2946. Robert Southey to the Editor of The Courier, [19 March 1817]

2946. Robert Southey to the Editor of The Courier, [19 March 1817]⁠* 

To the Editor of the Courier



Allow me a place in your columns for my “last words” concerning Wat Tyler. [1] 

In the year 1794 this manuscript was placed by a friend of mine (long since deceased) in Mr Ridgeways hands. Going to Being shortly afterwards in London myself for a few days, I called on Mr Ridgeway in Newgate; & he & Mr Symonds agreed to publish it. [2]  I understood that they had changed their intention because no proof sheet was sent xxxx to me, & acquiescing readily in their cooler opinion, made no inquiry concerning it. More than two years elapsed before I revisited London, [3]  – & then if I had thought of the manuscript it would have appeared a thing of too little consequence to take the trouble of claiming it for the mere purpose of throwing it behind the fire. That it might be published surreptitiously at any future time, from motives of gratuitous wickedness was a wickedness of which I never dreamt.

To these facts I have made oath. [4] Mr Winterbottom, a Dissenting Minister, has sworn on the contrary that Messrs Ridgeway & Symonds having declined the publication, the it was undertaken by himself & Daniel Isaac Eaton; [5]  – that I gave them the copy as their own property, & gave them, moreover, a fraternal embrace in gratitude for their gracious acceptance of it; & that he, the said Winterbottom verily believed he had a right now, after an interval of three & twenty years, to publish it as his own.

My recollection is perfectly distinct, notwithstanding the lapse of time; & it was likely <to be so> as I was never on any other occasion within the walls of Newgate. The work had been delivered to Mr Ridgeway; it was for him that I enquired, & into his apartments I was shown. There I saw Mr Symonds, & there I saw Mr Winterbottom also, whom I knew to be a Dissenting Minister. I never saw Daniel Isaac Eaton in my life; – & as for the story of the embrace every person who knows my disposition & manners will at once perceive it to be an impudent falsehood. Two other persons came into the room while I was there, the name of the one was Lloyd, xx I believe he had been an officer in the army, [6]  – that of the other was Barrow – I remembered him a Bishops-boy at Westminster. [7]  I left the room with an assurance that Messrrs Ridgeway & Symonds were to be the publishers; – in what way Winterbottom might be connected with them I neither knew nor cared, & Eaton I never saw. – There is no earthly balance in which oaths can be weighed against each other, – but character is something in the scale: And that the it is perfectly in character that the man who should has published Wat Tyler under the present circumstances, should swear – as Mr Winterbottom has sworn.

Thus much concerning the facts. As to the work itself, I am desirous that my feelings should neither be misrepresented nor misunderstood by those in whose opinion I. It contains the broad dramatic statement of opinions which I have long outgrown, & which are stated more broadly because of this dramatic form. Were there a sentiment or an expression which bordered upon irreligion or impurity, I should look upon it with shame & contrition With regard to any enthusiastic notion of <but I can feel neither for opinions of> universal equality, taken up as they were conscientiously in early youth, acted upon in disregard of all worldly considerations, & left behind <me> in the same straight-forward course as I advanced in years. The piece was written when such opinions – or rather such hopes & fancies, were confined to a very small number of the educated classes, when those who were deemed Republicans were exposed to personal danger from the populace, & when a spirit of anti Jacobinism <prevailed> which I cannot characterise better than by saying that it was <as> blind & as intolerant as the Jacobinism of the present day. The times have changed. Had it been published surreptitiously under any other political circumstances, I should have suffered it to take its course, in full confidence that it would do no harm, & would be <speedily> forgotten as xxxx as it deserved. The present state of things, which is such as to make it doubtful whether Mr Winterbottom <the publisher> be not as much actuated by <public> [8]  mischief as by <private> [9]  malignity, rendered it my duty to appeal for justice, & stop the circulation of what no man had a right to publish. And this I did, not as one ashamed & penitent for having expressed crude opinions, & warm feelings in his youth (feelings right in themselves, & wrong only in their direction) – or opinions which were xxxxxxxxx with those but as a man whose life has been such that it may set slander at defiance; whose name is honourably distinguished abroad as well as at home, & who is unremittingly endeavouring to deserve well of his country & of mankind.

Robert Southey.


* MS: Berg Collection, New York Public Library. ALS; 3p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 252–255 [misdated 17 March 1817].
Note on MS: The letter survives as an early draft, which is reproduced here. Southey made a fair copy, which appears not to have survived, and he this sent as an enclosure to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn on 19 March [1817], Letter 2948. Wynn’s absence from home meant there was a delay in his receiving it. By the time he did so the debate had moved on and so Southey decided to incorporate this letter into his pamphlet A Letter to William Smith, Esq., M.P. (1817). BACK

[1] The letter deals with the publication in 1817, without Southey’s consent, of his Jacobin play Wat Tyler, composed in 1794. BACK

[2] James Ridgway (1755–1838), radical publisher. Southey had visited him in Newgate Prison on 12 January 1795, to arrange publication of Wat Tyler; see Southey to Edith Fricker [c. 12 January 1795], The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part One, Letter 123. Ridgeway shared his rooms at Newgate with his fellow-publisher Henry Symonds (1741–1816) and William Winterbotham. Ridgway and Symonds had been imprisoned for four years in 1793 for publishing Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791–1792), but continued to publish works from Newgate, including Winterbotham’s An Historical, Geographical, Commercial, and Philosophical View of the American United States (1795). BACK

[3] Southey had returned to London in February 1797 to embark on his legal studies at Gray’s Inn. BACK

[4] Southey had sworn an affidavit before a Master of Chancery; see his letter to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 7 March 1817, Letter 2935. BACK

[5] Daniel Isaac Eaton (1753–1814; DNB), radical publisher. Winterbotham claimed in his affidavit that when Southey had visited Newgate in January 1795 he had given the manuscript of Wat Tyler to Eaton and Winterbotham, and surrendered his copyright to them. BACK

[6] Possibly Thomas Lloyd (1756–1827). Though born in London he had served with American forces in the War of Independence 1776–1779 before becoming a stenographer reporting on debates in Congress. He returned to England in 1791 and was imprisoned for debt in 1792, receiving a further three years in Newgate (1793–1796) for putting up a political poster in the Fleet prison. Lloyd later re-emigrated to the United States. BACK

[7] Possibly Richard Barrow (c. 1770–1827), committed to Newgate for two years in 1794 for ‘libels to excite rebellion’ after an incident at Miller’s Cookshop in Smithfield on 23 August 1794, when he and another member of the London Corresponding Society were reported to have distributed a seditious handbill. Barrow was later a surgeon at Hounslow. At Westminster School ‘Bishop’s Boys’ were four boys nominated by the Dean of Westminster and the Master of the School. They were supported by a foundation deriving from John Williams (1582–1650; DNB), Bishop of Lincoln 1621–1641. The advantages of a ‘Bishop’s Boy’ were considerable and included exemption from fees at Westminster School and the right to progress to a closed scholarship at St John’s College, Cambridge. Richard Barrow had not been a ‘Bishop’s Boy’ at Westminster but George Barrow (dates unknown), possibly his brother, had been. So Southey has possibly confused the two. BACK

[8] <publick>: probably inserted in another, unidentified hand. BACK

[9] <private>: probably inserted in another, unidentified hand. BACK

People mentioned

Lovell, Robert (1771–1796) (mentioned 1 time)