Charles and Mary Lamb in the Inner Temple
William Cowper Of The Inner Temple
by Clare Rider, IT Archivist 1998-2009
Childhood in the Inner Temple
Charles and Mary Lamb, probably best known as co-authors of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, were born in the Inner Temple, at 2 Crown Office Row. Their father, John Lamb, was employed as a Hall waiter and clerk to Samuel Salt, who served as Under-Treasurer (a post subsequently known as Sub-Treasurer) to the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple from 1745 to 1768.
Samuel Salt, who was originally a member of the Middle Temple, was appointed Under-Treasurer of the Inner Temple in 1745 and was called to the Bar by the Inner Temple on 18 May 1753. He acquired chambers successively in Ram Alley Buildings (later known as Mitre Court Buildings), Tanfield Court and Sir Robert Sawyer’s Buildings (on the site of the present Paper Buildings). In 1759, on grounds of personal convenience, he exchanged these chambers for a set of chambers in 7 Fig Tree Court, directly above the Under-Treasurer’s office in 2 Crown Office Row. He proceeded to make a staircase connecting 7 Fig Tree Court with his office in 2 Crown Office Row and the combined chambers were deemed sufficient to house not only Salt and his office, but also his clerk and his clerk’s family. It was in this building that Charles and Mary Lamb were born.
Sir Frank MacKinnon, in his commentary on Charles Lamb’s essay ‘The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple’ concluded that the Lambs were housed in the back chamber of 2 Crown Office Row, behind the Under-Treasurer’s office rather than in the Fig Tree Court chambers above.1 If this were the case, it must have been a confined space for John Lamb, his wife Elizabeth, and their several children. The curious situation of an Under-Treasurer, subsequently to become Bencher and Treasurer of the Inner Temple, accommodating an employee’s family is best explained by the fact that Samuel Salt had lost his own wife in childbirth in the first year of their marriage. The Temple church registers refer to her burial in the vault on 22 December 1747.2. Salt never remarried, despite the attentions of ‘mild Miss Susan P….’ who pursued him with ‘a hopeless passion’ for forty years3, and seems to have regarded John Lamb’s family as his own.
Samuel Salt continued to live at 2 Crown Office Row/7 Fig Tree Court with his household until his death in 1792. Despite his resignation as Under-Treasurer in 1768 in order to pursue a political career in the House of Commons (representing the boroughs of Liskeard, Cornwall, from 1768 to 1784, and Aldeburgh, Suffolk, from 1784), he continued to serve the Inner Temple in a number of ways. In 1770 he was appointed Bar Auditor and in 1776 he was selected as an ‘Associate of the Bench’. He acquired full Bench status in 1782 and subsequently served as Reader, in 1787, and Treasurer, in 1788.
John and Elizabeth Lamb had good reason to be grateful for Salt’s hospitality. They had a total of seven children whilst under Salt’s roof, of whom Charles Lamb, born 10 February 1775 was the youngest. They were all christened in the Temple Church, the register recording the baptisms of Elizabeth (born 9 January 1762, baptised 30 January 1762); John (born 5 June 1763, baptised 26 June 1763); Mary Anne (born 3 December 1764, baptised 30 December 1764); Samuel (baptised 13 December1765); Elizabeth (born 30 August 1768, baptised 3 September 1768); Edward (born 3 September 1770, baptised 21 September 1770) and Charles (born 10 February 1775, baptised 10 March 1775).4 Only three of these children, John, Mary and Charles, survived infancy, although there is no record of the burial of their less fortunate siblings in the Temple Church registers. Perhaps they were buried in Hertfordshire, where the Lambs had family connections.
Samuel Salt seems to have taken a direct interest in the Lambs’ surviving children. He allowed them free access to his own library, where they developed a taste for literature; in all likelihood helped to procure the entry of John and Charles to Christ’s Hospital (of which he was a Governor); and assisted in finding subsequent employment for them as clerks in the South Sea Company (of which he was a Director). In 1792, Charles went on to work as clerk in the East India Company (of which Salt was also a Director), and he remained there until his retirement in 1825.
Charles looked back with fondness on the first seven years of his life in the Inner Temple in his essay, ‘The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple’.5 He described his birthplace as ‘Cheerful Crown Office Row…..the place of my kindly engendure’ and the Temple as ‘the most elegant spot in the metropolis’. He also benefited from his time at Christ’s Hospital (otherwise known as the Blue Coat School), situated on the north side of Newgate Street, which he attended from 1782 to 1789. It was there that he formed his life-long friendship with fellow pupil and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His connection with Salt protected him from some of the harshness of school life:
Any complaint which he [Salt] had to make was sure of being attended to. This was understood at Christ’s and was an effectual screen to him [Lamb] against the severity of the Masters, or worse tyranny of the monitors.6
He also, in his essay on Christ’s Hospital, acknowledged the kindness of the Sub-Treasurer (John Spinks), whose generosity supplemented the meagre diet of the other pupils:
The present worthy Sub-Treasurer to the Inner Temple can explain how that happened. He [Lamb] had his tea and hot rolls in a morning, while we [the other pupils] were battening upon our quarter of a penny loaf — our crug moistened with attenuated small beer, in wooden piggins, smacking of the pitched leathern jack it was poured from. Our Mondays milk porritch, blue and tasteless, and the pease soup of Saturday, coarse and choking, were enriched for him [Lamb] with a slice of “extra-ordinary bread and butter,” from the hot-loaf of the Temple.7
- Sir F. D. McKinnon Inner Temple Papers (London 1948; republished 2003) 2nd ed. p134
- Register of Burials at the Temple Church ed. H.G. Woods (London 1905)
- Probably Miss Susan Pierson, the sister of a fellow Bencher: McKinnon Inner Temple Papers 2nd ed. p188
- The Register of the Temple Church 1628-1853: Baptisms 1629-1853; Marriages 1628-1760 ed. G.D. Squibb, Harleian Society New Series vol. I (London 1979)
- Reproduced in full by McKinnon in Inner Temple Papers 2nd ed. pp117-128
- Charles Lamb ‘Christ’s Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago’ Essays of Elia ed. E.V.Lucas (1905)
- Charles Lamb ‘Christ’s Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago’
Infirmity and madness
However, Charles and Mary’s lives were not untroubled. Their mother was frail and their father, once an outstandingly capable and personable administrator (if we can believe Charles’ literary portrait of him in ‘the Old Benchers’), began to decline into weakness and increasing senility. In January 1793, John Lamb successfully petitioned the Inner Temple Benchers to be relieved of his duties as first waiter in the Inner Temple Hall on the grounds that:
…he had been a servant to the House near forty years and that he had nearly lost the use of his left hand and was otherwise very infirm and praying that he might be permitted to find a person to attend for him8
Forced to leave their chambers in 1792, on the death of Samuel Salt, the Lambs rented lodgings in Little Queen Street, Holborn, where Mary spent much of her time nursing her ailing family, including her Aunt Sarah (known as Hetty) who had come to live with them some years before. Both Mary and Charles seem to have suffered from periods of depression and in 1796 Charles’ melancholy became such that he became a voluntary patient in a mental institution in Hoxton in East London. He described his predicament to his friend Coleridge in a letter dated 10 June 1796:
When you left London, I felt a dismal void in my heart….in your absence the tide of melancholy rushed in again , and did its worst mischief by overwhelming my reason. I have recovered but feel a stupor that makes me indifferent to the hopes and fears of this life… Dream not, Coleridge of having tasted all the grandeur and wildness of fancy till you have gone mad!9
However, Charles’ illness was to pale into insignificance later that same year when his sister, Mary, in a fit of insanity, killed their mother with a kitchen knife. On 22 September 1796, driven to distraction by an apprentice who was assisting her mother with some needlework, Mary pursued the girl round the room with a knife and finally stabbed her mother who had intervened to save the girl. Mary’s father was also wounded in the attack and her aunt fainted from the shock. The Coroner’s inquest, held at the lodgings in Little Queen Street the next day, pronounced a verdict of murder whilst temporarily insane. Mary was confined to a private madhouse in Islington on a coroner’s warrant, whilst Charles arranged for the burial of his mother in the graveyard of St. Andrew, Holborn.10
Charles explained the tragedy thus to Coleridge:
My poor dear, dearest sister, in a fit of insanity, has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp. She is at present in a madhouse, from whence I fear she must be moved to an hospital. God has preserved to me my senses: I eat, and drink, and sleep, and have my judgment, I believe, very sound. My poor father was slightly wounded, and I am left to take care of him and my aunt. Mr. Norris, of the Bluecoat School, has been very very kind to us, and we have no other friend; but, thank God, I am very calm and composed, and able to do the best that remains to do. Write as religious a letter as possible, but no mention of what is gone and done with. With me ‘the former things are passed away’, and I have something more to do than I feel. God Almighty have us all in his keeping!11
On recovering sufficiently to be released from the private madhouse, Mary should have been brought to trial and, in all likelihood, would have been confined to a public lunatic asylum. However, Charles, who had moved with his father and aunt to 45 Chapel Street, Pentonville, persuaded the parish authorities to place Mary in his custody. It is not clear how he managed to achieve this. There is no evidence of any use of legal contacts and Charles’ elder brother, John, was not in favour of the arrangement. But Charles’ strong sense of family loyalty and love for his elder sister prevailed and he became her guardian and helpmate. Charles was to take care of Mary for the rest of his life, remaining unmarried for her sake. During the lifetime of their father, rooms were found for Mary in nearby Hackney, where Charles was a regular visitor. On the death of John Lamb senior, in 1799, Mary moved in with her brother and remained his almost constant companion until his death in 1834, leaving him only for the madhouse during her temporary relapses into insanity.
Return to the Inner Temple
However, rumours of Mary’s malady made the Lambs undesirable tenants and later in 1799 they were evicted from their lodgings in Pentonville. They were fortunate in being offered rooms in 34 Southampton Buildings, Holborn, by Charles’ former school friend, John Matthew Gutch, who was a law stationer, and there they lived from 1800 to 1801. However, after only nine months, Charles felt obliged to find alternative accommodation. It is not surprising then that he sought refuge in the familiar surroundings of the Inner Temple, acquiring residential chambers on the top floor of 16 Mitre Court Buildings (on the present site of no.1 Mitre Court Buildings).
There he remained with his sister until 1809, enjoying the views and airiness that the top floor accommodation provided, as he described to Thomas Manning:
I am going to change my lodgings, having received a hint that it would be agreeable, at Our Lady’s next feast. I have partly fixed upon most delectable rooms, which look out (when you stand on tip-toe) over the Thames and the Surrey Hills: at the upper end of King’s Bench Walks, in the Temple. There I shall have all the privacy of a house without the encumbrance, and shall be able to lock my friends out as often as I desire to hold free converse with my immortal mind;…. By my new plan, I shall be as airy, up four pairs of stairs, as in the country; and in a garden, in the midst of enchanting (more than Mahometan paradise) London…12
It was during their residence at Mitre Court Buildings, that Charles and his sister were commissioned to write their Tales from Shakespeare, which was first published in 1807, as part of William Godwin’s Juvenile Library of children’s books. Although Mary was responsible for the comedy tales, leaving the tragedies to Charles, her name did not appear as co-author for at least the first six editions. They also composed The Adventures of Ulysses, a children’s version of Homer’s Odyssey, Mrs Leicester’s School, and Poetry for Children at this period. Despite their straitened circumstances and recurrent periods of depression, which Mary described in her letters, they seem to have been happy in their writing and in their return to the Temple of their childhood.
However, in 1809 they were back in 34 Southampton Buildings for a brief spell, moving back to the Inner Temple later that year, this time to chambers at 2 Inner Temple Lane. Charles Lamb described them in a letter to his friend, Thomas Manning:
…we are moved. Don’t come any more to Mitre Court Buildings. We are at 34 Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane, and shall be here till about the end of May; then we remove to No.2 Inner Temple Lane, where I mean to live and die; for I have such a horror of moving… Our final place of destination – I don’t mean the grave, but No.2 Inner Temple Lane- looks out on a gloomy churchyard-like court, called Hare court, with three trees and a pump in it. Do you know it? I was born near it, and used to drink at the pump when I was a Rechabite of six years old.13
As sub-tenants they had no security of tenure, and when the tenant decided to occupy the residential chambers himself, they were once more forced to move. Fortunately, Charles managed to secure accommodation two doors down, at 4 Inner Temple Lane, where they remained until 1817. He described the chambers as follows:
I have two sitting-rooms: I call them so par excellence, for you may stand, or loll, or lean, or try any posture in them, but they are best for sitting; not squatting down Japanese fashion, but the more decorous use of the [haunches] which European usage has consecrated. I have two of these rooms on the third floor, and five sleeping, cooking, etc., rooms on the fourth floor. In my best room is a choice collection of the works of Hogarth, an English painter of some humour. In my next best are shelves containing a small but well-chosen library. My best room commands a court [Hare Court], in which there are trees and a pump, the water of which is excellent cold, with brandy, and not very insipid without. Here I hope to set up my rest, and not quit till Mr. Powell, the undertaker, gives me notice that I may have possession of my last lodging.14
It seems that Charles Lamb became a direct tenant in this new set of chambers after the death of ‘Honest Hugh Edmonds’, a member of the Inn, who had sub-let the third storey chambers to the Lambs. In the 1808-9 accounts, Lamb was recorded as paying the rent (£7 10s per quarter) to the Inner Temple.15
However, the move upset Mary’s mental equilibrium and she was forced to leave Charles alone in the new chambers until she had recovered. He therefore took a little while to settle into the new lodgings, regretting to his friend Coleridge, ‘I try to persuade myself it is much pleasanter than Mitre Court; but alas! The household gods are slow to come to the new mansion…. How I hate and dread new places.’16
Whilst at the Inner Temple, the Lambs entertained friends and acquaintances on a regular basis, despite their modest income. Charles continued to work as a clerk in the East India Office throughout his time at the Temple, supplementing his wages by composing witticisms for the daily newspapers and by his other writings. Charles seems to have been a strange combination of introvert and extrovert, constantly surrounding himself with companions and then complaining of lack of space and solitude. His natural shyness, exacerbated by a pronounced stutter, made him susceptible to alcohol, which lent him courage on social occasions. A contemporary of Lamb, P G Patmore, explained the influence of drink on his friend.
It created nothing but was the talisman that not only unlocked the poor casket in which the rich thoughts of Charles Lamb were shut up, but set in motion that machinery in the absence of which they would have lain like gems in the mountain or gold in the mine.17
Although Patmore confirmed that Charles Lamb often made an unfavourable impression on first acquaintance with his acerbic wit, he felt at ease in the company of those he knew well. He was loved and respected by his circle of close friends, which included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Manning, William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, and Robert Southey, although he saw them increasingly rarely since they lived outside London. However, there is a delightful description of one such meeting in the diary of Haydon, the painter, who had Keats and Lamb to dinner at his home when Wordsworth was in town. The year was 1817:
On 28th December the immortal dinner came off in my painting-room, with Jerusalem towering behind us as a background. Wordsworth was in fine cue, and we had a glorious set-to – on Homer, Shakespeare, Milton and Virgil. Lamb got exceedingly merry, and exquisitely witty; and in his fun, in the midst of Wordworth’s solemn intonations of oratory, was like the sarcasm and wit of the fool in the intervals of Lear’s passion. He made a speech and voted me absent and made them drink my health. “Now”, said Lamb “you old lake poet, you rascally poet, why do you call Voltaire dull?” We all defended Wordsworth, and affirmed there was a state of mind when Voltaire would be dull. “Well,” said Lamb, “here’s Voltaire – the Messiah of the French nation – and a very proper one too.”18
When living in the Temple, Charles and Mary used to keep open house on Wednesday evenings. On such occasions, poets, including Coleridge and Wordsworth on their infrequent visits to London, dramatists, journalists, actors, barristers and other acquaintances of the Lambs conversed, ate and drank, whilst crammed into the low-ceilinged rooms in Inner Temple Lane.
The lack of space in the Inner Temple Lane chambers was apparently one of the reasons for the Lambs’ decision to leave the Inner Temple in 1817. Mary also claimed that the chambers were ‘dirty and out of repair’. However, it was a wrench, as both Mary and Charles acknowledged in their letters to Dorothy Wordsworth. Considering how much they both disliked moving, it may be that their decision was not taken voluntarily.
We have left the Temple. I think you will be sorry to hear this… Our rooms were dirty and out of repair, and the inconveniences of living in chambers became every year more irksome, and so, at last, we mustered up resolution enough to leave the good old place, that so long had sheltered us, and here we are, living at a brazier’s shop No. 20, in Russell Street, Covent Garden, a place all alive with noise and bustle; Drury Lane Theatre in sight from our front, and Covent Garden from our back windows.
Mary Lamb to Miss Wordworth 21 November 181719
Here we are transplanted from our native soil. I thought we never could have been torn up from the Temple. Indeed it was an ugly wrench, but like a tooth, now ’tis out, and I am easy. We can never strike root so deep in any other ground.
Charles Lamb to Miss Wordworth 21 November 181720
- A Calendar of the Inner Temple Records vol. V 1750-1800 ed. R A Roberts (London 1937) p563
- The Letters of Charles Lamb vol. I ed. A. Ainger (London 1888) letter III p15
- Elizabeth Lamb of St.Giles-in-the Fields was buried in the graveyard of St. Andrew, Holborn, on 26 September 1796: Guildhall Library Ms. 6673/13
- 27 September 1796, The Letters of Charles Lamb vol. I letter VIII p32
- Charles Lamb to Thomas Manning, [February or March] 1801, The Letters of Charles Lamb vol. I letter LXXIX p 168
- Charles Lamb to Thomas Manning, 28 March 1809, The Letters of Charles Lamb vol. I letter CXXXI pp 249-250. Ainger originally wrote ‘No. 4 Inner Temple Lane’ but corrected this in manuscript to No. 2 in his own copy of the 1888 edition now held in the Inner Temple Library
- Charles Lamb to Thomas Manning, 2 January 1810, The Letters of Charles Lamb vol. I letter CXXXI pp 255-256. ‘Haunches’ was added in manuscript by Ainger in his own copy of the 1888 edition.
- A Calendar of the Inner Temple Records vol. VI ed. B. McGiven 1992 pp 147,210: Inner Temple Archives CHA/5/4-5
- Charles Lamb to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 7 June 1809 The Letters of Charles Lamb vol. I letter CXXXII pp251-2
- P G Patmore My Friends and Acquaintance (1854) quoted in A. Ainger Charles Lamb (London 1891) p97
- Haydon’s diary quoted in Ainger Charles Lamb p105
- The Letters of Charles Lamb vol. II letter CLXV p6
- The Letters of Charles Lamb letter CLXVI vol. II p8
After the Temple
From 1817 to 1823, the Lambs lived at 20 Russell Street, Covent Garden, opposite the Drury Lane Theatre, a lively and noisy venue after the relative tranquillity of the Inner Temple. In 1823, they returned to the familiar territory of Islington, remaining at Colebrooke Cottage, 64 Duncan Terrace, Islington, until 1827. Their final years together were spent in Chase Side, Enfield, and in Church Street, Edmonton. A married couple named Walden owned Bay Cottage, in Church Street, Edmonton, and ran it as a private home for mental patients. In 1833, Charles arranged for them to board him and his sister as sole lodgers and, after Charles’ death from erysipelas on 29 December 1834, the Waldens continued to take care of Mary. Mary’s mental health deteriorated further after the death of her brother and after leaving the Waldens in 1841, she was nursed by Mrs Trueman and her sisters in sheltered accommodation in Alpha Road near Regent’s Park. She died in 1847.
Besides his co-authorship of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, which became a best-seller and ran into numerous editions, Charles is best known as an essayist. Two of his essays, ‘The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple’ and ‘Christ’s Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago’ have already been mentioned. There were many more, several of which were published as the Essays of Elia. In addition, his letters to Coleridge and others, published fifty-four years after his death by Canon Ainger, Master of the Temple, reveal his intelligence and wit as well as his personal tragedies. They have since been reedited and republished by E V Lucas (1935) and Edwin W. Marrs Junior (1975).
Enchanted by his visits to the London theatre, Lamb was keen to join the famous dramatists of the age, but his attempts at play-writing ended in embarrassing failure. Lamb was less happy to be remembered for his poetry, although his poems, edited and published anonymously in the first edition of Coleridge’s Poems on various subjects (1796 or 1797), were the first of his writings to reach publication. Immediately after the tragedy at Little Queen Street, he felt his poetry too frivolous.
Mention nothing of poetry. I have destroyed every vestige of past vanities of that kind. Do as you please, but if you publish, publish mine (I give free leave) without name or initial, and never send me a book, I charge you.21
However, it is fitting to end with an extract from a poem “Hypochondriarchus” written by Charles Lamb in 1802, whilst living at Mitre Court, in imitation of a section on melancholy in Burton’s Anatomy. Whilst composed as a parody, Lamb’s lines illuminate the mental condition which so blighted his life and that of his beloved sister:
By myself walking, To myself talking,
When as I ruminate, On my untold fate,
Scarcely seem I, Alone sufficiently,
Black thoughts continually, Crowding my privacy;
They come unbidden, Like foes at a wedding,
Thrusting their faces, In better guests’ places,
Peevish and malcontent,Clownish, impertinent,
Dashing the merriment;So in like fashions
Dim cogitations, Follow and haunt me
In my heart festering, In my ears whispering,
“Thy friends are treacherous, Thy foes are dangerous,
Thy dreams ominous”
I should like to thank Andrew Roberts of Middlesex University, Susan Tyler Hitchcock of Covesville, Virginia, Elaine Madsen of Van Nuys, California, and Richard Harvey of Guildhall Library, for their assistance with this article. Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s biography of Mary Lamb is scheduled for publication this year.
- Charles Lamb to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 27 Sep 1796 The Letters of Charles Lamb vol. I letter VIII p32