The Mysterious Joseph Heely
Sandy Haynes writes:
In 1777 R. Baldwin of Pater-Noster Row, London published a guide book to the three great West Midland gardens of the mid-18th century entitled Letters on the Beauties of Hagley, Envil and The Leasowes with critical remarks and Observations on the Modern Taste in Gardening by Joseph Heely. In an Advertisement in the front of the book he writes that he had published some time ago a concise description of the three gardens ‘merely as a companion to those celebrated recesses’, but then complains that although his writings have been well received many others have plagiarised them and that the time has come for ‘an edition on a more extensive plan.’
In 1982 a facsimile was made from a copy of Heely’s book in the Yale University Library and published by Garland, New York. In the Preface, the editor John Dixon Hunt writes that ‘Nothing is known of Heely. I suspect that he may have been a local clergyman or small landowner, intimate with these three gardens to write with knowledge and affection of them.’ On the second statement he appears to be correct.
Joseph Heely’s Will is in the Public Record Office at Kew ref. PROB 11/1327 file ref 424 and together with other documents relating to him are in the Birmingham City Archives give a glimpse into the life of this man. The Will was written on 19th March 1798 and was proved on 1st July 1799.
It is possible that he was the son of Richard Heely of Birmingham, then in the County of Warwick who was a gunsmith and was one of at least seven children left with an annuity of twenty pounds a year when his father died in 1770. A few years previously he, and Thomas Russell an ironmonger of Birmingham, had taken a lease on Moseley Hall in Kings Norton to the south of Birmingham just off the Alcester Road. When Heely leased it in 1766 from the Greaves family it was an elegant, quite grand property in the neo-classical style, built in 1632. The house was later rebuilt after a fire started in the Birmingham riots of 1791 and is today part of Moseley Hospital. In the lease Heely is referred to as Joseph Heely Esq. of Kingsnorton.
Kings Norton is only about 8 miles from The Leasowes, and Hagley is about three miles further on, which would have made them easily accessible by horse or carriage for a day trip. The fact that he banked in Bewdley and asked to be buried in Areley Kings suggests that in later life he may have moved west, nearer to Enville.
Joseph seems to have been close to his brother Samuel whose children were to be the chief beneficiaries of his Will. He chose his ‘beloved niece’ Harriet Justice as the executrix and left her ‘all my goods whatsoever with all plate jewells &c &c’ and to her husband Richard ‘all my fishing tackle.’
Joseph appears to have remained a bachelor all his life and was looked after by a housekeeper named Mary Gilbert. She is described in his Will as being ‘so good and so honest in the service she gave me.’ His bequest to her was certainly in excess of what most servants could expect from their masters. Mary was left £100 in lieu of any outstanding wages due at the time of his death ‘to be paid from out of the cash I have now lying at the Bank of Roberts, Skey & Co at Bewdley’ or if that was insufficient from the rent of some houses in Birmingham. He asks Mary Gilbert to accept all his clothes, two pairs of blankets and sheets, the ‘old leather chairs and common table with most sort of kitchen furniture’ and anything else that his niece Harriet did not want.
Heely owned houses in Park Street and Freeman Street in Birmingham which were just to the north east of what is now Birmingham Moor Street Station and are now a car park. The properties were left to his brother Samuel for the rest of his life and then he asked that they be sold and the money from them was to be divided between Samuel’s three children, Harriet, Thomas and Elizabeth.
Joseph’s final request was that he should be buried at the east end of Areley Church. The parish register for Areley Kings in Worcestershire states that ‘Joseph Heeley of Stourport of Kidderminster was buried 31st March 1798 by me Geo. Hulme.’ The Church was largely rebuilt in 1885 and although the Rector made a record of the tombstones some had been so worn down that they were illegible. Maybe one of those belonged to Joseph, for despite an extensive search with the church archivist there is nothing to find today.