For my birthday treat this week, I visited an Arboretum. And, no, I didn't have to travel hundreds of miles. There is one here in Finchley, in Stephens House and Gardens, one of the sponsors of this year's literary festival. Renamed the Finchley Literary Festival, it seems apt that this year the Main Speaker Event, Saturday 31st May 2.00-6.00pm, takes place in Stephens House and Gardens. Formerly known as Avenue House, it has had links with literature since the Stephens family purchased it back in 1874.
There are hundreds of trees in the arboretum, many planted when the house was owned by Henry Charles Stephens, manufacturer of the famous Stephens' Ink, invented by his father, also Henry Stephens (1796-1864). Stephens senior, conducted experiments to improve writing fluids and wood stains. In 1830 he invented an indelible blue-black writing fluid patented in 1837 and later formed the Stephens' Ink company which grew into a worldwide brand with the famous inkblot image.
A letter written to the Finchley Press, June 11th, 1923 by Martha Stephens, explains how her brother, Charles ‘Inky’ Stephens came to bequeath Avenue House, ‘so spendid a gift to Finchley’. Martha explains in the letter how they were together one Thursday afternoon when Stephen called her over to the window. He was so taken with the children playing in the grounds that he said, “This is what I so do like to see,” and after a pause, continued “Do you know I have a good mind to leave Avenue House and the garden to Finchley”. Martha went on to write, ‘As we all know, he did so leave it in his will.' Stephens bequeathed the house and 10 acres of grounds to 'the people of Finchley' on condition that it should be 'open for the use and enjoyment always of the public under reasonable regulations'.
The Finchley Society, another of this year’s festival sponsors, have a small Stephens' Ink museum in Stephen's House. So, after I had finished hugging the trees, I popped into the museum. Peter Marsh, the curator, was very helpful and told me all about the history of the famous ink including the friendship between Stephens and poet John Keats.
‘One evening in the twilight, the two medical students were sitting together, Stephens at his medical studies, Keats at his dreaming, Keats breaks out to Stephens that he has composed a new line:
“A thing of beauty is a constant joy”
“What think you of that, Stephens?”
“It has the true ring, but is wanting in some way” replies the latter, as he dips once more into his medical studies.
An interval of silence and again the poet:
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”.
“What think you of that, Stephens?”
“That it will live for ever".'
'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,' is the first line of Endymion, the poem first published by Keats in 1818. As we know, unfortunately Keats died in 1821, before he could try the blue-black writing fluid but we can imagine he would have enjoyed writing his poetry with this new thinner ink.
Nobody can be sure who did or did not use Stephens' Ink, but it is probable that many of the great novelists did, for example Dickens, Trollope and Thackeray almost certainly did and they all spent time in either Finchley or Barnet.
Stephens' ink is renowned for its non-fading ability and to this day Stephens' indelible Registrar's Ink is one of the official inks that Registrars of Births, Marriages and Deaths throughout the United Kingdom are required to use for their register entries.
The Stephens Collection is housed in the conservatory of Avenue House, and is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 2.00-4.30pm
See Finchley Literary Festival for details of a Literary Walk about writers and artists in Finchley.
1. H.Smith, Keats and Medicine, Cross Publishing, Newport 1995, p. 51.