Who was ‘Dirty Dick’ and how did he acquire such a sobriquet? His name was Nathaniel Bentley, the son of Nathaniel and Sarah née Sarah Pankeman, the couple having married in 1723 at All Hallows Church, London.
It was in October of the same year Sarah married, that her father also married, for a second time, his new wife was Bethia Plomer, the wealthy widow of William Plomer, a linen draper of Leadenhall Street who died in 1741 and who owned a mansion in the then-rural area of Edmonton.
During this time Nathaniel senior acquired much wealth and in 1754 donated a bell to the nearby church of St Catherine’s Cree.
Young Nathaniel, however, was not so lucky in love. During his formative years, Nathaniel and his father did not have a good relationship, with his father being described as being something of a bully, quite how much truth there was in that story remains unknown to history. Either way, young Nathaniel was very much the man about town :
At this period, his favourite suit was blue and silver, with his hair dressed in the highest style of fashionable extravagance. He paid several visits to Paris and was present at the coronation of Louis XVI, to whom he was personally introduced, and was considered one of the most accomplished English gentlemen then at the French court. He spoke several languages, particularly French and Italian, with great fluency, and associated with characters of the highest respectability.
His father was clearly an astute businessman of the day and had acquired much wealth by his death, which was reportedly in 1760. However, if that was correct, it begs the question about why his will remained unproven for a further eight years, it was finally proved in September of 1768, some four years after the death of his wife, Bethia.
Nathaniel senior left virtually everything to his son, which included around fifteen properties, one which was lease out to a brewer, but he also made substantial provision for Sarah’s family, including and their young son, Andrew.
One of Nathaniel seniors’ businesses was a warehouse selling hardware, jewellery, and precious metals, at 46 Leadenhall Street, which it appears, his son took over upon his father’s death and this is where his life changed, and he became best remembered to history as ‘Dirty Dick’.
There have been suggestions that this was not quite true and that Nathaniel did not own ‘The Dirty Warehouse’, however, this seems contrary to the Land Tax records which show him there for most of his life until 1803 at which time both he and Mr William Goslin(g), his successor were named as owners with Gosling taking over from that time onwards. The suggestion being made was that Nathaniel simply used the address as a postal address. Quite which is true we may never know.
Something changed in Nathaniel’s life as he had always taken a good deal of pride himself in his appearance, but he was to let this go, still dressing well when going out, but when in the shop he became more and more unkempt with his personal hygiene leaving rather a lot to be desired. When challenged about washing his hands regularly, he simply replied:
It is of no use, Sir. If I wash my hands today they will be dirty again tomorrow.
He became increasingly more miserly and would no longer employ anyone to prepare meals for him but did employ someone to do some shopping for him. His chief diet including some vegetables. He rarely ate meat part from bacon which had to be lean as the fat was wasteful and drank a gallon of beer every three days.
His sister, Sarah was the complete opposite, described as accomplished, very neat, and elegant. Sarah lived at Durham Place, Chelsea after the death of her husband. Sarah visited her brother but never got out of her carriage because of how dirty the shop was.
At one time he injured his leg whilst rummaging around in the shop trying to find something in the chaos, so employed an old woman to supply him with poultices, but his leg got worse until eventually, he sought the service of a surgeon, who told him that if it were not correctly treated then he would lose his leg, leaving Nathaniel no choice but to pay to get it treated effectively.
The warehouse became dirtier and dirtier, with windows broken, he would not light a fire even when extremely cold, but instead, he would fill a box with straw and stand in it to keep his feet warm. His neighbours especially those on the opposite side of the street who had a full view of this ramshackle property even offered to help with having it repaired and painted, but he refused. He liked his property to be known as ‘The Dirty Warehouse’ people knew how to find it, so it was good for business – maybe he had a point there!
When some asked whether he kept a dog or cat to destroy any vermin in the house, he answered with a smile, ‘No sir, they only make more dirt and spoil more goods than their services are worth and as to rats and mice‘ he added, ‘how can they live in my house when I take care to leave them nothing to eat’.
Notwithstanding his curious behaviour, he was remarkably polite to his customers, and the ladies in particular highly praised the elegance of his manners.
Amid the mass of filth which a long series of years had accumulated in his habitation, it was said that at some time, Nathaniel had a young lady that he was engaged to and that prior to the ceremony –
he invited her and several of her relatives to partake of a sumptuous entertainment. Having prepared everything for their reception, he anxiously awaited in this apartment the arrival of his intended bride, when a messenger entered, bringing the melancholy intelligence of her sudden death.
According to The European Magazine of 1801, Nathaniel had offers from the neighbouring India Company to buy the business, but it seems nothing come of that.
The same year, Nathaniel clearly felt it was time to write his will in which he gave his address and occupation being that of ‘waresman’. In his will, he left a number of bequests, especially one to his ‘esteemed and valuable friend’ Mr M Delavant, of Bethnal Green who appears to have given Nathaniel a loan in connection with the warehouse. Also to a Mrs Mary Dunbar, of Houndsditch and her son Charles Stuart Dunbar.
Nathaniel’s lease expired at the end of 1802 and during the next year his successor, Mr Gosling took over and Nathaniel became his tenant for a year, during this time for a while at least he managed to keep Mr Gosling out of the premises, but eventually had to give way.
In February 1804, the lease on the property expired and he moved out handing it over to his successor, Mr Gosling. Mr Gosling obviously saw an immediate business opportunity and opened it up to the public to view Nathaniel’s living accommodation.
The ceiling in the hall exhibited traces of former elegance, and the staircase displayed much workmanship. The first room on the first floor had been a kitchen, where was seen a jack, spit, &c, the rusty condition of which demonstrated that it had not moved for many years. It had long been deprived of its chain, with which Bentley secured the tea-trays placed against the broken panes of his shop-windows. Here also was a clock, which was once handsome, and no doubt regulated the movements of his father’s family, but now so disguised with dirt as to be much better calculated to inform the spectator how many years’ filth it had accumulated, then to point out the fleeting hours and minutes. The kitchen range, once equally good and useful, had only been used to support a frying-pan without a handle, curiously mended with pegs. The furniture of this place consisted of a dirty round table, and a bottomless chair made useable by the cover of a packing box.
Next to the tin flour-vessel, the cleanest article in the house, stood a chemist’s pipkin supplied with soap for shaving, a brush of his own manufacture, and a piece of broken looking-glass curiously inlaid in wood. This was evidently the only dressing and sitting room, and here also its extraordinary inhabitant reposed, wrapping himself up in an old coat, and lying upon the floor, which from the accumulated dirt and rubbish must have been softer than the bare boards.
Next to the kitchen was a small study, apparently long inhabited by spiders. The closet was full of dirty bottles, from which it was conjectured that Bentley had formerly been engaged in chemical pursuits.
The ceiling of this room had been elegant, and the ground being bine, he gave it the name of the blue-room. The secretary and book-case contained some valuable works; the counter-part was his jewellery casket, from which he used to indulge his female customers with little ornaments as presents, which never failed to be very productive in his way of business.
The dining-room contained a large round mahogany table. The antiquated grate, once of highly polished steel, but for many years a prey to consuming rust, contained nothing combustible, but seemed to groan under an immense burden of mortar and rubbish blown down the chimney.
The carpet in this room was a curiosity, for except the corner was turned up, the visitor imagined that he was treading on dirty boards. One of the closets was full of pipkins and phials, of which Bentley charged his successor to be particularly careful as they contained poison enough to destroy half London.
The second floor was truly a repository of rubbish and filth. In one of the rooms was a heap of feathers, which had been the contents of a bed that had fallen to pieces on being moved, and adjoining to this was a small apartment, once his mother’s favourite dressing-room, but long converted into a workshop, and which contained the remains of a forge, workbench, tools for jewellery, smith’s work, japanning and other operations.
Nathaniel then took a house in Jewry Street, Aldgate, where he lived for three years, but the landlord, not willing that it should fall a sacrifice to his filth, declined the renewal of the lease, and Nathaniel moved again, to Leonard Street, Shoreditch, taking with him a stock of spoiled goods to the amount of £10,000, which he soon afterwards sold for a mere £1,000. With this added to £400, which he then had in the bank, he probably had enough money for the remainder of his life, except his was robbed of all his money and was forced to become a beggar.
Left with no choice, he set off on his travels around the country, ultimately ending up in Haddington, Scotland, penniless and ill and shortly after, he died toward the end of 1809 and would have been around 80 years of age. Nathaniel was buried at Haddington church. According to the account of his life, his will amounted to £400 and was administered soon after his death.
I have seen it stated that Nathaniel died near Haddington, Lincolnshire, so far there is no evidence in the parish registers to confirm this, so it is more likely that he died in Haddington, Scotland, although, to date, I have found no evidence to support this either. To have ended up in Scotland at that age must have taken its toll on him and I remain unconvinced of this.
Nathaniel’s will was proved 20 December 1810, so whilst it is unclear exactly when he died we now know it was prior to this date. His sister, Sarah lived until 1819.
Prerogative Court of Canterbury and Related Probate Jurisdictions: Will Registers; Class: PROB 11; Piece: 942. The Will of Nathaniel Bentley, senior. Probate date 14 Sept 1768
Prerogative Court of Canterbury and Related Probate Jurisdictions: Will Registers; Class: PROB 11; Piece: 1517. The Will of Nathaniel Bentley junior. Probate date 20 Dec 1810.
Prerogative Court of Canterbury and Related Probate Jurisdictions: Will Registers; Class: PROB 11; Piece: 726. The Will of William Plomer. Probate date 25 May 1743
Listed in The New Complete Guide to All Persons Who Have Any Trade or Concern With the City of London and Parts Adjacent. 13th edn., 1772.
Surrey archaeological collections by Surrey Archaeological Society. 1858
The European Magazine and London Review. v.39 1801 Jan-Jun
Not ‘Mrs Andrew Lindington’ but ‘Mrs Sarah Lindegren’ by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797) by Stephen Leach