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Lady Mary Abney née Gunston (1676-1750) is best known for the unstinting support she gave to the hymnologist, Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Her non-conformist views were well suited to life in Stoke Newington where so many other like-minded people lived. In her home in Abney House she gave a permanent home to Watts, associated with leading non-conformists and laid out the grounds of what is now Abney Park Cemetery with wide avenues of Elm trees.
Lady Abney inherited the Manor of Stoke Newington in 1701 from her brother. She had married Sir Thomas Abney (1640–1722), a year previously. Sir Thomas was an independently wealthy member of the fishmonger’s guild and one of the founders of the Bank of England. He also served as Lord Mayor of London in 1700, the year of their marriage. The couple initially lived at Sir Thomas Abney’s estate in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, where they frequently entertained prominent people, including the minister and hymn writer Isaac Watts. (1)
Lady Abney, her husband Sir Thomas, and Isaac Watts were all devout Congregationalists who believed that churches should be allowed to run their affairs, free from interference from the Anglican hierarchy. (2) Lady Abney was a keen churchgoer and kept a notebook in which she noted the theme of every sermon she attended) (3). From this notebook, it is clear that Watts often preached at the services she attended. He later became a permanent fixture in the Abney household.
Upon her inheritance, Lady Mary Abney pressed ahead with the completion of ‘Abney House’, a modest manor house that stood on the grounds now occupied by Abney Cemetery. Whilst she and her family were living on the Cheshunt estate, Abney House was let to a series of well-to-do tenants, who occupied various parts of the building. When the ménage moved down to Stoke Newington, a turret room in Abney House was given over for the sole use of Isaac Watts as an observatory. Here Watts could view the heavens and look over the fields as far as Woodberry Downs (4).
Lady Abney is credited with arranging the planting scheme of Abney Park’s grounds, including two avenues of elm trees, now, alas, no longer with us. When Sir Thomas Abney (who was 36 years her senior) died in 1722, Mary claimed the title of First Lady of the Manor of Stoke Newington but did not immediately move into Abney House permanently. When she did move to Stoke Newington in 1736, her daughter, Elizabeth, and long-term houseguest Isaac Watts moved in with her. Lady Abney commissioned the first map and survey of the Manor of Stoke Newington (5) that shows that her lands stretched north from Church street.
Surrounded by local non-conformists, Lady Abney joined the circle of independent religious thinkers. She befriended the religious revivalist, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon who sponsored the freed slave Olaudah Equiano’s visit to Britain to support the abolitionist cause. Lady Abney became Isaac Watts sole benefactor from 1734 until he died in 1748, enabling him to continue his work as a hymnologist, writing such well-known hymns as ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘Our God, Our Help in Ages Past’ (6).
When Isaac Watts died in 1748, Lady Abney had a memorial to him constructed at Bunhill Fields, alongside the graves of other notable non-conformists including John Bunyan (d. 1688), Daniel Defoe (d1731), and Suzanna Wesley (1742) mother of John Wesley. The minister of Newington Green Chapel, Richard Price (d.1791), was later buried in the same cemetery. Lady Mary Abney died, aged 73, in 1750, and is buried near her brother Thomas Gunston, beneath the chancel of St Mary’s Old Church.
Lady Abney had three daughters with her husband, one of whom, Elizabeth, inherited the Manor of Stoke Newington, together with Abney House and Abney Park (7). When Elizabeth died without heirs in 1782, she directed that her estates are sold and all proceeds are used for the benefit of dissenting ministers (8).
(1) Mary Abney. Wikipedia
(3) Beinecke Rare books and Manuscript Library. Lady Mary Abney’s Sermon Notes.
(4) Mary Abney. Wikipedia
(8) British History On Line. Victoria County History/ Middx/vol8/pp177-178