Thomas Homewood (1806 – 1885) & Louisa Stephenson (1806 – 1871)

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Spitalfields had been the centre of the weaving industry in England since the arrival of several thousand Huguenot weavers at the end of the seventeenth century. Driven out of France because of their Protestant faith, over 13,000 refugees had settled in London by 1687, with most living in Spitalfields. In his Survey of London Stow remarked that 'Here they have found quiet and security, and settled themselves in their several trades and occupations; weavers especially. Whereby God's blessing surely is not only brought upon the parish by receiving poor strangers, but also a great advantage hath accrued to the whole nation by the rich manufactures of weaving silks and stuffs and camlets, which art they brought along with them. And this benefit also to the neighbourhood, that these strangers may serve for patterns of thrift, honesty, industry, and sobriety as well.' The trade also had an effect on the local architecture: silk weavers needed good light so that they could match colours and not break the fragile thread, so ‘weaver’s windows’ – wide windows in the upper story – were developed in the buildings where the weavers lived and worked, and the houses themselves were often only one room deep.

Soon the French weavers were passing on their skills to the locals, so that by 1830 over half the Spitalfields population of 100,000 was employed in weaving. That did not mean that the life of a weaver was an easy one. Disputes over wages had led to the ‘Spitalfields Acts’ between 1773 and 1811 which were designed to help the weavers by imposing a minimum wage, but had had the opposite effect by driving trade out of London. As cotton started to replace silk in about 1785 further hardship followed and the Acts were repealed. Trade was good as the turn of the century approached, helped partly by those in influence suggesting that silk should be worn to formal occasions, such as balls, and that a lady not in a silk dress was lacking self-respect. But the good times did not last for long and by 1816 a meeting at the Mansion House heard that two thirds of weavers were unemployed and 'some had deserted their houses in despair unable to endure the sight of their starving families, and many pined under languishing diseases brought on by the want of food and clothing.'

Hogarth's print of mid-18th century weavers in Spitalfields
In 1806 Thomas Homewood was born into a family that had been weaving for at least two generations. His father and grandfather were also called Thomas and both ran public houses as well as being weavers. Whether both occupations were run concurrently or whether the lack of work in weaving had forced a change of occupation is not clear, but they seemed to have been successful as brewers. Thomas’ father appears to have been a weaver before running a public house, but he will have known the life of a brewer from his own childhood. Thomas’ grandfather’s public house, the Golden Harp, was in Vine Court, off Lamb Street, which formed the Northern edge of Spitalfields meat market. A court case in 1796, just before his father married, showed how the whole family was involved in running the business. His father’s twelve year-old younger sister was employed as a pot girl, which meant that she carried the beer out to the customers. Sometimes that meant taking it to other buildings in Vine Court, such as the dyers’ house. On one such visit she was raped by one of the dyers, a regular customer, as he had syphilis and believed that it would disappear if he had sex with a virgin. At the Old Bailey trial, the rapist was found guilty and was hanged. At first Thomas’ aunt, Mary, had not told her parents about the rape as she was frightened both of what happened and of her mother’s temper. In her mother’s words Mary was ‘a very mild, meek girl’ whereas she admitted that she, the mother, was ‘very passionate to be sure, and sometimes gave her (Mary) a very heavy blow’. In the end Mary’s physical discomfort led her to speak to her mother and she was cured by a local surgeon. She went on to marry, but the ordeal must have been traumatic for all the family. Mary’s brother (Thomas’ father) was nearly twenty at the time of the rape, so may not have been living at home, but was certainly nearby.

In 1800 Thomas’ father married Mary Ashley, and they had their first child immediately. No other children appear before Thomas’ birth in 1806, so it may be that Mary died and Thomas remarried another Mary; or it may simply be that they had no surviving children until Thomas; but over the next twelve years another eight children were baptised, either in Bethnal Green or, between 1812 and 1816, in Shoreditch. In 1814 Thomas’ father was described as a weaver of Hoxton Town, but two years later he was a publican at the Hope in Pollards Row, and there he was to remain for a number of years. By now Thomas was probably helping to serve beer. It seems unlikely that he would have been told about what happened to his father’s aunt when she had been a pot girl, but as Thomas reached the age at which Mary had been raped, the Old Bailey again featured in the lives of the Homewood family.offence about twenty men were drinking in Thomas’ house. One of the drinkers had suggested that James Seckerson had knowingly passed a fake £5 note at a local

This time Thomas’ father was simply a witness for the defence, as the man on trial, James Seckerson, was a regular customer at the Hope. Another regular was Charles Christmas, a Bank of England banknote inspector called at the trial as an expert witness, who drank at the Hope every night. On the night of the alleged shoemaker and that it was important that he try to clear his name. In his position as an employee of the Bank of England, Charles Christmas had felt obliged to look into the allegation was but abused by several others in the house (not including Thomas’ father!) when he tried to take James Seckerson in.

A map engraved by John Stephenson
J.W.Norie in 1803
An 1802 map showing Wilmot Square surrounded by the green of Bethnal Green
Thomas' apprentice paper
It is clear from the trial that a group of local workers drank regularly at Thomas’ house and that many of Thomas’ father’s friends were weavers. The clothes the James Seckerson wore were presumably similar to other weavers. A witness at the trial said that ‘When he went out he was either dressed in a blue or green, and not a striped waistcoat, chocolate coloured trowsers, a blue coat, and a grey great coat’. Another added that ‘He had a fresh cane; he was ill with the gout; he used to wear a brown jacket, black waistcoat, trowsers, and buckled shoes to work in. When he went out he used to wear brown trowsers, a mixture coloured great coat, and a blue under coat.’ Thomas’ father had known the accused for seventeen years and, so convinced was he of his innocence, that he offered to put up £500 for ‘his appearance’, with the Seckerson’s employer offering to do the same. That sort of money suggests that Thomas’ family was already fairly well off and probably already owned the house in Pollard’s Row. Three years later, following a robbery in the same street, there is reference to the local constable, Thomas Homewood, who found some skeleton keys and phosphorous on the accused. In those days constables were house owners who served as constables by rotation; the co-incidence of name, place and house ownership suggests that the landlord of the Hope and the constable were the same man.
Elizabeth Rosa Stephenson
Charles Stephenson Homewood, one of Thomas' sons. He trained as an engraver but later became a currier so that he could take over his father-in-law's leather goods business: Thomas L Brown & Sons


Norie's engraving shop in Leadenhall Street

In 1820, Thomas' father paid £63 for Thomas to become an apprentice to John Stephenson, a local map engraver (although somewhat oddly, described as 'Citizen & wheelwright' on the apprentice indenture). [1]John's father had been a surgeon, but had died when John was very young. His mother had apprenticed John to Charles Downes, an engraver and printer, when John was fourteen; but she must have been fairly wealthy as she paid £11 of the fee herself, Christ's Hospital charity paying the other £5. John's mother remarried a successful 'tailor and sans mercer' with several children of his own, and John went on to become a very successful engraver in his own right. He worked for Laurie and Whittle [2], and then William Heather, one of the leading mapmakers of the day who had been a witness at John’s first marriage in 1796; and, in his will of 1812, had excused John half the money he owed William Heather. When William retired, his business was taken over by John William Norie, who had also been an engraver for William Heather, and John now worked for him, engraving many of his most successful charts. In 1829, shortly after finishing his apprenticeship, Thomas Homewood married John’s daughter, Louisa, so the apprenticeship proved to be successful in more ways han one. How soon he lfet John's offices is not clear, but he (and one of his sons) went on to engrave for Norie as well. John Stephenson had been christened as John Gascoigne Tomlinson Stephenson, suggesting a parental pride in their family, but his full name only appears in his mother's will (1812) and on his own will in 1834. Both wills mention property and land, in London and Essex; so Louisa's upbringing was certainly comfortable.

Thomas and Louisa married in January 1829 and, as the newly married children of wealthy businessmen, the future was promising. Within weeks, though, Thomas' father was facing financial ruin which must have affected Thomas. By 1829 his father owned at least sixteen houses in and around Vine Court which he let out to tenants. His brewery was supplied by a malster in Suffolk who was being chased for debts of £520 by a local bank who had discounted some bills of exchange drawn on Thomas’ father’s account. In March his father had personally given the deeds of properties in Vine Street to the bank in which he said that the annual income from the houses was just over £170. In an attempt to save his property Thomas’ father was claiming that the houses actually belonged to his own father (Thomas’ grandfather) and so the bank took him to court. Two years later some of the property remained in the family as Thomas’ father, still living at Pollard’s Row, insured four of the houses in Vine Court (‘made in equal proportion of brick and timber’ for £400) but the writing was on the wall, and by the end of 1831 his name was published on the list of bankrupts. Seven years later, Thomas’ grandfather died in his eighties as a ‘gentleman’ in one of the Vine Court houses, so all cannot have been lost, but a great deal of the family wealth must have gone.

This was not the start to married life that Thomas would have wished for, and he could no longer rely on the financial backing of his family, but he was not a brewer himself and was set on a career as a map engraver. In fact none of the children followd in their father's footsteps (although some cousins did). Of Thomas' brothers, James was blind and became the organist at St Matthew's, the local church, marrying the curate's daughter [3]. Charles, the third son, was first an artist, then worked as a carpenter for his father-in-law; then became a gunsmith; before finally moving to Scotland where he ran a billiard's hall. The youngest brother, Josiah, qualified as a master marined.

Thomas and Louisa moved to Islington where, in time, they had four boys and four girls. By 1851 the seven surviving children were living at home, together with Thomas’ own apprentice chart engraver. Although they moved houses occasionally, they remained in the area, and lived in respectable roads. For ten years they lived in Palestine Place which a report in 1848 had singled out as an oasis of cleanliness in a desert of filth:

‘The contrast between the condition of the common and Macadamized roads in most parts of the district and those in Cambridge Road and Palestine Place may be considered at the extreme. In the former there is scarcely any drainage or sewerage; in the latter they are both excellent. The former are always very dirty, sometimes abominably filthy, the latter are always clean’.

Thomas had several siblings living nearby (although his youngest brother was, by now, living in the USA), but Louisa was one of only two children. She was close to her sister, Rosa, naming one of her own daughters after her, so it must have come as a shock when Rosa announced that she was emigrating to Australia. Communication with Australia was slow, so it may have been years after the events that Louisa heard the stories of Rosa’s life, but it did not make easy reading. Shortly after arriving in Melbourne to join her husband who had set off earlier, Rosa’s husband and one of her sons died, leaving her to bring up the family by herself. After living in a tent and struggling in Melbourne for three years she joined others in the gold rush of 1854 and became one of the pioneer settlers in Maryborough, set in the Victorian goldfields. She was more educated than many of the settlers and taught her children the importance of education. Despite her difficulties she lived in Maryborough for over fifty years, and one of her sons, James Outtrim, went on to become a local MP and a leading member of the Australian government. Rosa must have been an impressive woman.

Rosa was not the only relative to emigrate. In 1857 one of Thomas’ uncles, John, also left for Victoria, but Josiah, the mariner brother who had earlier left for the USA returned with his American wife to live in Liverpool. Thomas’ children were less inclined to wander. In fact most of them were still living at home in their twenties, including the three boys, two of whom had followed their father into the engraving profession and one of whom who became an architect.

Louisa died in 1871 but Thomas was clearly not ready for old age as he continued to work as a chart engraver for several years and, in 1875, married Harriet, over thirty years his junior. A spinster and in her late thirties, she may have thought that motherhood had passed her by. Even marriage did not change that for a while but in 1879, when Harriet was in her forties and Thomas his seventies, a daughter, Mary, was born. Thomas’ eldest son was nearly forty and his youngest was thirty, so it had been a long time since there had been a baby in the Homewood household. Thomas died when Mary was only seven, but he had left Harriet enough money that she could ‘live on her own means’ and look after Mary. Harriet did not remarry, but lived with Mary and her family, some of whom, the youngest of Thomas’ grandchildren, lived until the 21st century, two hundred years after their grandfather had been born.

More about the earlier Stephensons can be found here

More about the earlier Wells can be found here

References

  1. By the beginning of the 18th century few wheelwrights could afford to live in the city, so the livery company found life difficult financially. They survived by admitting people with an interest in the city, rather than being a wheelwright. In November 1817, for instance, twenty-seven new Liverymen were admitted to the Company, who included four drapers, four brokers, two grocers, two ship owners, two pawnbrokers and one fishmonger; but not a single wheelwrights.
  2. There is a John Stephenson who features regularly in the lives of Laurie & Whittle, as well as that of John Hamilton Moore, a colourful character who was sued at least three times for plagiarism of other people's work, including Laurie & Whittle. Most of the references, however, refer to a shipowner who knew JHM, rather than the engraver.
  3. James married Isabella Mayne. Her father, Rev James Mayne, featured on an episode of Who Do You Think You Are, as he was the direct ancestor of Patsy Kensit through Isabella's only sister. James Mayne devoted most of his life to the poor of Bethnal Green and his story makes interesting reading