“Lady Lewson”, born Jane Vaughan (1700 – 1816) was one of 18th century London’s more colourful characters, and the probable inspiration for Dickens’ famed eccentric spinster, Miss Havisham from Great Expectations.
Jane had the good fortune of marrying a rich, elderly merchant . She herself was just nineteen. She moved to his stately home in Coldbath Square, Clerkenwell, then a rather quiet, rather posh village on the outskirts of London proper.
As wouldn’t have been much of a shock, the aged Mr Lawson died, leaving his wife a rich widow of only 26. Rather than pick herself up, dust herself off and head into marriage number two, Jane came over a little bit strange…
For almost an entire century she barely left her late husband’s sprawling house, within which she insisted that all the bedrooms were made up fresh each and every day, although she never had any visitors. She herself only lived in one room although her neighbours would often see her sitting out reading in her garden.
She became incredibly superstitious. She would only drink tea out of one particular teacup. She refused to have any of the windows washed, fearing that the glass would shatter and kill the washer! The windows became so grimy that they no longer let in any natural light at all. She took to wearing a style of clothes that had been out of fashion before she was even born – more suited to the late 17th century – “ruffs and cuffs and fardingales” with her hair powdered and structured over a horsehair frame, the Marie Antoinette of EC1!
She was obsessed with trying not to catch a cold. She refused to let any of her servants move anything around in any of the rooms, in case they upset the delicate equilibrium that was keeping her healthy. She refused to wash – she thought being exposed to water was the quickest way to become ill! So instead she smeared her skin with pig’s fat and painted her powder and make-up onto her face atop it. She must have looked delightful.
Still, there must have been something in all this, because “Lady Lewson”, as she was now referred to, passed her centenary in excellent health. In the end, she lived for 116 years and only died at all, so the story goes, because her neighbour did. A shocked Lady Lewson became quite convinced her number was up, and so it was.
After her death, her home was opened up to the curious. It was like some sort of time capsule, with everything completely untouched and unchanged for ninety years.