The Swan Circle

A story of Georgian networking

The end of an era: George III’s Jubilee at Kew

Entertainment & Culture, Family History, Society and Politics, The Swan Circle, West Family 1750-1800 2 Comments »

Kew Green in 1810


Kew Green in 1810

It was 1809 and the patriarch was dead. Henry West was long gone and with him the little empire he had built at Kew was dying; the old Swan Tavern on the Brentford Ait had been surrendered by his wife in 1793 to Thomas Samuel Maycock and from him to Elizabeth Legh and her descendants; until finally Robert Hunter irritated occupant of the house opposite, made a complaint to the City of London about the noise. The island, he said 'was a great Nuisance to this parish and Neighbourhood on both sides of the river…,' it lured, enticed and encouraged the worst type of behaviour drawing debauched individuals to the 'House of Entertainment, which has long been a Harbour for Men and women of the worst description, where riotous and indecent scenes were often exhibited during the Summer months on Sundays'.
   Whilst under the proprietorship of the West family, the Swan Tavern had dazzled George IV and he had used it to plot his seduction of Mary Robinson, but by 1800 his father's court had drifted away to Windsor and old King George III paid his last visit to Kew in 1806. He did not return to this fond place of memories for his jubilee, but the remaining members of the West family including my great, great, great grandparents Henry and Henrietta would have joined in the celebrations on Kew Green:

   "The morning was ushered in by the firing of cannon, and the ringing of bells. The board of Artificers walked in procession to Church at ten o'clock. After divine service, Messrs. George and Henry Warren [local landowners and probably relatives of Henry West’s chum Thomas Howlet Warren] entertained 100 persons with roast beef, plum-pudding. &c. in a spacious marquee, erected for the purpose, upon Kew Green. Porter, ale, and punch, were likewise plentifully distributed. On his Majesty's health being drank, 50 pieces of cannon were discharged. In the evening, the whole town was illuminated. A grand gothic arch was erected, from the centre of which the British Star was suspended, and underneath a striking likeness of his Majesty, with the motto of "Virtue, Honour, and Glory." The whole of the trees around the green were illuminated by variegated lamps, in radiant arches, wreaths, and columns, and the evening concluded with a rustic dance, and fire-works".

Surely even a fogyish stick-in-the-mud like Robert Hunter would not have objected to such a celebration on his doorstep.

MJ Holman


An account of the celebration of the jubilee, on the 25th October, 1809; being the forty-ninth anniversary of the reign of George the third, collected and publ. by a lady, the wife of a naval officer
Kew Past, David Blomfield

Footprints on the cheese: a strange tale of theft from 1770

18th Century Digressions, Family History, The Swan Circle No Comments »

It was on a late winter's night in 1770, when Edward Wild a former lodger, broke into the warehouse belonging to his old landlord and stole some produce. He must have carefully considered his chances of being caught and based any decision to burgle the old man on his knowledge of the property, its layout and the family routine. He knew that the warehouse was separate from the dwelling and relied on the assumption that the family, asleep in their beds when he struck at midnight on 10th February, would not hear a thing.

But his former landlord was a canny, suspicious old devil and had kept his eye on Wild for quite awhile. The merchant's name was Francis Stevens and his was my 4x great, grandfather; he had lived through much of the 1730s through to the 1760s at Mayfair and at Piccadilly before moving to New Brentford in the late 1760s. The family house and warehouses were probably nearer to the old village of Hanwell where the family had a long association, than they were to Brentford.

Francis provided an account of the theft and its aftermath on the witness stand of the Old Bailey:

'I missed some cheeses; there being a great quantity, I cannot tell how many were missing. My servant seeing mark of feet upon some coals, told me of it I went into the cellar, and saw it myself; they led to the hole where the jack-weight went down. I went into my warehouse above, and saw marks of feet on some cheeses. The prisoner Wild had lived with me about two months, and had been gone but the Sunday before. I suspected him. I ordered the watchman, if he saw any body about there, to secure them. On the Monday, the watchman called me up before twelve at night, and told me, he had got one of them. He had got a boy. I examined him if he was not concerned with Wild? He said, No, he never was; but he had told him, he could get up a hole and get things; and he had received some nutmegs from him. Then I went with the watchman to the woman's house at the bar, where Wild lived, and called him to get up; he was some time before he did. When I charged him, he cryed, and desired to speak with me backwards. He then told me he had taken a cheese. Soon after he said he had taken two, and that they were in that house. We found one in the cellar cut in two, and about three pounds of it gone. The man of the house declared his innocence; he went up stairs to his wife. The other cheese was found in his bed-room, but I was not by at the time.'

  Elizabeth Boyce, wife of the 'man of the house' was charged with receiving stolen goods, but was acquitted. Edward Wild was found guilty and sentenced to transportation, probably to either Virginia or Jamaica.

The two cheeses were valued at 10 s.

‘I’ll tear your henge out’ – a Victorian feud

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Totnes Guildhall

Totnes Guildhall

Last December some idiots vandalised the historic granite pillars supporting the canopy outside Totnes Guildhall. This fine building has been the hub of town and community life since the sixteenth century, serving as a guildhall, magistrate's court and prison. During the English Civil War, soldiers were billeted there and Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax used the large oak tables in the Council Chamber for planning and discussions in 1646.
   My Holman family have had a long association with Totnes and in particular with the Guildhall – they were sometime Mayors of the town in the 15th century when it grew prosperous from trade with France eventually becoming one of the 20 richest towns in the kingdom. The pointless attack on the Guildhall reminded me of a couple of incidents concerning my relatives James and Helen Holman which saw them appear before the magistrate's court on two separate occasions.
   James and Helen resided in Fore Street, the long main road that winds its way up to the top of the steep hill in Totnes. He was a master blacksmith following on the profession of his father, she – typically of the time – warranted no more than a mention as a 'blacksmith's wife' and whatever chores that involved. At the time of their appearance at the Guildhall they had been married for seven years and had three very young children.
   Next door lived master cordwainer John Perrott with his wife Jane and young daughter Mary. The two families were involved in some spat that boiled over on 17th August 1860 when Perrott leaving his garden to enter his house at 9 o'clock in the evening was confronted by Helen Holman. Helen had rushed from her house towards Perrott shouting, 'I'll limb you, you b**??**?,' then once in close proximity she aimed a punch towards Perrott, but missed and the blow struck against the door. Unperturbed, she said 'Come out here and I'll limb you and I'll tear your henge out.'"
   With his 'henge' still firmly in place John Perrott charged for assault and the case appeared before Totnes magistrates on 20th October 1860. Sadly there is no full account of the hearing, but it has to be presumed that there were witnesses – or Helen still had a very sore hand – as she was found guilty and fined in total 9s and 6d expenses.
  Seven days later it all kicked off again. This time John Perrott decided to lay into James Holman – obviously deciding he was the safer of the two because scary iron-fisted Helen was too much of an adversary – accusing the blacksmith of using threatening language against him. However, the magistrates at the Guildhall who heard the case on 3rd Nov 1860 contended that there was no evidence against James Holman and threw the case out, but cautioned him against such 'riotous behaviour' – I think the inference here is drunkenness…
  Hopefully the rift was forgotten and no-one was killed. James and Helen continued on into the 20th century and lived out their lives in Newton Abbott and thankfully John Perrott survived until the next census.


The Butterwalk, Totnes

The Butterwalk, at the top of Fore Street, Totnes


What is a henge?

I had never heard of it before this story except of course in reference to Neolithic stone or wooden post circles. The OED has a definition of it's usage as coined by Helen Holman:

The ‘pluck’ (heart, liver, etc.) of an animal.


1469    in Coll. Ordinances Royal Househ. (1790) 96   Every sheepe to be brought in whoole, except the hedde and the henge.

1787    F. Grose Provinc. Gloss.,   Hanje, or Hange, the head, heart, liver and lights of any animal, called in Somersetshire the purtenance.

1888    F. T. Elworthy W. Somerset Word-bk.,   Hange, the pluck, i.e. the liver, lungs, and heart of any animal. In dressing sheep, the head is usually left attached by the windpipe – this is always called a ‘sheep's head and hange’.

Brest’s Coffee-House, 1773

Family History, The Georgian Home, The Swan Circle 2 Comments »

Seven Dials circa 1740

Seven Dials, Covent Garden circa 1740


William George Brest advertised the trial opening of his new coffee-house at Christmas in the year of 1773. Two years earlier he had been working as a book-keeper to Mr Prater of Charing Cross and was a close friend and brother-in-law of William Mercer (see previous post). His coffee-house was situated in the area of Covent Garden known as the Seven Dials. Today it is swanky, upmarket and home to one of my favourite theatres 'The Donmar', but by the 19th century the area had become a slum and part of the notorious St Giles rookery.
   The fate of Brest's Coffee House is unknown, but Brest's advertisement serves to illustrate the expectations and requirements of the gentlemanly patrons of coffee houses during the eighteenth century:


Soups, Dinners, Wines, Coffee, &c.

"BREST'S Coffee-House. WILLIAM GEORGE BREST previous to acquaint his Friends and the Publick, that he has very com…..lly and genteely fitted up his House, the Corner of Great Earl-Street, Seven-Dials, near Long-Acre as a Coffee-Room and Tavern. For the Coffee-Room (the entrance of which is in Earl-Street) he takes in all the Morning Papers, Evening Papers, &c. and Gentleman resorting it will always find different Soups, Coffee, Tea, Wines, and every other requisite Article of the very best Kinds. He has also engaged a professed Cook; and any Gentleman or Company may always depend on dining or supping in the Coffee-Room, or in a Private Room as a Tavern, equal (in respect to Dispatch, Attendance, Accommodation, and Goodness) to the first Houses in London, and on Terms that will, he flatters himself insure him the Continuance of those Gentlemans Custom who now honour him with a trial."


Garrow’s Law Series 2: The Trial of Robert Jones

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Garrow's Law


Francis Henry Hay and The Mercer Family

This Sunday TV viewers in the UK will continue to enjoy a new series of the 18th century courtroom drama Garrow's Law. The second season aired last year and included a story loosely based on the shocking trial of Captain Robert Jones. Garrow was never involved in the Robert Jones controversy nor were the events portrayed in the TV episode exactly akin to the factual events that were played out in 1772; the writer, Tony Marchant was concerned with Garrow's own story arc and changed the facts to mirror the counsel's personal predicament.

The real story of Captain Robert Jones and his trial can be found on the Old Bailey website and on Rictor Norton's website Gay History and Literature. The story of Jones, the treatment of gay men by the British justice system (the law did not prosecute lesbians) and the events of 1772 are widely covered in a number of books, articles and websites focusing solely on Robert Jones.

I was rather disturbed by this. If there was a perpetrator then there must have been a victim irrespective of whether one believes in the plaintiff's complicity in this specific case, and for what it's worth I do believe he was complicit to a degree. So what about the 'victim' of the 1772 trial? He is mentioned in the literature, 'a thirteen year old boy called Francis Henry Hay', but there is little else of any note.
Regular readers of this blog can probably guess at what is coming next. I always seem to have some connection to the people and events that are the subjects of my posts and in this instance it is with Francis Henry Hay; he was the nephew of my great, great, great uncle William Mercer. William was one of the main witnesses at the trial.
I will not discuss the trial in any detail here, I will leave that for the source list at the end of this article and the aforementioned references. My main focus will be on Francis Henry Hay with the intention of balancing the available literature of the trial and hopefully ensuring less of an onus on Robert Jones. 
I do not claim to know what went on in the mind of Francis Henry Hay, I have no evidence to suggest that the boy was completely innocent and a victim or was naïve and curious about a possible sexual encounter. I do know, however, something of both the Hay and the Mercer families and thought it would be interesting to reflect on their background and social standing.
If you have read my post The Abduction of Frances Mercer then you will already be familiar with the Mercer family. William Mercer was little Frances Mercer's brother and both children were the offspring of Francis and Jane Mercer; on 30 November 1757 their other daughter Mary married Alexander Hay at St Martin in the Fields.

According to his trial testimony Francis Henry Hay was born on 31st January 1760 and had lived for sometime with his grandfather Francis Mercer before moving into his uncle William Mercer's house at the beginning of 1772. The Mercer family were probably of Scottish descent and linked to a number of Scottish families: the Cowies, the McKenzies, the Dewars, the Drummonds and of course the Hays. At the time of the trial, William Mercer was living at No. 1 Parliament Street, roughly where Westminster Tube is today; he later moved to Northumberland Street next door to what was then Northumberland House.

William Mercer was a jeweller by trade and his Will has the appearance of a jeweller's catalogue: a brilliant hoop ring, a handkerchief pin, a brilliant ring, a shirt pin, brilliant cluster ring, diamond ring, pearl bracelets set in gold… and the star item a watch by Mudge and Dutton. Most of these items belonged to my great, great, great aunt Sarah. William also included in the Will 'two gold seals, one of the family arms the other my crest and cypher' as well as portraits of William Mercer and Sarah Mercer by George Morland and two of the same by George Saunders.
On the witness stand William was asked to describe the course of events and how the assault on Francis Henry Hay by Robert Jones was brought to the attention of the authorities. He recalled that he had notified Justice Mercer; could this have been a member of his own family?
'Justice Mercer' was probably George Mercer JP for Surrey and Middlesex and was said to be a descendant of the Aldie Mercers. The Aldie Mercers had links to the Mercer Elphinstone family and Margaret Mercer Elphinstone was famously painted by George Saunders.


The Hay Family


Francis Henry Hay was working in his uncle William's shop when he met with Captain Robert Jones in St Martin's Lane and Jones told him he had a buckle to mend. Hay went with the Captain to his lodgings to collect the buckle and Jones allegedly sexually assaulted him in the dining room.
A month or so later Jones was called to trial at the Old Bailey for the assault and Hay appeared on the stand, followed by his uncle and another future family member William George Brest. Francis Henry Hay's father Alexander Hay did not appear at the trial and only a vague reference is made to the mother Mary who lived in Tavistock Street. Could Alexander have been dead by this date? His Will was written in 1762, but not proved until 1776 so possibly. Alexander's Will is curious because not only does he name his father-in-law Francis Mercer as sole executor, he also grants him Letter of Attorney for his freehold house in Justice Walk, Chelsea (see pictures) to hold for Francis Henry Hay; he also writes of several sums owed to him by various individuals, most notably the Earl of Rothes.
Intriguingly, John Leslie, the 10th Earl of Rothes was the son of John Leslie and Lady Jean Hay the daughter of the 2nd Marquess of Tweeddale. Could there have been some link between the two Hay families? Unfortunately I have not been able to answer that question.
I can only find a passing reference to Alexander's father, but I have managed to discover the Will of his uncle, also called Alexander. The senior of the two Alexanders had acquired large amounts of East India Company stock, most of which was divided between family members at the time of his death in 1757. In particular, £30 of East India Company stock was bequeathed to his sister Elizabeth Hay of Dundee, Angus; sadly Elizabeth never saw a penny as she died before her brother. Alexander senior was buried at Chelsea Old Church on 15 April 1757 under pews 19 and 20!

In his Will of 1791 Francis Mercer left the house in Justice Walk to his grandson Francis Henry Hay 'of Quebec', so at some point the boy had fled or escaped the ramifications of the Robert Jones trial and all the controversy that followed. At present we do not know if he ever returned or what happened to him.

The aforementioned William George Brest was a friend of the Mercer family and at the time of the trial a book-keeper to Mr Prater of Charing Cross. Mercer had turned to Brest hoping he could extract from the boy an account of the events that had occurred at the lodgings of Robert Jones. Brest later became William Mercer's brother-in-law and became the proprietor of an upmarket coffee house.
Amazingly, both Mercer and Brest become embroiled in another court case. This time before the King's Bench where both defendants were called to answer allegations regarding a bond and a lottery ticket!

That story will be told in another blog post.

Robert Jones Trial 1772 – Old Bailey Online

The First Public Debate about Homosexuality in England

George Saunders (Sanders) at the NPG

George Morland

More Mudge and Dutton

Justice Walk, Chelsea



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