A Quaker Divine?
c1630 - 1707
Joan Whitrow was perhaps born Joan Robinson and baptised, daughter of Morgan and Ellin Robinson at the church of St Botolph-without-Aldgate in February 1630. If so, it is likely that she was the Joan Robinson who married Robert Whitrow at the church of St Clement Danes in The Strand, on 17 January 1657. This church is near Covent Garden where the couple lived. There was a daughter, Susannah and a son, Jason, both dying in 1675 or 1677. Robert, apparently something of a trial to Joan died sometime before 1689. She later moved to Putney, then Mortlake and East Sheen before finally settling in Twickenham, where she died in 1707.
A deeply religious woman, even described in her lifetime as a 'fanatic', she may first have been of Quaker persuasion although there is apparently no record of her membership in the records of the Religious Society of Friends. The death of her daughter, aged 15, provoked the publication of a tract concerning her life:
THE WORK OF GOD IN A DYING MAID
Being a short account of the dealings of the Lord
with one Susannah Whitrow about the age of fifteen years
and daughter of Robert Whitrow, inhabiting in Covent Garden
in the county of Middlesex. Published for the warning
and good of others who are in the same condition
she was in before her sickness
The text which followed, published in 1677, described the state of mind of her daughter, refuting a rumour that she was in love and wishing to marry, and her subsequent death apparently in a state of transcendental 'heavenly harmony'.
Joan Whitrow had made the acquaintance of Mathias Perkins (c1665-1741), himself a dissenter, barber surgeon, resident of Twickenham though from a Petersham family. His Twickenham residence was in the London Road in a property “known by the name of the Swan near the Stonebridge”. She apparently made Perkins her executor and, following her funeral on 20 September 1707 at St Mary's Church, she was buried beside the road in his garden, and a memorial erected in her memory on the garden wall. Perkins' property was somewhere to the north of the present day Police Station.
The existence of this memorial, now lost, was first noted by a contributor to a journal “The Censor” no27 for 10 June 1715, who wrote: “I cannot dismiss this subject without taking note of a monument, which has more ostentation in it than is decent on these occasions. It is erected on the side of a Garden-Wall on the Entrance to the Town of Twickenham, under which are laid the ashes of Mrs Whitrow a Quaker, and over which this inscription is engrav'd on a stone”.
Here, at her Desire,
are deposited in a Vault the
Remains of Mrs. JOAN WHITROW
whose Soul on the 8 of Sept: 1707
left this World and ascended
into the glorious Joys of the Just,
having lived about 76 yeeres.
She was EMINENT for her
her Charity was universal!,
She loved all good Persons
without Regard to Party.
She was favoured by Heaven
with UNCOMMON GIFTS.
She writ severall pious Books.
She was an Extraordinary Person
And came as near Perfection
as the brightest Saint •
that ever adorned the Church
since the Apostolick Age.
IMITATE & BE HAPPY. "
A little lower, upon a small square stone, are these words:
2 Cor. 13. 5
Contemporary observers of the memorial
The memorial was mentioned two years later by Alexander Pope who may have noticed it while passing through Twickenham in July 1717. He wrote to the Duchess of Hamilton in October: “Madam, - Mrs Whitworth (who, as her epitaph on Twitnam Highway assures us, had attained much perfection and purity as any since the Apostles) is now deposited according to her own order between a fig-tree and a vine, there to be found out at the last resurrection.”
In 1723, it was recorded by Dr Thomas Tanner, then Canon of Christchurch, Oxford, who copied the inscription and wrote: “Coming from Teddington towards London on June 17, 1723, I saw upon the left hand of the road, just as I came out of the town of Twickenham, something that looked like a monument, built up pretty high above a brick wall but raised up from the field or garden enclosed by a brick wall…. As I was on horseback taking down this inscription, a country fellow that stood by told me, after an arch rustick manner that this woman was a very good one indeed for she never came to church:- and so, in his roundabout way, said she was a Dissenter, and he seemed to have but a very indifferent opinion of her. He said he knew her very well, and that this monument was put up by one Perkins a surgeon, a man of the same kidney, I understood by this honest historian”.
Dr Tanner had later occasion to ask about the memorial: “On Tuesday, Aug. 6, 1729, I was mentioning this monument to Mr. Pope, who lives at Twickenham, and he gave me the following account of this woman: viz. That some short time before she dyed she came across the water in a common wherry to Twickenham, where she took lodgings, and lived after an ordinary manner, always dressing her own victualls; never going to any publick divine worship, keeping very reserved and private; gave nobody any account of herself, payed very honestly and regularly for what she had, and at her death left a box with some money and other things in it, to one Perkins, of Twickenham, her executor, with instructions to erect her a monument somewhere by the way side, with this inscription upon it, which Mr. Perkins faithfully executed, and had a trifling matter of money left, after defraying this and the funerall expence. They could never hear any more of her there, nor find any body that formerly knew her before her coming to Twickenham.”
The fourth person to note and copy the inscription was the Rev William Cole, on 1 November 1762, who wrote: :“Over a high garden Wall on the right hand as you go to Strawberry Hill, and about half a mile from it, close to the highway, and opposite the play-house at Twickenham, which is on the other side of the road, and about 20 feet from the said wall a monument of about 6 feet high of black marble, set in bricks; for a person who is interred in the garden on the other side…” (volume XL of his MS. Collections [BL Add. 5841], p 174).
The “severall pious Books”
Following the death of her husband she appears to have made her way west out of London. She is known for a number of tracts written between 1689 and 1696, all of which were addressed to the King and Queen and one delivered personally on 11 April 1696:
1. “The Humble Address of the Widow Whitrowe to King William: with a Faithful Warning to the Inhabitants of England, to haste and prepare by true repentance and deep humiliation to meet the Lord, before his indignation burns like fire, and burns forth into a mighty Flame, so that none can quench it. Printed in the year 1689. 4to. pp. 15. Dated from East-sheen, near Mortlock, the 2d of the 10th Month, 1689.”
2. “The Humble Salutation and Faithful Greeting of the Widow Whitrowe to King William and Queen Mary, Grace and Peace. The Widow Whitrow's humble Thanksgiving to the Lord of Hosts, the King of Eternal Glory, the God of all our Mercies, unto whom be Glory, Glory, and Praise for the King's safe Return to England. 4to. pp. 16. Dated 5th of November, 1690, Putney Park, New-year's Day, 1691”.
3. “The Widow Whiterow's humble Thanksgiving for the Kings safe Return. With an Account of John Hall's Vision upon the first day of the Eleventh Month, 1692/3. And also a Letter to a Friend concerning John Hall's Message. With a Letter from Jamaica, concerning the Earthquake that happened there,… 1694. 4to. pp. 40"
4. “It is a denunciation of judgments to come, parodying the prophecies of the Old Testament; is addressed to the King and both Houses of Parliament; and is dated from "Putney, April the llth, 1696. This I delivered into the King's own hands the llth instant.”
Charlotte F Otten, English Women's Voices 1540-1700,University Press of Florida, 1992, p268:
Catie Gill, Women in the Seventeenth Century Quaker Community, Ashgate, 2005, pp176/180
Phyllis Mack, Visionary Women, Ecstatic Prophesy in Seventeenth Century England, University of California Press, 1991, p386 et seq
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
English Topography part VII, 1896 (BL ADD MS 5841, vol.XL, p174. Extracts from a Pocket Book of T T(anner)
Historical Tracts 1561-1800, vol 378/15, 1702/7, 1762/7, 203012
The Gentleman's Magazine, vol XXXVII, July-December 1851, p218 and, vol XXXVIII, January-June 1852, pp487/9
Robert Louis Stevenson, Fraser's Magazine, 1860, Chapter IX, The Antiquary at Twickenham, p106