Sarah Nicholson, no merry widow!

Sarah Nicholson ‘had the misfortune to marry a man 25 years her senior’. This seemingly unlucky accident (!) led to villagers trying to drive her out in 1879. But she was no strange to violence herself.

Seven families, one well, no loo

Calthwaite, circa 1870, had a population of just 269 people, in 48 houses (source).

Our story, however, concerns nearby Sceugh Dyke. Which in 1874 was described thus:

At Sceugh Dyke there were eleven or twelve cottages to which water had to be brought a distance of a quarter of a mile in dry seasons …

There were two wells serving seven families, but the water in one wasn’t suitable for domestic purposes. And there was no privy.

Mr Christopher Todd (of Sceugh Dyke Farm) agreed that year to build four new privies for the seven families residing in his cottages.

An unusual marriage

Deaths: 1879 July At Sceugh Dyke, on the Ist inst., Septimus Nicholson, aged 62 years.

Septimus Nicholson may have been a lovely man (there are no records of his nature). But to be honest, he doesn’t look to have been much of a ‘catch’. He was an ‘ag lab’ – a farm worker – living in as a farm servant in 1851.

But in 1863, Septimus Nicholson married Sarah Atkinson. He’d have been 46 and she just 20.

The 1871 census shows Septimus Nicholson, 54, born Hesket, living at Morton, Hutton-in-the-Forest, with Sarah Nicholson, 28. They have two lodgers, to help make ends meet. There are no living children. By 1879, they were living in one of the Sceugh Dyke cottages.

And the marriage was not a rosy one.

‘Lively proceedings at Calthwaite’

Two months after the death of Septimus Nicholson, Robert Goulding, ‘farmer’s son, Calthwaite,’ was charged with damaging a door, the property of Mrs Sarah Nicholson.

The allegation was that late one Sunday night, he was among a crowd who had thrown cobbles at her door. Some smashed through it.

Sarah Nicholson had fired a pistol, containing a little powder, to scare them off and raise the alarm.

Police Constable Steele said there was a hole in the door large enough to for a man to creep through, and 300cwt-400cwt of rubble on the kitchen floor. 

The celebated lodger

Sarah Nicholson said she had lost her husband in July and since had a lodger called Armstrong. She refused to say whether her husband, shortly before his death, had caught Armstrong in her bed.

She denied she’d been in Penrith with Armstrong (who was in the militia) the Sunday before her husband died. 

Robert Armstrong, clogger, corroborated her evidence and said for some time, she’d been annoyed by young fellows of the neighbourhood.

Mr James (defence solicitor): “You are the celebrated lodger I was speaking of?”

Mr Armstrong: “I am not a celebrated lodger.”

He and Sarah Nicholson refused to answer questions about their alleged intent to marry.

‘Burned effigies’

Mr James told the court the short of the matter was that Mrs Nicholson’s conduct was such that her neighbours wanted her out of the parish.

It was pointed out they had no business taking the law into their own hands.

Mr James: “Yes, but they do do these things in country places – burn effigies and that kind of thing.”

In fact, they also did ‘that kind of thing’ in towns, as my post on a near riot at a Penrith wedding describes.

The alibis

Margaret Furness, spinster, (of 2 Sceugh Dyke Cottages) and Joseph Bird, shoemaker, both said it couldn’t have been Robert Goulding, as he’d been in the Globe Inn, Calthwaite, at the time. Margaret Furness, by the way, had an illigitimate son aged 10. 

A mob with tin cans

Thomas Walker, another Calthwaite farmer’s son, was also charged with wilful damage. Mrs Nicholson said she’d seen him the following night throw a stone with great force through the hole in the door. She’d grabbed him, he’d wrenched himself free and broke a stile belonging to her with a stick. 

Those present had then ‘sodded her’ with turf and stones from the road and after she’d gone indoors, some of them had come into the yard and thrown more stones. A chest of drawers was broken, and a bookcase.

(By Mr James) “It was reported that Armstrong and I had got married that day and nearly all was there with tin cans.”

Since then, Walker had come over saying he had two court summonses: “and I’d read it over to the ——; and if that —— clogger comes out, I’ll rive him in two.”

Joseph Bird said he’d been with Walker the whole time on the Monday and he’d not done anything.

Death by natural causes?

Sarah Nicholson said the reason there was so much fuss in the village was the report she had married so soon after her husband’s death.

Mr J Jameson, one of the magistrates: “Have there been any suspicions thrown about her husband’s death?”

Mrs Nicholson: “You had better mind what you’re saying or I shall do something to you.” (Laughter).

The village gossip

Elizabeth Graham’s levity when the oath was administered earned her a several rebuke from the two magistrates. She said she was near the house and Walker hadn’t done anything.

Mr Richardson: “Are you the village gossip?”

“No, I’s not, and if I is, I can speak ’t truth and that’s what they’re all mad at.” (Laughter)

Mr Richardson: “Has there been anything said about a glass of beer?”

Elizabeth Graham: “No there hasn’t: what I get, I get geen.” (Laughter). “I got mesel’ two-penn’orth o’ whisky this morning when I coom in ’t toon.” (Laughter).

Elizabeth Graham, of 3 Sceugh Dyke Cottages, was a letter carrier. Which may have helped her reputation as a gossip!

The verdicts

The bench said the evidence in both cases was contradictory, and as they didn’t know on which side the truth lay, they thought the best decision was to dismiss both cases.

Cumberland & Westmorland Herald – Saturday 20 September 1879

Married, or not?

So did Robert Armstong marry Mrs Sarah Nicholson?  Sadly, the surnames are really common, but there doesn’t seem to a match.

However, 1881, Botchergate, has a Robert Armstrong, clogger, 33. With a wife Sarah, ’34’, born Hesket. And children Thomas, aged 10, and Mary J, aged 8, both born Carlisle. 

The children have to be by a first wife. The only Robert Armstrong, clogger, I could find on 1871 was among  a long list of lodgers at a property in Whitehaven: 23, and married. There’s no wife. Where his wife and children were in 1871 – or in 1879 when he was lodging with Mrs Nicholson –  is anyone’s guess. 

Sarah Nicholson: What goes around?

Rewind to December 1870, when Sarah Nicholson, wife of Septimus Nicholson (labourer, Calthwaite) was charged with assaulting her sister-in-law Mary Nicholson, the wife of Septimus’ brother Thomas. 

‘Thomas Nicholson, being in fear of the defendant, asked for protection.’!

It seems Sarah Nicholson had thrown two stones through a window, and when the brothers went outside, she threw another that hit Mary Nicholson to the temple, causing her to fall.

One account says it stemmed from Thomas Nicholson warning his brother Septimus to be careful, or Sarah would poison him. Another says Sarah threatened to poison Thomas Nicholson’s cattle if she could not get revenge on them. 

There were suggestions that Sarah kept company with young men, but Thomas denied alleging she’d been unfaithful to his brother. 

Another witness said she was afraid of Sarah Nicholson, who had previously threatened to kill her.

Her solicitor said she had ‘had the misfortune to marry a man 25 or 30 years her senior,’ leading to jealousy over nothing – and quoted from Shakespeare’s Othello!

Sarah was fined £1, and bound over in the sum of £10 to be of good behaviour.