Some years before John Quincy Adams (1767 – 1848) became 6th President of the United States, he acted as its representative in London between 1815-1817. Instead of organising digs in town, he moved his family into a country house in “Little Ealing” an area in the south of the borough: a road in which I too have lived since 1987. I had no idea until a local history group published a book based on Adams’s diary entries of the period.
An American President in Ealing is an excellent work of local and social history. I was interested to discover that Adams enjoyed walking to and from his office in Craven Street near Charing Cross. Coincidentally, Benjamin Franklin had lived in the the same street over fifty years previously when he had represented the colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Adams was quite specific about his walks. He claims that his best time was two hours and 20 minutes, achieved at over 4 miles per hour. He mentions passing Gunnersbury Mansion, Turnham Green, Hyde Park Corner and St James’s Park. Using this information and an 1800 map, I traced a probable route.
Yesterday morning, armed with our 1800 map, a modern A-Z of London, bananas and water, Fiona and I walked up the road to our starting point, a house on the site of the original Little Boston House. The present owners are clearly aware of the provenance of the site.
A lengthy walk. 9.4 miles according to our GPS app. We did a coffee stop in Chiswick and a banana stop outside the V&A. We also did some unscheduled browsing at Chiswick auctions where I shot this picture. It’s what Hyde Park Corner would have looked like as Adams passed through.
Through Admiralty Arch, past Northumberland Avenue (both long after Adams’s time), into the Strand and a final right hand turn into Craven Street. Check watch. Four and a half hours. Almost double the time claimed by the fleet-of-foot future president, then. If we take off say 60 minutes for our stops, our taking photos, our stuck at the lights waiting for the green man (there was a lot of this), we’re still substantially slower than Adams.
He may have taken short-cuts which we avoided, for example through Gunnersbury Park (Would he have had a right of way? I think he must have). Further taking into account our advantages of modern footwear and paved surfaces, Adams must’ve put his head down and gone and quite a lick, very much a fast walk or jog almost.
With achy limbs and feet, our odyssey was wrapped up with several glasses of excellent merlot at the wonderful Gordon’s Wine Bar, a favourite.
Other known walkers from country to town and vice-versa include William Hogarth (Chiswick – Leicester Fields (ie Square)) and Sir John Soane (Ealing to Lincoln’s Inn Fields (i.e. today’s John Soane Museum)). We’ll cover those in due course.
John and Louisa Adams had married in London in 1897. You can see the actual page of the marriage register in the excellent crypt museum at All Hallows by the Tower.
An American President in Ealing, the John Quincy Adams Diaries 1815 – 1817 is published by the Little Ealing History Group.