Stewart, John (1749-1822) (DNB00)


STEWART, JOHN (1749–1822), ‘Walking Stewart,’ born in Bond Street, London, in 1749, was the only child of Scottish parents, his father being a linendraper. He was born, to use his own phrase. ‘of the most animated and passionate parents’ (Opus Maximum, 1803), from whom he often in childhood wandered away. At the age of six he was sent to a school in the country, but freed himself from it by inventing a falsehood to discredit the establishment. He went, at the age of ten, to Harrow school, where he broke all rules and refused all lessons. Two or three years later he was placed at Charterhouse school, and again made himself conspicuous by refusing all tasks except the composition of English themes.

Through the interest of Lord Bute he obtained in 1763 the post of writer under the East India Company at Madras. He very soon discovered that enormous abuses flourished in its administration, and wrote to the court of directors pointing them out. As they were unchecked, he sent the court, two years after his arrival in India, a letter, which was entered on its minutes as a curious specimen of ‘juvenile insolence and audacity,’ resigning his place from his love of travel and through the possession of a soul above copying ‘invoices and bills of lading to a company of grocers, haberdashers, and cheesemongers.’ He then obtained employment as interpreter to Hyder Ali, but soon abandoned it for more active life, becoming finally a general in Hyder's army. In this service he received several wounds from sword and bullet (the crown of his head being indented to the depth of nearly an inch), and applied for leave of absence in order that he might consult a surgeon on a European settlement. It was granted, but the escort, so runs one narrative, was instructed by Hyder Ali to murder him. Stewart, however, escaped by swimming a river and outrunning his guards (Life, 1822). It should be added that this remarkable story does not agree with the simpler statement of Colonel Mark Wilks in his ‘Sketches of the South of India’ (Quarterly Review, October 1817, p. 51).

Stewart next entered the service of the nabob of Arcot, and ultimately rose to the position of prime minister. In this position he expended large sums of money in official entertainments, which were not repaid for many years. His savings as interpreter amounted to 3,000l., and with that sum he quitted the nabob's court and travelled ‘into the interior parts of India,’ emerging on the Persian Gulf.

After a hazardous passage across the gulf, Stewart visited Persepolis and other parts of Persia, and completely mastered the language. He also travelled through Ethiopia and Abyssinia, remarking the most curious customs of their inhabitants. Although, as he said, he was afflicted by ‘a muscular debility contracted by the pernicious use of tobacco in smoking,’ by means of a strict temperance and a peculiar hygienic method of his own he acquired perfect health. He seems effectually to have adopted the Persian proverb, ‘Human energy increases in the ratio of travels.’ He was often urged in after years to describe what he had seen, but persistently refused on the ground that the object of his walking expeditions was the study of man.

About 1783 a longing for Europe seized upon Stewart. He ‘crossed the desert of Arabia and arrived at Marseilles,’ after which he walked through France and Spain, and ultimately arrived in England. In 1784 he purchased with his savings of 3,000l. an annuity of 300l. a year on the French funds, and set off on his travels once again. Michael Kelly [q. v.] met him at Vienna in that year, and described him as, ‘though a great oddity, a well-informed, accomplished man, a true lover of the arts and sciences and of a most retentive memory.’ He had walked thither from Calais, and in a few days was going on to Constantinople (Reminiscences, i. 251–2). At that date he lived entirely upon vegetables.

On his return to London Stewart frequented ‘the most noted promenades and resorts of the people,’ and wore the Armenian habit until it was threadbare; a coloured print of him in this attire was long conspicuous in the shop-windows. The story of his wanderings and adventures was generally received with incredulity.

At the close of July 1791 Stewart arrived at Albany, New York, and the same evening he set off for Canada (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. viii. 247). He returned to Ireland and then crossed to Scotland, and while crossing was in danger of shipwreck, whereupon he begged the crew, if they escaped, to take care of the book ‘Opus Maximum,’ which he had written. Wordsworth met him at Paris about 1792, and was captivated by his eloquence. The disturbances in that city caused him to beat a speedy retreat to England with the loss of the greater portion of his property. An application to the English government for an appointment as ‘oriental interpreter’—he is said to have known eight languages—was unsuccessful, and he settled down to poverty with resignation. For a time he was helped by ‘a humane and respectable tradesman in the borough of Southwark, who had married his sister’ (Taylor, Records of my Life, i. 284 &c.), and he then revisited America, where he eked out his existence by lecturing. He returned to find that his sister was dead, but his brother-in-law again gave him assistance; his advances were afterwards repaid.

De Quincey made the acquaintance of Stewart at Bath in 1798–9, when he frequented the Pump Room and all public places, walking up and down persistently and distributing to the right and left papers containing his philosophical opinions. Details of his appearance about 1802 and of his opinions are set out in Mrs. Bray'sDevonshire bordering on the Tamar and the Tavy’ (1836, iii. 210–14, 304). In March 1803 he announced his intention of giving a course of twelve lectures on ‘the human mind and the study of man’ for two guineas at 40 Brewer Street, Golden Square. Somewhere about this time he obtained from the French government a settlement restoring to him a part of his property. De Quincey came up to London about 1808 and sought for Stewart at a coffee-house in Piccadilly, where he read his papers every day. He was still in comparative poverty, and lodged in Sherrard Street, Golden Square. A few years later, probably about 1813, the East India Company paid 10,000l. in satisfaction of his claims against the nabob of Arcot. He purchased an annuity and went to lodge in more luxurious rooms in Cockspur Street, for he loved to be ‘in the full tide of human existence.’

In these ‘Epicurean apartments,’ brilliantly decorated with mirrors and Chinese pictures, Stewart gave dinners every Sunday to a few select friends, such as Colton, Robert Owen, Thomas ‘Clio’ Rickman, and John Taylor, and before the wine was removed lectured on his own doctrines. These discourses were not appreciated, and evening parties of both sexes, with music and whist, were substituted for them. He was, says De Quincey, ‘a man of great genius, and, with reference to his conversation, of great eloquence.’ His language was remarkable for the aptness and variety of his illustrations; he possessed much humour, and he showed great skill in imitating ‘the tone and manner of foreigners.’ So frequently was he to be seen in the thoroughfares of London that more than one observer has pronounced him ubiquitous. On fine mornings he would seat himself on Westminster Bridge to contemplate the passers-by. At other times he reposed in ‘trance-like reverie among the cows of St. James's Park, inhaling their balmy breath and pursuing his philosophical speculations’ (De Quincey).

Stewart was much troubled by the riots in connection with Queen Caroline, and meditated a flight to America. In 1821 his health declined, and a visit to Margate proved of small avail. In January 1822 he became worse, and on the morning of 20 Feb. 1822 he was found dead in his rooms in Northumberland Street, London. He always carried with him a sufficient quantity of poison to put an end to his existence if he tired of it, and a bottle which had contained laudanum was found in the room; but he probably did not commit suicide. He is said to have left 1,000l. to the university of Edinburgh, and the rest of his property to James Maitland Dods of Lincoln's Inn. He stood fully six feet in height; was handsome, with Roman features, and of great strength. A portrait of him by T. T. C. Kendrick was engraved by E. Wheatley.

Learned himself, Stewart boasted of being a ‘man of nature,’ and argued against over-learning and excessive training of the memory. He contended, amid much that was beyond comprehension, for such wholesome practices as temperance, cleanliness, and exercise in fresh air. In the middle of his disquisitions in the ‘Roll of a Tennis Ball through the Moral World’ he inserts a page on the dangers of damp beds and sheets, and to the ‘moral or intellectual last will and testament’ he appends a codicil lauding ‘earth-bathing, or a warm mud-bath.’ He was a good-hearted man, and all his doctrines aimed at inducing men to promote the happiness of their fellows.

Henry George Bohn, who used in company with Thomas Taylor, the Platonist, to attend the soirées of Stewart, inserted in his edition of Lowndes's ‘Bibliographer's Manual’ (ii. 2515–17) a good list of Stewart's writings, many of which were anonymous and were printed for private distribution. A set of those printed before 1810 was published in that year in three volumes. The chief pieces included were:

  1. ‘Travels to discover the Source of Moral Motion’ [1789?].
  2. ‘Opus Maximum, or the great essay to reduce the World from Contingency to System’ [1803].
  3. ‘The Apocalypse of Human Perfectibility’ [1808].

Fearing lest these important volumes might perish, he wished his friends to bury some copies of them and to transmit to posterity the particulars of their resting places; while in order to provide against the extinction of the English tongue, he asked De Quincey to translate them into Latin.

[Gent. Mag. 1822, i. 279–80; Annual Biogr. and Obituary, vii. 101–9; Timbs's Eccentrics, pp. 300–4; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. xi. 488, xii. 35, 178–9; Temple Bar (by H. S. Salt), xciii. 573–8; Life of Alaric Watts by his son, ii. 280–7; Taylor's Records of my Life, i. 284–94; London Mag. November 1822, pp. 410–11, and September 1823 (by De Quincey), pp. 253–60; Tait's Mag. October 1840 (also by De Quincey). The last two articles are included in De Quincey's Collected Writings (1890), iii. 93–117, and an editorial note by Prof. Masson is added (pp. 118–20). A slight life of him, price sixpence, was published in 1822 by a relative, possibly W. T. Brande (says the catalogue of the British Museum Library), and another sketch, by J. W. C., was the first of a series of twopenny tracts on Materialism (1861). The statements in these authorities are vague and contradictory.]

W. P. C.