A extremely protracted legal case involving the Cook family living in Onecote at Lane End Farm provided Charles Dickens with the material he needed to attack the workings of Chancery in his 1852-3 novel Bleak House. Thomas Cook bequeathed £300 to his second son, Joseph, to be paid after the death of Thomas Cook’s wife Mary. She died in 1836 and in 1844 Joseph began a Chancery suit to obtain his money. Four years later the case had made no progress and costs of nearly £900 had accrued.
At this point a Leek based Solicitor William Challinor whose practice was based in Derby Street took up the case. He was born in Leek in 1821 and educated at Leek Grammar School. He was educated for the Bar and a member of the Inner Temple of the Law Courts. He began to practice law after the death of his father in 1839. He was a man of many interests and friendships. He was a progressive on the social issues of the day, a local historian, and a minor poet and involved in local government. He presented the drinking fountain to his town, which stands in front of the Council Offices in Stockwell Street. He was interested in developing railways and keen on promoting public health in Leek. He died in 1896.
In 1848 he wrote leaflets calling for legal reform exposing the cost and delay of the system based on his own experiences such as the Onecote case. It was welcomed by many people in the legal profession at some point Challinor's critique found its way into the hands of Dickens. There has been a suggestion that Dickens was on good terms with Challinor and visited him at his house at Pickwood House. I doubt this to be the case. Dickens did visit Staffordshire in 1852, which was at the same time as he was writing Bleak House. He visited Stafford and was very dismissive of the county town. He was more interested when he visited the Copeland Pottery Works in Stoke and wrote an article for his magazine Household Words on his stay in the Potteries during the 1850s.
A picturesque heap of houses, kilns, smoke, canals and river lying in a basin
But Dickens did use Challinor's researches in Bleak House in the preface he stated that the case of Gridley in Chapter 15 was based on the Onecote case. He had received the details early in the writing of the novel, it strengthen his desire to attack the machinations of the legal system.
The groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds in the sight of heaven and earth.
Dickens had been looking at addressing the inequities of the legal system for some time. He linked the problem as he often did with the state of the poor, the inability of authority to tackle disease, and the lack of philanthropy to address these concerns at home. Dickens used cases like the Onecote case to prove that the law was at the centre of this decay since it had become a "byword for delay, slow agony of the mind, despair, impoverishment, trickery, confusion, insupportable injustice".
The link between Dickens and Challinor was the indefatigable Radical MP Joseph Hume a campaigner since the 1820s where he had successfully campaigned for the ending of flogging in the British Army and the ending of the imprisonment for people in debt a cause from Dickens’s own childhood experience made the two men. Challinor met with Hume in London and the leaflet was widely distributed to many opinion formers in the political establishment.
The pamphlet was then sent to Dickens who sent acknowledged the document from his Tavistock Square address on the 11th March 1852.
Foster, Dickens’s first biographer wrote of the episode
Dickens was encouraged and strengthened in his design of assailing Chancery abuses and delays in receiving a few days after the appearance of his first number, a striking pamphlet on the subject containing details so apposite that he took from them, without change in any material point, the memorable case related in the fifteenth chapter. Anyone who examines Mr Challinor’s tract will see how exactly true is the reference to it made by Dickens in the preface.
Gridley in the novel comes to a sad end " a tall sallow fellow with a careworn head" as his attempts to get a hearing lead to spells of imprisonment for contempt of court. He dies in a shooting gallery in an attempt to escape arrest.
The system! I am told, on all hands, it’s the system. I mustn’t look to individuals. It’s the system" which Gridley rails against finally defeats him
The interest in the Leek link came back into local interest following the showing the highly successful TV programme in the winter of 2005 and the rediscovery of this literary connection which prompted this article .