The Swan Circle

A story of Georgian networking

The Abduction of Frances Mercer

Family History, The Swan Circle, West Family 1750-1800 3 Comments »

Woman and child by George MorlandTen years before my great, great, great grandmother Henrietta married Henry West the heir of The Swan Tavern 'empire', her sister Sarah Stevens married into the prosperous Mercer family. She was probably unaware that the Mercers had been embroiled in at least two major court cases, though it seems unreasonable that she would not have noticed the 1772 trial, which was so notorious nationally, that the scandal reverberated across the whole of the kingdom.
   However, the earlier trial involving the family is a curious one, the offender changed her story twice; the last occasion was before her execution when she had nothing to gain, though she may have been hoping for a last minute pardon.
   On 2 May 1750, little Frances Mercer left the family home in St Martin's Court, Westminster to play by herself in Leicester Fields; she was well dressed in a gown and shift, a stay, a quilted petticoat, some stockings, a bib, an apron and buckled shoes. She had not wandered far, as the Fields were situated across the lane from her father's china shop, when she was abducted by a woman called Elizabeth Banks.
   Banks must have moved fast as she took the child up to the open fields of Marylebone, set her near the pond and stripped her of most of her clothes. The whole scene was witnessed by Susannah Bates who was working at her door, and who saw Banks partly dress Frances Mercer in her petticoat and gown again, before calling on her neighbour the milk-woman Elizabeth Bugdon for assistance.
   Banks tried to lead the child away whilst carrying the bundle of clothes, but was confronted by Bugdon. Frances Mercer cried bitterly, "Let me go to my mamma, she lives in St Martin's Court at a china-shop", adding that the woman threatened to fling her into a pond if she cried. Bugdon, Bates and two men took Elizabeth Banks and Frances Mercer back to St Martin's Court where they were greeted by the child's father Francis, who had noted she had been gone one and a half hours.
   The father, accompanied by the witnesses, brought Banks before Justice Fraizer where she signed a confession and admitted remorse for her crime. She was sent for trial at the Old Bailey on 30 May 1750, by which time she had altered her story saying she had been hired to look after the child. 
   The jury decided her defence was a fabrication and she was found guilty and hanged at Tyburn on 6th July 1750. The crime of course was not abduction, but highway robbery and the eyewitness accounts of the removal of the clothes and the 'bundle' were used by the prosecution to highlight her guilt. But what do we know about Elizabeth Banks?
   She was born about 1695 in Weymouth, Dorset, a poor uneducated child of industrious parents who had left her orphaned and at the mercy of the Parish. She was apprenticed immediately after reaching the appropriate age and she was left in charge of a hard and unkind Dame, who treated her so harshly she vowed to leave at the earliest opportunity; slipping away from her Mistress's house, she travelled to Dorchester and took the waggon to London. She was ten years old.
   The waggon arrived at the Black Bull Inn, Piccadilly where she was immediately offered a service job by the mistress of the house and stayed there for seven years. She left this service, 'willing to see more of the World' and took a new position in St Mary le Strand. Here she met and married her first husband and had four children whilst residing at Russell Court, Drury Lane, but misfortune struck and all of her family died.

"After this, she went out to Day-work, and was admitted into many Houses for that Purpose, in the Neighbourhood of the Strand, but particularly mentioned the One Bell Inn, and the Five Bells Tavern, and says she never wronged any Body. In this Way she went on for many Years, and about nine or ten Years ago was married to a second Husband, who was also a poor labouring Man, and carried Carcases of Sheep, Lambs, &c. for the Butchers in Clare-Market, to Marybone, Tottenham Court, and other Villages adjacent to the Town; and when she wanted Work in her own Way, she was used to assist him, being old and infirm, and as a good Wife should do, to bear a Part of his Burthens. She lamented greatly her unhappy Condition, and always repeated her Innocence, and that she never wronged Man, Woman, nor Child in her Life, but worked hard for her Living".

She persisted to swear her innocence and told her story thus:

"She had an odd Jobb or two somewhere near Clare Market, which having done, she was at Leisure; and having nothing to do, she followed her Husband towards Marybone, that if he had any Thing to bring Home, she might assist him, as he was old, and but weak. In her Way, she says, she met with a tall Women, dress'd well, in a brown Camblet Gown, who had this Child in her Hand, and the Bundle, as it was taken upon her Banks says, that when this Woman overtook her, she told her, if she would hold the Child and the Bundle, while she went to a House which she pointed to, just by Marybone Road, she would give her Twopence. She was willing to get the Money, as she says, so easily, not thinking she should pay so dear for it; and she saw the Woman go to the House she mentioned. What became of her afterwards she does not know. She waited, she says, a long Time, and the Woman not returning, she went up to the House, and enquiring of the Maid-servant, what was become of the Woman? was told, that she came in, and was about to go up Stairs; but some how or other turned back, saying, I ask Pardon, I have mistaken the House; and so went out again".

Banks was warned about persisting in a lie and that the bundle was sufficient evidence to prove her guilt, however in response she was supposed to have maintained that, 'the Woman who gave her the Child and Bundle to hold, had concerted the Matter with others, on Purpose to take away her Life, with a View of a Reward'.

Miss Haverfield by Thomas Gainsborough

Family History, The Swan Circle, West Family 1750-1800 No Comments »

Miss Haverfield by Thomas GainsboroughIn the autumn of 1744, my great, great, great, great grandfather Henry West married his fiancée Elizabeth Louch* at St Benets Paul's Wharf in the City of London. Henry had acquired property and wealth at Kew due to a canny business venture, entertaining the artistic and literary elite at The Swan Tavern on the island in the Thames opposite Kew Palace. On his death, Henry bequeathed all of his estate to his wife Elizabeth and their children with the exception of some land given to his friend John Haverfield junior:

   "And I give and devise unto John Haverfield the Younger of Kew in the County of Surry aforesaid Esquire all that Copyhold half acre of Ozier ground part whereof now used as a Garden situate lying and being in the Isle or Ayte of the River Thames within the Manor of Richmond".

  Henry was keen to see that Elizabeth was further supported following his death and asked Haverfield 'to permit and suffer my loving wife Elizabeth West and her assigns to have take and receive the rents issues and profits thereof and of every part and parcel thereof for and during the term of her natural life'. Haverfield surrended Henry's bequest to Elizabeth and she was free to do with the land as she pleased.
  The Haverfield family were originally from the west country, but had moved to Twickenham in the early half of the 18th century and later leased a large
house on the east side of Kew Green when their fortunes began to swell. In 1759, Lord Bute recommended to Princess Augusta, the surveyor John Haverfield senior for the position of superintendant at Richmond Pleasure Gardens. Haverfield took charge after Capability Brown had reconstructed the gardens and jointly assumed control with his son John junior in 1762. With no pension provision forthcoming, Haverfield the elder continued in the role until his death at the age of ninety. Following the loss of his father, John junior took sole charge of the gardens, but only for two years until he developed his own business as a landscape gardener. One of his clients was Sir John Soane for whom he remodelled the gardens at Pitshanger Manor in Ealing and in partnership, made frequent visits to Tyringham Hall in Buckinghamshire, a green domed country house designed by Soane. Between 1804 and 1812 Haverfield made extensive alterations to the grounds at Walsingham Abbey in Norfolk and continued to reside at Kew until his death in about 1820.

Haverfield House
Haverfield House, Kew Green

  He had at least three children with his wife Elizabeth, John who became a Lieutenant Colonel, Robert Tunstall named after his brother-in-law and a daughter Elizabeth Anne born about 1776. Sometime around 1780 Thomas Gainsborough painted John Haverfield's daughter and created one of the most celebrated paintings of the eighteenth century.
  Gainsborough never resided at Kew, except on occasional visits to his sister, but he had a close long term friendship with the landscape painter John
Joshua Kirby, who had lived at Kew from 1760 and together with his wife Sarah Kirby, was painted by Gainsborough in the early 1750s. The commission to paint Elizabeth Haverfield must have occurred some eight years prior to Gainsborough's death from cancer in 1788, and the finished work remained in the Haverfield Kew residence until at least 1850. Gainsborough requested to be buried in a modest tomb in Kew churchyard near his friend Kirby.
  Elizabeth Anne Haverfield married the Reverend James Wyld in November 1794 and had two children, Elizabeth Tunstall Wyld and Diana Mary Wyld; she died 14
September 1817 aged 41 at Blunsdon St Andrew, Wiltshire; unfortunately we know nothing more about the rosy cheeked, carefree little girl who was the subject of Gainsborough's painting, but she was captured during a period in the artist's life, when he was experimenting with a looser more fluid style. For that reason the painting is hugely significant.

 *Elizabeth West formerly Louch died after 1793 having surrendered her share in the Swan Tavern to Thomas Samuel Maycock. The Louch surname is not a common one in west London and evidence suggests the family were probably from Hampshire. Amazingly, they appear to have crossed paths with a certain Jane Austen; that tale will be told in a future post.


How to float a Georgian

18th Century Digressions, Manufacturing & Industry, Military & Naval 1 Comment »

F. C. Daniel's Life Preserver'A droll and not indecent sight'

In the autumn of 1764, an experiment was conducted at London Bridge to test the efficacy of the Patent Air Jacket; one tester was a woman in a mob cap with red ribbons, the other was a man eating bread and cheese and firing a pistol, obviously testing the efficiency of the air jacket in cases of drowning whilst eating a cheese 'sandwich' and firing a gun scenario. According to one eyewitness, "it was a droll and not indecent sight, they all being dressed in flannel shifts and linen breeches".
   During the previous Spring, William Cobb a cordwainer from St Swithin's Lane, Cannon Street had submitted his patent for a 'Method of making an Air Jacket and proper Shoes for Swimming', explaining:

 'The jackets are made of calves, neat, or sheeps leather, or any thing pliable that will hold air, cut in the form of a short jacket without sleeves, with pieces sewed on the outsides and back bigger than the insides or back to hang loose and hollow, to contain a sufficient quantity of air blowed through a bag or receptacle, with a pipe fixed to it to convey the air into the receptacle, which receptacle is fastened on to one of the loose sides to convey the air into the loose sides and back, by means of a communication from one part of the jacket to the other. The jacket to be buttoned before, button-holes round the skirts to be buttoned or fastened to the waistband of the breeches. The upper strap of the receptacle to be buttoned to the upper button of the jacket, and the lowest strap to the nearest lower button it comes to. Then hold the pipe with your teeth and blow into the receptacle till the jacket is filled with air, stop the pipe with the cork, then use it in swimmng.
'The shoes are made with pieces of wood cut in the form of a sole of a shoe, and hinges screwed on to the wood with joints covered with leather, fastened on to common shoes, to open and shut in swimming like a swan's foot'.

   Surprisingly, the shoes never caught on. However, in 1808 The Repertory of Arts published a description of Mr F. C. Daniel's 'Life-Preserver' (see illustration above), for which Daniel won a Gold Medal from the Society of Arts. The Repertory of Arts describes the two inventions as 'similar', but did Mr Daniel borrow from William Cobb? Daniel certainly had many advocates for his invention, there were testimonies from happy nautical folk thankful for a contraption that resembled an instrument of torture or an unwieldy chastity belt. John Dickenson of Norwich was a gentleman grateful for its assistance during a boat trip:
   "I went from the city of Norwich, in a pleasure-boat that I keep for the amusement of sailing, in company with a gentleman and two ladies… we set sail about four o'clock, it being moon-light during the night; and fortunately procured, in case of accident (the wind blowing hard at South-east) one of your life-preservers… [At] the extremity of a broad water, two miles over, known by the name of Braydon, a sudden gust overset the boat, precipitating myself, companion, and two ladies, into as agitated a water as I have ever seen at sea… The gentleman, whose name is Goring, was inexpert at swimming, and with difficulty kept himself up, till I reached him; and then directing him to lay hold of the collar of my coat, over which the machine was fixed, I proceeded toward the ladies, whose clothes kept them bouyant, but in a state of fainting when I reached them [naturally, they were women]: then taking one of the ladies under each arm, with Mr Goring hanging from the collar of the coat, the violence of the wind drifted us on shore upon Burgh Marshes, where the boat had already been thrown, with what belonged to her. We got the assistance of some countrymen directly, (after taking refreshment at a marsh farmer's house, where we were procured some dry clothing for the ladies, who were now pretty well recovered,) and by their endeavours put the boat in sailing trim, and prosecuted our voyage to Norwich, which we effected by eleven o'clock that night".

   It seems apparent from Mr Dickenson's account, that the ladies concerned did not require the use of Mr Daniel's marvellous invention thanks to their voluminous petticoats and bouyant stays, if only they could have just stopped fainting!

The Mystery of the Miniature

Family History, The Swan Circle, West Family 1750-1800 3 Comments »

In 1843 my eighty-nine year old great great great grandmother Henrietta West, bequeathed a miniature portrait of her father-in-law to her grandson; unfortunately the location of the miniature is currently unknown and the artist remains anonymous, but there are two very likely candidates.
   When the West family took lodgings on Kew Green in the early half of the 18th century, they were surrounded by intellectuals, artists and nobility, drawn
to the area by the royal favour granted to the village. Their house at no. 73 was flanked on one side by the residence of Court miniature painter Jeremiah Meyer and on the other side by relatives of his friend and fellow miniaturist George Engleheart.
   The two painters had much in common, both were of foreign extraction, as Meyer was born at Tübingen, Württemberg in 1735 and Engleheart, born at Kew in
1750 was the son of Francis, an immigrant who was believed to have originated in Franconia. Both artists had been pupils of Sir Joshua Reynolds and were admirers of the work of the man known as the 'President' and both painters eventually took the position of Court painter; Engleheart was eventually appointed to the role following the death of his friend Meyer in 1789.
   In 1783 Engleheart visited the poet William Hayley at Eartham, West Sussex, when he was invited to meet John Flaxman, George Romney, William Blake and
Meyer; it is not actually known when Engleheart originally met Meyer and it is easy to presume they met at Kew, but the 1783 meeting might have been the first. We can imagine the delightful conversations between these brilliant minds and probably the visits they made as a group to nearby Petworth House, drawing inspiration from the surroundings.
   Meyer was a close friend of George Romney, who painted the Meyer family after his return from Italy in 1776; and it was Meyer who introduced Romney to
Hayley. The poet would become Romney's biographer and recall the mutual friendship they had shared with Meyer.
   Six years after the 1783 meeting, Meyer died and was buried at Kew; he left a widow who maintained very close links with the Engleheart family. Hayley
wrote  eulogistic verses to accompany a medallion relief portrait in Kew Church:
   Age after age may not one Artist yield
   Equal to thee in painting's nice field
   And ne'er shall sorrowing earth to heaven command
   A fonder parent, or a truer friend
   In 1813 Engleheart retired to his home in Bedfont, Middlesex, but the declining health of his daughter Emma forced him to move in with his son Nathaniel
in 1827. He died at his son's home in Blackheath in 1829 and was buried in the family vault at Kew Church.

Who then painted the portrait of Henrietta's father-in-law Henry West?

My personal opinion is that it was probably Meyer, and though we cannot rule out other contemporary miniature portrait painters, the close proximity of Meyer makes him the preferred candidate. Engleheart was meticulous, he recorded the names of his sitters in a fee-book and there is no mention of a Henry West; Meyer, on the other hand, only left a sketch book of unnamed sitters. The miniature of an 'Unknown Gentleman' – shown above – was painted by Meyer about 1783, the subject bears a resemblance to the West family and appears to have been of similar age to Henry West, but in truth we have no way of telling until the portrait is identified.
   Both Meyer and Engleheart were exceptional talents and between them they painted the likenesses of some of the most prominent men and women of the eighteenth century, evoking the fashions, hairstyles and colours of the period to great effect and moreover immortalising their subjects through the medium of portraiture.

 Portrait of a lady by
George Engleheart
Portrait of an Unknown Woman by George Engleheart Mary Mee by
George Engleheart
Portrait of a lady by George Engleheart Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Engleheart

Mary Mee by George Engleheart

Portrait of a student by Jeremiah Meyer Countess of Bellomont by Jeremiah Meyer

Portrait of a lady by
Jeremiah Meyer

Portrait of a student by Meyer Portrait of Countess of Bellomont by Meyer Portrait of a lady by Meyer















by MJ Holman (@mishjholman)


Katherine Coombs, 'Meyer, Jeremiah (1735-1789)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006
National Archives, 'West, Henrietta', Will 9 December 1843, Prerogative Court of Canterbury and related Probate Jurisdictions: Will Registers: PROB 11/1990 Volume number: 18 Quire numbers: 851-897
George Charles Williamson, Henry Lewis Dillman Engleheart, 'George Engleheart, 1750-1829: Miniature Painter to George III (1902)', George Bell & Sons, 1902.


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