Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thelwall, John
THELWALL, JOHN (1764–1834), reformer and lecturer on elocution, son of Joseph Thelwall (1731–1772), a silk mercer, and grandson of Walter Thelwall, a naval surgeon, was born at Chandos Street, Covent Garden, on 27 July 1764. On his father's death in 1772 his mother decided to continue the business, but it was not until 1777 that John was removed from school at Highgate and put behind the counter. His duties were distasteful to him, and he devoted most of his time to indiscriminate reading, which he varied by making copies of engravings. Discord prevailed in the family, his eldest brother being addicted to heavy drinking, while the mother was constantly reproaching and castigating John for his fondness for books. To end this state of things he consented to be apprenticed to a tailor, but here again exception was taken to his studious habits. Having parted from his master by mutual consent, he began studying divinity until his brother-in-law, who held a position at the chancery bar, caused him to be articled in 1782 to John Impey [q. v.], attorney, of Inner Temple Lane. Here, again, his independent views precluded the pursuit of professional success. He studied the poets and philosophers in preference to his law-books, avowed his distaste for copying ‘the trash of an office,’ and refused to certify documents he had not read. His moral exaltation was such that he conceived not only a dislike for oaths, but a rooted objection to commit himself even to a promise. Impey formed an attachment for him in spite of his eccentricities, but he insisted on having his indentures cancelled on the score of the scruples which he entertained about practising the profession. He was now for a time to become dependent wholly upon his pen. He had already written for the periodicals, and in 1787 he published ‘Poems upon various Subjects’ (London, 2 vols. 8vo) which was favourably noticed in the ‘Critical Review.’ About the same time he became editor of the ‘Biographical and Imperial Magazine,’ for which he received a salary of 50l. He made perhaps as much by contributions to other periodicals, and devoted half his income to the support of his mother, who had failed in her business.
Thelwall commenced his political career by speaking at the meetings of the society for free debate at the Coachmakers' Hall. In the course of the discussions in which he took part a number of radical views became grafted upon his original high tory doctrines, and when the States-General met at Versailles in 1789, he rapidly became ‘intoxicated with the French doctrines of the day.’ Though he suffered originally from a marked hesitation of speech and even a slight lisp, he gradually developed with the voice of a demagogue a genuine declamatory power. He made an impression at Coachmakers' Hall by an eloquent speech in which he opposed the compact formed by the rival parties to neutralise the voice of the Westminster electors in 1790. When it was determined to nominate an independent candidate, he was asked to act as a poll clerk, and he soon won the friendship of the veteran Horne Tooke when the latter resolved to contest the seat. Tooke so appreciated his talents that he offered to send him to the university and to use his influence to obtain his subsequent advancement in the church. But Thelwall had formed other plans for his future. His income was steadily increasing, and during the summer of 1791 he married and settled down near the Borough hospitals in order that he might attend the anatomical and medical lectures of Henry Cline [q. v.], William Babington [q. v.], and others. He was also a frequent attendant at the lecture-room of John Hunter. He joined the Physical Society at Guy's Hospital, and read before it ‘An Essay on Animal Vitality,’ which was much applauded (London, 1793, 8vo).
In the meantime the advanced opinions which Thelwall shared were rapidly spreading in London, and 1791 saw the formation of a number of Jacobin societies. Thelwall joined the Society of the Friends of the People, and he became a prominent member of the Corresponding Society founded by Thomas Hardy (1752–1832) [q. v.] in January 1792. One of ‘Citizen Thelwall's’ sallies at the Capel Court Society, in which he likened a crowned despot to a bantam cock on a dunghill, caught the radical taste of the day. When this rodomontade was reproduced with some embellishments in ‘Politics for the People, or Hogswash’ (No. 8; the second title was in reference to a contemptuous remark of Burke's upon the ‘swinish multitude’), the government precipitately caused the publisher, Daniel Isaac Eaton, to be indicted at the Old Bailey for a seditious libel; but, in spite of an adverse summing-up, the jury found the prisoner not guilty (24 Feb. 1794), and the prosecution was covered with ridicule owing to the grotesque manner in which the indictment was framed—the phrase ‘meaning our lord the king’ being interpolated at each of the most ludicrous passages in Thelwall's description. The affair gave him a certain notoriety, and he was marked down by the government spies. One of these, named Gostling, declared that Thelwall upon a public occasion cut the froth from a pot of porter and invoked a similar fate upon all kings. He was not finally arrested, however, until 13 May 1794, when he was charged upon the deposition of another spy, named Ward, with having moved a seditious resolution at a meeting at Chalk Farm. Six days later he was sent to the Tower along with Thomas Hardy and Horne Tooke, who had been arrested upon similar charges. On 6 Oct. true bills were found against them, and on 24 Oct. they were removed to Newgate. His trial was the last of the political trials of the year, being held on 1–5 Dec. at the Old Bailey before Chief-baron Macdonald. The testimony as to Thelwall's moral character was exceptionally strong, and his acquittal was the signal for a great outburst of applause. At the beginning of the trial he handed a pencilled note to counsel, saying he wished to plead his own cause. ‘If you do, you will be hanged,’ was Erskine's comment, to which he at once rejoined, ‘Then I'll be hanged if I do’ (Britton). Soon after his release he published ‘Poems written in Close Confinement in the Tower and Newgate’ (London, 1795, 4to). He was now living at Beaufort Buildings, Strand, and during 1795 his activity as a lecturer and political speaker was redoubled. When in December Pitt's act for more effectually preventing seditious meetings and assemblies received the royal assent, he thought it wisest to leave London; and Mathias, in the ‘Pursuits of Literature,’ mentions how
Thelwall for the season quits the Strand,
To organise revolt by sea and land
(Dial. iv. l. 413). But he continued for nearly two years denouncing the government to the provinces, and commenting freely upon contemporary politics through the medium of ‘Lectures upon Roman History.’ He was warmly received in some of the large centres; in the eastern counties, especially at Yarmouth (where he narrowly escaped capture by a pressgang), King's Lynn, and Wisbech, mobs were hired which effectually prevented his being heard.
About 1798 he withdrew altogether from his connection with politics and took a small farm near Brecon. There he spent two years, gaining in health, but suffering a great deal from the enforced silence; and about 1800 he resumed his career as a lecturer, discarding politics in favour of elocution. His illustrations were so good and his manner so animated that his lectures soon became highly popular. At Edinburgh during 1804 he had a fierce paper war with Francis Jeffrey [q. v.], whom he suspected of inspiring some uncharitable remarks about him in the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ Soon after this he settled down as a teacher of oratory in Upper Bedford Place, and had many bar students among his pupils. He made the acquaintance of Southey, Hazlitt, and Coleridge (who spoke of him as an honest man, with the additional rare distinction of having nearly been hanged), and also of Talfourd, Crabb Robinson, and Charles Lamb. From the ordinary groove of elocutionary teaching, Thelwall gradually concentrated his attention upon the cure of stammering, and more generally upon the correction of defects arising from malformation of the organs of speech. In 1809 he took a large house in Lincoln's Inn Fields (No. 57) so that he might take the complete charge of patients, holding that the science of correcting impediments involved the correcting and regulating of the whole mental and moral habit of the pupil. His system had a remarkable success, some of his greatest triumphs being recorded in his ‘Treatment of Cases of Defective Utterance’ (1814) in the form of a letter to his old friend Cline. Crabb Robinson visited his institution on 27 Dec. 1815, and was tickled by Thelwall's idea of having Milton's ‘Comus’ recited by a troupe of stutterers, but was astonished at the results attained. Much as Charles Lamb disliked lectures and recitations, his esteem for Thelwall made him an occasional visitor at these entertainments in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Reports of some cases of special interest were contributed by him to the ‘Medical and Physical Journal.’
Thelwall prospered in his new vocation until 1818, when his constitutional restlessness impelled him to throw himself once more prematurely into the struggle for parliamentary reform. He purchased a journal, ‘The Champion,’ to advocate this cause; but his Dantonesque style of political oratory was entirely out of place in a periodical addressed to the reflective classes, and he soon lost a great portion of his earnings. He subsequently resumed his elocution school at Brixton, and latterly spent much time as an itinerant lecturer, retaining his cheerfulness and sanguine outlook to the last. He died at Bath on 17 Feb. 1834.
He married, first, on 27 July 1791, Susan Vellum, a native of Rutland, who died in 1816, leaving him four children. She supported him greatly during his early trials, and was, in the words of Crabb Robinson, his ‘good angel.’ He married secondly, about 1819, Cecil Boyle, a lady many years younger than himself. A woman of great social charm and some literary ability, she wrote, in addition to a ‘Life’ of her husband, several little works for children. She died in 1863, leaving one son, Weymouth Birkbeck Thelwall, a watercolour artist, who was accidentally killed in South Africa in 1873.
Talfourd and Crabb Robinson testify strongly to Thelwall's integrity and domestic virtues. His judgment was not perhaps equal to his understanding; but, apart from a slight warp of vanity and self-complacency, due in part to his self-acquired knowledge, few men were truer to their convictions. In person he was small, compact, and muscular, with a head denoting indomitable resolution. A portrait engraved by J. C. Timbrell, from a bust by E. Davis, forms the frontispiece to the ‘Life of John Thelwall by his Widow,’ London, 1837, 8vo. A portrait ascribed to William Hazlitt [q. v.] has also been reproduced. The British Museum possesses two stipple engravings—one by Richter.
Apart from the works already mentioned and a large number of minor pamphlets and leaflets, Thelwall published: 1. ‘The Peripatetic, or Sketches of the Heart of Nature and Society,’ London, 1793, 3 vols. 12mo. 2. ‘Political Lectures: On the Moral Tendency of a System of Spies and Informers, and the Conduct to be observed by the Friends of Liberty during the Continuance of such a System,’ London, 1794, 8vo. 3. ‘The Natural and Constitutional Rights of Britons to Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and Freedom of Popular Association,’ London, 1795, 8vo. 4. ‘Peaceful Discussion and not Tumultuary Violence the Means of redressing National Grievance,’ London, 1795, 8vo. 5. ‘The Rights of Nature against the Usurpation of Establishments: a Series of Letters on the recent Effusions of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke,’ London, 8vo, 1796. 6. ‘Sober Reflections on the Seditious and Inflammatory Letter of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke to a Noble Lord,’ London, 1796, 8vo. 7. ‘Poems chiefly written in Retirement (including an epic, “Edwin of Northumbria”),’ Hereford, 1801, 8vo; 2nd ed. 1805. 8. ‘Selections from Thelwall's Lectures on the Science and Practice of Elocution,’ York, 1802, 8vo; various editions. 9. ‘A Letter to Francis Jeffrey on certain Calumnies in the “Edinburgh Review,”’ Edinburgh, 1804, 8vo. 10. ‘Monody on the Right Hon. Charles James Fox,’ London, 1806, 8vo; two editions. 11. ‘The Vestibule of Eloquence … Original Articles, Oratorical and Poetical, intended as Exercises in Recitation,’ London, 1810, 8vo. 12. ‘Selections for the Illustration of a Course of Instructions on the Rhythmus and Utterance of the English Language,’ London, 1812, 8vo. 13. ‘Poetical Recreations of the Champion and his Literary Correspondents; with a Selection of Essays,’ London, 1822, 8vo.
Thelwall's eldest son, Algernon Sydney Thelwall (1795–1863), born at Cowes in 1795, entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and graduated B.A. as eighteenth wrangler in 1818, and M.A. in 1826. Having taken orders, he served as English chaplain and missionary to the Jews at Amsterdam 1819–26, became curate of Blackford, Somerset, in 1828, and then successively minister of Bedford Chapel, Bloomsbury (1842–3), and curate of St. Matthew's, Pell Street (1848–50). He was one of the founders of the Trinitarian Bible Society. From 1850 he was well known as lecturer on public reading and elocution at King's College, London. He died at his house in Torrington Square on 30 Nov. 1863 (Gent. Mag. 1864, i. 128).
Among his voluminous writings, the most important are: 1. ‘A Scriptural Refutation of Mr. Irving's Heresy,’ London, 1834, 12mo. 2. ‘The Iniquities of the Opium Trade with China,’ London, 1839, 12mo. 3. ‘Old Testament Gospel, or Tracts for the Jews,’ London, 1847, 12mo. 4. ‘The Importance of Elocution in connexion with Ministerial Usefulness,’ London, 1850, 8vo. 5. ‘The Reading Desk and the Pulpit,’ London, 1861, 8vo. He also compiled the ‘Proceedings of the Anti-Maynooth Conference of 1845’ (London, 8vo).[Life of John Thelwall, 1837, vol. i. (no more published); Gent. Mag. 1834, ii. 549; Talfourd's Memoirs of Charles Lamb, ed. Fitzgerald; Crabb Robinson's Diary, passim; Smith's Story of the English Jacobins, 1881; Britton's Autobiography, 1850, i. 180–6 (a warm eulogy from one who knew him well); Coleridge's Table Talk; Life of William Wilberforce, 1838, iii. 499; Edmonds's Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin; Wallas's Life of Francis Place, 1898; Trial of Tooke, Thelwall, and Hardy, 1795, 8vo; Howell's State Trials, xxiii. 1013; Watt's Bibl. Britannica; Penny Encyclopædia; Brit. Mus. Cat; private information.]