909. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 7 March 1804

909. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, [7 March 1804] ⁠* 

I am writing, Grosvenor, as you know, the History of Portugal. [1]  – a country of which I probably now know more than any foreigner, & as much as any native. now has it come athwart me this afternoon how much more accurate, & perhaps a thousand years hence more valuable a book it would be, were I to write the History of Wine Street below-the-Pump – the street wherein I was born, recording the revolutions of every house during twenty years. It almost startles me to xxxx the events see how the events of private life, within my own knowledge – et quorum pars maxima, [2]  &c – equal – or out do novel & comedy – & the conclusion to each tale – the Mors omnibus communis [3]  – makes me more serious than the sight of my own grey hairs in the glass – for the hoar frosts Grosvenor are begun with me. – Oh there would be matter for moralizing in such a history – beyond all that history offers. The very title is a sermon – you in London need to be told that Wine Street is a street in Bristol, & that there is a Pump in it – & that by the title I would mean to express that the historian is not xxx does not extend his subject to that larger division of the street which lies above the Pump – you I say need all these explanations & yet when I first went to school I never thought of Wine Street & of that Pump without tears, & such a sorrow at heart – as by heaven no child of mine shall ever suffer while I am living to prevent it! & so deeply are those the feelings connected with that place rooted in me, that perhaps in the hour of death they will be the last that survive.

Now this history it is most certain that I the Portugueze Historiographer &c &c &c shall never have leisure, motiv worldly motive – nor perhaps heart to write. & yet now being in tune I will give you some of the recollections whereof it would be composed – catching this as they float by me. – a xxxxx enough as I am writing forms enough thicken upon me to people a solitary cell in Bedlam, were I to live out the remainder of a seventy years lease there. Let me begin with the Church [4]  at the corner. I remember the old Church, a row of little shops were built before it, above which its windows received light, & on the leads which roofd them, crowds used to stand at the chairing of Members – & <as they> did to my remembrance when Peace was proclaimd after the American war. [5]  I was christened in that old church, & at this moment vividly remember our pew under the organ – of which I certainly have not thought these 15 years before! Old Debatt [6]  was then the Rector – a hum-drum somnificator – who – God rest his soul for it! made my poor mother stay at home Sunday evenings because she could not <keep> awake after dinner to hear him. A worldly, pudding-faced, bag-bellied, oystery-eyed [7]  Doctor Ireland [8]  succeeded, & effected by dint of begging & impudence a union between the two parishes of Christ & St Ewen, [9]  for no other conceivable reason than that he might be Rector of both. However he was a great man – & it was the custom once a year to catechise the children & give them – if they answered well – a good plumb-cake apiece on the last day of the examination – called a cracknell, & honestly worth a groat, & I can remember eating my cracknell – & being very proud of the praise of the Curate (– who was a really good man) when he found that I knew the etymology of Decalogue, [10]  for be it known to your worship that I did not leave off loving plumbcake when I begun my Greek, nor have I left it off now that I have almost forgotten it. – But I must turn back to the Pew to tell you how in my very young days, a certain Uncle Thomas, who would make a conspicuous history figure in the history of Wine Street below the Pump, once sentenced me to be deprived of my share of Pye on Sunday, for some misdemeanour there committed – I forget what – whether talking to my brother Tom, or reading the Revelations during sermon – for that was my favourite part of the Xtian religion – & I always amused myself with the scraps <from it> after the Collects, whenever the prayer book was in my hand. However the punishment was inflicted – & a cruel one it was Grosvenor, & annoyed my poor mother as she has since told me, <even> more than it did me, but I devised a very extraordinary mode of revenge. I got my little brother Tom (who had a very feeling xxxxxxx <sense> of this inhuman tyranny) into the Little House, & then I had the Bible, & there I showd him that God had said to Abraham that whosoever he curst should be cursed [11]  – & I proved to Tom that this power of cursing was intailed – & that he & I were of the seed of the faithful, & then we swore our bellyfull at Uncle Thomas, & I was greatly comforted, & moreover my Mother had put me by xx a plate-full of pye for the evening that I should not lose my share.

Well – this Church was pulled down. the last person buried there before the demolition was a Miss Reynolds, the forewoman of Ewbank the Milliner our next door neighbour. [12]  she was born at Goa, the child of an English Colonel by a native woman – nor can I now remember the strange unhappiness that left her destitute in England. however in that capacity she was in my childhood – an excellent good woman, about my mothers age – & with whom we were upon next-door terms in the best sense of the word. To her my mother showd my very first verses when I was seven years old – they were upon happiness & that is all I know – but there was a second copy, which success & their approbation encouraged me to write – & those I remember because they were not quite so good. they relate to virtue – & I well recollect contained a pathetic exhortation against robbery for fear of the gallows – For if to London or to York you gang Under a gibbet you are sure to hang. the couplet sticks in my mind like birdlime, & also how I had written Bath at first, but Bath being too familiar to me who livd at Bristol & was often there, & moreover hanging not being commonly practiced in that place of amusement those considerations induced me to alter it to York. This poor Miss Reynolds was courted at last by one Browne, my fathers shopman. [13]  it is a sad story. The before named thought it became him to apprize Brownes Uncle – on whom the young man depended – a plague on his meddling! Browne was removed & commanded to break off the connection. he obeyed. it cost Mary Reynolds her life, & xx he narrowly escaped the grave too. this is no fiction Grosvenor. I well remember all, – her drooping & the miserable state of weakness to which a broken heart reduced her – till she died – & was the last person buried in the old Churchyard.

There were Quarter-Boys [14]  to this Chu old Church Clock, (as at St. Dunstans, [15]  & I have many a time stopt for a few minutes with my satchell on my back to see them strike. My father had a great love for these poor Quarter Boys who had regulated all his motions for about 20 years, & when the Church was rebuilt offerd to subscribe largely to their reestablishment. but the Wine Streeters had no taste for the arts – & damn them! no feeling for old friends, & God knows what became of the poor fellows. but I know that when I saw them represented in a pantomime which we had calld Bristol, & got up to please the citizens I cannot say whether I felt more joy at seeing them, or sorrow in thinking that they were only represented – only stage Quarter Boys – & not the real ones. – The Church was demolished, & sad things were said of the indecencies that occurred in removing the coffins for the new foundations to be laid. We had no interest in this for our vault was elsewhere – at Ashton [16]  – I sent you once years ago a drawing of the Church. [17]  It is my only freehold – all the land I possess in the world & is now full – no matter! I never had any feeling about a family grave till my mother was buried in London, & that gave me more pain than was either reasonable or right. my little girl lies with my dear good friend Mrs Danvers. I myself shall lie where I fall – & it will be all one in the next world. – Once more to Christ Church. I was present in the heart of a crowd when the foundation stone was laid, & read the plate whereon posterity will find engraved the name of Robert Southey, for my father was churchwarden – by the same token that that year he gave me a penny to go to fair instead of a shilling as usual – being out of humour – or out of money – & I referring to a common phrase calld him a generous churchwarden. There was money xxx under the plate – I put some half-pence which I had picked out for their good impressions, & Norton the bookseller [18]  – a curious sort of a man, a good medal of the present King. [19]  I was present also tho a [illegible word] crowd when first service was celebrated in the new church, [20]  – & to complete the history of the Church – the man who now officiates there as Curate is Ovand [21]  who was the Servitor at Balliol in my time, & who waited on you in the hall. he was Usher at the Bristol Grammar School when my brother was there, & as the boy said did not know – Noun from a Pronoun. I believe it – for Lightfoot once heard him at Lecture construe fundamento everso his fundament being turned up. [22]  – Shame on me for not writing on foolscap! [23]  Vale! [24] 

Wednesday March 6. 1804  [25] 


* Address: To/ G. C. Bedford Esqr/ Exchequer/ Westminster
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: E/ MAR10/ 1804
Endorsement: 6 March 1806
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 24. AL; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 32–36 [in part].
Dating note: This letter is incorrectly dated as 1806 by C. C. Southey, based presumably on the endorsement. Most likely Southey gets the day right (‘Wednesday’) but the date wrong: the 7th March in 1804 was a Wednesday. BACK

[1] Southey’s ‘History of Portugal’ was never completed. BACK

[2] Meaning ‘of which the largest part’. BACK

[3] Meaning ‘death is common to all men’. BACK

[4] Old Christ Church, taken down in 1786. BACK

[5] The American War of Independence ended in 1783. BACK

[6] Daniel Debatt (dates unknown). BACK

[7] Southey includes a footnote: ‘I took my fat-swoln eyes of Gluttony in Joan of Arc from him’. His poem Joan of Arc was published in 1796, with a second edition in 1798. BACK

[8] Untraced. BACK

[9] The parishes of St Ewen and Christ Church were amalgamated in 1788. BACK

[10] That is, ten axioms or commandments. BACK

[11] Genesis 12: 3. BACK

[12] Untraced. BACK

[13] Untraced. BACK

[14] Automata which strike the quarter-hours in a belfry clock. BACK

[15] The church of St. Dunstan-in-the-West, Fleet St, London was famous for its clock, the first public clock in London to have a minute hand. The clock features two figures of giants who strike the hours and quarters. BACK

[16] The family ancestral burial place in the churchyard at Ashton, Somerset (now a suburb of Bristol). Southey’s father (also named Robert), two brothers and three sisters (who had all died in childhood), and cousin, Margaret Hill, were all interred there. BACK

[17] See Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, [16–17 November 1792], The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part One, Letter 30. BACK

[18] James Norton (dates unknown), Bristol bookbinder and stationer. BACK

[19] George III (1738–1820, King of Great Britain 1760–1820; DNB). BACK

[20] New Christ Church was opened in 1790. BACK

[21] Untraced. BACK

[22] The Latin translates as ‘‘foundation or base’. BACK

[23] The rest of the letter from ‘Bristol’ until the end is written upside down on the first page. BACK

[24] Meaning ‘farewell’. BACK

[25] A mistake: March 6 1804 was a Tuesday. BACK