The extraordinary life of a Carlisle woman – and a particular item from her wardrobe – has inspired an all-singing, all dancing production due to open next month.
A DRESS 6ft wide, a court case which rumbles on for 16 years and is thought to have inspired Charles Dickens, and Bonnie Prince Charlie.
These are just some of the raw ingredients in the remarkable life of Margery Jackson, who became known as the miser of Carlisle, and just asking to be fashioned into some sort of dramatic work.
Which is what Anthony Steven has done.
Anthony, pictured right, who works as a technical writer, has created Miser! The Musical, based on the life of Margery who was born in Carlisle in 1722 and died there in 1812.
In a way he has grown up with Margery since his late mother , Helen Hallaway, wrote a biography about her.
Helen was keeper of costumes at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle and it is there that the immense dress will go on show from June 13 to tie in with the musical.
The dress, known as a Court Mantua, is made from blue silk brocaded with silver thread and trimmed with silver lace. It is the widest type of skirt ever worn and is one of the most bizarre forms of women’s attire.
It dates from around the middle of the 18th Century and was worn by wealthy married women at court for formal occasions.
Melanie Gardner, keeper of fine and decorative art at Tullie House, says: “The link to Carlisle character Margery Jackson is fascinating. We are delighted to be displaying the dress to coincide with Anthony Steven’s exciting new musical.”
The mystery of the dress was one of the prompts which set Anthony off on the path to his musical.
Margery never married, so why did she have the dress?
“It is not the sort of dress you have made on a whim,” says Anthony, who lives in the Cumbrian village of Croglin.
The answer, he feels, could lie in a dramatic event which Margery lived through when she was 23.
It was then that the Jacobite army , led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, arrived in Carlisle on an invasion of England which was to end in the slaughter of the Battle of Culloden.
Did Margery meet someone in what was a highly charged atmosphere of an occupying force, asks Anthony.
He says: “Margery was an extraordinary woman.”
She came from a comfortably off , middle class family. Her father was a draper and Mayor of Carlisle in the year she was born. But at the age of 10 Margery had lost both her parents and was sent to live with an unmarried aunt of 25, who was apparently very strict.
From an early age, then, she had to shift for herself. “She realised that money was very important, especially for a woman in those times,” says Anthony.
Two of her brothers died, and she became embroiled in a dispute with her surviving brother, the Rev William Jackson, to secure her share of the family estate. It was an experience which probably had a significant effect on how Margery’s character developed.
She vanishes from the historical record for 12 years before turning up at a political rally at Durham in 1762.
Six months later she was calling at the home of her brother in Carlisle, who had meantime married a lady of property.
This may have fuelled the estate dispute, and Margery again dropped out of sight until 1777, when she wrote a conciliatory letter to her brother from Nunnery House in the Eden Valley in Cumbria.
She met with a rebuff and decided to sue him over the estate issue at the Court of Chancery in London. It was to drag on for 16 long years.
After William died, Margery sued the son of one of his executors, Tommy Hodgson, to whom estate money had descended, and after he died in Newcastle, she sued his heirs.
The court case is believed to have provided the material for a similar saga in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.
Eventually, Margery was left with a reduced estate and some property, and returned to Carlisle to live.
“She becomes increasingly miserly and reclusive over the years,” says Anthony.
What does not help is that she was pilloried in the Carlisle Journal, whose editor was Margery’s neighbour.
She was seen walking her dog around town on the end of a piece of string, and insisted rents on her properties were paid in gold coins, which were stored in a trunk at her home. When she died, it took eight hours to count the coins, which added up to the equivalent of £1.5m in today’s money.
“There are so many things going on which lend themselves to a musical,” says Anthony.
He has worked with song arrangers Jerry King, David Day and Mark Johnson and has assembled a cast of 31 for the production.
Rehearsals have taken place in a hall 30 yards from Margery’s grave in the grounds of Carlisle Cathedral.
The musical will be performed in West Walls Theatre in Carlisle on July 22-23.
“I hope people go away thinking what an interesting character Margery Jackson was,” says Anthony.
Ticket details at miserthemusical.org.uk
Pictures: Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust