Heritage: Romantic poets Wordsworth, Byron and Keats flocked to Joanna Baillie’s Hampstead home
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In the latest of our series commemorating the life and work of people honoured with plaques, Adam Sonin remembers Scottish poet and dramatist Joanna Baillie – toast of the Romantic poets who flocked to her Hampstead residence.
One of the first women to be commemorated with a plaque, Joanna Baillie, was celebrated in verse by her peers, the poets Anne Bannerman, Sir Walter Scott, Anna Barbauld and Hector Macneill.
In her day, the Romantic poets Wordsworth, Byron and Keats each made the pilgrimage to Bolton House, her residence in Hampstead. Her friend and admirer, the novelist, playwright and poet Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), thought her the best dramatic writer since Shakespeare, writing that “Stratford upon Avon’s swans think Shakespeare lives again”.
Lord Byron not only praised her plays but also energetically supported public performances.
Along with artist John Constable (1776–1837), she was one of the founding members of the Hampstead Public Library (opened in 1833 at 65 Flask Walk) and was buried nearby Constable in Hampstead Parish Churchyard.
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Joanna Baillie (1762–1851), playwright and poet, was born in the manse of Bothwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland, on September 11. She was the daughter of the Reverend James Baillie, recently appointed minister at Bothwell, and his wife, Dorothea Hunter.
The family could trace their lineage back to the Scottish patriot William Wallace, and Joanna’s mother was a sister of the physician William Hunter and the surgeon John Hunter (best known today as the founders of the Hunterian Museums in Glasgow and London).
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Baillie was the youngest of three children. She had a twin sister who died, unnamed, a few hours after her birth. Baillie was close to her siblings, her sister, Agnes (1760–1861), and brother Matthew (1761–1823), later the eminent physician to George III, and member of The Royal Society.
Her childhood, recalled in an unpublished memoir written for her nephew, was mostly spent enjoying the outdoors in and around the River Clyde. Baillie showed little interest in books or learning to read but was often found staging impromptu amateur dramatics on a wagon in the schoolyard.
Along with her sister she loved to listen to terrifying tales of ghosts and the supernatural, which often resulted in the girls being too afraid to venture upstairs to their bedrooms.
Joanna also displayed early signs of being a natural storyteller, entertaining her friends and acting out scenes for personal pleasure. She was “addicted to clambering on the roof of the house, to act over her scenes alone and in secret”.
At the age of ten, Baillie was sent to Miss McDonald’s boarding school in Glasgow. As a pupil, her intellectual and artistic faculties were recognised, stimulated and developed.
She exhibited a real talent for drawing, showed considerable aptitude for music, and was extremely proficient in mathematics. However, nothing could rival her passion, and potential, for writing and acting plays.
In 1776, Baillie’s father took up a post as professor of divinity at Glasgow University but died two years later.
Her brother, Matthew, was admitted to Balliol College, Oxford, and planned to follow in his uncles’ footsteps and study medicine. Owing to financial strain and a tiny inheritance, Baillie’s mother decided to move her daughters to her family’s home in Long Calderwood.
In 1783, Dr William Hunter died, leaving Matthew his house and museum collection in Windmill Street, London. The following year Joanna, Agnes and their mother moved to Windmill Street to keep house for Matthew. London was to prove a real eye-opener.
Baillie had access to literary society through her aunt, the poet and host of a regular salon, Anne Home Hunter (the wife of John Hunter).
Anne encouraged her niece’s talent and Baillie began to mop up the influences of her new surroundings. She had a ready supply of books and studied the French authors Corneille, Racine, Molière and Voltaire, as well as Shakespeare and the older English dramatists.
Baillie’s first poem, Winter Day, brought to life the winter sights and sounds of her old neighbourhood in Long Calderwood and was written in blank verse.
“I must confess I would much rather have written in rhime; only rhimes with me in those days were not easily found and I had not industry enough to toil for them,” she said.
“Ballads in rhime followed afterwards, and when I found I could write them with some degree of ease, I began to be proud of myself and to believe that I possessed some genius.”
During her time at Windmill Street, she set her mind to the serious business of writing drama, “following simply my own notions of real nature” and discovering that it was “an occupation that suited me”.
She published anonymously a collection of poems in 1790 to little notice and, after her brother’s marriage the following year, the Baillie women moved to Colchester. Joanna began work on what would later become Series of Plays on the Passions, first published anonymously, to considerable acclaim, in 1798.
At the time the gossip on the London grapevine thought the author might have been Sir Walter Scott.
It’s unclear as to when Baillie and her sister first settled in Hampstead but it seems likely that they were in the area in 1791. What is clear, however, is that the women, who never married, lived in Hampstead until the end of their respective lives and cared deeply for the area.
In her letters to prospective house guests, Baillie wrote: “I hope you will come early enough to have a ramble on the Heath before dinner,” and, “our dinner hour shall be half past five, and if you are disposed to walk on the Heath, come to us as early as you please.”
In 1829, Baillie wrote to Sir Walter Scott’s daughter, Anne: “This village (as we call it) of Hampstead is in great commotion at present from our Lord of the Manor [Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson] endeavouring to carry a bill through Parliament to enable him to deform & destroy according to his own wayward fancy our beautiful Heath.
“But this I hope will not pass. If it does, it will be a misfortune to the whole county of Middlesex, for it is the pleasantest object they have to look at, and it is seen from every quarter.”
Fortunately Sir Thomas (eighth baronet, the Lord of the Hampstead manor) was unsuccessful in his repeated requests to grant building leases on his Heath property.
The writer Maria Edgeworth recorded a visit in 1818. She commented: “Both Joanna and her sister have most agreeable and new conversation, not old, trumpery literature over again and reviews, but new circumstances worth telling, apropos to every subject that is touched upon.”
The inscription on the chocolate-brown memorial tablet, erected in 1900 by the Society of Arts at Bolton House, Windmill Hill, NW3, reads that Baillie lived here for “nearly 50 years”.
This is probably misleading. Baillie and her sister seem to have first taken up residence at the address in 1820. In March of the same year Baillie wrote, “our new house... on what is called Holly Bush Hill”.
Baillie died in Hampstead at the age of 88 and her sister Agnes lived to be 100.