Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Henderson, John (1757-1788)
HENDERSON, JOHN (1757–1788), an eccentric student, was only son of Richard Henderson of Ballygarran, near Limerick. His father (from 1759 to 1771 one of the best itinerant preachers under John Wesley) made a living for some time as master of a boarding-school at Hanham, near Bristol, and finally kept a lunatic asylum in the same place. Wesley visited his house, and described him as ‘the best physician of lunatics in England’ (Journal, 25 Sept. 1789). John was born at Ballygarran on 27 March 1757, at a very early age came to England with his parents, and was sent to the school established by Wesley at Kingswood, near Bristol. According to his own confession he received only ‘a small school education,’ but was studious from childhood. His progress was so remarkable that at the age of eight he was able to teach Latin, and when only twelve years old taught both Greek and Latin at Trevecca College, then governed by John William Fletcher [q. v.] Two years later Fletcher was dismissed, and Henderson returned to his father's house, where he pursued his favourite studies and assisted in teaching. When aged 22 he accidentally, in a stage-coach, met Dean Tucker, who was so impressed by his conversation that he sent his father not only a letter urging that the young man should be sent to the university, but a gift of more than 150l. to be spent in his education. Henderson accordingly matriculated at Pembroke College, Oxford, on 6 April 1781, and occupied the rooms which had been tenanted by Dr. Johnson. He was an omnivorous student, and endowed with a marvellous memory. As a linguist he was skilled in Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and among European languages he knew Spanish, Italian, and German. Every branch of knowledge fascinated him. His temper was unruffled, and his benevolence led him, after he had acquired a knowledge of medicine, and an epidemic of fever was raging in Oxford, to practise gratuitously among its poor. At this crisis all his spare money was spent in drugs, and he sold his polyglot bible to purchase more. His conversation was bright and full of learning, and he had amusing mimetic gifts. Many friends sought his company. When Hannah More explored Pembroke College with Dr. Johnson in 1782, Henderson was one of the party. Johnson found him a firm tory and churchman. He is mentioned by Boswell as ‘celebrated for his wonderful acquirements in alchemy, judicial astrology, and other abstruse and curious learning.’ When Boswell sauntered with him in the walks of Merton College (12 June 1784) he proved ‘a very learned and pious man.’ William Agutter [q. v.], his fellow-collegian and intimate friend, furnished Boswell with a note of a dialogue about nonjurors between Johnson and Henderson. Gradually Henderson's character deteriorated. He dressed in a peculiar fashion, went to bed at daybreak and rose in the afternoon. Not infrequently he would strip himself to his waist, sluice himself with water at the pump near his rooms, and, after putting on a shirt which he had made perfectly wet, go to his bed. He smoked nearly all day long, took opium, and was not always temperate in the use of wines and spirits. On one occasion he was known to abstain from eating for five days. He took his degree of B.A. on 27 Feb. 1786, and shortly after left the college. His friends urged him to adopt the clerical or medical profession, but he refused. He withdrew from all social intercourse, abandoning himself to the study of Lavater, and believing in the possibility of holding correspondence with the dead. He died while on a visit to Pembroke College, Oxford, on 2 Nov. 1788. A prophetic dream of his death is narrated in ‘Notes and Queries,’ 1854, 1st ser. x. 26–7. The body was buried in the churchyard of St. George's, near Bristol, on 18 Nov. His father, who was so much affected by his death that he caused the body to be exhumed a few days after its interment, died on 14 Feb. 1792, aged 55. His mother, Charlotte Henderson, died 20 Dec. 1775. They were all laid together in the same churchyard.
Hannah More deplored Henderson's unprofitable way of life, and Wesley wrote in his ‘Journal’ that ‘with as great talents as most men in England he had lived two and thirty years and done just nothing.’ A story is told, however, that during his stay at Oxford the manuscripts which he had left in an unlocked trunk in his father's house at Hanham were used by a servant as materials to light the fire. Two letters from Henderson to Dr. Priestley are printed in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for April 1789, and were afterwards reprinted in the ‘Monthly Repository,’ vii. 286–92, and in Rutt's ‘Correspondence of Priestley,’ i. 235–7, 304–7. He was the ‘learned and ingenious friend’ who contributed to the third volume of ‘Miscellaneous Companions, 1786,’ by William Matthews, a postscript (pp. 111–15) to a dissertation on everlasting punishment, and he is said to have been a member of the ‘Burnham Society,’ from the minutes and correspondence of which a volume on the ‘Pre-existence of Souls’ was published in 1798. A Latin letter from him to J. Uri is printed in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for 1799, pp. 752–3, as well as an English translation (1801, pp. 788–9). An anonymous volume by Joseph Cottle of ‘Poems, containing John the Baptist, a Monody to John Henderson, and a Sketch of his Character,’ was published in 1795. The pieces relating to Henderson were included by Cottle in his later volumes of ‘Malvern Hills and other Poems,’ to the fourth edition of which is added a letter from Hannah More to Henderson. Charles Lamb pronounced the ‘Monody’ to be ‘immensely good.’ Agutter's sermon, preached at St. George's, Kingswood, on 23 Nov., and at Temple Church, Bristol, on 30 Nov. 1788, on Henderson's life and death, was printed in that year, and a poetical epitaph by Amos Cottle is inserted in the ‘Malvern Hills,’ p. 238. A print of his portrait by W. Palmer, taken at the age of twenty-five, is prefixed to the fourth edition of the last-mentioned work, and a large oval print from the same portrait was published by Hogg in 1792. Another engraving by J. Condé, from a miniature in the possession of John Tuffin, is in the ‘European Magazine,’ 1792.
[Boswell (Napier's ed.), iii. 379, 389; Cottle's Reminiscences, ii. 263–79; Miss Mitford's Recollections, iii. 10; Charles Lamb (Ainger's ed.), i. 12–14, 312; Tyerman's Fletcher, pp. 144–8; Roberts's Hannah More, i. 206, 214; Foster's Oxford Reg.; European Mag. xxii. 3–5, 96, 177–178, 337–8; Gent. Mag. for 1786, 1788, and 1789; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iii. 188, 236–237; John Evans's Ponderer, pp. 164–71; notes from the Rev. A. R. D. Flamsteed of St. George, near Bristol.]