The Good Intentions of Lady Mico

Fate, in the form of a house move, has brought the grand-daughter (and her parents, naturally) to another neck of the London woods, which I look forward to exploring on those occasions when grandmotherly duties take me down. My first discovery, in the course of the move (which resulted in a terrifying tower of flattened-out cardboard boxes and even more terrifying sackfuls of bubblewrap irretrievably stuck down to packing tape) was on the way to the Stepney City Farm, a place already appreciated by me and my Lovely Companion, but now much closer.

The plaque describing the foundation and restoration of the Stepney almshouses.

This is the plaque on the side of Lady Mico’s Almshouses, a terrace of small dwellings just beyond the boundary of the churchyard of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, which was originally founded by Brihthelm or Beorhthelm, bishop of London (and thereby, as it happens, lord of the Manor of Stepney) in about 952.

St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney.

(The reason why Stepney churchyard is so enormous (about seven acres), in spite of the relatively few surviving individual graves, is that – being very much in an outer suburb with space to spare – it was used for burials during the Great Plague of 1665.)

This picture , taken from not far in front of the almshouses, gives an idea of the extent of St Dunstan’s graveyard.

An enormous bush of this lovely and highly scented rose is currently flourishing to the right of the main path from the High Street to the church.

Lady Mico was the widow of Sir Samuel Mico (his family name was possibly Micault; and they possibly emigrated from the Ile-de-France in the early sixteenth century). The family is later known from Somerset; and Richard Mico (c. 1590–1661), musician, composer and organist to Queen Henrietta Maria, was probably a distant cousin.

This superb portrait of Henrietta Maria (c. 1637) is by Anthony Van Dyck. (Credit: San Diego Museum of Art)

Samuel’s birth date is not known, but in the 1630s he was in London, joining both the Levant Company and the Mercers’ Company. He traded widely in the Mediterranean (currants from Zakynthos and Kefalonia were important cargo), and with the Atlantic islands, and it probably helped that he married Elizabeth, daughter of Henry Andrews, who was a director of both the Levant and the East India Companies. He acquired property in Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in Dorset, and seems to have been relatively unaffected by the vicissitudes of the Civil War: although his attempts to become a Dorset M.P. in 1660 were unsuccessful, he was knighted in 1665, probably in consequence of his becoming Master of the Mercers’ Company in 1665–6.

Prosperity, however, went hand-in-hand with domestic tragedy. Five children were born between 1635 and 1641, and all of them died in infancy, along with Elizabeth, who was buried on the same day that her youngest child was baptised. But at some point later Samuel remarried, to Jane, daughter of William and Elizabeth Robinson of Cheshunt in Hertfordshire. This marriage was also childless, but the Micos attempted both to better the plight of poor children, and also bring the strands of their own families together, in their wills.

Samuel’s will was witnessed on 21 September 1665, and proved on 24 May 1666 – his exact date of death is not known. He left his house in Melcombe Regis for the benefit of three poor boys every year, who were to be bought apprenticeships with the income from it; £500 was left to buy land to finance an annual sermon at the parish church and to provide alms for ten ‘poor decayed seamen’ who were required to listen to it. Meanwhile, in London, £500 went to Christ’s Hospital, for the benefit of its children, and £500 to the Mercers, to provide start-up loans for young men beginning their careers.

Lady Mico received the household goods, plate and jewels, and the widow’s portion due to her. The residuary legatee was another Samuel Mico, possibly the son of Sir Samuel’s brother John. So far, so philanthropic: but difficulties arose from her own will, made on 1 July 1670. She left £1500 to build an almshouse for ten poor widows over the age of fifty, with her executors – or, failing them, the Mercers’ Company – deciding where it was to be located. £400 went to Fairford in Gloucestershire, where her sister Elizabeth lived, again with the view to investing it in land to fund the apprenticeships of four poor boys of the town (the had to be able to say ‘the Lords Praier the Ten Comandements the Beleefe and the Church Catechisme’), and £100 to an existing almshouse near her family home at Cheshunt. The will was proved in December 1670, and the bequests were carried out, giving London the almshouses we see in Stepney today.

The almshouses with their communal front garden.

Complications began with her desire to ally her own and her husband’s family more closely. She left £2000 to young Samuel, but on the condition that he married one of her six nieces – and he refused all of them.

The slave market at Algiers: engraving by the Dutch engraver and poet Jan Luyken (1649–1712).

She had allowed for this contingency, by stipulating that, instead, £1000 of his legacy was to be used ‘to redeem poor slaves’, by which, at this period, she must have meant Europeans captured by the so-called Barbary Pirates, who operated in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, selling the crews and passengers of captured ships into slavery from which they could be ransomed. The pirates occasionally carried out raids on coastal villages, of which one of the most famous is probably that on Baltimore in Ireland (itself a nest of pirates) in 1631; Miguel de Cervantes may be the best known individual victim. The Trinitarian order had been founded in France in the late twelfth century with the specific focus on raising money to ransom Christian prisoners; post-Reformation Britain did not have anything similar, but many individual churches and dissenting communities raised money for the cause, and there is even a shabbily clad man raising money for the ‘poor prisoners’ in Marcellus Laroon’s 1687 Cries of London.

This beggar may be trying to raise money to ransom slaves.

When the younger Samuel, inheritor of a huge estate from his uncle and aunt (even if he had lost £1,000 of it), died childless and intestate in 1679, the dread hand of the Court of Chancery fell upon the money. In 1680 it was ordered that £1,000 was to be used to obtain a rental income from which the profit would be used for the rescue of slaves. In 1731, again by order of Chancery, some of the money was to be transferred to Admiral Sir Charles Wager (1666–1743), war hero, one-time commander of the West Indies squadron, diplomat and philanthropist (and presumably also the eponym of John Byron‘s ship), still with a view to ransoming Europeans. It is not known what came of either effort.

Sir Charles Wager, by Thomas Gibson (1680–1751). (Credit: the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

By 1827, the value of the legacy had increased to about £120,000, and Lord Henley, a Master in Chancery, was requested to devise a scheme to use the money in a way which honoured Lady Mico’s intentions. But in the mean time, enter Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, the great abolitionist, philanthropist and brother-in-law of Elizabeth Fry.

In this famous picture by Benjamin Robert Haydon of the elderly and frail Thomas Clarkson addressing the Anti-Slavery Society, Buxton is third from bottom (wearing spectacles) on the extreme left. (Credit: National Portrait Gallery)

He had become M.P. for Weymouth in 1818, and he may have heard of the Mico generosity there. Buxton and his friend and colleague Stephen Lushington of the Anti-Slavery Society devised a scheme whereby the Mico money should be diverted to the education of emancipated slaves in the West Indies, and in 1835 the Court of Chancery agreed to this, with the first trustees of the new charity meeting in August of that year. After various ups and downs, the Mico Institution thrived, and still exists today as the Mico University College in Kingston, Jamaica.

The Mico almshouses today.

The dedicatory plaque on the front of the building: ‘The gift of Dame / Jane Mico Relict of / Sir Sam Mico Mercer dec / Built Ano 1691’ and underneath: ‘REBVILT / BY THE WORSHIPFUL COMPANY OF MERCERS / AD 1856’. The female head, or Mercer’s Maid, is the symbol of the Mercer’s Company. (Credit: Collage: The London Picture Archive)

Back in Stepney, the almshouses still exist too, though they needed restoring by the Mercers in 1856, and are now apparently private houses, the charity having moved a few street west in 1976 to provide 18 modern flats around a courtyard garden. Not as picturesque as Lady Mico’s executors’ original building, but possibly a bit more comfortable? Sadly, the graves of this beneficent couple are no better known than are their dates of birth and death, though we can hope they are together somewhere, as Lady Mico asked in her will to be buried beside her ‘deere deceased husband’.


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10 Responses to The Good Intentions of Lady Mico

  1. 21jumpcheeks says:

    Small typo in the first sentence – our should be of 😊

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Thanks !!! – one should never make a very quick change at the very last minute …


  3. Lisa B says:

    A delicious and informative read, as always; quite heartening that the Court of Chancery tried to fulfill intentions in an intelligent, flexible way.


    • Lisa, thanks so much for these very kind words. It’s quite cheering, as you say, to find the Court of Chancery doing its best, against our preconceptions, courtesy of Dickens!


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