Great Matlock Wills Case of 1864


During 1864 there was a very famous court case called "The Great Matlock Will Case". This legal conflict was over a will and its disputed codicils. This was widely reported at length in the newspapers of the time. Eventually it ended up being decided in House of Lords. There were at least two books written about the case.
The case centered on the validity of alledged codicils to the will of George NUTALL, of Matlock, who died on 7 March 1856 . His will left most of his real estate to a John NUTALL, who died soon after him. Then, over the following 18 months, at different times and in different circumstances three codicils to the will were found. The effect of these codils was to give most of the real estate previously bestowed on John NUTALL and his children to John ELSE and Catherine MARSDEN. The validity of these codicils was then hotly disputed giving rise to the several subsequent court cases. The first case was heard in 1859 at the Derby Summer Assizes. The beneficiaries under the original will claimed that the codicils were forgeries and should be set aside. However, the jury found in favour of the validity of the codicils. The Master of the Rolls was not satisfied with this judgement and directed a second trial before the Lord Chief Baron at the Derby Spring Assizes of 1860. This jury were of the opinion that the codicils were not valid and that the original will should be actioned. The Master of the Rolls was satsfield with this verdict and refused a new trial. Then there was an appeal to the Lords Justices, who were equally divided. The next appeal was to the House of Lords who decided in favour of a new trial in London before the Lord Chief Justice of England. After an eight-day trial the jury upheld that the codicils were not vald and that the terms of the original will be unheld. It was reported that the jury were out for half-an-hour and their verdict was met with applause and the cordial approval of the great body of those who had heard the case.

The story

The testator was George NUTALL a bachelor who had lived all his life at Matlock. He died in March 1856 aged 54 leaving a very sizeable estate. George was a land surveyor, an intelligent business-minded man who was "close and reserved" and led a "retired" life. There were few relatives and he was not on intimate terms with those he had. His closest relations were cousins, one of whom Catherine MARSDEN was his live-in housekeeper right up to his death. One of Catherine's sisters was married to John ELSE (who was a named beneficiary in the queried codicils). John ELSE lived at Matlock and was an assistant overseer and County Court bailiff and occasionally worked for George NUTALL to copy accounts and collect rents. It was reported that his hand-writing was somewhat similar to that of the Testator, George.

Another cousin was John NUTALL, a London foreman to a contractor with a young family who was the main beneficiary in the will.

At death the testator's real estate was worth between £2,000 and £3,000 per year. His "personality" sworn "under £10,000. The will was made in September 1854, prepared by his attorney Mr NEWBOLD, but copied in duplicate in testator's own hand who kept both copies. One copy was known to be in his bedside cupboard. Although the bulk of the estate was left to John NUTALL, furniture and effects were left to Catherine MARSDEN. Also, he bequeathed her his house, with an annuity, plus another house in the occupation of John ELSE (Catherine's brother-in-law). An interest in certain tithes was left to John ELSE and working quarry rights were given to Job KNOWLES for life. Job KNOWLES was a farmer and neighbour to the testator. There were also several other smaller beneficeries mentioned. This was the original will and no-one doubted its authenticity.

George NUTALL died 0n 7th March after an illness. Just before his death, on the 2nd March he asked to see his attorney, Mr NEWBOLD, who attended him immediately and also on the subsequent Monday when George was in much poorer health and mind. What was not questioned was that George was most agitated and wanted to see his will which was in the bedroom cupboard. On seeing it he was unable to speak or make his intentions clear. This action was open to alternative interpretations. Did he want to check all was as originally intended? Or did he want to confirm some changes to the original will? He died almost immediately afterwards. What was never in contention was that this original will was written by the testator and that it contained certain misspellings which were very pertinent in querying the validity of the later discovered codicils. This will was a "holograph" (written in the testator's own hand) had been prepared under the guidance of hid solicitor, Mr NEWBOLD, and correctly witnessed by two of Mr NEWBOLD's clerks.Were the codicils forgeries?

After George NUTALL's death a search discovered the second copy of his will with was the mirror of his first with the exeception of an "interlineation" (a legal term that signifies writing has been inserted between earlier sentences.). This addition was to the bequest of a property left to Elizabeth SHELDON. The addition required her to pay the yearly sum of £100 to John ELSE and £50 to Catherine MARSDEN. It was later alleged that this "interlineation" was a forgery. However, at the time this second will was discovered the main beneficiary of the will, John NUTALL, was not suspicious about this addition to the will; perhaps because it did not impact on his inheritance. Sortly afterward, on 12 April 1856, John NUTALL also died leaving in his own will all his assets to his infant children.

On 21 April 1856, a few days after John NUTALL's death, ELSE produced the first of three (disputed) codicils, which he said he found amongst George NUTTAL's papers. This codicil made ELSE and Catherine MARSDEN the main beneficiaries and named ELSE the executor of the will. It also revoked Elizabeth SHELDON from receiving her properties and devised them to ELSE instead. Later examination of this codicil alleged that the handwiting differed from the testator and also that there were spelling irregularities which did not match to the testator.

On 6 January 1856 John ELSE stated he had discovered a second codicil tucked into a penny account book belonging to the Testator. It had been witnessed by two gentlemen, ADAMS and KNOWLES. As with the first codicil ELSE was the main beneficiary gaining more property originally devised to John NUTALL. There was also an annuity left to the son of KNOWLES, one of the witnesses, plus an annuity to the mother of Catherine MARSDEN.

After a lapse of several months, on 9 October 1857, a third codicil came to light. This was dated 12 January 1856, only six days after second codicil. After George NUTALL's death ELSE had moved into his house and whilst cleaning a window in an out-building the window-board gave way and hidden underneath was a jar containing 20 sovereigns and the codicil. This discovery was witnessed by a boy called CHAMPION.This codicil revoved John NUTALL as a beneficiary and made ELSE the residual devisee. It was questioned given that the codicil was dated a few months before the death of the Testator whether he would have been in a fit state to have secreted it in such a way.

It was at this point that the validity of the codicils was challenged by the trustees on behalf of John NUTALL's family. The Master of the Rolls decided that the validity of the codicils be tried before a jury and this was done at a two-day session at Derby when the jury found the codicils valid. The Master of The Rolls strongly disagreed, citing his reasons, and a retrial ordered which took place at Derby in 1860. This three-day trial found that the three codicils had been fabricated. The Master of the Rolls refused a new trial so an appeal was made to the Lords Justice who could not agree so it went to the House of Lords who directed that a new trial should take place. The trial was between the Plaintiff ( in effect John ELSE) and the Defendants ( the executors and trustees of John NUTAlL.)

At this final trial the judgement was in favour of the Defendants with the decision that the codicils were indeed forgeries.

This case was much reported in the press at the time. Attorney for the Defendants was Michael JESSOP, of Crich and such was the wide-spread interest in the trial that upon the successful outcome of the case (for the Defendants) that JESSOP was lauded and treated as a conquering hero afterwards. His return to the village of Crich after the judgement and the welcome received was well reported.

Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal 11 March 1864

Matlock Great Will Case 1864