One of the parchment membranes of the Deed; the clause within the text that references Walker’s legal power is highlighted in yellow. SIA Acc. 19-150. Original photograph by Michael Barnes.

Enduring Mysteries of the Hungerford Deed

Much has been learned and uncovered about the Hungerford Deed—but what is still out there to learn? Dig in with us to explore a few of these unanswered questions!

Over the last several months, we have shared many fascinating tidbits about the Hungerford Deed, our treasure that tells the story of a property inheritance split between Elizabeth Macie, the mother of our founding donor, James Smithson, and her sister, Henrietta Maria Walker. We’ve dug into the historical background of the Deed, parsed its legal context, traced family properties through multiple generations, and even wished the Deed a happy birthday on our blog! But despite all this information, there is still much we don’t know or understand. Here, I present a few of the most compelling mysteries yet to be unlocked. 

‘I’ is for ‘Intestate’ 

Despite living a short and relatively undistinguished life, Lumley Hungerford Keate, Smithson’s uncle, is the linchpin of the Deed’s history as his death in 1766 is the starting point for everything that follows. But very little is known about him, especially not his personality or his personal life. We do know that, thanks to his sister Elizabeth’s years-long affair with the Duke of Northumberland (Smithson’s father), Lumley gained a government post. Legal records also show that Lumley, immediately prior to his (presumably unexpected) death, was engaged in lawsuits against distant family members trying to secure some of those family properties that the Deed divides between his sisters. From other records, including his mother’s will, we learn that not only did he die intestate—without a will of his own—but he also didn’t manage to execute his mother’s final wishes. Instead, his sister, Henrietta Maria Walker, was left to do so. Do these two lapses represent the sum of his character, or was there more to him than these two omissions would suggest? Was he a perennial underachiever hoping to coast on family money, or was he simply moving at his own pace through life?

A Scandal in Chancery Court 

Henrietta Maria Walker, James Smithson’s aunt, is central to the history recited in the Hungerford Deed, but not much is known about her aside from some of the usual historical traces. She is mostly a supporting character in Heather Ewing’s biography of Smithson. Walker’s crowning moment of drama occurs when, after almost a decade of striving to divvy up her brother’s inheritance with her sister, and in sight of the desired result, she refuses to sign the needed legal documents to convey the properties into their respective hands. The Deed is absolutely silent on her motivations. What possible benefit did her refusal offer her? Was she unhappy with the portion she received? Did her husband influence her in some way before his death in 1783? And why did her sister allow the case to drag on for so long in Chancery Court?

Another, more particular question is also raised by a seemingly innocuous sentence in the Deed—which notes that she possesses some “Power and Authority reserved and given to her” in her marriage settlement. What, precisely, does this refer to? According to the Deed, Walker’s marriage settlement secured her absolute control over her own properties, regardless of her marriage status, but the document says nothing about additional legal clout. Could this be related in some way to her serving as her mother’s executrix?

The top half of a yellowed parchment sheet is shown, covered densely with dark brown ink. A passage

The Mysterious Affair of Studley House (and others)

The lives of Lumley and Henrietta Maria are ultimately most relevant to the Deed because of their (and their sister, Elizabeth’s) claims to these Hungerford family properties. The Deed’s whole purpose is to divide them. This, of course, presupposes their actual ownership of these lands—but at Lumley’s death in 1766 and for some time beyond, none of the Keate siblings had legal title to this real estate. In fact, as noted earlier, when Lumley died, Studley House was being fought over in the courts, even though the Deed labels Lumley as being “of Studley House,” and therefore at least residing in the property if not the owner. Is this a convenient legal fiction for the purposes of the Deed, an elision that helps the reader understand that the Keate sisters’ claim to these properties came through their late brother? Presumably, by the time the sisters were ready to divide the lands, they had secured legal right to all those properties. But when, precisely, did they do so?

Some of these questions may never be answered. Some, like the question of when exactly the sisters acquired the right to certain properties, are less crucial to our understanding of the Deed, though no less compelling. I hope that further research will eventually help us understand Walker, if not her brother, Lumley. Who were these two enigmatic siblings, at their core? What insights could a fuller picture of their lives offer us regarding the Deed? 

Whatever the answers might be, they will be uncovered through diligent research in archives like ours. Our collections are made more accessible and meaningful to the public thanks to the insights and connections made by those researchers who consult them. Many a chance encounter within our record storage boxes has led to an increased understanding and appreciation of our collections—such as a glass plate negative that linked a pair of drawings to their original exhibition venue. We salute all you researchers out there. Your contributions are vital and much appreciated!

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