If we were to apply the rigours of the Criminal Justice System, with its burden of proof, to the evidence presented for one house rather than the other being where Keats and his brothers lodged in 1818 then we would probably have to say that the case for either house is unproven. However, it’s entirely reasonable to say that in historical research, although we might like the absolute truth, we have to rely more on judgement based on the balance of probabilities.
What has been shown in the posts over the last six weeks is:
- The Letters. Keats’ letters give no reference to a specific house or address, but he does describe a view from his bedroom window which could apply equally to either No 20 or No 35 Northumberland Place as the location of Keats’ lodgings.
- The Bonnet-shop. Arguments put forward historically include an assertion that there was a bonnet-shop opposite where Keats lived. I can find no evidence of there being a bonnet-shop in either of these two locations in 1818. My view is that the bonnet-shop that Keats mentioned was more likely the milliners run by the Sutton sisters in Wellington’s Row, one of the main streets of Teignmouth at the time along which Keats would have probably regularly walked. So I don’t think that the ‘bonnet-shop argument’ can be used to decide between the two locations.
However, if I am wrong and there had been a bonnet-shop opposite Keats’ lodgings in 1818 then the only place it could have been, consistent with Keats’ description of his view and being able to see the bonnet-shop, would have been No 35 Northumberland Place. This means that Keats’ house would have been No 20.
- The Jeffery Family. Arguments have also been put forward historically about Keats living with the Jeffery family or close to the Jeffery family. Again I can find no evidence of the family being in Northumberland Place. On the contrary local records make reference to them being in West Teignmouth and specifically Old Market Street. So again I think there is no substantiating evidence here about Keats’ residence.
- One Old Man. The final thread of evidence concerns the ‘one old man’ mentioned by Dorothy Hewlett in her 1937 biography. I have described this in a lot of detail in the previous three posts so here is a chronological summary:
|Pre 1901||Dr W C Lake & Henry Buxton Forman decided on the basis of Keats’ letters that he lodged at 35 Northumberland Place. I can find no written explanation for this decision.|
|1901||Beatrix Cresswell reported this in her book “Teignmouth, its History and its Surroundings”, reprinted in 1906|
|1908||Louis A Holman visited Teignmouth and photographed No 35 Northumberland Place, probably on the basis of Beatrix Cresswell’s book|
|1908/9||John Gilmer Speed produces article for Century Magazine (published posthumously 1910) including Holman’s photo with caption “The Lodgings of Keats and his Brothers in Teignmouth”|
|1906-10||My speculation is that the decision changed some time in this period and that Dr W C Lake spoke with William Risdon Hall Jordan (the “one old man”) who claimed that his father had known Keats well and that Keats lived at No 20 Northumberland Place|
|1910||Frederick C Frost writes to local paper with this claim based on Dr Lake, W R H Jordan and H B Forman’s assessment|
|1910-12||At some point the name “Keats House” is attached to the front door of No 20 Northumberland Place (Wilfred Owen visited in 1911)|
|1912||Francis Gribble’s book “The Romance of the Men of Devon” was published with a picture of No 20 Northumberland Place showing the name on the front door.|
|1913||Louis A Holman writes to Dr Lake and receives a reply 4th April confirming the claim by W R H Jordan that Keats’ house was No 20 Northumberland Place. Holman attaches clipping of photo from Century Magazine with note that the title was wrong and it should have been “the bonnet shop over the way”|
|1913||20th May Holman receives 2nd letter from Dr W C Lake with photographs which he annotates indicating that Keats’ house was No 20 Northumberland Place|
|1925||The house is officially referred to as ‘Keats House’ in the deeds|
|1926||Frederick Edgcumbe, curator of Keats Museum, visits Teignmouth and concludes that No 20 Northumberland Place was indeed the house where Keats lodged and a commemorative plaque is then placed on the house. I have seen no explanation for his conclusion but his notes are held in the London Metropolitan Archives|
|1937||Dorothy Hewlett, in her biography, acknowledges the plaque but also says its veracity depends on the memory of ‘one old man’.|
|1950||Hyder Edward Rollins publishes summarised versions of Dr W C Lake’s letters in Harvard Library Bulletin|
|1958||Hyder Edward Rollins publishes his new version of “Letters of John Keats” and quotes Dr Lake’s letter to support statement that Keats lodged at No 20 Northumberland Place.|
SO, given all the above and on the basis of the balance of probabilities,
my conclusion is that
the house in which Keats and his brothers lodged was ……….
No 20 Northumberland Place.
Could this conclusion change?
The answer, of course, is “Yes” although it is difficult to see what additional evidence could come to light to change that conclusion. I have yet to see Frederick Edgcumbe’s notes but he decided on No 20 anyway so there is unlikely to be information to the contrary there. If a rent book with an address and Keats name on surfaced then that would be conclusive. Did someone in 1910 have a vested interest in No 20 and encourage a conspiracy between Lake, Jordan and Frost to concoct a memory about Keats? Possible but unlikely given their local standing and credibility.
At one stage I did wonder why Lake and Forman even focussed on Northumberland Place when there was no reference to it in the letters. Old Market Street, for example, would have had river views at that time – and that is probably where the Jeffery family lived and it was closer to two milliners. But, once W R H Jordan’s statement about his father came to light that ruled out Old Market Street as well.
New information does come to light – for example, I have just discovered another source of Keats memorabilia – a collection of Henry Buxton Forman archive material held by the University of Delaware. Thanks to Tim and Valerie there for sending me a couple of photos; although they don’t alter my conclusion they do add to the growing collection of photos of No 20 in the early 20th century so I thought I’d just bring them all together here in one place:
Keats House 1912 – note no gas streetlamp
Finally, I’d like to thank Mike and Trudy Posnette, the current owners of No 20 Northumberland Place for allowing me to look around their house, the bedroom where Keats is likely to have stayed and see what remains today of the view from there up the river.
In their lounge there is also a large framed commemoration to Keats which had been presented to Teignmouth Council by Arthur Thomson. I don’t know when this was presented but I would surmise it was after the decision to place the official plaque on the house. I thought this would be a fitting end to this long trail of investigation!