Mary Meadows & Richard Johnson

Understanding the story of William Meadows’ daughter Mary, and of her family, is one of the keys to understanding the Meadows family history. According to her nephew Edwin Lewis Meadows, Mary married Mr Richard Johnson, and together they had eight children. The only other information that Edwin gives is that one of their children married Mr Downes Edwards. However a wealth of information from the surviving family papers of Richard and Mary Johnson, which has been made available by their great-great grandsons Julian Scott and Michael Johnson, enables us to have a much wider understanding notably of Richard’s life, and how he interacted with his Meadows family. I am also very grateful to Mr Adrian Corder-Birch, clerk of Sible Hedingham Parish Council and author of ‘A pictorial history of Sible Hedingham’, for his generous help and assistance in researching the history of Baker’s Farm and the Johnson family.

Mary Meadows appears to have been born c.1784, and almost certainly appeared on the Dublin stage with her father and her sisters Ann and Margaret. She was probably also one of the Miss Meadows who appeared with her father at Astley’s Circus in Lambeth in 1800. Richard Johnson was later described variously as a merchant and gentleman, of “Baker’s Farm, Sible Hedingham and Queen’s County, Ireland”. Baker’s Farm is is a large Tudor farm house, with a later Victorian extension built to accommodate what became one of the principal Meadows professions, where William Meadows lived probably from the 1820s until his death there in 1847.

The early life of Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson was born in Dublin in c.1772, to wealthy parents. His father, Samuel Johnson, married the heiress Sarah Tomlinson in St Philip’s Church, Bristol, and Sarah probably belonged to the well-known Bristol merchant family, the Tomlinsons, who traded on the Atlantic routes leading out of the city to Western Africa, the West Indies, and latterly including Dublin which rose to trading prominence in the 18th century as Bristol suffered from natural evolutions to its port. Richard was educated at Eton, where according to his son Edward K.Johnson, he was a friend and contemporary of the future Prime Minister, George Canning. Nothing is known about his Johnson lineage, but his mother’s family connections included both the Alington and Killingworth families. The Alingtons can be traced back in Cambridgeshire until the 15th century, and the family included a Speaker of the House of Commons and a peer of the realm. The Killingworths originally came from Northumberland and the village of the same name, but a branch settled in Essex at Sible Hedingham. Baker's Farm was home to the family of Richard Johnson’s Killingworth grandmother from the 17th century onwards, and played a significant role in the Meadows family history up until the beginning of the 20th century.

Image: Baker's Farm, Sible Hedingham

Baker's Farm, Sible Hedingham

Richard’s connection with Queen’s County Ireland (now known as Laois) also had a bearing on the life of one of his children. Richard claimed to descend from a family of Irish baronets, and to have been a possible heir to the title. The claims, whilst persistant in the family papers, seem difficult to understand or prove, as the baronetcy concerned was the Ulster baronetcy of his godfather, Sir Robert Johnstone - but not Johnson. The two names could to some extent be interchangeable over the course of time, and one of Richard’s daughters did marry into another noted Ulster merchant family, so there may yet be a final link to be discovered which would explain the story.

According to one family tradition, as a young man Richard Johnson was painted by the fashionable portraitist George Romney, suggesting that Richard disposed of both wealth and good social standing. Richard appears to have followed his family’s mercantile tradition, and his son Edward later recalled that his father had visited Tenerife, a convenient stopping point on the established Atlantic trade routes linked notably to Bristol and Dublin.


Extract from a lithograph copy of the portrait of Richard Johnson, believed to have been painted by George Romney.
(Reproduced by kind permission of Julian Scott).

Marriage to Mary Meadows

Amongst the Johnson family papers that have survived is a unique document, the letter from Richard Johnson to his future parents-in-law William and Margaret Meadows, requesting their permission to marry Mary Meadows. The letter is reproduced below, by kind permission of Julian Scott. Richard Johnson married Mary Meadows on December 3rd, 1802, in St Mary’s, Newington, on the rural outskirts of Lambeth, in a ceremony witnessed by Mary’s sister Ann Meadows. Mary was described as resident in the parish, whilst Richard lived in the parish of St James’, Clerkenwell, which at the time extended as far as Pentonville and King’s Cross.


Image: St Mary Newington

The original church of St Mary, Newington, where Richard Johnson married Mary Meadows.

How a merchant from Clerkenwell came to marry Mary Meadows from Newington is not clear. One possible point of first contact between Richard Johnson and the Meadows family may have been the closely connected worlds of late 18th century leisure and the English leisured classes in Dublin, where the Meadows family appeared at the city’s theatres. Another possibility might be found in both Richard’s business interests, and his frequent changes of addresses following his marriage.

Richard and Mary’s son Edward mentioned in his biographical notes on his father that Richard had two houses in the City of London, one off Fleet Street close to Temple Bar (and so close to Johnson’s Court, where the writer Dr Samuel Johnson coincidentally lived), and one in St Dunstan’s Hill near the Tower of London. A third address has also been identified in connection with Richard Johnson, in Old Broad Street close to the current Liverpool Street Station. The first and last addresses were strategic choices for a merchant ; St Dunstan’s Hill leads down to the Customs House of the Port of London, whilst Old Broad Street was close to the Excise House. Richard and Mary’s eldest surviving child was born in Kentish Town in about 1810, but by 1814 when their daughter Fanny was born, they were living in Hackney. Another son was born, and died, in St Dunstan’s Hill, and the next two children were born in c.1819 and c.1823 in Holloway ; and their youngest and surviving son was born in 1825 in Stratford in Essex. In 1831 Richard was known to have been living in « Bridge Street, Westminster », although this may have been an inversion of Westminster Bridge Road, on the Lambeth side of the Thames, where Mary Meadows Johnson died in 1832.

The Meadows family connection to the artistic community which thrived around the Lambeth theatres on the western side of Westminster Bridge Road is well-documented by the appearances of William Meadows and his daughters at the local theatres, and the marriages of Mary and Ann Meadows in Lambeth in 1802 and 1810. There is an intriguing coincidence, at least, that both the Lambeth-based Meadows sisters married men connected with Clerkenwell. Ann Meadows married John Massey Wright in 1810, when Richard and Mary Johnson were the witnesses at the ceremony. Wright was originally from Clerkenwell, but by 1810 he had had moved to Lambeth to work as a scene-painter at Astley’s Circus. Prior to the marriage Richard hosted a family visit to Baker’s Farm including John Massey Wright and Ann Meadows amongst the company. However whilst the south-west bank of the Thames continued to be associated with performance and pleasure, the history of the east side of Westminster Bridge Road, on the site of the current County Hall and Jubilee Gardens, was a different story.

Originally the site of a pleasure garden that had fallen into disrepute, by the beginning of the 19th century it was covered by seven large timber yards bordering the Thames. Of the nine London areas or addresses known to have been associated with Richard Johnson, five are known to have been associated at this time with the timber trade, which flourished on the Lambeth banks of the River Thames and in the service of the cabinet makers of Islington and Hackney. Moreover, Richard and Mary’s daughter Fanny later also became a timber merchant after moving back to Baker’s Farm.

By the time that their daughter Fanny was born in 1814, the Johnsons were living in rural Hackney Road, within the parish of St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, where Fanny was baptised on September 14th, 1814. Hackney Road was largely undeveloped at this stage, and the first speculative housing expansion along the road took place from 1815 onwards, amongst the prevailing market gardens. However, the proximity of the area to the crowded City of London meant that as the Industrial Revolution advanced, other industries took advantage of the space available in Hackney. According to a history of Shoreditch published by Hackney Borough Council, “South Shoreditch was the centre of the London furniture trade in the Victorian period. The opening of the Regents Canal in 1820 made timber transportation cheaper and easier. South Shoreditch and Hoxton were near enough to trade with the City yet far enough from it to keep lower rents. By 1861, about 30% of all London furniture makers worked in the East End. … The centre of London’s wholesale cabinet making trade had to move from the site of Broad Street Station [including Old Broad Street] to the Curtain Road area in the early 1860s.” Given that Richard was known to have had a professional address at Old Broad Street, this may support the idea that Richard was linked to the furniture trade. Islington, including Holloway and Clerkenwell, was also another area well-known for cabinet-making throughout the 19th century. The fact that Richard in 1832 appears to have worked in Old Broad Street but lived in Westminster Bridge Road may not have been surprising given the proximity of the Lambeth timber yards, the Port of London, and his wife’s family connections to the area.

The Rise and Fall of Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson was not simply born into money, but he also appears to have made and then lost it. A brief family note by one of his grandsons mentions, « he was rich and had a fleet of ships », and the evidence appears to substiante this and other details included in the same note. Richard and Mary Johnson’s eldest surviving daughter, Mary, was born in Kentish Town in c.1809. A contemporary description of Kentish Town, ‘London: Being an Accurate History and Description of the British Metropolis’ by David Hughson published in 1809 (when Richard and Mary's eldest daughter, Mary, was born there), includes an intriguing reference which may possibly refer to Richard Johnson, implying that he was already a gentleman of important financial means: “" The most romantic hamlet in the parish of Pancras is Cantilows, or Kentish Town, which contains many beautiful villas and handsome houses. An elegant miniature resemblance of Wanstead House, belonged to the late Gregory Bateman Esq, and is inhabited by Richard Johnson Esq, tenant of Messrs Biddulph & Co, bankers." The surviving image of this house, in the London Metropolitan Archives, shows an impressive Palladian-style mansion on the edge of Parliament Hill and the site of the current Dartmouth Park estate, which was also at the centre of a theatrical community associated with the Meadows family friends including the Kembles and Joseph Munden, all of whom were appearing at about this time with Mary’s younger sister, Margaret Meadows.

Image: Richard Johnson fan portrait

Portrait of Richard Johnson, painted on a bone fan.
(Reproduced by kind permission of Julian Scott)

The evidence for Richard’s fleet of ships comes from a source which appears to confirm his Atlantic trading interests. The practice of granting letters of marque, for a fee, to merchants who wished to equip their ships as Privateers was common international practice including in Great Britain. The international conflicts of the Napoleonic wars but also the Anglo-American conflict of 1812 encouraged investors to take out such letters, in the hope of a share in the prize money from captured ships, which in turn could be re-registered in the country of the victors. In 1820, the Association of Ship Owners was based in New Broad Street, around the corner from Richard’s office in Old Broad Street and the Excise House. Richard Johnson figures in the surviving records as the owner of letters of marque for a total of 17 ships, many of which were captained by men from well-known Channel island families closely associated with the trade. For certain letters, Richard’s address was given as City Road, which leads conveniently to Hackney where he is known to have lived in 1814. The choice to downsize from a Palladian folly in Kentish Town to a modern house in Hackney may therefore have been part of Richard’s business strategy. The presence in one of Richard’s notebooks of a hand-written copy of the words of an early American sea-shanty in praise of one of the heroes of the Anglo-American naval struggle, John Paul Jones, may also indicate who his eventual victims were and when.

By 1825, when Richard and Mary’s youngest child and surviving son was born, Edward Killingworth Johnson, the family had moved home once again to Maryland Point in wealthy Stratford, on the border of Essex and London. Whilst fortune smiled on Richard and his fleet for some years, whether it was this risky business of Privateering or another diversified business adventure which brought about a sudden reversal in his fortunes is not known. But in the summer of 1826, Richard Johnson was bankrupted, and the family fortunes took a different turn. Richard apparently maintained his Broad Street business address until at least 1832, and so may have bounced back from his misfortune. However, he chose to live and work abroad, whether by professional necessity or personal choice, and by the early 1830s, Richard was living in Northern France. Amongst his family papers is an invitation to a ball in honour of King Louis-Philippe, when Richard was living on the principal street in Dieppe; and a sketch of five of the six surviving Johnson children at Mont Cassel on the same coast is dated May 1832 (reproduced below by kind permission of Julian Scott).

Image: Johnson Family 1832

1832 was a turning point in the life of Richard Johnson and his family. According to his grandson’s notes, « He went on a voyage and returned to find his wife Mary had died of the plague and had been buried in the last communal grave to be used in London. “ Based on this information, the circumstances, date and place of Mary Meadows demise can all be traced with certainty. Plague was known in London until the end of the 19th century. However contemporary records show that often what was described as Plague was in fact water-born intestinal infection, and most notably Cholera. Two journals and entries illustrate this fact clearly. An article entitled “Scientific intelligence - cholera morbus”, in The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1831 described the epidemic which struck London and enfolded Mary Meadows in its deathly trail:

“The Cholera Morbus of the north of Europe .. or ‘black illness’, is accompanied by a set of symptoms which may be termed preliminary; by another set which strongly mark the disease in its first, cold, or collapsed stage; and by a third set which characterise the second stage, that of reaction, heat and fever. This singular malady is only cognizable with certainty during its blue or cold period. After reaction has been established, it cannot be distinguished from an ordinary continued fever, except by the shortness and fatality of its course.” This swift fatal ‘black death’ in Northern Europe the year before her death corresponds to the tale of Mary's demise. Moreover, a later detailed study of the 1830s outbreak, in The Medical Times of 1851, confirms the cause of Mary Meadows-Johnson’s death when she was living in Westminster Bridge Rd in Lambeth: “In the epidemic of 1832, the part of this Metropolis most severely visited by Cholera was the Borough of Southwark, in which ninety seven persons in each 10,000 of the population were carried off, being nearly three times the proportion of those that died in the rest of London. Now, the Borough at the time was supplied by the Southwark Water Works with Thames water obtained at London Bridge, and sent direct to the houses without the intervention of any reservoir.”

The Medical Times noted that Cholera struck both rich and poor alike due to the sewage system. Since Mary died of a contagious disease in an area of London with the highest incidence of that disease, this would explain why she was buried in a communal grave; what would have been known in 17th century terms as a ‘plague pit’. The last such pit was dug in the main Lambeth cemetery (which still exists) close to the parish church of St Mary’s, Lambeth, where her daughter Mary married Downes Edwards the previous year. The burial entry for April 5th 1832 for Mary Johnson aged 48 almost certainly relates to Mary Meadows Johnson. Moreover, Richard Johnson published a notice of her death on the same date in The Times: ""On the 30th ult., in Westminster Bridge Road, Mary, the wife of Mr Richard Johnson, of Old Broad Street."

The death of his wife and the fear of infection no doubt combined to persuade Richard to withdraw his family from potential danger, at first in France, and then at the family estate in Essex. Having lost four children in infancy, a wife to Cholera, and a fortune in business, Richard Johnson died at Baker’s Farm in Sible Hedingham in 1835, and is buried in the village churchyard. His father-in-law, William Meadows, lived on at the estate in poverty, but the farm was let for some years to come, providing a precious source of income to the surviving members of the impoverished and orphaned family. With the son and heir aged only ten, the Johnson siblings clustered once again on London’s South Bank, in the healthier climate of Kingston upon Thames, where Mary Johnson’s husband, Downes Edwards, had settled in an experimental, and succesful, farming business which would build his own family fortune.

The children of Richard Johnson and Mary Meadows

Richard and Mary Johnson had ten children, of whom six survived into adulthood. The lives of their eldest daughter, Mary, and their youngest child and surviving son, Edward Killingworth Johnson, are described on the following pages. One daughter, Ann, married but nothing is know of her subsequent life. In the 1841 census, the sisters Emma and Jessica were living with their brother Edward on a farm close to their sister Mary and her husband Downes Edwards. Presumably the girls must have spoken often of their Irish ancestry, as their census return mistakenly records their place of birth as Ireland. Fanny, meanwhile, was living with Downes’ own family in nearby Brixton.

In the 1851 census, Emma stated her place of birth as « Holloway, Middlesex ». Their uncle, the artist James Meadows, is known to have been living on the corner of George's Place in Holloway in 1821 at roughly the time that Emma was born, and to have painted the first of several views of Sible Hedingham by Meadows family artists in 1823. The young James Meadows subsequently moved back to Pentonville to live beside his other surviving sister, Ann. If James was living in Holloway in 1821 at approximately the same time that Jessica and Emma Johnson were born, it was probably not simply a coincidence, and there is a strong possibility that he was living close by his sister Mary and his brother-in-law, Richard Johnson. George's Place still exists today as George's Road in Lower Holloway, an area squeezed between modern-day Pentonville Prison and Arsenal Football Club. However until the mid-19th century this was an area of rural calm, and close to Kentish Town where Mary Johnson was born. In 1851, Emma was recorded as an "annuitant", (living off an annuity, presumably from her late father's investments), back at Baker’s Farm with her sisters Fanny and Jessica. Emma Johnson died in 1856 at the Kensington home of her brother, Edward.

Fanny Johnson

Fanny Barbara Johnson, the second child of Richard Johnson and Mary Meadows, took after her grandfather William Meadows in at least two ways. Firstly, she was one of his grandchildren who was most closely associated with the house where he died; and secondly, she died at the age of 92, almost rivalling her grandfather's record age of 94 years old.

Fanny was born in Hackney in 1814 and baptised at St Leonard's, Shoreditch in September of the same year, at the same time as her elder sister Jane (born in 1812). In 1841, when her grandfather was living in the home she would make her own for several decades, Fanny was living in the then salubrious suburb of Brixton close to Lambeth, with the family of her brother-in-law Downes Edwards. By 1851, Fanny had begun her reign at Baker's Farm in Sible Hedingham, which was to last until the 1880s. However a life lived as a timber merchant (according to her death certificate), and as a spinster aunt, did not mean that she led a solitary existence without children.

The census returns demonstrate that Baker's Farm under Aunt Fanny proved to be quite literally the cradle of a new generation of William Meadows' desendants. At least five nephews and nieces were born at the farm, and at least two raised there by Fanny in the absence of their parents. The grandson of Edwin Lewis Meadows' suggested that his grandfather may also have been born at Baker's Farm and spent his earliest days there. This would not be unsurprising if the extended Meadows family had developed the 19th century practice of retiring to the healthier countryside for the final days of a confinement, and then leaving the children in the same healthy climate for their formative years. A doggerel poem of praise dated 1889 and probably written by her niece Barbara Johnson, described the quiet and patient Aunt Fanny as a firm favourite with the boisterous new generation of Johnsons who lived at the farm: " ...Who repairs the boys bettatered breeches, There's only one who does it, Aunt Fanny! Who minds the children when they scream, and reads them tales ... Aunt Fanny! ... A friend so good, so kind, so clever, Not even death, can kill, oh never! She'll live in all our hearts for ever, Aunt Fanny!"

Image: Fanny Johnson

This sketch of Fanny Johnson, from the archives of her brother, Edward Killingworth Johnson, is reproduced by kind permission of Julian Scott.

Fanny's own notebooks include a number of personal illustrations that demonstrate that it was not simply her brother Edward who had artistic talent. The illustrations below show her sketch of Ryde on the Isle of Wight (possibly drawn when her niece Mary Ellen Edwards lived on the island), and another more colourful illustration possibly intended to calm the lively brood who lived with her at the farm.



From the 1870s onwards, Fanny's life was linked closely to that of her younger brother Edward and her neice Mary Ellen Edwards. Edward moved to Baker's Farm where he raised his family, and Mary Ellen settled in the village in the 1870s with her second husband. By the time of the 1891 census, Edward had moved back to London, and the ageing Fanny was to be found still living with her brother and his family in Hampstead. Following Edward's death, and at the time of the 1901 census, Fanny had moved to live with her niece, Mary Ellen Edwards, at her London address. Fanny Johnson died in the family's favourite seaside resort, Hove, in July 1906, in the presence of Mary Ellen's sister, Kate Edwards.

Jessica Johnson

Jessica Maria Johnson was born in about 1821 in London, probably in Holloway. In 1841 she lived with her sister Emma and her brother Edward on a farm in rural Surbiton, close to her sister Mary and her brother-in-law, Downes Edwards. However when she moved with the Edwards family to Greenwich shortly afterwards, and it was here that her life took its first major turning-point.

Greenwich at the time was one of the 'gateways to the British Empire', where the merchant fleet dropped anchor and the empire's abundance poured forth. In 1843, Jessica was living in the heart of old Greenwich in Nelson Street, presumably with or close to the Edwards family. In July 1843, Jessica only had a short distance to travel to embark on a new life in the British Empire's most prized possession, when she was married at Greenwich parish church to an indigo broker from Calcutta of Irish birth, Alexander Holmes.

Alexander Holmes was born in Larne in County Antrim, from a distinguished family of Scottish Protestant settlers. One of Alexander's sisters married a leading Presbyterian minister in Dublin, and the Holmes-Ledlie clan later spread to the United States. The Holmes connection to Calcutta appears to have been long-standing, and in 1840 an essay on the productive resources of India noted that Whyte, Holmes & Co exported wool, buffaloe horns, deer horns, horn tips, and indigo. In July 1841 Alexander left the firm to create "a new indigo broker concern", Holmes, Faudon & Co.; and in June 1842 The Asiatic Journal & Monthly Register passenger lists for British & Foreign India announced the arrival "per 'India' (steamer) from Bengal: ... A.Holmes Esq; J.Faudon Esq". Alexander Holmes duly took up residence in London Street, Greenwich, and made, or re-made, the acquaintance of the genteel Jessica Johnson, who like him was a product of the Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry. Even one of the witnesses at their wedding, Richard Dillon Tennent, recalled the couple's common heritage, as he was a London-based merchant born in Belfast, adding to the pronounced Irish accent of the wedding.

Image: Watercolour by Jessica Johnson

Memories of India: this watercolour was painted by Jessica Johnson Holmes during her days in the Subcontinent.
(Reproduced by kind permission of Julian Scott).

Jessica and Alexander announced their marriage widely in the contemporary journals which reflected their circles of friends: 'The Court Magazine & Monthly Critic and Lady's Magazine' for Jessica, and 'The Asiatic Journal' and 'Fisher's Colonial Magazine' for Alexander. After an absence from Calcutta of more than a year, Alexander took his new wife back with him, and returned to his business affairs. However there happiness was to be short-lived. Alexander and Jessica set sail for England once again, at the end of September, 1845. But whilst the couple left together, the husband did not return his wife, and 'Allen's Indian Mail' of December 16th, 1845, recorded the death, "On board the ship 'Seringapatam', off the coast of Ceylon, of Alex.Holmes Esq, proceeding to England from Calcutta". On the memorial to their lost son in the Old Presbyterian Church of Larne and Kilwaughter in Northern Ireland, the Holmes family mourned the loss of Alexander, "who departed this life October 16th, 1845, aged 32 years, and was buried in the Bay of Bengal off the coast of Ceylon, after nineteen years residence abroad". Alexander and Jessica do not appear to have had any children, but a certain Maria Holmes born in Calcutta in c.1841 was staying with the hospitable Fanny Johnson at Baker's Farm at the time of the 1861 census. Her status is recorded as "niece", but it is more likely that she was in fact Jessica's niece, and a last contact with Jessica's first, and lost, love.

By 1847, the young widow Jessica was back in the heart of London living in Dean Street in Soho. As she faced the second turning point in her short life, it was her brother Edward Killingworth Johnson who had played a crucial role when once again she walked the short distance to her new parish church, St Anne's, Soho, for her second wedding. For her new husband, William Tate Philpott had been a near neighbour of her brother Edward only two years before, and Edward was a witness at William and Jessica's wedding. William, a gentleman farmer from Harrow, was the same age as Jessica's younger sister Emma.

Image: William Tate Philpott

William Tate Philpott, sketched by Fanny Johnson.
(Reproduced by kind permission of Julian Scott).

William's family home, Forty Farm, is on the edge of Harrow and Wembley, and Jessica and William's first child, also named Jessica, was born in Wembley, most probably at the farm, in c.1849. By 1851, Jessica, William and young Jessie were installed at Baker's Farm, where William was recorded the head of the household, and living off an annuity. A second daughter, Fanny Melrose Philpott, was born at Baker's Farm in c.1851, and a third and final daughter, Floramel Emma Philpott, was also born at the farm in August 1853.

Family friends: The Johnsons and the Leigh Hunt family

The choice of name of Jessica and William’s youngest daughter, Floramel, is an unusual one. It belongs to neither the Johnson nor the Meadows nor the Philpott family traditions, but it does belong very firmly to that of a family who were friends and regular visitors to Baker’s Farm in the late 1840s and early 1850s, the Leigh Hunt family.

Edward Killingworth Johnson was the key to the family friendship, as an apprentice to the renowned engraver and political radical W.J.Linton, who was himself a friend of Leigh Hunt. The Hunt family were regular visitors to Linton’s studio in Hatton Gardens where Edward worked, and Edward and his sisters were roughly contemporary in age to Leigh Hunt’s children. Moreover, one of Edward’s colleagues, Charles Smith Cheltnam, married Hunt’s second daughter, Jacyntha. In his memoirs, Linton recalled the Hunt children in terms more or less flattering, depending upon his opinion: “Of his daughters, Florimel, the eldest, Mrs. Gliddon, was a handsome woman; Julia, the second daughter, a petite and pretty coquette; Jacintha, whom her father used to call "monkey-face," was the good wife of one of my pupils who, forsaking engraving, got his living by literature. .... Vincent, the youngest, was a very lovable fellow; for some time employed by me, he wrote for the Illustrated Family Journal short, graceful sketches of wild flowers, somewhat in the style of the father and possibly helped by him. A weak repeat of his father, gentle but without moral fibre, he died almost before reaching manhood. “

Mary Florimel Leigh Hunt (1813-49), was an almost exact contemporary of Fanny Johnson. In 1849, the year that Mary Gliddon (née Leigh Hunt) died, her father signed and dedicated a copy of a new edition of his poems published by Edward Moxon, to “Fanny Johnson, with kindest regards of Leigh Hunt”. This book is now housed in the special collections of the Wesleyan University Library in Ohio. Jacyntha Leigh Hunt’s friendship with the Johnson family is evident if so far undocumented. Her husband Charles worked with Edward killing worth Johnson in Linton’s studio until 1857, and later became the working editor of ‘Belgravia’ magazine, which commissioned the work of both Edward and his niece, Mary Ellen Edwards. However the friendship between the Johnsons and Leigh Hunt himself, and his favourite son and daughter Julia and Vincent, is confirmed by a letter in the Leigh Hunt special collection at the University of Iowa, the British census records for 1851, a series of letters between Vincent and his father, and by two previously unknown letters from Vincent Leigh Hunt to Fanny Johnson and William Tate Philpott which are preserved by the descendants of the Johnson family.

Leigh Hunt would have found much to recommend the Johnson family. Not only was Edward a pupil of W.J.Linton, and Edward’s friend Horace Harral was also another favorite of the Literary Lion, but he would also have approved of the Johnson’s Meadows lineage. He was not a great fan of their uncle John Massey Wright, but Wright’s work for Hunt’s friend Mary Shelley would have pleased him. However he would certainly have been most pleased to know that the Johnsons were the nephew and nieces of Margaret Meadows, whose praises he wrote in his literary heyday, and which can be found on Margaret Meadows page on this site.

Vincent Leigh Hunt (1823-1852) suffered throughout his short life from recurring ill health, and the then common family curse of consumption, which his mother and one of his sisters had all suffered and survived. To combat Vincent’s affliction, he was sent away for fresh air and recuperation, at first to the coast, and then in July 1850, to stay with the Johnsons at Baker’s Farm. For some reason, in his first letter to his father, he took to referring to the farm as ‘Boxwood’, and the Johnsons, the house, life in the village of Sible Hedingham, and the growing friendship between the two families are described in detail in the letters published privately in 1934 in ‘Letters to Leigh Hunt from his son Vincent, with some replies’, by A.N.L.Munby. This book in itself drew upon a certain number of letters included in Thornton Leigh Hunt’s ‘Correspondence of Leigh Hunt’, published after his father's death.

Baker's Farm, Friday [July 1850] "in future to be called Boxwood".
Vincent Leigh Hunt to his father :

"Jessie [Jessica Johnson Philpott] returns with me on Sunday night to Hatton Garden where she sleeps and stops in town some days. She is an affecionate, homely, and wise person, whom you would all be so satisfied with that I should like to bring her to the Square [Edwardes Sq in Kensington, the Hunt family home]; but of course I have not mentioned such a thing till I know how you feel about it. She says that when Jace [Jacintha Leigh Hunt] can do it, that coming down here with the little darling would do her immense good. Fanny [Johnson] is very like herself and would I know delight her. They put you so at ease here that you seem to have known them all your life. They sing the 'Sweet Flowers' and like it, though the best perhaps that can one say of it is, that it is pleasing, I think. ... there is no post here Sunday morning."

Image: Baker's Farm by Barbara Johnson

A late 19th century view of Baker's Farm, ("Boxwood"), by Barbara, the daughter of Edward Killingworth Johnson.

Reproduced by kind permission of Julian Scott.

July 10th, 1850 Vincent Leigh Hunt to his father :
"Our post comes in at half past nine ... Fanny in writing to Jessie yesterday forwarded your kind readiness to see her or her's, and I hope to hear in my next that she has been seen. The more you will make her feel at home and treat her like one of yourselves, the more she will be pleased. Being a young mother herself, she will be a fit visitor at a moment like the present. I enclose you a back and front view of the house. The five top windows in front are three bedrooms. The two over the door are of the one in which I sleep. The one on each side of the door is the summer sitting room or Hall, the one on the left the kitchen, and the other two on the right of the room where I am now sitting. The top view is the back, looking north, the under one looks south on to the orchard. Is this not exactly your idea of a true and thorough cottage?"

July 11th, 1850 Leigh Hunt to Vincent:
“… I had got into one of my unfounded worries about your cold in (thankless) spite of the good-natured pains which Mrs. Philpott took to make me think nothing of it. She was, nevertheless, so kind as to write me a letter after she left us, on purpose to set my mind at ease, and with her letter came yours; so you may imagine how easy I am, and how happy to see such evidences of comfort and kindness on all sides. Her sketches of the house are quite artistical. I shall keep them before me till you return, and then hang them somewhere. I have written her a letter in return such as I hope will please you. Your account of the man " on village" is very witty, and made us laugh and laugh again. . . . “

July 15th 1850 Vincent Leigh Hunt to his father:
" ... It was only as I lay in bed this morning looking through the windows on the sunny trees in all their "glad light green", and listening to the larks in the neighbouring cornfields, that while thinking about you all ... The quite cheerful country cottage bedroom was immediately a reproach to me ... The news has made me so merry that I think I have rather frightened them, by my sudden wild excesses in everything - my volley of jokes, and cutting bread and butter with electrical speed, that makes them stare and then burst into laughter - which laughter, I told them was an echo, though they did not know it."

August 2nd 1850 Vincent Leigh Hunt to his father:
"The chaise, that would have taken me seven miles to the railway, was wanted to go elsewhere, and though, with their usual kindness, they had managed it somehow, the arrival of your letter [with a half sovereign] set everything at ease again: and as there are great expectations on all sides of rare days between this and Tuesday, they tell me to write in the name of all, and say, as they know ypu would have me do and as your letter enjoins, that I shall return next week ... I have at last, attempted a preface for the poetical selections which you thought something could be made of; but as it is but a commencement I do not enclose it. Though all around here is in perfect harmony with such a subject (and to one of any faculty would inspire them); yet the luxury of the place and the season, and the constant social vein of activity that is going on, seems to drive whatever poor thoughts I might have totally out of my head. ... Percy [one of Vincent's brothers, and an author] has disappointed me very much by not coming, not that he said he would, only Harvey thought he might, and I think they would make this house quite a country home to him."

In the months which followed, the friendship between the two families extended to Vincent’s numerous siblings, including his sister Julia. The census of 1851 was taken on the 30th March, just two days before the first letter from Vincent Leigh Hunt to Fanny Johnson. The census record for Baker’s Farm attests to the presence of Julia Trelawney Leigh Hunt, the sister of Vincent, who was staying at the farm with Fanny Johnson, Jessica Johnson-Philpott, William Philpott, & Emma Johnson. A contemporary and friend of the Leigh Hunts described Julia as a vivacious character, fond of parties and the theatre, with a fine voice and strong musical gifts, and a ‘Pied Piper’ tendency for wandering the streets singing and drawing her admirers along behind her. The letter from Vincent to Fanny Johnson describes in detail the circumstances which led to Julia’s presence at the time of the census.

“April 2nd, 1851

My dear Fanny,

I fear, if I have been talked of in the Boxwood parlour lately it must have been with alternate [?] and abuse; amid oaths of a papal nature from William; livid invectives from Julia, and looks of silent scorn from yourself; but it has not indeed been any one’s fault. At first it was thought I could be let to go, and I wrote then to tell Julia so, then it was found that domestic anxieties increased rather than diminished each day, and so much more was found [that] had to be done. The two [?], that Julia talks of, will make her seem like the popular female exile Elizabeth, and she will be signing herself Julia Philpott in mistake, and talking of going and seeing her friends the Hunts some day. A wonder [she] has escaped from some month(s) here, why she did not return with Miss of Fitch and leave herself at Hatton Gardens (like the precious parcel she is) till called for. Her not having done so, however, will give me the delight of seeing you all again, and, if better late than never, a wagon of [?] for the interesting invalid on Saturday next. There will not be time for you [counter?] this, (now Wednesday evening), so I will learn in town tomorrow the time of the economical Parliamentary train on that day, and [?] see no luxurious four wheels and known face(?) at the inn at Braintree, shall play the Whittington of sick room biscuits, and ramble on. It was a treat to have a line or two from the Conqueror, but he had no business to write so insultingly a good hand to one whose pen never will behave itself decently. I shall bring him one [??] for this. Love and kisses to the sister of the premise, love to all (none else will care for kisses), and no advice will I inflict you on Saturday. I shall write to Edward by this same post to 40, Arlington St, to learn about the trains. Tell William to have two [?] poles in half way up and chalked for the Sunday visits. Hoping the mother and child are flourishing, I remain yours ever affectionately, VLH."

The “domestic anxieties” that Vincent refers to were linked either to his father’s health or finances, both of which were fragile. Leigh Hunt’s youngest son and daughter were essentially kept at home to tend their father, and keep him company. The “popular female exile” is most probably Elizabeth Barret Browning who moved to Italy in 1846, and was friends with Holman Hunt. Although Edward Johnson worked at Linton’s studio in Hatton Garden, he is recorded in the 1851 census living at the Arlington St address that Vincent mentions. The mother and child referred to are Jessica and her second daughter, Fanny Philpott. Braintree is the station 7 miles from Sible Hedingham referred to in one of Vincent’s earlier letters, so Vincent was contemplating quite a walk. The pantomime ‘Dick Whittington’ was only just coming into fashion, partly due to the scenery painted by the Johnson’s uncle, James Meadows Snr, with his partner William Beverley. "The Conqueror” probably refers to William Philpott, whereas the “Miss of Fitch” may have been one of the daughters of a Hatton Garden jeweler, John Fitch, who lived and worked at 51, Hatton Gardens, just down the street from Linton’s studio. Mrs Fitch was born in Chelmsford, so there may have been an Essex connection which could have explained the friendship. Another possibility is that it is a reference to a Miss Sarah Fitch who ran a Ladies Academy in Gloucester Place in London, which was also the address of the Johnsons’ uncle, John Massey Wright. Miss Fitch also had family connections to Essex.

Image: Julia Trelawney Leigh Hunt

Julia Trelawney Leigh Hunt (1826-1872), photographed by Edward Killingworth Johnson.

(Reproduced by kind permission of Julian Scott).

Two undated fragments of letters from Vincent, possibly to Fanny, survive in the Johnson family collection. However it is difficult to understand their context without the full text(s). Vincent refers to his friendship with William Tate Philpott, the camarderie between William and his brother-in-law Edward Johnson, passes on a message for his sister Julia who was presumably staying with the Johnsons, and refers to William’s passion for steeple-chasing. The second complete surviving letter from Vincent Leigh Hunt was written just over a year after the first, and is adressed to William Tate Philpott. It is harder to read and transcribe, and Vincent himself write at the end of the letter, “How my pen bolts on”. The tone by now was very different from the hapless but happy-go-lucky young man who had left his sister waiting at the gate of Baker’s Farm a year before. Julia was once again staying at the Farm, but the “domestic anxieties” which beset the Leigh Hunt household at this time concerned Vincent himself.

June 12th 1852

My dear William,

Pray take me at my word, when I tell you that, ever since the receipt of a letter from yourself, while Julia was last with you at Essex, and when both our heads were perhaps less grey with the storming troubles of this life, I have gravely intended to answer it, even after I had the fleeting pleasure of seeing you and Jessie here for two minutes, twelve seconds and a half. [Though?] it draws upon the whole sincerity of your friendship, I beg you believe this as you continue to read this, else the further reason, for no following delay in my pen’s duty will seem pitilessly obvious and shabby to the last degree – let me therefore add here, that even had I never seen you I should always have intended, and [?] in calling over your hearty merits to my nurse on my dying bed, had I let the fault outlast my vital strength. I hope you can recollect a friend .,a [?] true, old, and far distant friend, whom you have never answered. Yes, I’ll swear you have all best friends to have. [Please?] don’t deny it because you can, and you know I can’t. I am unhappy at the necessity of this question here requiring an immediate answer; relieve the sentiments of my feeling by not answering it yourself; but getting true of one of the dear, fair (right?) hands ever near you to make one line of it. If Jessie can forgive my silence, after her kind expressions, perhaps she would because she was so forgiving as to wish for me among you now with Julia. I will not try my [?] alas only convalescent, just having been ironed out like a brand new shirt, by [?]dwelling on all the reasons for the great regret I have in being able unable to come and beat you in all manly sports [?], and keeping time with [??] been to some healthy, or [??] after filling the domestic silence around the blazing hearth. I may never make one there again, but I shall never forget the having been once and our most hospitable of living friends, Edward, who won’t [?] in the perils and [?] of the high way: he is the Columbus of friendship, nor am I less seriously grateful, because I designate him thus. How my pen bolts on rather than coming to [?] . Pray believe me, ever your affectionate friends, VLH."

Vincent’s affectionate letter, apologising to his friends Jessica and William, regretting his inability to visit them at the Farm, and praising his friend Edward Killingworth Johnson, was the sad leave-taking of a young man who knew himself to be “on his dying bed”. The reference to being “ironed out like a brand new shirt” refers to the popular term for the 19th century treatment for consumption, or tuberculosis. Only a few months later, Vincent Leigh Hunt died of at the age of 29.

Less than a year after Vincent’s death, Jessica Johnson Philpott gave birth at Baker’s Farm to her third and youngest daughter, Floramel Emma Philpott – named after Vincent and Julia’s eldest sister, and Jessica’s younger sister. However it was a bitter-sweet birth, as Jessica survived the safe delivery of her daughter by only a few months. Jessica died at Baker’s Farm in the autumn of 1853, a year after her friend Vincent, and was presumably buried beside her father and grandfather in the churchyard at Sible Hedingham. Only a year later, her eldest daughter Jessica also died in 1854 at the London home of her uncle, Edward Killingworth Johnson.

The final glimpse of the friendship between the Johnsons and the Leigh Hunt family comes from the pen of Leigh Hunt himself, writing to Edward Johnson’s friend, Horace Harral on November 26th, 1856. (The letter is preserved in the collections of the University of Iowa). Leigh Hunt wrote: “You grieve me with the news of the Johnsons' house. I beg you to give them my kindest remembrances, and tell them so, -unless the wound is too painful to touch.” Leigh Hunt’s final comment on the family was therefore to the death of Emma Johnson, the sister of Jessica, who also died at the house of her brother Edward in Kensington. She was buried a week later.

A New World, a new life, new cousins, and another actor

The history of Jessica's husband and children after her death appears to be, at first, one of abandon and bewilderement. William Philpott presumably continued to live at or near Baker's Farm, as he was commissioned into The Essex Rifles in 1858 as an Ensign, and by 1864 had slowly been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. However in the 1861 census, William was boarding alone in what appear to have been cheap lodgings run by a family of Polish musicians, close to Cavendish Square in London. Meanwhile his surviving daughters were housed either separately or together, either with Fanny Johnson at Baker's Farm, or with William's own sister, Emily.

Only weeks before Floramel's birth and Jessica's death, William had attended the wedding of his sister Emily in Paddington. Emily had made a good match with a wealthy man, Charles Bloomfield Vining, who was the undistinguished scion of a notable theatrical family. Whilst Charles contented hismelf with the role of absentee landlord and country gentleman, his father Frederick Vining was successively actor-manager of The Haymarket, and later the Theatre Royal, Brighton. Frederick had in fact begun his career at Covent Garden, in the same year as Margaret Meadows. Frederick's brothers were also acclaimed actors, his wife (Charles' mother) was the actress Jemima Marian, and Charles' cousin, George Vining, was an actor and friend of Wilkie Collins. Charles' own sister, Fanny Vining, was herself a well-known actress, and may be the key to the finale of the rather strange story of William Philpott.

Fanny Vining married the American actor Edward Loomis Davenport, and followed him back to the United States where the couple's stage career flourished. (Their children, Harry Davenport and Fanny Davenport both became noted stage and screen actors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). This connection might go someway explain why William Tate Philpott was in Palo Alto in California in 1870, when he took a five year lease on 'The Alpine Inn', roadhouse - a long way from Wembley! He married for a second time whilst in the United States, to a young teacher from Arkansas who accompanied him back to Britain; and in 1882 William made another unexpected career move when he took out a British patent "for improvements in apparatus for drafting patterns for ladies dresses and undergarments"! William Tate Philpott died in 1901 in King's Norton in Birmingham.

William and Jessica's daughters disappeared from British census records after 1871, as they joined their father in California. In 1873, they arrived in New York aboard the 'Algeria', and presumably made their way to California. Their weddings were announced in 'The San Francisco Call', with Fanny Philpott marrying the British Vice-Consul Charles Mason in 1874, and Floramel Philpott marrying the British-born banker Frederick W.Russell in 1883. Both daughters and their descendants became active and well-known members of the expatriate British community in Sausalito and Marin in California.

Floramel lived with her sister and brother-in-law in Sausalito up until her marriage, and no doubt helped Fanny with William Meadows' first transatalntic descendants: Reginald Mason (1875-1962), Mabel Mason (born in 1877) who married John Augustus Bishop, and Winifred Floramel Mason (born c.1882).

Following her marriage to Frederick Russell, Floramel continued to live in Sausalito. Floramel herself had four children (Constance, Blanche, Laura and John), but unfortunately she followed her mother's example and also died young in 1891. Her son, John E.Russell, became managing director of the Theo H.Davies Pacific trading company, and lived much of his life in Hawaii.

Charles Mason died in 1889, leaving the widowed Fanny to raise her three children continued in Sausalito. She retained a notable position in the expatriate community as the widow of the former Consul, and she also joined her son in performing in the community's amateur theatricals. Fanny not only demonstrated the Meadows talent for acting but also for art, and in later life became an artist whose rare works form part of the eary Californian artistic movement. She later lived with her daughter Winifred, who married the civil engineer George Neaves Parez (who was half-Italian, half-Scottish, and born in England).  Fanny died in Sausalito in 1937, the last survivor of her unfortunate and unusual family. She visited Britain in 1910, apparently for the first time since the voyage following her husband's death in 1889, and visited again in 1928, At various stages up until the 1940s, all the surviving children of Fanny and Floramel visited England, and many of their children married spouses of British descent.

Image: Reginald Mason

Reginald Mason (1875-1962)

Winifred's brother, Reginald Mason, appears to have inherited his great-great grandfather William's acting genes which his mother and aunt had shown not long after their arrival in California, appearing in British community theatrical entertainments. Reginald later joined his mother in these same entertainments as his acting career began in the first years of the 20th century.  No doubt his grandfather's relationship to the Anglo-American Vining acting dynasty also helped, when he launched his professional stage career in 1903 at 'The Alcazar' theatre in San Francisco. Reginald's lengthy career, spanning stage, silent and talking movies, radio and early TV up until the 1950s. One specialist site wrote of him that he was a, "Noted stage actor; unfortunately, the roles he played on film could not compare with those he played on stage, and sometimes, in films, he was even unbilled." By 1920 he was living and acting in New York and across the country. Amongst his stage roles, he played Professor Higgins in 'Pygmalion' in a 1926 adaptation, and performed with Diana Barrymore in Philadelphia in 'Rebecca' in 1944, and with Boris Karloff in New York in 1949. In 1942 Reginald played Dr Watson in a WABC Sherlock Holmes radio adaptation with William Gillette; and his screen credits (major and minor) included the silent movies 'Vengeance is mine' in 1918, 'Two Weeks' in 1920, in which he played the principal villain, and 'The Highest Bidder' in 1921. In the early and mid-1930s, Reginald appeared in numerous films including 'A bedtime story' with Maurice Chevalier, 'Topaze' with John Barrymore with Reginald cast as the second lead and villain, 'Shanghai Madness' with Spencer Tracy and Fay Wray, 'The Big Brain' with Fay Wray, and the controversial 'Baby Face' with Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Kolker and John Wayne, all in 1933 (the year when Fay Wray also starred in 'King Kong'); 'Charlie Chan's Courage' in 1934; 'My Man Godfrey' which was described as "one of the landmark screwball comedies of the 1930s"; and 'Suzy' in 1936 with Cary Grant and Jean Harlow, written by Dorothy Parker. he also appeared in '13 rue Madeleine' with James Cagney in 1947. Reginald married another English immigrant, Phyllis Young, and they had one son, John Vincent Mason, born c.1915 in Illinois. Reginald Mason died in California in 1962.

Image: Reginald Mason in 'Suzy'

A cast photo from 'Suzy' (1936). From left to right: Franchot Tone, Benita Hume, and Reginald Mason as Captain Barsanges.

Further reading

The links below provide more background on some of the topics and people mentioned on this page. The first link provides excellent detail on the context of Richard Johnson's Privateering escapades. The second link takes you to the on-line collection of Leigh Hunt's letters at the University of Iowa. The final links allow you to find out more about Reginald Mason's acting career.

1812 Privateers

Leigh Hunt letters, University of Iowa

Reginald Mason's film and tv career details

Reginald Mason's stage career details

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