Isaac Ingall was a grumpy old man but I suppose , given his age he had reason to be; he worked as a servant for no less than 90 years!
Isaac was born in Yorkshire in the 1670s. He worked for the Post Office in York in the early 1700s but in 1719 he become a servant to Sir Thomas Webster. The following year Sir Thomas moved down to Sussex having purchased Battle Abbey. He bought the building from Lord Montague who had to sell it that year as he had lost a fortune with poor investments during the “South Sea Bubble’.
Sir Thomas’s son was Sir Whistler Webster and when he went on the Grand Tour of Europe, Isaac went with him. Isaac was obviously a clever man as during the trip he learnt French and several other languages. Isaac continued to be Sir Whistler’s butler until he was elderly. He lived in a dilapidated room in the Gate House of the Abbey.
Isaac had been married but his wife Mary predeceased him by 47 years. He had a son and grandchildren living in London but it is said that the wily old Isaac had another son when he was over 90 years old. Sir Whistler Webster died in 1779. In his will he left his ‘old servant’ £50 plus an annuity of £20 to be spent ‘for the rest of his natural life’ on his upkeep.
John Byng, the 5th Viscount Torrington of Bedfordshire travelled around England staying with the gentry and, luckily for us, he kept a diary. In 1788 he visited East Sussex and after a visit to Hastings arrived at Battle Abbey. He was shown around by the maid of Lady Webster who was ‘with much company’ and unable to conduct a tour herself. Byng saw the ‘fine ruins’ of the Abbey although he complained they were in a state of ‘dirty neglect’. He also saw the Great Hall and an old chamber. But the thing that really caught his eye was not the beautiful building but an even greater curiosity – the family butler Isaac Ingall who was then 103 years old. Byng said that he bowed to the old man and, despite his age, Isaac bowed back. He says that Isaac was very deaf and frequently threatened to leave his job. He had tried to leave before, when he was 90 Lady Webster complained that he had not cut his nails and he was so annoyed that he walked the 8 miles into Hastings to seek another appointment!
Isaac liked a drink but was not a drunkard and regularly read the New Testament. He wrote with a clear hand, his writing being like a lawyers. When he was 110 years old he became concerned about his hand which had stated to shake. When the Surgeon in Battle told him the condition was incurable he actually travelled to London to seek a second opinion! Although he was deaf he had good eyesight and could see the time on his pocket-watch without spectacles. He liked to walk in his garden every day and did not need a walking stick until he was over 100. He must have been a fascinating character to talk to as ‘although he forgot what was done yesterday, he could recount clearly events from over 100 years before’!
In 1779 Battle Abbey was inherited by Sir Godfrey Webster. He was the MP for Seaford and was married to Elizabeth Vassall, the daughter of a wealthy Jamaican plantation owner. I wonder what Isaac thought of them? Both had a number of affairs, his master with Lady Caroline Lamb. Lady Webster had an affair with with Lord Holland who whisked her off to Spain where she so liked the dahlias growing there and bought some home with her. She is credited with introducing the flower to England.
In 1795 Sir Godfrey had a portrait made of his servant Isaac on a guilt plate. It was inscribed…
Mr Isacc Ingall aged 113 years
An ancient and faithful servant
In the family of Battle Abbey where he now lives
Having been near 90 years in its service.
Sir Godfrey Vassall Webster
Caused this portrait to be drawn as a memorial of
This venerable man
15th September 1795
The picture shows a man with a stock of white hair and arthritic hands clutching a walking stick. (Many years later the plate was on display at nearby Ashburnham House)
When Isaac was 120 years old he was still being looked after as a result of his former employers will but (to quote a local paper) ‘due to to childishness of mind’ became worried that he was being poisoned and left the Abbey to live in a neighbours cottage near the Chequers Inn.
In his latter years Isaac became something of a tourist attraction and he received many visitors. On 24th March 1798 he was visited by Prince William of Gloucester who gave him a pound note and a pound of tobacco. A week later Isaac had a fall in the garden and despite no apparent injury ‘died with much apparent ease’
There is doubt about the actual age of Isaac at his death and some of the dates given don’t seem to add up. His gravestone to the east end of Battle Church reads ‘Isaac Ingall Died 2nd April 1778 aged 120’. He had lived through the reigns of nine monarchs. His old walking stick is now on display at Hastings Museum and pictures of him are in the collections of both the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Further details of this fascinating old chap can be found at Battle Museum which is open from 10am to 4pm every day until 31st October.