Ann Walker Lunacy Commission

Marlene Oliveira, Jude Dobson, Lívia LabatePublished on 4 January, 2020Last updated on 30 April, 2020
This case represents active research and a substantial update from the previous version. Facts and details included have been and will continue to be updated as new information is uncovered. Refer to the Twitter threads at the bottom for a summary of what was known at specific points in time.

At the end of the summer of 1843, Ann Walker’s luck ran out. Whilst she was entangled in a series of legal procedures, the people around her started to conspire to have Ann placed under care, under the premise she was unable to manage her affairs herself. Their correspondence is both intriguing and enlightening and provides an interesting and insightful play-by-play of what was going on behind Ann’s back during August and September 1843 and culminated with Ann’s removal from Shibden Hall.

However, the troubles weren’t over for Ann after she was removed from her home. She would then have her state of mind assessed by a Lunacy Commission. The process to prepare and request the Commission was long and complex and, in November 1843, a jury decided that Ann was indeed of unsound mind. She would never escape this label for the rest of her life and would be deprived of her right to manage her estate and herself.

Removing Ann from Shibden Hall

After a turbulent few months in which she was surrounded by legal trouble, Ann Walker’s luck took a turn for the worse.

On the 17th of July 1843, Robert Parker (solicitor, Halifax) drafts a letter to Elizabeth Sutherland, in which he makes his case as to what Elizabeth can do considering Ann’s “unfortunate situation”. The possibility of removing and committing Ann forcibly is mentioned as are Acts of Parliament that would benefit those afflicted with “unsoundness of mind”. Parker explains to Elizabeth that, aside from her authorization, they would also need two certificates from the doctors who had seen Ann in the seven days prior to her removal.

In her letter of the 11th August, Elizabeth tells Parker that she cannot ignore Ann’s situation any longer and thinks she has to do something, because it is her duty and a “kindness” to Ann. Elizabeth’s goal is to “prevent [Ann] from further exposure”, as she thinks that Ann must be, by then, the “laughing stock” of the people who don’t have her wellbeing in mind. Oddly enough, Elizabeth seems to believe that Ann would defend the deal with Horncastle in court. Thus, Elizabeth wonders if the best way to avoid legal proceedings would be to place Ann under medical care until Ann’s mental faculties are “restored”. Then, Elizabeth also tells Parker how Ann’s estate is to be managed while her sister undergoes treatment. Finally, she instructs Parker to speak with her uncle (Mr. Henry Edwards of Pye Nest). Elizabeth wishes to hear from them about what is “best to be done”.

Robert Parker did as he was instructed and wrote to Elizabeth Sutherland on the 14th of August 1843. In her reply of the 17th of August, Elizabeth urges him to stop the “proceedings at Shibden” (Ann found herself in trouble with the local bailiffs and had apparently also got into a dispute with surveyors trespassing on her land). Horncastle was also a pressing matter and Elizabeth tells Parker that, if the Writ of Attachment, that called for Ann’s potential arrest for contempt of court, hadn’t yet been acted upon, they should pay for the agreed sum and be done with it. Elizabeth leaves the final decision regarding Ann’s fate in the hands of Mr. Parker and Mr. Edwards, saying that she trusts them and will approve and sign off on whatever they decide.

In a letter from the the 21st of August, Elizabeth once again mentions to Parker that she desires him to handle the matter and that she would rather not be too involved in it, but will provide the necessary authorizations. She suggests that Dr. Belcombe and Dr. Jubb could examine Ann and thinks her sister should be put “under medical treatment”. These specific doctors aren’t mentioned by chance: they both had a history of treating Ann over the years.

Dr. Jubb visited Shibden Hall and Cliff Hill somewhat frequently and treated several of Ann’s ailments throughout the years. He had been the physician called to help treat Ann’s bowel troubles in the first six months of 1839, which was also a period in which Ann’s “lowness” was evident.

Dr. Henry Stephen Belcombe had treated Ann, at Anne Lister’s request, on several occasions. He first saw Ann when Anne and Ann visited York together in October 1832. In January 1834, he treated Ann during her stay at Heworth Grange, in York. After this, Belcombe saw Ann sporadically. In 1839, Dr. Belcombe was surprised by Ann’s progress1 after he paid her a professional call, also at Anne Lister’s request, to check on health issues unrelated to Ann’s mental health. Dr. Henry Stephen Belcombe would ultimately be the physician with whom Robert Parker would start a conversation regarding placing Ann under care in 1843.

By the 1st of September 1843, Dr. Belcombe, in his his letter to Robert Parker, explains a bit of his plan to place Ann under care with minimal ruckus. His idea was to go to Shibden Hall himself and attempt to persuade Ann to place herself under medical care for a while, during which period her property would be secured. If this argument failed to convince her, Dr. Belcombe would “scare” Ann into compliance by telling her that, if she refused to put herself under care, her state of mind could be subject to examination. The Lord Chancellor could then send someone to manage her estate. However, Belcombe tells Parker that he is not confident that this plan will work and fears Ann might have to be subjected to a Commission, “unless she can be made sensible that it will be wiser for her to submit to friendly advice”. The plan is approved by Robert Parker on the 3rd of September.

However, on his letter from the 8th of September, Dr. Belcombe tells Robert Parker that he received a letter from Captain Sutherland, who urged him to “expedite” the process. Thus, a modified plan is put into motion. The idea is now to get Mrs. Carr, the Matron at Clifton Green2 , to the door at Shibden Hall and have her ask to speak with Ann. Then, if Carr is admitted into the house, everything would be “easy”. If Ann didn’t invite her to come inside, the accompanying constable should insist that it was necessary to do so. A coach would be ready at the private door to take Ann away.

Their plan worked and Ann Walker was removed from Shibden Hall on the 9th of September 1843. On that day, Robert Parker (solicitor, Halifax) went to Shibden Hall with Captain Sutherland. When they arrived at Shibden, Ann had already been removed from the premises. On his memorandum dated of the 9th and 11th of September 1843, Parker notes that the door to the Red Room had been found locked and no key was available, so it was removed off its hinges to provide access, which happened in his presence and after Ann had already been removed from the house.


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1 Anne Lister's journal entry from 26/04/1839 (transcription) : "Dr. B-[Belcombe] observed that her mind had very much expanded in the last 2 years –" .2 Clifton House, or Clifton Green as it is often referred as, was Dr. Belcombe's private institution, where he treated patients afflicted by mental health issues.

Ann Walker at Terrace House

Per Dr. Belcombe’s letter from the 1st of September 1843, a part of his original plan included moving Ann to temporary lodgings. He had apparently considered the same lodgings Ann had occupied in 1834 (Heworth Grange) when she had been under his care. The idea was, at first, to have Ann placed at one of these lodgings and, later, move her to a House or another suitable place. Unfortunately, no evidence has resurfaced so far to confirm that this part of Belcombe’s plan was executed. However, a few days after her removal from Shibden Hall, Ann was admitted to a House in Osbaldwick: Terrace House.

Terrace House was a private House, described by its proprietors as a “retreat”, in Osbaldwick, near York. The asylum was first managed by Mrs. Hotham and, later, by her niece, Mrs. Elizabeth Tose. Described by its managers as the “most respectable Private Retreat near York”, the facility seemed to be one of the Lunacy Commissioner’s trusted institutions.

The patients at this facility were treated according to a system of “extreme kindness, bountiful table, and rational amusements”. This sort of treatment wasn’t uncommon at the time, due to the popularization of the moral treatment system, in which patients were treated as if being rational. Restraints were used to change detrimental behaviors or as punishment.

Two advertisements published in the Yorkshire Gazette from March 1837 and December 1839, the latter includes a typo in Mrs. Tose's name.

© British Library, used here under fair use rules.

Inspections were carried out somewhat frequently to evaluate the state of the facilities and the quality of care. Terrace House was no exception and the Commissioners would visit it from time to time, producing reports and documentation about their assessment. It is in a list of patients from one of these inspections that Ann Walker is mentioned as a patient of Terrace House.

Per the document, Ann was admitted on 12 September, 1843. Elizabeth Sutherland is listed as the person who authorized Ann being sent there. The medical certificates needed to have Ann admitted were signed on the day of her removal from Shibden Hall (9th of September) and on the day of her admission to the asylum (12th of September). Neither Dr. Belcombe nor Dr. Jubb signed any of these certificates. Instead, a Dr. Short, who was a friend of Dr. Belcombe, signed the medical certificate from the 9th of September and a Dr. Goldie signed the medical certificate on Ann’s admission at Terrace House. The list of patients, dated of the 30th of September 1843, also shows that Ann wasn’t yet listed as having been found a “lunatic” by Inquisition.

The exact reason for Ann’s commitment to the asylum cannot be entirely confirmed without the certificates from the doctors. However, the Reports from the Commissioners include some interesting information from these regular inspections to Mrs. Tose’s House that helps narrow down the list of possibilities.

The table above lists the number of patients admitted to Terrace House from 1839 to 1843 and their respective “forms of insanity”. In 1843, there were only two women admitted to the asylum. We know that one of them is Ann. The other one, per the list of patients from the inspection of Terrace House, is a woman admitted in March of that year.

Extract from the list of patients being treated at Terrace House in September 1843.

The table shows unequivocally that one of these women was admitted due to melancholia and the other was admitted due to mania “with lucid intervals”.

Though there is, so far, no confirmation of Ann’s “form of insanity” coming from a document signed by a doctor, there are some interesting clues that should be considered. Captain Sutherland, in his letter from the 24th of August 1843, mentioned to Robert Parker that concealing Ann’s “melancholy” was impossible. From Anne Lister’s journals, we know that Ann suffered from “lowness” and had been treated in the past, by Dr. Belcombe, in an effort to reduce her mental suffering.

A different table from the same document provides another interesting detail: both women are considered to have an hereditary predisposition to insanity. It is not clear how this conclusion was reached and which proof was offered by Ann’s family to support it.

Ann would stay at this House for some time but the legal procedures to have her officially declared “a person of unsound mind” were yet to begin.

Ann’s legal representatives

Though Ann was effectively prevented from going about her business, she wasn’t yet considered as being of unsound mind. So, she still somewhat retained her rights until her state of mind was properly evaluated.

Before Ann was removed from Shibden Hall, she had apparently been in contact with a Mr. Rymer from a law firm that was based in London (Murray Rymer and Murray). Rymer was apparently advising Ann regarding a problem connected to income tax.

After Ann was committed, Robert Parker contacted Rymer. His response reached Parker the following day, the 19th of September 1843. Rymer mentioned that Ann had “placed herself in the hands of” his firm and that he still hadn’t learned anything that justified that Ann’s actions exceeded the “eccentrix”. However, he had instructed his partners to oppose a Commission and mentions that Ann will benefit from his firm’s services “if requisite”. Rymer also mentions that, if convenient, he would like to interview Ann.

Per Elizabeth Sutherland’s letter to Parker on the 7th of October 1843, Rymer had interviewed Ann three times and was at last convinced that Ann is “totally unfit to manage her affairs”. Elizabeth mentions that Rymer thinks the Master of Rolls will move to place Ann under the “charge of the Lord Chancellor” once Ann’s situation is mentioned (in connection to Horncastle vs Walker). In Elizabeth’s opinion, this would “create ten times greater exposure and annoy once, as well as waste of property”.

On the 12th of October, Parker is asked to give Murray Rymer and Murray a statement of his evidence. Parker’s evidence is needed, because the solicitors from London are preparing to petition the Lord Chancellor to grant them a Commission, which will serve the purpose of assessing Ann’s state of mind.

Obtaining the Lunacy Commission

To start the process of obtaining a Lunacy Commission, Elizabeth and Captain Sutherland had to petition the Lord High Chancellor to request a “Commission in the nature of a Writ de Lunatico Inquirendo”. This Commission would then serve the purpose of inquiring if Ann was sane or of “unsound mind”. The petition has to be signed by a member of the alleged lunatic’s family. In Ann’s case, the petition was signed by Captain Sutherland and Elizabeth Sutherland.

Annexed to the petition, there should be several affidavits, of which three should be from doctors. Other affidavits could be added to provide further proof such as, for example, affidavits from family members or servants. When the petition had been served, it should be heard by the Lord Chancellor, who would then deliberate as to what should be done.

In Ann’s case, her petition was likely signed sometime after the 6th of October. Captain Sutherland, in his letter from the 5th of October 1843, mentions to Robert Parker that Rymer is to send a Petition to Elizabeth, which she must sign.

By the 18th of October, the process was likely well underway. On that day, Elizabeth writes to Robert Parker again and mentions that Captain Sutherland was meeting Mr. Rymer to learn “what is to be done in this painful business”. She considers that “all those who have access to my poor sister seem to be of the same opinion”.

Ann's petition as quoted in Joseph Elmer's book.

Preparing the Lunacy Commission

Before the soundness of mind of an alleged lunatic could be ascertained, some preparations were in order. The lawyer who was handling the matter would be responsible for several tasks, among which was choosing the venue. It was possible to hold a Commission in the lunatic’s property, but the solicitor could arrange for a different venue as long as it could accommodate the jurors and the witnesses. Ann Walker’s Commission was held at the Royal Hotel, near the Brighouse Railway Station.

The sheriff would be in charge of assembling a jury comprised of twenty four “honest and lawful men”, who resided in the immediate neighborhood of the supposed lunatic. These men were selected out of a list, but the type of list depended on the size of the estate of the alleged lunatic. For large estates, the jurors would be selected from a special list and paid 1 guinea each. For smaller estates or easier cases, the jurors would be selected from a common jury list. Since Ann’s estate was quite large, the jurors in her Commission would likely be selected from the special list.

The solicitor can summon as many witnesses as he sees fit, as long as he gets the summons documents from the Commissioner's Office. The witnesses also receive something for their trouble, but the value varies according to several factors (profession, rank in life, and nature of the case).

The alleged lunatic is not entitled to receive notice of the proceedings, but the Commissioners suggest that the solicitor handling the Commission should serve the alleged lunatic personally with a notice in writing. This notice informs the lunatic of the "nature and object of the enquiry" and the time and place of it. No definite proof has emerged that Mr. Rymer served Ann Walker with such a notice.

The Commission and Inquisition of Lunacy

Ann Walker’s Commission document is dated 2 November 1843. By the 24th of November, Rymer had everything ready for the inquiry to start. He thought that the evidence of Ann’s unsoundness of mind was strong enough: “a more perfect evidence of unsound mind [cannot] I think be well imagined”. The inquiry itself was concluded on the 28th of the same month, of which the Inquisition of Lunacy document is dated. One of the Commissioners in Lunacy, Mr. Edward Winslow, was appointed to go and assess Ann’s soundness of mind.

Ann could attend the Commission, if she so wished. Access to her would be required, so the jury could inspect her personally. If somehow Ann wouldn’t be forthcoming, the people in charge of her could be compelled to ensure that she was available to be inspected by the jury of the Commission. With some exceptions, a decision was not reached before the jury inspected the supposed lunatic.

Opposition to the Commission was, of course, a possibility. If there was opposition to the Commission, the party who opposed it would need to cross-examine the witnesses. The counsel for the enquiry would examine all his witnesses and the Commissioner would examine the alleged lunatic. The case would then be summarized for the Commission and the counsel in opposition should state his conclusions. If necessary, the counsel in opposition would provide proof that the alleged lunatic is, in fact, sane. The counsel for the enquiry would then be allowed to reply and, finally, the evidence would be summarized by the Commissioner.

After a consensus was reached, the Inquisition of Lunacy document would be signed by the jurors that agree with the decision. The jurors that do not agree with the verdict do not sign the document. The parchment version of this document should include the seal of the Commissioner who attended the Commission and the seals of the jurors who agreed with the verdict. Of the twenty four jurors selected to assess Ann’s soundness of mind, seventeen agreed with the verdict and seven dissented.

The Inquisition document attests that Ann:

“is not sufficient for the government of herself her manors messuages lands tenements goods and chattels and that she the said Ann Walker hath been in the same state of unsoundness of mind from the fifteenth day of October in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty one but how or by what means she the said Ann Walker so became of unsound mind the Jurors aforesaid known not unless by the visitation of God”

It isn’t explained why Ann is deemed to be of unsound mind from such a specific date onwards.

The aftermath

After Ann’s unsoundness of mind is ascertained, she wouldn’t be allowed to continue to manage her affairs. Therefore, it would be necessary to choose people to be in charge of her wellbeing and of her estate. These people would be her Committees.

Ann’s first Committees were her sister, who was likely in charge of her person, and Captain Sutherland, who was in charge of managing her estate.

Per the census of 1851, Ann Walker was living at Cliff Hill in the company of servants. She unfortunately never regained her rights and was mentioned as being “a lunatic” or “a person of unsound mind” for the rest of her life.

Timeline of events

17 July 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/3 - transcription)

Draft of a letter from Robert Parker to Elizabeth Sutherland. Mentions Acts of Parliament regarding people of unsound mind and that he has thought about Ann’s “unfortunate situation”. Parker also explains that, to place Ann under the care of a medical man, Elizabeth’s authorization and two medical certificates would be needed.

11 August 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/4 - transcription)

Letter from Elizabeth Sutherland to Robert Parker. Wants to avoid that Ann becomes entangled in legal processes and wonders if she can’t place Ann under the care of a medical man and await the result of his treatment. She also instructs Parker as to how Ann’s estate is to be managed and asks him to visit her uncle, Mr. Edwards of Pyenest, so they can decide what should be done.

14 August 1843

A letter from Robert Parker reaches Elizabeth Sutherland.

17 August 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/6 - transcription)

Elizabeth Sutherland replies to Robert Parker. Suggests that the proceedings at Shibden must be stopped and that, if the Writ of Attachment issued in connection to Horncastle vs Walker hasn’t been acted on, they should just pay the sum and be done with it. Elizabeth leaves the decisions in Parker’s and Mr. Edwards’ hands and mentions that she’s willing to sign off on whatever is needed. Elizabeth approves of Parker seeing Dr. Belcombe.

21 August 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/9 - transcription)

Letter from Elizabeth Sutherland to Robert Parker. Tells Parker that she would rather he handled the matter and placed Ann under medical care without Elizabeth having to do it herself. She would sign any authorization necessary and trusts that Parker’s decisions will be correct. She suggests to have Ann examined by two medical men and think Dr. Belcombe and Dr. Jubb might be the best options.

23 August 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/10 - transcription)

Elizabeth Sutherland, alarmed by Parker’s news from the previous day (likely connected to Ann’s troubles with the local bailiffs), decides to go to Halifax. She’s headed to Pyenest, but wants to preserve appearances by having her letters routed through Shibden.

24 August 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/16 - transcription, WYAS - MAC:73/13-14 - transcription)

Captain Sutherland sends a private letter to Parker, in which he talks about his assessment of Ann’s state of mind. He considers that hiding Ann’s melancholy is, by then, impossible. “I decidedly think that unless Miss Walker is put under proper restraint and medical treatment, she will never get better.” He’s also going to Halifax.

Mr. Edwards sends a note to Robert Parker telling him that he can see him the following day.

25 August 1843

Robert Parker and Mr. Edwards allegedly meet.

1 September 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/17 - transcription)

Dr. Belcombe writes to Robert Parker and mentions that he has been looking at possible lodgings for Ann. He considers that moving her about would be the biggest difficulty. Belcombe also mentions that he considers visiting Shibden to convince Ann to place herself under medical care without putting her property in jeopardy.

3 September 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/18 - transcription)

Parker approves Dr. Belcombe’s plan and updates him on Ann’s latest legal trouble. He thinks that these troubles might end up helping with Dr. Belcombe’s plan.

5 September 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/36 - transcription)

Elizabeth Sutherland asks Parker for news of Dr. Belcombe’s attempt to have Ann put herself under his care. If Dr. Belcombe hadn’t been successful, Elizabeth considers that he should go to Pye Nest so they can decide what to do next. “It is quite impossible to allow her to remain longer alone at Shibden”.

8 September 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/22-23 - transcription)

Dr. Belcombe writes to Robert Parker (solicitor, Halifax) detailing the plan to remove Ann from Shibden Hall.

9 September 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/26 - transcription, WYAS - MAC:73/25 - transcription)

Robert Parker (solicitor, Halifax) writes his memorandum of what he found when he went to Shibden Hall on this date. He mentions that Ann had already been removed from the house.

Parker writes a draft of a note, in which he inform William Gray (solicitor, York) that Ann had been removed to the neighbourhood of York.

12 September 1843

Ann is admitted at Terrace House.

18 September 1843

Robert Parker’s letter reaches Mr. Thomas Rymer, of Murray Rymer Murray (solicitors, London).

19 September 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/27 - transcription)

Rymer writes to Robert Parker to inquire about Ann’s state of mind. He mentions that he hasn’t learned anything to convince him that Ann’s behavior exceeds eccentricity. He mentions that he wishes to interview Ann, if possible.

30 September 1843

The papers from an inspection of Terrace House include Ann’s name in the list of patients.

5 October 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/28 - transcription)

Captain Sutherland tells Robert Parker that Rymer is convinced that they are doing the right thing for Ann’s sake. He also mentions to Parker that Rymer is to send Elizabeth the Petition the following day and that she is to sign it.

7 October 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/29 - transcription)

Elizabeth Sutherland mentions that they had received the results of Rymer’s 3 interviews with Ann. The solicitor is now convinced that Ann is unfit to manage her affairs. Elizabeth feels that a Commission will be inevitable

12 October 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/30 - transcription)

The solicitors from Murray Rymer and Murray ask Parker to provide them a statement of his evidence. They are now preparing to sue for a Commission that would put Ann and her Estate under the protection of the Court [of Chancery].

18 October 1843 (WYAS - MAC:73/31 - transcription)

Elizabeth Sutherland tells Parker that they will hear from Rymer what is to be done in regards to Ann. She mentions that “all those who have access to my poor sister seem to be of the same opinion”.

2 November 1843 (TNAK C-211-28-W249 - transcription)

The Commission to assess Ann’s soundness of mind is authorized.

24 November 1843 (WYAS - CN:103/2/50 - transcription)

Rymer writes to Capt Sutherland and informs him that he’s going to be in Halifax soon. The solicitor says that all is on track for the inquiry (the Commission to assess Ann’s sanity). Rymer also mentions that “a more perfect evidence of unsound mind [cannot] I think be well imagined”.

28 November 1843 (TNAK C-211-28-W249 - transcription)

A Commission of Lunatico Inquirendo assesses Ann’s soundness of mind. The Inquisition states that the jury agreed that Ann cannot manage herself or her property. The document states that Ann had been of unsound mind since the 15th of October of 1841.

Summary timeline

Glossary of terms

Commission — The warrant or letters patent which all persons exercising jurisdiction, either ordinary or extraordinary, have to determine any cause or action, as the commission to the judges, special commissions of oyers and terminer, gaol delivery, &c.

Inquisition — Verdict of a jury, impanelled by the sheriff to inquire of damages in civil actions, where the defendant has suffered judgement by default, and the damages are required to be assessed: also of various other matters, where the court requires a particular fact certified, or requires the sheriff to do certain acts in furtherance of its judgement.

Petition — a request to do something.

Affidavit — a voluntary written sworn statement, which is witnessed and administered by a person authorized to do so by law.

Writ of Attachment — a court order issued to a law enforcement officer that can be used to bring to the court’s presence a person who has been held in contempt of court.

Writ de Lunatico Inquirendo — a law writ used for the purpose of inquiring concerning the lunacy of an individual.

Madhouse (or House, as used in the context of this article) - privately owned establishment that receives and treats people deemed insane.

You can see the Twitter thread from @moliveiradev for further commentary on this updated article:

From 4 January 2020, here's the Twitter thread from @moliveiradev with commentary on this case:

Special thanks to Anne Boyens for kindly allowing us to reproduce a section of the list of patients from Terrace House.