The Rich Old Lady of Stamford Street
Cordelia Angelina Read was born in 1801 into an artistic family. Her grandfather, Edward Beetham, was an inventor, her grandmother, Isabella Beetham, was a successful silhouette artist as was her mother Jane. Her father, John Read, was a wealthy solicitor with a property portfolio that included eight houses in Stamford Street, Blackfriars, houses on Skinner Street in Holborn and an inn on Old Coventry Street (now Piccadilly).
John Read ran his practice initially from Lamb’s Conduit Street but in 1827 the family moved to 22 Stamford Street. Read was clearly eccentric as he did not let or maintain his properties: the 1841 Census shows seven of his houses in Stamford Street were without tenants. The houses were allowed to fall into disrepair though it is said that Cordelia kept a watchful eye on them often letting herself in, candle in hand, late at night. This earned her the nickname ‘The Ghost of Stamford Street’ and, believing the houses to be haunted, people would gather outside to watch the ghostly figure gliding around the empty rooms. Tensions sometimes ran high and The Morning Post (28 October 1846) reported how on one occasion a young man named James Fling broke into one of Read’s houses intending to steal a copper boiler and lead piping. Caught in the act by a passing policeman, he attempted to escape over the roof. When apprehended, he was found to have a large knife for stripping out the lead and so was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment.
When he died in 1847, John Read left his personal estate to his wife and his real estate to Cordelia, his only child. He was worth £18,000 (the equivalent of 1.8 million in today’s money). Cordelia followed in her father’s footsteps by determining not to let out her houses. Presumably she and her mother already had enough cash in hand to more than meet their daily needs. The 1851 Census shows them still living at 22 Stamford Street with a 21-year-old house servant.
Cordelia’s mother died in 1857. The 1861 Census shows Cordelia living in the same house with an older house servant, Mary Lacey and her husband. Meantime Cordelia had sold the lease on the Old Coventry Street inn for £600 + £100 per year. She had also sold her properties in Holborn to the London, Chatham & Dover Railway Company who quickly demolished them to make way for the Holborn Viaduct.
Cordelia would therefore have been extremely wealthy at this point but all was not well. She had long been estranged from her family and now her neighbours were feeling resentful. The London papers of January 1863 report how a lady claiming title to at least one of Cordelia’s Stamford Street houses broke in one evening with some hired heavies to take possession of the house and change the padlock on the front door. Cordelia retaliated by hiring her own locksmith to reverse this. Returning to the house with a carpenter, Cordelia found herself surrounded by an angry mob demanding that she prove ownership of her properties. Taking fright, Cordelia retreated upstairs and escaped with her carpenter over the roof. Not bad for a 62 year-old lady in long skirts! Such details would certainly have made for an entertaining session at the subsequent court hearing. In the end the defendants were bound over to keep the peace.
Another dispute arose in August 1871 when a Mrs Baker, an ex-tenant of her father’s, claimed that Cordelia owed her the sum of £38 5s 6d for residual contents of a house on Skinner Street that she and her now deceased husband had vacated over thirty years previously. In an attempt to exact the money she took to throwing mud and stones at Cordelia’s house inciting a mob to gather. Reporting on the case the London Evening Standard (4 August 1871) described Cordelia as ‘an old shrivelled up but rather active lady’. She counter-claimed that the Bakers had moved out owing her father a year’s rent. The house having since been demolished the judgment once again went in Cordelia’s favour.
The 1871 Census shows Cordelia, now 70 years of age, living at 43 Stamford Street along with Susan Goring, a house servant, and her baby. Susan’s husband and 6-year-old son were living next door.
Cordelia died peacefully in her chair in December 1871, the cause of death at the inquest being given as ‘affection of the heart and congestion of the lungs’. It was initially believed that she died intestate but a will was apparently discovered tucked into the wires of her grandfather’s old harpsichord. Cordelia bequeathed her personal estate, including all ready money held in the bank and in securities, to the Hospital for the Cure of Consumption at Brompton.
The Press loved the story – the Chepstow Weekly Advertiser described how a room in her house was filled of caps and bonnets, and how a canvas bag was stuffed with coins to the tune of £500. Others reported that upwards of £20,000 was found hidden in out-of-the-way places all over the house. In total, the Hospital stood to benefit by £100,000 equating to over 10 million in today’s money. The Dublin Evening Telegraph wondered how the hospital could possibly spend that much money given that the recommended treatment for consumptives was cod liver oil, snail broth and asses’ milk. Ever helpful though, they suggested that the ‘army of doctors’ could help out by indulging in ‘fine old port and golden sherry’ and that by ‘sitting firmly together shoulder by shoulder at the banquet board’ they might thereby spend the money before the end of the year!
In the event, the Brompton Hospital used Cordelia’s money to build a new wing to accommodate 137 additional beds. The extension was officially opened in June 1882 by Lord Derby with a commemorative slab that read – In Memoriam Cordelia Read 1879.