Singleton, Henry; The Pastor's Fireside: The family of Sir Thomas Acland, 10th Bt, Being Read to by the Vicar of Silverton; National Trust, Killerton

Infamy, scandals and heroines in the Georgian era: read on to discover more…

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A View of Paris from the Pont Neuf by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, 1763, Getty Museum (image via Wikimedia Commons)
A View of Paris from the Pont Neuf by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, 1763, Getty Museum (image via Wikimedia Commons)

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View of the west side of Berkeley Square; a carriage driving away from the viewer on the street, two men on the pavement to the right. 1813 Watercolour © The Trustees of the British Museum
View of the west side of Berkeley Square; a carriage driving away from the viewer on the street, two men on the pavement to the right. 1813 Watercolour © The Trustees of the British Museum

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A Georgian Heroine, the bizarre but true story of an astounding woman persevering in a man’s world.

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Covent Garden Theatre from Microcosm of London, courtesy of British Library

The Life of Actress, Mary Wells

Mary Stephens Davies was baptised on 14th December 1761 in the village of Little Haywood near Colwich, Staffordshire, the daughter of Thomas Davies and his wife, Anna. At the tender age of just six, Mary had visited the theatre for the first time and the following day, much to the annoyance of everyone in the household, she kept singing one of the songs she had heard the night before. Her potential future in the theatre was secured.

John Edwin and Mrs. Mary Wells as Lingo and Cowslip in "The Agreeable Surprise". Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
John Edwin and Mrs Mary Wells as Lingo and Cowslip in “The Agreeable Surprise”. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Thomas Davies was a skilled gilder and woodcarver who operated with a partner, a Mr Griffith; Davies was employed to make a box from the wood of the mulberry tree which had reputedly been planted by William Shakespeare himself in his garden at nearby Stratford-upon-Avon. This casket was presented to the Shakespearian actor – and theatre manager – David Garrick, an act which initiated Garrick’s three-day Shakespeare Jubilee extravaganza in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769 (the mulberry wood casket is now in the care of the British Museum).

A short time later, Mr Griffith, who had his eye on Mrs Davies, contrived to have Thomas Davies sent to prison and then judged to be insane and committed to the asylum in Birmingham, where he died. Mrs Davies spurned Griffiths’ advances and, to support Mary and her siblings, one brother and sister ran a tavern frequented by the acting fraternity and then embarked on a modest stage career, playing provincial towns. According to Mary’s memoirs, her mother arranged for the children go to London with their servant, Sally. So, off they went to Warwick Street, London but Mary led an unhappy existence as she was ill-treated by Sally.

Mary Stephens Wells, née Davies (1762–1829), as Mrs Page (from The Merry Wives of Windsor) by William Hamilton. Royal Shakespeare Company Collection
Mary Stephens Wells, née Davies (1762–1829), as Mrs Page (from The Merry Wives of Windsor) by William Hamilton. Royal Shakespeare Company Collection

At the age of fourteen, Mary followed her mother on to the stage and was playing the role of Juliet in a theatre in Gloucester when she met her Romeo, Ezra Wells. After a whirlwind romance, the couple married by licence in 1778 at St Chads, Shrewsbury, apparently against her mother’s better judgment although Anna Davies did give her consent to the union.

Her mother clearly knew best in this instance and she should have listened to her,  for Ezra soon deserted his young bride and wrote the following letter to her mother.

Madame, – As your daughter is too young and childish, I beg you will for the present take her again under your protection; and be assured I shall return to her soon, as I am now going on a short journey.

As you may have anticipated, Ezra never returned for his bride but instead ran away with one of the bridesmaids.

Mary continued with her acting career, touring around the country until finally, in 1781, making it onto the London stage where she gained fame playing a wide variety of roles, both male and female.  She acted under her married name (perhaps in the hope that Ezra would return) and was sometimes billed as Becky instead of Mary Wells.  The nickname Cowslip, her role in The Agreeable Surprise, persisted for many years.

Captain Epilogue

Toward the end of the 1780s, Mary met a fashionable young gentleman named Captain Edward Topham, (the tip-top adjutant), an Eton educated bewhiskered officer in the lifeguards who would become a playwright and journalist: he started The World and Fashionable Advisor newspaper in 1787, primarily to print puff pieces about his Cowslip (or Pud, as he also affectionately called her; she termed him Whiskerandos). Mary was captivated by the beauty of his mind but, as she could not legally be married to him, the relationship eventually fizzled out but not before Mary had given Topham four daughters, Juliet, Harriet, Maria Cowslip and the last who was born two months prematurely ‘in consequence of a fright’ and did not survive. In his book, Retrospections of the Stage, John Bernard later wrote that:

Of all Becky’s peculiarities, perhaps the greatest was her imagining that every man she saw or spoke to, fell in love with her…  Becky’s malady reached its climax in her supposing that our late beloved and most virtuous monarch was among the number of her victims.

At Weymouth in 1789, Mary spectacularly embarrassed herself on the esplanade in her efforts to attract the attention of George III and his queen and then chartered a yacht on which she sat astride a gun mounted on the deck and sang God Save the King as she chased the royal party to Plymouth. Public opinion was divided as to whether Mary had inherited her father’s insanity or if her eccentric behaviour was because she was too fond of a drink.

The raquet ground of the Fleet Prison as drawn by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson for Ackermann's Microcosm of London (1808-11). National Portrait Gallery.
The raquet ground of the Fleet Prison; Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808-11); National Portrait Gallery.

As the century drew to its conclusion so did her wealth, despite still performing on the stage and we arrive a point when Mary ran out of money and men to support her, partly due to the fact she had bailed her brother-in-law Emmanuel Samuel out of his own money woes. Mary now found herself in the confines of the Fleet debtors’ prison, and said of her sorry circumstance that,

I came to London to see one of Mr Reynolds plays, How to Grow Rich, struck by the name, I determined to learn a lesson; but, notwithstanding the attention I paid, I benefitted nothing by it.

Whilst in the Fleet her life made a dramatic change, for she met a wealthy Jewish gentleman, Joseph Haim Sumbel, ‘rich, young and handsome; but haughty, irascible, and jealous, to the greatest degree’. Formerly the secretary to the Moroccan ambassador, Sumbel was in prison for contempt of court. They fell in love but once again there was the obstacle of her first husband who she claimed not to have seen for over 20 years.

Desperately seeking the security of a marriage (Sumbel was reputed to be a millionaire), she was brushed off any worries about committing bigamy and converted to Judaism so that she could marry Sumbel in a traditional Jewish ceremony in October 1797. As part of her conversion to Judaism, Mary, aka Becky Wells, took a new name, Leah Sumbel.  The newspapers wrote of the marriage that they followed the full Jewish wedding ceremony in the presence of ten witnesses.

Any happiness was short lived. A year after the wedding, Mary applied to the magistrate for her husband’s arrest on the grounds of his attempted murder of her, saying that he was ‘tainted by the green-eyed monster’. Joseph retaliated and put a notice in the newspaper advising people not to give his ‘wife’ credit as she was using his name unlawfully to which Mary responded with another advert stating that she was seeking a divorce and maintenance. So began a lengthy game of both Sumbel and Mary hurling insults at each other in the press. Mary claimed that Sumbel had tried to strangle her and, on another occasion, the owner of the house they were living in took them both to court for destruction of his property after Joseph threw a chamber pot (hopefully empty!) at Mary, breaking it in the process. Sumbel made a futile attempt to shut Mary up in a madhouse, and when that failed he sought to annul his ill-fated marriage. Despairing of legal redress in the matter, Sumbel chose to end the matter simply, with a hand-written slip of paper:

When a man hath taken a wife and married her and it comes to pass that she hath no favour in his eyes because he hath found some uncleanness in her, then let him write her a bill of divorcement and give it in her hand and send her out of his house.

Eventually, Sumbel slipped out of the country on a passport acquired by his friend, the Duke of Portland, and Mary, who renounced Judaism, saw no more of him although she continued to use his surname.

Mary Wells - unattributed portrait of Edward Topham after the original by John Russel RA - The Life of George Brummell esq vol 1, 1886
Mary Wells – unattributed portrait of Edward Topham after the original by John Russel RA – The Life of George Brummell esq vol 1, 1886

As a way of making some money, Mary published her memoirs: there’s nothing like selling your soul but even this was not sufficient to pay off her creditors. She spent her remaining days in lodgings with her elderly mother, living on little more than the £55 a year she received from the charitable Covent Garden Theatrical Fund: The Wells’ landlady, a Mrs Bellini, became a great friend. Mary’s three daughters by Topham grew up in Doncaster and were reckoned ‘the best horsewomen in Yorkshire’.

They all made good marriages, and this was perhaps some comfort to Mary, who died on 23 January 1829 aged 67, and was buried at St Pancras church. She is remembered as a great actress whose eccentricity and misfortunes prevented her from reaching her full potential.

Sources Used

Dallas, Eneas Sweetland. Once a Week, Volume 11

Highfill, Philip H. Burnim, Kalman A. Langhans, Edward A.  A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers

St Chads Shrewsbury, Marriage Register

Morning Star, Tuesday, June 2, 1789;

Oracle and Daily Advertiser, Monday, December 31, 1798

Oracle and Daily Advertiser, Wednesday, December 5, 1798

Craftsman or Say’s Weekly Journal, Sunday, October 22, 1797

True Briton (1793), Wednesday, December 5, 1798

Morning Post and Gazetteer, Monday, December 17, 1798

London Packet or New Lloyd’s Evening Post, December 24, 1798 – December 26, 1798

Morning Post and Gazetteer, Wednesday, December 26, 1798

True Briton (1793), Thursday, August 29, 1799

Featured Image – Microcosm of London

 

Anyone for 18th Century Tennis?

Tennis was all the rage in the mid-1700s, as was gambling, so put the two together and you have a winning combination. The game itself was somewhat different to its format today, however, the concept was the same, with professional players being able to command a high price to display their talent.

For the British, the major competitor was a Mr Tompkyns, but the French dominated the tennis scene, led by Monsieur Masson, born around 1740 and from Paris.

Monsieur Masson, the tennis player. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

In 1767 Masson arranged for another French tennis player to compete, a Monsieur Macon, he took on the British champion Tompkyns. They played four sets on the Friday, three of which Macon won, the remaining sets were played the following Monday and once again Macon won. Reports saying that he won due to the superiority in his management of his strokes. Tompkyns was more active at catching balls, but Macon had the racquet and ball so much at his command, that he could almost strike it to within an inch of where he wanted it to go and that he noticed that there were two ‘dead places’ where the ball would not rebound which allowed him to drop it perpendicularly down so that Tompkyns had no chance of returning it.  Had Tompkyns won he would have received five hundred guineas, so he suffered quite a loss.

Tennis was a sport for both sexes though and the name which appeared in the press in the late 1760s was a Madame Bunell, aged, apparently about sixty, again from France, who was more than happy to take on any man at the game.  Madame Bunell was reputed to be able to play fairly well, but would never wear the male attire to play but instated upon wearing a short skirt and a light jacket, which would allow her to move freely around the court. She was, somewhat derogatorily described as resembling a scarecrow.

Reports stated that she had been seen practising at the tennis court in James Street every morning, from five o’clock until seven. That practise paid dividends, as in February 1768 Madame Bunell competed against Mr Tompkyns at the tennis court in James Street, where she beat him fairly and squarely two sets to one. Let’s hope that you had put your money on Madame Bunell as considerable bets were placed on that match. A week later there was a re-match, perhaps Mr Tompkyns hoped to redress the balance. It was not the outcome he had perhaps hoped for as Madame Bunell beat him again, this time six sets were played of which she won four. Maybe he had hoped for a ‘third time lucky’ but there are no references for a third attempt.

Fives played at the Tennis court Leicester Fields (a similar game). Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
Fives played at the Tennis court Leicester Fields (a similar game). Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

The next big name to arrive on the tennis scene in the 1790s was Madame Masson, from Paris, who was said to be related to Monsieur Masson through marriage. She was described as around thirty years of age, of short stature and was dressed á la grecque with a short petticoat and drawers. She was said to possess such uncommon powers, that she could beat any man at a stroke; and in addition to that, she knew how to manage the balls better than any gentleman who attended the courts.

According to the Caledonian Mercury:

Madame Masson, the celebrated tennis-player, lately arrived from Paris, has had an audience with his Royal Highness the Duke of York. This Gallic heroine of the racquet, it seems challenges to play with any person in Europe for one thousand guineas.

The Royal Duke is to have the honour of first entering the lists with her: She plays in her female attire, a la Grecque, with a short petticoat and drawers.

In March 1790, she took on the notorious Colonel Banastre Tarleton with resounding success.

Colonel Banastre Tarleton by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782.
Colonel Banastre Tarleton by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782.

She was also challenged by a Mr Bisset, who was described as:

a young man of good fortune, who was in a gown and cap at Oxford about five years ago. We know not the gentleman’s degree, but the lady is apparently an undergraduate at tennis.

On this occasion, Bisset won.

Charles James Fox. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
Charles James Fox. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

We will leave you with this image to conjure with, from the Morning Post of July 1777

Charles Fox is become conspicuous at the tennis court. When he leaves off play, being generally in a violent perspiration, he wraps himself up in a loose fur coat, and in this garb, is conveyed to his lodgings.

Sources

Marshall, Julian. The Annals of Tennis

Public Advertiser, Tuesday, February 14, 1758;

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Monday, April 13, 1767

Derby Mercury 24 April 1767

Lloyd’s Evening Post, May 20, 1767 – May 22, 1767.

Public Advertiser, Thursday, February 25, 1768

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Monday, March 7, 1768

Caledonian Mercury 12 March 1768

Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, Wednesday, July 2, 1777

Public Advertiser, Friday, February 19, 1790

Chester Chronicle 19 March 1790

Caledonia Mercury, 4th March 1790

Caledonian Mercury 10 September 1795

Featured Image

 

A prospect of the city of Dublin from the Magazine Hill in his Majesty's Phoenix Park. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

‘Darkey Kelly’, Brothel Keeper of Dublin

Dorcas Kelly aka Stuart, aka ‘Darkey Kelly’ was a brothel keeper and reputed witch in Dublin in the late 1750s but found notoriety on 7th January 1761 when she was partially hanged then burned at the stake, for allegedly murdering shoemaker, John Dowling on St Patrick’s Day 1760. Her ghost is still said to haunt the city.

Simon Luttrell of Luttrellstown in Turkish Costume Jean-Étienne Liotard - date unknown. The Athanaeum.
Simon Luttrell of Lutrellstown in Turkish Costume Jean-Étienne Liotard – date unknown. The Athanaeum.

Over time, however, the story of her demise took on a life of its own which has now become entrenched into Dublin folklore, so much so that a pub in the city has been named after her. It was reputed that Kelly, whose brothel was in Copper Alley, Dublin became pregnant with the child of Simon Luttrell, Lord Carhampton, a member of the Irish Hellfire Club and that she had demanded he pay maintenance for the child. Legend has it that he not only refused to pay but accused her of witchcraft and that she sacrificed her child in some sort of bizarre satanic ritual. The body of this alleged child was never found, but nevertheless, Kelly was sentenced to death.

This account from the Leeds Intelligencer, 21st September 1773 gives an account of the method used to sentence Elizabeth Herring to death; it appears that a similar method was used for Kelly.

It is only recently that more accurate accounts of her crime have come to light. As to whether she did in fact murder John Dowling, we will never know, but true or false, she was sentenced to death. At her trial, she had pleaded her belly, but a jury of midwives ascertained that she was not, in fact, pregnant; had she been, she would have given her a reprieve. It is interesting to note that women were both strangled and then burned, whereas men guilty of murder were hanged without the additional torture.

A prospect of the city of Dublin from the Magazine Hill in his Majesty's Phoenix Park. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
A prospect of the city of Dublin from the Magazine Hill in his Majesty’s Phoenix Park. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

It was almost thirty years later the World newspaper of 27th August 1788 carried an historical account of her death, which added fuel to the story. It was claimed that in the vaults of her house in Copper Alley, were found the bodies of five murdered gentleman and amongst them was supposed to be that of Surgeon Tuckey’s son, who went missing and had never been found.  So not only was she a witch but now a serial killer – but was she? No mention was made of this at the time of her death.

Interestingly this latter part of the story only came to light when her ‘sister’ and successor, Maria Lewellin (Llewellyn) found herself accused of procuring a child aged twelve or thirteen, Mary Neal (Neill) for the use of Lord Carhampton’s son, Henry Luttrell. So far there has been no way to ascertain whether Kelly and Lewellin were biological sisters or merely described as such because they ran the same brothel.

A Rake's Progress: The Orgy by William Hogarth. Sir John Soane's Museum.
A Rake’s Progress: The Orgy by William Hogarth. Sir John Soane’s Museum.

The story tells that John Neal and his second wife, Anne, lived close to Lewellin’s brothel. John was a hairdresser who was apparently rather too fond of a drink and somewhat neglectful of his family and customers. He had a young daughter, Mary, by his first wife. Reports state that Mary was enticed into delivering a letter to the house of Madame Lewellin. On arriving there she was taken inside, and it was then that she was allegedly raped by Henry, Lord Carhampton. Afterwards, she managed to leave the house but didn’t tell her parents what had happened for some time. Lewellin was arrested, tried and sentenced to death for her part in the crime. However, proof seemed to appear from other prostitutes who supported Lewellin, claiming that the child was lying about the whole thing and that she was actually, at the tender age of twelve or thirteen, a prostitute. Needless to say, Carhampton denied even knowing the child and so Lewellin was released and ultimately freed.

In the meantime, both of Mary’s parents were arrested for robbery and imprisoned, where Anne, who was heavily pregnant, died. What became of Mary and her father we may never know.

Other Sources used

An Authentic Narrative; being an investigation of the trial and proceedings in the case of Neill and Lewellin.

Curious Family History: Or Ireland Before the Union by the author of the Sham Squire

Ireland before the Union: with extracts from the unpublished diary of John Scott, Earl of Clonmell, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, 1774-1798. A sequel to The sham squire and the Informers of 1798

A Brief Investigation of the sufferings of John, Anne and Mary Neal by Archibald Hamilton Rowan

 

The Arsenic Poisoner

Elizabeth Hinchcliff, aged 14, stood before the court at the Old Bailey, on September 19th, 1810, indicted, that, on August 16th, 1810 she administered a deadly poison, arsenic, with the intent of murdering her employer, Ann Parker, two children in her employer’s care, Christopher John Stanley and Samuel Smith.

The Old Bailey. Microcosm of London.
The Old Bailey. Microcosm of London.

Ann Parker was a spinster living a quiet life at 14, Tavistock Row, in the heart of Covent Garden, she also ran a school and a shop which sold perfumes and medicines.

A Perspective View of Covent Garden. Courtesy of Yale Center British Art
A Perspective View of Covent Garden. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

According to Ann Parker, Elizabeth had been telling her for a couple of months that the lower part of the house was overrun with rats, so Elizabeth sent her off to Mr Midgley in the Strand to fetch some poison to deal with the situation.

Cries of London: buy a trap, a rat trap, buy my trap. Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library
Cries of London: buy a trap, a rat trap, buy my trap. Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

When Elizabeth returned Ann put the poison in the back locker of a large writing desk but did not lock it and sent Elizabeth off to make tea for her and the school children. Elizabeth returned with the tea and was then sent to buy some mortar to put over the rat-holes after the poison had been administered. Ann then prepared food for the children, poured her cup of tea which was left to cool during this time. When she finally came to drink it, it tasted normal whilst in her mouth, but as soon as she removed the cup she felt a sort of heat in her throat and exclaimed ‘there is pepper in this tea’.

 Taking an emetic. Courtesy of Wellcome Library
Taking an emetic. Courtesy of Wellcome Library

The children continued taking their tea as Ann became more unwell, with pain in her stomach, back and thighs. During this time two of the children were also taken ill. There was no sign of Elizabeth, Ann assumed she was still out buying the mortar and initially thought that Elizabeth had added pepper to the tea as a trick, but she checked that the poison had not been opened, just to be sure and convinced herself that it hadn’t. Elizabeth returned and was confronted by Ann and denied having tampered with the tea. Ann quickly put on her hat and pelisse and rushed to the chemist to ask how the poison had been packaged to make sure it had not been tampered with and en route she was violently sick. She was worried that both she and children would die before she could get to the chemist.

Mr Midgley, the chemist was summoned to appear before the court to give his account of the packaging:

I am a chemist and druggist in the Strand. On the 16th of August, I received a note from Mrs Parker, the prisoner brought it; she says, I will be obliged to you to favour me with some more poison to kill the rats, as I am overrun. Upon which I put up a parcel of two ounces of arsenic. The prisoner requested to have more than the usual quantity, as they were dreadfully overrun. I put up two ounces in one parcel, that was all that she had; it was marked on the outside, poison, on the outer paper, and the inside paper, arsenic, poison.

He was asked how the package was tied and if it had been altered:

The knot was twisted when it was returned by Mrs Parker; it was tied in my usual way, a double knot, not twisted. When I arrived at Mrs Parker’s, the child Stanley was very sick. I tasted the tea, it had a strong metallic taste, I boiled some arsenic in the same herbs, which I bought of Mr Butler, the appearance of the tea is not altered by the infusion of arsenic.

Elizabeth was immediately found GUILTY of attempted murder and sentenced to death. It was asked that the court should show her mercy because her age and her parents being honest people. The jury did take account of her age and her sentence was changed to transportation.

Elizabeth left England on May 9th, 1812 on board the convict ship, The Minstrel, which, accompanied by another convict ship, The Indefatigable, sailed via Rio de Janeiro to New South Wales, arriving almost four months later. We have no idea what her life would have been like on board, but certainly not an easy one, certainly according to ship records there were deaths during that passage.

A convict ship entering Sydney harbour. National Library of Australia.
A convict ship entering Sydney harbour. National Library of Australia.

The following year, on July 24th, 1813 Elizabeth was issued with a Ticket of Leave, but for some unknown reason, it was subsequently withdrawn, until it was reissued on January 6th, 1820.

Whatever the reason, Elizabeth remained in Australia and she obviously did find happiness though, as in April 1824 she received permission to marry fellow convict, George Greenhill, a young man, slightly younger than her.

South view of Sydney, New South Wales, 1819, taken from the Surry Hills [picture] / J.L. pinxt. Courtesy of National Library of Australia
South view of Sydney, New South Wales, 1819, taken from the Surry Hills / J.L. pinxt. Courtesy of National Library of Australia
George too had demonstrated good behaviour and had been appointed to the post of police constable. He was described in the records as being five feet eight inches, with light brown hair and blue eyes. Sadly, we have no physical description of Elizabeth.  George had arrived onboard the Hadlow, having been sentenced to death for burglary, commuted to transportation, in 1818.

Liverpool, New South Wales [picture] / I. Lycett delt. et execute. Courtesy of National Library of Australia
Liverpool, New South Wales I. Lycett delt. et execute. Courtesy of National Library of Australia
The couple married at the recently opened St Luke’s church, Liverpool, on the outskirts of Sydney. The only other sighting of the couple was on the 1828 census when George’s occupation was that of a labourer and in 1829, George was issued with a Ticket of Leave, then in 1836, he was given a conditional discharge. Elizabeth remained in Australia with George until her death at aged 50, in 1846.

No record of the couple having had any children remains, so we can only assume that there were none. Shortly after her death George, who had become an upstanding member of the community, remarried and lived out his days in Sydney.

Sources used

Old Bailey Online

Convict registers for Australia

Featured Image

A woman suffering the pain of colic. Etching after G Cruikshank. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library

 

The Truth about the Eccentric Jane Lewson who died aged 116

Where do we begin with this story? Let’s begin with the accounts of Jane’s life as repeatedly recorded ad nauseum since her death in 1816 and which has entered into folklore … after all, why let the facts get in the way of a good story! Except that for those who read our articles will know we have a penchant for setting records straight.

Jane Lewson, remarkable for her age and peculiarities. © The Trustees of the British Museum
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Jane Lewson died on 28th May 1816, at her home, no. 12 Coldbath Square, Clerkenwell, aged 116. She was reputedly one of the figures who may have provided the inspiration for Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. She was known in the local area as Lady Lewson due to her eccentric appearance: she chose to wear clothes that would have been worn during the reign of George I.

Clerkenwell c1806. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
Clerkenwell c1806. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

Jane Vaughan was born in 1700, in Essex Street, The Strand of most respectable parents. She married a wealthy gentleman, Mr Lewson, who died when she was only 26, leaving her to raise her daughter alone.  Jane apparently had many suitors but never remarried. When her daughter married, Jane became almost a recluse, rarely going out or allowing visitors and as the years passed, Jane became more and more eccentric and retained no servants except one old female servant and then, after this lady’s death, an old man who looked after several houses in the square and who would go on errands for her, clean shoes etc. Jane eventually took this man into her house where he acted as her steward, butler, cook and housemaid, and, with the exception of two old lap-dogs and a cat, he was her only companion.

A later depiction of The Strand, Looking Eastwards from Exeter Change, London; Caleb Robert Stanley; Museum of London. Exeter Exchange was a shopping centre. The church in the centre is St Mary-le-Strand and the tower behind it is that of St Clement Danes.
A later depiction of The Strand, Looking Eastwards from Exeter Change, London; Caleb Robert Stanley; Museum of London. Exeter Exchange was a shopping centre. The church in the centre is St Mary-le-Strand and the tower behind it is that of St Clement Danes.

The house was large and elegantly furnished but very run down. The beds were kept constantly made, although they had not been slept in for about 50 years. Despite the attention of the old lady and gentleman retained as a servant, Jane’s apartment was only occasionally swept out but never washed, the windows were so crusted with dirt, that they let in virtually no light.

Jane never washed as she believed that those who did so caught colds, so instead smeared herself with hog’s lard because it was soft and lubricating Her overall health was good, and she apparently cut two teeth when aged 87.  She would only drink tea from her favourite cup and always sat in her favourite chair. She lived through five reigns and was supposed to be the most faithful historian of her time, the events of 1715 being fresh in her recollection. Jane loved her garden and that was the only part of her home that was well maintained.

She always wore powder, with a large téte, made of horse hair, on her head, near half a foot high, over which her hair was turned up; a cap over it, which knotted under her chin and three or four curls hanging down her neck. She generally wore silk gowns, and a long train with a deep flounce all round; a very long waist and very tightly laced up to her neck, round which was a kind of ruff or frill. The sleeves of her gown came below the elbow. A large straw bonnet, high-heeled shoes, a large black silk cloak, trimmed with lace and a gold-headed cane, completed her everyday costume for around 80 years.

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/392524
The Met Museum.

Her funeral consisted of a hearse and four, and two morning carriages, containing Mr Anthony, of Clerkenwell, her executor and some relatives.

Charing Cross looking up The Strand. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
Charing Cross looking up The Strand. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

After her death, a witness recalled visiting the house and was shocked to find the number of bolts and bars fitted to the doors and windows. The ceiling of the upper floors lined with bars to prevent anyone getting into the property through the ceiling. The cinder ashes had not been removed for many years and were piled up as if to form beds.

Right, so we’ve finished with the fiction, let’s get down to the facts. The ODNB gave us a slightly cryptic clue that all may not be well the existing information about Jane, but it stopped short of following it through. Had further investigation been carried out the clues contained in the 1846 book The History and Antiquities of the County of Suffolk by Alfred Inigo Suckling would have been found. Suckling also placed Jane’s husband in a very wealthy family with links to the house of Cromwell.

Robert's first family. Click to enlarge
Robert’s first family. Click to enlarge

 

Robert and Jane's family tree. Click to enlarge
Robert and Jane’s family tree. Click to enlarge

Jane Vaughan, according to her burial at Bunhill Fields was buried as Jane Luson, not Lewson and was aged 96, not 117, making her birth closer to 1720, rather than 1700.

3rd June 1816. Luson, Jane. Coldbath Square
3rd June 1816. Luson, Jane. Coldbath Square

She did not marry until 21 July 1751, so if she had been born in 1700, then she must have been 51 when they married and in her sixties when she gave birth to three daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, Hepzibah and a son Robert (buried 1759). Her husband was Robert Luson, a very wealthy merchant from Great Yarmouth and the couple were married at St Mary-Le-Strand, Somerset House Chapel.

Robert had previously been married in Great Yarmouth, but his wife Hepzibah had died some years previously. Robert then died in 1769 almost 20 years after their marriage and left Jane well provided, but his estate Blundeston Hall he left to his eldest daughter, Maria, who married George Nicholls in 1778 and his other estates in Blundeston to his second daughter Hepzibah, who married Nathaniel Rix in 1777 and a further estate to his third daughter, Elizabeth who married Cammant Money in 1776.

Blundeston Hall, Blundeston. Courtesy of Adrian S Pye under Creative Commons Licence
Blundeston Hall, Blundeston. Courtesy of Adrian S Pye under Creative Commons Licence

There is one baptism which could feasibly be Jane’s, but we are unable to confirm that it is her. It is dated 3rd February 1720 and took place at the Temple Church, The Strand, London with the parents named as Thomas and Jane.  Temple Church is only a few minutes’ walk away from St Clement Danes which Jane gave as her home parish when she married and Essex Street where she was reputed to have been born.

Temple Church. Picturesque Views with an Historical Account of the Inns of Court in London and Westminster by Samuel Ireland. courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
Temple Church. Picturesque Views with an Historical Account of the Inns of Court in London and Westminster by Samuel Ireland. courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

Jane did leave a will, dated 11th May 1816 in which she named her servant William Brunton who received many of the household belongings plus an annual payment for the remainder of his life and one or two friends, but no provision was made for any family members.

Sources

The Edinburgh Annual Register, Volume 9 edited by Walter Scott

Records of longevity: with an introductory discourse on vital statistics by Bailey, Thomas, 1785-1856

Clerkenwell News 08 November 1870

Lancaster Gazette 22 June 1816

Liverpool Mercury 28 June 1816

Featured Image

Fleet Street and Temple Bar by Samuel Scott. Courtesy of the Walker Art Gallery

The humble apron of the 18th century

Many of us have at least one apron, how often it’s worn will vary greatly. Today they are usually colourful with motifs, some plastic, some cotton. Protection for clothing has been used for centuries so we thought we would take a look at some other uses for the humble apron back in the Georgian Era.

The Unwilling Bridegroom or Forc'd Meat will never digest by William Murray, 1778. Courtesy of the British Museum. The apron covering a multitude of sins!
The Unwilling Bridegroom or Forc’d Meat will never digest by William Murray, 1778. Courtesy of the British Museum. The apron covering a multitude of sins!

We were quite surprised to see just how many accounts there were of aprons being stolen, for example, a report in The News of January 23rd, 1738 when Elizabeth Swann was committed to gaol for stealing a basket and an apron. Gruesome accounts sadly exist where an apron was used to stifle the screams when a woman was being raped. Others told of how aprons caught fire with disastrous consequences or to help extinguish a fire, but we thought we would look at some more unusual ones.

This is a very sad account of its use. In June of 1726, a brazier’s apprentice near Smithfield and a fellow servant had an argument. In a fit of passion, the female servant told the young apprentice to ‘go hang himself’. He took her harsh words quite literally and was found dead with her apron strings tied to his bedstead.

Apron dating back to the first quarter 18th century made from silk, metal thread. Courtesy of The MetMuseum
Apron dating back to the first quarter 18th century made from silk, metal thread. Courtesy of The MetMuseum

In September 1738, a Barbara Balingal stood bare-headed at the cross between the hours of 11 and 12, with two dozen herrings put about her neck by the executioner (no explanation given as to why, unfortunately!) and the following label on her apron

‘I Barbara Balingal stand here for cheating and beating the servants of the neighbourhood’

Afterwards, Barbara was remanded to prison until she paid the complainer ten shillings sterling damages.

The Careless Servant by Francis Wheatley, Francis. Courtesy of the  Walker Art Gallery
The Careless Servant by Francis Wheatley, Francis. Courtesy of the  Walker Art Gallery

Around mid-October 1750 a woman was found dead in one of the new houses in Parliament Street, Westminster; her apron was full of shavings and sticks and it is supposed that whilst gathering them she fell, which occasioned her death.

A Peasant Girl Gathering Faggots in a Wood by Thomas Gainsborough. Courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.

One common theme appears is that the type of apron worn seems to denote the occupation, this theme recurs when identifying dead bodies ‘he was wearing a leather apron’, the conclusion, in this case, being that he must have been a carpenter.

Edward Prince (b.1718/1719), Carpenter, Aged 73 by John Walters. Courtesy of the National Trust, Erddig.  His apron showing the tools of his trade.
Edward Prince (b.1718/1719), Carpenter, Aged 73 by John Walters. Courtesy of the National Trust, Erddig. His apron showing the tools of his trade.

Aprons were also symbolic as can be seen below by the Freemason wearing an apron as part of his regalia of office, the different aprons denoting their position within the brotherhood.

Portrait of a Freemason.  Artist unknown. Courtesy of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry

We don’t think we’ve ever come across an article like before. It relates to a dinner given by King George II in 1730 for an Indian king, a prince and 5 chiefs of his court. When introduced to the king at Windsor, the Indian king wore a scarlet jacket, but all the rest of the entourage were naked, except for an apron about their middles and a horse-tail hung down behind, their faces and shoulders were painted and spotted with red, blue and green. They had bows in their hands and painted feathers on their heads. Whatever must the monarch have thought?

Miniature of George II by Christian Friedrich Zincke, c.1727. Royal Collection Trust.
Miniature of George II by Christian Friedrich Zincke, c.1727. Royal Collection Trust.

We end with a story from the newspapers of January 1790 and a lovely scene of domesticity in the royal household. The Princess Royal surprised her royal mother with a present, which, though of no great value in itself, was rendered highly pleasing to her Majesty, by the manner in which it was made. Her Royal Highness had procured some beautiful muslin, which she got made up into four aprons, three of which were for herself, and for the Princesses Augusta and Elizabeth. The fourth was for her majesty. The last had a much richer trimming than the other three.  It was bound with ribband and trimmed with a broad and beautiful blond lace, to which was added a rich fringe.  When the Queen was going to sit down to breakfast, the Princess Royal presented her with the apron and begged her Majesty would do her the pleasure of wearing it. The Queen, charmed both with the apron and with the attention of her lovely daughter immediately put it on, and said that in her life that she had never worn an apron which she prized so highly.

Charlotte, Princess Royal by Sir William Beechey. Royal Collection Trust.
Charlotte, Princess Royal by Sir William Beechey. Royal Collection Trust.

Sources Used  

Sheffield Register, Yorkshire, Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire Universal Advertiser 22 January 1790

Caledonian Mercury 30 June 1730

Whitehall Evening Post or London Intelligencer, October 18, 1750 – October 20, 1750

Ipswich Journal 04 June 1726

Daily Gazetteer, Monday, January 23, 1738

Daily Gazetteer, Thursday, September 14, 1738

Featured Image

Allan, William; The Ballad of Old Robin Gray. Courtesy of University of Aberdeen