mementos | locks of Keats’ hair

It has been (and perhaps still is?) common practice for people to keep a lock of hair from a loved one as a memento. John Keats’ friend Leigh Hunt was particularly interested in doing so.

There are two locks of Keats’ hair that I know of, both taken by Hunt.

One lock is on display at the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome. I’m afraid my photo of it is a tad out of focus, as of course it is kept safe under glass, but this will give you an idea!

I was particularly struck by the reddish tint still obvious in his mid-brown locks. Keats’ personal beauty was often remarked upon by his friends, and here is proof enough that his thick head of curly / wavy hair was indeed attractive. Mind you, I always did have a thing for redheads.

Locks of Shelley’s (left) and Keats’ (middle) hair, February 2013.

A second lock taken by Hunt was included in an album he owned, along with twenty other locks from authors and public figures. This album is now held by the University of Texas in Austin, USA. I am very grateful to the University for making the whole album viewable online – this link will take you to the exact page.

There are notations, presumably by Hunt, that he took “two locks” and that this one is “the later lock”. I am not sure that we have exact dates for either, but will look into it. The album included a (supposed) lock of Milton’s hair. Keats was inspired by viewing this to write the poem “Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair”, so he would have been delighted to have his own lock included in the same album.

The page includes a print of the drawing Severn did of Keats on his death bed in Rome, with the caption, “The last life sketch of Keats, by his friend Joseph Severn.” (Note that Keats’ year of birth, which was 1795, is given incorrectly here as “1796”.)

Again, the reddish-brown colour of this lock is striking. This was the generation before photographs became widely available – but these locks of hair, along with the life and death masks taken of Keats, enable us to feel confident of his appearance. You probably realise by now that I think he was a handsome fellow! ♥

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St Stephen Coleman Street, London

The church of St Stephen Coleman Street is where John Keats’ parents and maternal grandparents, and his younger brother Tom, were buried. There is now nothing left but a blue plaque.

The Keats Connection

It makes for sad reading! Keats lost all his most significant figures from the previous generations in the space of just over ten years, beginning with his father when John Keats was only nine years old. However, St Stephen’s was also associated with a few more positive occasions.

  • His grandfather John Jennings was baptised here on 13 October 1730.
  • His maternal grandparents John Jennings (age 43 years) and Alice Whalley (age 38 years) married here on 25 February 1774.
  • His father Thomas Keats died on  15 April 1804, and was buried at St Stephen’s on 23 April 1804.
  • His grandfather John Jennings died less than a year later on 8 March 1805, and was buried at St Stephen’s on 14 March 1805.
  • His mother Frances Jennings Keats Rawlings died five years later, and was buried here on 20 March 1810.
  • His grandmother Alice Whalley Jennings died four years later, and was buried here on 19 December 1814.
  • Finally, his brother Thomas Keats died, and was buried here four years later on 7 December 1818.

The burials were all in the Jennings family vault.

The church itself was destroyed in 1940. I know it sounds a little ghoulish, but I have asked a librarian friend if we can find out what happened to the bodies… I would like to pay my respects.

Back Then

St Stephen’s was first mentioned in the 13th century.

It became a “Puritan stronghold” for a while in the 17th century. The playwright and contemporary of Shakespeare, Anthony Munday, was buried there in 1633.

The medieval church was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666. It was re-built by Christopher Wren, with the exterior completed by 1677. Further work on a gallery and burial vault was done in the 1690s. This is the church that the Keats family would have known.

The church was destroyed by incendiary bombing on 29 December 1940, and it was not re-built.

The parish was combined with that of nearby St Margaret Lothbury – which for various reasons accumulated a number of City parishes, and is now officially known as “St Margaret Lothbury and St Stephen Coleman St with St Christopher-le-Stocks, St Bartholomew-by-the-Exchange, St Olave Old Jewry, St Martin Pomeroy, St Mildred Poultry and St Mary Colechurch”.

Today

Modern office buildings now stand on the site, with retail shops and cafes at ground level. A London Corporation plaque commemorates the church. It reads:

Site of the Parish church of St Stephen Coleman street 1452-1940

You can find it nearly opposite the junction of Coleman Street with King’s Arms Yard, outside Black Sheep Coffee.

Details

  • Address: 35 Coleman Street, London EC2R 5EH
  • Tube: Moorgate, on the Northern line, and the Circle, Hammersmith & City, and Metropolitan lines
  • Bank, on the Central, DLR, Northern, and Waterloo & City lines
  • Opening hours: The blue plaque can be seen at any time, though the area is probably ghostly quiet on weekends

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