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From a humble servant to multi-millionairess

A rare portrait of Ann Thwaytes, by Alfred Edward Chalon
A rare portrait of Ann Thwaytes, by Alfred Edward Chalon

The benefactress of Herne Bay’s clock tower was a widow with a very large fortune, inherited on the death of her husband. She was born Ann Hook, in very humble circumstances in the Islington area of north London and was illegitimate. Her mother died when Ann was 14, leaving her an orphan, with one older sister, Sarah.

The girls found work as domestic servants and were employed in the household of William Thwaytes, who was then the sole owner of one of the richest and most famous grocers and tea merchants in London. Sarah became William’s housekeeper, and in due course she married his chief clerk, Alfred Tebbitt. The following year Ann married William Thwaytes. She was 28 and he was 67. William lived another 17 years and when he died in 1834, he left his fortune to Ann. She inherited £500,000, which today would be equivalent to approximately £25 million.

SEASIDE RETREAT: Ann Thwayte’s home on Herne Bay seafront
SEASIDE RETREAT: Ann Thwayte’s home on Herne Bay seafront

Following William’s death, Ann began to spend her summers in Herne Bay, where she stayed at a house in Marine Terrace. She donated funds to a number of projects in the town including two schoolrooms built as an extension of Christ Church.

According the historian Harold Gough, after the completion of the clock tower, builder George Burge began work on the old St John’s Church in Brunswick Square. The money ran out and Burge ran out of bricks. He told Mrs Thwaytes that if the clock tower bricks had been available to build the church, St John’s would have been completed on time. Mrs Thwaytes took offence and left Herne Bay in 1841, never to return. She bought a large house in Charmandean (near Worthing) and donated some of her fortune to projects there.

After William’s death, Ann became unusually close to her husband’s doctor, John Simm Smith and his brother Samuel. She paid Simm Smith £2,000 per year and a total of £50,000 in gifts to give up his London medical practice and manage her business affairs. Simm was married with a family but he nevertheless accepted large sums of money from Ann and visited her regularly.

Before her husband was even buried, Ann made a will in which she left everything to Simm, except for a small annuity for her sister Sarah (who had seven children). The two sisters fell out during the 1840s, probably over money and Smith’s influence. By this time Samuel Smith and his two daughters had moved into Ann’s country house at Charmandean and she was paying for the daughters’ education.

IMPRESSIVE: Herne Bay clock tower
IMPRESSIVE: Herne Bay clock tower

When Ann died at her London town house in 1866, her estate was worth £400,000. Her will left £45,000 to her nieces and nephews but nothing to her sister Sarah Tebbitt. There were some other small bequests but the bulk of her money was left to the two Smith brothers. Sarah and two of her children contested the will on the grounds of “undue execution, incapacity and undue influence” and the case of Smith and Others v Tebbitt and Others was reported in The Times from April 26 to May 1867. It was during this hearing that Sarah and Ann’s illegitimacy was revealed, because of this, doubt was cast on Sarah’s claim to be Ann’s rightful heir.

On August 6, 1867, the judge found that Ann was of unsound mind when signing her will and declared it invalid. Ann’s delusions included a belief that she was immortal and that Judgement Day would take place in the drawing room of her house in Hyde Park. However, her mental instability began during the period when Simm Smith was taking care of William Thwaytes during his final illness, and suspicions have been raised about whether he might have administered drugs to Ann, causing her symptoms and enabling him to influence her decisions.

Herne Bay Times, July 2nd 2014

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