The celebrated Mrs Lessingham: lover, mother, sister, daughter

Mrs Lessingham in The Inconstant, Cornell University Library.
Mrs Lessingham in The Inconstant, Cornell University Library.

In our last article on Samuel Derrick we mentioned that he lived for a time with ‘the celebrated Mrs L’, otherwise the actress Jane Lessingham.  As we have managed to find out some new information on her children and relatives we thought the following might be of interest to our readers.

Jane Lessingham had been born Jane Hemet around 1734, the daughter of Francis Hemet, an ‘operator of teeth’ (dentist) and his wife, the splendidly named Polehampton Feuillet who had married in 1725;  both of whose families had been Huguenot refugees. Jane was their youngest child, three older brothers having already been born with only two, John René and Jacob Hemet surviving infancy.

Jane’s paternal grandfather Peter Hemet, had been ‘operator of the teeth’ to King George II and her brother Jacob was to fill the same post to King George III’s wife Queen Charlotte, to the Prince of Wales and to the King’s favourite daughter, the Princess Amelia. Jane’s maternal grandfather, René Feuillet, was a history painter. Learn more about the Hemet family of dentists.

Francis Hemet died in 1736 and his widow married again in 1739 to a confectioner and grocer, John Francklin of St. Martin in the Fields, a friend of the Hemet family. Five Francklin children, half brothers and sisters to Jane, quickly followed, another Polehampton, Edward, James, Frances Isabella and George.

Jane Hemet, when she came of age on her twenty first birthday, could expect a small inheritance, having been named in both her father and paternal grandfathers wills.  On the 28th December 1755, at St. Paul’s Covent Garden (commonly known as the Actor’s Church), she married John Stott a widowed naval captain, Jane herself applying for the licence to enable them to marry.  The couple had lived together for little more than two years when, in February 1758, John Stott left to sail for America aboard HMS Gramont of which he was commander. Mrs Jane Stott after travelling to Portsmouth to wave goodbye to her husband proceeded to take lodgings in London, living first in Mattock Street, Hanover Square before moving to Dean Street in the parish of St. Anne’s, Soho.

Covent Garden Piazza and Market, London by Samuel Scott (showing St Paul's Church), 1749-1758 out of copyright; (c) Museum of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Covent Garden Piazza and Market, London by Samuel Scott (showing St Paul’s Church), 1749-1758
out of copyright; (c) Museum of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

At around the time that John Stott had left, Jane’s half-sister Polehampton came to live with her to keep her company whilst he was away.  Before Stott had sailed the family had lived in Twickenham and Polehampton had been at a boarding school in Hounslow since the beginning of 1757. She had visited the Stott’s in Twickenham weekly, leaving the boarding school to move to London and Mattock Street with Jane in March 1758 and she remained with Jane until January 1763.

It was at the Dean Street house that Captain John Stott discovered his wife on his return to England in July 1761, visibly pregnant and with a two year old daughter, neither of his begetting. The daughter, Amelia, was born in Dean Street on the 7th June 1759, delivered by Dr Hunter and baptized on the 13th June 1759 at St. Anne’s, Soho, as the daughter of John and Jane Stott.

This daughter was cited in the divorce proceedings brought by John Stott against his errant wife in 1765, various witnesses testifying to both the birth of the daughter and to the impossibility of John Stott being the father. Curiously, the child Jane had been carrying at Stott’s return was not mentioned. This child proved to be a son, named George and born on the 11th November 1761. He was baptised fifteen days later in the same church his sister had been, again recorded as the son of John and Jane Stott.

Amongst the witnesses brought to the divorce trial was Jane’s half-sister Polehampton, who stated herself to be the wife of James Martin but lodging with Joseph Burnin of Litchfield Street in St. Anne’s Soho. Her testimony was dated the 6th April 1765 and there is the possibility that she had copied the behaviour of her elder sister for in the baptismal registers of St. Anne Soho are the following two entries:

16th October 1763 – baptism of Joseph son of Joseph and Polehampton Martin

14th April 1765 – baptism of Jane Margaret daughter of Joseph and Polehampton Bernin, (the child was born the day before).

In the divorce trial Polehampton’s husband is James and not Joseph Martin, but she would appear, in the April of 1765, to be the wife of one man whilst having a child by another with whom she is lodging. It’s also worth noting that she left Jane’s house in the January of 1763, around the same time she must have fallen pregnant with Martin’s son.

Jane Stott had first appeared on the stage in 1756 in the early days of her marriage, as Desdemona in Othello and Samuel Derrick has been cited as the man who first brought her to the stage although Tate Wilkinson, in his Memoirs, says that she was a pupil of John Rich in this year. She was certainly the mistress of Samuel Derrick at some point in the 1750s and/or 1760’s, even being known as Mrs Derrick for a time, one account saying this was before her marriage and another during it and with no further proof it is entirely possible that this cohabitation coincided with her husband’s absence and that Derrick was the father of one or more of the two children baptised as being Stott’s. No possible father was named in the divorce proceedings, the proof of Jane’s infidelity being all too present in the person of her daughter, the father’s name being irrelevant to the trial.

Mrs Lessingham in the character of Flora, Cornell University Library.
Mrs Lessingham in the character of Flora, Cornell University Library.

After Jane’s initial appearance on stage in 1756 she did not appear again until February 1762. From March of that year she used the surname Lessingham as her stage name. Jane was reputed to take other lovers, including a naval officer senior to her husband, Admiral Boscawen, who died in 1761. If this rumour is correct he must also be a candidate for the father of one or both of her children.  The Captain referred to in the reference below is not Jane’s husband but Captain William Hanger, son of Baron Coleraine and one of the many lovers of the actress Sophia Baddeley.  It was written in 1772 at the time of his affair with Sophia but recounted the many amours of his past, which included, according to the author, Jane herself.

At the time Mrs. L____m, the actress, was supported in a most splendid manner by Admiral B___n, whilst he was gaining laurels for himself, and glory for his country abroad, the Captain most politely attended her at home, to prevent her grief becoming too violent in the absence of her naval admirer.

MEMOIRS OF CAPTAIN H___ and MRS. B____Y

Middlesex Journal or Chronicle of Liberty, 30th May 1772

Towards the end of the 1760’s she became the mistress of Thomas Harris, one of the managers of the Covent Garden Theatre formerly owned by another of the people we have written about, John Rich, and was the cause of a quarrel between the theatre managers, Harris believing that she was not given the parts which she deserved.

Jane bore three sons to Harris, all baptised at the Percy Chapel in St. Pancras. The eldest, Edmund John Thomas Harris, was born on the 31st March 1768 and baptized a month later, his parents being recorded in the baptism register as Thomas and Jane Harris alias Jane Lessingham.

Edmund Thomas Harris 1768

Baptism of Edmund Thomas Harris – click on image to enlarge

Just a month before his birth she was on stage at Covent Garden as Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice at a benefit performance for Charles Macklin, appearing alongside Macklin himself, his daughter Maria and Ned Shuter.  Jane was given a benefit at the same theatre at the end of March, her address been given as Charlotte Street at the top of Rathbone Place, Oxford Road, the actors including Miss Macklin and George Anne Bellamy.

Jane and Harris’s second son, Charles, followed shortly after, being born on the 1st June 1769 and baptized on the 18th of the same month and lastly the third son, Edwin, born on the 2nd February 1771 and baptized 10th April 1771.

The baptism register records the parents of the last two children simply as Thomas and Jane Harris.  Thomas Harris and Jane parted in 1771.   Mr H___ in the article below is obviously Thomas Harris.

To the Editor of the GENERAL EVENING POST.

Since the misfortunes and indiscretions of the fair sex seem to engross more particularly the attention of the world, than any other topic, I must beg leave, for the entertainment of your readers, to acquaint them with the enlargement of Mrs L____m – who, to the unspeakable distress of Mr. H___, has eloped to some corner of the earth, with a new paramour, utterly unknow[n] to the afflicted Menelaus. This Helen of an actress very young married to Capt. S___, of the navy – she left him for Delaval; Delaval for Boscawen; Boscawen for Pembroke; Pembroke for Colbourne; Colbourne for Mason; and Mason for H___; and alas! H___ for whom neither he nor I know. By all these she has had sweet children – Is it not a pity, that so fruitful a mother has not a consideration from Government, who has made so much food for gunpowder! Mr H___, poor gentleman, is all in the fuds upon this melancholy elopement. Could he stimulate the theatric Grecians, as the injuries of Menelaus of yore did, we might be entertained with the siege of some old castle surrounded with a moat, and defended by rooks, where this delectable run-away is supposed to be immured.

TELL-TALE

General Evening Post, 27 August 1771

Towards the end of June 1772 a Mrs Lessingham was recorded passing through Canterbury on her way to France in company with a Mr Ashley Esquire.

In the mid 1770’s, whilst under the protection of Sir William Addington, Bow Street magistrate, Jane Lessingham applied for the right to build herself a lodge on Hampstead Heath. Although first granted through her influential friends, objections were raised leading to a ‘riot on Hampstead Heath’; Jane herself possibly composed a pamphlet titled ‘The Hampstead Contest’ which was inscribed to her. She got her way, buying a cottage at Littleworth in 1776 to get around the objections and building Heath Lodge complete with pleasure grounds, enclosed from the surrounding heathland. A description of the house in A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9: Hampstead, Paddington gives it as a ‘three-storyed cube with a central semicircular bay and flanking two-storyed wings designed by James Wyatt on the model of a villa in Italy.’ Addington was then discarded for a Covent Garden actor known as a ‘teapot actor‘, possibly from his habit of standing with one hand on his hip.  As Mrs Lessingham, Jane continued to perform at the Covent Garden theatre up to 1782, largely in comedic roles which she performed best in.

The understrapper Justice of Bow-street Lock has received his dismission in form from the suite of his long admired actress, Mrs. L____m of Covent-garden Theatre, which has so much affected his worship for this fortnight past, that even his attendant thief takers pity him, and say, it will bring the old buck’s grey hairs with sorrow to the grave!

Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, 22nd April 1777

It is not known what became of Jane’s daughter, Amelia Stott; she seems to vanish without trace from the records. Her son George Stott was possibly buried in the churchyard at St. Anne’s in Soho on the 12th August 1772, being recorded in the register as a child from Pancras although his absence from the divorce trial may well indicate he had died previous to that. Her three sons by Harris were all named in Jane’s will which she wrote on the 12th December 1782; she left whatever she died possessed of to Thomas Harris in trust for the sole use of these three boys, stipulating that one further son, Frederick, was to take his share if he was not better provided for. We have not yet discovered Frederick’s birth or baptism but, as it seems that Jane hoped he would be provided for, his father was possibly a man of means. He was born c.1772 and used the name of William Frederick Williams in later life and may have penned four novels, Sketches of Modern Life; Or, Man as He Ought Not to be (1799), Fitzmaurice: A Novel in two volumes (1800), Tales of an Exile (1803) and The Witcheries of Craig Isaf (1805).

Jane signed herself as Jane Hemet on her will; she died on the 13th March 1783 at her house on Hampstead Heath and was buried on the 17th in Hampstead churchyard, the burial register and her tombstone recording her under her maiden surname. Although her house was sold just months after her death, her will was not proved by Harris till more than a year later.  The house sold for substantially more than it had cost to erect and was bought by Lord Byron, uncle of the poet.

By Mr. BARFORD

On the premises, on Friday the 30th instant, punctua’ly at one o’clock, unless previously Let or Sold by Private Contract.

A Small, but elegant Villa, situate on the most elevated part of the north side of Hampstead Heath, with about two acres of land laid out with distinguished taste in pleasure grounds, shrubberies, and kitchen gardens, &c. This beautiful erection, entirely detached from any neighbourhood; has been the admiration of all who have seen it. To the North-east and West, a series of prospects richly adorned by the hand of Nature, and agreeably variegated by the innovations of Art, open to the view, and form a landscape replete, with every decoration that can delight the eye, or gratify the judgment. The premises are copyhold, and although at present adapted to the reception of a small family, may be considerably enlarged, and an additional quantity of land, if necessary, obtained. The contiguity of the situation to the metropolis, and the uncommon salubrity of the air, renders the whole a most amiable retreat to a person whose avocations may require an attendance in town.

To be viewed, and particulars known, by applying to Mr. Barford, Covent Garden.

Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, 19th May 1783

The elegant villa of the late Mrs Lessingham was on Friday put up by public auction, when it was bought in at the very low price of 560l. The whole expence attending this villa, including the taking up of the ground in Copyholders Court – law contests thence ensuing – enclosing – planting and building, are computed at near 3000l.

General Evening Post, 7th June 1783

Lord Byron, who bought poor Mrs Lessingham’s little Villa, near Hampstead, keeps it exactly in the order in which she left it. – His Lordship, both in this place and an Newste[a]d Abbey, shews an imagination negligent of art, and addicted to the wilder beauties of nature.

After the divorce was finally granted in the late 1760’s Captain John Stott married for a third time in Soho on the 18th October 1770 to a woman named Elizabeth Graham. When he wrote his will in 1771 he was Captain of his Majesty’s Ship of War the Juno and he left his entire estate to his ‘dear wife‘ whom he made sole executor of his will. He died on the 22nd August 1778, in command of a 32 gun frigate, the Minerva, in the West Indies. Unaware that the American War of Independence had broken out and that France had declared war on Britain, he approached the Concorde, a French ship; the Concorde fired a broadside at Minerva causing an explosion of the powder held below deck. Amongst the dead and wounded was Captain John Stott, fatally injured by two wounds to his head.

Battle between the french frigate Concorde and the English frigate Minerva 22 Aug 1778 (Wikimedia)
Battle between the french frigate Concorde and the English frigate Minerva 22 Aug 1778 (Wikimedia)

These words were written of Jane in her lifetime; we are unable to say if they are applied to her fairly or unfairly:

What shall we say of LESSINGHAM, the fair,

She has of managers been long the care;

Oh, that regard would make her all their own,

And snatch a tasteless milksop from the town;

One who for parts eternally would fight,

Without the sense, or talents, to be right.

The Theatres. A Poetical Dissection by Sir Nicholas Nipclose, Baronet, 1771

[pseudonym of Francis Gentleman, Irish actor, poet and writer]

However, we shall leave her with a testament to her from one of her sons and she was obviously a much beloved and lamented mother. When she was buried at Hampstead in 1783 her memorial recorded her name as Mrs Hemet. Jane’s youngest child replaced this almost twenty years after her death with the following inscription on her tomb in the churchyard although the age given makes her about five years younger than she would actually have been.

MRS JANE LESSINGHAM,

late of the Theatre Royal

Covent Garden

Obt 13 March 1783

æt 44

Her grateful and affectionate son WILLIAM FREDERICK,

caused this tomb to be repaired, anno 1802,

as a last token of respect to her memory.

William Frederick was to die young just three years later. His last request was to be buried in the same grave as his mother, adding his name to her memorial.

WILLIAM FREDERICK WILLIAMS

died October 24th, MDCCCV,

aged 33 years.

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