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 mourning 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

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