Ever noticed the John Law Baker fountain behind St. Martin in the Fields?

Did you know there’s a fountain behind the famous church on Trafalgar Square, the Church of St. Martin in the Fields? In fact there’s more, but today I’m just looking closely at the fountain.

I walked round to inspect it on a chilly day in November. There was no one else taking an interest, and lots of time to photograph and wonder what this could be.

John Law Baker Fountain behind St Martin in the Fields (Jill Browne)

John Law Baker Fountain behind St Martin in the Fields (Jill Browne)


Lion head on the John Law Baker fountain at St Martin in the Fields (Jill Browne)

Lion head on the John Law Baker fountain at St Martin in the Fields (Jill Browne)

Close up of the John Law Baker fountain at St Martin in the Fields (Jill Browne)

Close up of the John Law Baker fountain at St Martin in the Fields (Jill Browne)















The fountain’s inscription says:

John Law Baker
Formerly of the Madras Army
Born 1789 – Died 1886

The obvious questions are Who? and Why? The search soon takes us away from London.

A surgeon’s son from Buntingford, Hertfordshire

As the inscription says, John Law Baker was born in 1789.

To understand John Law’s life, I had a look at a lot of his family members, starting with his parents.

His father, also called John Baker, was a surgeon and apothecary born around 1761. This John, the surgeon, married a young lady named Mary Gilder in 1782 at the Church of St. George Hanover Square in London. Although they got married in swanky Hanover Square, John and Mary were both from a little village of the “just blink and you could miss it” variety.

Buntingford, in Hertfordshire, is on the road from London to Cambridge, and today’s population is about 5,000. It was mentioned in a document from 1185 and got its charter as a town in 1253. From the Buntingford website, the village sounds lovely. They have 15th-century buildings still in use. This means there is a reasonable chance of seeing some of the various Baker and Gilder family homes.

Suddenly, his father died

Perusing the Reading Mercury newspaper, as one does, I found a sad and dramatic story from the 3rd of January 1791. The text says:

“A very alarming circumstance has lately occurred in Hertfordshire. A person who had been confined for some time in the county prison, caught the gaol distemper, and on his being liberated, communicated the infection to several of his neighbours. Mr. John Baker, surgeon and apothecary, of Buntingford, (son of Mr. Baker, of Whitley, near this town) who attended on him in his medical capacity, was soon after seized with a fever of the most malignant kind, and died in a few days. His wife, who happened to be with child, has also caught the distemper by nursing her husband, and now lies confined to her bed, in such an alarming situation, as to make all hopes of recovery despaired of by her friends. Several people in the parish of Sandon have been victims to this contagious distemper; and what is not a little remarkable, three nurses, sent by the oversee of the poor, to attend on a pauper, who was infected have all successively died.”

Gaol distemper of John Baker, Surgeon

Gaol distemper of John Baker, Surgeon

What is “gaol distemper” I asked, and perhaps you’re wondering too. It’s a form of typhus, a particularly nasty and fatal kind. It struck previously healthy people who were suddenly placed in situations of crowding and deprivation, such as gaol (jail).

The mention of Whitley tells us that John Law Baker’s grandfather lived in what is now part of Reading.

We learn that Mrs. Baker was pregnant in early 1791, but not with John Law Baker – he was born in 1789.

It all sounds very sad. I searched for an update. Were the little Baker children orphaned? Did both parents die of gaol distemper?

On the 8th of January, 1791, the Ipswich Journal brought more news.

“We are happy to correct the report concerning the malignant fever in Hertfordshire. The late Mr. Baker of Buntingford, attended no person that had been under confinement in the jail, nor has that species of distemper been heard of. His disorder was of the low irregular kind, with which he had been confined more than five weeks. The fever said to be raging at Sandon, is without foundation.” (Sandon is a village near Buntingford.)

Hmmmm. It would appear that Mrs. Baker didn’t die, nor did the three nurses (if the three nurses even existed). Was Mrs. Baker with child or not? The one fact that seems without doubt is that Mr. Baker, surgeon and apothecary, was dead. He was only about 30 years old. John Law Baker was barely two. He had two elder brothers, William and Lawrence. Apart from the possibly false report of Mrs. Baker being pregnant in 1791, I haven’t found any mention of a fourth child in the family.

Grandfather Baker died soon after

The Reading Mercury mentioned John Law Baker (JLB)’s grandfather, Mr. Baker from near Whitley.

I’ve found a couple of mentions, also in the Mercury, that might be of the same person.

In December 1770, a servant boy of a Mr. Christopher Griffith was whipped “on the Turnpike Road near Jack’s Booth”. The boy didn’t know his assailants, but other farmers on the road said they worked for Mr. Baker of Whitley. As it turned out, they did not. Mr. Griffith was offering a reward of a guinea for the conviction of these two.

On Monday, the 7th of March, 1791, the Mercury reported:

“Thursday morning died, Mr. Baker, an eminent farmer, of Whitley, near this town.”

This sounds like JLB’s grandfather, dying only two months after his son the surgeon.

In 1794 the Reading Mercury ran a notice from Sarah Parker saying her friends could come to the office of Mr. Baker, surgeon, on London-street, Reading to purchase wine from her. In 1798, the paper reported that the officials were going to appoint a surgeon to replace the late Mr. Baker. This hints that perhaps JLB’s father was not the only surgeon in his family. Maybe JLB had a surgeon uncle in Reading, but since Baker is a common name, it’s impossible to say for certain.

His mother was a widow with little children

John Law Baker’s mother, Mary, was about 30 and had been married nine years when her husband died. With little boys to look after, William, 7; Lawrence, 4; and John Law, 2, how did she manage?

Mary’s own father, Rev. Jonathan Gilder, had died in 1779 when she was 19, leaving a large family. Mary was one of his eldest children. The ongoing connections among family members in Mary’s generation and the next make me think the Gilders were tight-knit, and that it was to her sisters and mother that Mary turned for support after the loss of her husband.

In particular Mary’s sisters Elizabeth and Sarah figure in the later chapters of the Baker family’s life.

Going out to India

The only biographical fact on the John Law Baker fountain, apart from the dates, is that he was “Formerly of the Madras Army”. The man lived to be 91 and this was the most significant fact about his life. It made me wonder, just how long was he in the Army?

I don’t know when he started, but I do know when he left. On the 23rd of September, 1818, at the age of 29, the Army career of Lieutenant John Law Baker of the 8th N.I. (Native Infantry) appears to have ended. In the “List of Casualties in the Commissioned Ranks of the Hon. Company’s Army upon the Fort St. George Establishment”, published in 1820, most of the entries are either  “Died at (Madras, Sea, Cockrapilly, etc.)”, or “Invalided”. John Law Baker’s stands out: “Retired in Europe”.

He got out alive and apparently intact. Many were not so fortunate. The Madras Army was part of the East India Company’s presence in India. The Company’s ambition was to take over the country, to put it bluntly. As a soldier, JLB would have seen a lot of bloody action.

JLB wasn’t the only military Baker; his elder brother William Thomas Baker became a Lieutenant-Colonel but I haven’t been able to track him. All I know is that he had a daughter.

Clergy in the family

Like their grandfather, Rev. Jonathan Gilder, JLB’s brother Lawrence Palk Baker, became a clergyman and in due course had his own parish at Medbourne in Leicestershire. He died in 1870 in his late 80s.

Lawrence almost certainly came to Medbourne through his step-father, John Wilson, who was the curate there. Rev. Wilson married the widow Mary Baker in 1802 and died in 1827.

Throughout JLB’s extended family, there were quite a few more clerics.

Aunt Sarah Gilder married Reverend Richard Jeffreys (1762-1830). I wish I had known this a few months ago when I went to see the completely unrelated Red House of William Morris at Bexleyheath, in south-east London. Just down the road, about a half hour’s walk, is Hall Place. This Tudor mansion was a private school in 1800, and Rev. Jeffreys was the head.

In 1803, with a handful of young children, the Jeffreys family moved to Calcutta, where Richard was chaplain to the East India Company. The rest of the nine children were born in India.

Sarah died in 1809. Two years later, the widower and children went back to England, to Buntingford.

That wasn’t the end of the Indian experience, however. One of Richard and Sarah’s sons, Henry, eventually became Archdeacon of Bombay. Another, Julius, followed a medical career in India and England, and should be more famous today than he is.

John Law Baker’s wife and children

You may recall that JLB, the man whose name is on the fountain, left the Madras Army of the East India Company back in 1818 when he “retired to Europe”.

Whatever his intentions regarding retirement in Europe may have been, JLB ended up in London a few years later. On the 7th of April, 1825, he married Caroline Elizabeth Browne (no relation to me). Her father’s name was Tobias and there’s a fair chance, based on a couple of records, that he was a surgeon and apothecary just as JLB’s own long-dead father had been.

Caroline and JLB had five children, two boys and three girls.

The younger boy was named John Law Baker after his father. This JLB2 (1832-1905) was the first of a series of descendants who could each stroll through St. Martin’s churchyard and see his name on the fountain, even though the fountain wasn’t named for him.

JLB2 lived in Argentina with his wife and children. Some of the children may have stayed in Argentina as part of the British community. One son, Thomas Edward Baker, died in France fighting for Britain in the First World War.

Another son, John Law Baker or JLB3 (1878-1953) became a forester in India, though he and his wife Elsie were back in England at the end of their lives.

JLB3 had a son called John Law Baker, who would be JLB4 (1917-?). JLB4 also went overseas, to India and Sudan, perhaps other exotic places.

The line of John Law Bakers didn’t end there, but I will, because I have reached the point where the descendants of the original JLB who are still living are better placed than I am to tell their own story.

Who put the fountain there? Why?

With all these tales about the John Law Baker line, you may think it was JLB2 who installed the memorial fountain to his father.

No, I think the person responsible was most likely Lawrence James Baker (1825-1921).

Lawrence was a very successful business man. He was a trustee of the London Stock Exchange and an expert on South American bonds. He married, was widowed, and remarried, having seven children with each wife.

The current Wikipedia entry for Lawrence describes him in glowing terms:

“Expert in foreign bond dealings, he sat on the Peruvian Bondholder’s Committee with Liberal colleague, and former cabinet minister, George Shaw-Lefevre. The City of London was responsible for the funds of several Latin American emerging economies; their decisions saved several governments from anarchy and bankruptcy. Baker was a generous benefactor: a donor to charity, a supporter of early free Council houses, and a free trade national liberal, cutting taxes for the poor, free education, disestablishment of the Church of England, and reform of the House of Lords.”

According to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association (MDFCTA) website, the JLB fountain was installed in November 1887, the year after JLB died, the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA) helped defray the cost. That information is clearly marked on the MDFCTA website as being tentative, and it could turn out to refer to a different, second, fountain. As with so many questions about the past, more evidence would help straighten this out. (Many thanks to the MDFCTA for help with this.)

Waving away that particular bit of uncertainty about the MDFCTA’s and MPGA’s involvement for the moment, there are several reasons to think Lawrence Baker was responsible for this commemorative fountain to his father. His siblings and other relatives may have been involved, but Lawrence didn’t need them to chip in. He was very wealthy. In the 1881 census, he was listed with his wife, 12 children, and 11 servants at his town home, 71 Princes Gate, South Kensington. The Victoria and Albert Museum was on one side of this house and the President of the Board of Trade lived on the other.

Back in the 1880s when his father died, Lawrence was active in business and politics. He was in a position to donate a beautiful and functional fountain to the public, and he had a philanthropic side.

Lawrence Baker had country estates as well. He died in 1921, 94 years old, leaving an estate valued at £581,416. This included two country properties, Brambridge Park at Eastleigh, Southampton, and Ottershaw Park, in Surrey.

I can’t explain the choice of location for the John Law Baker memorial fountain. So far I haven’t seen a connection between the Church of St. Martin in the Fields and the Baker or Gilder families.

Was it the idea of the MDFCTA?

One of the many things I had never heard of until I lived in London was the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. What a joy it is to find evidence of their good works still sprinkled around London. The association provided exactly what it sounds like: drinking water for man and beast. It started in the mid-1800s when clean drinking water wasn’t always easy to come by.

The MDFCTA today continues as the Drinking Fountain Association – there’s still a need for drinking water.

In 1887, the MDFCTA ran ads like this from the Morning Post of July 2nd.

Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association ad 1887

Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association ad 1887

John Law Baker himself may have left a bequest to pay for a fountain, or his family might have made a donation to the MDFCTA in his honour.

Because of the particular location of this fountain, the Association, the family, and the Church might have agreed on a fancier than usual design.

As you can tell, I had a much easier time figuring out the “who” than the “why”. I would like to know more about who paid for the fountain and why the JLB memorial fountain was placed in this particular location.

Thanks for reading about the fountain and all the JLBs. I hope you enjoyed this story enough to Share it.
Would you like to get more like this? Subscribe and new posts will come to you by email. You can cancel any time.

What do you think?