What links Mr Bean, a lost Edinburgh mansion and the Bronte Sisters? Author Monica Kendall reveals all
Rowan Atkinson was one of her co-stars when Monica Kendall first came to Edinburgh in the Seventies to appear at the Fringe as part of the famous Oxford Revue.
However, it was a family quest that brought her back to the city in 2016 in search of Lixmount House, the home of her great, great, grandmother, Eliza Jenkins, nee Jay, a woman who once looked after the young Charlotte and Emily Brontë. Long gone now, Lixmount House, in Trinity, boasted spectacular views across the Firth of Forth and continued Kendall's family association with the Brontës, a connection explored in her new book, Lies and the Brontës: The Quest for the Jenkins Family.
"Seven years ago, when I discovered that my Jenkins family knew the Brontës via an idle Google search, I started reading the biographies of the Brontës and was shocked to discover biographers, with one exception, had fabricated dialogue, copied each other and embroidered the stories,” Kendall explains. “I knew those details of the Jenkins family were wrong. They'd been made up. I was so angry, so, this book was fueled out of anger and a desire for revenge."
Kendall believes knowing the truth about the connection between the families will allow readers to fully appreciate the novelist’s work better. In one chapter of her book, the biographer charts how her family's fortunes brought them to Edinburgh a stay that would ultimately prove ill-fated but nevertheless brought Kendall back to city.
"When you write a biography you simply must go to the places. That is so important," insists the 66-yer-old. "I came to Edinburgh with my rucksack, my map and a list of addresses..."Kendall's great, great, great grandfather John Jay, originally from Andover, came to Edinburgh from Rotterdam where he had learned mercantile trade, around 1799, setting up the import and export business, Jay & Co.
'I could now follow in the Jay family’s footsteps to Edinburgh and the Port of Leith, where they would settle for the next 10 years,' writes Kendall, who hails from North London, continuing, 'When I arrived by train in Edinburgh I was clutching a list of addresses where the Jays had been living or working. The very first, in 1801, was 5 North Charlotte Street. The houses next door to the Jays are now listed, dated to 1790. No 5 seems also to be Georgian, though it looks a bit of an architectural hybrid. Now divided into flats, with a sandwich shop rammed onto its frontage, No 5 was presumably then a modern three-storeyed house, with basement and attic.'Today, Kendall recalls, "When I saw it I thought, my gosh, they were living here before there was a sandwich shop rammed into the front of it. In 1799 it would have been a new build and I thought, 'My god, Sir Walter Scott lived just around the corner. Charlotte, his wife, kept an open house so they could have met up with my family.’ I was just so excited."
John Jay and his wife Helen lived there for around two years before moving to Lixmount House, a place that would become engraved on John's and his daughter Eliza's hearts.
Before venturing to Trinity, however, Kendall had a couple of stops to make. The first was Gayfield Square where her great, great, great grandfather and his brother William had their merchants office - when the pair set up their business around 1799, plans had just been put in place to build docks next to Leith's harbour. Next, she sought out the remains of St Ninian’s Church where five of Eliza’s siblings were baptised in October 1805. She writes: ‘The church had been demolished but the lovely bell tower of the manse that adjoined the church remains. It is Dutch in style, dating to 1675, and rather beautiful, with a blue belfry.'
Kendall's next stop was Elbe Street, where the Jay brothers had a warehouse, before heading to Trinity and the ghost of Lixmount House. All that remains to mark the area in which the grand mansion once stood are the street names Lixmount Avenue and Lixmount Gardens.
"Leith was magical, just imaging all the ships unloading stuff from all around the world. When I arrived at Lizmount I just stood there and thought, ‘This is where it was’. I closed my eyes and just imagined what a wonderful place it would have been for Eliza to grow up."
In the book she describes the house: 'In Jay's time, country houses with large gardens stretched along East Trinity Road. On one map of 1804 in the National Library of Scotland the house and extensive grounds of Lixmount are shown, with the annotation ‘Jay Esq.’ On the map, fields stretch down the hill north to the Firth, with the occasional villa dotted here and there. For most of her childhood, until she was in her early teens, Eliza had a privileged upbringing, with surely a governess, a pony, walks on Leith Sands and the excitement of watching the annual horse race there, the awesome sights and sounds of the noisy, busy harbour, with sailing ships unloading their cargo, and prize ships (seized from the enemy) and goods being auctioned; there were trips into Edinburgh, to the shops, the botanic garden, the Castle, and to see Shakespeare at the Theatre Royal, managed by Walter Scott from 1809.'
Lixmount House was built in 1793 by George Andrew and bought by Jay in August 1803 for about £3,000 - although the Jays probably rented the house from 1801. The mansion itself consisted of a dining-room, drawing-room, library, five bed-rooms, kitchen, laundry, servants hall, house-keeper’s room, cellars and other conveniences. The grounds were around nine acres and sported fruit trees, water 'pump-wells', a summer lodge and cottage.
Records show Jay & Co imported flax and raffia and casks of ashes and exported casks of refined sugar. A sugar-refining business in Breadalbane Street produced 250 tons of refined sugar every week. The ash is presumed to be soda ash, used for making glass - the glass-bottle trade was a major industry located in Salamander Street, a few minutes from the Jays’ warehouse.
However, although a highly successful merchant by 1809 that was also when it all went wrong for Jay. Delayed cargoes due to weather plunging his business into difficulties it never recovered from. In 1810 he was taken to court for not paying debts and declared bankrupt. Lixmount House was taken by the trustees on behalf of the creditors and sold in 1812. The Jays left the Capital.
It’s a sad end to the tale but Kendall remains ebullient about her discoveries. "Being there, in Edinburgh, where my Jenkins family had been was so powerful. I had been on the Fringe all those years ago with vague ideas of having Scottish ancestry, but this trip brought home the fact that I really do have. Half Scottish on her mother's side, Eliza lived in Edinburgh, was part of the community. I felt I belonged.”
Lies and the Brontës: The Quest for the Jenkins Family, by Monica Kendall, is released on 21 April, and available from local bookshops and online