The Twickenham Museum
People : Physicians and Surgeons

Jonathan Wathen Phipps/Waller
Eye Surgeon
1769-1953

Born Jonathan the son of Joshua Phipps (1744-73) and Mary née Allen (1744-1804), he was brought up in east London where his father was the proprietor of an iron foundry. The family were Dissenters, linked to the Methodist movement: a great-uncle, James Waller, was friendly with Charles Wesley. Jonathan adhered to this faith throughout is life. He attended the fashionable Newcome’s School in Hackney as a boarder. Rather than university he was apprenticed, in 1784, for seven years, to his surgeon step-grandfather, Jonathan Wathen. Wathen was the second husband of his grandmother Anne Waller. Both later made their contribution to his somewhat confusing name.

In 1795, at the age of 26 he was appointed oculist to George III, with whom he became a lifelong friend, together with three of his sons: George, Prince of Wales later George IV, Prince William, Duke of Clarence, later William IV and Prince Frederick, Duke of Cumberland, later king of Hanover. Now, adopting the name Wathen in place of Jonathan, he was elevated from the merchant class to the royal circle which he occupied for the rest of his long life. He continued to practice as an oculist, with a special interest in cataracts. On 20 April 1796 he was appointed “Oculist to the Royal Household” by the Lord Chamberlain.

Marriage and Family

In 1792, at the age of 23 he married his cousin, Elizabeth Maria Slack (1774-1809). The marriage took place in the parish church of Bray in Berkshire where the Slack family lived at Braywick Lodge. They now took up residence in the fashionable West End of London, in Cork Street. Here Jonathan could enjoy rising social status while extending his surgical practice in walking distance from St James's Palace and Carlton House. They had seven children of whom four lived to marry, producing nineteen grandchildren.

2nd Marriage

Elizabeth Maria died in 1809 and Jonathan inherited Braywick Lodge although it does not seem that he actually took up residence there. Three years later he married again, a patient, Sophia Charlotte, Baroness Howe of Langar, the widow of the hon. Penn Assheton Curzon of Gopsall in Leicestershire. She was the daughter of Richard, Earl Howe (1726-1799) of Langar in Nottinghamshire and had inherited that estate and the Barony from him, suo jure. She also managed Gopsall for her youngest son Richard Penn Curzon (1796-1870), Viscount from 1820 when his grandfather died, and 1st Earl Howe (of the 2nd creation) in 1821.

The marriage was the subject of some unfavourable comment in society, being seen as the ambition of a commoner seeking social advancement. Viscount Curzon, Richard's grandfather even took out an action in Chancery requiring Lady Howe to submit to the Court full accounts of her management of the Gopsall estate on behalf of her son Richard.

Life in Twickenham

In 1803 Lady Howe had acquired a property next to Alexander Pope's Villa on Twickenham riverside. She bought the villa in 1807, demolished it and built a replacement next door. Here, they set up home together in 1812, remaining until Lady Howe died in 1835.

In 1815 Jonathan became a Baronet and changed his name from Phipps to Sir Wathen Waller, by which he was known for the rest of his life. He chose Waller, his grandmother's maiden name, apparently in the belief that it possessed greater genealogical distinction than Phipps. In the following year he received a Grant of Arms. When, in 1845, he came to write his will he described himself as:

Sir Jonathan Wathen Waller of Braywick Lodge, Berkshire, Baronet and Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order, and Groom of the Bed Chamber to his late Majesty King Wiliam the 4th.

Jonathan lived for a further 18 years following the death of his wife, but he no longer wished to live at Pope's Villa. The now extensive estate, amounting to 187 acres was put up for sale sometime after 1836, when a map showing all the land in his possession was prepared. The map is held in the Guildhall Library.

The Villa and much of the land was acquired by a property speculator called J Wright Nokes. He sold the land in parcels and the Villa in 1841. The purchaser, a William Horsley, demolished some of it, dividing the newest part into two houses. At about this time the obelisk that Pope had erected at the top of his garden to the memory of his mother found its way to Gopsall. Moved again in about 1919, it stands today in the garden of Penn House.

Jonathan settled back in London, first in his house in Norfolk Street and later in New Cavendish Street. Unhappily, by 1846 his eyesight began to fail and he underwent two cataract operations. However he became completely blind and, on New Year's Day 1853 he died, after a long life sustained by his strongly held religious beliefs.

Further reading:

Ruth Hayward, Phippy, a biography of Jonathan Wathen Phipps/Waller, Eye-surgeon to King George III, Brewin Books, 2014
Anthony Beckles Willson, Mr Pope & Others at Cross Deep, Twickenham in the 18th Century, 1996

back to top