John Wilkes Esq.
Politician, Rebel, Pigeon Fancier.
In the spring of 1788, after several visits to the Isle of Wight, Mr John Wilkes found the retreat that he was looking for. A cottage had become available, recently vacated by the Earl of Winchelsea with fourteen years remaining on the lease. It came with four acres of land and the owner, Col James Barker of Stickworth Grove House, near to Arreton village, placed only one restriction on any alterations – that it should not devalue the property.
Until this point, Wilkes‘s life had been in turn turbulent, controversial and morally questionable. He was famous. He had been a rebellious Member of Parliament and a progressive Lord Mayor of London. He had been illegally arrested and thrown into the Tower before taking refuge in France. As a young man, persuaded into an arranged marriage, he found himself lumbered with a dull spouse twice his age and made up for it with clandestine affairs. Of his three children, only Mary, his eldest and favourite, was his wife’s child. He boasted that he loved all women except his wife. Now he was 59 years old and still viewed variously as hero and villain. Pronouncing himself to be “burnt out,” he was looking for some peace and quiet.
After his roller-coaster career and his appointment Chamberlain, John Wilkes now had sufficient income to afford a holiday retreat, plus a London home to share with his daughter Mary whom he called Polly. A third London property housed his long-term mistress Amelia and second daughter Harriet. His natural son, John Henry Smith, made some demands on his purse but was largely left to his own devices.
The Hampshire Chronicle of May 12 1788 informed its readers that:“Mr Chamberlain Wilkes and his daughter are expected in the Island soon; they have engaged the sweet retreat of Sandham Cottage for their residence, a spot which yields to none in this charming country for its soft retirement or magnificent prospect, a combination of the beautiful and the sublime.
Skirting the sea at Sandown Bay, to a city dweller Sandham Cottage must have seemed both striking and desolate in so far as other than soldiers kicking their heels at Sandham Fort, neighbours there were virtually none. Known as Royal Heath, the surrounding vista across Sandham Common consisted almost entirely of gorse.
On August 8, the Hants Chronicle confirmed that: “On Sat, arrived at his agreeable village near Sandown, John Wilkes Esq, accompanied by his amiable daughter, Miss Wilkes; on their passing through Brading, the bells rung and every respect was paid to them by the inhabitants”. This must have seemed a reassuring welcome.
Wilkes called the little dwelling his Villakin and set about transforming it. Too small to accommodate his books, paintings and papers, he ordered a supply of Kinghtsbridge Floor-cloth, a sort of heavy duty canvas with which he erected a large pavilion and several other chalets that he filled with elegant, expensive and often flamboyant furnishings. He favoured blues, reds and gold, both for the buildings and for his personal wardrobe. In his “Tuscan Room” alone, he had 1312 prints plus a substantial library. A separate building provided two bed-chambers.
The acres of ground fronting Villakin were landscaped. Ornamental chickens pecked in the sandy soil, while Chinese pigs grunted among the shaded bowers of the dwarf apple trees. There was also a fishpond. Heading towards the sea, a special walkway was laid out for Polly and a large circle provided plenty of space for outside dancing. It seems that Polly preferred their London residence in Grosvenor Square, spending much of her time in the capital but in her absence, Wilkes wrote to her religiously, reporting on local events and improvements, providing priceless glimpses into 18thcentury Island life.
Like all celebrities, there was endless curiosity about his life and plenty of sources willing to satisfy that want. The Chester Courant (Oct 14 1794) described the grove at Sandham Cottage with its weeping willows yews and cypresses, where Wilkes had erected a Doric pillar dedicated to his friend the poet, Charles Churchill. It was nine feet tall, five feet in diameter and inside, Wilkes kept his stock of fine port.
It didn’t take him long to make new friends, or to renew acquaintances. In an undated account, he described going to church at Shanklin where he met the actor Richard Garrick and his “charming wife”, who took him back with them to Mr Fitzmaurice’s seat at Knighton. Here, he found Sir Richard Worsley and some of the “Neapolitan acquaintance.” Sir Richard promptly invited him to his seat at Appuldurcombe the following day where he entertained the whole Knighton set at a grand breakfast. Ever aware of beautiful women, Wilkes reported that Mrs Garrick was, as usual, the most captivating of the whole circle.
The dust had not yet settled following the scandal involving Sir Richard Worsley’s wife Seymour and the former owner of Knighton, Maurice Bissett. In the minds of respectable Islanders, Knighton was associated with the notorious Hellfire Club where black magic rituals and reprehensible sexual shenanigans took place. Six years before Wilkes’ arrival, when Seymour’s affair had become public, Worsley tried to profit by suing Bissett for damages but found himself humiliated when the judge awarded him a single shilling compensation. Seymour and Bissett decamped to France and Worsley went on a European tour. But that was then, reputations were being restored and the past was discreetly brushed under the carpet.
Other than improving his new home, Wilkes’s main occupation was in writing to Polly and keeping her up to date with what was going on. On May 11, 1789, he reported that On Wednesday we make war on the rooks at Sir W Oglander’s (Nunwell House), and on Friday we make war on the foreigners who keep such an uproar at Freshwater Rocks. He was then reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson and thanked Polly for sending some lampreys.
Calling at Sandham Cottage soon became part of the itinerary of tourists to the Island. On August 7 1789, Wilkes wrote to Mary that: Mrs Rolleston and a variegated group of males and females numerous enough to take Sandham Fort, have just been here and brought me your letter of the 4th. A solicitous father, he required regularly after Polly’s health with particular concern about her recurring sore throat, urging her to come to the cottage where she might find a perfect cure. He also passed on the general news that a certain Mrs Hill had returned – “most forlorn and disconsolate,” while Mr and Mrs Bissett were expected. Meanwhile, the business of stocking the grounds continued and on April 23 1790, he wrote to tell Polly that “ an owl and a pair of beautiful pigeons from Appuldurcombe Park” had arrived.
John Hamilton Reynolds, writer, poet and confidante of John Keats, also called on him. Inspired by Keats’s enthusiasm for the Island, Reynolds retired here, taking a house at Nodehill in Newport. When Reynolds remarked on Wilkes’s numerous pigeons, his host confessed to the difficulty he had in making them stay. In an effort to fill his dove houses with exotic varieties, he had procured birds from England, Ireland and France but the moment the latch was raised, they promptly flew back to their former homes. Wilkes described how “I bethought myself to procure a cock and hen pouter from Scotland, but I need not add that they never returned.’ A certain Mr Pennant described how the area was populated by vast flocks of pigeons that at certain times of the year made daily flights to Oxford to feed on the turnip fields before returning home each night. Perhaps John’s birds simply joined them. He finally abandoned the scheme as impracticable. Reynolds died in 1852, his being one of the few remaining gravestones preserved in the old burial ground of Church Litten.
During the month of April, Sir Richard Worsley came to dine and the garden was in full bloom with violets, primroses and cowslips in great abundance; and our peach, apple and apricot trees are in full bloom and perfume the air. Daily Wilkes looked out for letters from Polly. In May an election took place and “this little Island is frantic about electioneering – except Appuldurcombe Park and Sandham Cottage, where we talk of better things. Politics was now a thing of the past.
Whether it was because of Wilkes’s notoriety, or his charm, Mr Henry Penruddock Wyndham, in his 1794 publication: Picture of the Isle of Wight, thought that he ought to comment on the fact that “Sandham Heath is, perhaps, more visited than any other spot in the island”. He continued: “and some ladies have, most provokingly, preferred it to the romantic cottages of the Undercliff, and to the luxuriant richness of the neighbourhood of Ryde”. At the cottage, he particularly pointed out “the grand covered bench, formed within the bank and which opens, from the bottom of the slope, upon a level with the bay and the ocean”. In physique, Wilkes was regarded as a particularly ugly man with a pronounced squint.
In July, Polly announced her intention to visit. John promptly wrote, asking her to bring half a dozen tablespoons and a dozen silver-handled knives and forks, plus a marrow spoon and 6 dessert spoons. At various times he wrote to request coffee, wax candles (large and small ones for the veilleuses), macaroni, almonds and raisins, sugar and salad oil. A new clock was needed as he was using Polly’s old one that had been mended. Meanwhile, he was growing asparagus and broccoli. As ever, he ended with the wish that my dear daughter pays the utmost attention to her health.
For most of the time, Wilkes lived alone but he was not lonely. He wrote that he had not lately seen Sir Richard Worsley but intended to meet Sir Henry Clinton, ladies and etc for a late hour and “tomorrow I dine at Captain Field’s”. He was also in the process of hiring a chef who was said to be “orderly, and, I believe, economical”. There was a new piece of gossip to pass on: “Mrs … has left St Boniface, the house is shut up, and many unpleasant circumstances are circulated about the finances of that family”. Not forgetting the garden, he reported how “30 blackbirds were yesterday morning on the large cherry tree near the bedrooms in the garden. I hope they will hail your arrival in their sweetest notes”.
During Polly’s visit, of course, there were no letters home to say how they spent their time. On her return, John did, however, have a last piece of scandal to impart. “Mr S’s daughter Jemima, whom you thought a modest, pretty girl…is gone mad for love of a designer in the Island and is now confined. “Heaven guard against us all from cupid’s bow.” Whether Mary was ever touched by Cupid’s bow, we don’t know. Born in 1750, she was well educated, having studied in Paris for a year and returning there again when she was twenty. She was not a pretty girl and from the age of 34, quite independent, having inherited her mother’s money. She never married.
When she was absent, John made a point of regularly visiting the fair at Brading to buy her some little fairing, a knick-knack, chosen to please her. A weekly market took place in the village since the late 13th century, plus two fairs, the first at the Feast of the Apostles Phillip and James at the beginning of May, lasting for three days; the second for two days at the Feast of St Matthew (Sept 21). They took place on Brading Down and were rowdy affairs. An irate local described them as “gingerbread affairs where gipsies and other strolling characters …plan their depredations, the fair being a cloke[sic] for their congregating together”. He advised that they should be abandoned and by the 1840s they died a natural death.
In July 1781, Polly visited again. She came with a small entourage. John wrote to tell her that “Saunders’ wife will assist and Sally will make beds etc, but if you choose to bring any other female servant, I desire you would, I mean besides your woman.” John also mentioned that the gardener wished to marry and that “I have given my consent. He says that his wife can cook. He is to be married next week and to bring his wife here”. A dog called Trusty was now in residence but had a habit of running away. Wilkes had placed an order for some prints from London and requested that they should be sent to the care of Mr Wild, Bugle Inn, Newport.
Within a year, the gardener’s wife was pregnant. John related that she “increases in size almost as much as his [the gardener’s] pumpkins and next month we suppose, one or more strangers will arrive at the cottage. He is said to be very attentive to his mate”. Meanwhile, the weather was “louring” and John “panting for breath.” Each year he paid particular attention to the weather on St Swithin’s Day.
During this time the world outside the Island could not be ignored. The French Revolution and its aftermath raged across Europe. The Island was not immune to the dangers and one morning in Sandown Bay, John counted 150 ships, although many were merchantmen. Later, gunboats were moored off the most vulnerable parts of the Island coast from Bembridge to Shanklin and at Freshwater Bay. The Lincolnshire Mercury announced that “It is anticipated that such inhabitants as are capable of bearing arms will shortly be called on, to arm themselves.”
But John was growing tired. In 1795 he made plans to shut up the house for the winter and then returned to London to live with Polly. On Boxing Day, he died being buried at the Grosvenor Chapel. Three mourning carriages accompanied the hearse carried by six poor men who were each given one guinea and a suit of clothes.
Unsurprisingly, the main beneficiary of his will was Polly, but he also made provision for his mistress Amelia, leaving to her £1,000, the lease and all the contents of the Kensington house where she lived. Harriet inherited Sandham Cottage, its treasures and £2,000, to be held for her until she reached 21 years (she was then 17). She later married William Rough, a barrister at law, producing five children.
The unfortunate natural son, John Henry Smith, who was officially Wilkes’s “nephew,” and who had been packed off to India at an early opportunity, received only £100. Wilkes had educated the lad and secured him a commission in the East India Company but his situation could not have been enviable. As a child, he had been taken from his mother, Catherine, a “low, illiterate woman,” in order to gentrify him. Despite this unkindness, Catherine Smith remained loyal to John Senior, writing thirty years later that “I often dream of you and wish myself young again.”
Ironically, in the end, it was John Henry who perhaps came off least badly as far as the will was concerned, because when John Senior’s affairs were examined, he turned out to be insolvent. The windfalls turned to dust.
In July 1823, a correspondent to the Hampshire Telegraph calling himself CANTIUM left a glimpse of the little villa. The original part of the building was then still standing and formed “a pretty summer residence.” In 1845 it belonged to one, Charles Bridger of Winchester, and by 1860, it had disappeared, to be replaced with streets and houses.
CANTIUM left one other vignette. Wilkes had bequeathed to Sandham the Wilkes Rose – an “ elegant little red rose…which is very abundant, and they say he brought out of the West, and planted in great numbers about his grounds where they have taken such root that it is impossible to get rid of them – it is of the dwarf kind, blows full, and of a beautiful crimson tint. I am neither Florist or Botanist; but perhaps some of your Readers would have the kindness to give me their opinion of its Botanical name”. Alas, those builders succeeded in removing the roses and the name is long since lost – another vanished treasure.
Drawings by Robert (Bob) Hampton.
5 thoughts on “John Wilkes on the Isle of Wight”
As always interesting, a glimpse of 18th and 19th-century life on an island which must have seemed like the other side of the world in those days.
Thank you for your encouragement. I have been out of action for a while and probably missed some of your interesting thoughts.
I was fascinated from beginning to end, Jan. What an amazing amount of research you have done to get this story to paper. Despite the heavy research, it doesn’t show as the prose flows so well and the details about John Wilkes are so interesting that I read it very quickly for the first time and then went back and re-read it.
You’ve been absent a while from your site and it’s nice to welcome you back. Let’s have more Brief Biographies.
Thanks, Mari, I have been squirreling away lots of snippets for future use. Watch this space.
Thanks Mari, very interesting, I was aware that he was a rather dubious character . We still called our property above the shop Villakin when we had visitors in the summer seasons for many years.