The Alchemist of Lilley


An Alchemist in His Study, Egbert van Heemskerck
An Alchemist in His Study | Egbert van Heemskerck

For an example of the sort of bizarre connection one discovers when researching family history, consider the following. My 2nd great-grandmother on my dad’s side is Elizabeth Matilda Kellerman, who was born in Jamaica in 1826. Her parents were Thomas Penny Kellerman (1788-1834) and Mary Ann Austin (1801-1897). Elizabeth’s father owned several properties, including the sizeable Bloxburgh estate, which grew coffee in the Port Royal Mountains and sugar near the coast. Thomas Penny Kellerman had an older brother John or Johann Penny Kellerman (1775-after 1828).

John Penny Kellerman lived in England, having done well by way of considerable inheritances from his father and grandfather John Penny. In England, he acquired some notoriety as a man of fashion with a passion for horse racing. As he grew older, however, he became an eccentric who lived in a dilapidated mansion with high walls around it in the village of Lilley in Hertfordshire. In time, he became known as The Alchemist of Lilley.

Author C.J.S. Thompson devoted several paragraphs to John Penny Kellerman in his book Alchemy and Alchemists under the topic of The Last of the Alchemists. Thompson’s quotes were taken primarily from an 1828 interview by Sir Richard Phillips as part of his A Personal Tour through the United Kingdom

Thompson wrote that Kellerman told him that after studying the works of ancient alchemists and adding his own innovations, he had finally succeeded in making gold. From Thompson, we learn also:

Kellerman had the reputation in the neighbourhood of being a magician, and at night few of the country-folk would go past his house, from the chimneys of which heavy clouds of smoke belched as his furnaces were kept going.

Richard Alfred Davenport’s Sketches of Imposture: Deception and Credulity had this to say about John Kellerman:

The last of the English alchemists seems to have been a gentleman of the name of Kellerman, who, as lately as 1828, was living at Lilley, a village between Luton and Hitchin. He was a singular character, who shunned all society, carried six loaded pistols in his pockets, barricaded his house, and filled his ground with spring-guns. The interior of his dilapidated mansion was a complete chaos. He pretended to have discovered the universal solvent, the art of fixing mercury, and the powder of projection. With the last of these he had, he said, made gold, and could make as much as he pleased. He kept eight men for the purpose of superintending his crucibles, two at a time being employed, who were relieved every six hours. He had one characteristic of a disturbed intellect, that of believing that all the world was in a confederacy against him, and that there was a conspiracy to assassinate him.

Kellerman himself claimed he could make as much gold as he pleased and even offered to pay off Britain’s national debt. He claimed, moreover, “every court in Europe well knows that I have made the discovery, and they are all in confederacy against me, lest by giving it to anyone, I should make that country master of all the rest.”

One day, apparently, the old alchemist disappeared. Smoke ceased to issue from his chimneys, and his house was deserted. I can find no explanation for his sudden and mysterious departure, except for a rumour I read on the Internet that he had gone to Paris to be cared for by his nephew, Captain William Roebuck. I find some credence in this explanation because one of his sisters married Mr. John Roebuck of St. Mary Hill, Worthing, Sussex, England (The London Chronicle, Volume 87, Page 482).

The memory of John Kellerman lives on in the village of Lilley, where he is known as the alchemist, Johann Kellerman.