Tim Backhouse Season: The Magnificent Merediths

At his death in 1909, Portsmouth-born George Meredith was one of the most famous writers of fiction in England. But his relatives were quite intriguing too. The late historian Tim Backhouse decided to research the Meredith family back in 2012.

George Meredith was born in Portsmouth on the 12th February 1828, his birthdate falling between those of two other great novelists who were born on Portsea Island, Charles Dickens in 1812 and Walter Besant in 1836. All three wrote of Portsmouth but, unlike the others, Meredith gave it a fictional name and generally eschewed all mention of his birthplace. His reticence has been put down to shame of his humble origins but in practice he had little to be ashamed of, as his family were well known and largely well respected.

Although rumoured to have originated in Wales, the first record of the Meredith family dates from June 1763 when George’s grandfather Melchizedek Meredith was listed as baptised in St. Mary’s Church, Portsea. His father was recorded as being John Meredith but nothing else is known of him nor of the early life of his son. Melchizedek emerges from the shadows around the time of his 21st birthday in 1784 when he began his career as a tailor at No. 73 High Street, Portsmouth. The house was presumably rented and may have been chosen for the workshop that lay behind it stretching all the way back to White Hart Road.

At about the same time as he set up business Melchizedek married a woman some ten years older than himself. Her name was Anne and she is thought to have been the daughter of a lawyer in Portsmouth named Mitchell. Together they raised a family of two sons and five daughters whilst Melchizedek’s business developed from a general tailoring shop to a naval outfitting establishment. In this he was a great success, having amongst his customers most of the renowned naval officers of the time, including Nelson, Collingwood, Jervis, Hood, Troubridge and Rodney. It was even said that Nelson had been wearing a uniform made by Meredith when he received the fatal bullet at Trafalgar and it is known that Hardy once took a room at no. 73 High Street. Perhaps more important than their roles as clients these officers became steps in Meredith’s relentless climb through the social hierarchy.

All of the children were christened in the nearby St. Thomas’s Church. The sons were Charles Melchizedeck who died a young boy in 1794 and Augustus Urmston, whilst the daughters were Anne Elizabeth, Caroline Melchizedek, Louisa Mitchell, Harriett Eustace and Catherine Matilda. All were said to follow their parents who were uniformly described as very handsome with a fine, even aristocratic, bearing, characteristics which served him well. Apparently being a mere tradesperson did not hold him back at all but just to make sure he further cemented his standing in the community when in 1796 he was initiated as a Freemason in the Phoenix Lodge and in 1801 became Churchwarden at St. Thomas’s. These moves and his general position enabled Melchizedek to secure wealthy and influential husbands for his daughters.

In 1809 Anne married Thomas Burbey, a prosperous banker and wholesale grocer who lived at no. 46 High Street. Thomas Burbey went on to become Mayor of Portsmouth in 1833. Thomas and Anne had one child, a daughter Mary Meredith Burbey who was born in 1812 and after marriage became Mrs. Pratt Wills. Caroline married William Price Read in 1809 and died 3 years later aged 24 years. In March 1811 Louisa, then aged 18, married William Harding Read who after working for 20 years as a purser in the dockyard was appointed Consular General in the Azores. Louisa and William maintained a high position in the court at Portugal where they raised their family of three sons and a daughter, all of whom were absorbed into the broader aristocracy of southern Europe.

In September 1811 Harriett married a brewer named John Hellyer who lived in Newington, Surrey. The last daughter Catherine, said to be the most beautiful of the five daughters, married Samuel Burdon Ellis on 28th October 1819. Ellis was at the time a lieutenant in the Royal Marines but he subsequently rose to the rank of General and Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. He took part in many famous naval engagements including the Battle of Trafalgar where he fought aboard HMS Ajax. He died in 1865. Ellis’s grandson was destined to write a defining biography of George Meredith in 1920.

The years immediately following the marriages of Louisa and Harriett were marked by death and financial difficulties. The latter was almost inevitable given Melchizedek’s indifference to all financial matters despite being a most generous host. It was said that he never issued a bill for his work but this was probably designed to indicate his lax attitude towards money rather than intended as a fact as he had no other source of income with which to maintain his lavish lifestyle. He died on 10th July 1814, aged 51, having outlived his daughters Anne and Caroline who died a few months apart in 1812/13. ‘Old Mel’ as he was affectionately known was buried in the family vault at St. Mary’s chapel on St. Mary’s Street (now Highbury Street).

After his death there remained at No. 73 High Street his widow Anne, his son Augustus and for a short while his daughter Catherine. Augustus was aged 17 years when his father died. He had been partially trained in the medical profession, having no interest whatsoever in tailoring, and like his father had great pretensions to being accepted into society. This would have to wait however as Melchizedek’s debts had to be paid off first and with only his mother in the household Augustus was obliged to take on the distasteful business of being a tailor.

With his mother aging rapidly under the financial weight left behind by her husband Augustus felt it prudent to Look out for a wife and housekeeper. He did not have to look far for at The Vine, a public house in Broad Street around the corner lived an old playmate of his, Jane Eliza Macnamara, daughter of the landlord Michael Macnamara, a much respected inhabitant of the town. After their marriage Jane moved into No. 73 High Street where on 12th February 1828 she gave birth to her only child George Meredith. Sadly his grandmother did not live for long after his birth; she died on 28th November 1828 leaving Augustus and his small family the sole occupants of No. 73.

As an only child George received the full attention of his parents and consequently spent a large part of his life in the company of adults. This had the effect of alienating him from most of his peers, but his contempt for them could not have been helped by his haughty, almost aristocratic view of himself, even at the age of eleven yeaars. This characteristic was noted by James Brent Price who lived next door to the Merediths at No. 74 High Street where his father David Brent Price was a printer and bookseller. Years later he recalled being invited into the Meredith household ‘to play with George’ where James found that the lad treated him with a degree of superiority, despite being a couple of years younger.

George’s mental development suffered a major setback when in July 1833 his mother died to leave just him and his father in the household. The only female adult company he thereafter experienced were the attentions of his two aunts Mary and Catherine. Luckily George and Augustus found each others company agreeable enough to spend time together, walking around Hampshire, but there was little affection from George to match the devotion shown by his father. Like his own father Melchizedek, Augustus had no interest in money and bore his fathers debts for many years, preferring to entertain rather than economise. He must have been moderately successful as he certainly employed apprentices, one of whom was James Watson Gieve who went on to found the Savile Row tailors Gieves and Hawkes.

Around 1837 George was sent to St. Paul’s School, on the corner of St. Paul’s Road and King Street which made him more aloof than ever given that most of the local boys of his age went to far lowlier establishments. In 1841 Augustus married a second wife, Matilda Buckett, who had probably previously been his housekeeper. At the same time he decided to sell the business at 73 High Street to his neighbour Joseph Galt and move to London and try his hand at tailoring there. In 1842 George was sent to school in Germany and though he was there only a couple of years absorbed and respected much of the culture.

Meanwhile Augustus found it hard to make a living in London despite working out of a very fashionable address at 26 St. James Street. In 1849 he emigrated to Cape Town, South Africa where he seems to have prospered for a while but by 1863 he was ready to retire to England where he initially lived at Argyll Villas, Wish Street, Southsea and later at 50 Elm Grove. Augustus died on the 18th June 1876, aged 79 years, and was buried at Highland Road Cemetery. George’s attendance at the funeral may well have been the last time he visited Portsmouth.

George Meredith had by this time become an exceedingly famous novelist who thought rarely of Portsmouth apart from when he had written Evan Harrington, a fictionalised account of his family days in the town, in 1861. Even in his literature he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge the name of the town and called it instead Lymport. When he died in 1909 he was much respected by the likes of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and EM Forster who considered him to be a great innovator, but his fame did not last long. George Meredith was destined to become ‘the last of the Victorian novelists’ at a time when his output was appearing increasingly irrelevant.

Photography copyright Tim Backhouse 2012

This article was originally published on Tim’s History in Portsmouth website.