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Interesting Roytonians

Frances Pickford

Frances Pickford, born at Royton Hall in 1778, was the third daughter of Joseph Pickford. She apparently lived a sheltered life until recently ‘discovered’ in the journal entries of Anne Lister, mistress of Shibden Hall, Halifax. More recently I discovered her in the pages of the Oldham Chronicle of the 1860s and Anna Philpott of Arden on Severn has left a record of her life in Bath, and of her family relations in Yorkshire.

Frances had many sisters and brothers from Joseph’s second wife, Elizabeth Sunderland, along with an older half-brother, William, by Joseph Pickford’s first wife, Katherine Percival. Joseph had been a widower for only six months when he married Elizabeth and thus had been fortunate to have married two heiresses in a very short time. Elizabeth was sole heiress to her father’s fortune and may have furnished Frances with the wealth to live an independent life. Frances was 18 when her mother passed away in 1796, having borne Mr Pickford eight children.

Little is known of the children’s life at the hall, save for a very fanciful fright tale, set in Royton Hall in 1790 but first published in a book of Rochdale folklore in 1923. Oddly, Frances was not included in the story and presumably was either not then living at the hall or was not at home that day. The very detailed story involves her brothers, sisters, two guests, a severed hand and a 17th century curse.

In 1795 Joseph Pickford inherited the Marsden and Milnsbridge estates and the surname of his maternal uncle, William Radcliffe. The family, save Mary and possibly her brother Joseph, left Royton Hall. Anna Philpott speculates that Frances may have helped run her father’s new household, or served as ‘housemaid/companion’ to a paternal uncle. Her father was created a baronet in 1813 in recognition of his exertions and depredations as a magistrate during the Luddite disturbances. Sir Joseph Radcliffe, bart. died in 1819 in Bristol (but was buried at Royton) and it seems the family had some prior Somerset connections; a John Pickford owned a house in Sion Hill, Bath, before this date. Frances’s nephew Joseph (son of deceased brother Joseph) who was born at Royton Hall in 1799, adopted the Radcliffe surname to become the second baronet, retaining the family’s Yorkshire connections.

The Listers became friends and in-laws of the family, bringing Frances into contact with Anne Lister of Shibden Hall. It is claimed that the ‘Pic’ in the diaries of Anne Lister is Frances Pickford. These partly encrypted diaries escaped burning by a horrified descendent and have recently been decoded by Helena Whitbread. They have become celebrated Sapphic reading. Inside the journals ‘Pic’, who was also known as ‘Frank’, once dressed as a soldier, was very knowledgeable on the Satires of Juvenal and described as being ‘too masculine’ by Anne Lister. She confessed to liaisons with women and flirted with Miss Lister, who was some 12 years her junior. Miss Lister herself was known as ‘Gentleman Jack’ to the citizens of Halifax, ‘marrying’ a wealthy heiress named Anne Walker, operating her own coal mine, travelling to France and Russia, and becoming a rather snobbish and ambitious ‘gentleman farmer’.

Anne Lister wrote that she and Miss Pickford first met several years ago in Bath, that currently Miss Pickford was staying with her elder sister Hannah (Mrs William Wilcox) at Savile Hill in Halifax, and that her younger sister Harriet (Mrs William Alexander) was in the social circle. She claimed that Frances frightened at least one of her acquaintances and preferred to wear plain short-waisted habit rather than bonnet and gown. Anne Lister thought Frances a little too accommodating in meeting visitors on the arriving stagecoach rather than sending a servant and found her sister, Mrs Wilcox, 'vulgar'. Despite this the two women formed a brief friendship, attending lectures together, shopping, and occasionally walking out. Anne found Frances to be 'learned' and 'clever' which, she claimed, was more than could be said for many of her acquaintances.

By the 1830s Frances was living comfortably in Bath, at a ‘large spread-eagled house’ called ‘Tylehurst’ in Sion Hill with 4 servants. One of these, her housekeeper Eleanor Mason, was from Yorkshire. Frances owned much property, acted as a money-lender and building speculator in Bath and Bristol, and became a prominent subscriber to charities. She lived in the company of her servants and faithful parlour maid, Elizabeth Filer, some 33 years her junior.

However, at the age of 83, she seems to have had a yearning to see the place of her birth, Royton, and it is in the pages of the Oldham Chronicle and Oldham Standard that we find her in July 1861. She made the long journey from ‘Somersetshire’ to Royton Hall as the guest of Samuel Cooper, who is described as living in ‘the principal residence of the hall’. Mr Cooper was related to the mill-owning Coopers of Downey House. The hall is described as having been ‘made into separate dwelling houses some time back’. She arrived on Wednesday 10 July and departed on the next day, visiting the family vaults at St Paul’s Church. When she first lived at the hall, Royton had been a small village spread along the lane diverging around the hall park. Now, although the back of the hall was still used as a farm, much of the park had been built on and the hall had been partly surrounded by shops, cotton mills and reservoirs. More significant for us is the mention that she was given a photograph of Royton Hall as a keepsake. This is intriguing as we are bound to ask if this photograph is the undated professional card-backed photo in Royton Library’s collection, depicting a family posing outside the south front of the hall. This photo is the centre-page of F. Stott’s book ‘History of Royton Hall’. Mr Cooper’s son, Hugh and his family also lived at the hall before moving to Hollybank House on Church Street. Thanks to Frances’s visit, we can ask whether it is the Cooper family who are depicted in this photograph.

The Chronicle prophesied that Frances Pickford had come to see the hall ‘possibly for the last time’. She died in Bath the following December. Sadly, old Mr Cooper, who was aged 79, at her visit, passed away shortly after. Whatever her thoughts about the family vault at St Paul’s, Frances was buried at St Swithin’s Churchyard, in Bath, leaving her estate to her surviving sister Mary (who was to die the next year), Hannah’s niece, the widow of her attorney, and her faithful housekeeper, Elizabeth Filer. She had asked that she be buried ‘without ostentation and with as little expense as may be consistent with my station in life.’

Her Christian name was retained within the Pickford family; her sister Mary named her daughter Frances; her elder brother Charles named his son Francis, with the masculine spelling. He married Sophia Bancroft Lister and his aunt Hannah named one of her daughters Elizabeth Lister. Whatever the family links, Ann Lister’s Journal entries may have given Frances a posthumous attention that she could never have imagined.

Sources: Helena Whitbread: I know my Own Heart; The Journals of Anne Lister, 1995; A Philpott: A Potted History of Frances Pickford 1995 (unpublished ms), Oldham Chronicle, Oldham Standard 13 July 1861

Postscript: The BBC is to dramatise Anne Lister’s life in Spring of 2010.

By Michael Higgins