained on the spot examined the scene and talked amongst themselves of how James had come to be so badly hurt in falling. They concluded that the horse must have shied unexpectedly and that James had been riding inattentively and failed to protect himself as he fell, hitting his head on the kerbstone of the bottom step leading to the roadside cottage. They found a scrap of felt (or fur, as it was in some places reported) on the kerb and showed it to the doctors, who were were puzzled by it, until they realised that it was a piece of fabric from James’s hat, cut clean through by the kerbstone in the velocity and violence of his fall.

Had Emily some premonition of the news the curate brought her? James, through a family inheritance two generations earlier, was a gentleman of independent means, still quite young at 32. He had matriculated at Oriel College, Oxford, in 1831, when he was 17, but unlike his studious father and younger brother, left without taking a degree. He knew that he expected to inherit Wootton Lodge, an imposing Jacobean mansion in rural Staffordshire, and he had lived at Wootton Lodge himself for a period before his marriage. He was known as a remarkably bold rider, and to be passionate about horsemanship and hunting, always seeking a high-spirited horse to ride. He had sold a magnificent hunter with reluctance the previous year, declaring that no price would ever be sufficient for parting with it. But he had been feeling unwell over the past weeks, and his doctors had advised him not to ride out to hunt again until February. Yet the temptation of the Whiston hounds New Year’s Day meet, ten days previously, had been too strong, and then he had been out again, with the Meynell Ingram Hunt, a week later on the 8th of January, only two days before his fateful ride into Chesterfield. On New Year’s Day he had fallen from his horse and hit his head heavily, but was up and in the saddle again, thinking nothing of it and eager for his sport. Thursday’s hunt had left him exhausted. The black horse that he took to Chesterfield had also been laid up in the stables and was out of condition. James had not ridden it for two months.

Was Emily fearful that James would do himself more harm if he rode again so soon? Did she beg him not to go, but send a servant to the market instead? Or were falls from horses so commonplace that those that did no immediate damage were shrugged off and forgotten? In any event, Emily must have greeted first the Reverend Marsh and then the sight of her husband, laid out unconscious with a head wound on the butcher’s cart, with horror and consternation. The indefatigable Marsh immediately set off again, first to Chesterfield, and from there to Derby, where James’s widowed father lived and where James had grown up with his sisters and younger brother. James’s father was the Reverend Edward Unwin, for many years vicar of St Werburgh’s church in the city. As soon as he heard the news of James’s accident, he came immediately by train to Chesterfield, bringing with him Dr Baker, who was a physician at the Derby Infirmary and had been the family’s doctor for 18 years. The doctors agreed to operate on James to relieve the intracranial pressure following the fall and injury to his head, and on that Saturday evening removed twelve pieces of splintered bone from the fracture, an operation which, extraordinarily, he survived. He never spoke during the operation or fully recovered consciousness after it, taking only a few sips of water before he died. As one newspaper described it “no earthly skill could prevail”.The operation must have been unimaginable by modern surgical and anaesthetic standards. It was to be a year before Mr Thomas himself carried out one of the first operations under anaesthetic in Sheffield.

Brimington Hall, now demolished and its land built over, was an Elizabethan manor house. It had a fine oak staircase, some ornate plaster ceilings and in its first floor sitting room, a carved overmantel, with the date 1645 above it. This must have been the room in which Emily, Edward and the physicians gathered by the fire when they were not at James’s bedside. Edward, Dr Baker and at least some of the other doctors remained in the house until the hour of James’s death. The carved figures on the overmantel were of a winged figure holding a pair of scales, a Cupid adding heavy weights to one side of the scales, and another figure blowing bubbles into the other, with the Latin words “Quis levior. Cui plus ponderis addit Amor” (Which is lighter? That to which Cupid adds more weight). Perhaps this Jacobean conceit had charmed James and Emily when they moved into the Hall soon after their marriage, but now the allegory can only have unsettled or even tormented her, as James’s life hung in a literal balance in the adjoining room.

Edward, as a vicar, must surely have led the household, servants included, in prayer, on occasions during the days that followed. He himself had baptised his son, as he had baptised countless children, at his own church, St Werburgh’s, when James was born in 1813, in the days of the Prince Regent when Britain was still at war with France. How must the widowed old man have felt, now to be called to say the Lord’s Prayer as his oldest son departed life before him, as two daughters already had, frail girls turned to dust before their seventeenth birthdays? And James and Emily’s only surviving child, their daughter Mary, just learning to walk and talk, was perhaps neglected amidst all this — for the first, but not the last time in her life, in a room full of doctors.

James died shortly after midday on Wednesday 14 January 1846. That day the local newspapers carried the story of his “lamentable” “dreadful” accident and the absence of hope held out for his recovery. By the weekend, the story had reached further afield, to the London Standard, which described Brimington as “romantic but retired village” which for the past week had been “a scene of great excitement” following the “fearful accident”. The Chesterfield paper, the Derbyshire Courier, that day carried a fuller report of the accident, describing James as

… much respected, and his untimely and melancholy death is greatly lamented. His widow’s distress is most poignant; and time alone can soothe and alleviate her anguish.

The local newspapers also reported in detail on the inquest which by then had taken place. It had been held on the day after James’s death, at the Red Lion Inn, Brimington, a stone’s throw away from Brimington Hall, and which still stands, with a single low-ceilinged bar and a function room behind it. The coroner, and the “highly respectable jury” of local gentry and farmers had first gone to view James’s body at Brimington Hall. They heard the evidence of Joseph Crofts, James’s groom, and of John Archer and John Holmes, the two local men who had been most active at the scene. They also heard from two of the doctors, including Dr Baker, who had come with Edward from Derby, and who said that he was present at the post-mortem and convinced that nothing more could have been done to save James’s life. Unsurprisingly, the jury returned a verdict of Accidental Death. James was later buried in the family vault in Derby, and a memorial to him placed in St Peter’s Church, Ellastone, the village closest to Wootton Lodge.

As James had remarked, in what became his last words, it was an exceptionally mild January. In the adjacent column to the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal’s account of the inquest, “Local Intelligence” reported that gooseberries perfectly formed had been gathered and that strawberries both in full bloom and fruit could be seen in a garden at Matlock Bath. On 10th January, the same day that James fell from his horse -

A boy gathering turnips in a field found under the leaves of a large turnip a yellowhammer’s nest, in which there were three newly laid eggs, the farmer to convince himself broke one and found to his gratification they were indeed new. The blue bottle fly has been seen frequently in the neighbourhood. A bat was also seen on Thursday evening last, apparently in search of its prey, and as full of life and vigour as at midsummer.

Even into March, as Emily busied herself with the administration of James’s estate and thought about her own and Mary’s future, the mildness of the season continued, so fine that birds’ nests and flowers “abounded in abundance” and mushrooms were found in the fields.

So in that mild winter in early 1846, James and Emily’s brief married life, and their family life at Brimington Hall, abruptly ended. The couple were first cousins, Edward Unwin having married Emily’s father’s sister, and she had known James all her life, although as a small child to an older boy, as she was seven years younger than him. Her family home, Flasby Hall, at Gargrave in Yorkshire, was being rebuilt in 1843, the year that she and James married. That may explain why they married at Leamington — then at the height of its fashion as a spa, and a place she had visited with her mother to take the medicinal waters a few years earlier. Neither James nor Emily had any previous connection with Brimington, but Brimington Hall was advertised to let in the spring of 1843 as “completely furnished, and with every requisite for a small and respectable Family. Rent moderate.” To modern eyes it was a large mansion, a starter home only for the “small family” of an early 19C gentleman with greater expectations. The availability of the house and its “excellent stabling”, the proximity of the several hunts which James joined, and the newly-opened railway linking Chesterfield to his family in Derby more rapidly than their parents could have dreamed of at the same age, may all have recommended it to them. Mary, their daughter, who later became Mary Cathcart, was baptised on September 22 1844 at Brimington, not by the Reverend Marsh, but by her grandfather, the Reverend Edward Unwin. Her birth was never registered, and no-one seems ever to have noted its precise date subsequently. Civil registration of births had only come in in 1837 and was not yet compulsory, so her actual date of birth is conjecture. She might have been born just a few days before her baptism, or several weeks or even months earlier, in the spring or summer of 1844. Nearly half a century later, in 1891, Emily told the inquisition into her daughter’s alleged lunacy that Mary had been about two and a half when her father died. But that would have put Mary’s birth somewhere around the date of Emily’s marriage to James in the summer of 1843, and Emily must have confused the two dates in recollection, for it is highly improbable that a young girl from her landed gentry background would have been pregnant before her wedding day.

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Brimington baptism records from 1844, Mary Unwin’s in the penultimate line, showing that she was baptised by her grandfather, the Reverend Edward Unwin of St Werburgh’s, Derby, and not by the Reverend Marsh. Her father’s “Quality, Trade or Profession”, shown as”Esquire” i.e. a gentleman, also contrasts with those of the tradesmen, miners and labourers elsewhere on the page

James and Emily only had two full summers at Brimington and in both of those Emily was either pregnant or had recently given birth. In the second of those years, the summer of 1845, Charlotte Bronte spent three weeks visiting her friend Ellen Nussey at the vicarage in Hathersage, only about fifteen miles north of Brimington. Derbyshire made a deep impression on her, and some of the places that Charlotte Bronte saw on that visit — in particular the manor house of North Lees, which she renamed Thornfield Hall, and which was a house not unlike Brimington Hall — found their way into her novel Jane Eyre, published a few years later. She and Ellen also visited the caverns at Castleton where the semi-precious mineral Blue John was mined and worked. Ellen wrote of it to a friend:

“We have been to Castleton & the Miss Halls accompanied us through the caverns & were very lively and noisy — another party came in soon after — a gentleman & lady — they crossed the river [clinging?] together to our great amusement we could not discover whether they were — brother and sister or what but the lady was very sweet looking & the gentleman twice addressed a word or two to me once when we passed them in the caverns & to say good morning when they left .”

It’s fanciful to imagine that the gentleman and lady were James and Emily, first cousins who might have been mistaken for brother and sister, clinging together as they went sightseeing in a part of the country new to them, on a carefree summer’s day. How did a gentleman of independent means occupy his time during the summer months when there was no hunting? There was no estate to manage at Brimington, and they had servants to do the everyday household chores, so James must have had hours of leisure to fill. But either Emily’s second pregnancy was then far advanced, or she had recently given birth, and it’s unlikely that she would have wished to be driven across the county on primitive roads and venture into a cavern, rather than sit at leisure in the orchard or walled garden of Brimington Hall. A novelist could bring this imaginary encounter to life, and similarly could choose whether to depict James as a loving, affectionate husband with Emily, equally affectionate, clinging to him, or as a self-indulgent, boorish man who put his own pleasures above anything, and cared more for his horses than for his wife. In reality, the characters of both of them are unknown. Yet it must have been a melancholy autumn and winter for Emily, from the loss of her infant son in September 1845 through James’s weeks of illness and enforced inactivity over Christmas, to his shocking and unlooked-for death in January 1846. It must have come back to her in vivid recollection in the autumn of 1863, nearly 20 years later, when her young butler was thrown from his horse and killed on the spot. Although still a young woman in her mid-twenties in 1846, Emily never remarried. And Mary was a baby of less than two years’ old at her father’s death. A child so young could have no conscious memory of her father, or of the cries and consternation in the house on that Saturday in January that he was brought home insensible &bleeding in the butcher’s cart, or of the days that he lingered before his death, or of all that came immediately after it.

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Memorial to James Wheeler Unwin 1813–1846 in St Peter’s Church, Ellastone, Staffordshire

James died without making a will. Much of his own inheritance was already in trust under earlier family wills and settlements for his widow and children, and he may have believed himself too young and full of life to write a will, to sit down to the solemn task, beginning, as was not unusual at the time with the words “In the name of God and in the blessed hope of the Resurrection through the Redemption of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I, James Wheeler Unwin ….” Emily obtained a grant of administration of James’s personal estate (i.e. his estate which did not consist of land, to which different rules applied and which was treated separately) on intestacy from the diocesan court of Lichfield on 21 March 1846. This enabled her to pay James’s funeral expenses and debts, which she later set out in an account. These debts included all the doctors’ fees, and wages and mourning clothes for the servants. Mr Thomas, the surgeon from Sheffield, charged almost £20, more than all three Chesterfield doctors put together, but Dr Baker seems to have asked for only £1 and his train fare from Derby.

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Part of the account of debts and expenses of James’s estate prepared by Emily in the 1848 legal proceedings in which Mary was made a ward in Chancery (UK National Archives C14/921/U2)
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Part of the account of debts and expenses of James’s estate prepared by Emily in the 1848 legal proceedings in which Mary was made a ward in Chancery (UK National Archives C14/921/U2)

The account also shows that Emily paid half a year’s rent to Mr Coke, the owner of Brimington Hall. She and Mary must have left Brimington by the end of the summer, as Mr Coke’s wife gave birth to a son at Brimington Hall in late August, and early in the following year, a local newspaper recorded that Emily had contributed a “munificent” £100 towards the church rebuilding fund in Brimington, describing it as her “former residence”. Where did mother and daughter go? Almost certainly to Emily’s family home in Yorkshire, to her father Cooper Preston, her unmarried sister Caroline, who had been a bridesmaid and witness at her wedding, and other members of her family living at Flasby Hall. Her family home would have been an obvious choice for the young widow and her child, and was undoubtedly the place from where the legal documents were prepared a couple of years later to make Mary, by then an infant heiress “a ward in Chancery”, and for the first, but not the last time in her long life, a party to legal proceedings in the English civil courts.

With thanks to Janet Murphy of Chesterfield & District Local History Society and Philip Cousins of Brimington & Tapton Local History Group for material on Brimington Hall

Links to previous and next instalments of The Pursuit of Mary Cathcart

Introduction to the life of Mary Cathcart

Part 2 — “Cold Clay”

Part 3 — A Gainsborough Portrait

Part 4 — A Ward in Chancery

Part 5 — A Crime of Anonymity

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English barrister & mediator — specialising in disputed succession & decision-making for people who lack mental capacity

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