George Widdowson was born in Lincoln on 25 August 1804, the son of William and Elizabeth; William kept the Rein Deer Inn in Lincoln. George was a silversmith and goldsmith, though a retailer rather than a craftsman and by the age of 28 had taken over his uncle’s shop. This had already been a successful silversmiths and John Salter, his uncle, had supplied Nelson with many pieces of jewellery including mourning rings still highly collectable today. John Salter had been a close friend of Horatia Nelson, Emma Hamilton and Nelson’s daughter, and he had been godfather to one of her children.
Widdowson developed the company into the highly fashionable Widdowson & Veale at No. 73 Strand, on the corner of Adam Street and opposite the Adelphi. Widdowson had a good eye for publicity. He once had a long and detailed newspaper article dedicated solely to his idea of making a copy of Aeneas’ shield, as described in Virgil’s Aeneid. There is no evidence the shield was ever made.
The company made swords and other weapons for the British army and navy. They also made orders and decorations for the British court and were goldsmiths and jewellers to the court of Spain. In 1842 on the christening of Queen Victoria’s eldest son (later King Edward VII) the firm gave ‘an immense silver coronet supporting the Prince of Wales feathers’; ‘of a large size’ added the Times report, in case the splendour of the gift had not been clear.
In 1844, George was 40 and his business was doing well, as was the economy as a whole. The firm were able to advertise for apprentices, asking for a premium of £100. On 11 February 1847 George married Eliza Duffield (nee Boville), the daughter of a Putney wine merchant who had been living in Gibraltar when she became a widow after John Duffield, her first husband, died. George and Eliza were middle-aged when they married and did not have children.
The Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace
At the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition in 1851 Widdowson & Veale exhibited (at their own expense) an enormous silver ‘plateau’ with candelabra, dessert stands, dishes, flagons, jugs, coffee pots, teapots, jewellery and an equestrian statue of Wellington. At the 1862 exhibition the following year they produced a similarly lavish display. George was a steward of the Goldsmiths’ Benevolent Institution and the firm made donations to the then newly-built Charing Cross hospital. George had an older brother, Joseph, living in London at this time but he was a less successful jeweller than George. He set up shop at 100 Fleet St but in 1832 he went bankrupt. In 1840 he was confined to Bethlem Hospital, known as Bedlam (now the Imperial War Museum). After the 1834 Poor Law workhouses had been set up for those suffering from poverty and asylums for those with mental illness, though the two conditions were often lumped together. Over the century from 1800 the number of people housed in asylums rose from a few hundred to 100,000. At first these were peaceful places where it was believed mentally ill people could be cured by ‘moral treatment’ but this changed when it became widely believed that such people were ‘incurable’. Joseph Widdowson had suffered a fall which ‘caused confusion’ and, said his wife, meant he was ‘likely to set the house on fire’. He told Bethlem he ‘had plenty of money’ and indeed at the time inmates had to pay for their own care. While it might seem strange to us that George would have allowed his brother to be admitted to a place such as Bedlam, there was little choice at the time and in fact Bethlem was a state-of-the-art institution. In any case, Joseph was not there long as he was discharged later that year for ‘being paralytic’. To our ear this might sound as if he was drunk but it seems he was suffering from ‘general paralysis of the insane’, an illness increasingly recognised in asylums at the time, specifically affecting middle-aged men and connected to syphilis.
Eliza Widdowson died in April 1861 leaving George a widower with no children. He lived at Bell House with his unmarried sister Ann and his brother-in-law John Boville, a barrister. John Boville was also a governor of the extraordinarily named Royal Humane Society for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned or Dead. The household employed a footman, coachman, cook, housemaid and lady’s maid. In 1866 George moved into the White House in Dulwich Village. Perhaps Bell House was too big and too full of memories. George Widdowson died on 10 December 1872 aged 68 and is buried in Norwood cemetery in a Grade II listed tomb. He left around £30,000.