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The Great Matlock Will Case
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An article by Roy Christian.
Around the time of the case's 100th anniversary "The Matlock Will Case" was published in "The Derbyshire Advertiser". It was published about 1958.

Is the surname NUTTALL
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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 female cousin.

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 household.

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 summer.

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 forged.

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".


Also see The Great Matlock Will Case : The Court Report

Other articles by Roy Christian on this site are:

There Was Red Tape at Smedley's Hydro Then

The Varied Fortunes of a Derbyshire Spa (in the Magazines & Journals section)


Article reproduced here with the very kind permission of the author, the late Roy Christian.
With grateful thanks to Frank Dunn for typing it out.

There is further information on the following pages:

Biographies - see NUTTALL
NUTTALL pedigree
Hatches Matches & Dispatches - Matlock Parish Church Baptisms, Marriages and Burials
1841 Census
1851 Census
Nineteenth Century Lists, Volunteer Infantry
Our Genealogy. NUTTALL is one of the webmistress's Surnames Interests. There is no evidence that George and Catherine, the cousin with whom he lived and who had been his mother's servant, had any children. Catherine was George's house keeper. The Marsden family mentioned in the Will and Codicils were Catherine's siblings, not her children.
This case was not solved immediately. See the onsite extracts from the London Gazette in 1872 and 1893.

If you want to read copies of all the wills that were found go to:
Pre 1858 Wills Calendar for more info
Places to find & obtain these wills