LAMB, Mary (1764-1847) & LAMB, Charles (1775-1834) a.k.a. Elia
Plaque erected in 1999 by English Heritage at Lamb's Cottage, Church Street, Edmonton, London, N9 9DY, London Borough of Enfield
Journalism and Publishing, Literature
CHARLES LAMB 1775-1834 and MARY LAMB 1764-1847 Writers lived here
Brother and sister Charles and Mary Lamb were writers and prominent members of London’s literary community, becoming most famous for their books of children’s stories. They are commemorated with an official plaque at Lamb’s Cottage in Edmonton, where they stayed from 1833.
LIFE AND WORK IN LONDON
Mary and her brother Charles were born at the Inner Temple in London and, after their respective educations, supported their ageing mother and increasingly senile father – Mary by needlework and Charles with income from a clerkship in the East India Company.
The siblings were thrown firmly together in 1796, when Mary – who experienced serious mental health problems throughout her life – killed their mother with a table knife at their Holborn lodgings. Biographers have since categorised Mary’s illness as bipolar disorder, and it appears her condition was exacerbated by the extreme strain she was under while caring for both her parents and working to support them.
Mary was put on trial and placed in a private asylum after being found temporarily insane. This was on condition that, on her release, she was entrusted to the care of her brother. His commitment to her life-long care (thereby keeping her out of the Bethlem Hospital) involved great self-sacrifice, but the pair shared a strong interest in literature. They were both popular among London’s literary circle, counting Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, John Keats and Leigh Hunt among their friends. As writers, Mary and Charles’s collaborations included the books Tales from Shakespear [sic] (1807), Poetry for Children, Entirely Original (1809), and Mrs. Leicester’s School (1809). In the latter and in her essay ‘On needle-work’ (1815), Mary demonstrated her concern for the welfare of disadvantaged women and girls.
One of Charles’s early publications, ‘Poems, chiefly Love Sonnets, by Charles Lamb, of the India House’, was dedicated with ‘all a brother’s fondness to Mary Ann Lamb, the author’s best friend and sister’. However, the books they wrote together were published anonymously or under Charles’s name, in order to shield Mary from publicity.
From around 1800, they moved frequently between lodgings, mostly in the area near their earliest childhood home at the Inner Temple, although Mary continued to require periodic confinement in asylums until the end of her life.
LATER LIFE AND LAMB'S COTTAGE
Much to the regret of their literary circle, the Lambs left London for still-rural Islington in 1823, where they occupied their first house, the cottage which is now 64 Duncan Terrace and bears a second plaque to Charles Lamb.
In 1825 Charles dedicated himself full-time to writing, and decided to move with his sister to Enfield, then in Middlesex. However, the quiet provincial life did not – as he had hoped – improve Mary’s mental health problems, which worsened with age.
Nor did Charles’s health improve and they were again unable to settle: ‘I am driven from house to house by Mary’s illness’, Charles wrote in May 1833. That year they went to a private asylum kept at Bay Cottage by Mr and Mrs Walden in Edmonton. Now Lamb’s Cottage, Church Street, the modest early 18th-century house – set back behind high railings and a narrow garden – bears a blue plaque to both Mary and Charles Lamb.
Charles died in 1834 and Mary stayed on at Lamb’s Cottage until 1841. She then lived with a nurse at 40 Alpha Road, St John’s Wood, interrupted by periods in private asylums, on a pension and income from Charles’s savings. She died at home in 1847 and was buried with her brother in the churchyard of All Saints, Edmonton.