LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey
Early Life: XVII

Vol. I Contents
Early Life: I
Early Life: II
Early Life: III
Early Life: IV
Early Life: V
Early Life: VI
Early Life: VII
Early Life: VIII
Early Life: IX
Early Life: X
Early Life: XI
Early Life: XII
Early Life: XIII
Early Life: XIV
Early Life: XV
Early Life: XVI
‣ Early Life: XVII
Ch. I. 1791-93
Ch. II. 1794
Ch. III. 1794-95
Ch. IV. 1796
Ch. V. 1797
Vol. II Contents
Ch. VI. 1799-1800
Ch. VII. 1800-1801
Ch. VIII. 1801
Ch. IX. 1802-03
Ch. X. 1804
Ch. XI. 1804-1805
Vol. III Contents
Ch. XII. 1806
Ch. XIII. 1807
Ch. XIV. 1808
Ch. XV. 1809
Ch. XVI. 1810-1811
Ch. XVII. 1812
Vol. IV Contents
Ch. XVIII. 1813
Ch. XIX. 1814-1815
Ch. XX. 1815-1816
Ch. XXI. 1816
Ch. XXII. 1817
Ch. XXIII. 1818
Ch. XXIV. 1818-1819
Vol. IV Appendix
Vol. V Contents
Ch. XXV. 1820-1821
Ch. XXVI. 1821
Ch. XXVII. 1822-1823
Ch. XXVIII. 1824-1825
Ch. XXIX. 1825-1826
Ch. XXX. 1826-1827
Ch. XXXI. 1827-1828
Vol. V Appendix
Vol. VI Contents
Ch. XXXII. 1829
Ch. XXXIII. 1830
Ch. XXXIV. 1830-1831
Ch. XXXV. 1832-1834
Ch. XXXVI. 1834-1836
Ch. XXXVII. 1836-1837
Ch. XXXVIII. 1837-1843
Vol. VI Appendix
Creative Commons License

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH
Letter XVII.
March 16th, 1825.

The Christmas before my entrance at Westminster, I remember seeing in the newspapers the names of those boys who acted in the Westminster Play that year (1787). For one who knew nothing of the school, nor of any person in it, it was something to be acquainted with three or four boys, even by name; and I pleased myself with thinking that they were soon to be my friends. This was a vain fancy in both senses of the word: by their being selected to perform in the Play, I supposed they were studious and clever boys, with whom I should of course become familiar; and I had no notion of the inequality
which station produces at a public school. It is such that, when I came to Westminster, I never exchanged a word with any of these persons.
Oliphant, Twistleton, and Carey, were three of them. Carey was a marked favourite with Vincent, and afterwards with Cyril Jackson at Christ Church; he is now Bishop of Exeter, having been head master of the school where, at the time of which I am now writing, he was one of the monitors. It is said that he is indebted to Cyril Jackson for his promotion to the bench, the dean requesting a bishopric for him, or rather earnestly recommending him for one, when he refused it for himself. Twistleton was remarkable for a handsome person, on which he prided himself, and for wearing his long hair loose and powdered in school, but tied and drest when he went out; for in those days hobble-de-hoys used to let their hair grow, cultivating it for a tail, which was then the costume of manhood. The Westminster Play gave him a taste for private theatricals: immediately after leaving school he married a girl with whom he had figured away in such scenes; she became an actress afterwards in public of some pretensions, and much notoriety, as being the wife of an honourable and a clergyman. For a while Twistleton figured in London as a popular preacher, which too frequently is but another kind of acting; he then went out to India, and died there lately as archdeacon in Ceylon, where he had latterly taken a very useful and becoming part in promoting the efforts which are made in that island for educating and converting the natives. Oliphant was the more remarkable person
of the three, and would probably have risen to celebrity, had he lived. He was from Liverpool, the son, I believe, of a tradesman, one of the queerest fellows in appearance that I ever remember to have seen; and so short-sighted, that we had stories of his walking into a grave in the cloisters, and running his head through a lamp-lighter’s ladder in the street. The boys in the sixth form speak in public, once a week in rotation, three king’s scholars and three town boys: generally this is got through as a disagreeable task; but now and then an ambitious fellow mouths instead of mumbling it; and I remember Twistleton and Oliphant reciting the scene between Brutus and Cassius with good effect, and with voices that filled the school. After leaving Cambridge Oliphant tried his fortune as an author, and published a novel which I never saw; but it had some such title as “
Memoirs of a Wild Goose Philosopher.” He died soon afterwards.

His first efforts in authorship were, however, made as a periodical essayist, before he left school. The Microcosm, which the Etonians had recently published, excited a spirit of emulation at Westminster; and soon after I went there, some of the senior king’s scholars, of whom Oliphant was at the head, commenced a weekly paper called the Trifler. As the master’s authority in our age of lax discipline could not prevent this, Smith contented himself, in his good-natured easy way, with signifying his disapprobation, by giving as a text for a theme, on the Monday after the first number appeared, these words scribimus indocti doctique. There were two or three
felicitous papers in the Microcosm which made a reputation for the book; indeed Eton has never produced men of more genius than those who contributed to it. The Trifler may in general have been upon a par with it, that is to say, neither of them could contain anything better in serious composition than good school boy’s exercises: but it had no lucky hits of a lighter kind, and when forty numbers had been published, more to the contentment of the writers than of any body else, the volume was closed and was forgotten. The only disgraceful circumstance attending it, was that a caricature was put forth representing Justice as weighing the Microcosm against the Trifler, and the former with its authors, and the king as a make-weight on their side, was made to kick the beam. This was designed and etched by
James Hook, then a junior king’s scholar, and now the very Reverend Dean of Worcester. I do not suppose it was sold in the print-shops, but the boys were expected to subscribe for it at a shilling each.

My first attempt to appear in print was in the aforesaid Trifler. I composed an elegy upon my poor little sister’s death, which took place just at that time. The verses were written with all sincerity of feeling, for I was very deeply affected: but that they were very bad I have no doubt; indeed I recollect enough of them to know it. However, I sent them by the penny post, signing them with the letter B; and in the next number this notice was taken of the communication: “B’s Elegy must undergo some alterations, a liberty all our correspondents must
allow us to take.” After this I looked for its appearance anxiously, but in vain; for no farther mention was made of it, because no alteration could have rendered it fit for appearance, even among the compositions of elder schoolboys.
Oliphant and his colleagues never knew from whence it came; I was far too much below them to be suspected, and indeed, at that time, I was known out of my remove for nothing but my curly head.

Curly heads are not common, I doubt whether they can be reckoned at three per cent, upon the population of this country; but luckily for me, the present Sir Charles Burrell (old Burrell as we then called him, a very good-natured man) had one as well as myself. The space between Palace Yard and St. Margaret’s Churchyard was at that time covered with houses. You must remember them, but I knew all the lanes and passages there; intricate enough they were, and afforded excellent cover, just in the most dangerous part, on the border, when we were going out of bounds, or returning home from such an expedition. The improvements which have laid all open there, have done no service to the Westminster boys, and have deprived me of some of the pleasantest jogging-places for memory that London used to contain. In one of these passages was the door of a little school-master, whose academy was announced by a board upon the front of a house, close to St. Margaret’s Churchyard. Some of the day boys in my remove took it into their heads, in the pride of Westminster, to annoy this academician, by beating up his quarters, and one day I joined in the party.
The sport was to see him sally with a cane in his hand, and to witness the admiration of his own subjects at our audacity. He complained at last, as he had good cause, to
Vincent; but no suspicion fell or could fall upon the real parties; for so it was, that the three or four ring-leaders in these regular rows were in every respect some of the best boys in the school, and the very last to whom any such pranks would have been imputed. The only indication he could give, was that one of the culprits was a curly-headed fellow. One evening, a little to my amusement, and not a little to my consternation, I heard old Burrell say that Vincent had just sent for him, and taxed him with making a row at a school-master’s in St. Margaret’s Churchyard; and would hardly believe the protestations of innocence, which he reiterated with an oath when he told the story, and which I very well knew to be sincere. It was his curly head, he said, that brought him into suspicion. I kept my own counsel, and did not go near the academy again.

At a public school you know something of every boy in your own boarding-house, and in your own form; you are better acquainted with those in your own remove (which at Westminster, means half a form); and your intimacies are such as choice may make from these chances of juxta-position. All who are above you you know by sight and by character, if they have any: to have none indicates an easy temper, inclined rather to good than evil. Of those who are below you, unless they are in the same house, you are acquainted with very few, even by name. The
number, however, of those with whom you are more or less brought in contact, is such, that after-life seldom or never affords another opportunity of knowing so many persons so well, and forming so fair an estimate of human nature. Is that estimate a favourable one? and what says my own experience? Of the three hundred boys who were my contemporaries during four years (about fifty, perhaps, being changed annually) there were very few upon whose countenance Nature had set her best testimonials. I can call to mind only one wherein the moral and intellectual expression were in perfect accord of excellence, and had full effect given them by the features which they illuminated. Those who bore the stamp of reprobation, if I may venture to use a term which is to be abhorred, were certainly more in number, but not numerous. The great majority were of a kind to be whatever circumstances might make them; clay in the potter’s hand, more or less fine; and as it is fitting that such subjects should be conformed to the world’s fashion and the world’s uses, a public school was best for them. But where there is a tendency to low pursuits and low vices, such schools are fatal. They are nurseries also for tyranny and brutality. Yet, on the other hand, good is to be acquired there, which can be attained in no other course of education.

Of my own contemporaries there, a fair proportion have filled that place and maintained that character in the world, which might have been expected from the indications of their boyhood. Some have manifested talents which were completely latent at that time;
and others who put forth a fair blossom have produced no fruit. But generally speaking, in most instances where I have had opportunity of observing, the man has been what the boy promised, or, as we should say in Cumberland, offered to be.

Our boarding house was under the tyranny of W. F——. He was, in Westminster language, a great beast; that is, in plain truth, a great brute; as great a one as ever went upon two legs. But there are two sorts of human brutes—those who partake of wolf-nature or of pig-nature, and F—— was of the better breed, if it be better to be wolfish than swinish. He would have made a good prize-fighter, a good buccaneer, or, in the days of Coeur de Lion or of my Cid, a good knight, to have cut down the misbelievers with a strong arm and a hearty good will. Every body feared and hated him; and yet it was universally felt that he saved the house from the tyranny of a greater beast than himself. This was a fellow by name B——, who was mean and malicious, which F—— was not: I do not know what became of him, his name has not appeared in the Tyburn Calendar, which was the only place to look for it, and if he has been hanged, it must have been under an alias, an observation which is frequently made when he is spoken of by his schoolfellows. He and F—— were of an age and standing, the giants of the house, but F—— was the braver, and did us the good office of keeping him in order. They hated each other cordially, and the evening before we were rid of “Butcher B——”, F—— gave the whole house the great satisfaction of giving him a good thrashing.


It was so obviously impossible to put Latin and Greek into F——, at either end, even if there had been any use in so doing, that no attempt was made at it. The Greek alphabet he must have known, but he could have known nothing more of Greek, nor indeed of any thing else, than just to qualify him for being crammed to pass muster, at passing from one form to another; and so he was floated up to the Shell, beyond which the tide carried no one. He never did an exercise for himself of any kind; they were done by deputy, whom the fist appointed; and after awhile it was my ill fortune to be promoted to that office. My orders were that the exercises must always be bad enough; and bad enough they were: I believe, indeed, that the habit of writing bad Latin for him spoilt me for writing it well, when, in process of time, I had exercises of the same kind to compose in my own person. It was a great deliverance when he left school. I saw him once afterwards, in the High Street at Oxford. He recognised me instantly, stopped me, shook me heartily by the hand, as if we had been old friends, and said, “I hear you became a devilish fine fellow after I left, and used to row Dodd (the usher of the house) famously!” The look and the manner with which these words were spoken I remember perfectly; the more so, perhaps, because he died soon afterwards, and little as it was to have been expected, there was something in his death which excited a certain degree of respect, as well as pity. He went into the army, and perished in our miserable expedition to St. Domingo, where, by putting himself forward on all
occasions of service, and especially by exerting himself in dragging cannon when the soldiers were unequal to the fatigue, he brought on the yellow fever, and literally fell a victim to a generosity and good-nature which he had never been supposed to possess.

That fever proved fatal to a good many of my Westminster school-fellows, who, some of them because they were fit for the army, and others because they were fit for nothing else, took to that profession at the commencement of the revolutionary war. Rather a large proportion of them perished in the West Indies. “Who the devil would have thought of my burying old Blair!” was the exclamation of one who returned; and who of the two might better have been buried there himself. Blair was a cousin of the present Countess of Lonsdale, and I was as intimate with him as it was possible to be with one who boarded in another house: though it would not have been easy to have found a boy in the whole school more thoroughly unlike myself in everything, except in temper. He was, as Lord Lonsdale told me, a spoilt-child—idle, careless, fond of dogs and horses, of hunting rats, baiting badgers, and above all of driving stage-coaches. But there was a jovial hilarity, a perpetual flow of easy good spirits, a sunshine of good humour upon his countenance, and a merriment in his eye, which bring him often to my mind, and always make me think of him with a great deal of kindness. He was remarkably fat, and might have sat for the picture of Bacchus, or of Bacchus’s groom; but he was active withal.


Blair spent one summer holidays with his mother Lady Mary, at Spa, and used to amuse me greatly by his accounts of the place and the people, and the delight of travelling abroad, but above all by his description of the French postilions. He had brought back a postilion’s whip, having learnt to crack it in perfection; and that French flogger, as he called it, did all his exercises for him: for if Marsden, whom he had nominated to the office of secretary for this department, ever demurred when his services were required, crack went the French flogger, and the sound of what he never felt produced prompt obedience. The said Marsden was a person who could have poured out Latin verses, such as they were, with as much facility as an Italian improvisatore performs his easier task. I heard enough about Spa, at that time, to make me very desirous of seeing the place; and when I went thither, after my first visit to the field of Waterloo, it was more for the sake of poor Blair than for any other reason. Poor fellow, the yellow fever made short work with his plethoric frame, when he went with his regiment to the West Indies. The only station that he would thoroughly have become, would have been that of abbot in some snug Benedictine abbey, where the rule was comfortably relaxed; in such a station, where the habit would just have imposed the restraint he needed, he would have made monks, tenants, dependants, and guests all as happy as indulgence, easy good-nature, and hearty hospitality could make them. As it was, flesh of a better grain never went
to the land-crabs, largely as in those days they were fed.

There was another person in the remove, who, when he allowed himself time for such idle entertainment, was as fond of Blair’s conversation as I was (our intercourse with him was only during school-hours), but to whom I was attached by sympathies of a better kind. This was William Bean, the son of an apothecary at Camberwell, from which place he walked every day to school, a distance of more than three miles to and fro. He had a little of the cockney pronunciation, for which Blair used to laugh at him and mimic him; his appearance was odd, as well as remarkable, and made the worse by his dress. One day when he had gone into the boarding-house with me, Dickenson (the present member for Somersetshire, a good-natured man) came into the room; and fixing his eyes upon him, exclaimed with genuine surprise, “O you cursed quiz, what is your name?” One Sunday afternoon, when with my two most intimate associates (Combe and Lambe) I had been taking a long ramble on the Surrey side of the river, we met Bean somewhere near the Elephant and Castle returning home from a visit, in his Sunday’s suit of dittos, and in a cocked-hat to boot. However contented he might have been in this costume, I believe that, rather than have been seen in it by us, he would have been glad if the earth had opened, and he could have gone down for five minutes to Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. However, the next morning, when he threw himself upon our mercy, and entreated that we would not say that we had
met him in a cock and pinch, my companions promised him, as willingly as I did, to be silent.

With this quizzical appearance, there were in Bean’s swarthy face, and in his dark eyes, the strongest indications of a clear intellect, a steady mind, and an excellent heart; all which he had in perfection. He had been placed at Westminster in the hope of his getting into college; but being a day scholar, and having no connections acquainted with the school, he had not been put in the way of doing this, so that when the time came for what is called standing out, while all the other candidates were in the usual manner crammed by their helps, Bean stood alone, without assistance, and consequently failed. Had the mode of examination been what it ought to be, a fair trial of capacity and diligence, in which no cramming was allowed, his success would have been certain; and had he gone off from Westminster to either University, he would most certainly have become one of the most distinguished men there; every thing might have been expected from him that could result from the best capacity and the best conduct. But he failed, and was immediately taken from school to learn his father’s profession. I had too sincere a regard for him to lose sight of him thus; and several times in summer afternoons, when the time allowed, walked to Camberwell Green just to see and shake hands with him, and hurry back. And this I continued to do as long as I remained at Westminster.

In 1797 or 1798, he stopped me one day in the street, saying he did not wonder that I should have passed
without recognising him, for he had had the yellow fever three times, and not having long recovered, still bore strong vestiges of it in his complexion. He had gone into the army in his professional line, and had just then returned from the West Indies. I never saw him more. But going along Camberwell Green some ten years ago, and seeing the name still over the door, I went in and inquired for him of his brother, who immediately remembered my name, and told me that
William had been doing well in the East Indies, and that they soon hoped for his return; upon which I left a message for him to be communicated in their next letter, and my direction, whenever he might arrive. Shortly after this I became acquainted with poor Nash, whose father’s house was nearly opposite to Bean’s; and to my great pleasure I found that Nash knew him well, had seen him at Bombay, and spoke of him as having proved just such a man as I should have expected, that is, of sterling sense and sterling worth. You may imagine how I was shocked at learning subsequently, through the same channel, what had been his fate. Tidings had been received, that going somewhere by sea (about Malacca I think) upon a short passage, with money for his regiment, of which he acted as pay-master at that time, for the sake of that money he had been murdered by the Malay boatmen.

He had saved 5000l. or 6000l. which he left to his mother, an unhappy and unworthy woman who had forsaken her family, but still retained a strong affection for this eldest son; and wished, when he was a boy, to withdraw him from his father. With
that view she came one day to Westminster, and waited in the cloisters to way-lay him when the school was over. A scene ensued which was truly distressing to those who felt as they ought to do, for he flew from her, and both were so much agitated as to act and speak as if there had been no spectators. I was not present, but what I heard of it strengthened my regard for him; and I had his situation with respect to his mother in my mind when certain passages in
Roderick were written.

Dr. Pinckland has mentioned him with respect in his notes on the West Indies, as one of the assistants in some military hospital in which the doctor was employed. I was pleased at meeting with this brief and incidental notice of his name while he was yet living, though with a melancholy feeling that the abler man was in the subordinate station. That brief notice is the only memorial of one, who, if he had not been thus miserably cut off, would probably have left some durable monument of himself: for during twenty years of service in all parts of the globe, he had seen much, and I have never known any man who would more certainly have seen all things in the right point of view, morally as well as intellectually. Had he returned I should have invited him hither, and he would have come; we should have met like men who had answered each other’s expectations, and whom years and various fortunes, instead of alienating, had drawn nearer in heart and in mind. That meeting will take place in a better world.