Family and friends (i): Sir John Eamer

By Adrian Barlow / September, 13, 2015 / 0 comments

SirJohnEamer-DigitalrestorationSir John was a remarkable and controversial man. Kempe never knew him: he had died in 1823, fourteen years before Charles was born. He remained, nevertheless, a powerful presence in the family—not least to Kempe’s mother, Augusta, and to her elder sister, Kempe’s aunt Charlotte, who were two of Sir John’s ten children. It may  be only coincidence, but the Prince of Wales (the future Prince Regent and, later, George IV) called his daughter Charlotte Augusta: Sir John and the Prince were close friends. Being close to the Prince Regent was indeed a strong reason for John Eamer to buy a house in Brighton. This became the family home when Sir John retired; and it was in Brighton that Augusta Eamer became acquainted with the widowed Nathaniel Kemp, whom she married at Ovingdean church in 1823.

The origins of the future Lord Mayor are not known. No records have been traced to identify his parents or even his place or date of birth– though his probable age at death indicates that he was born c.1750. There is an early reference to a John Eamer keeping a small grocer’s shop in Leadenhall Street, but he must have been at the very least a man of promise. In 1781 he married the daughter of a Jewish sugar refiner and banker called Harman Samler; his wife, Mary, converted to Christianity before their wedding in St. Andrew’s by the Wardrobe. After their marriage, her piety would have a considerable influence on her daughters; whether it had much influence on her husband is less certain.

Sugar importing from the West Indian plantations was an important part of what rapidly became John Eamer’s lucrative career as a wholesale grocer, and his wealth was starting to underpin his wider interests in the City of London and beyond. He tried, unsuccessfully, to buy political influence in the notorious Somerset rotten borough of Ilchester; in 1794 he became Sheriff of London, and was knighted by George III. An alderman, and in due course Master of the Salters’ Company, he was elected Lord Mayor in 1801 and was granted his own arms by the College of Heralds the following year. He commissioned from the Royal Family’s favourite silversmith, Paul Storr, a magnificent sugar dish that is now preserved in the Mansion House. On completing his term of office as Lord Mayor, he remained an active magistrate in the City and became Colonel of the East London militia, with responsibility for safeguarding the London docks from possible French attack after the collapse of the short-lived Treaty of Amiens in 1802. He owned a house on Putney Heath which he rented out to the former Prime Minister William Pitt in 1804. (Two years later, Pitt died in Sir John’s house.)

If all this sounds like an effortless rise of someone who, though not born great, certainly achieved greatness, it was actually no such thing. Sir John bought influence and office; he constructed an image of himself as a man who embodied the traditions of the City and used his wealth to give substance to this image. Not everyone was fooled: 1n 1795, for instance, the year after he had become Sheriff and been knighted, he was one of two leading promoters of a scheme to create a new West India Dock in the Pool of London, which would be owned and controlled by a limited company rather than by the City of London. The Corporation of the City blocked the proposal, declaring forthrightly that it was a plan promoted by ‘opulent and respectable persons chiefly foreigners in regard to the freedom of this City’. This perfectly sums up the ambiguity of Sir John’s position: though he was ‘opulent and respectable’ (note the order of these two adjectives), he and his fellow promoters were ‘chiefly foreigners to the freedom of this city’—outsiders who clearly did not understand the ways and privileges of the City, or they would not have come up with a scheme that threatened the ancient rights of the Freemen of the City of London. And yet 1795 was the same year in which Sir John became an Alderman of the City, and only six years later he would be elected Lord Mayor. By then, it would be impossible to call the occupant of the Mansion House a foreigner.

To mark his election in 1801, Sir John commissioned a huge portrait (more than two metres high) of himself, painted by Mather Brown. In a stunning piece of myth making, he is shown not as Lord Mayor but as Colonel of a regiment of the City of London Militia (a commission he did not purchase until after his year of office as Lord Mayor was over; even by his own account, he did not assume command of the regiment until 1803). As painted, he stands, flushed and supremely confident in scarlet uniform, his right elbow resting on the muzzle of a tall canon. Immediately behind him, his massive horse is draped in a cheetah-skin saddlecloth. Above and behind the horse loom the arms of the City of London, supported as heraldry demands by a griffin. Below, in a distant view barely glimpsed between the horse’s legs, soldiers can be seen drilling on a parade ground with St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background. The implicit title of this picture is all too clearly ‘Sir John Eamer, Heroic Defender of the City of London’. The portrait stayed with him until his death, and was inherited by his eldest daughter, Charlotte, who in her will at last bequeathed it to the City of London. Charlotte, by then the widow of Dr Benjamin Claxson DD, had died in 1873, and the responsibility of transferring it from her house in Gloucester to the Guildhall in London (where it remains to this day) lay with her executor, her nephew Charles Eamer Kempe.

Conduct Unbecoming

It has to be admitted that the City Fathers gave Sir John a good send-off at the end of his term as Lord Mayor. The London Gazette recorded that on 2nd December the Court of Common Council had resolved ‘Unanimously, that the Thanks of this Court be given to the Right Honourable Sir JOHN EAMER, Knight, late Lord Mayor of this City for the faithful discharge of duties committed to his Trust in the exalted Station of Chief Magistrate’. He was praised for his ‘Humanity and unwavering Solicitude for the Poor’, and also ‘for his active and laudable Endeavours to reduce the price of bread and other Necessaries of Life’. These are interesting compliments, which might lead one to speculate that his particular concern for the poor and the provision of the necessaries of life stemmed from his own experiences as a child and young man.

The greatest praise of the Court, however, was reserved for Sir John’s munificent entertainment of his friend the Prince of Wales on Easter Monday 1802; He was thanked for ‘the accession of singular honour he obtained for this great City, by the august Presence of His Royal Highness the PRINCE OF WALES’ and for the ‘suitable Magnificence with which he entertained the Heir Apparent of these Realms, and the rest of his Royal and Illustrious Guests’.

This was perhaps Sir John Eamer’s finest hour. The esteem in which he was held was never greater than now, even though a satirical cartoon had appeared shortly after that Easter Monday extravaganza, showing the Lord Mayor forced to apologise to the Sheriffs of London, because the royal guests and their hangers-on had eaten all the food and there was not enough left for the City officers to enjoy. In 1805 he had to endure the indignity of a Court Martial: he was arraigned on several charges of ‘Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and a Gentleman’ following his treatment of some junior officers in the Militia who complained of his bullying and abusive behaviour. Sir John was acquitted but he felt the need to publish at once a full account of the trial and his own speech in defence of his behaviour.

He argued that at the time he assumed command of the Regiment, England ‘was menaced with an imminent invasion’ and strict military discipline was necessary; among the officers of the East London Militia, however, he found no such discipline. Some of them, he said, had turned their commissions into sinecures and stubbornly refused to turn out on parade; nevertheless, he was determined to bring the regiment up to scratch:

“The task was arduous, but the necessity was imperious. I was prepared to expect incessant labour, to make large sacrifices of my time, of my comforts, of my interests in my line of commerce, of my rest, and even of my health, to effect this change. I was prepared to expect much discontent and strong opposition; but I was not prepared to expect that the ruin of my character, the destruction of my peace, and the blasting of my fair fame were to be the price of my duty so discharged.” (Colonel Sir John Eamer’s Defence on the court martial held on charges preferred against him by Captain William Ayres, &c. &c. to which are added, the charges at length; together with the sentence, and His Majesty’s decision thereon. London, 1805)

Sir John was cleared of all charges, though on one count the Court thought it right ‘to caution Sir John Eamer to be more guarded in future in his language towards the Officers of his regiment’. The officers who had brought the charges against their Colonel were all dishonourably discharged from the regiment, and it is hard to tell, reading only Sir John’s own account of the events that led to the trial, whether the charges were justified or not. But that he could be guilty of acting high-handedly and of letting a violent temper get the better of him was proved the following year when Parnell v. Eamer, an action brought against him ‘to recover damages for assault and false imprisonment’ was heard in Maidstone, at the Kent Assizes. The Sporting Gazette (vol. 28, 1806) recounted gleefully the story of ‘Sir John Eamer and the Higgler’, an early instance of road rage when Sir John, driving his curricle too fast around a bend on the Dover Road had collided with a cart belonging to the plaintiff and driven by his servant, the higgler. In his opening speech, Counsel for the plaintiff had declared that ‘What induced this City knight to take the wrong side of the road he could not say,’ but he had driven too close to the plaintiff’s cart and their wheels had become locked. Whereupon, ‘instead of feeling as he ought to have done, that the accident was owing to his own negligence , he immediately jumped up and immediately began to exercise his horsewhip most actively upon the head and shoulders of the plaintiff’s servant.” To add insult to injury, when the plaintiff himself appeared, Sir John had attacked him too, even though he was hobbling on a crutch and had insisted on dragging the plaintiff to the Watch House to be arrested by the Constable, who had, however, refused to detain him. On this occasion, the case went against Sir John; and, though he was obliged to pay only nominal damages, his reputation had taken a bad knock.

Not so bad, however, as in 1810, when Sir John and another Alderman were accused by the Court of Common Council of misappropriating a large sum (£8000) which, it was claimed, had been voted to them for the equipping of the London Militia but for which Sir John refused to account. In the face of this refusal, the Court went so far as to petition Parliament to disband the Militia altogether, but Parliament failed to do so, and in 1813 Sir John Eamer was once again court martialled for ‘behaving in a scandalous infamous manner, such as unbecoming the character of an Officer and a Gentleman’ towards one of his subordinate officers. This trial was almost a reprise of the previous Court Martial, with Sir John being acquitted on all charges but reprimanded, again, for his use of ‘unguarded expressions’.

For the last ten years of his life, Sir John lived more and more in retirement, though he had by this time become something of a laughing stock, upon whom hoaxes and jests could be played. Finally, after one such hoax in 1819, widely reported in the press, he withdrew from the City and lived out his days in Brighton, with his wife and his unmarried daughters. He died there on 29th March 1823, aged 70. The Times printed no obituary of him; indeed, the only reference to his death appeared in a brief note in the Gentleman’s Magazine, which reported that ‘On a warm treacherous sun-shining day, he imprudently ventured to sit on the beach, which sapped the foundation of a frame already bending under the weight of age and infirmity’.

Of all his children and grandchildren, it was really only Kempe’s Aunt Charlotte whoTwigworth Eamer glass did anything to preserve his memory. She housed his enormous 1801 portrait, and twice caused his heraldic shield to appear in stained glass: once in the cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral and once in the west window of Twigworth Church, where her husband, Dr. Claxson, was the incumbent. Among his aunt’s effects at the time of her death in 1873, Kempe found little belonging to Sir John that he was minded to keep: two medals awarded at school to his eldest son, Harman Eamer, and two lorgnettes – one tortoiseshell, and bearing the name ‘Sir Iohn Eamer’, the other sprung steel. There were also two miniature portraits, one of a woman identified only as a former friend of Mrs Claxson’s, the other of a cheerful-looking, fashionable young man.

Charles Eamer miniatureIt has always been assumed that Charles Eamer Kempe was given his middle name because it had been his mother’s maiden name and because it linked him with his distinguished grandfather. This may have been true, though it seems strange that the name was only given to Mrs Kemp’s fifth and youngest son, not to any of her elder sons. It is, however, at least possible that the name was not given in memory of Sir John at all, but in memory of his young son, the boy in the miniature portrait, whom Sir John had shipped off to India when he was only sixteen. This lad had been sent to Ghazeepoore, in Uttar Pradesh, where the East India Company was busily establishing an opium factory. (Today Ghazipur still boasts this, the world’s largest legal opium processing factory in the world.) The boy died there in 1805. It is not difficult to believe that both Charlotte and Augusta missed their brother, barely seventeen when he died, and cherished his memory, Charlotte by keeping the miniature portrait of him and Augusta by naming her last son after him. For the boy’s name was Charles Eamer, and Kempe inherited both his name and his portrait.

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: (i) Portrait of Sir John Eamer (Private Collection, reproduced by permission); (ii) Arms of Sir John Eamer, in Twigworth (Glos.), the gift of Mrs. Charlotte Claxson; (iii) Portrait miniature of Charles Eamer.