Just a century ago the
Matlock Will Case was in full flight, bouncing in and out of
court like a tennis ball in a series of long rallies and frequently
hitting the headlines in the national and local press. Over
a period of nearly six years, ending in March 1864, it was
heard twice in the Chancery Court, twice in the Derbyshire
Assizes and once each in the House of Lords and the Queen's
Bench and when it was all over there was still a doubt whether
justice had been done.
The case concerned the will of a Matlock surveyor named George
Nuttall (or Nuthall according to some accounts), who died in
1856 leaving a pleasant nest-egg of about £10,000 and
some property worth around £1,200 a year. He was a bachelor
living, as the "Annual Register" for 1860
put it "on terms of more than cousinhood" with a
His will, found in a locked cupboard after a frantic search,
left the bulk of his fortune to this woman and their illegitimate
children and the residue to various other relatives. It was
a perfectly straightforward document containing no surprises.
The only odd thing was that a duplicate copy, which should
have been with the original could not be found.
The duplicate turned up on the day of the funeral. It was
in the same cupboard, but had rather mysteriously been overlooked.
It was in an envelope marked in Nuttall's writing, "This
is my right will". But the snag was that it was not an
exact copy of the original, various amendments having been
made between the lines.
One of these additions left property to a young man named
Else, a clerk in Nuttall's office, who had married the younger
sister of Nuttall's mistress. Before her marriage, Mrs. Else
had worked as a housemaid in this slightly unconventional Nuttall
The second will was not accepted as legal and the matter would
have closed there but for the embarrassing epidemic of codicils.
For there followed a period when fresh codicils kept shooting
up from nowhere with all the persistence of weeds in a wet
The first one appeared after Nuttall's papers had been transferred
to Else's house. One of the legatees died and the family solicitor,
a man named Newbold asked Else to look for a particular document.
In his search he turned up a sealed envelope containing apparently
in Nuttall's handwriting a codicil to the previous wills.
This revoked certain legacies and gave Else a much fatter
slice of the original cake. Newbold, left out of the earlier
documents, was now rewarded with an annuity of £50, while
his son received some property. Both Else and Newbold must
by now have developed a keen eye for odd scraps of paper, but
their next find was attributed to sheer good luck. They searched
together for some highway accounts, thought to be in Newbold's
possession. When they found them, in a cheap exercise book,
they also discovered a piece of paper pinned inside the book.
It was - and they can hardly have been surprised by now - another
codices, leaving a great deal more to Else.
The third and last codices turned up in October 1857 after
Else had moved into Nuttall's former home. Else apparently
anxious to demonstrate that where there was a will there was
a way and possibly by now convinced that where there was a
way there was often a will, was helping a boy to open a window
in a room he was using as a study. Putting too much force into
his efforts, he pulled the window seat away from the wall,
revealing an opening in which was a stone pickle jar.
Wrapped round the outside of the jar was a bag of sovereigns
and a paper marked "third codices". This codices,
properly witnessed as the others had been, gave Else the residue
of the estate after various sums had been paid out.
By this time the original legatees had become restive and
indeed suspicious. They went to Law. The Court of Chancery
heard the case and decided it belonged more properly to the
Courts of Common Law. So the Matlock Will Case was heard at
Derby at the Summer Assizes in 1859, where the jury, satisfied
apparently of Else's excellent character - he was a local churchwarden
- and of that of the various witnesses to the codicils - who
included a doctor and a quarry owner - found that the codicils
were genuine. But the Master of the Rolls was not convinced
and ordered a new trial.
At Derby the Spring Assize jury in 1860 decided that the codicils
were forgeries. There was an appeal against this decision,
but as the Lords Justices failed to agree, the case moved on
to the House of Lords, the Court of Chancery having had another
look at it somewhere along the line and hurriedly passed it
on. The Lords ordered that the Lord Chief Justice should hear
a new trial in London.
This last hearing occupied a week or so in February-March
1864. It must have worried the Lord Chief Justice considerably
as several important witnesses had died during the previous
six years, including Newbold and the doctor who had been a
witness to two of the codicils Nor was his task made easier
by the unhelpful attitude of some of the witnesses. The two
labourers who had witnessed one of the codicils must have gone
close to contempt of court on occasions.
The case hinged mainly on the question of spelling. Nuttall.
It was said "was a sensible and intelligent man and took
the Times", but the codicils contained 150 spelling errors.
The word "daughters"
was spelled wrongly in each case. But Else when asked to spell
it in court, got it right and it was pointed out that Nuttall's
original will, which was not in dispute, contained spelling
mistakes that were quite out of character. The Lord Chief Justice
(Cockburn) summed up for seven hours. The jury were much quicker.
They took only half an hour to decide that the codicils were
Looking back of the case from a hundred years range, one must
agree that the jury were probably right, yet it is only fair
to say that legal opinion at the time and for many years after
was far from unanimous. The forgeries were extremely skillful,
although Else acknowledged quite openly in court - and it is
perhaps a point in his favour - that he could do a good imitation
of Nuttall's writing. But if the codicils were not forged,
one can only feel that Nuttall was an extraordinary changeable
character and that Else would have been a formidable opponent
at "hunt the slipper".