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The Elder William Hone and the Heritage of Dissent

Eighteenth-century Bath was a place of lived contradiction. On the one hand, it had developed in the early decades of the century into what was arguably the most fashionable health spa and the most chic social resort in England; as readers of eighteenth-century novels well know, Bath's famed Georgian architecture was often the stage for careless aristocratic pleasure-seeking and wild courtships. The pump rooms, gaming tables, and dancing halls—many superintended by the celebrated impresario Beau Nash—offered the backdrop for any number of reckless love affairs and wagered fortunes. But the high-rolling stylishness of Beau Nash's Bath found a formidable counter in the tall, pursed figure of Selina Hastings, Lady Huntingdon. During the middle years of the eighteenth century, at precisely the moment when Nash was at the height of his popularity, Huntingdon was harnessing for her own evangelistic purposes the charismatic powers of such "methodist" preachers as John Wesley and George Whitefield. She built a seminary at Trevecca to insure a continual supply of new and enthusiastic ministers, and she established a network of dissenting chapels in cities around England so that her ministers might be heard by ever greater numbers of persons. By the 1760s, Huntingdon was one of the chief religious influences in Bath, and hers was an influence of the most severe, invasive, and self-righteous form. Her Bath chapel, located in the "vineyards" just a few steps up Broad Street from the old city center, was the local headquarters of such enthusiastic preachers as Whitefield and William Fletcher, and Huntingdon herself never tired of reminding reckless aristocratic pleasure-seekers of the horrible fate they were preparing for themselves in eternity. "No matter where Lady Huntingdon found herself," writes Edith Sitwell,

no matter what her company, she would insist on the conversation being turned upon religion, the terrible sins of those present, the hopelessness of their future state as compared with hers, her own former sinfulness and present righteousness, her virtue in contrast to her companions' lack of virtue, and other matters of the same kind. [1]

From the standpoint of more fashionable and carefree Bath, this was an appalling image, a block of stifling sobriety in the very heart of carefree levity. And what was worse, there was simply no escape from the remarkable evangelistic energies of Huntingdon and the itinerant preachers who circulated through her chapel.

On the day of his son's birth in 1780, the elder William Hone was a pious, sober young man of 25 who was very much attracted to the uncompromising severity of Lady Huntingdon's circle, a fact perhaps explicable given his own background and conversion experience. This first William Hone was born on 31 March, 1755 on Homewood farm in the small village of Ripley, near Guildford in Surrey. [2] The oldest of ten children, his early life was an energetic, tumbling affair as the household, in addition to the steady stream of new Hone infants, also was home to two domestic servants and, depending on the season, several farm laborers. The Hone children were largely left to their own care—or lack of care, as the case may be—and William's autobiographical sketch contains, as one might expect, several stories about miraculous escapes from mad cows and wild horses. Nonetheless, the family did manage to send William to school, and, when he reached the age of fifteen, secure for him an apprenticeship with one Mr. Freeland, a law stationer in London. Unfortunately, Freeland turned out to be a very cruel master: one of Hone's fellow apprentices was starved to death, and Hone himself was physically incapacitated through ill treatment and inadequate nourishment. On lucky advice from Sir John Fielding's Bow Street office, Hone took a dangerous legal gamble: he walked away from his service to Freeland, and returned to the farm at Ripley. Freeland chose not to pursue his runaway apprentice, apparently thinking that Hone's ill health would soon kill him. Shortly thereafter, though, the parents of the remaining apprentices became concerned about their sons' welfare. A court case ensued, and Hone—despite his youth and inexperience—was instrumental in prosecuting Freeland for his cruelty and winning the freedom of his former mates.

During the mid-1770s, Hone's father died, the farm reverted to the owner Lord Onslow, and the large family was dispersed. William returned to London where he once again began to associate with acquaintances from the stationers' trade, some of whom had theatrical connections. Soon he became so "play-mad"—as he put it later—that he contemplated a career on the stage, and he even went so far as to secure a part in a work that was in preparation for the Haymarket. At this moment, however, the would-be actor was dissuaded by a strange apparition:

One evening on going to the Haymarket theatre as usual, and taking my seat in the pit, I waited anxiously for the play to commence, but when the actors appeared, each seemed to my view, in the hideous shape of a devil, which so affrighted me that I instantly rushed out with all possible speed. Thus was I chased from the service of Satan in his play-house work[.] [3]

Hone had been living a rather dissolute and convivial life in London, but this vision left a profound and lasting impression. Determined to sever his London connections and thus alter the course of his soul, he moved to Bath where he had found work as a clerk to a lawyer by the name of Percival and where he became closely involved with a community of enthusiastic dissenters. In late spring of 1779, Hone married Frances Maria Stawell, the daughter of his landlady who was herself the widow of William Stawell, a wine-cooper from the ancient city. As a result of these new family connections, the couple moved into their own apartments in the summer of that year, and by June of 1780, William Hone was the punctual and industrious clerk to Mr. Moody, a local corn-factor. He was also a regular member of the congregation at Lady Huntingdon's chapel.

It is no doubt difficult for modern readers, even (perhaps especially) those trained in literary romanticism, to imagine the religious intensity of the world into which the second William Hone—the central subject of the present study—was born. To be a dissenter in the late eighteenth century was to be involved in a radically heterodox "community" comprised of Methodists, Moravians, Muggletonians, antinomians of various denominations, Behmenists, Baptists, Anabaptists, Quakers, Unitarians, Swedenborgians, and any number of other sects—sects which, despite their often hostile disagreements with one another, were united in the fervor of their religious commitment and in their hatred for the sluggish hypocrisy (as they saw it) of the established church. What is more, many of the more ardent dissenters lived under the constant and immediate influence of a spiritual world which, for them, was a present and perceivable reality. Christopher Hill has argued that "Most men and women in seventeenth-century Britain still lived in a world of magic, in which God and the devil intervened daily, a world of witches, fairies and charms." [4] Furthermore, E. P. Thompson has suggested recently that, if one approaches the history of the late eighteenth century not through the eyes of some Enlightenment-inspired literary or philosophical figure but rather through an interest in the far more common shapes of popular intellectual and spiritual life, one is immediately confronted with the same issues and enthusiasms that were the defining characteristics of the seventeenth century. It is in this context that one can begin to understand, for instance, a young William Blake who saw angels in his back garden and who held conversations with his dead brother; or, in the same vein, a "mad" Christopher Smart who would sometimes fall to the floor in the midst of his companions and commence a form of inspired chanting. [5] Given this general cultural ethos, the elder Hone's vision of the devil-actors at the Haymarket is rather tame and not even particularly uncommon. And such moments of vision or inspiration were certainly not limited to the always excitable artistic communities of London: the elder Hone's autobiography records the story of a young man of Bath who was convinced he could walk across the waters of the Avon near the Old Bridge. The demonstration proved unsuccessful—his body was recovered three days later—but the fact that he made the effort in the first place reveals a good deal about the kind of world in which he (and Hone) lived.

Fortunately for the younger William Hone, his father's enthusiasm did not incline him toward such self-destructive performances; quite the contrary, the older Hone seems to have been a dedicated and involved, albeit somewhat severe, family man. He delighted in the short walk from their house on the corner of St. James's Parade and Wine Street to the banks of the river where he could show the swans to his young son, and he apparently took great pleasure in reading—the Bible and religious tracts, of course—to his wife and children. And later, he was the Hone children's first teacher, patiently helping them to spell their way through a few Bible verses every evening until they were able to read for themselves. [6] An anecdote recorded in the younger William Hone's autobiography captures with a ring of truth what seems to have been his father's domestic demeanor. Sometime in the late-1780s, the Hones' third son—William's junior by five or six years—was stricken with what turned out to be a fatal illness. It was obvious to all that the boy was failing, and during his final weeks, his father would come home early from his work as a legal clerk to carry the sick child out into the fields so that he might at least have some fresh air and sunshine—something more in his small experience than the dinginess of his sickroom. [7]

Certainly the image is one of a father touched by a tender concern for the welfare of his offspring, but against this quietly benign and rather sentimental scene must be set a passage from the drafts of the younger Hone's autobiography—a passage that, significantly, did not survive intact in Hackwood's printed version. It seems that when William was about twelve years old, his father routinely assigned him passages from the Bible on which to practice his handwriting and which, almost incidentally, he was to get by heart. The tasks grew wearisome to the young scholar:

I now began to dislike the very sight of the Bible and my copying from it became so long and irksome that I wept and wept over them. My father had beaten me for repeated neglects of this nature. One morning after a sharp chastisement with a small bamboo [cudgel?] he enjoined upon me to learn by heart an entire chapter before he returned to dinner assuring me if I did not say it correctly he would correct me with greater severity.

Naturally, the distraught boy was unable to memorize the chapter, and, when his father returned and discovered his son's failings, he gave him a cruel and violent beating, "the severest of which his arm was capable." The interchange was predictably counterproductive; indeed, it caused the younger Hone to "loathe" the Bible and he "secretly resolved not to read the Bible again unless [he] was compelled." [8] Even if one grants that corporal punishment, often violent, was an accepted and expected practice of child-rearing in the later 1700s, the image of the benign and loving father must here be somewhat shaken.

For better and for worse, then, Hone's father exerted a profound influence on his son, and it is perhaps not surprising that, even during his more religiously skeptical middle years, William Hone always maintained a great respect for his father. Toward the end of his own life, while preparing his father's autobiography for the press, Hone appended a few brief notes by way of a eulogy. The elder Hone, says his son, "was ever kind to all. In difficulties, he left all to God, and in all he was marvellously helped: he literally lived a life of faith, and while counted a fool, was wise." [9] This father-figure, embellished and softened in his son's late-life, post-conversion reflections, would exert a formative and lasting influence on the life of the younger William Hone. After all, he was a "father" not only in the social and domestic senses; he was also the link connecting his son to a more or less coherent (if shadowy) tradition of English religious dissent and political defiance with its roots stretching back at least to Lilburne, Winstanley, Bunyan and the English civil war and then extending forward to include figures like Defoe, Wilkes, Blake, and the radicals of the Napoleonic years.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of this tradition lies in the elder Hone's consistent stance of inspired self-reliance—that is, a courageous sense of the "righteousness" (for want of a better term) of his own social, political, and religious commitments and, consequently, a deep suspicion of established social, political, and religious institutions. The young apprentice's successful challenge against his master Freeland's cruelty is one instance of this defiant stance. Another appears in the elder Hone's account of his efforts to join the Huntingdon circle. Hone writes that, while living in Bath before his marriage, he contemplated becoming a preacher. In his mind, his own spiritual struggles and conversion experience (while stricken with illness in 1778, he had had a vision of himself enveloped in hell-fire, from which he was later delivered), a common-sensical mastery of writing and speaking, and a genuine inclination to serve others' spiritual needs constituted a sufficient background and training for a minister. He made his desires known to Lady Huntingdon who, in turn, introduced Hone to two of her "boys," as she called her itinerant preachers. The meeting was not as joyous and fruitful as Hone had anticipated, and he did not, to say the least, receive the training and encouragement he needed:

I was ignorant of their way, and they of mine. After I had related to them what the Lord had done for my perishing soul, by having compassion on me, and unveiling to me Christ the hope of glory, they appeared to be panic-struck, and for a short time were quite silent. Then, instead of rejoicing with me, they started wholly away from my subject matter, and inquired of me whether I had read certain authors whom they named; I answered "No;" for all the work wrought in me, had been between God and my own soul . . . . Whatever her ladyship's "boys" were unto others among whom they preached, in the way of training, their gifts ministered nothing unto me but darkness and barrenness, the contents of mount Sinai, which gender to bondage. [10]

The undercurrent of antinomian disdain is clear enough. Hone has no relish for the mere forms and institutions of religion—even those of such an enthusiastic dissenter as Lady Huntingdon. Spiritual truths are not to be learned from books. Indeed, Hone portrays such learning as, if anything, an impediment to the "true" spirit which is inevitably deeply personal and decidedly non-institutional, a matter of vision and faith rather than of study and rhetoric. And, as if to underscore the point, Hone follows this anecdote with a narrative about how his own self-taught preaching—"which, by college-taught gentlemen, would be termed cuckoo preaching"—ministered more solace and comfort to a dying acquaintance than her "official" clergyman could muster on the occasion. Hone's self-reliant, anti-intellectual pride is evident throughout his account of this incident and most especially in his conclusion: "In the salvation of this poor and needy sinner, all the reputed deficiencies in her preacher [i.e., Hone himself], his want of college tuition and acquirements in the art of speaking by scholastic rules, were no bar to the appearance of Christ for her." [11] Spiritual self-reliance, distrust of institutional "wisdom," and a genuine and humane concern for the sick, imprisoned, and downtrodden would become the trademarks of his son's writing and publishing career. They were qualities born in the religious and political struggles of the seventeenth-century revolution and transmitted to him through his father.


Edith Sitwell, Bath (London: Faber and Faber, 1932), p. 129. [return]

The principal source of information about the older William Hone is a fragmentary autobiography he left behind at his death. This short work was later edited by his son and published as a 48 page pamphlet called The Early Life and Conversion of William Hone (London: T. Ward), 1841. Like most retrospective writing, Hone's Life and Conversion is certainly not wholly disinterested. In fact, like most spiritual autobiographies, the story of Hone's conversion was designed to exemplify the trajectory of a soul saved from eternal damnation by a miraculous vision. [return]

Life and Conversion, p. 11. [return]

Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (New York: Penguin, 1975), p. 87. [return]

E. P. Thompson, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (New York: New Press, 1993), p. 8. Thompson's book, incidentally, offers a valuable account of the religious life of late eighteenth-century dissenting communities. For Blake, see G. E. Bentley's Stranger from Paradise (New Haven: Yale, 2001). Technically speaking, Smart was not a dissenter, though his religious "fits" certainly align him more with the dissenting community than with the more staid conservatism of the English church. [return]

There is some question among genealogists and biographers about exactly how many Hone children there were, but apparently only two survived childhood. A daughter was born just over a year after William; she died in infancy. Another son, Joseph, was born on December 30, 1783 in Kingsgate Street; he grew up with William, eventually becoming a solicitor and emigrating to Australia. A third son, Samuel, was born in the mid-1780s but did not live to see his fifth year. [return]

Hackwood, p. 35. [return]

Add. MS 40121, ff. 22-23. The version of this tale in the printed autobiography is much softened. [return]

Life and Conversion, p. 44. [return]

Life and Conversion, pp. 29-30. [return]

Life and Conversion, p. 34. [return]