“Twentieth of Twenty-one”: Edward Lear and his Siblings (1)

“Twentieth of twenty-one children” must be the most-often-repeated phrase in discussions of Edward Lear’s early life: no biographical sketch omits the snippet; but, did Jeremiah and Ann Lear really have so many children? Families of such size were not uncommon at the time, and Lear himself was responsible for spreading this idea; in a letter to Chichester Fortescue of 18 July 1859 announcing the death of his sister Harriett he wrote:

There are only now 7 of us left living out of all the 21. ― My eldest sister is staying in Sussex, & we are anxious about the effect this sudden news will have on her (Letters of Edward Lear 144).

This was not always the version Lear used, however; according to Edward Lear on My Shelves (p. 17), which relies on a letter of 28 March 1880, he was “the last born of a family of twenty-one.” A few years later, however, the number changed as E.C. Selwyn, who first met him in Mendrisio in 1882 (Later Letters of Edward Lear 242), was told that he “was the youngest of a family of nineteen children, of Danish parents, and he owed what education he had to the loving care of one of his sisters. His name was originally spelt Lör.” (E.C. Selwyn, “Later Letters of Edward Lear.” The Cornhill Magazine, n.s. 28.3, March 1910, 389-398. 396. Posted here in full.)

Ann Clarke Skerrett Lear, Edward Lear’s mother.

Back of the above photograph.

A simple mathematical calculation confirms that, in theory, it would be possible to have 20 children in the 275 months between January 1791 (when Ann, the eldest, was born) and November 1813 (when the second Catherine, and last recorded child, was born); however, after examining several relevant documents, I feel that the total number of children in the Lear household should perhaps be considered one of the unsupported statements Edward liked to repeat, like the one about the family’s Danish origins. He probably believed it after hearing it from someone else in the family, but this does not make it historically accurate. Biographers have found the meme irresistible; of course, writing that poor Ann Clarke Skerrett is to be excused for giving little attention to her twentieth child in 22 years, especially with another one in the making and when financial ruin was on the point of crushing the family (if not a myth, another event that seems to have been greatly exaggerated by Edward) provides a good way to start the story of the life of a highly idiosyncratic individual.

A later portrait of Ann Skerrett Lear, executed 7 months before she died. I have posted a portrait of Jeremiah Lear here.

The documentation passed down in the family does not support Edward’s statement, at least until the early twentieth century; none of the surviving documents can be dated with precision, but one of the earliest must have been a “List of Birth days,” now in the possession of the New Zealand branch of the family; it opens:

In the year 1830
Mr Lear will be {born 1757} 73 years old May 6
Mrs Lear {born 1769} 61 August 5

The list contains the names of the siblings still alive in 1830 with their ages and dates of birth. On the left are numbers running from 1 to 21, clearly corrected in several places, with initials presumably referring to children who died in infancy; only two of the names are written in full, Jane ― who died in 1822 ― and a Catherine; the person who inserted the numbering was evidently not sure where to place the dead infants and appears to have tried ― unsuccessfully ― to fit the numbers wherever there was a free year with the aim of obtaining a total of 21. This is the only document assigning a non-surviving Henry (“HY”) between Sarah (“Mrs. Street”) and Mary (“Mrs. Boswell”), probably because there was a full year (though actually only 16 months and 10 days, hardly enough for two full-term pregnancies) without children.

The second source listing 21 children is bound in the collection of typescripts of Edward’s letters to Ann, also from the New Zealand branch of the family; the manuscript ― headed “Family tree of Brignall Esq of Durham” ― is either an “improved” copy of MS L. 3/39-1985 discussed below, or its original. It states:

Ann Clarke
[J]eremiah Lear Esq
of Holloway Middx
& had 17 children (said to be 21.
of whom

and then comes the list of 21 names in the same order as the previous document; here however the mysterious “O” appearing twice in the 1830 list (positions 11 and 17) is spelt in full as “Olivier” (between Jane and Harriott).

This Olivier Lear ― who should in any case be placed before Jane, in 1800 ― is a mystery in the mystery: if he existed, he was so despised by the family that they never mentioned him ― as far as I know, this is the only place where the name appears. However, both Susan Chitty (p. 10) and more authoritatively Vivien Noakes (p. 6) accept his existence; according to the former he was twelve when Edward was born, which confirms 1800 as a possible year of birth ― but consider that Chitty also sets Henry’s age at sixteen in the same year even though he was only fourteen.

Chitty’s treatment of the Lear brothers deserves to be considered, apart from the obvious fact that her statement that Edward never mentioned any of his brothers is false:

… strangely enough, Lear never mentioned a single one of his four brothers, Henry, Olivier, Frederick and Charles were ignored as if they had never been. Henry and Olivier admittedly left home young, shamed by their father’s bankruptcy. Henry attempted to make money the quick way, while Olivier joined the army. When the one was accused of forgery and the other deserted, both left the country. Fat Frederick, however, seems to have been a jolly enough figure. He used to chase Ann around the room for calling him a “Norfolk Biffin,” because, like the apple, he suffered “constant increase in circumference.” Charles and Frederick both eventually emigrated, but under respectable circumstances. Frederick went to colonize America and Charles to convert Africa (p. 15).

The idea of two of the brothers having problems with the law comes from Edward’s Diary, 27 April 1881, where he tells of meeting a lady (Mrs. Hansaw),

who was a Miss Burnèll, & met me 30 years or 40 at Mrs. Jourdains in Holloway. In one respect this woman was agreable, inasmuch as she took a real interest in the drawings &c. – & admired the little picture of Mt. Hermon above all. Bur her memory being wonderful, & her gossipry odious, she was more or less particularly disagreable. “Your Father lived in a large Square House called Bowman’s Lodge” – (& no doubt she equally well remembered that he was imprisoned for fraud & debt, & that 2 of my Brothers suffered for deserting the Army, & for Forgery. Then she fell on “deformed Betsey Nevill…

We know from the Diary, 8 October 1860, that the brother who deserted was Henry:

H. enlisted & was 7 or 8 years as a foot private: ― then he deserted, to a Cavalry regt. ― whereon, being sent into a Condemned regt., he wrote to his Father: ― & the D. of Yk, then Commander in chief, ― allowed him to be bought out, on account of his not having wished to desert H.M. service, but only to change his position in it.
At that time he was at Carisbrook, & then our father & mother went to see him, & brought him back. ― What a bargain!! ― This I never knew till last night, (I am writing on the 9th) when, on our looking over Sarah’s letter from the Isle of Wight, Ann & Ellen spoke of it.
I must then have been 7 or 8 years old: anyhow the following Easter Monday came on the 8th of April ― i.e. that following after H.J. returned.
(According to this entry there might be a connection between Henry and what Frederick Harding did to Lear on 8 April 1822; see Levi, Peter. Edward Lear: A Biography. New York and London: Scribner, 1995. 180.)

Chitty’s statements seem to be derived from Lilly Bowen’s “Edward Lear Notes” of June 1935 for Angus Davidson, in which she states:

The 4 eldest sons who before the crash, had lived gay lives, and never worked at all, were so crushed that they declared they could not remain in England where they were so well known, and leaving their Mother and sisters to help the father, they departed (Henry and Frederick) to America. Charles to West Africa, Uncle Edward never forgave them for this, but Ann wrote to them always…

Notice that she starts with “4 eldest sons” but actually lists what happened to only three of them. On the other hand, she had written that of the 21 children only five were boys, which, counting the Henry who died in infancy, is correct and leaves no room for an Olivier. Later in the memoir she writes that “of the 4 sons who lived, 2 went to America, … The 18th son Charles had an interesting story …” The fourth is presumably Edward.

The general impression one gets from the memoir is that the ultimate source of Lilly’s information was Edward’s sister Eleanor, who “corresponded regularly with my mother Emily Gillies (née Street).” Emily then reported orally to Lilly; it is not difficult to imagine the latter, and all the documents discussed here passed through her hands, trying to reconcile Edward’s statements in the published letters she knew with a few documents and a lot of probably half-remembered oral narratives.

[Part 2] [Part 3]

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Edward Lear, Quakers, and the Old Man of Jamaica

Karen Sands-O’Connor. Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015. New York: Springer, 2017, p. 11:

As I have suggested elsewhere (Sands-O’Connor, 2008:38-39), Edward Lear, in 1846, included a Jamaican in his Book of Nonsnse (Jamaica being handily rhymed with Quaker); his poem looks at the abolitionists (many of whom were Quakers) and suggest comically that perhaps they were not quite ready for the real-life consequances of their intellectual commitmaent to freedom and equality.

Karen Sands-O’Connor. Soon Come Home to This Island: West Indians in British Children’s Literature. New York-London: Routledge, 2013, pp. 38-39:

… but the Quakers and their role in the abolitionist movement were not forgotten. More than a decade after the abolition of slavery, Edward Lear, produced his Book of Nonsnse (1846). In this book of near-limericks [?],  he mentions both Quakers and the West Indies in a way that suggests the prevailing sentiment concerning radical religion:

There was an Old man of Jamaica,
Who suddenly married a Quaker:
But she cried out, “Oh, lack! I have married a black!”
Which distressed that Old Man of Jamaica.

One of the frequent arguments against the freeing of slaves (and their eventual inevitable equality within society) was the notion that it would lead to mixed-race marriages. Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, who notes the common practice of servants’ marrying across racial lines in England, at the same time points out the fear among the middle and upper classes that blurred racial lines might extend upward. “The worry about white employment,” she writes, “covered a thinly disguised fear of miscegenation” (Gerzina 1995, 180). Lear’s limerick suggests that the Quakers, as well-meaning as they might have been, were not prepared to deal with the consequences of all their abolitionary efforts. Lear’s nonsense, John Rieder writes, “is a playground. It separates itself from the ‘real’ world, letting loose a number of possibilities, including dangerous and violent ones, and at the same time disconnecting those possibilities from the real world” (49). But Lear’s suggestive word choice — his Old Jamaican did not, for instance, marry a baker — argues otherwise. The master of the nonsense world was in fact very aware of the danger and violence of the real world’s playground, and the distress that the well-meaning European brought to it.

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New to Read

Harvard University, Houghton Library, pga typdr 805 L513 63i METS.

I have added a number of items to the bibliographies:

Zirker, Angelika. “Don’t Play with Your Food? – Edward Lear’s Nonsense Cookery and Limericks.” The Pleasures and Horrors of Eating: The Cultural History of Eating in Anglophone Literature. Eds. Gymnich, Marion and Norbert Lennartz. Göttingen: Bonn University Press, 2010. 237-53. (here)

Boyce, Charlotte. “Onions and Honey, Roast Spiders and Chutney: Unusual Appetites and Disorderly Consumption in Edward Lear’s Nonsense Verse.” Food, Drink, and the Written Word in Britain, 1820–1945. Eds. Addyman, Mary, Laura Wood and Christopher Yiannitsaros. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017. 38-64. (Google Books)

Ponterotto, Diane. “Rule-Breaking and Meaning-Making in Edward Lear.” Revista Alicanta de Estudios Ingleses 6 (1993): 153-61. (here)

Morini, Massimiliano. “‘How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear!’: Edward Lear and the Sympathetic Reader.” Rivista di Studi Vittoriani 4.8 (1999): 93-109.

Finlay, Nancy. “A Gift of Nonsense: An Edward Lear Manuscript.” Biblion: the Bulletin of the New York Public Library 7.1 (1998): 5– 19.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. “‘The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck’: Poétique du nonsense.” Études anglaises 57.1 (2004): 92-102. (here)

Weiss Adamson, Melitta. “The Games Cooks Play: Non-Sense Recipes and Practical Jokes in Medieval Literature.” Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays. Ed. Weiss Adamson, Melitta. New York and London: Garland, 1995. 177-95.

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Edward Lear’s Canadian Cousins

[The following is from Steve Uglow’s research on Edward Lear’s family: I posted the first part, on Frederick Harding, a couple of months ago as part of  a discussion of some family portraits.]

The references to cousin Caroline Jones in Canada and to Henry ‘Chesner’ need some digging into Lear’s father’s background.

Jeremiah was the son of Henry Lear [1709-1763] who married Margaret Lester [1710-1795] on 6th May 1744 at All Hallows London Wall. Little is known of Jeremiah’s siblings but there is the will of Margaret who died in 1795. She was living in Hoxton in the parish of St Leonard, Shoreditch and had clearly taken on the sugar business of husband Henry after his death. Is this Margaret Jeremiah’s mother?  The will is proved on 27th January 1795 by the sole executrix, daughter Catherine but only after Catherine and Jeremiah Lear, both of Pentonville, had sworn an oath that this was their mother’s handwriting and their mother’s true will.

The children mentioned in the will includes:

  1. Catherine – she is unmarried at the time of her mother’s death in 1795. Her mother made her the sole executrix which suggests that she is the eldest and close to her mother.
  2. Mary – she is unmarried at the time of her mother’s death in 1795. She is a witness at her sister, Sarah’s, marriage in 1773. This suggests that she was at least 21 and thus born between 1744 and 1752.  There is a record of Mary Lear buried on 6th November 1797 at St Dunstans, Stepney.
  3. John – he is a witness at Sarah’s marriage in 1773. This suggests that he was at least 21 and thus born between 1744 and 1752.
  4. Sarah – she was baptised 9th January 1755 in Liverpool, the daughter of Henry, a sugar boiler, living in Castle St, Liverpool.
  5. Jeremiah (1757-1833)
  6. Henry

Margaret bequeaths  £5 to Mary and John and to Sarah’s children, Thomas and Charles. Henry gets her watch. The real wealth is in the sugarhouse and dwelling house in Wentworth St, Whitechapel and she directs that these be sold. Catherine received half the proceeds as well as her clothes and furniture while the other half was divided between Sarah, Henry and Jeremiah.

In her will, Margaret refers to daughter, Sarah, as Sarah Chesmer (although this is not conclusively legible) and here is the link to the Canadian cousins. On 18th May 1773 a Vicar General Marriage Licence is issued for Chesmer/Lear and on the following day, 19th May, at St Mary’s, Whitechapel, Thomas Chesmer of Whitechapel, bachelor, and Sarah Lear of Whitechapel, spinster and minor, were married. The witnesses are John Lear and Mary Lear, presumably Sarah’s siblings.

Who the Chesmers were is uncertain – one branch of Chesmers/ Chasmers were to be found south of Cranbrook and Sissinghurst in Kent Weald in villages such as  Rolvenden, Benenden. Whether Thomas came from that stock is moot.

By 1795, Sarah and Thomas have at least two children – Thomas and Charles – but Lear refers to cousin Henry ‘Chesner’ and presumably there must be a third son, Henry.  Possibly he is born around 1785 – in May 1821 Henry Chismer, aged 35, sailed on the SS Martha from Liverpool to New York. Described as a merchant, his destination was Canada. [There is a 25/5/1785 baptism on 25th May 1785 in Benenden, Kent, for Henry son of Charles and Elizabeth Chasmar  but this is unlikely to be our Henry as the record has “poor’ for his parents and there is the death of Henry Chasmar, engineer aged 54 in New York in 1839]

By 1809, Henry is an active merchant: the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 26th  January,  advertises the fact that four or five hundred tons of goods may be conveyed to Liverpool on moderate terms if ready for immediate shipment – those interested should  apply to Smith and Chesmer, 3 Copthall  Chambers.

But Henry is either an unlucky, incompetent or downright dishonest businessman – in 1810 a man called Tupper was in business in Valencia and in touch with Horatio Smith, Henry Chesmer and John Down were merchants in London. In April 1810, Chesmer was in Valencia agreeing to buy Spanish wool with Tupper, ship it to England, sell it and divide the proceeds 50/50. Tupper bought £30,000 of wool and shipped it to Bristol. Chesmer arranged for Haythorne and Co in Bristol to sell the wool, not indicating that Tupper had interest in the sale.  In January 1811, Chesmer’s company received advance of £5000 from Haythorne. On 28th February 1811, the company was declared bankrupt [1811: London Gazette,  28th February, the Bankruptcy Commissioners announced a meeting to make a dividend of the estate and effects of bankrupts Horatio Smith, Henry Chesmer and John Down of Great Winchester St.] The impact of this bankruptcy rumbled on throughout the decade – Tupper sued Haythorne in 1815, dividends were announced against Smith, Chesmer and Down, Great Winchester St, merchants [Birmingham Chronicle 14 December 1820] and in 1822, the case of Fisher v Miller [Times 12/11/1822] referred to Chesmer, a bankrupt, who has assigned his property to the plaintiff, Fisher.

His private life also seemed tempestuous – in 1814, in  Rogers v Chesmer [Sheriff’s Court, Bedford Row] Chesmer is sued for assault by a neighbour and for pouring urine over his child. Both live in Sloane St., Knightsbridge [Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser – 2nd June 1814].  Later that year on 27th July, Emily Indiana Chesmer was born and baptised on 1st September at St Lukes, Old St. She was the daughter of Henry and Sarah. The baptismal record said that the couple lived in City Rd and that Henry was a merchant. Emily Chesmer was probably buried at Holy Trinity, Brompton on 4th December 1851.

We have to assume that wife, Sarah, dies  and that his business dealings in England were such as to make the colonies a more attractive place. On 2nd November 1818 in Sorel, Montreal, Canada, Henry Chesmer Esq of Essex in England and Miss Caroline Jones, daughter of Major Robert Jones, of Sorel, were married. The record is signed by contracting parties, father of bride and Maria, sister of bride.

They relocate to the West Indies where Frances Catherine Caroline Chesmer was born on 28th August 1819 in Kingston, Jamaica – the father was recorded as Henry, the mother as Caroline Jones.

But Henry clearly came back and forth to England – in 1820, he was bankrupted again, this time as Henry Chesmer, late of Broad St Buildings but now of Brompton, merchant, trading under the name of Henry Chesmer and Co: Birmingham Chronicle, 9th  March 1820.

In 1820, Henry and Caroline have another child, Jessy, daughter of Henry and Caroline of Brompton Crescent born on 30th September and baptised on 9th March 1821 at St Mary Abbots Church, Kensington.  Two months later, Henry was on the SS Martha from Liverpool to New York

Henry died in 1826 and was buried on 2nd August in Sorel, Montreal, Canada. He was described as a native of England but last from the West Indies and at the time of his death at father in law’s house, Lieutenant-Colonel Jones of the Militia. Two years later, Caroline Jones, daughter of John Jones, widow of Henry Chesmer, merchant of London, married again, to Robert Jones of Stanbridge, gentleman and Quebec politician.

Lear stayed in touch with the Jones family, although they were not related – George Archibald, son of honourable Colonel Jones of Stanbridge and Caroline Chesmer, his wife was baptised in Philipsburg on 1st September  1838. George Archibald, Archie, is not on the Quebec censuses in 1851 or 1861 but accompanies Lear in Egypt in 1867.

Henry’s daughter, Jessy, is a cousin of Lear. She marries Edward Foy. He is a major in the 71st Foot when they marry – on 12th December 1847, The London Gazette reported that  Brevet Major Edward Foy was to be major by purchase, vice Sir Hew Dalrymple. But by 1851, Edward had left the army and was lodging with a silk printer at Woodbine Cottage, Bexley – he was described as a fundholder.

The census was 30th March 1851 – on 21st July, Edward Foy  and Jessie Chesmer married in Iberville, Quebec. They returned to England and by 1871 and were living at Park Gate, Leckhampton. Edward Foy died in 1878 with Jessy as sole executrix of an estate under £60,000. Jessy herself stayed in Leckhampton and died in 1895, leaving £57,772 6s and probate, tantilisingly, to Henry Chesmer Boomer Esq .

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Edward Lear, On the way to Achmet Aga from Castella and Chalcis, Greece

Edward Lear, On the way to Achmet Aga from Castella and Chalcis, Greece.
Inscribed, dated and numbered ‘On the way to Achmet Aga. (from Cactella & Chalis)/ 23. June. 1848./ (70)’ (lower right) and further inscribed with notes. Pencil, pen and brown ink, brown, blue and green wash. 11 ½ x 20 ½ in. (29.2 x 52.1 cm.).

Lear arrived in Greece on 1 June 1848 and the following day reached Athens. He had originally thought to travel overland from Corfu and make a tour of Albania, but was invited by Sir Stratford and Lady Canning to accompany them to Turkey, via Athens. It was during this visit that Lear first met his lifelong friend and patron Charles Church, the owner of this drawing, as well as lot 120. Charles was in Athens with his uncle Sir Richard Church, who had been commander-in-chief of the Greek forces in the war of independence against the Ottoman Empire.

Whilst waiting to travel to Turkey, Lear and Church decided to undertake a tour of central Greece together, travelling as far as Thebes. The trip was highly eventful with Lear being thrown from his horse on the first day and damaging his shoulder, being bitten by an insect which made his leg swell and getting heat stroke. By the time they had reached Thebes, Lear was dangerously ill and had to be carried back to Athens ‘by 4 horses on an Indiarubber bed’ (Lady Strachey, ed., Letters of Edward Lear, London, 1907, p. 11).

On the day that he executed the present drawing, 23 June, he described in his diary the landscape he passed through. ‘Long descent by beautiful Ilex woods, a perfect garden shrubbery. Then deep vales of pine …The pass below is one of the most beautiful I ever saw — so stuffed with vegetation. First, the running river, then Oleander endless; above, huge planes, hung with clematis or creepers, or oaks, or taller abeles. … On the right of the pass were vast red rocks, here and there crowned with pines of great size, or more generally fringed all over with dwarf or young pine and arbutus… At the end of this valley is the little village of Achmèt Agà.’


Charles Church, a gift from the artist.
H.M.N. Hollis; Sotheby’s, London, 13 March 1969, lot 140 (£750 to Agnew’s).
with Agnew’s, London.


Sheffield, Graves Art Gallery, Edward Lear, July 1964.


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Edward Lear, A view of the Valley of the Nera, near Rome

Edward Lear, A view of the Valley of the Nera, near Rome.
Signed with monogram, inscribed and indistinctly dated ‘River’ (lower centre) and ‘Valley of the Nera/ EL 18[..].’ (lower right). Pencil heightened with white on buff paper. 10 ¼ x 13 ¾ in. (26 x 35 cm.).

The present drawing dates from the period 1838-9, when Lear was living in Rome and made frequent expeditions into the surrounding Campagna.


with Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, London, where acquired by Christian Peper, 1976.
Christian Peper; Christie’s, New York, 26 January 2012, lot 23.


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Edward Lear, Zante, with a view over the town to Monte Scopo

Edward Lear, Zante, with a view over the town to Monte Scopo.
Inscribed, dated and numbered ‘Zante. 28. May. 5. P.M./ 1863/ (210)’ (lower right). Pencil, pen and brown ink and watercolour. 13 x 20 in. (33 x 50.8 cm.).

During April and May 1863, Lear undertook a second tour of the Ionian Islands, the results of which were published in Views of the Seven Ionian Islands in December 1863. The publication contained twenty lithographic plates, with short descriptive text. Lear realising that British rule was coming to an end (the King of Denmark had been offered the throne of Greece), undertook his two month tour specifically to produce a series of drawings for publication. He also had in mind a more personal publication of his journals recording his travels around the islands, but this was never fulfilled. Lots 123 and 124 date from this tour.

Lear had first visited the region in April 1848 and fell in love with the beauty of the islands, particularly Corfu, which he made his base between December 1855 and early 1864.


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