More than Dickens’s Miss Mowcher:
The True Story of Jane Seymour Hill
AUTHOR: KAREN ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 5 DECEMBER 2023
Sometime between 30 November and 18 December 1849 a London chiropodist called Jane Seymour Hill discovered that she had been immortalised in fiction. But not in a good way, for the character Miss Mowcher in Charles Dickens’s latest serialised work — The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observations of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery — bore a striking similarity to her.
Whether she bought a copy of Number 8 for one shilling and settled down for what she thought would be an enjoyable read, or one of her friends warned her about it, or perhaps a client made an arch comment, we do not know. But what we do know is that Mrs Seymour Hill was very upset.
Jane Seymour Hill
The story of how Jane Seymour Hill, with the assistance of her solicitor, persuaded the famous author to change a character in David Copperfield is often featured in books about Dickens. Many writers recognise the hurt felt by a disabled woman who was not famous and whose physical appearance was mocked. Dickens might be praised for being responsive to readers’ suggestions, and, in this case, for making the changes so quickly. For some the changes and the perceived watering-down of the character detract from the novel, and it is even hinted that Jane was just a little too sensitive.
Some information about Jane is much repeated: that she was a dwarf, that she was a chiropodist by profession, and that at one time she lived just over the road from Dickens and had an epistolary spat with him. But what more can we find out about her?
The Cordery family
We begin with a family by the name of Cordery. They may possibly have been of Huguenot origins, for their surname is often spelled Corderoy. For three generations at least they lived and worked in the Somers Town area of St Pancras. A trade card in the British Museum dated about 1790 depicts a chiropodist, who is of restricted growth, attending a client sitting with one unshod foot resting on a stool. The card advertises the services of
Ladies & Gentlemen attended
in Town & Country.
The chiropodist is probably the George Cordery whose first wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to a son, another George, in 1777. In 1805 George Cordery junior, who followed in his father’s profession, married Jane Owles at Christchurch in Newgate. The Owles family originally came from Woodbridge in Suffolk.
On Monday 10 February 1806 their daughter Jane Cordery — our Jane Seymour Hill — was born. She was finally baptised on Sunday 23 October 1808 at St Pancras Old Church, the same time as her brother Charles, who had been born in August 1808. Both the children were dwarfs.
Jane and Charles probably had a genetic condition, achondroplasia, which is the most common type of dwarfism. People affected by achondroplasia have normal intelligence and lifespan, but their limbs are short relative to their head and body. Although the condition can be the result of a spontaneous mutation in standard height parents, in the Corderys’ case it would appear to have been inherited, as their grandfather was also a dwarf.
A mysterious business
When Jane was six, and Charles not yet two, their mother died at home in Chalton Street, aged thirty-eight. She was interred on 2 June 1812 in the burial ground of St Giles in the Fields, which was probably a plot attached to the Old St Pancras graveyard. St Giles had need of this arrangement as their original burial ground near Oxford Street was full.
An advertisement that appeared in the Morning Post on 14 March 1815 announced that
Mr G. CORDERY, late of Somer’s-town, CORN and NAIL OPERATOR to her Majesty, the Prince Regent, and Royal Family, returns Thanks to the Nobility, Gentry, and Public, for the patronage he has been honoured with, and informs them of his REMOVAL to No. 69 GEORGE-STREET, Portman-square, where their future commands shall be most punctually attended to. Mr Cordery’s fame in eradicating and curing the feet of Corns, Bunions, &c. is so well known, that his address is the only publicity requisite.
Jane was probably inducted by her father into the mysteries of corn cutting, a business that served her well and provided future independence. She and her brother were fortunate: unlike other contemporary people of short stature, they were not forced to exhibit themselves for money, nor were they exploited like poor Caroline Crachami, the so-called Sicilian Dwarf. Betty M. Adelson points out in The Lives of Dwarfs that
little is known about non-court dwarfs or exhibiting dwarfs of the past … what we do know is that the daily lives of … most dwarfs in previous eras were determined by their families and the strictures of society. Some were artisans or tailors or helped with farmwork; others simply depended on the largesse of their families.
A determined woman
George died in 1819 at the age of forty-two and was buried in the St Giles burial ground. His will shows care and concern for his orphaned children, who were thirteen and eleven at the time. His executor, George Cordery Bradley of 69 George Street — a relative or godson? — is instructed that his estate was for the use of ‘maintaining and supporting my dearly beloved children Charles and Jane.’ They would inherit fully on reaching the age of twenty-one. Where the children lived and with whom is unclear — possibly with George’s sister-in-law, Mary Owles, or with George Cordery Bradley, who was a shoemaker.
In ‘Remaking Miss Mowcher’s Acquaintance’ in the Dickens Quarterly (volume 29 number 1 2012) Gareth Cordery writes that
Disability Studies has much to say about the refusal of Victorians to accept that the disabled have sexual lives, that is disability and sexuality were, culturally, mutually exclusive, an attitude informed by the fear that disabilities would be transmitted to the next generation.
Whatever society’s expectations and judgement, Jane was a financially independent woman with what appears to have been a determination to make her own decisions, and on 19 December 1833 at St Martin-in-the-Fields she married John Seymour, a widowed plumber who lived and worked from 45 Drury Lane. She was twenty-seven years old, and both she and John were literate enough to sign their names in the marriage register.
From Somers Town to Regent’s Park
While Jane may have gained love and companionship in marriage, she also handed over control of her financial assets to John Seymour. It would not be until the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act that a married woman was legally entitled to her own wages or inheritance. But ten months later Jane was again mistress of her own destiny when John, who was then forty-nine years old, died at Chalton Street. There is no sign of a child of this brief marriage.
The once salubrious Somers Town had begun to go down in the world, a deterioration caused in part by the building of Euston Station and the surrounding developments. This may have prompted Jane to move to the environs of Regent’s Park, where, by early December 1835, she was installed in a large and luxurious house at 6 York Gate. Insurance documents show that she also retained ownership of 45 Drury Lane.
First John then Henry
Before her encounter with Dickens, Jane was fair game for The Town, a short-lived satirical newspaper in which in 1838 she featured in Sketches of London Characters no.76: On Corn-cutters:
The most eminent amongst female operators is a dwarf, who, on a very genteel-looking card, thus describes herself: ‘Mrs Seymour Hill (late Miss Cordery), Corn-operator, 6, York Gate, Regent’s Park’. This interesting little lady is one of the greatest London characters; she may be seen in all parts of the town, riding in a chaise in company with her brother, who is also a dwarf. They are both remarkable for having short arms, in addition to being curtailed of ‘Nature’s fair proportions’ in other respects.
In Phiz and Dickens Edgar Browne, who was Phiz’s son, remembers Jane’s vehicle as
a very narrow little brougham of a kind known as a pill-box, because it was patronised by doctors.
Were the chaise and horse responsible for the meeting between Jane and Henry Hill, a livery stable owner with premises nearby at 55 Marylebone High Street? After a respectable but not excessive mourning period for John Seymour of just over a year, and aged twenty-nine, Jane married Henry, who was six years her junior, on 1 February 1836 at All Souls Langham Place.
In the kennel
The 1841 census shows the Hills living at 6 York Gate with Jane’s younger brother Charles. They have two servants — a housekeeper and a housemaid — whose names were Esther Mays and Elizabeth Cullins. Mays was born in Woodbridge, so there may have been a Suffolk connection, or a recommendation by one of the Owles family.
While Jane was clearly energetic and successful, Charles Cordery only gets a mention as her assistant or groom, or when he was in trouble. Although he was financially secure, it appears that his life was difficult, and in December 1837 he was described by the London Dispatch as ‘Charles Corderoy, a fat little man, known as the “Marylebone Dwarf”’. The Dispatch went on to report that he had been found on a recent night by a policeman in Regent’s Street, lying inebriated in the ‘kennel’, which was an open gutter or sewer. He was arrested, and, when he appeared at Marylebone Police Court the following morning, he told the magistrate that ‘some kind person whom I knew gave me a few glasses, your worship, and they completely upset me’. His Worship, who was not quite so kind, punished Charles for his drunkenness with a fine of five shillings.
Tragically, the next time Charles was found lying in the open road, he was not drunk but dead. It was 17 July 1841, and he had been found in Bryanston Square. An inquest determined that he had died, at the age of thirty-three, from natural causes. Four days later he was buried at St Marylebone.
Despite the loss of her brother Jane was doing well, and the 16 June 1860 issue of The Lancet gives an insight into her professional practice:
Her fee for the extraction of any number of corns at home or at the patient’s house was five shillings, and under no circumstance did she ever demand more. Unlike the set of corn-cutters who infest the metropolis and other large towns, who cut off mites of cuticle at the moderate charge of two guineas each, she carried on her business in the most honourable manner.
Furthermore, 6 York Gate was a respectable address and a pleasant place to live. From 1839 to 1843 the actor William Macready, a good friend of Dickens, was a near neighbour at no. 1, and in 1839 Dickens himself moved to 1 Devonshire Terrace, which was not far away on the other side of the New Road.
Presumably her close neighbour, Catherine Dickens, was one of her clients. Charles Dickens certainly observed Jane at work at 1 Devonshire Terrace, for in a letter dated 18 December 1849 he claimed that he was ‘conscious of remembering’ her and that he remembered her ‘as using a chair for a table’.
Jane also had some connection with Charles and Emma Darwin, who lived at 12 Upper Gower Street from 1839 to 1842. The Darwins kept a ‘receipt and memorandum’ book containing medical cures, and one, transcribed by Emma, is attributed to Jane: ‘Bunions Laudanum & goulard in equal quantities weakened with a little water, kept on the joint with lint & oilskin’. Goulard was an astringent made from lead acetate, and laudanum was a tincture of opium — chiropodists clearly used harmful ingredients!
She also treated a member of the family of her near neighbour, the banker John Moxon. Coincidentally, Moxon was the brother-in-law of Hablot Knight Browne, who, as Phiz, illustrated David Copperfield. Edgar Browne wrote that
it was here, at Hanover Terrace, that I saw the only Dickens character that I ever beheld quite complete with my own eyes. She was a dwarf, and the etching was remarkably like her, though I do not think my father ever saw her … I am sorry to say I contributed to a slight accident which she suffered when she was visiting professionally at Regent’s Park.
He explains that Mrs Seymour Hill slipped on some peas left on the stairs after he and his cousin had been playing with peashooters. While drinking a restorative sherry, Jane supposedly said: ‘You see the body is so long, and the legs so short, and stairs are difficult.’ Perhaps she did, but it sounds a little too conveniently sub-Dickensian to me.
An annus horribilis
The year 1849 started very badly at 6 York Gate. Henry Hill was taken dangerously ill, so ill in fact that on 2 February he wrote his will, in which he left all his assets to Jane. He then fell into a coma. He died on 17 February, and the following week, on Saturday 24 February, he was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.
The year did not improve for Jane when she saw the eighth instalment of David Copperfield, which featured Steerforth’s sidekick, the hairdresser and manicurist Miss Mowcher. She was
a pursy dwarf, of about forty or forty-five, with a very large head and face, a pair of roguish grey eyes, and such extremely little arms, that, to enable herself to lay a finger archly against her snub nose, as she ogled Steerforth, she was obliged to meet the finger half-way, and lay her nose against it. Her chin, which was what is called a double-chin, was so fat that it entirely swallowed up the strings of her bonnet, bow and all. Throat she had none; waist she had none.
One imagines that Jane had endured a lifetime of comments about her physical appearance, and this unsympathetic caricature from the pen of the widely admired Mr Dickens would have been a blow. Even worse was the dubious character of Mowcher — vulgar, flirtatious, sexually knowing — and the suggestion that she acted as some sort of procuress for Steerforth. As Doris Alexander says in Creating Characters with Dickens, with absolute bluntness,
the grotesque dwarf hairdresser, Miss Mowcher, came into the book entirely as an example of the many undercover pimps who, with access everywhere, connived at a girl’s first slip and then, once she was abandoned and unprotected, would sell her into the London brothels.
Supposedly a Christian
Jane wrote a heartfelt letter to Dickens on the morning of 18 December 1849, lamenting the fact that
widowed in all but my good name you shew up personal deformities with insinuations that by the purest of my sex may be construed to be the worst of purposes. All know you have drawn my Portrait … I have suffered long and much from my personal deformities but never before at the hands of a Man so highly gifted as Charles Dickens and hitherto considered as a Christian and Friend to his fellow Creatures.
She finished the letter by explaining that she was unable to sleep and while working was moved to tears, in response to which Dickens immediately wrote back and apologised for any distress he had inadvertently caused. He attempted to defend himself by claiming that, although he had used ‘several little recollections of your general manner’, the character was based on someone completely different who was known to him and his friends. He then said his characters were composites:
I had no idea of mixing you up with it further than by a whimsical shadowy possibility of association that I thought might even be amusing and serviceable to you rather than the reverse.
It is odd that Dickens would even think this: it would hardly be an association a working woman would like to advertise. But he promised that he would change the character, which he had intended to be bad, into one which would ‘oblige the Reader to hold it in a pleasant remembrance’.
Repairing the injury
Dickens then received a letter from Robert Rogers, Jane’s solicitor, the purpose of which was to ensure that the promised changes were made, for otherwise they might sue. Rogers asked that any alteration be made promptly, to which Dickens replied in a letter dated 21 December that
even if the next number were not already in the Press, it would be impossible to be made there, because the character is not introduced, and the course of the tale is not at all in that direction.
Despite his more public remorse, Dickens could not resist telling his friend John Forster that he had had ‘the queerest adventure this morning, the receipt of the enclosed from Miss Moucher [sic]! It is serio-comic, but there is no doubt one is wrong in being tempted to such a use of power’. In his biography of Dickens, when recording this incident, Forster described Jane as‘a grotesque little oddity’. One cannot help but be glad that she was dead before the biography was published.
In a letter to Angela Burdett Coutts, dated 12 February 1850, Dickens announced that he was ‘repairing Miss Mowcher’s injury — with a very bad grace, and in a very ill humour’. He was indeed true to his word, and in Chapter 32, which appeared in March 1850, Miss Mowcher has become a good character who was duped by Steerforth. At the same time David is told by Miss Mowcher to ‘take a word of advice, even from three foot nothing. Try not to associate bodily defects with mental, my good friend, except for a solid reason’. We finally hear of Miss Mowcher in chapter 61 when a female dwarf apprehends Littimer as he tries to escape to America.
A lasting memory
Jane may have been grateful for the altered character of Miss Mowcher, but she was right to worry that people would connect her with the negative traits of the character. Even some fifty years later, in 1899, Sir Algernon West recalled in the first volume of his Recollections dinners he had attended in about 1855 at the home of Mrs Georgiana Fox-Lane, the widow of a Tory MP and landowner. Memories of two fellow guests had stuck with him, a Charles Villiers and a Mrs Seymour Hill.
The latter was ‘a dwarf and famous chiropodist’, and, in order to describe her appearance, West quoted Dickens before noting that ‘Mrs Seymour Hill’s qualifications were supposed to be those of Miss Mowcher, who, readers of my age will recollect, was not supposes to err on the side of moral severity’. Perhaps West had read no further than the eighth instalment of David Copperfield.
If Jane found the proximity of Dickens embarrassing or annoying — or vice versa — it was not for long. By November 1851 Dickens had moved his family to Tavistock House, where he turned his attention to writing Bleak House, this time parodying the critic and essayist Leigh Hunt as the parasitic Skimpole.
The 1851 census reveals that Jane was still living at 6 York Gate with Esther Mays and Elizabeth Cullins. Given that both her servants had been with her for at least ten years, one must assume that she was a good mistress.
But changes were soon afoot. In July 1851 Elizabeth married a china dealer by the name of William McKeown at St Pancras church. Esther was a witness, but her turn soon came, and on 2 September 1851 she married William Knight, an upholsterer of Northumberland Street. William had had a connection with the household since at least 1849, when he registered Henry Hill’s death, and he and Esther stayed on at York Gate with Jane.
Her mortal remains
As to Jane’s life between Henry’s death and her own, we have a few clues courtesy of The Lancet, which claims that she twice went to Paris to treat the corns of Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie after their marriage in 1853. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, as he was then known, had been in exile in London from 1838, so it is possible that Jane had operated on his feet then and that he remembered her skills. We may wonder if this was true or merely chiropodists’ puffery, as boasting of royal connections seems to have been a key feature of their advertisements:
She also attended the principal members of the aristocracy of this country, and would have been commanded to the palace had it not been for her diminutive size and peculiar appearance, she being only three feet 10 inches high and of a very plethoric habit.
On Saturday 14 April 1860 Jane died of bronchitis at York Gate. She was buried in the same grave as Henry Hill and his mother Mary in Kensal Green Cemetery. Their grave is still there, and the inscription can just about be deciphered:
THE MORTAL REMAINS OF
MR HENRY HILL
OF YORK GATE REGENTS PARK
DIED FEBRUARY 17TH 1849
IN THE 37TH YEAR OF HIS AGE
ALSO MRS MARY HILL
MOTHER OF THE ABOVE
WHO DIED MAY 25TH 1854
IN THE 82ND YEAR OF HER AGE
ALSO JANE HILL
RELICT OF THE ABOVE HENRY HILL
WHO DIED APRIL 11TH 1860
IN THE 55TH YEAR OF HER AGE.
Helping other women
Jane died a wealthy woman, leaving an estate of around £6000. This included 6 York Gate, a leasehold house and premises at 76 George Street, shares in a railway company, plate and furniture worth £165, and £2,700 in debentures in the London and Brighton Railway Company.
All the personal beneficiaries of Jane’s will were women, and she specified that the legacies were left for their own use, and not for that of any husbands. Eliza Fish, her niece by marriage, received £300, and a widow called Mary Lamb received £1,000. She left several legacies of £100 — generous amounts when compared to the average annual salary of £15 paid to domestic servants. Among those receiving £100 each were Martha and Emma Rogers, the widow and daughter of her friend and solicitor Robert Rogers. Any servants working for her at the time of her demise received a set of mourning clothes as well as £10 and their wages.
So much more
She also left a generous £200 to the Royal Earlswood Hospital in Redhill, which was then known as the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles. After the discharge of debts, the payment of funeral expenses and the satisfaction of legacies, the bulk of her estate, including her houses, was inherited by Esther Mays, who was now Esther Knight. She had worked as Jane’s housekeeper since 1841 and seems more like a substitute daughter than a servant. The clause stating that the legacies were for the use of the women only proved very useful to Esther when she later divorced her husband.
To borrow from Betty M. Adelson’s dedication in her wonderful book The Life of Dwarfs, I hope this short article might show that Jane was more than a caricature, and that she overcame ridicule to embrace a full life.
While researching this story I discovered another tangential link to Charles Dickens. After her divorce Esther Mays married a William Henry Cornelius, who happened to be the brother-in-law of Ann Cornelius, née Brown. Ann was a loyal Dickens servant.
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