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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 4: 1810-1815

2264. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 26 May 1813 ⁠* 

Keswick. May 26. 1813

My dear Grosvenor

The half bills are safely arrived. [1] 

Tom is made quite unhappy by these repeated victories of the Americans, & for my own part I regard them with the deepest & gloomiest forebodings. [2]  The superior weight of metal will not account for all. – I heard a day or two ago from a Liverpoolian, lately from {in} America, [3]  that they stuff their wadding with bullets, – this may kill a few more men, but will not explain in what man how it is that our ships are so soon not merely demolished, –not merely disabled. Wordsworth & I agreed in suspecting some improvement in gunnery, (Fulton [4]  is likely enough to have readi discovered something) – before I saw the same supposition thrown out in the Times. [5]  Still there would remain something more alarming to be resolved, – & that is how it happens, that we injure them so little? – I very much fear that there may be a dreadful secret at the bottom, which your fact about the cartridges in the Macedonian points at. [6]  Do you know, or does Henry know an opini a belief in the navy which I heard from Ponsonby, [7]  – that the crew of the Africaine loaded purposely in this manner, in order that by being made prisoners they might be delivered from Corbetts tyranny? [8]  – When Coleridge was at Malta, Sir A Ball [9]  received a round-robin from Corbetts crew, many of whom had served under him, & who addressed him in a manner which made his heart ache as he was of course compelled to put the paper into Corbetts hands. – One day Coleridge was with him when this mans name was announced, – & he turning to C. he said to him in a low voice, – here comes one of those men who will one day blow up the British navy.

I do not know that the Capt of the Macedonian was a tyrant. [10]  Peake [11]  certainly was not, – he is well known here, having married a cousin of Wordsworths, – his ship was in perfect order, & he as brave & able a man as any in the service. Here it seems that the men behaved well, – but in ten minutes the ship was literally knocked to pieces, – her side fairly staved in, – & I think this can only be explained by some new improvement in the manufactory of powder – or in the manner of loading, – &c – . But as a general fact, & of tremendous application, I verily believe that the sailors prefer the Enemys service to that our own. – It is in vain to treat the matter lightly, – or seek to conceal from ourselves the extent of the evil. – Our naval superiority is destroyed!


My chief business in town will be to make arrangements for supplying the huge deficit which the termination of my labours in the Register [12]  occasions. – I wish to turn to current present account the {my Spanish} materials, & still more the insight which I have acquired in the course of four years employme into the history of the war in the peninsula, & – to recast that portion of the Register, {carry in the it on} & bring it forth in a suitable form. [13]  This cannot be done without the concurrence of the publishers, – Ballantyne, Longman & Murray. To the two latter I have written, [14]  & am about to write to James Ballantyne, who bears a very different character from his brother. Should the thing be brought to be bear I must procure an introduction to M Wellesley, – that is to xxx the document which I doubt not he would very readily fa supply; & I should have occasion for all the assistance from the public {foreign} office which my friends could procur obtain. To the Marquis I have means of access thro Mr Littleton, & probably also, thro Giffa via Gifford thro Canning. – It may be of use if you make known my wishes in that quarter.

Travelling I doubt not, – or rather change of place of air & of the whole moral atmosphere, will be beneficial to me. I meant to halt one day at Leeds, where I can get letters to a Cicerone, [15]  – & again at Sheffield with Montgomery, who as yet knows me only by letter, & i thence if Sir G Beaumont should be in the country – I shall make my way to him at Coleorton. – I am now going for a week to Lloyds with the two Ediths, [16]  Herbert, & Isabel, – whom if you were to see her, you would pronounce far too pretty & too good-natured ever to be in danger of a xxxx condemnation to Killbrat.

Your old landlord has sustained a heavy loss in his son poor Daniel, [17]  – after long confinement, originating in jaundice, he was suffocated by the breaking of an abscess in the liver.



* Address: [deletion and readdress in another hand] To/ G. C. Bedford Esqre/ Exchequer/ No 9. Terrace/ Buckingham Gate
Stamped: [partial] Unpaid/ Bge St Westmin
Postmark: 4 O Clock/ 29 MY/ 1813 EV
Endorsement: May 26. 1813
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 25
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 29–31 [in part]. BACK

[1] i.e. a half-banknote – a secure way of sending money in the post, by tearing banknotes in half and sending the two halves separately. BACK

[2] American vessels had inflicted a series of morale-sapping victories on British ships on: 19 August, 11 October, 25 October and 29 December 1812. BACK

[3] Unidentified. BACK

[4] The American engineer and inventor Robert Fulton (1765–1815). His inventions included the Nautilus, the first workable submarine. BACK

[5] The Times, 18 May 1813, had assured its readers that when comparing American and British ships, ‘the tonnage, guns, and hands [were] nearly the same’, but it might be worthwhile to enquire whether ‘the Americans are possessed of any secret in the management of their guns, in the fabrication of their powder, or in the size and construction of their shot’. BACK

[6] Bedford’s letter has not survived, but seems to have contained information about the weaponry of HMS Macedonian, defeated and dismasted by USS United States on 25 October 1812. It could be connected to the inadequacy and inaccuracy of the ship’s long-range fire, when compared with that of its opponent. BACK

[7] Lieutenant John Ponsonby (dates unknown), who was in 1813 living at Ormathwaite, near Keswick. BACK

[8] The naval captain Robert Corbet (d. 1810), whose brutality to his men was well known. In 1809 his crew brought a complaint against him for cruelty and oppression. Corbet demanded a court martial. This acquitted him of all charges except that of punishing his crew ‘with sticks of an improper size and such as are not usual in his majesty’s service’. He was reprimanded but allowed to resume command of his ship the Nereide and in spring 1810 he was given command of the Africaine, part of the fleet at the Cape of Good Hope station. The Africaine was captured by the French off Mauritius in October 1810. Corbet was killed in the action, along with 35 of his shipmates. It was widely, but falsely, rumoured that the Africaine’s crew had refused to fight, preferring death to victory under their captain. BACK

[9] Sir Alexander Ball (1756–1809; DNB), politician and naval officer. Coleridge had worked as Ball’s secretary. BACK

[10] On 25 October 1812 the USS United States, commanded by Stephen Decatur (1779–1820), had dismasted and captured HMS Macedonian, captained by John Surnam Carden (1771–1858). This followed the capture of HMS Mandarin on 11 October 1812. Although the United States was a large ship, Carden was heavily criticised for the loss of the Macedonian and never held an active command again. He remained in the navy and continued to rise through the ranks, reaching full Admiral before his death. BACK

[11] William Peake (1770–1813), Captain of the 18-gun brig sloop Peacock which was sunk in action against USS Hornet off the mouth of the Demerara River, Guyana on 24 February 1813. Peake died in the action. His wife was Mary Wordsworth (1780–1853), a second cousin of William Wordsworth. BACK

[12] Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1811 (1813) was the last issue to which Southey contributed. BACK

[13] This became the History of the Peninsular War (1823–1832). BACK

[14] The letter to Longman appears not to have survived. For that to Murray, see Robert Southey to John Murray, 23 May 1813, Letter 2262. BACK

[15] i.e. a letter of introduction to someone who could act as Southey’s guide in Leeds. The most likely person to provide such an introduction was Wade Browne, who had been a merchant in Leeds. BACK

[17] Bedford’s landlord during one of his visits to Keswick was possibly the family of Peter Crosthwaite (1735–1808), a retired naval commander, publisher of maps and inventor of the aeolian harp. In the 1780s he established the first museum in Keswick. Its treasures included a set of musical stones, a stuffed albatross and a pig with no legs. By 1811 the Museum was run by his son Daniel (c. 1776–1847), a portrait painter. BACK

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Published @ RC

August 2013