Archive for Dickson, Archer and Thorp Volunteer Project

Ann Wilson – Widow, Pauper and Eloping Lover

The Poor and the Law

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries local parishes were made responsible for the care of paupers within their jurisdiction. This care was given in the form of poor relief legislated by a series of ‘Poor Laws;’ the most notable being the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. The concept of poor relief was a controversial one, attracting numerous critics. One its major flaws related to the notion of ‘settlement.’ Parishes naturally resented paying for paupers whom had originated beyond their jurisdiction, and would often try to forcibly return them to their ‘home’ parishes. Yet the fluid nature of society, especially during the industrial revolution, made it increasingly hard to prove where a “pauper” should be placed. Thus solicitors, such as the Dickson, Archer and Thorp firm, were often called upon to resolve settlement disputes.

This exact issue arose in September 1853 when two Overseers of the Poor from the parish of Saint Nicholas, situated within Newcastle Upon Tyne, began legal proceedings to forcibly remove two “paupers” from their jurisdiction. These Overseers signed themselves in the removal order as Sir John Fife and William Armstrong. The order directed the “paupers” to be moved into the northern parish of Bamburgh. Although it is not clear from archival documents as to why Bamburgh was chosen it is perhaps telling that Bamburgh’s own Overseers of the Poor fiercely disputed the removal order and so employed the legal aid of Dickson, Archer and Thorp.

Widowed Paupers

The two “paupers” facing removal from the parish of Saint Nicholas in September 1853 were the widow Ann Wilson, aged just 25, and her daughter Elizabeth, aged about two years. Sending widows away from a parish of settlement, previously adopted by their deceased spouses, was a common occurrence in nineteenth century Northumberland. The process often caused heart-breaking social and economic turmoil, as vulnerable women were removed from established networks of friends and family and placed in often unfamiliar areas without obvious employment or emotional support.


Order to remove Ann Wilson to Bamburgh 1853


It is therefore unsurprising that the potential move was also sternly opposed by Ann herself. Ann had already faced the stigma of possibly welcoming a child out of wedlock, braved her employer’s wrath to elope with her lover and tragically endured early widowhood – clearly she was not a woman who would be moved easily. Thus, whilst her experience of parish poor relief could be deemed atypical of a nineteenth century Northumbrian widow, her situation was far more complex and it made fighting the order a matter of survival and reputation.

Young Lovers

Ann was the daughter of a sailor, named in legal documents as Henry Pryle Gibson. He was recorded in ejectment proceedings as living near Forth Banks, close to Newcastle’s Quayside, but in Ann’s personal testimony he seems to have had little to do with her life.

Instead Ann had spent the majority of her youth working as a domestic servant. In this occupation she had spent almost 3 years living in Newton on the Moor whilst working for the publican-come-blacksmith Mr Wall. In her testimony, given to prove she had been legally married to her deceased husband, she tenderly recalled how it was during her first few weeks in Newton on the Moor that she met the colliery engine-man James Wilson.


Copy of James Wilson’s baptism certificate, produced as evidence of his existence


The young couple began a three year courtship which reached a decisive point when Ann became pregnant in the beginning of 1851. To have maintained a child out of wedlock would have put great financial pressure and reputational shame upon Ann; probably forcing her to give up domestic employment and seek the support of parish organisations. Thus, probably to avoid moral judgement, the young couple decided to elope to the Scottish borders and resolve their situation legally.

The Legality of Love

Marriages conducted by eloping couples on the border were clandestine in the eyes of the Church, this made them notoriously hard to prove in retrospect. Ann’s account of her elopement is lengthy, witty and fast-paced. It was recorded verbatim by the solicitors and had been carefully crafted to prove the legality of her marriage and, in turn, the legitimacy of Elizabeth – two facts which the Newcastle Overseers had questioned. Being a legal widow, and having a legitimate child, would have put Ann in a much stronger position to fight the parish removal order and lift the reputational slur the men of Saint Nicholas’ parish had placed on her. Ann’s account was also verified by a number of witnesses including her mother-in-law (even though her testimony infers that she may not have wholly approved of her new daughter-in-law.)


A letter containing extracts of Ann Wilson’s statement


According to these accounts Ann and James eloped to the Scottish border on the 6th June 1851, travelling via train from Newcastle to Berwick. Once at Tweedmouth Station they met with the man who was to marry them; Anderson Sommerville. Sommerville first took the lovers by horse drawn carriage to a public house in search of witnesses; here they met George Dobson and George Davison. The latter was a soldier tasked with recruiting in Berwick that day. The group then moved onto the Lamberton toll booth to conduct the ceremony.

The Lamberton toll house was a popular place for clandestine marriages. One of Lamberton’s previous toll keepers, John Foster, had even received lifetime banishment from Scotland for conducting clandestine marriages on his land in 1818. This punishment had little effect though, as Foster primarily lived in England and he would often ignore the notice anyway.

Within the toll house the Wilson’s were taken to a room with a table, bottle of whiskey and a prayer book. It was in this room where they exchanged their vows and signed the relevant documentation. After the brief ceremony all five drank a toast of whiskey to the marriage’s prosperity which was, unfortunately, to be short-lived.

Hanover Street and a New Start

Ann clearly thought she had embarked upon a whole new, exciting life following her elopement. When the couple returned to Northumberland it would appear James returned to Newton on the Moor, to tie up the loose ends left behind by their hasty departure, he then followed Ann down to Newcastle where she had found them a home in the city’s Hanover Street.

It was here that Ann gave birth to their daughter Elizabeth, on the 28th September 1851. But sadly, around the same time, James died following a short illness.

James’ death left Ann with a young child to feed and care for. It was during this painful, and probably traumatic, experience she found herself seeking poor relief from parish officials. Evidence also suggests she was possibly forced out of her new home. These circumstances therefore assembled to bring her to the attention of senior parish officials, whom questioned her marriage and associated right to remain in the area, and set in motion the removal order.

A Legal Success

Proving Ann Wilson’s right to settle in Saint Nicholas’ parish was dependent upon her having been legally married to her husband, however this was difficult to evidence due to the secret nature of their union. Nonetheless, through tireless county and cross-border investigation, solicitors at the Dickson, Archer and Thorp practice were able to successfully evidence an appeal against the removal order on behalf of Bamburgh’s Overseers of the Poor and prove the authenticity of a small marriage certificate, given to Ann on her wedding day. Officials from the parish of Saint Nicholas eventually revoked their removal order and Ann and Elizabeth appear to have found somewhere within Newcastle to stay.


Letter adjoining the Appeal notice accepted by all parties


Ann had asserted her right to remain within the Newcastle Parish, but it is unlikely she would have had the tools to fight the removal order on her own had she not also had the support of Bamburgh’s parish officials. Hence this is a story of two parties working simultaneously with the solicitors – if only for their own gains.

A final triumph for the unyielding Ann, and an appropriate end to this blog, potentially occurred on the 7th October 1854. When an Elizabeth Wilson, recorded as being the daughter of an ‘Ann Wilson” and born towards the end of 1851, was christened at Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle.


Warring Neighbours

On the 23rd October 1829 a neighbourhood dispute brought two brothers, George and James Mather, before the law at the Alnwick Quarter Sessions. The brothers were presented on the following nuisance charge;

“On the first day of July in the tenth year of the reign of our own Sovereign Lord George the fourth ….. in and upon a certain street and King’s common Highway there, called Bondgate, unlawfully and injuriously did erect and build, and cause and procure to be erected and built, a certain wall made of stone, mortar and other materials of great height, … the height of fifty feet of the length of sixty feet and the breadth of three feet.”

The wall had been erected as part of a bigger building project to renovate an ancient property, which the Mather brothers had recently acquired on Bondgate Street. But neighbours and local residents resented the street’s new addition, labelling it unlawful and dangerous.

Using Quarter Session records, lifted from the Dickson, Archer and Thorp collection, as well as electoral rolls and contemporary maps one can trace seventy years of property history in the Bondgate area, and understand why a simple home renovation could cause extreme neighbourhood strife and personal tragedy.


The prosecution’s case notes


Bondgate’s Burgages

Using anecdotes from the testimony of court room witnesses, one can began to build a vivid picture of early nineteenth century Bondgate. The area was a vibrant and creative one, filled with artisan residents practising occupational crafts such as hat and breech-making.  Its main street was a busy common highway, and court witness James Simpson reminisced about how local residents Aaron Shanks and Nicholas Dune would sit and chat in it. The properties which lined Bondgate Street were referred to in court documents as “old burgages” essentially meaning they had been, at some point, rental properties.

The Mather’s controversial property, atypical to others on the row, was described in the prosecution’s brief as an “ancient” building boasting a traditional thatched roof and mud walls. James Mather was listed in electoral rolls as possessing an “undivided moiety of a freehold house,” thus it is likely the Mather brothers shared in the property’s ownership. We can also trace the property’s previous occupants using a list produced specifically for the October court case;

“[the building] formerly belonged to Aaron Shanks (Cooper), afterwards his two daughters, then Robert Patterson of Alnwick a draper, and then to James and George Mathers.”

When the Mather brother’s acquired their new property they set about demolishing its old external walls and erecting new ones. They were not the first amongst their neighbours to renovate the traditional street front. The Nesbit and Landell families had each altered their properties by removing the external walls, which appeared to be of a “temporary nature, to make the buildings sturdier. These necessary, yet subtle, changes were largely accepted by the community, so long as they respected public access to the street and complied with the row’s existing uniform design.

Yet the Mather’s renovation differed hugely, as the brothers had decided to demolish the whole front-facing external wall and rebuild it jutting out into the street. This new design blocked the public’s right of way to Bondgate Street, and broke the perpendicular line which had traditionally existed along the property row.


A court sketch of the Landell, Nesbit and Mather properties


Neighbours and community members were outraged at the new wall and the property’s new position; and reading their testimonies has highlighted similarities between this case and modern examples regarding the demolition or refurbishment of traditionally established buildings. While some neighbours called for nuisance charges to be brought others viewed the wall as being an outright public danger. This concern was especially illustrated in the testimony of Samuel Fairburn who;

“Had reason to complain for, in going up to his sisters, … about 3 weeks ago he knocked the side of his face against it [the new exterior wall], there was no moon and his eye sight is not good.”

The physical injury and inconvenience to local residents ultimately led to legal complaints and action. But, despite being issued with various indictments and warnings, the brothers refused to amend or remove the wall and thus presented themselves before the court on October 23rd 1829 to defend their boundary rights.


The Court Case – Memory Lane

The Mather’s radical act to move their external wall out into the street had thrown into question the land rights of all Bondgate residents, as well as the public’s right to access. The brothers sternly defended their actions by maintaining that the new wall still fell within their land boundary. They perceived this boundary to be marked out by several large rocks, from the property’s original foundations, which had surfaced in the street only metres beyond the original external wall.

The prosecution’s case therefore rested on being able to prove that these stones did not mark any land boundary but that it was the perpendicular line, which had existed for generations between houses, which decided boundary rights. Proving the Mather brothers had subverted these traditional property lines required strong witness testimony. Thus the prosecution’s witnesses were carefully selected from the community for both their knowledge of the area and their ability to remember the property’s state prior to 1795.


Notes from the prosecution on witnesses


Most of the witnesses were in their 70s when they stood before the court. Some of whom had been builders in their youth, and believed the Mather brothers were correct in their assertion that the surfacing rocks had been part of the property’s original foundations. These witnesses claimed that the rocks had surfaced beyond the property, and into the road, as;

“the original builder had sunk the foundation stones so deep they had crumbled and tumbled below the surface so when they re-emerged they were beyond the boundary”

These rocks therefore held no sway over property rights or boundaries; instead it was the original positioning of the Bondgate row burgages which marked land rights and property lines. This concept was described for the court using a small architectural model, presented by William Smith:

“The old burgage of Mathers was bordered by a burgage belonging to Mr Nesbit on the west, by a burgage belonging to Walter Landells on the east and by Bondgate Street on the north. The front wall of the Mathers old burgage into Bondgate Street was even both with the line of Landells old and new erected houses, and it sloped generally towards Nesbits….. but before Nesbits house was rebuilt as had just been stated, all these three houses were in their old state in a line with each other.”


The Mather Family – Triumph and Tragedy

Unfortunately documents from the Dickson, Archer and Thorp collection do not tell us the court’s decision on the case, although research into both census and electoral records has told us that George and James continued to live in the controversial property for at least two more decades.

In the 1840s the brothers can be found living in the Bondgate property along with their sister Margaret Mather and a second woman; Hannah Mather. It is thought that Hannah may have been James’ wife, or perhaps another sister. Research also revealed a boy was born into the Mather family around 1827 and, although his exact parentage is uncertain, he was named George and certainly grew up in the Bondgate property.

Twenty-two years after the court case, in 1851, Margaret and George are still listed as living in Bondgate, whilst Hannah and George Jn cannot be traced. However, in the same year, James Mather is tragically recorded as residing in the Alnwick Workhouse within St Paul’s Parish.

One can only guess as to why the family split up but, in perhaps the most tragic of twists, a map depicting 1820s Alnwick shows the Mather’s Bondgate property was adjoined to a poorhouse. This was a tragic end for James; a man who had fought the law to retain his property rights barely twenty years before and yet ended his life at the other end of the property spectrum.


A map showing Alnwick in 1827. If you double-click on the image, and zoom in, the Mather property can be found to the south of the map at the bottom of Bondgate Street 

Turnpike Tolls and Lone Rebels


On the 29th December 1854, at about 9 o’clock in the evening, Mr John Moffat threw down and leveled a “certain rail” belonging to the Alnwick Abbey toll gate situated on the Alnwick and Eglingham turnpike road. Documents from the Dickson, Archer and Thorp collection allow us to follow this case through the courts, and can help us to unpick Moffat’s localised actions and national motives. It is thought these documents were kept as Mr William Dickson, a generational partner in the firm, had been heavily involved in the establishment and maintenance of Alnwick’s turnpike road.


Turnpike Roads and Trusts

The establishment of turnpike roads had been first encouraged by central government during the eighteenth century. To use these roads travellers were required to pay a set toll at the turnpike gate. The term “turnpike” derived from the spiked barriers placed on these toll booth gates.  The levied toll would then be re-invested into the road’s maintenance and repair. This system of re-investment created a better road network; allowing for the more efficient movement of goods and the furtherance of industry.

Turnpike roads were managed by “turnpike trusts” consisting of local business owners and industrialists. To create a turnpike road the trust would request permission from central government.  Once permission had been granted the trust was free to set a toll. They would then retain control over the road for 21 years, although this time could be extended by Parliament. By the passing of the last turnpike act in 1836 there had been 942 acts for new turnpike trusts across England and Wales, and turnpike roads covered roughly ⅕ of the total road network.





A series of toll booth adverts placed in the Newcastle Courant referring to the letting of turnpike toll gates and master positions. The gates referred to here would have been similar to the one Moffat leveled in 1854.







The turnpike toll gate Moffat damaged had been established after a meeting between the Alnwick turnpike trustees in 1826. This was evidenced in court by Joseph Archer, whom produced the trustees’ minute book obtained from the office of their clerk A. Lambert Esq. Archer also produced various other pieces of evidence to prove the gate’s legality. This included a minute book entry referring to the letting of the Toll Master position to William Patterson and a copy of the Newcastle Courant containing the original letting advert.


Queen vs Moffat

The aforementioned evidence was used against Moffat at the Northumberland Adjoined Epiphany Sessions, held on the 22nd July 1855, where Moffat faced two accusations. The first being that he had leveled the toll gate in a “malicious manner,” and the second that his actions had prevented subsequent travellers from paying the due toll.

William Patterson had only been the Alnwick gate toll master since the 13th May 1854. Prior to this he had been living in the area with his wife Margaret and their four young children.







Agreement to let the Alnwick turnpike toll to William Patterson. Also note Mr Dickson’s name included amongst the trustees, further evidence of his close involvement with the case. 











Yet, despite being in the position only a short while, he admitted to the court that he did;

“not collect the tolls myself generally but I authorise my daughter Alice Patterson to do so in my absence and she had principally collected them since the tenth of June last.”

Alice was his eldest child, born around 1838, and the principle witness to Moffat’s damage. She testified that Moffat had rode into Alnwick with his brother Arthur and refused to pay the designated toll. He had told Alice she could tell her father to put him before the magistrates, but that the toll was unlawful and he therefore would not pay. Upon trying to leave Alnwick hours later the Moffat brothers found themselves locked within the city. Mr Patterson still hadn’t returned to the toll gate, and Alice refused to grant them exit without receiving the outstanding payments. The men refused once more and, as also witnessed by Miss Isabella Williamson, John got down from his horse and began to level the offending gate in the following manner:

“He then started to pull down the rails between the Gate and the Gate House. These rails were in line with the gate across the road and are to prevent any one passing without paying the toll. He broke a piece off the top of one of the rails and she (Alice) told him she would rather open the gate then watch him break it.”






Alice Patterson’s witness statement, accompanied by a small sketch of the turnpike gate







Turnpike Riots

Mr Moffat’s defence, both at the time of the act and in court, had been that the “the gate was not legal.” This opinion fed into a larger national feeling, with over a century of toll riots having occurred across England and Wales targeted at the swift spread of turnpike gates.

During the 1720s and 1730s some inhabitants of Kingswood near Bristol resented the payment of newly set tolls, which they perceived as being unfair on coal traffic. They subsequently tore down the newly erected turnpike gates and eventually won the exemption of coal traffic in the area. But, with local farmers yet to be pacified, the Bristol riots continued across the latter half of the century. In 1753 riots began in the West Riding of Yorkshire, again because coal traffic had been forced to pay heavy toll duties which had a ripple effect upon the area’s textile production.

Yet, with respect to the timing of Moffat’s stand, the most recent turnpike riots had been the “Rebecca and her Daughters” movement in rural Wales. Between 1839 and 1843 men disguised themselves as women to pull down toll gates in their areas. They referred to themselves as Rebecca’s daughters in reference to a biblical passage about the need to “possess the gates of those who hate them.”

Hence, although industrialists and entrepreneurs may have viewed turnpike gates and trusts as a positive development, small holders or independent artisans saw them as an unnecessary blight on their income and business dealings. Occupational information about the Moffat brothers places them into this latter category, with John being named as a Beanley-based farmer in Alice’s testimony and Arthur Moffat having worked as a farmer in Eglingham on the Turnpike road. It is therefore likely that John would have empathised with the concerns of his national counterparts regarding the heavy payment of tolls, and this allows us a potential insight into Moffat’s belief that the gate was unlawful.



Irrespective of Moffat’s motivation or inspiration he was found guilty before the court of committing a misdemeanour. Whilst the collection’s documents do not specify the court’s punishment there is a letter between Mr Dickson and a clerk working for the Duke of Northumberland which ambiguously suggests an out-of-court agreement was drawn up between Moffat and the trust.

Ultimately the event does not seem to have inspired further opposition against the toll gate and, as the Duke of Northumberland assured Mr Dickson in correspondence, there was no intention to close the toll booth in the wake of the court case and the turnpike road operated as usual.



Northumberland’s Hidden Treasures


The story of how the Dickson, Archer and Thorp collection came to be acquired by Northumberland Archives is almost as rich and compelling as its 200 year contents. Often described as a ‘time capsule’ due to the detail it can offer us about Northumberland’s social, political and economic story, this value had been left largely unexplored until its recent acquisition by the Northumberland Archives.


Personal papers relating to the Thorp family held within the collection


The Dickson, Archer and Thorp collection is the culmination of work from a 200 year old Alnwick legal practice. Items within the collection can be dated beyond the practice’s establishment in the 18th century right through to the death of its last partner, Mr Reginald Thorp, in 2003. It is the only legal collection in the care of Northumberland Archives to have this level of historical volume and scope.


Notable names peppered the clientele of Dickson, Archer and Thorp; including Grace Darling and her family, The Duke of Northumberland, the Armstrong family and the Liddell (Ravensworth) family. The wills and testimonies of these individuals can be found within the collection, nestled alongside those of ‘ordinary’ locals. This mixed bag enables us to paint a captivating picture of Northumberland using the collection’s marriage, death and criminal records, as well its contemporary stamp duties and manorial papers. The collection also follows the furtherance of industry in Northumberland, by containing records relaying to notable companies such as the Amble Timber and Saw Mill Company and the Hardy’s Fishing Company of Alnwick and Warkworth Harbour.


Liddell family papers found within the collection


A Hidden Treasure


However, although the collection possesses massive local and national significance, its secrets had lain mostly untouched for the vast majority of the 20th century. With the collection kept privately within Dickson, Archer and Thorp’s three-story office in Narrowgate, Alnwick.


The office was described by those who entered as ‘Dickensian,’ on account of the floor to ceiling papers and legal materials. These papers, decades old, were neatly labelled and bundled together creating a treasure trove for the enthusiastic researcher.


A first-floor bookcase in the Dickson, Archer and Thorp office


The second-floor landing in the Dickson, Archer and Thorp office


Northumberland Archives staff were first able to explore this exciting world during the 1970s when Mr Thorp approached them to assess the collection. This initial work was carried out over a ten year period, stretching through the 70’s and 80’s. But the collection’s sheer scope and scale made creating a complete inventory an almost impossible task. Archives staff were hindered further due to a lack of artificial light within the building, meaning they could only work during the summer months. Due to these obstacles less than 10% of the whole collection was actually catalogued during this period, but its historical importance had already become glowingly apparent to archivists.


Public Auction and Benefactors


Upon the aforementioned Mr Thorp’s death the collection became the property of his heirs, whom decided to pass it on through auction. In 2005 a public auction threatened the integrity of the collection by potentially dividing it piecemeal. Some papers fell into private hands whilst others, such as some of the practice’s own business records, were secured for Northumberland Archives through the generosity of a private benefactors.


Auction pamphlet, circa 1878, found within the collection


The bulk of the collection remained in situ at the Narrowgate office, before being purchased by a postal historian who subsequently offered a significant part of the collection to Northumberland Archives. The collection was, at this time, independently assessed as being the most significant collection relating to the history of Northumberland remaining in private hands.’


From Barn to Archive


From 2005 onwards the then owner kept the collection in a barn on his property, whilst passing between 10 – 15% onto interested parties across the world. Some of these items were eventually deposited with Northumberland Archives by public spirited purchasers. The items is his care that were eventually offered to Northumberland Archives comprised  approximately 240 large banker boxes, 20 smaller boxes and a selection of plans.


This period in the collection’s journey indicated two things; firstly there was a growing, global interest in the collection and secondly there was a serious need to preserve its authentic integrity as a whole or risk its dissemination across the world.


A bundle of papers from the collection


In 2015 Northumberland Archives was approached and asked if we would be interested in purchasing the remaining collection for the sum of £150,000. In light of the collection’s historic and cultural significance the sum was declared reasonable and the decision to proceed with the purchase was made. The eventual acquisition was made possible through internal fundraising as well as grants and charitable funding from a range of grant giving bodies including The Heritage Lottery Fund, Lord Crewe Charity, Friends of National Libraries and the V&A Purchase Fund.


The acquisition was formalised in 2017, with a week set aside for archival staff to box and roughly list this immense collection. Finally the collection’s journey had brought it to be stored in perpetuity by Northumberland Archives, allowing it to be valued by all members of the public.


A handbill referring to the Craster Harbour dispute found within the collection


The Future


The future will see the beginnings of in-depth research into the collection; facilitated by a process of comprehensive cataloging. This work will be largely conducted by volunteers, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund allowing the Northumberland Archives to engage a Volunteer Co-ordinator. You can follow this project, and the secrets it uncovers, through this blog or the Archives’ other social media platforms.