Lady Mary Abney

Mary, Lady Abney (née Gunston) (1676 – 12 January 1750) inherited the Manor of Stoke Newington in the early 18th century, which lies about five miles north of St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London. She had a great influence on the design and landscaping of Abney Park which inspired many of Dr Isaac Watts' poems and hymns.

Life at the Manor

The Manor of Stoke Newington, a small farming community, had been owned and managed directly by St Paul's Cathedral until the early 17th century, after which they granted it to a succession of private Lords of the Manor.

In 1701, following the untimely death of Mary's brother, Thomas Gunston, the manor became her property; though at that date, since she had married Sir Thomas Abney, it would formally have passed to her husband by the rights of marriage that applied at that time – until he died. Mary Abney's husband, Sir Thomas Abney (1640–1722) was a Lord Mayor of London for the first year of their marriage in 1700, and had business interests in the City of London. Sir Thomas, some thirty-six years senior to Mary, already leased a mansion on the magnificent Theobalds estate at Cheshunt in Hertfordshire, when Mary Abney married him. However, the couple decided to live at both addresses, and split their lives between the villages of Cheshunt and Stoke Newington. Upon title to the Stoke Newington manor passing to Mary and Sir Thomas Abney, Mary (recently entitled to be called 'Lady' due to the knighthood of her husband by King William) was therefore able to begin to complete her deceased brother's new manor house at Abney Park, later known as 'Abney House', completing in a style that suited her taste and ideas.

Mary's less grand Abney House was chosen as the family's second home. Being closer to London than Theobalds, she frequently stayed there with her husband Thomas, her children, and house-guest Dr Isaac Watts, and shared it with a series of well-to-do tenants who paid for various floors and parts of the house to keep it homely, warm, and constantly lived-in.

Abney House was always much enjoyed by their houseguest, Isaac Watts, for he was granted sole use of an inspirationally designed study room – the roof-top turret or observatory room from which he could survey the heavens as well as the whole of Abney Park, and for some distance northwards of the village, as far as Woodberry Downs.

At Abney Park, Lady Abney commissioned the first map and survey of the Manor of Stoke Newington, and with the assistance of Isaac Watts, she is said to have planned much the planting and landscaping of Abney Park, which included two great elm avenues which became favourite walks of Watts, leading down to a secluded island heronry in the Hackney Brook where he found inspiration for his writings.

Following the death of her husband, Lady Abney became fully installed in her own right as the first female Lady of the Manor; one of only a few women elevated to such a position in early Eighteenth century English society. Some years after the death of her husband, in 1736, Lady Abney moved her household completely from her husband's mansion in Hertfordshire, choosing to live full-time at the more modest Abney House surrounded by the many nonconformist and literary families for which the village of Stoke Newington was noted. Here her household continued to include her nonconformist chaplain Isaac Watts as a long-term guest, as well as one of her three daughters, the unmarried Miss Elizabeth Abney.

Isaac Watts' association with Abney House and Theobalds, in his capacity as the family's long-term guest, became legendary. Initially he had only been invited to spend a week, and at first at Theobalds, but became part of the family. It is sometimes said that he wrote most of his well-known books and poems at Abney House, or in its parkland grounds (in which the island heronry of the Hackney Brook that bounded the estate, was his favourite retreat):

Dr Watts' resided for thirty-six years at Abney Park as the guest of Sir Thomas Abney and there wrote most of his well-known Works, also his 'Psalms and Hymns' [Corporation of London, 1902].

Links to the 'Religious Revival'

Lady Abney was of an Independent religious faith (known as 'Congregational', after the 1830s), as was her husband Sir Thomas Abney and long-term houseguest Dr Isaac Watts. Throughout the year when Sir Thomas held office as Lord Mayor, and Mary Abney was Lady Mayoress, they both had to practice occasional conformity to the Church of England, as required by law. Similarly, as Lady of the Manor, Mary Abney had to uphold the general conformity of the parish church of the Stoke Newington Manor.

Privately, as an Independent, she was close friend of the religious revivalist Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon who formed her own independent religious group within the independent Methodist movement, despite her best efforts to compromise and work with the Anglican authorities. The Countess financed many revivalist causes, including the independent preacher Whitefield; and in her later years, she helped sponsor the visit to Britain of the African slavery abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, following which he settled and married.

Lady Abney, who died before the non-denominational causes of slavery emancipation and missionary work overseas became central to evangelical revivalists, is mainly remembered as the sponsor of the first notable hymnologist, Isaac Watts whose famous hymns include O God our help in ages past. Lady Abney's close association with Isaac Watts drew her into a circle of many independent religious thinkers of her day, notably Philip Doddridge. As one of Watts' main benefactors from the early 18th century onwards, and probably his sole benefactor from 1734 until his death on 25 November 1748, Lady Mary Abney was the quiet eminence behind Watts work as a poet and scholar, enabling him to concentrate on the preparation of many learned books for both children and adults, which becomame standard texts in the New World as well as in Britain. Following Isaac Watts' death Lady Mary Abney built a memorial to Watts in Bunhill Fields, which she co-financed with Sir John Hartopp.

Death and Charity

Following Mary Abney's own death in 1750, at the age of 73, she was buried near her brother beneath the chancel of Old Stoke Newington Church (St Mary's Old Church), which overlooks today's Clissold Park.

The Manor of Stoke Newington, together with Abney House and Abney Park, were inherited by one of Lady Abney's daughters, Elizabeth Abney (c1704-1782), who managed the estate, along with another at Tilford in the parish of Farnham, Surrey. Elizabeth Abney died a spinster aged 78 on 20 August 1782 and in her will directed that her estates be sold and all proceeds be given to nonconformist charities.

Abney Park was much used by Newington Academy for Girls when that Quaker school was set up in 1824 in Fleetwood House, the immediate neighbour to Abney House. The opening of Abney Park Cemetery gave a new use to Lady Mary's landscaped grounds.

References

  • Whitehead, Jack (1990) The Growth of Stoke Newington
  • Joyce, Paul (1984) A Guide to Abney Park Cemetery
  • Shirren, A.J. (1951) The Chronicles of Fleetwood House
  • Corporation of London (1902) History of Bunhill Fields Burial Ground
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