THE WIDDOWSON FAMILY
George Widdowson was a celebrated silversmith and jeweller who made medals for the British Empire and swords for the army and navy.
In October 1852 George Widdowson moved into Bell House. He had been born in Lincoln on 25 August 1804, the son of William and Elizabeth, who kept the Rein Deer Inn in Lincoln. George was a silversmith and goldsmith, though a retailer rather than a craftsman, and had a real eye for marketing. By the age of 28 he co-founded the highly fashionable Widdowson & Veale at No. 73 Strand, on the corner of Adam Street and opposite the Adelphi.
The company made swords and other weapons for the British army and navy. They made medals, orders and decorations for the British court and were also goldsmiths and jewellers to the court of Spain. Widdowson had a good eye for publicity. He once had a long newspaper article written about a proposal to make a copy of Aeneas’ shield, as described in Virgil’s Aeneid. There is no record of the shield ever being made but the article gave him a lot of free publicity. In 1842 on the christening of Queen Victoria’s eldest son (later King Edward VII) the firm presented the young heir with an ‘immense’ silver coronet, ‘of a large size’ added the Times report, in case the splendour of the gift had not been clear.
In 1844, George was 40 and his business was doing well, allowing the firm to advertise for apprentices, asking a premium of £100 each. On 11 February 1847 George married Eliza Duffield (nee Boville), the daughter of a Putney wine merchant who had been living in Gibraltar when she was became a widow after John Duffield, her first husband, died. George and Eliza were middle-aged when they married and did not have children. By 1851 business was booming. At the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace Widdowson & Veale exhibited (at their own expense) an enormous silver ‘plateau’ with candelabra, dessert stands, dishes, flagons, jugs, coffee pots, teapots, jewellery and an equestrian statue of Wellington. At the 1862 exhibition the following year they produced a similarly lavish display.
George was a steward of the Goldsmiths’ Benevolent Institution and the firm made donations to London charities, including the then newly-built Charing Cross hospital. George had an older brother, Joseph, living in London at this time but he was a less successful goldsmith and jeweller than George. He set up shop at 100 Fleet St but in 1832 he went bankrupt. In 1840 he was confined to Bethlem Hospital, known as Bedlam (now the Imperial War Museum). After the 1834 Poor Law there had been a boom in building workhouses for those suffering from poverty and asylums for those with mental illness, though the Victorians often lumped the two together. Over the century from 1800 the number of people housed in asylums rose from a few hundred to 100,000. At first these were peaceful places where it was believed mentally ill people could be cured by ‘moral treatment’ but this changed when it became widely believed that such people were ‘incurable’. Joseph Widdowson had suffered a fall which ‘caused confusion’ and, said his wife, meant he was ‘likely to set the house on fire’. He told Bethlem he ‘had plenty of money’ which was just as well as inmates had to pay for their own care. While it might seem strange to us that George would have allowed his brother to be admitted to a place such as Bedlam, there was little choice at the time and in fact Bethlem was a purpose-built state-of-the-art institution, better than many. In any case, Joseph was not there long as he was discharged later that year for ‘being paralytic’. To our ear this might sound as if he was drunk but he had probably been discharged into the care of another institution as he was suffering from ‘general paralysis of the insane’, an illness increasingly recognised in asylums at the time, specifically affecting middle-aged men.
Eliza Widdowson died in April 1861 leaving George a widower with no children. He lived at Bell House with his unmarried sister Ann and his brother-in-law John Boville, a barrister. John Boville was also a governor of the extraordinarily named Royal Humane Society for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned or Dead. The household employed a footman, coachman, cook, housemaid and lady’s maid. Footmen were often hired ‘by the foot’, that is the taller you were the more you were paid. In 1866 George moved into the White House in Dulwich Village: perhaps Bell House was too big and too full of memories. George Widdowson died on 10 December 1872 aged 68. He is buried in Norwood cemetery in a Grade II listed tomb. He left around £30,000.