HENRY STEPHENS (1796-1864)

Regarded as one of the most notable of Redbourn’s inhabitants although he spent only part of his life in the village. In his lifetime he gained distinction as a doctor- surgeon, as a chemist, as an enterprising businessman and, to a degree, as a poet and a friend of Keats.

Stephens was born in Holborn, London, but at the age of five was brought to Redbourn by his parents who became landlords of the The Bull Inn in the High Street. This was then a thriving, lucrative posting-house on a major coach route. He wished to become a doctor so was apprenticed, as was then the custom, to a Dr Winkfield in nearby Markyate. He finished his training at Guys and St Thomas’s hospitals in London. He shared lodgings nearby with three other students including John Keats. Mutual sympathies between the friends stimulated mutual interests. Stephens’s daughter claims that Stephens helped Keats to the frequently quoted line “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” in Endymion. The much-altered house in which they lodged in St Thomas Street, now has a commemorative Blue Plaque

After qualifying he returned to practice in Redbourn, where, among other activities, he took a contract from the Vestry to administer to the village poor. He gained a good reputation especially for surgically treating hernias and wrote a treatise on the subject. He was a fine horseman and also a well appreciated Vet. to the nearby Gorhambury Hounds. His skills were noted by the influential doctor Sir Astley Cooper of Hemel Hempstead who was pioneering the application of scientific chemistry to medicine in Guys and St Thomas’s hospital. Cooper urged him not to bury his skills in “a mere country village” but to set up in London. Stephens did so about 1828 or 1829 but with some reluctance. He was happiest in rural atmospheres, and the large garden of the house in which he finally settled in Finchley was, according to his daughter, well stocked with farm animals.

While in Redbourn he is thought to have lived in a house (that became offices and is now again houses) on the western side of the High Street adjacent to a walled alley that runs from High Street to the Common. He may well have entertained Keats here. But when Keats passed through Redbourn in 1818 while escorting his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana to Liverpool Docks to emigrate, it is more likely that he entertained them at the Bull Inn. The conversation may well have had melancholic overtones. The Keats family had come upon hard times financially, and a younger brother had developed signs of the consumptive disease that would all too soon shorten Keats own life. Moreover Keats on his route to composing some of the most celebrated poems of the Romantic movement, had begun to reject the analytical scientific approach that the young men had been taught at Guys and St Thomas hospital- accusing its “dull catalogue of common things” of trying to “unweave a rainbow “.

Sadly Stephens’s first wife (Hannah Woodbridge) and baby daughter also died of consumption a little latter (1832) and were both buried in a marked grave in Redbourn churchyard.

Stephens established good medical practices in London first from a house in Stamford Street, Blackfriars, and after re-marriage to Anne O’Reilly in 1840, in York Road, Lambeth. He was much involved with a cholera epidemic in the area in the 1830’s. But, as a constant writer, he also started to think about improving the poor quality of available inks. His chemical knowledge was adequate for this problem, and he devised a formulation- probably based on traditional ingredients such as extracts of oak galls and iron (ferrous) sulphate- that was such an improvement. If he added an extra dye it would probably been of plant extraction or some sort of carbon; he was too early to make use of the chemical aniline dyes which were later devised and manufactured in this part of London. Against family advice he started to manufacture his ink at home and to market it. He did this successfully, expanding production facilities into increasingly larger premises and establishing outlets overseas. He successfully defended his patent rights at law. The efficacy of Stephens’s ink became established and the business throve. It was accepted for official documents and archives, and eventually the Treaty of Versailles was signed in it. In 1844 he bought and renovated an old house, Grove House , in relatively rural Finchley into which he took his family. He bought enough adjacent land to establish a new ink factory and to create a small farm. He died unexpectedly on 15 September 1864 when rushing for a train at Farringdon Street railway station while returning from a business trip to the City.

The ink manufacturing enterprise was equally successful in the hands of his son, Henry Charles (1841-1918), and Stephens’s blue-black ink became a household name until the middle of the last century. The Stephens family contributed much to local social life; they and their company are commemorated in a small museum at [Avenue House ( East End Road, Finchley, London, N3 3QE). They are also subjects of a small display in the Redbourn Museum. The Stephens family retained connections with Redbourn well after the departure of Henry in 1828/9. Apart from his widowed mother (his father having died in 1815), Henry’s eldest brother John kept a farm here and Henry helped with the farm’s management when John’s health failed. Moreover, Henry’s sister Frances married a local coach proprietor, John Liley. He was also an inn keeper associated at different times with the White Horse White Hart and between 1842-1845, the Bull. Besides the Museum exhibit, the family name is still commemorated as a street name, Stephens Way, in the village.

Sources and Further Reading.
John Keats, Henry Stephens and George Wilson Mackereth
The Unparallel Lives of Three Medical Students

By W.S.Pierpoint

Published in October 2010
by The Stephens Collection, Finchley
62 pages, illustrated; ISBN 978-0-9567127-0-7; price £6-00

The fuller account of Henry Stephens life is contained in this recently published, illustrated booklet, which makes use of recent research into, for example, Stephens’ first marriage to Hannah Clarke Woodbridge, and his active membership of The Medical Society of London.

The booklet compares Stephens life with that of two of the fellow medical students with whom he shared rooms in Southwark in 1815-6. John Keats, of course, soon abandoned medicine for poetry and is a major icon of the Romantic poets. George Wilson Mackereth came from the now “lost” village of Owthorne in Holderness., and after his training returned to Holderness, practicing for most of his life in Keyingham. He maintained a lifelong friendship with Stephens, and their children inter-married very successfully. This first account of his life contains his photograph.

The booklet is available from Redbourn Museum or directly from the author ( ‘phone 01582 792117 or w.pierpoint@yahoo.co.uk

W.S.Pierpoint April, 2011.

SEE ALSO: High Street, Redbourn Museum, Redbourn History
Topic revision: r4 - 02 Apr 2011 - 11:05:52 - Bob Boutland
Copyright © We make no guarantee of the correctness of the content of this site. All material on this collaboration platform is the property of Martin Cleaver and the contributing authors.