In Coldharbour Gentlemen, Harry Steer has a distant cousin who helps him in a variety of ways: the oddly named Lee Steere Steere. Although Harry is a fictional character, this scion of the Steere family really existed, though the Steeres (or Lee-Steeres, as they are sometimes known) have always been private people so I had very little to go on in constructing his persona. Here’s what I have learned.
The Steeres were an old family in Darking Hundred; variants of the name may be found all over the neighbourhood over centuries. Legend has it that a Steere has inhabited the property known as Jayes or Jays since the Conquest, though public records go back ‘only’ to the thirteenth century (Steere family papers are held at the Surrey History Centre, Woking, though I have not examined them). Mary Day and Vivien Ettlinger, in their admirable study of the parish of Capel, reason that those yeoman farmers who survived the Plague in the fifteenth century took advantage of the depopulation of the area to increase their landholdings and become prosperous, the Steeres among them. The body of the house at Jayes Park dates to the sixteenth century, and Steeres provably lived there in quiet plenty for centuries afterward (they do still). Other Steere/Stere/Steers around the area were less successful, so the principal family had many distant cousins of lower rank.
Readers are no doubt baffled by the name Lee Steere Steere, and thereby hangs a tale or two. The Lee element was introduced in the seventeenth century when a Fiducia Lee married a John Steere and they began to use the compound surname Lee-Steere or Lee Steere. This name was not used consistently, however, because the family soon took to naming its firstborn sons Lee and they evidently didn’t favour calling themselves Lee Lee-Steere. That brings us to a Lee Steere of Jayes in the eighteenth century, the grandfather of my character.
This Lee Steere had a daughter, Martha, who evidently gave him some trouble. Martha seems to have run off at nineteen with a young man deemed unsuitable—Richard Witts, a younger son of a successful wool-stapler (middleman trader in fleeces) from Chipping Norton. Instead of being married from her father’s house, Martha married Richard (who was then twenty-seven) at the Church of St George the Martyr in Southwark, a seedy suburb of London (the church stood immediately adjacent to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison so well known to readers of Charles Dickens). There was nothing shotgun about the wedding, I hasten to add—their first child wasn’t born till ten months later—but Richard Witts was still so displeasing to his father-in-law that Lee Steere cast his daughter aside.
According to one story—the tattletales of the nineteenth-century chronicles are often unreliable—Mr Witts then worked as a shopkeeper. Evidently the couple entertained hopes of a rapprochement, however, because they named their firstborn Lee Steere Witts, reserving his father’s name Richard for their second son.
So the Lee Steere of Coldharbour Gentlemen grew up in a modest way and probably never saw Jayes Park before his grandfather died in 1785, when he was ten years old. The elder having no other heirs, the property was held in trust for Lee Witts until he came of age in 1795, at which time he was required to change his surname to Steere—which is how he came to be known as Lee Steere Steere.
During the years of his minority, things did not go well for the Witts clan. Richard’s eldest brother Edward, who ran the wool-stapling business, was forced into bankruptcy in 1790, which might have justified old Lee Steere’s dim view of the connection had he still been alive to witness it. So our Lee Steere Steere must have been a boy of few prospects and no experience of managing property when Jayes Park was dropped into his lap.
In Coldharbour Gentlemen he is presented as a single man, engaged to be married, with no close family. This is a case of novelist’s licence on my part, for which I must apologise to his descendants. His mother died in 1790 but his father was still alive in 1800, along with two siblings—his younger brother Richard and his sister Eliza. Also, he married Sarah Harrison in 1798, not December 1800 as alleged in the story, though their first child was not born till 1802. I excluded these elements from his life in order to keep the focus on his distant kinsman Harry.
The only personal account I have found of Lee Steere Steere is a slight one, from that perennial cadger John Timbs: after visiting Jayes he says of his host, ‘he has recently completed a noble mansion, where he supports the character of the country gentleman with the genuine spirit of English hospitality’ (Timbs, Picturesque Promenades, p. 202).
For information on his property, see ‘Jayes Park’ in the Places section of this site.
11 October 2021
Sir Bernard Burke, ‘Steere of Perth and Blackwood’, in A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Colonial Gentry, vol. 1 (1891).
Mary Day and Vivien Ettlinger, Capel: The Chapel by the Spring (Godalming, 2015).
John Timbs, A Picturesque Promenade round Dorking, in Surrey (London, 1822).
The Victoria History of the County of Surrey, edited by H. E. Malden, vol. 3 (London, repr. 1967).