A Ward in Chancery

Barbara Rich
15 min readNov 4, 2018


The Pursuit of Mary Cathcart — part 4

At some time between her father’s death in January 1846 and the spring of 1848 Mary Unwin and her mother Emily travelled northwards from Derbyshire to Emily’s childhood home, Flasby Hall, near Gargrave in the Yorkshire Dales. Flasby Hall was a much more modern house than Brimington Hall, extensively rebuilt in the early 1840s with an Italianate tower, and refurbished with such relative novelties as bathrooms and water closets. In 1848, both of Emily’s parents were still living, and were at Flasby, together with her unmarried sister Caroline, to whom she was close, and their unmarried aunt Olivia. These two generations of spinsters may have treated the fatherless little girl who came to live with them with affection and indulgence. But there were no children of the house of the same age as Mary, and she must have grown up with some sense of singularity and isolation from this experience, as she accompanied her mother, aunt and great-aunt in the various pursuits of their leisured lives as unmarried gentlewomen. Long in the future, in her old age in the 1880s, Caroline left Mary a legacy of £100 in her will to express her love and affection for her niece, but later revoked it after the embarrassment of Mary’s disastrous marriage and the lunacy petition her husband brought against her. At the lunacy inquisition in 1891 Emily said that she and Mary had always been close, until the events of the late 1880s, when Mary’s increasing paranoia turned even on her mother.

The Prestons of Flasby Hall

Unlike James Unwin, who in the 1760s had moved from Essex to north Staffordshire when he inherited Wootton Lodge, and whose two surviving sons had moved away to pursue their own lives in the army and the church, the Prestons of Flasby Hall were landed gentry who had lived in one place for generations. Originally from Lancashire, this branch of the family had produced heirs who were born and died at Flasby Hall since the mid 17th century, and by 1848 appeared in Burke’s Landed Gentry, with their lineage, heraldic arms and crest — a falcon on a ruined tower — and motto all set out, to satisfy both their sense of status and permanence, and a reader’s curiosity. Their printed genealogy in the North Yorkshire county archives records that the Prestons of Flasby

“were always, in the time of the Rev John Preston 1757–1821 allowed status in north Lancashire as a branch of the Lancashire Prestons. The late Earl of Burlington, who was a friend of Rev John, often offered him the pictures of the Preston family then at Holker [Holker Hall in Lancashire] and he was to send for them, but as that entailed in those days, sending a horse and cart fifty miles or more, it was put off from time to time till too late, and the Earl died. These pictures were burnt in the fire at Holker in the 1860s.”

There was a Preston family tradition of naming the oldest son with his mother’s surname, hence Cooper Preston, Mary’s maternal grandfather, the son of the Reverend John Preston and his wife, Sarah Cooper. Sarah bore fifteen living children in twelve pregnancies between 1785 and 1803, and lived into her eighties. Of those fifteen children, only seven survived to adulthood, and of those seven, only three themselves had children. Those three were Cooper and his sisters Elizabeth and Sarah. Elizabeth married Mary’s paternal grandfather, the Reverend Edward Unwin, and Sarah married William Chamberlayne, a gentleman and later colonel in the army. William Chamberlayne was one of the trustees of Mary’s parents’ marriage settlement, and Mary and Emily spent some time during Mary’s childhood with the Chamberlaynes at their home, Orford House, in Ugley, Essex. They were recorded there at the date of the 1851 census, when Mary was six, and described as “ward in Chancery” on the census form. The Chamberlaynes had two daughters themselves, teenagers of thirteen and seventeen, and they may have enjoyed having a little girl in their house to help care for and amuse.

Between the 18th and 20th centuries, the Prestons marked their continuity at Flasby Hall by tree planting in its grounds. Three or more generations of Preston men recorded the measurement of thickening trunks and rising branches. One note records the growth of “the Triplet Elm (Wych) planted at birth of the three children born 1786”. 1786 was the year of Cooper’s birth, and the note, made years later, may have mistaken this for 1785, when triplet girls were born at Flasby. All three died in the first year of their life, but the tree still stood in 1948. When he was 19 in 1806, Cooper Preston planted an oak “nearest the place where the boat used to be tyed below the Garden”. His son William made the last measurement of it before crossing the record through and marking it “felled 1868”. Cooper seems to have been a man with an active and practical mind, forever noting and sketching in his commonplace book possible improvements to his home and garden, from hothouses to icehouses, asparagus, walnuts, bees and poultry, jotting down ideas he had seen or read of elsewhere, and copying out a quotation he had read and clearly regarded as apposite: “The Garden of a sluggard is a Reproach to him and to the public a certain loss”. His notes bear out the more stilted public words of the author of an 1838 travel guide “Gleanings in Craven” :

“The Rev John Preston laid out the grounds about [Flasby Hall] and beautified them with his proverbial good taste — indeed the situation alone must have acted as a stimulus to a tasteful mind; and as the present owner has, with the property, inherited his father’s love of the picturesque, and his kindness, I would advise permission being asked at the lodge to view the grounds from the front of the hall; — a request which I am sure will not be made in vain. The approach to the hall is a very pleasing quarter of a mile, and terminated by a most wild and interesting view from the brow of Flasby Fell.”

Cooper Preston’s son William continued the record of the growth of trees after his father’s death in 1860, and kept his own commonplace book with notes of the typical pursuits of an English 19C country gentleman: coaches, gigs and dogcarts, dogs, fishing, horses, land and his family pedigree and notable dates. These dates included the death of his cousin and brother-in-law James Wheeler Unwin on 14 January 1846, as well as that of his younger brother, a young midshipman who died in naval service at Malta in 1835, and “my poor mother” who died in 1852. But nothing has been preserved which gives more insight into the family’s feelings following James’s death and the widowhood of his young wife, and her return to the family home with her little daughter.

Cooper Preston also had a more public life as a landowner and gentleman. He was a member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, and a magistrate. In August 1842, he and other magistrates in Skipton had faced a 3,000 strong mob, stirred to action by the threat of destitution following the reduction of workers’ wages in the cotton mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire, in the “Plug Riots”, so called because the striking workers removed boiler plugs from the mills to ensure production stopped. Cooper Preston is recorded as having panicked and called for troops to fire on the protesters, but was rebuked by the soldiers’ commander, as it was for them to obey him, and not the magistrate. Cooper Preston’s other recorded public activity of the 1840s and 1850s appears to have been litigating a dispute with the Great North of England Railway, which had compulsorily purchased some of his land in 1847. His son William later described the directors of railroad companies as “perfected swindlers”, noting that it was his “dear bought experience” that railroads were “things to trade in, not to hold as investments”.

One of the neighbouring landowners who Cooper Preston knew, perhaps well, was a Miss Frances Richardson Currer, who was almost his exact contemporary. Like Mary, Miss Currer had become heiress to a fortune on the early death of her father, and had been a ward in Chancery when she was only a small child. As an adult she had chosen never to marry, despite numerous proposals, but to cultivate her library and collect books instead, as well as supporting some philanthropic ventures in Yorkshire. She had a catalogue of the library printed in 1821 and Cooper Preston had a presentation copy. It’s impossible to imagine that he did not discuss with her the untimely death of his son-in-law and his infant granddaughter’s inheritance, and its parallel with her own life. Perhaps Mary even visited Miss Currer’s library, carefully chaperoned as a child in a room full of valuable books. It’s widely believed that Charlotte Bronte took her publishing pseudonym “Currer Bell” from Frances Currer, who had given money both to the Bronte children’s widowed father and to the Clergy Daughters’ School attended by Charlotte Bronte and her older sisters, and whose library Charlotte Bronte may also have known, as it contained a copy of the illustrated book of Bewick’s History of British Birds identical to that memorably described in the opening chapter of Jane Eyre. If Mary, too, had sight of this book in Miss Currer’s library, it would, like the ancient Derbyshire manor house in which she was born, be another coincidental strand of connection between her life and Charlotte Bronte’s fiction.

Part of the Bill of Complaint filed in the Court of Chancery on Mary’s behalf in February 1848 (UK National Archives)

A Ward in Chancery

In the spring of 1848, a few months after her third birthday, Mary Unwin became a ward in Chancery. In those days, this was the nearest that the High Court came to any sort of family law jurisdiction over children. Wardship gave the court power to decide where a child who was a ward in Chancery should live, and with whom, and how they should be educated. A ward in Chancery could not marry under the age of 21 without the consent of the court, which thus acted in place of the child’s deceased parent. And the court would appoint a receiver to manage and protect any property which the child had inherited. In Mary’s case, Cooper Preston, acting as Mary’s “next friend” (in modern language, a litigation friend, or adult who agrees to represent a child in litigation), instructed solicitors in Gargrave, who in turn instructed a barrister to draw up a formal court document called a Bill of Complaint. The barrister, whose name appears at the foot of the Bill of Complaint, was Thomas Emerson Headlam, a Yorkshire man, born at Richmond in 1813, and clearly well-known by 1848 as an equity barrister in the north of England, and editor of the then leading work on Chancery practice and procedure. He later became MP for Newcastle. The Bill of Complaint, which was filed in the Chancery court office in February 1848, lengthily set out all the contents of the Unwin wills and Mary’s parents’ marriage settlement, under which Mary inherited her property, and named Emily as a defendant. This was because Emily was the administrator of her dead husband’s intestate estate, and she was required by a notice from the court in the name of Queen Victoria to file an Answer to the Bill of Complaint

“on her Corporal Oath upon the Holy Evangelists … the Answer being distinctly and plainly wrote upon Parchment”

She did so at Gargrave in April 1848, and the parchment survives in the National Archives, rolled with the Bill of Complaint in sequence of those filed by plaintiffs with surnames beginning with U and V in 1848, and perhaps unread by anyone since that date. Despite the formalities and solemnities of the court process, there is nothing to suggest that the litigation between father and daughter was hostile or that either ever went to London to appear in court. It was no more than a transparent mechanism for bringing the management of Mary’s affairs under the supervision of the court, and seeking the appointment of both a guardian and receiver for her. It appears that Cooper Preston was appointed as Mary’s guardian, and another local landowner and magistrate and no doubt friend of Cooper Preston, Thomas Mason Johnson of Eshton, was appointed as her receiver, not long after the Answer was filed. It was the receiver’s responsibility to manage the land and properties at Wootton and Ramsor in Staffordshire and Stourbridge and Wollaston in Worcestershire that Mary’s great-grandfather James had acquired and inherited from Edward Wheeler in 1761, until Mary reached the age of 21, in 1865. Mr Johnson’s account books show that he did so punctiliously, but highly conservatively, over a period of great economic change and development in England, without ever making any significant sales or reinvestment of any of the assets. Instead, his manuscript books offer a glimpse of largely unchanging rural life in Staffordshire, with the same tenants of cottages, farms and pub, or their descendants, paying rent year in and out and being treated to a dinner by their landlord one rent day each year, and Wootton Lodge sometimes unoccupied and sometimes let to a gentlemanly family as an “uncommonly substantial edifice of stone . . . much admired for its singularly noble and imposing exterior”, but always carrying a burden of expense for its maintenance, from stone-masonry to mole catching. There are only occasional glimpses in the receiver’s account of a more industrial, fast-changing England and the encroachment of mid-19C developments, with deductions “for land taken by the Railway Company” and for a public highway in Stourbridge, and royalties paid by tenants for extraction of fire clay from the ground on some of the Stourbridge land. Mr Johnson also paid Emily £250 every six months as maintenance for Mary, which the court had ordered in 1848, giving her an income just from this source far in excess of many earned incomes even for professional men at the time. And he conscientiously paid the annuity of £100 to Elizabeth Birch, the mistress of Mary’s great-uncle James William Edward Wheeler Unwin who had died thirty years previously in 1818, as she lived on into the late 1840s.

Cover of Mr Johnson’s Receiver’s Accounts 1848–1865 (UK National Archives)

At the same time, or shortly after this legal process was taking place, Charles Dickens was imagining and writing Bleak House, his novel of legal London and indictment of the suffering of suitors in the unreformed Court of Chancery, first published in instalments in March 1852. The novel is deliberately imprecise as to the date in the past at which it is set, and some of the anachronisms and abuses of the Court, which at the turn of the 19th century was far closer to its medieval origins than it was at the turn of the 20th century, had already been reformed by the time that Dickens wrote. Close to the beginning of the story, Dickens depicts the moment at which two wards in Chancery — a young man and young woman in their late teens, distant cousins who later fall in love and marry — meet the Chancellor himself in order for him to approve the arrangements for them to live with their guardian, John Jarndyce. This meeting is described quite naturalistically, presenting the judge as a man and not a metaphor. It is observed by the wards’ companion, Esther Summerson, the young girl who is Dickens’s naive narrator, who does not even know her own true name or parentage, and who is in one narrative sweep conveyed from her familiar home at a private girls’ school in Reading into London for the first time, and and on the same occasion into Old Square, Lincoln’s Inn, and the presence of the Chancellor at the heart of the Court of Chancery itself. As she leaves her home, the gardener gives her a nosegay of flowers, as a gesture of affection, but also symbolic in keeping a distance between her first impression of London in the fog, and of the Court of Chancery as a place somehow tainted and a source of disease.

The Court of Chancery, early 19th century — Rowlandson & Pugin

Mary, of course, was far too young to have been brought to London, or conscious of any of these legal arrangements when they were made. It is unlikely that she ever met the Chancellor or set foot in his court or had any private interview with him whilst she was a ward in Chancery. Yet in later life she became so very much the kind of person — although without the material poverty — that Dickens fictionalised in Bleak House in Miss Flyte: a solitary middle-aged woman and obsessive litigant in person who inhabits the small topography of legal London as her entire world, and is spoken of by those around her as a person with a touch of madness.

Mary’s childhood and education

In the summer of 1848, still only three years old, Mary went with her mother and aunt Caroline to Scarborough for a holiday. A railway line had been built between York and Scarborough in 1845, and no doubt that is how Emily, Caroline and Mary travelled there. Notices in newspapers such as the Hull Advertiser announced the arrivals of people of distinction at seaside resorts, rather like modern social media status updates, and these provide a record of Emily, Caroline and Mary’s stay at Scarborough. Once again, as in her brief married life at Brimington, Emily’s life came close to crossing the path of the Bronte sisters. Anne Bronte, born a few months earlier than Emily in 1820, loved Scarborough, which she had visited on holiday with the family for whom she worked as a governess between 1840 and 1844. Suffering from advanced consumption, she made her last journey there, together with her sister Charlotte and their friend Ellen Nussey, to die in sight of the sea, in the spring of 1849. Mary’s aunt Caroline may have loved Scarborough as much as Anne Bronte did, for she chose to live her last years there, and like Anne Bronte, died there, many decades later.

The New Spa and Saloon Scarborough, 1842 lithograph — Wellcome Collection

The other household where Mary spent part of her childhood and also came to know the seaside, in a part of the country far distant from those where she had previously lived, was that of her aunt and uncle on her father’s side of the family. James Wheeler Unwin’s sister Arabella was married to the Reverend George Southouse, and they lived for many years at Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, where George was rector of St Blasius’ Church. George was a contemporary of James Wheeler Unwin’s at Oriel College, Oxford, matriculating within a few months of him in 1831, but unlike James, studious enough to complete his degree and take holy orders. But however unalike in personality, it seems that James and George became friends, and that James introduced George to his sister, and the marriage was a long and apparently contented one, although George and Arabella had no children of their own. In 1854, entries in the Isle of Wight’s Observer’s “Fashionable List” of visitors to the island’s resorts suggest that Mary, then nearly ten, spent a large part of the spring and summer, without her mother, staying with her aunt and uncle at the Rectory in Shanklin, and in the 1861 census, Emily and Mary are both recorded with the Southouses at Shanklin, Mary then being described as “scholar and landed proprietor”. Knowing now how far Mary’s later life was one of increasing imprisonment and loss of freedom, it’s irresistible to imagine some childhood happiness for her on these journeys to the seaside. A childless aunt who had lost two of her own sisters as young girls at home in Derby must surely have felt strong affection for her niece and looked after her solicitously in these long visits to the Isle of Wight.

By 1863, however, Emily had taken a house in Portman Square, in the West End of London, and Mary was approaching the age of adulthood and her inheritance. A Miss Unwin was presented by her mother to the Princess of Wales on behalf of the Queen at a Drawing Room on 20 June 1863, a step in the “coming out” of an upper class young woman of the day. Although there is no more detailed record of Mary’s upbringing and education up to this point, it is likely that she would have been educated at home, perhaps by her mother and aunts and great-aunt, as there is no record of any governess at Flasby Hall or the Chamberlaynes’ or Southouses’ homes, nor of Mary’s attendance at a school. Whatever she was taught, it must also be virtually certain that nothing in her education would have prepared her for the management of the great estates to which she was the heiress, but the universal expectation must have been that she would marry soon after reaching her majority. A now-forgotten novel written half a century later, called “A Ward in Chancery” describes the strength of those expectations and the vulnerability of a young heiress to suitors whose primary interest was money, even then. But when Mary came of age in 1865, the first Married Women’s Property Act had not yet been passed, and absent any protection to be negotiated in a marriage settlement, her fortune would have been no longer her own.

The fact that Mary did not marry on attaining her majority in September 1865, or for many years afterwards inevitably raises the question “why not”? Did she, like Miss Currer, reject her many suitors, preferring to keep her independence? Or was there something in her personality or appearance, for all that she was the great-granddaughter of beautiful and “most beloved” Fanny Stephenson, that made suitors hesitant? The next recorded episode in Mary’s adult life, which was the frightening and abusive anonymous letter she received at Wootton Lodge in 1881, and the failed prosecution that ensued, and the effect of these events on her, suggests that there may indeed have been something about Mary, that not even her great expectations, and the security of growing up with a loving mother and aunts who were themselves well off and gentlewomen of leisure could protect her from.

Previous instalments of The Pursuit of Mary Cathcart


Part 1 — A Shocking and Fatal Accident

Part 2 — Cold Clay

Part 3 — A Gainsborough Portrait



Barbara Rich

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