An American President in Brentford

By Janet McNamara

Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 7 (1998)

n 1815 James Clitherow of Boston House, Brentford, let a house on his estate to the American Minister in Britain. The house stood on the corner of what is now The Ride and Windmill Road and was called Little Boston. The property consisted of a large house with coach building, stables and dairy and gardens where flowers, fruit and vegetables were grown.

The tenant was John Quincey Adams. His father had been the second President of the United States. As a teenager, John Quincey had accompanied him when he had been the US representative in the Netherlands and, as an adult, he had represented his country there and in Prussia.

On a visit to London during his posting to the Netherlands John Quincey met and married Catherine Louisa Johnson at All Hallows by the Tower. Louisa’s mother was English and her father was the American Representative in England, although Louisa had never been to the United States. Her first visit was in 1801 when the couple moved with their first son to Boston, (note the name) Massachusetts where John Quincey was involved in law and politics. He had been elected to the Senate in 1803 and, although he was fascinated by public life and had great ambition, he did not find the Senate satisfying. He mingled with the faction most disliked by the New Englanders and supported Jefferson in his attempt to remain neutral in the war between England and France.

In 1809 he was sent as his country’s representative to Russia, leaving his two elder sons with their grandparents. With Louisa and their two-year-old son, Charles Francis, he arrived in St Petersburg as the ice closed the city for the winter. During this period, though too poor to move in high social circles, John Quincey became one of the most skilful students and practitioners of international politics of the Napoleonic era.

In 1814 he led the delegation that negotiated the Peace of Ghent between the US and Britain to end the War of 1812. He was then posted to London. Louisa had to travel to Paris to meet him and acquired a reputation as a heroine for her forty-day journey across Europe with her young son and a series of unreliable servants during the closing weeks of the Napoleonic War.

Apparently she only managed to cross the French border by spreading the rumour that she was Napoleon’s sister on her way to Paris to meet him. Having spent five years at school in France she was able to make herself believed. The Adams’ two elder sons joined them at Little Boston (perhaps the name attracted them to the property?) and the two happiest years of their marriage were spent there.

John Quincey and his siblings had been brought up to be virtuous and worthy. Their father had written that he wished his sons to be good and useful men “that they may be blessings to their Parents and Mankind”. James Clitherow had also been brought up to a life of public service. His great grandfather had recorded a prayer that his family “do good in their generations”. James was the holder of forty-six public appointments when he retired.

Life in Brentford

John Quincey Adams left a “monumental diary” covering sixty years of his life. This is held by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Twelve volumes of what were considered to be the historical portions were published by his youngest son between 1874 and 1877. Paul C Nagel, who has written two other books on the Adams family has now produced a third, John Quincey Adams. Nagel claims to be the first to write about Adams using the diaries and letters which are now on microfilm.

It appears that John and Louisa were delighted with their house on the border of Brentford and Ealing which he said was “neat and elegant and fitted up with all that minute attention to comfort which is characteristic of English domestic life”. He had insisted on having a “writing chamber” and found that he had an orchard and a beautiful garden where he and Louisa enjoyed walking together. It had taken them two carts and a wagon to carry their “baggage, furniture and wines” from London. The rent of the house also covered the pew rent at the church and the family attended public worship, most likely at St Mary’s Church in Ealing. Their two younger sons were weekly boarders at Ealing Great School which at the time was a rival to Eton and Harrow. The sons of the Duke of Kent were amongst its pupils. The headmaster was the Rev Doctor Nicholas whose daughter became a close friend of Louisa.

Paul Nagel’s books give some insight into the Adams’ relaxed family life – Louisa having her portrait painted, John’s severe eye infection during which Louisa read to him and wrote at his dictation, the love poems they wrote for one another on their 20th wedding anniversary and the family concerts when Miss Nicholas and Louisa played the piano. One wonders if the Clitherows were ever invited.

James Clitherow does not appear to have left any personal records of the period. He would no doubt have been impressed that when his tenant returned to the United States in 1817 he was appointed Secretary of State, possibly one of the best in the country’s history according to the Encyclopedia Americana. In that post he did more than any other to crystallize and perfect the foundations of American foreign policy, including the Monroe Doctrine. In 1825 he was elected the sixth President and from 1830 served in Congress until his death in 1848.

Sources used: Descent from Glory (OUP), The Adams Women (OUP) and John Quincey Adams (Alfred A Knopf), all by Paul C Nagel; the Victoria County History of Middlesex; Encyclopedia Americana; Ealing Walkabout by Kate McEwan

Janet McNamara is a Hounslow Heritage Guide and researched the history of Boston Manor House for the new Guide Book.

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