John Thelwall: Critical Reassessments
“A Son of John Thelwall”: Weymouth Birkbeck Thelwall’s Romantic Inheritance
1. Thus a delighted John Thelwall wrote to his daughter Sara, on August 4, 1831, on the birth of his son Weymouth Birkbeck, who seems almost to have attempted to catch up with his father before he was an hour old.  As if fated to live at the same breathless, belated pace, Weymouth went on to recapitulate his father’s eccentric career and talents, inheriting his gift of oratory, realizing his thwarted artistic and theatrical ambitions, and setting forth on even more bizarre adventures in amorous, peripatetic and scientific discovery. His very life span ironically mirrors the forty-six years preceding his birth that had taken John Thelwall from an abandoned career in law to his trial for treason in 1794, and to the brink of success in realising his long deferred political hopes in the Great Reform Bill of 1832. Forty-six years years later the new life so joyfully announced in 1831 was to end in an unmarked “white man’s grave,” archetypal symbol of the folly of imperialist ambitions that the elder Thelwall had rejected, along with the often bigoted religious institutions that partly inspired them.  Victim of his own romantic radical inheritance, Weymouth Thelwall was swallowed by the heart of darkness it led him into.
2. Sixty-seven years old at Weymouth’s birth, John Thelwall may have felt himself an “old fool,” but he was still an enthusiastic political agitator and orator. In the letter announcing the birth, he informs Sara that “alternations of public exertions, a little tuition and much propensity to enjoy the long forbidden charm of quiet study” have preoccupied him over the previous weeks. Those public exertions included his work as a leader of the St. Mary le Bone and St. Pancras parish committee, in support of the Political Union of the Working Classes (Place sec. 23). The following October he was to play an important role in the successful organisation of a huge procession of the union’s members, involving tens of thousands of disaffected supporters of the first Reform Bill from all the parishes in London who marched through the city in protest at its defeat by the House of Lords (Place sec. 23). One of the reforms Thelwall had supported as early as 1795, the religious and political emancipation of Irish Catholics,  had just been achieved through the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Bill of 1829, though it was bitterly contested by other denominations and Irish protestants. Here the personal and the political were once more to meet in John Thelwall’s life and affect the lives of the son whose nativity he heralds and of his Catholic mother Cecil, whose father had been Irish.  It is almost as if the act itself had opened the way for his son to be born and enter civic life at least partly unhindered by the repressive Test Acts and other such legislation that had trammelled and harried his father’s radical generation. For, perhaps surprisingly, Weymouth was brought up as a Catholic.
3. The religious toleration that had always marked the work of John Thelwall (catholic in the sense of liberal and broad-minded) would shape the lives of his sons in very different ways. Though there is little evidence that he ever converted, his marriage to Henrietta Cecil Boyle in 1817 indicates a softening in his earlier staunch atheism.  Perhaps in deference to her religious freedom, the wedding at St. James Westminster was preceded by the baptism of the five surviving children of his first marriage: Algernon Sydney, John Hampden, Manon Roland, Sara Maria and Edwin Northumbrian. His eldest sons, both of whom went on to take orders in the Anglican Church, show very different sides of the “Thelwall” personality. In 1831 Hampden had just begun a life of rural “poverty and seclusion personified” as the charitable Rector of Oving in Buckinghamshire (Kelly 181); his older brother Algernon was a militant evangelist who had recently returned from trying to convert the Jews of Amsterdam. While Hampden’s quiet social conscience found an outlet in supplying the poor lace-makers of his village with materials and markets, and teaching their children to read (Kelly 181),  Algernon’s outspoken activism expressed itself in polemical tracts against Catholics and almost any dissenting Church that did not acknowledge the Trinity. As paid secretary of the Trinitarian Bible Society (TBS) formed in 1831, he engaged in a pamphlet war against the editor of The Christian Observer, a supporter of the long-established British and Foreign Bible Society—a battle of words which rivalled any his father had fought. Even years after John Thelwall’s death his opponents were still calling his respectability in doubt. Algernon summons up the ghost of his own father by calling his well-known antagonist’s anonymity a “questionable shape”—a borrowing from Hamlet that his father had used in his arguments against Burke (Statement 12).  He is countered by the editor, Samuel Charles Wilkes, sneeringly referring to “sonorous vocables” and “oratorical vocabulary” to discredit the son by raising the same ghost (Statement 29, 52); and by his lamenting the TBS’s lack of “fatherly authority” in not having bishops on its committee but having as its paid secretary “a son of John Thelwall” (50, 16).  Curiously, the President of the TBS was the judge Thomas Erskine, son of the very barrister who had so ably defended John Thelwall at his trial in 1794. One of the main charges against Algernon was that he spent more of the subscribers’ money on polemical pamphlets than on printing Bibles for the lost souls of Britain. The implied objection to him, however, was quite obviously that he was simply “a son of John Thelwall.”  He had inherited all his father’s pugnacious spirit, without any of his redeeming humour and toleration.
4. Growing up in the Church that his stepbrother so fiercely attacked, Weymouth Thelwall’s nature combined Algernon’s restlessness and Hampden’s practicality with the many-minded creativity of their common sire. Only three years old when his father died, he and his mother were left almost destitute, dependent upon Hampden and other relatives and friends.  One of these, probably a Catholic, appears to have paid for the boy’s education at Stonyhurst, a highly regarded Jesuit boarding school in Lancashire that provided a route by which the sons of well-to-do Catholics, who were still excluded from Oxford and Cambridge, could get into London University or the Civil Service.
5. The little we know of Weymouth’s schooldays comes from the drama critic Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald in his Stonyhurst Memories; or, Six Years at School (1895). He was one of only a half-dozen boys Fitzgerald considered worth noting as “characters.” Like his father, Weymouth was a good actor, an accomplished artist, and something of a democratic orator:
6. Upon his departure from Stonyhurst in 1847-48, Weymouth Thelwall immediately joined the Foreign Office. In 1859, whilst working as a clerk in the War Office, he married Marian Wrather, firstly in a Catholic and then in an Anglican Church; and a daughter, Edith Fanny Thelwall, was born in 1862.  By October 1864, though, Weymouth had declared himself bankrupt in his own petition, with debts of between two and three thousand pounds owed mostly in bills. This was possibly through gambling, sign of a reckless streak that would contribute to Weymouth’s unfortunate fate.  After he promised he would pay his creditors whatever remained above £200 of his £375 salary, including his annual increase, the judge accepted this “very creditable” offer and made an order of discharge (“Court of Bankruptcy” 9). He is cited as living in Keppel Terrace, Windsor, at this time.  As a bankrupt there was little possibility that he could remain in the civil service without the support of his superior officers, and it is likely that he had been dismissed, leaving him with no means of support for his wife and child.
7. Weymouth’s misfortunes were compounded by the death of his mother, announced in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1865:
8. Yet with the rakish resilience of Thelwall’s genius, Incubus, in his play The Fairy of the Lake, Weymouth emulated his father’s capacity for regeneration through vocational (and amorous) reinvention. In 1871, the former war-office clerk reappeared in London as a landscape artist, aged forty, living in Westminster; and, according to the census record, his “wife” was a woman called Helena, birthplace not known, twenty-four years old and a dancer.  It is uncanny how Weymouth’s mid-life behaviour mirrored that of his father. At the age of forty-two, John Thelwall had returned to London after an eight-year exile, having transformed himself from a political lecturer into an elocutionist; and ten years later he too took up with a much younger woman, an actress (though, unlike his son, John waited until his first wife was dead before he remarried). As a painter of landscapes, Weymouth resurrected the thwarted ambitions of his father, gaining success, respect and even a measure of fame thereby, for his water colours were exhibited at the Royal Academy, and he even appeared at court, where he presented “drawings and sketches” of Norway to the Queen in 1873 (“Court Circular” 5). He also shared the theatricality which was so strong a feature of John Thelwall’s personality and oeuvre, as is shown by the fact that he was granted a patent in 1872 on a “theatrical monster device.” Such “colossal and other figures of men, monsters, and animals, for stage purposes” were popular in the pantomimes and spectacular shows of the period (Rees and Wilmore 25-26). Weymouth’s might almost have been intended for The Fairy of the Lake, as evidenced in the play’s spectacular premiere in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in October 2009.
9. But it was not only in his amorous, artistic and theatrical passions that Weymouth revived the spirit of his father. During this same period, he travelled in Norway and contributed notes to the Norwegian Tourist Club, giving details of an intrepid trek across a glacial valley in extremely harsh weather, and an account of a visit to the Voring waterfall (“Notes and Suggestions” 104-06). Here the son of the Peripatetic has succeeded the youthful actor, and the painter of words also begins to flourish. His description of the valley, reached only after an heroic attempt to overcome the dangers of a hostile environment, recalls the mix of touristic sublime and socio-scientific pragmatism that characterized his father’s groundbreaking pedestrian excursions:
10. While Weymouth was in Norway, back in London Helena danced, touring much of England with her troupe of “Hungarian” dancers and receiving good reviews. The reason that this is known is rather surprising. There is a fine leather-bound folio in the Foreign Office archives containing over forty pages of correspondence on the Case of Mr Thelwall and Miss Fielding, alias Girofle. It includes a note written hastily on the back of an advertising flier with newspaper reviews, in reply to the British Vice Consul in Moscow, where Helena had been performing at the Theatre Bouffe as part of the Moscow Trade Fair. The nature of Helena’s performances is partly elucidated by the racy account of the dancing of “Mademoiselle Froufrou,” published in H. A. Munro Johnstone’s A Trip up the Volga to the Fair of Nijni- Novgorod. Johnstone refers to the fair’s “amusements” as a “Saturnalia” and describes the riotous behaviour of the theatre’s cosmopolitan audience of merchants in a manner which would certainly have raised alarm bells for Weymouth Thelwall if it were not already known to him (108-09). But he seems to have had plans afoot for an adventurous journey of his own.
11. Weymouth had written to the Foreign Office in September 1875, extremely worried about his “niece, Miss Helen Fielding”
12. In the “Helena Fielding” affair and its African aftermath, we see the complicated conjunction of international trade and travel, colonial bureaucracy, artistic entrepreneurship and sheer, stubborn recklessness that would shape the final chapter in the curious life of Weymouth Thelwall. Though now an additional motive for his African journey was to pay for Helena’s expenses, he seems to have had the trip in mind for some time, possibly inspired in part by the heroic example of David Livingstone, whose immensely popular travels, themselves displaying the same mix of commercial and cultural enterprise, had ended with his death in 1873, followed by a huge state funeral at Westminster Abbey (Ross 247). In addition to his contract with the Illustrated London News, Weymouth twice sought support from the Royal Geographical Society (where Livingstone had lain in state), banking on his reputation as an artist, but also stressing the philanthropic and scientific object of his journey (and name-dropping to imply he had contacts in high places):
13. The line between the Romantic peripatetic and the Victorian explorer is deepened by the curious coincidence that among the groups whose support Weymouth sought for his African adventure were Scottish dissenters whose mission was built on the same progressive educational foundations that John Thelwall had helped lay. Weymouth wrote to the Livingstonia committee of the Free Church of Scotland, which with the support of several wealthy Glasgow industrialists had established their first Livingstonia mission station at Lake Nyassa in 1875, in honour of Livingstone’s dream of educating and converting the African tribes he encountered, and of eradicating slavery by setting up “industrial” educational missions. In this endeavour, Livingstone drew on his own background as a working-class boy whose self-education was capped by his studies at Anderson’s College in Glasgow (Ross 11-13). Founded in 1796, this institution was the home of George Birkbeck’s famous mechanics’ classes of 1800-04, which after 1823 grew into the mechanics’ institute movement that did so much to shape the British system of colonial education and industry (Kelly 26-36). This was the very institution that John Thelwall visited in 1804, where he and Birkbeck discussed the “operations and cooperations” that led to the founding of his own Institute (Letter to Anderson). Indeed, Thelwall’s lifelong friendship with Birkbeck is honoured in the middle name of his son. Thus in his very identity, Weymouth embodies the principles that Victorian colonialism inherited from Romantic radicalism.
14. Weymouth’s letters to the Livingstonia Committee also show the complex and morally ambivalent geopolitical realities, commercial interests and religious tensions in which this idealistic and progressive effort was tangled. For in one letter he proposes “to bring 20 sniders [rifles] with me, and to form a well armed little party, as fast as I can find trustworthy men,” adding that he has been a very “zealous Sergeant of volunteers, having gone through the Hythe course, and hold[s] a certificate of qualification as Sergeant instructor of musketry.” Moreover, he is not “without hope that the presence of a Roman Catholic well accredited by his own ecclesiastical superiors may have a valuable effect on the Portuguese there, as showing the united earnestness of all Britain in this business” (Correspondence 131). The “business” was the eradication of the slave trade, still dominating the local economy and culture of central Africa, by the introduction of “honest” trade in ivory, and the creation of cotton plantations; but it was equally the business of men like James Stevenson, the Glasgow industrialist who bankrolled much of it, and was seeking new sources of trade and the opening up of mineral resources to his company in a territory controlled by the Portuguese. 
15. Thelwall got the answer he was looking for from the Livingstonia Committee; urged to join a reinforcement party travelling to the Cape, he gladly agreed, eager to “acquaint himself with all the members of the party” and to “share equitably in all expenses of transport etc. up to the arrival at the Nyassa Station” (Correspondence 131). He drafted a letter of introduction, which the committee agreed to endorse, stating that without taking any responsibility for the acts of an independent traveller, “they are of the opinion that my journey will be of valuable assistance to the object they have in view, and that they will therefore be glad that I shall receive all the support that I can legitimately secure” (Correspondence 138). Having now had his passage paid and letters of introduction to suppliers provided, he planned to finance the rest of his trip by accepting commissions, and sent the committee a sample advertisement flier aimed at collectors and lovers of the fine arts, claiming that several titled dignitaries had already contributed, among them Lady Rothschild (Correspondence 138). There is, as yet, no confirmation of how many commissions Weymouth received or executed, but given the glow that Livingstone’s celebrity cast over the entire decade, it is likely that a good home market existed for the products of Thelwall’s African enterprise.
16. Weymouth Thelwall sailed from London on the Windsor Castle in May 1876, heading for the heart of Central Africa amidst the well-reported excitement of adventure and missionary zeal which the expedition aroused, and with the rapturous good wishes extended to the party in England and Scotland supplemented by press reports which were picked up by colonial newspapers from Sydney to Cape Town.  But he had been in Africa for only six months when ominous cracks began to appear in the façade of cooperation between the independent artist-adventurer and the industrious missionaries. James Stewart, the founder of Livingstonia, complained that Thelwall had bought goods in Port Elizabeth using “the same worthless bills” that Thelwall’s original correspondent on the committee, Alexander Duff, had reported to Stewart in a letter. More damning, he had heard via his brother-in-law in England that Thelwall had left his wife and child destitute:
17. Published accounts refer merely to a hunting accident. Thelwall tried to save ammunition by finishing off a wounded baboon with his rifle butt. The force of the blow, however, discharged the second bullet into his chest. The Livingstonia mission journal, however, goes into more detail in a report given by the native porters who had been with him. It tells a tale of isolation and probable despair. Whatever funds Thelwall had begun with and stores he may have managed to buy initially, he was at this stage unable to secure porters, who worked for lengths of calico cloth. He had been travelling for about nine days out of the Livingstonia mission, in March 1878, when he camped a day’s march from a village:
18. After his death, his followers trekked back to “Mponda’s village” on the lake where they were given a canoe to return by. They transported Thelwall’s body back there during a storm, but were refused permission to bury it until they paid the chief, Mponda, with Thelwall’s supplies of gunpowder and wine. He was buried some distance from the village (now a town in central Malawi) under a great baobab tree. Robert Laws, the leader of Livingstonia, later pulled down a Union Jack marking the grave, saying Mponda would use it on one of his raids (Livingstone 133-34). Thus, the last direct descendant of John Thelwall lies in an unmarked grave, even further off the beaten track of British history than his father’s gravesite in Bath, itself long-forgotten until Steve Poole’s recent restoration campaign. It is a far cry from the national honours paid to Livingstone, who had profited from the reforms that John Thelwall, without recognition, had helped to institute.
19. Like his father’s, Thelwall’s fate was in some part sealed by his refusal to conform to contemporary pieties and proprieties. None of the missionaries who mention him seems to have had a good word for him, and this may have been partly due to his Catholicism. Edward Young, the first Livingstonia expeditionary leader and captain of the mission’s Illala steamboat, recounts the day they engaged five hundred natives to carry the reinforcement party’s goods to the head of the rapids in 1876. He ordered silence while they sang a hymn and conducted a service together
20. There is very little information about what actually did come out of Thelwall’s African expedition. There are numerous records of the specimens he sent back: butterflies, lizards and plants, including some listed with his name in the catalogues of the British Museum and several journals of the time. Some paintings too may survive, though it is difficult to know which, if any, of the watercolours that anchor his continuing reputation as a minor English artist were among the effects sold in the months after his death. Like his father’s, Weymouth’s archive has been scattered and lost (and this includes any mementoes of his father’s that he may have carried with him). And yet, while neither name, nor goods, nor even an epitaph lives on, Weymouth Birkbeck Thelwall may have had a broader influence than we realize, in part through his very Catholicism (in both senses of the word).
21. While the Scottish missionaries disapproved of his manner and morals, there is some evidence that Weymouth Thelwall found friends or at least sympathizers among Catholics in Africa. He is mentioned specifically as having influenced the setting-up of the first Jesuit missionary station in central Africa after he had “a long conversation” with Bishop James Ricards in Cape Town on his way to the Lake Nyassa mission station in 1876. Ricards wrote to Father Alfred Weld, another old Stonyhurst boy, enthusing about a plan of sending missionary priests to Lake Nyassa, which had apparently been Thelwall’s suggestion (Dachs and Rea 17). Likewise Frederick, Baron Lugard, gives Thelwall a measure of sympathy in an account written ten years after Thelwall’s death, by which time, as one of the few and first Europeans on Lake Nyassa, his story must have become part of local history. Lugard probably heard of him from Laws, with whom he stayed whilst leading an expeditionary force of natives for the newly formed African Lakes Company against Arab slave traders intent on driving out the merchants who had settled there. The tone is almost wistful. “On Nyassa poor Thelwall shot one [baboon] and was immediately attacked by the drove” (Lugard 271). This is not what happened according to the Livingstonia Mission journal, but it suggests that the story had already taken on a certain romantic, larger-than-life allure. Lugard appears to have had little time for the missionaries in general, but he does extol the virtues of Laws, whose kindliness and literary tastes are acknowledged. Laws had been absent from Livingstonia for some time when Thelwall died, and he heard of his death as he passed Mponda’s village, where Miller, one of the station’s Scottish artisans, had gone to see to his remaining goods. As they approached on the steamer Miller shouted from the shore, “Thelwall shot himself by accident.” Laws then set off for Thelwall’s grave. These “goods,” whatever they were, were sold at Livingstonia for fifty-eight pounds, five shillings and five pence in 1878, and the money was sent to Thelwall’s widow Marian, who signed a receipt in 1880 (Correspondence 171).
22. Re-reading Conrad’s Marlow relating the story of Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, I was struck by the characteristics which link Weymouth Thelwall with Kurtz. He too is a painter, a journalist, a hunter, an idealist with “expansive views,” and above all an eloquent speaker. But the overriding attraction for the younger Marlow lay in Kurtz’s “imagined” voice. An unheard yet famous and powerful voice also links Weymouth Thelwall with his father John. “He too could declaim,” says Fitzgerald of his schoolmate at Stonyhurst. In the few writings that Weymouth left behind we too can “imagine” a voice, far removed as it may be from his father’s fiery oratory, already turned ashen by the belatedness of textuality (at least if Hazlitt is to be believed).  John Thelwall’s is always an imagined voice, a something missed, and it is this belatedness that Weymouth Thelwall, who never really knew his father, had to live with and through. It is this legacy, always already lost, that he carried into Africa with him.
23. Reading Weymouth’s story and thinking of Conrad’s Kurtz, I was reminded too of Wordsworth’s Excursion, and the Pastor’s depiction of a brutal and pagan Britain (bk. 9, lines 679-719), which has much in common with Marlow’s reference to England as a once “dark place of the earth” in the opening paragraphs of Heart of Darkness (33). “He was a seaman but he was a wanderer too,” the frame narrator says, as Marlow directs his listeners to
24. Heart of Darkness was published in 1902, two years before Charles Cestre bought John Thelwall’s papers at a Sotheby’s sale. In May 1903, the New Zealand Tablet published an article that provides an apt epitaph for Weymouth Birkbeck Thelwall, and a fitting summary of the circuitous route which this essay has taken:
Case of Mr Thelwall and Miss Fielding, alias Girofle. 1875-1876. MS FO65/959. National Archives, Kew.
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 Two unattributed blank verse meditations reprinted in Algernon Sydney Thelwall’s 1831 Thoughts in Affliction offer the only slim evidence that John Thelwall (by whom they were likely composed) experienced a “movement towards grace” as he grew older. BACK
 John Thelwall quotes the same phrase several times in his published writing, most pertinently against Burke in almost a mirror version of his son’s pamphlet war with Wilkes. See Thelwall, Sober Reflections 345. For another occurrence see The Rights of Nature 415. BACK
 Samuel Charles Wilkes, the editor of the Christian Observer, wrote the first edition of A Statement Presented to Judge Erskine anonymously but inserted a signed preface in the second edition after the TBS refused to answer an anonymous pamphlet. BACK
 The novelist Barbara Hofland, for instance, made an appeal for financial help for “the widow of a man who for half a century was the unflinching advocate of those political principles which at length obtained ascendancy” who “appears to me unaccountably neglected.” See Hofland’s letter to Mr. Hale. BACK
 I am grateful to Judith Thompson for her transcriptions of Thelwall’s heavily-annotated copy of Wordsworth’s Excursion (in the collection of Paul F. Betz) and for discussion of the ongoing dialogue between Thelwall and Wordsworth. BACK