An American Ambassador’s view of Brentford in 1815

by Janet McNamara, Journal 11, 2002

An article about John Quincy Adams, the American Ambassador to Britain during 1815-1817, appeared in Journal 7. What follows gives further information about his Brentford connections.

He lived at the time in a house called Little Boston in Windmill Road, Ealing on the estate of James Clitherow of Boston House, Brentford. He had been Ambassador in the Netherlands and in Prussia and Russia, where he had lived with his wife and youngest son, Charles Francis Adams, leaving his older sons with his parents in America. His father, John Adams, had been the second American President. Before travelling to London John Quincy had negotiated the peace treaty between Britain and America to end the war of 1812.

John Quincy’s diaries and correspondence have been preserved in the Library of Congress, Washington DC, and extracts from them vividly bring to life events in 1815 in Brentford and South Ealing.

A letter from Louisa Adams to her mother-in-law in America in August 1815 apologises for delay in writing as she had been acting as her husband’s secretary and they had been hunting for a house and a school for their sons. Of Little Boston, the house they chose, she says, ‘the situation is beautiful, the house comfortable and the distance from the City supportable’. There was an ‘excellent school for the boys within a mile’. (This was Great Ealing School near Ealing Green.)

Little Boston is just belowe the words Little Ealing, beside a sharp bend in Windmill Lane, from the 1777 Survey of Ealing

Other attractions were that they were within an hour’s ride of Kew, Richmond, Twickenham and Harrow and ‘a variety of other beautiful places and the situation is said to be perfectly healthy’. This suited their three boys who ‘could not abide London’. She reported that the main topic of conversation and subject in the ‘public prints’ was the surrender of Napoleon and confirmed that one of the attractions of the house was the name, as their family had lived in Boston, Massachusetts. She said it was ‘highly appropriate’.

Louisa’s son Charles Francis, then aged eight, wrote to his grandfather, John Adams, as a boy might still do nowadays: ‘there are 275 boys in school of which I know 140’. The subjects he was studying were rather different from today: Latin, Greek, Drawing, Dancing, French, Music, English, Arithmetic, Writing and Fencing. A sentence from this letter also records, ‘It is the fashion in Ealing for Ladies to ride on Donkeys which is the genteel name for Asses’. Charles Francis was the only one of his three sons to survive John Quincy. He was Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to Britain during the American Civil War.

Little Boston House (Ealing Local Studies & Archives)

There seems to have been some question as to how long the Adams family would be able to stay at Little Boston as a letter from Miss Mary Clitherow explains that her brother and his wife are away in ‘Dorsetshire’ or they would have called on the Adams. She said that she was living with them at Boston House and would have called, only being a great invalid she went ‘nowhere’. Some years later though she was persuaded to Court on a number of occasions when her brother’s friend, the Duke of Clarence, became King William IV.

Miss Clitherow explained that usually she and her sister, Lady Seymour, lived at Little Boston but that Lady Seymour was in London looking after another sister following the death of her husband. This sister, Mrs Baker, was ‘in so precarious state we have every reason to dread loosing her also’. A portrait painted by Gainsborough of Mrs Peter Baker as a young lady is in the Frick Collection in New York; a copy is now displayed in Boston Manor House.

The pages of John Quincy’s diary, written in a minute hand, describe how they moved from London to Ealing in August 1815. It took the family a whole day to pack and load two carts and a waggon with their ‘baggage, furniture and wines’ and he says that during the day he was ‘constantly engaged with company’. It sounds as though that helped to keep him from helping with the packing. Their middle son John and the servants were despatched in the carriage with the carts and luggage. The carriage then returned for the rest of the family. who travelled from Cavendish Square after their dinner and took an hour for the journey. They were unpacked by midnight.

The house was ‘not large but neat and elegant and fitted up with all that minute attention to comfort which is characteristic of English domestic life. Mr and Mrs Adams’ first day was spent finding a school for their two younger boys. Orgar House in Acton was their first call but they were not happy with it and chose instead Great Ealing School, where the boys went as weekly boarders. The school at the time was a rival to Eton and Mr and Mrs Adams became very friendly with the headmaster, Dr Nicholas and his daughter. They were invited to dine with them a month later when ‘our entertainment was the most elegant and sump-tuous of any that I have been at in England’.

John Quincy and Louisa’s eldest son, George Washington, was being coached by his father for entry to university and was ‘directed to rise at six o’clock’ to start his studies. Of course, his father had to get him up at that time and they started their work each morning with George reading three chapters of a French Bible while John Quincy followed in a Latin one and then they swapped over. ‘I propose regularly to pursue the same course every morning’ he wrote. George was then left to translate Gibbon’s Journal into French. Later they compared the French and Greek editions of the New Testament. From other sources it seems that George was not quite as clever as his family thought and entry to university was not as straightforward as they expected. It would also seem that he found it difficult to cope with the pressure of having highly intelligent parents and grandparents. He died in 1829 when he fell or jumped from a ship in Long Island Sound.

John Quincy’s days were filled with letter writing, fishing, buying a new curricle, games of backgammon with his sons, walks, rides and visits. He went to his office in London regularly where his main business seemed to be issuing passports to travellers to the United States. On Sundays they attended St Mary’s Church in Ealing where they had a pew that was included in the rent for their house. On their first visit the service was read by a Dr Carr. The diary mentions that his son had married Mrs Perceval. She was the widow of the Prime Minister shot in the lobby of the Houses of Commons a few years earlier; the Percevals had lived in the area near Ealing Green. A letter was read at the service from the Bishop of London founded on the recommendation of the Prince Regent to the Archbishop of Canterbury to raise money for ‘the sufferers at the Battle of Waterloo’. Dr Carr then said that he would be visiting all houses in the parish with the Churchwardens and ‘trusted they would contribute with their usual liberality.’

The following month, September 1815, the family visited Brentford Fair. John Quincy’s diary entry reads as follows – ‘Sent the coachman to London for the curricle, and to call at the office for any letters that there might be for me – There were none –The carpenters are still at work in my cabinet and interrupt me in my occupations – I only wrote Two or three short letters – Went with Mrs Adams and paid visits to Col. and Mrs and Miss Clitherow. They were gone to London and we left cards. Walk with George before dinner to the Brentford Fair. And after dinner again with Mrs Adams and George.

We saw one of the shows, a double jointed ox, between two and three feet high, a sheep with five legs, an armadillo, a Jackall and a Baboon. We also stopped and saw general people looking through a magic lanthorn, the showman of which announced that it was a view of the burning of the city of Washington, by General Ross. He said there was not a house in that city but was in flames. And his next show was the battle of Waterloo, where he said the British army had lost thirteen thousand men killed and wounded. While we were listening to him in the crowd I felt a hand making a plunge at my coat pocket, and was in time to prevent its getting in – This was another kind of British hostility from which it was expedient to remove and we returned home. The Fair is confined within the limits of the market square and is frequented only by children and the rabble. It continues three days – After returning home I played Back-gammon with George’. It must have been an interesting experience for the American Ambassador who had negotiated the peace treaty to end the war when Washington had been burned.

John Quincy Adams was recalled to America in 1817 to become Secretary of State and was elected the sixth American President in 1825, serving until 1829. He was then elected to Congress and served there until his death in 1848.

Janet McNamara is a Hounslow Heritage Guide, a member of the B&CLHS committee and Honorary Treasurer to the West London Local History Conference. She wrote the guidebook to Boston Manor House and is currently working on the history of Brentford family of forage dealers and her own family history in East Yorkshire.

Sources used
Encyclopedia Americana; The Adams Women (1983), Descent from Glory (1987) and John Quincy Adams : A Public Life, A Private Life (1997) all by Paul C Nagel, first published OUP in hardback and all reissued in paperback by Harvard University Press, 1999.

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