It sometimes happens when researching that you innocently follow a possible lead and end up opening a can of worms. This article started out as one such can!
It started at the end of our research into the 18th-century actress Hannah Norsa who we wrote about earlier. One of the informants into her life was recorded as her god-daughter, a woman who was herself an actress, known by the various names of Miss Ambrose, Mrs Egerton and Mrs Kelfe. Thinking it might shed more light on Hannah we looked into this woman’s life, and here present all the collated information we can find on her, together with some new details.
The two Ambrose sisters were well known on the London and Dublin stages from the 1760s and for the next twenty years. The Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800 does not record their first names (many documents from that time do not do so and it is difficult therefore to trace them), the eldest, the one who became Mrs Egerton and Kelfe being simply Miss Ambrose and her younger sister Miss E. Ambrose. It also records a rather fanciful beginning for them; their father, a Portuguese Jewish gentleman, was attached to the British army in Gibraltar and was hung there as a spy in the early 1740s. The two Ambrose sisters, it states, were born in Gibraltar, the elder around the year 1739. The family seemed to favour the spelling Ambrosse for their surname away from the stage.
After the death of their father, Mrs Rachael Ambrosse returned to London with her two young daughters, settling in the Westminster area where she married a Mr Joseph Jona, a language master and prompter at the Opera.
Henrietta herself though, in a letter written during 1769 to the actor Charles Macklin, gives her birth as 1743 in St. Martin’s Street, Leicester Fields, Westminster. The truth is probably a little less adventurous then, and her father could be either a Mr Ambrosse or Mr Jona as she and the rest of her family use both surnames. Indeed, research from the Holst museum indicates that Rachael was born Rachel Therisa del Jijona, possibly a native of Bristol and also possibly spending her early years in Spain and, to somewhat corroborate this, at her burial Rachel is listed as the daughter of Joseph Jona, not his wife, although we must stress that the document we have viewed is a transcript and not an original. This source has her returning to England in 1758. We know, however, that she was certainly in England towards the end of 1756 and Joseph Jona was resident in London in 1755.
Mr Jona lived, with his family, in Little Warwick Street, Charing Cross, near to Charlton House and it was there that he died at the end of October 1756, his residence then being given in the newspaper announcements of his death as Warwick Lane.
23 Oct 1756 – London Evening PostLately died, at his House in Warwick-Lane, Mr. Jona, Master of Languages, and Prompter to the Opera.
These reports also tell us that Mr Jona died after a lingering illness. He was buried in the Novo or New Spanish and Portuguese Jewish burial ground in Mile End.
In the December of that year a benefit concert was given, starring Peg Woffington and Ned Shuter, for the ‘Widow Jona and her five children.’ So another three children had either been born to Mr and Mrs Jona unless they were his children from a previous relationship. We can name only three of these children, Henrietta (who became Mrs Kelfe and Mrs Egerton), her sister Caroline (who may or may not be the same as the actress known as Miss E. Ambrose) and a brother named Samuel, variously surnamed Ambrosse, Jona and Jona Ambrosse. Take your pick as to who was his father! Samuel, who seemed to prefer the surname Jona himself, was an apothecary and gentleman, living quietly in the Mile End Road, siring two sons named Joseph and Isaac and shunning the stage although both his sisters remembered him in their wills.
Two years later, in 1758, another benefit concert was given for the widowed Mrs Jona and her children and from this, we know that she had moved from Little Warwick Street to Cullum Street near Fenchurch Street, and she was still listed in that area in 1759.
In 1760 the two sisters took to the stage, first at Smock Alley in Dublin where they travelled with their mother and then at Winchester. On the 22nd May 1761 Henrietta, back in London, married James Calfe, a limner or engraver, by licence at St. Marylebone; she married as Henrietta Jona and the two witnesses were Thomas Stokes and Rachel Jona.
When Henrietta and Caroline made their first appearance on the London stage three weeks later, sharing the boards with Robert Baddeley and Tom Weston whom we have talked about before, they both used Ambrose as their surname. By the October of 1761 Henrietta was once again playing at Smock Alley in Dublin, appearing as Miss Ambrose, but when the same play was performed again a month later she was billed as Mrs Kelf.
One rumoured tale about the marriage has James Calfe or Kelfe as both an engraver and a bailiff who, when pursuing a debt that Rachel Ambrosse had incurred, offered to pay it himself if he could marry the daughter. Certainly, Henrietta was attractive, a contemporary report being that she had a ‘pleasing face, added an elegant figure, with a pleasantry of conversation perfectly agreeable’.
Henrietta’s marriage to James Kelfe seems to have fallen apart quite quickly and both sisters were known to take lovers in Ireland, rumoured amongst whom are Sir Henry Echlin, an Irish Baronet who possessed a sizeable estate at Rush near to Dublin, the Marquis of Tavistock, George Finch Hatton, Major B_rch and Colonel Bertie. One source has Sir Henry Echlin persuading James Kelfe of ‘the strength of his passion so strongly, by the strength of his purse, that little more was necessary than common forms to make himself sole possessor of the object of his desires’. Always inconstant, the story goes that Echlin transferred his affections after a while to the younger sister, whom Mrs Ambrosse declared to be an adoptive daughter to counter slanders on him moving from one sister to another. One wonders how she then countered the rumour that, after tiring of the daughter, he made a conquest of the mother, reputedly declaring that ‘could anyone woman fix his inclinations, it must be Mrs A___’ .
In 1789, after the death of Ann Catley, a contemporary of these Ambrose sisters on the stage in London and Ireland, a book was published by ‘Miss E. Ambross’ titled the ‘Life and Memoirs of the Late Miss Ann Catley’. Whether or not she really did write this is, however, uncertain; the only biographical information included about the Ambrose family was the triumvirate between mother, daughters and Sir Henry Echlin, certainly not one of their finest hours and one best not trumpeted to the world. With no evidence, either way, we can only say that we have doubts about her stated authorship.
The pursuits of Sir Henry were not more reputable than those of his lady. M__k__n [Charles Macklin] the actor had brought over to Dublin two theatrical pupils, the Am_____’s who were sisters and Jewesses. With these ladies Sir Henry formed a family connection. He took them and their mother into his house, lay in the same bed with the daughters, and the tongue of scandal went so far as to assert that the old gentlewoman did not pass unnoticed. His house exhibited a scene of continued revelling, debauchery and extravagance – mortgage followed mortgage – foreclosures produced sales, till at last the unhappy baronet was obliged to fly his country, and was so reduced in circumstance that he officiated in a tavern at Paris in the degrading situation of a waiter. Recently however he has emerged from that degenerate situation and has received a trifling pension for the performance of secret services.
The sisters lived with Major B_rch and Colonel Bertie in Drogheda in the summer of 1765, Major B_rch being Henrietta’s lover and Colonel Bertie falling to her younger sister, the two gentlemen both with the army and quartered in the area. As their mother was not provided for, and as the gentlemen had taken a house between them for themselves and the two sisters, they decided to move her in as gouvernante. On one occasion the two sisters quarrelled over who should take precedence at the dinner table and Mrs Ambrosse settled the matter by seating herself at the head of the table. Of all these lovers George Finch Hatton and Colonel Bertie were at least fondly remembered by the family (Rachael Ambrosse/Jona left them both a small bequest in her will and Bertie’s surname was given as a middle name to one of Caroline’s grandchildren).
In Ireland, Caroline began an affair with an army officer, Lord John de Blaquiere, the son of a French merchant emigrant, and bore two illegitimate children to him, a daughter named Henrietta in 1766 and a son named John two years later.
Henrietta, meanwhile, was reputed to have taken up with a French lady, a Madame B___ who possessed ‘uncommon wit and sprightliness’ and removed herself to Paris around the year 1766. The Drury Lane Memoirs assert that Madame B__ had taken a ‘particular penchant’ to Henrietta and described them as two ‘female lovers’. Both sisters are absent from the stage at this time for some years and certainly, in May 1769 Henrietta was in Montpellier in France as she wrote to Charles Macklin from there on the 18th of the month. Signing herself ‘H. Kelfe’ she asked Macklin to ‘immediately institute a suit in Doctor’s Commons against James Calfe, engraver, for giving out that he is [her] husband.‘ It is in this letter that she states she was born in 1743 in St. Martin’s Street and also gives exact details of her 1761 marriage to Calfe. Her distinct use of the two different variations of her surname implies that, by her use of Kelfe, she was distancing herself from James Calfe.
A month later she wrote again to Macklin, this time from Bordeaux, telling him that ‘she will never forget what he has done to liberate her from her troubles.’ It seems likely that the trouble he liberated her from was that of her husband. She also informed Macklin that she longed to hear some London gossip. By the middle of October Henrietta was in Turin in Italy and again wrote to Macklin, reproaching him for not answering her previous two letters. She had seen Voltaire, had dined with ambassadors and been hunting with the King and the Duchess de Savoy.
It is not known who Henrietta was travelling with but by October 1770 she was back in London with yet another change of name and engaged with David Garrick to appear at Drury Lane. The Middlesex Journal reported that:
Last night Mrs Egerton, lately Mrs Kelf, formerly Miss Ambross, appeared for the first time at the Theatre Royal in Drury-lane, and was tolerably well received in that difficult character of Lady Townley.
In 1773 Lord de Blaquiere resigned his commission in the army to concentrate on his political career and it was possibly this decision that influenced his decision to reform his private life too, his mistress and illegitimate children now surplus to requirements. He commanded his friends Sir Richard Croft and Lord Denman to take his daughter Henrietta away from her mother, Caroline Ambrosse; Henrietta was sent to his sister Susanna in Neuchatel in Switzerland where she lived with her husband, a Swiss official, Samuel de Meuron. He now, unfairly, had doubts about Caroline’s respectability.
Caroline’s other child, her son John Ambrosse, was to later recall that he lived often with his aunt Henrietta from the age of 7 or 8 (he doesn’t seem to have been in her company prior to this), scarcely knowing the difference between her and his own mother. With Henrietta already back on the stage, as Mrs Egerton, the Marquess of Hertford petitioned Garrick on behalf of a friend of his who had an interest in Miss E. Ambrose to put her on the stage at Drury Lane but she was engaged at the Covent Garden theatre instead. Again, we wonder if Miss E. Ambrose is actually Caroline, despite the discrepancy with the initials of the forenames, for it would seem likely that, having been abandoned by Blaquiere, she would return to her profession.
From 1770 we find both Henrietta and her younger sister listed frequently in the playbills for the early 1770s (Henrietta’s address in April 1772 at a benefit performance was given as King Square Court, Dean Street, Soho), but only her sister appearing after November 1773.
In January 1779 Henrietta Egerton and her mother Rachael (recorded under the surname of Ambrosse) were living in Newman Street in St. Anne’s Westminster, both ladies recorded as widows. Henrietta, returning home to this house from a masquerade, lost a gold slide belonging to a handkerchief, set with diamonds. It was found by one of her servants, a man named Robert Dare, who decided that the old rule of ‘finders keepers’ applied and pawned the trinket. It was all discovered and Dare was charged and found guilty of theft, sentenced to hang for his crime although he managed to escape the hangman’s noose and instead performed hard labour on the River Thames for the use of the Navigation for the term of three years.
Rachael Ambrosse is also listed in the Westminster Rate Book for Lisle Street in Soho between 1777 and 1782, being in arrears at the latter date.
Henrietta now took George Finch Hatton (1747-1823), grandson of the 7th Earl of Winchilsea, as a lover and, although not married, took his surname and became Mrs Hatton. She was known by this sobriquet when she appeared in the ‘Characters of the present most celebrated courtezans’, published in 1780.
In the July 1780 edition of the Town and Country Magazine, in an article titled ‘Histories of the Tete-a-Tete annexed: or, Memoirs of Colonel W___ and the Faithful Mistress’ she was also referred to as Mrs Hatton and mentioned as a previous amour of Colonel W___’s.
. . . did not pass unnoticed by the colonel . . . Neither did Mrs. H_tt_n, sister to Mrs. A_br_se, the actress, fail to attract a temporary regard from him. She was then in her prime, and having remarkable fine hair, expressive eyes, and captivating teeth, he yielded to the influence of her charms, and was for some weeks her constant adorer.
So, yet another lover to add to the list, possibly either he or Finch Hatton had taken her from the stage in 1773.
The ‘Characters of the present most celebrated courtezans’ described Finch Hatton as a ‘generous and passionate lover’, continuing that ‘if we may judge of happiness by appearance, neither of them regrets the commencement, nor is inclined to break off the continuation of their correspondence.’ It ends by saying this of Henrietta:
She is now we suppose not younger than 43 or 44: – her person is somewhat larger than it was fifteen years ago; but in other respects she is less altered, and as the phrase runs, “wears better” than is to be imagined. Her eyes, teeth, and hair are remarkably fine; her conversation is both entertaining and well bred, and her language easy and fluent. She must be allowed upon the whole to be an object rather of desire as a mistress; and in a very superior style as an agreeable companion.
According to the birth date she gave to Macklin back in 1769, Henrietta would be 37 years of age in 1780, not as old as the publication had suggested.
Miss Ambrosse, Henrietta’s younger sister, also has her own entry in the above-referenced publication, but whilst Henrietta’s is generally flattering, hers is not. Her acting ability is praised above that of her older sister but her appearance comes in for a bit of a battering, and she is further noted as just being a bit dull.
Miss Am-r-se is of good height, perfectly free from every thing like deformity; and her frequent exhibitions in breeches, must have convinced most of my Readers that her figure is what is generally called well made . . . Her face, if it ever had any pretensions to beauty, has certainly none at present: her nose is preposterously large, and the extreme darkness of her complexion, joined to a very strongly marked set of features must ever militate against every thing even tending to the expression of either tenderness or femininity.
Henrietta, still providing financially for her nephew John Ambrosse, helped him to go to Oxford University, intending him to be destined for the church. John, when he enrolled at Oxford, claimed to be the son of John Ambrose of London, Gentleman, for the sake of respectability. At some point John also studied under the actor Charles Macklin, no doubt learning from him the skills needed for public speaking and oratory. John’s sister, the younger Henrietta, had meanwhile returned from Switzerland and was employed as a governess.
John Ambrosse took some time to obtain his BA at Oxford, not attaining it until January 1791 and his MA later that year. He had managed to find many distractions from his studies, not least amongst them a pretty girl, one of a family named Mahon who provided musical and vocal concerts in and around Oxford. On the 3rd April 1787, lying about his age, he married Mary Mahon at St James the Less, Thorndike, London, having obtained a marriage licence the day before. The marriage was witnessed by Jos. Furton and Richard Stainsby (possibly the Reverend Richard Stainsby). Mary appeared in February 1788 as Mrs Ambrose singing in the masque of Comus at Covent Garden and in 1789 was one of the featured performers of the songs of Handel and Dr Arne at the oratorios there. The marriage produced five children, three of whom survived infancy.
By 1792 John Ambrosse was a curate at Poulton in Gloucestershire where his son Samuel Bertie Ambrosse was baptized, his middle name obviously in honour of Colonel Bertie. Another son, John Ambrosse, later claimed to have been born at this place on the 18th July 1786, which is some months before his parent’s marriage. The third child to survive infancy was another son Beresford Ambrosse and a fourth, who must have died young, was possibly named Joseph.
Henrietta was still Mrs Hatton at the beginning of 1790 when the World newspaper mentioned her and her sister on the 13th January:
The large Muffs sported by Mrs. HATTON and Miss AMBROSE, are not a new fashion: They have had them some time. Signora STORACE is equally in the Ton.
But after this and for reasons as yet unknown, Henrietta renewed her relationship with James Kelfe. They married again on the 29th June 1795 at St. George the Martyr in Southwark where James was resident, he described in the marriage register as a bachelor and she as Henrietta Egerton of St. Marylebone a spinster! The marriage, again by licence, was witnessed by Jos. Wilson and Richard Hust. The Gentleman’s Magazine carried an announcement of the marriage:
Mr J. Kelfe, limner, to Mrs Henrietta Egerton (formerly Ambrose), of Newman St.
The Morning Post newspaper was a little late to the party for they reported on the 29th April 1800, five years after this remarriage that:
MRS. EGERTON, once the celebrated Actress, has lately re-married her husband! between thirty and forty years ago she was the wife of a Hatter near Drury-lane; she left him, went on the Stage, and passed a life of love and dissipation for twenty or thirty years, while her husband was soberly following his business with success. Tired of such pleasures, she lately made overtures of reconciliation, which he accepted, and they were again married! They now live in the north west skirts of the town; but delicacy forbids the mention of the place.
After the myriad of name changes, Ambrosse to Calfe, Calfe to Kelfe, Kelfe to Egerton, Egerton to Hatton, going from being a lady married to one man to a widow of another, then a mistress and finally back to a spinster, Henrietta now settled down to married life. In 1797 Rachael Ambrosse died, her will proven by her two daughters whom she named as joint executrixes and she was buried in the same location as her husband, Joseph Jona, and named as Rachel Jona.
Caroline Ambrosse, a spinster, was living at 12 Charles Street, Soho Square. With the two sisters slipping into a middle age of respectability and anonymity in the gossip columns it was now down to John Ambrosse, who had officiated at the funeral of his old tutor and family friend Charles Macklin in the July of 1797, to provide some scandal.
Henrietta had approached her old friend George Finch Hatton some years previously to ask that he provide her nephew with one of the livings he held. Henrietta’s mother had left Hatton a bequest of a mourning ring inscribed with her initials (R.A.) in her will, possibly in thanks for him helping her grandson and if John had spent time with his aunt Henrietta, then he may well have been living with Finch Hatton as almost a surrogate relative. In 1797 when the living of Blisworth in Northamptonshire became vacant, Hatton duly obliged his old friends and appointed the Revered John Ambrosse to the position.
In return for this favour to her nephew, Henrietta had returned to Hatton a bond for £1200 which he had previously given to her and in return for her relinquishing this bond, Ambrosse was asked to execute a similar bond which gave an annuity to Henrietta and James Kelfe to be paid from his parsonage. Ambrosse considered this extortion and in April 1802 the matter was heard by the Court of the Kings Bench, Henrietta and James Kelfe being tried for perjury.
The reports of this trial confirm Ambrosse as a natural son of Lord de Blaquiere and that he had been abandoned by his father. One report claims that Blaquiere supported Ambrosse’s three surviving children, another that it was Henrietta who had supported all five and still supported the surviving ones. It is mentioned that he had deserted his wife, the former Mary Mahon, and as her name is crossed through in Rachael Ambrosse’s will this desertion must have taken place before Rachael’s death in 1797.
Ambrosse remonstrated that he had never expected to have to repay all his aunt’s kindnesses to him, she responded that she had expended more than £1900 on her nephew and it was for this reason that she wanted the annuity. The court touched on the fact that Ambrosse had lied about his age when he married in 1787, hence throwing doubt on his honesty and also implied he had a fondness for gaming houses. Henrietta was defended by Garrow and was found not guilty. After this verdict, Ambrosse’s case against James Kelfe was similarly dismissed.
John Ambrosse, known to his friends as Parson Ambrose, was indeed fond of gaming and was a well-known figure at prize fights, keeping company with Lords Althorp and Byron. Living as a peers son but without any of the advantages of family and fortune, he soon found himself spiralling into debt.
Did John Ambrosse divorce or just merely desert his wife? No record of a divorce has yet been found, but on the 7th November 1798 Mary, as a spinster and using her maiden surname of Mahon, married the Reverend John Portis at Salisbury, all the newspapers, however, reporting her as Mrs Mary Ambrosse in their announcements of the marriage. She possibly had a further child, a daughter named Elizabeth by Portis, and it was John Portis who helped his ‘son in law‘ John Ambrosse to attain a cadetship in the East India Company. Portis also mentioned Samuel Bertie Ambrosse some years later in his will, describing him in that document as the only surviving son of his late wife.
James Kelfe or Calfe died in December 1804 at the house he shared with Henrietta in Great Newport Street and was buried two days before Christmas at St. Martin in the Fields. In 1806 Henrietta and the Bank of England were defendants in a case brought by her nephew Joseph Jona, son of her brother Samuel and his wife.
Ambrosse’s three sons from his marriage to Mary Mahon, Beresford, John and Samuel Bertie Ambrosse were sent to India to serve in the army, possibly someone feeling that they needed to be away from their father and given a chance to make their own fortunes. Henrietta Ambrosse, Caroline’s other child, had married David Whatley, a gentleman she knew through his first wife whom she had been governess to and settled at Cirencester where her widowed aunt Henrietta Kelfe had also relocated to. Through her marriage to David Whatley, this Henrietta was the ancestor of Gustav Holst.
With the rest of the family now settled, Parson Ambrose was still the one remaining loose cannon. He absented himself from his parish and by December 1813 was in the Fleet prison for debt. His mother, Caroline Ambrosse, died in March 1816 and any inheritance Ambrosse received from her was soon squandered. His adventures after this are worthy of their own entry and so we shall save the rest of his story for our next article.
Henrietta Kelfe died in August 1825 at Cirencester aged 86, almost forgotten.
And, you might ask, what of our initial query, that of Henrietta Ambrosse being the god-daughter of Hannah Norsa? As so often happens, despite all the myriad information we have found on this lady and her family, we have found nothing that leads us to any proof of this except the mention of Henrietta’s father being a Jewish gentleman. Hannah Norsa’s will names only one god-daughter and this is hard to read, being crossed through. This god-daughter, from what we can read, is a Catherine, the wife of Thomas Coleman with three sons, John, William and Thomas Coleman. Catherine’s maiden name is given and her mother Sarah’s surname and whilst they could be Jona they could equally be Jones. None of the Ambrosse family wills we have found mention anybody by the surname of Coleman nor a Catherine or Sarah Jona. Catherine was deceased at the time of Hannah making a codicil to her will. Henrietta’s mother and reputed stepfather are buried in the same Spanish and Portuguese Jewish burial ground as Hannah Norsa’s parents, however. So, we can only conclude by saying the jury is out on this one at present . . .