John Snaith Rymer
A short biography of Ann Walker’s solicitor, John Snaith Rymer.
By Ashleigh Kobevko
Early life and career
John Snaith Rymer was born on 5th December 1806 in Wolsingham, Durham to Christopher Rymer and Jane Watson. The family moved 270 miles to London when Rymer was a boy.1
Rymer became a prominent Solicitor and on July 23rd 1853 was appointed to be a London Commissioner to administer oaths in the high court of Chancery by the Lord Chancellor. During his career, Rymer was a partner at the well-established firm Murray, Rymer & Murray and later Rymer, Murray, Rymer & Jackson. He married Sally ‘Emma’ Underhill in Kent on 2nd September 1835, and the couple went on to have 7 children. They had a governess, a cook, a house and nurse maid amongst their household staff in the 1851 census.2
The lunacy commission
In September 1843, Rymer was instructed by Ann Walker to advise her regarding concerns that she had relating to an income tax dispute.3.Meanwhile, Elizabeth and George Mackay Sutherland had growing concerns regarding Ann’s mental wellbeing and her ability to manage her affairs. After several conversations between her family, medical and legal professionals, including Dr Belcombe and Robert Parker, Ann left Shibden Hall and entered Terrace House, a private asylum in Osbaldwick, York. Solicitor Robert Parker contacted Rymer to get the wheels of Ann’s lunacy inquisition in motion. At first, Rymer was not convinced of Ann’s mental health decline but after visiting her three times to conduct interviews, he concurred that her actions were “eccentric” and later confided that she was “utterly unfit to manage her affairs”.4
By the end of November5, Rymer had all the evidence that he needed and submitted it to the Commission. The inquisition was completed by the 28th November. You can listen to a reading of Rymer’s letter to Ann’s family following the inquisition at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehDo0S-OnJQ
Despite his success and prominence as a well-respected Solicitor, Rymer is now mainly remembered for his keen interest in spiritualism. Rymer regularly held seances at his home in Ealing, and in 1855 the famous medium Daniel Douglas Home was invited to conduct a séance at the Rymer home. It is this event for which Rymer’s name is most commonly known. In attendance were famous Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in addition to Thomas Dawling Barlee and Frederick Merrifield.
During the séance Home was reported to have made contact with Rymer’s dead son ‘Little Watty’, this is believed to be Frederick Watson Rymer who died 1852 at the age of 11 or 12. Barlee described the séance in a letter which was included in ‘Modern spiritualism: a history and a criticism’ by Frank Podmore:
“Mr. Rymer then put a sheet of notepaper and a pencil over the tablecloth, and presently I saw the paper and pencil begin to move without any visible handling, and soon after I saw the shadow of a finger on that part of the paper which was nearest to me, just about the time when an accordion which was on the table began to play. Some who were present saw a whole hand trying to take the pencil and paper up, but as my attention at that moment was turned to the music, I did not see the hand. Mr. Home then said, ‘As the spirits seem inclined to give us some music, let us hear that first, and in the meantime, if the paper and pencil are put under the cloth, I have no doubt little Watty will have written something before the music is finished.’ Mr. Rymer then placed the pencil and paper under the tablecloth, and the accordion soon, without any visible handling, played ‘Home, sweet Home.’ After the accordion ceased, Mr. Rymer said, ‘ Now let us see whether little Watty has written anything for papa,’ when instantly five raps came calling for the alphabet, and then there was spelt, ‘ Dear papa, I have done my very best,’ and on Mr. Rymer’s taking up the paper he found written on it, ‘ Dear papa, dear mama. Watt,’ and on comparing the handwriting with that contained in one of his last letters before he died, it was found to be exactly resembling the writing there, particularly the capital letters.”6
During the séance, a spirit hand also appeared, crowning Elizabeth Barrett Browning with a garland of flowers. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was believed to have enjoyed the séance, believing in Home’s gift. However, not everyone in attendance was so taken with the events of the evening. Robert Browning was apparently disgusted and unimpressed by his experience, while Frederick Merrifield claimed, according to Joseph McCabe, to have seen the spirit hand to be a false limb attached to the end of Home’s arm, and that he saw Home use his foot to move objects.7
Two years after this event, Rymer published his book Spirit Manifestations (A Lecture). The book detailed Rymer’s supposed connections with the spirit world including the manifestations which he believed to have occurred at his Ealing Home in 1855. But it didn’t end well for Rymer; he was discovered as a fraud at a spirit manifestation event that ruined his career in the capital. Not long after this event, his solicitors’ firm Rymer, Murray, Rymer and Jackson was dissolved8, and he emigrated to Australia with his family.
The family settled in Bendigo, in the state of Victoria. Rymer was enticed there by the Victorian Gold Rush with Bendigo becoming Eastern Australia’s largest gold-mining economy. Rymer had shares in several gold mining organisations.9
Rymer continued to practice as a solicitor, sharing an office in Pall Mall, Sandhurst with his son.10 It is not known whether Rymer continued to practice spiritualism while in Australia and there is no evidence to either confirm or deny it. However, Rymer took a keen interest in the development of the White Hills area of Bendigo that he called home.
His wife Emma predeceased him in 1873, with Rymer passing away three years later after a long illness.11 His obituary in the Bendigo Advertiser in 1876 described him thus: “The deceased gentleman was of a particularly happy and genial turn of mind; and relished a laugh and joke, even though at his own expense, with the zest and good humor of a thorough Englishman and a gentleman.” 12
Rymer and his wife were interred in the White Hills cemetery.13 Unfortunately, their stone lies broken under a gumtree.
1 – Find My Past http://www.findmypast.com (requires a paid subscription to access)
2 – Find My Past http://www.findmypast.com
3 – West Yorkshire Archive Service: https://www.catalogue.wyjs.org.uk/CalmView/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=CC00183%2f73%2f17&pos=1
4 – West Yorkshire Archive Service: https://www.catalogue.wyjs.org.uk/CalmView/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=CC00183%2f73%2f24&pos=1
5 – West Yorkshire Archive Service: https://www.catalogue.wyjs.org.uk/CalmView/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=CC00136%2f8%2f2&pos=1
6 – Podmore, Frank, 2011, Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press
7 – McCabe, Joseph; Dodd, Mead & Company, 1920, Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847
8-11 Find My Past http://www.findmypast.com
12 – Remembrance Parks Central Victoria website: https://www.rpcv.com.au/community-events/latest-news/on-this-day-john-snaith-rymer-1806/
13 – Find My Past http://www.findmypast.com
British Newspaper Archives https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ (requires a paid subscription to access)
Timeline for John Snaith Rymer, freely available on the FamilySearch website, which requires registration. https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/sources/LYYZ-H4V
DEATH OF MR. J. S. RYMER. (1876, May 16). Bendigo Advertiser (Vic. : 1855 – 1918), p. 2. Retrieved April 29, 2021, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article88256481
JS Rymer, Pioneers of Bendigo, Creator: John H Hansen, 1894, State Library Victoria, Australia, Victorian Patents Office Copyright Collection (VPOCC) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/52787
Spirit Manifestations (A Lecture) by John Snaith Rymer can be read here: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=cC1hugAACAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
Edited by Louise Godley and Ivana Nika
Read more Ann’s Associates blog posts here