August 1843: Atkinson vs Walker
By Steve Crabtree, March 2020
Perhaps one of the most significant events in the build up to Ann Walker’s removal from Shibden is one of the least explored. At some point in the 1840’s, Ann Walker allegedly found herself indebted to a Jane Atkinson, for £77.3.00. Whatever the reason for this debt remains, at this point, unknown. It could be that Atkinson had provided some goods or services for Walker, or a rent dispute. The fact that Ann refuses to pay Jane what would have been a fairly inconsiderable sum to someone as wealthy as Walker suggests that Ann is making her stand on principle, rather than under any financial duress, but in lieu of hard details we can only speculate.
Atkinson’s case is taken on by George Higham, a Brighouse lawyer who had previously been a thorn in Walker’s side. In 1838 he had advised a tenant named Holmes against signing a lease without making several alterations to the detriment of Ann Walker. It could have been that Atkinson, a tenant of Walker, was receiving similar advice from Higham, whose business can be predominantly found in the Bankruptcy columns of newspapers, and who – according to one website – specialised in the property rights of women in an age where very little provision existed. By August 1843, Higham had won the case for Jane Atkinson, and failing to secure payment from Ann Walker, had applied for a Fi Fa, or a Fieri Facais, which is a Writ of Execution allowing the Sheriff and his officers to seize property for auction due to the non-payment of debt.
Walker’s lawyer, William Gray writes a letter to Robert Parker on 12th of August containing grim news. He states that the Horncastle case – another lawsuit in which Ann had become embroiled – had reached a critical stage, and that Higham had secured his Writ of Execution for the Atkinson debt, and Walker had stopped taking Gray’s legal advice. The situation at Shibden was at this point very dire and deteriorating fast. Although it appears that Walker managed to starve off the attentions of Charles Horncastle, she was too late to prevent what had been set in motion by George Higham, and on the 17th of August, 1843, the Sheriff’s Officer and his bailiffs arrived at Shibden Hall and forced entry into the building. An account of this action is found – presumably penned by Ann Walker herself – in the pages of the Halifax Guardian for Saturday 19th of August under the dramatic headline:
“On Thursday evening, about 6 o’clock, a person of the name of Highley forced himself into Miss Walker’s house, Shibden Hall, by almost knocking down Miss Walker, and when she civilly requested him to leave her house he repeatedly said he should not and she then retreated into an adjoining room and fastened the door, but in less than half an hour he picked the locks of three of her doors, and forced the doors open, and took away from her house, the door of the back entrance to her house, and he or another person took away the keys of her farm yard and took the key out of her stable door when the groom was in the stable, and did not inform Miss Walker or assign any other cause for breaking into her house than a debt to Jane Atkinson, which Miss Walker immediately informed him was not due from her, and that Jane Atkinson, her late tenant, had never paid up her rent for the farm she recently occupied at Lightcliffe. Two constables have taken possession of the kitchen in Miss Walker’s house and Miss Walker was left without fire or light. Miss Walker has since been told that the person named Highley is a sheriff’s officer, but he did not produce his authority for breaking into her house, nor did he even inform her of the amount of debt he claimed, or ask her for the money. Miss Walker will not appeal to the magistrates of the town of Halifax, on account of the insults she received from them in the Court, Halifax, when summoned to appear there last April; but it is hoped that some of the magistrates in the County of York will take notice of the above mentioned assault and get the two constables removed and her keys and door restored to her.”
So what happened, and what can we take from this insertion in the paper?
Ann’s recollection of certain events, outlined in other letters and, is often places her in a position of ignorance. She demonstrates the same lack of understanding when served with process by Horncastle’s lawyers, and also in some of her dealings with others. We must be cautious to take Ann’s version of events purely at face value. It is obvious the court through which Higham had secured his writ did not labour under any thought that the debt may be owed to Walker, rather than by her. In demonstrating her ignorance of Highley’s reason for entering the Hall, as well as the value of the debt, it may be asked if Ann was deliberately attempting to be evasive or play the victim.
However, it is also worth noting Ann was under a great amount of pressure and duress by this point, and seems to be genuinely confused, going as far as to suggest that the money is owed to her by Jane. It could be that Ann’s bewilderment at the proceedings stem from deteriorating mental health and self-isolation. Perhaps she had misunderstood what was required of her, or had been unable to deal with or process the vast amounts of correspondence directed her way, much of a legal or threatening nature. As stated, Ann’s stand is likely to be on principle alone, given the relatively small – to her – nature of the debt. Walker may have been adamant of her ‘rightness’ in the whole affair, but failed to appreciate the real and serious consequences of her non-payment. Her reference to the insults received by the magistrates of Halifax is obviously a direct allusion to the Durnford incident. (NB. Hyperlink to Durnford Incident)
The consequences, as such, were perhaps not as legally or financially serious as they could have been, but otherwise played a large role in the chain of events that would lead to Ann Walker’s lunacy Inquisition. Bailiffs garrisoned Shibden Hall for seven days, as found on the receipt from Matthew Highley in Calderdale Archives. Gray attempted to halt the auction of goods from Shibden, but found himself in a very difficult position. As the Undersheriff of York, he could not come into direct conflict with a Sheriff’s Officer, and as the Co-Trustee of the Lister Estate, he had no jurisdiction over disputes to do with the Walker Estate, and Ann had been heedless to his advice. He offers some practical advice to Parker before distancing himself from the affair.
Gray does not abandon Walker completely, however, telling Parker to seize certain items to prevent their sale – ponies, family carriage etc – allowing the sale of general farmyard items and instructing the bailiffs to keep their hands off anything inside Shibden Hall. Should it be required, offering to make up the remaining debt to ensure that goods from inside the house are not disturbed. It is the actions of Elizabeth Sutherland, heading south in response to Guardian article, which finally gets Walker out of her bind. She instructs Parker to settle the debt with Highley, promising to make it up to him when she arrives in Halifax. At the last possible second, the day before the auction is due to take place, Parker settles the complete balance of the Atkinson suit, including the full costs for a total of £96.19.00, which included 10 shillings to the Constable, likely John Jennings, the Constable of Southowram and later present during the events of Parker’s Memorandum (NB. Hyperlink to Parker’s Memorandum).
Rather than gaining support from the magistrates of the County of York as she may have hoped, Walker’s exposure in the Guardian left her a laughing stock in Halifax, according to her sister Elizabeth. Her social isolation was growing, and both Elizabeth and Captain Sutherland’s disposition had changed from one of non-intervention to removal into care. Elizabeth arrived at her uncle Edwards house at Pye Nest in late August, where Captain Sutherland joined her later. Dr Belcombe was consulted directly, and the plan to get Ann out of Shibden Hall began to take shape.
Highley’s intervention would have sent ripples through everyone associated with Ann, from Gray’s apparent failure as her lawyer, to her bitter insulting of the magistrates of Halifax in the Guardian. There was a potentially deepening rift between Walker and the tenants of both estates around this time. Robert Parker now took his instruction directly from the Sutherlands. Constable Jennings (presumably the constable previously paid by Highley) was taken into confidence regarding the removal of Ann from Shibden, and the Sheriff’s Officer (presumably Highley) would later be responsible for gathering the jury for Ann’s lunacy Inquisition.
Often underplayed, Atkinson vs Walker represents a serious deterioration of Ann’s relationships, and brings the issue of her mental health into sharp focus.
Original article posted 01/01/2020 via Facebook
With grateful thanks to Marlene Oliveira for her work on Anne Lister’s diary, providing additional context on George Higham’s previous interactions with Ann Walker. Also to David Glover for his assistance with transcribing MAC: 73, Diane Halford for her informed input, Natalie Midgely from Calderdale Libraries for her assistance with the Microfilm reader, and West Yorkshire Archive Service for access and assistance.
Anne Lister’s Diary entry for 28/12/1838, as transcribed by Marlene Oliveira
MAC: 73 – Letter of William Gray, Letter to Matthew Highley, Letters of Elizabeth and Captain Sutherland.
MAC: 89 – Receipt from Matthew Highley
Halifax Guardian, 19th August, 1843