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London Coal Exchange 1849

​London Coal Exchange, 1849

Kensett: social history at LMA

The London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) collections are a rich resource for uncovering many little-known aspects of British social history. Among the archives, records and registers, maps and books there Dr Ruth Levitt, Visiting Senior Research Fellow, King’s College London discovered some valuable pieces of evidence that reveal much about how people worked and lived in and around London in the past. Members of one particular extended and dispersed family of artisans named Kensett illustrate the story.

The Kensetts seem to have been recorded first in agricultural work in Sussex, then some of them spread into Surrey, Middlesex and London, from where others crossed the Atlantic to America and another branch headed for Australia. The family included market gardeners, drapers, dry goods merchants, food canners, furniture makers, engravers, schoolmasters, one became an early photographer, others include a local politician, a ship’s captain, coal merchant, legal clerk, tobacconist, blacking manufacturer, a needlewoman and a laundress. The best known of them was the American landscape painter John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), whose father emigrated from London as a teenager at the start of the century.

My research explored how huge social trends and technical developments such as life expectancy, literacy and the mass media, banking and insurance, steam power, transatlantic trade and manufacturing, photography, war and racial prejudice affected the life chances of individual artisans and their families. I was able to assemble factual details about particular people and places through browsing and searching in the LMA catalogue, then studying the selected items one by one. For example, I found in LMA’s Hampton Court Manor Rolls the leases of two beer houses in Hampton Court Village granted to John Robert Kensett who lived in Camden Town in London in the 1850s.

He inherited the leases of the ‘Cardinal Wolsey’ and the ‘Henry VIII’ from his mother Sarah Kensett Newbery in 1843. Sarah’s first husband, the father of her three sons, had died young in 1791. She was married again in 1800, to local widower John Newbery in 1800. He was a maltster and coal merchant. She had inherited the leases in 1832 following the deaths first of Newbery and then of her youngest son Frederick, who had owned the leases jointly with Newbery. Frederick had become a coal merchant in the village, like his stepfather, but died aged only 40, from ‘bronchial inflammation’. He was buried at the church then serving Hampton Court village, St Mary Hampton, on 14 February 1832. Those details led me to investigate more about the organisation of the British coal trade and the importance of London in it.

The trail also opened up another dimension of social conditions, because although Sarah lived to a great age she nevertheless died in extraordinary circumstances, from an accidental overdose of laudanum. That episode led me to investigate self medication, doctors’ prescribing and the work of apothecaries, chemists and druggists at the time.

William Kensett’s Abbot’s Chair. © Victoria and Albert Museum

​William Kensett’s Abbot’s Chair.

© Victoria and Albert Museum

Another aspect of London’s artisans and social history is illustrated by William Kensett, a noted chair maker in Mortimer Street who became a prominent and controversial local politician as a member of the Marylebone Vestry in the 1830s following the passing of the Reform Act. The context for this was the reforms of local and central government and the role of radicals such as John Wilkes and William Lovett (a furniture maker and Chartist) in the widening of enfranchisement. LMA records show that William Kensett was an idiosyncratic and outspoken reformer and yet he was also implicated in an incident of vote rigging. One of his chairs, a faithful copy of an elaborate turned Gothic original called the Abbot’s Chair, was commended by JC Loudon and is now in the V&A.

Several other Kensetts were furniture makers in Marylebone, living nearby in Nassau Street and Wardour Street. Research in LMA’s Sun Insurance Office fire policy records also uncovered George Kensett’s insurance policies, giving great detail about the types and values of the furniture and fittings in his workshop and dwelling. This led me to find out more about the London furniture trade, the structure of the workforce and the operation of the market.

Many more leads became available from fresh discoveries, and from this abundant material I was able to write my book and a number of articles about scarcely known aspects of London’s rich social history. The book, which reconsiders the 18th and 19th centuries specifically from the perspective of ordinary working people and explores their social mobility, is entitled Kensett: Artisans in Britain and America in the 18th and 19th centuries (King’s Research Portal, 2014) and is available to download free from the King's College London website.

19 May 2015
Last Modified:
26 September 2018