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 c.1806. 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.
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 (click on the image to enlarge)

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.


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

A Trusty Maid; Geroge H Hay; Hospitalfield Arts

A tale of deceit in late 18th and early 19th century Essex

Today’s blog concerns a tale of deceit in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Essex.

Henry Cranmer of Quendon Hall in Essex educated and raised Captain Joseph Cranmer Gordon Esq as his own son, and perhaps he really was so. Gordon continued to receive financial support even as an adult, with frequent remittances of money. Suddenly, however, they ceased.

Upon investigation, Joseph Cranmer Gordon discovered that his benefactor was ‘in a lunatic state’ and controlled entirely by a man named James Winton and a Mrs Margaret Greygoose who had cut off Mr Gordon’s allowance. A commission of lunacy was taken out and Mr Gordon was appointed in control of Henry Cranmer’s estate, much to the annoyance of James Winton.

Quendon Hall via British History Online.
Quendon Hall via British History Online.

James Winton appeared before the commissioners in a menacing fashion, in full regimental uniform with ‘an immense and massy iron truncheon by his side, and a brace of double-barrelled pistols thrust under his girdle’. He was there to prove the sanity of old Henry Cranmer, but instead James Winton’s own sanity was doubted. A verdict of lunacy against Henry Cranmer was proved, as was the threatening behaviour of James Winton – he was shortly afterwards sent to Chelmsford gaol for antagonising one of Cranmer’s tenants.

Both James Winton and Joseph Cranmer Gordon had served in the Essex Militia; Winton wrote an ‘insolent letter’ to Gordon, mentioning that the pair had met once at a mess dinner and pointedly saying that ‘he had served the King for ten years, had been in battles where he had seen the brave nobly die’ and that he wished to meet Gordon upon his return into Essex. Winton was seen to strut around wearing a brace of pistols, with the intention of provoking his rival into a duel.

Estate Staff in a Servants' Hall by Nicholas Condy (1793–1857) (c) Mount Edgcumbe House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Estate Staff in a Servants’ Hall by Nicholas Condy (1793–1857)
(c) Mount Edgcumbe House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Mrs Greygoose had been born Margaret Lacey, the granddaughter of Henry Cranmer’s nurse. Her mother was also named Margaret Lacey and she lived at Quendon Hall, as Cranmer’s housekeeper and his mistress. Brought up almost as one of the family by the gullible Henry Cranmer, in 1787 she married the footman, one James Greygoose – it would appear that Henry Cranmer was oblivious to the fact that his footman had married Margaret Lacey for, in a deed written in 1789 in which he gave her five properties, he described her as ‘Margaret Lacey, spinster, now resident at Quendon Hall’ (her mother had married a man named Gregg and moved out, so it could not be that lady who was referred to).  The deed gave the properties to Margaret Lacey in case she survived Cranmer, with a power of revocation during his lifetime. Before long, around 1792 or 1793, Margaret abandoned her husband. Eloping from Quendon Hall to live with James Winton as his wife.[i] A Mr Street was intimate with the household at Quendon Hall at this time and questioned Henry Cranmer about Margaret; Cranmer was anxious for her to return.

Mr Street asked him [Henry Cranmer], as she was a pretty woman, whether he was induced to do this as a reward for kind services: to which he replied, No, – he had never but once attempted to kiss her, and then she had boxed his ears, but he would have married her if she had conducted herself properly.

© The Trustees of the British Museum
© The Trustees of the British Museum

James Greygoose was buried at Quendon on the 3rd November 1805 (he continued as a servant to Henry Cranmer) and on the 9th June 1806, at St James’ in Clerkenwell, Margaret Greygoose married James Winton. It was this union and, it appears, James Winton’s influence which led to them treating Henry Cranmer as something of a ‘golden goose’. The Commission into his lunacy took place towards the end of July, just weeks after their wedding.

© The Trustees of the British Museum
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Margaret was, however, well-matched to James Winton. After the Commission had decided Henry Cranmer was a lunatic she took him [Cranmer] out for a ride and contrived to lure him into a waiting chaise and spirit him away, retaining her hold over him. The Lord Chancellor was applied to, and Henry Cranmer and Mrs Winton were eventually traced to a house in Camden. After some resistance, he was eventually taken back to Quendon Hall and Captain Gordon.

Henry Cranmer died in 1810 and, without access to Cranmer’s wealth, by November 1812 James Winton ‘formerly of Somer’s-town, in the county of Middlesex, and late of Quendon, in the county of Essex, gentleman’ found himself a debtor in the King’s Bench Prison.

NB: Joseph Cranmer Gordon is referred to as John Cranmer Gordon in some of the newspaper reports.


Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal, 3rd August 1798

Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal, 20th September 1803

Morning Advertiser, 1st August 1806

Morning Post, 1st August 1806

Bury and Norwich Post, 6th August 1806

Morning Chronicle, 6th August 1806

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 15th November 1806

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 13th August 1811

Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal, 16th August 1811

Hertfordshire Genealogy

Historic England


[i] Margaret Lacey and James Greygoose married at St Leonard’s in Shoreditch on the 26th July 1787.

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A Trust Maid by George H. Hay, Hospitalfield Arts

Dando: the celebrated gormandizing oyster eater

Dando - gormandizer
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

To Gormandize – to eat (food) voraciously and greedily.

Edward Dando (not John Dando as he seems to be everywhere else recorded), born in Southwark on the 11th February 1803 to John and Frances Dando, grew up to be a ‘celebrated gormandizer.’

Edward Dando

He was also known by the appellation of the ‘celebrated oyster eater.’  For Dando, although not a thief (by his own reckoning) did not see why he should not have plenty of everything, even though he had no money to pay for it, when his betters relied constantly on credit to fund their lifestyles.  He was determined to live as they did.

Trained as a hatter, Edward Dando, when in his early twenties, embarked on his career as an oyster eater, devouring up to thirty dozen large oysters in a sitting, with bread and butter, washed down with quantities of porter or brandy and water, before informing the keeper of the oyster house that he could not pay for his fare, with the usual results of a beating or a spell in gaol, or sometimes both.  Although his dish of choice seems to have been oysters, he was not above devouring other fare too.

HATTON-GARDEN. – Last night the celebrated gormandiser at other people’s expense, Edward Dando, was brought before Mr. LAING, and in default of bail was committed to prison, charged with having, last evening about seven o’clock, devoured divers rounds of toast, and sundry basins of soup and coffee, at the Sun Coffee-house, Charles-street, Hatton-garden, without paying for the same.

(The Morning Post, Police Intelligence, 4th January, 1831).

Often notices were put in the papers, warning of his presence, ‘CAUTION TO SHELL FISH DEALERS, PUBLICANS, &c. – DANDO THE OYSTER-EATER, ABROAD’ (The Morning Chronicle 2nd April 1832).

© Yale University Library
© Yale University Library

A few months later the Morning Chronicle repeated a paragraph on Dando from the Kentish Gazette; Dando had travelled into Kent to continue his gormandizing there, possibly having become too well known in his usual London haunts to carry on his trade.  The Kentish Gazette had issued a description of Dando.

DANDO ON HIS TRAVELS!  Dando, the celebrated oyster eater . . . committed for vagrancy . . . 29 years of age, lame in the right foot, stands five feet seven inches in height, his hair is brown, complexion fair, and he generally wears a gaol dress. (Kentish Gazette)

(The Morning Chronicle, 25th June 1832)

Edward Dando, now twenty-nine years of age, returned to London, having been imprisoned in Kent several times during his tour, and it was only a matter of days before he found himself in Coldbath Fields prison, otherwise known as the Middlesex House of Correction, located in Clerkenwell.  There he was taken ill with cholera, and a beggar named James Martin who was likewise a prisoner went to his assistance.  Both men were removed to the infirmary where they both died within a few hours of each other.  The two men were buried alongside each other on Wednesday 29th August 1832 at St. James in Clerkenwell.

Burial 1832

DEATH OF DANDO, THE OYSTER EATER – We have this day to record the death of the well-known Dando, the terror of shell-fish dealers, and all other purveyors of the necessaries of life.

(Morning Post, 1st September 1832)

 Years after Dando died his exploits were still remembered.  In 1838 Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, presumably unaware of his death, joked that ‘the celebrated Mr Dando, the oyster-eater’ was intended to be resident stipendiary commissioner of a “Central Metropolitan Oyster Emporium” in Dublin and Charles Dickens recalled Dando when he wrote to Professor Felton in 1842:
. . . but perhaps you don’t know who Dando was.  He was an oyster-eater, my dear Felton.  He used to go into oyster-shops, without a farthing of money, and stand at the counter eating natives, until the man who opened them grew pale, cast down his knife, staggered backward, struck his white forehead with his open hand, and cried, “You are Dando!!!” He has been known to eat twenty dozen at one sitting, and would have eaten forty, if the truth had not flashed upon the shopkeeper. For these offences he was constantly committed to the House of Correction. During his last imprisonment he was taken ill, got worse and worse, and at last began knocking violent double knocks at Death’s door. The doctor stood beside his bed, with his fingers on his pulse.

“He is going,” says the doctor. “I see it in his eye. There is only one thing that would keep life in him for another hour, and that is–oysters.” They were immediately brought. Dando swallowed eight, and feebly took a ninth. He held it in his mouth and looked round the bed strangely. “Not a bad one, is it?” says the doctor. The patient shook his head, rubbed his trembling hand upon his stomach, bolted the oyster, and fell back–dead. They buried him in the prison-yard, and paved his grave with oyster-shells.

Oyster Seller by O. J. Mason (c) City of London Corporation; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Oyster Seller by O. J. Mason
(c) City of London Corporation; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

A farce by Edward Stirling, ‘Dandolo; or, the last of the Doges,’ produced in 1838 was based on Dando’s gormandizing career, Dandolo being played by Sam Vale.

 There was also a ballad produced about Edward Dando:
The brilliantly talented poet Luke Wright has written an amazing poem about Edward Dando that we would like to share with you . . . we’re sure you will enjoy it.
 Featured Image
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library
Sources not otherwise noted above:
The Life and Times of James Catnach of Seven Dials, ballad monger by Charles Hindley, 1878