Guest Blog by Hannah Renier, Hannah has ghost-written several family histories, edited others and edited some nineteenth-century journals, besides ghost-writing books for a well-known historian. History and genealogy have become her passion and she’s writing a book about Leicester Square.
Last year I was working on a book about London’s horses, and how they pretty well built the city I live in; so among thousands of other resources I consulted books about the RSPCA. (And no, I didn’t immediately discern the link to Jewish graveyards either.)
After all sorts of scandals and disappointments at the start, the infant SPCA of the late 1820s was taken in hand by a regular little firebrand called Lewis Gompertz. He kept the whole thing going, and made it grow, for about six years before a gaggle of conspirators had him thrown out because his views were too radical. Ill-concealed anti-semitism appears to have motivated them. He founded the Animals’ Friend Society which, for as long as it lasted, was more effective than the SPCA.
This year, at a monthly meeting of londonhistorians.org – in the pub – having retold the story of Mr G, I was asked to write a piece for their members-only newsletter. So I had to find out more.
I went to the British Library to look at the full Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, some of which you can read online at home for nothing. I learned that Louis Gompertz, an inventor as well as an animal rights campaigner, came from a family of London diamond dealers. There was a longer entry about his more famous brother Benjamin, who married Abigail Montefiore. Benjamin was a brilliant mathematician, the first to come up with credible actuarial tables.
Britannica online (to which I have a sub) had a glancing reference to Benjamin in a related article, but nothing on Lewis.
In Wikipedia I read how Benjamin, a Montefiore and a Rothschild together set up Alliance Insurance in the 1820s. And how Simon Gompertz, of the BBC, is a descendant (as it seems is Will Gompertz of the BBC).
There still wasn’t much about Lewis though. I ordered some of Lewis Gompertz’s books to read in a couple of days’ time, and went home.
I was stuck – who were the ‘Gompertz of Emmerich’ family from which, according to these sources, they came? Emmerich is close to the Dutch border. In cemeteryscribes and synagoguescribes I found the information I wanted, beautifully annotated with associated doubts and queries which – because this is a brief resumé only – I shall ignore. I’ll go for the essentials in the assumption that everyone who’s reading this can research the family on this site.
Lewis’s and Benjamin’s grandparents were Barent and Rachel (née Isaac) Gompertz. Barent had been born in Amsterdam in 1700, Rachel in London in 1701, and they married when they were 18 and 17 respectively. They had a big family and lived at Gun Yard, Houndsditch, from which Barent probably worked. He was a ‘Dutch merchant’ in the records. One of their children was Solomon, born in 1727.
Solomon married young and had a family. His first wife died, and when he was 41 he remarried Lea (sic) née Cohen, who was about twenty. They lived, and Solomon probably worked, at 3 St Mary Axe, although they had moved to Finsbury Square by his death in 1808. They appear to have had a country house in Walthamstow and a big family besides Lewis and Benjamin.
Lea died in 1809, and both she and Solomon were buried in Hoxton Old Jewish cemetery. Later on one of their daughters married at the Hambro synagogue. [First red herring: I suspected that their daughter Julia (born Juliana) was later associated with a family called Kisch; I thought there were Kisch connections to Lea, and to Holland. Mission creep was coming on, and I dropped that trail.] But relations with Amsterdam are indicated throughout the eighteenth century, which is unsurprising as Solomon at least dealt in diamonds and at least one of his children lived in Amsterdam.
Jews were barred from Oxford or Cambridge, but in the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth, these often provided a woeful education. Solomon, unlike several of his siblings, didn’t marry out or change his faith. Skimming Lewis Gompertz’s books, Moral Inquiries on the Situation of Man and of Brutes and Mechanical Inventions and suggestions and Fragments in Defence of Animals, I found plenty to indicate that he had been taught, in the Jewish tradition, to question and support his own arguments; and that he had a wonderfully inventive mind. I also found a poem by his brother Isaac, written on the death of Lewis’s wife Ann, née Hollaman, in praise of this kind and gentle woman.
Among Lewis’s reprinted correspondence I found an address in the late 1840s: ‘The Oval, Kennington.’ This was the first indication I’d had that he lived about 200 yards from where I live now.
I renewed my pay-as-you-go sub to ancestry.co.uk. The 1841 census had Lewis and Ann at the Oval, Kennington, and Benjamin and Abigail at 231 Kennington Lane which is a stone’s throw away. After Ann’s death, her niece and namesake Ann Hollaman moved in. I looked up the Hollaman family and found this niece’s baptism in the City of London in 1801. She had been born to William and Mercy Hollaman. Many of that name were Quakers, and the officially recognised registration of a Quaker child was by christening in an Anglican church. Synagoguescribes points out that many of Solomon’s siblings either married out or converted and of the succeeding generation Lewis, at least, had married out too.
[Second red herring: Discovering both Gompertzes in Lambeth meant that I came across another Lewis Gompertz, 1797-1821. He was definitely not from the same family, and was buried at St Mary Lambeth (now deconsecrated and surviving as the Garden Museum next to Lambeth Palace). I’ve come across a reference to Benjamin Gompertz’s son having died around this time but I am still not sure whether there may be a confusion with the one buried at St Mary’s.]
Backing rapidly out of that second blind alley, I checked the Survey of London vol 26 online (at british-history.ac.uk) for Gompertz addresses. This confirmed that Benjamin and Abigail lived at 231 Kennington Lane from 1811/12 until Benjamin’s death in l865. It’s the same house today but it has no blue plaque.
As to Lewis’s house, it’s gone. In 1861 he called it Oval House. Ten years after he died, when his niece was the householder, the census recorded it as ‘formerly the vicarage’. The church is St Mark’s, a big neoclassical churches about 200 yards east of the Oval. [Third red herring: old maps show scattered houses around the Oval. Had it been, I wondered, on the site of today’s Oval House Theatre, in the south-east corner of the Oval not far from a late-Victorian vicarage where Montgomery of Alamein was born?]
No early nineteenth century buildings remain around the Oval. I could have gone back to the British Library for maps but chose instead to check mapco.net against the censuses. The house had in fact been at the north-west end of the Oval – a left turn out of Harleyford Road past London’s oldest primary school, which has been there since 1824.
But how come it was ‘formerly the vicarage?’ I returned to the Survey of London which records purchases and sales. The vicar of St Mark’s had thrown out an incumbent tenant in order to take possession of a house at the Oval in 1837. Either he’d been living in the Gompertz’s house before that, or this was the one he moved in and out of, for Lewis and Ann were in residence by 1841, along with a couple of servants.
The Survey of London entry concludes ‘Another house which formerly faced the Oval is illustrated in Small Houses of the Late Georgian Period 1750–1820, by Stanley C. Ramsey. It was demolished before 1919.’
Yay! I happened to have, in a pile in my sitting room, my old copy of that very book. And I found the pen-and-ink drawing. It was a delightful double-fronted Regency villa. I like to think that it had once been where Lewis Gompertz, early vegan, lived.
I’d got six times too much information for a short article, but it’s easier to cut down than it is to pad out. I knew the background he came from, what he looked like, who he lived with, what income he lived on… I could have gone on indefinitely, finding his will to see where his properties were, discovering exactly when the vicar let the house to him, looking at the next page of the census to pin-point his address more accurately, and on, and on. But I had detail enough.
Cemeteryscribes and synagoguescribes had told me where he started, and inspired me to go further. This is exactly what a good website should do.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online
www.bl.uk (where readers can pre-order books online)
Valiant Crusade, Arthur W Moss, Cassell & Co 1961
Who cares for Animals? Antony Brown, Heinemann 1974
Moral Inquiries on the Situation of Man and of Brutes, Louis Gompertz 1824; Edwin Mellen Press, New York and Queenston, Ontario, 1997
Mechanical Inventions and suggestions on land and water locomotion, tooth machinery and various other branches of theoretical and practical mechanics, Lewis Gompertz (2nd edn) – 1850?
Fragments in defence of animals, and Essays on morals, soul, and future state; from the author’s contributions to the Animals’ Friend Society’s Periodical. Louis Gompertz London 1852
Small Houses of the Late Georgian Period 1750–1820, Stanley C. Ramsey (Mine is an English 1979 edition. You can find editions on abebooks.com published in London, New York and New Delhi from 1919 to the end of the twentieth century.)
A 2008 talk by Norm Phelps transcribed in Critical Society Journal issue 8, online.