1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Thelwall

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 2 (November 1834) 549-50.



Feb. 17. At Bath, aged 68, Mr. John Thelwall.

This once popular character was born in 1766, in Chandos-street, Covent-garden, and was educated in private schools, at Lambeth and Highgate. In the choice of a profession he was remarkably unsteady, being first a student at the Royal Academy, next a clerk in an attorney's office, and afterwards a student in medicine. But his favourite schools were the debating societies, and these finally led him to neglect every employment of more practical utility. Intoxicated with the French doctrines of the day, he became a leading speaker at popular meetings, and in 1792 commenced a series of lectures on political subjects. Night after night, his inflammatory harangues drew crowded audiences. At length, political lecturing was interdicted by Act of Parliament; and, before that enactment, Mr. Thelwall was included in an indictment for constructive treason, with eleven other members of certain associations for the ostensible object of obtaining a Reform in Parliament. After a trial of three days, he was acquitted, and borne to his house on the shoulders of an excited mob.

To evade the act of Parliament alluded to, he professed to lecture upon ancient history; but, notwithstanding the facilities which he thus enjoyed of disseminating seditious principles, his orations bore an aspect somewhat too classical for the out-and-out reformers of the time, and consequently proved less lucrative than before. He therefore undertook a lecturing tour of England; but, as the schoolmaster was not so much abroad as now, he found the sound, honest, loyal feelings of the provinces against him.

Seeking retirement and respectability in a country life, he took a small farm near Hay in Brecknockshire; but he was unsuccessful in the pursuit of an occupation, of the practical part of which he was ignorant. He therefore adopted the scheme of lecturing throughout the country on elocution, unmixed with politics. In this he was more fortunate, and, after an itinerant course of some years, he resettled in London, first in Bedford-place, and afterwards in Lincoln's Inn Fields, taking pupils afflicted with impediments of speech, in the cure of which he was eminently successful. For several years he was thus enabled to keep a carriage and a respectable establishment. He was himself a striking instance of the success of his own powers in overcoming the imperfections of nature by art. His voice was originally feeble and husky; yet, by perseverance, he acquired an extraordinary distinctness of articulation, and, even in the open air, could make himself heard at a great distance.

In 1818, however, he again figured at political meetings; he also conducted a weekly paper, supporting the cause of Parliamentary Reform with considerable ability. Since that period he has, at different times, been the editor of two or three periodicals; but those speculations were not favourable to his interests.

Some years ago he settled at Brixton, near London, received pupils, and lectured on elocution, the drama, &c. at numerous public institutions. This course he pursued to the last; and was making a tour in the West of England, when he was suddenly attacked at Bath, it is supposed with some affection of the heart, which terminated his life.

Among numerous publications, political, literary, and scientific, produced by Mr. Thelwall, may be mentioned, An Essay towards a definition of Animal Vitality, in which several of the opinions of John Hunter are examined and controverted; The Vestibule of Eloquence; A Letter to Mr. Cline, on defective development of the Faculties; Illustrations of Rhythms; Results of experience on deficiency in the roof of the Mouth, &c.