A TEI Project

William Hone and John Childs, A Conversation (Part 1)


1. John Childs and William Hone in 1819 — Printing, Politics, and a Developing Friendship

[1] On the 21st of December 1818, in commemoration of the first anniversary of his hard-won courtroom victories against the government's charges of libel, Hone received a fine gift: a large turkey from the village of Bungay in Suffolk. This "alderman in chains" (for such was Hone's urban slang for such a feast-worthy bird) marked the beginning of a close and sustaining friendship with John Childs that would last for the rest of Hone's life. The present Conversation focuses on the letters exchanged between Hone and Childs in 1819, a year that saw these two men cement their friendship and that also saw Hone's career emerge from a year of lethargy and depression and into the second period of great fame and influence. The letters under discussion here are as follows:

[2] John Childs, the source of Hone's Christmas turkey, was a jovial, energetic man, a printer by trade, and one of the key voices among the small but influential Suffolk reformist/dissenter community.1 He was closely aligned with Hone in both personality and ideology, and the two remained on close and mutually supportive terms through the controversial years of Peterloo and the Queen Caroline affair, through Hone's battle with the Quarterly Review and then his later bankruptcy and antiquarian publishing efforts, through Childs' very public challenge to the government's monopoly on Bible printing, and finally through Childs' "martyrdom" during the Church-Rates controversy in the late 1830s—a "martyrdom" assiduously documented and publicized by a newspaper called The Patriot where Hone served as the sub-editor. Throughout the 1820s and 30s, Hone was a frequent visitor in the Childs' household in Bungay, and John Childs, along with his brother and business partner Robert Childs, often called on Hone during their many trips to London. At least two of Hone's children—William and Samuel Parr—served informal apprenticeships in Childs' Bungay printing office. Clearly, these two men were intimately connected in their personal, their professional, and their political lives.

[3] The letters exchanged between the two printers offer a remarkably candid, often very funny, and extremely illuminating resource for students of early nineteenth-century print history. Many of the central "themes" of the Hone/Childs correspondence can be seen even in this brief initial Conversation. For example, on 8 January, 1819, Hone overcomes his habitual procrastination long enough to thank Childs for the turkey:

My Dear Sir,
On the 21st of last month, or so soon after as conveniently could be conveyed, I received from you what, in London, we call an Alderman in chains— This was reserved for our Christmas day dinner when we, that is, my wife and our seven young ones, played our many parts, and drank your health, and carrolled away till our eighth little one in my wife's lap crowed herself so hoarse that we were obliged to adjourn our mirth. It was not forgotten that the day of the date of your note was the Anniversary of the day after the trials which Ministers and their myrmidons designed should send me to keep Christmas in the custody of the Marshal of the Marshalsea of our Sovereign Lord the King. It was not forgotten either that this attempt brought me acquainted with some of the best of my Countrymen who with stout english [sic] hearts in their bodies are unsubduable by all the powers of Despotism, nor was it forgotten that to a contempt for Tyranny and a proud hate of it Britain is indebted for all her liberties and I for my Christmas dinner.
In this opening communication from Hone to Childs, one can already see several of the defining characteristics of the relationship: a good-humored, almost Dickensian portrayal of jolly domestic life, an emphatic expression of support for those (like Childs himself presumably) with "stout english hearts" and courage enough to stand up to "Despotism" and "Tyranny," and the comical zeugma linking British liberties with Hone's Christmas dinner.

[4] Later in the same letter, Hone describes a less sanguine condition of his own life—recurrent episodes of depression and ill-health:

I have been, and am, ill—dying—but not dead. Blood at the head—apoplectic affection —cupping—bleeding—blistering—lowering—a fortnight at Bath &c.—vexation at home and habitual melancholy, which encreases upon me, all these are indications of that sure & certain event which happeneth to all and which may happen to me in an instant. I am in fact in a very bad way. The Trials have given me a physical shake which has compelled me to abandon what I intend upon with alacrity and & spirit, the sales by auction of libraries &c. for which I had made expensive & extensive arrangements & had neglected my other business to further—I have therefore now to begin the world afresh nearly.
This is, to say the least, a difficult time for Hone. While he had long been subject to fits of depression,2 this episode seems to have been longer and more intractible than previous attacks. Indeed, Hone's extremely energetic writing and publishing output from 1816 and 17 had dwindled to a mere handful of publications in 1818, and this despite a sense of urgency regarding the publication of his Trials and his intention to produce a History of Parody.

[5] Fortunately, the friendship with Childs offered both encouragement and support as Hone began to re-energize his writing and publishing career in early 1819. For example, in reply to Hone's letter of thanks, Childs claims that

The purpose I wish to gain is to impress your mind with the importance of getting forward with the publication of your trials, for in proportion as I feel alarmed for the state of your health, so I see the positive necessity of your getting them into such a state that they may become an heir-loom to your family. For this purpose I think you should find some person capable of arrangement, to undertake the first part, and then your perusal would render the work complete — for I fear the laborious confinement necessary to complete such a work will be a serious injury to your health in your present nervous state — therefore my Dr Sir do adopt some plan without delay which may effectually bring the work to its termination.
And then Childs adds an enticing invitation:
Would not a few days of relaxation in the Country do you good? if you think it would, and could spare the time, do make the effort and come hither and spend a week with me. I will try to brace your nerves, and return you to the City of Infidels a new Creature[.]
In response, Hone is newly resolved to redouble his efforts with the Three Trials, and must therefore decline the invitation to visit Childs in Bungay. Instead both William and Sarah Hone offer high praise for Childs' encouragment:
My wife desires me to tell you that she has read your letter and that she thinks it the best letter I have ever received—she made me promise this — and I not only keep my promise but agree with her opinion.

[6] While Childs' support and encouragement was certainly welcome in the Hone household, it would be a mistake to think that Hone was in a wholly unproductive phase of his career. Indeed, there were several projects on Hone's desk (and even more on the horizon) in addition to the still unfinished Trials. For example, in the same letter of thanks to Childs, Hone alludes to "the affair of the Note...which is going like wildfire." The reference is to one of the most popular and influential of Hone's publications to date: the Cruikshank engraved Bank Note, Not to be Imitated! Childs received the Note with great enthusiasm, ordering another 40 copies that he might circulate them in the region of Bungay, and his letter of 1 February offers a useful commentary on the Hone/Cruikshank project:

I know not what the Bank or the Government or their myrmidons will do with this note. The effect will be tremendous. The Shield is truly awful. Don't you think if the suspended bodies were a little darker they would harmonize with the shield and the grating and would (I fancy) produce a more terrific effect at first sight; there is nothing like first impressions. The plan is worth the Copy right of fifty folio volumes and will I trust raise such a cry against the Bugbear, that some real good may arise from it[.]
Childs was correct in his assessment of the power of the Hone/Cruikshank Bank Note. For a couple of weeks, Hone was selling the prints (each one wrapped in a print of the Bank Restriction Barometer) as quickly as he was able to produce them3. Also during this period, Hone was developing a friendship with the essayist William Hazlitt. On Sunday, 31 January, Hone had dined with Hazlitt and John Hunt and he "concluded a bargain" with Hazlitt for his "work on the prospectus." Exactly what "prospectus" this might be is open to conjecture, but it seems quite likely that this is the first hint of Hone's publication of Hazlitt's Political Essays which appeared in late July of 1819. It seems probable, then, that Hone was beginning to shake off the lethargy of 1818 (despite another letter from Childs in March expressing continued concern over Hone's mental/spiritual condition), and it is certainly true that the later months of 1819 saw an astonishing flourish of writing and publishing as Hone's career entered its second period of fame and influence.

[7] Two other aspects of this initial exchange of letters between Hone and Childs deserve mention here. First, almost by accident, Childs passes off some slightly misquoted lines from Daniel Defoe's Jure Divino, a work that had been out of print and largely forgotten since its appearance in 1706. This is a remarkable coincidence since Hone, it turns out, had long been an admirer of Defoe, and indeed he had for several years already been collecting stray Defoe publications for his friend Walter Wilson, the Defoe biographer. Hone is not really joking when, in his reply to Childs, he claims that he knows more about Defoe "than any other living admirer of him" (Hone to Childs, 3 February). This interest would come to fruition two years later when Hone published his condensed version of Jure Divino, which he called The Right Divine of Kings to Govern Wrong! As I have argued elsewhere,4 Defoe stood as a kind of influential precursor for many of the radicals of the early nineteenth century, and the fact that both Childs and Hone had independently developed this admiration for him simply confirms his currency among this set of writer/publishers. Second, both Hone and Childs are keenly interested in the government's control over publication of the Bible. This interest would result in Hone's highly controversial publication of the Apocryphal New Testament in 1820 and in Childs' challenge to the Bible printing monopoly in 1830. (The influence of both Hone and Childs on Bible publishing in England will be considered in a later Conversation.)

[8] To conclude this survey of the formative Conversation between Hone and Childs, we can skip ahead one year to look at the next in what will become a long series of thank-you letters from Hone to Childs, this one for his 1819 "alderman in chains." Hone begins with a typically charming scene of family mirth:

Dear Childs,
The alderman arrived with his honours thick about him and he now reposes in the stomachs of my Wife, Self, Eight young ones, a friend from Dorsetshire, old Joe Webb, & my wife's Brother: and we have this moment drunk the health of him who sent him—all the young ones are now about me cracking nuts & jokes and I am wishing you could see them and imagining that you are engaged in festivity of much the same kind. I drop you this line (omitting to do so yesterday by the gentleman who took charge of the books for you for I had friend Fry and another good fellow with me and I wished to know the day of the Fox dinner at Norwich before I wrote you, which I had not and opportunity of doing till I saw Richard Taylor, who tells me it is Monday the 26th January on which day, having consulted my pillow thereon, I purpose to have the gratification of seeing you, according to your very kind intimation—but as to the how & the "whereabout" I shall take your opinion. I wish to see some of your good fellows.
Hone and Childs are now good friends, and there appears to have been some considerable exchange of letters and materials and perhaps visits between them during the middle months of 1819. These are both convivial, gregarious men (though Hone is typically most content and happy within his own family or his small circle of close friends), and both are canny businessmen who are very alert to the powers of the press. Indeed, Hone interrupts his own thank-you letter immediately after its opening paragraph:

Oldham Inquest — out on Thursday next
Bentham's Panopticon — out of print
From J. E. Taylor I have had a satisfactory letter
The Trials—curse 'em I wish they were done—they shall be—see an Advt of mine (announcing the withdrawal of my letter to Copley) in the Chronicle [ye]sterday & on Monday next

End of business
In addition to the titles mentioned in Hone's list, his "business" now included a number of publications that he had produced in 1819, especially in the months following "Peterloo": Hazlitt's Political Essays (mentioned above), Hone's own Don Juan, Canto the Third, and (from early December) the fantastically popular, Cruikshank-illustrated pamphlet called The Political House that Jack Built. Hone, in other words, had in 1819 rediscovered his characteristic parodic voice and had also found the energy to pursue a remarkable burst of writing and publication. His 1817 acquittals had earned him some protection from further libel prosecutions, and in the 18 months following Peterloo, he exercised that freedom to such an extent that he became one of the most widely read authors in England. The supportive friendship with Childs undoubtedly played a significant role in this productive flurry.

[9] While such energy marks a positive change from the depressed lethargy of the previous year, this activity is not without its risks. Hone's letter concludes with his expression of happy anticipation of seeing "Mr. Edwards." As Ann Bowden points out,5 this is almost certainly one George Edwards, a government spy and provocateur who was instrumental in forwarding the Cato Street Conspiracy that, in just a few weeks, would send several radical activists to the gallows. Hone himself was not betrayed into participation in the scheme (though an attempt was made), but the very presence of George Edwards in Hone's Christmas festivities demonstrates the sort of unwelcome attention he was getting at the Home Office. Hone may have wished to steer clear of public conflict, but he soon would be drawn in to yet another "trial"—this time in the pages of the Quarterly Review.

The best sources on Childs are from his own letters and publications, from the DNB article, and from such incidental local histories as James Ewing Ritchie's East Anglia: Personal Recollections and Historical Associations (2nd ed., 1893, see esp. pp. 130-52). [return]
These episodes started early with Hone. A letter from 1799 from Charles Towson teases Hone with the line, "Laugh! laugh, you dog, 'tis the best cure in the world for the hyps" and then continues in a more serious tone: "You appear when you wrote to be under the influence of one of those melancholy moods which the soul is sometimes betrayed into. If the cause should proceed from some calamitous misfortune or real evil, it then stands in need of the soothing voice of consolation, or the pious breathings of religion. . . . Write soon, unbosom yourself to me, and the little comfort that I am able to give you shall be heartily at your service" (quoted in Hackwood, p. 67). [return]
Cruikshank later claimed that this was the most important engraving he had made in his long career because it contributed significantly to the abolition of easily-duplicated bank notes that invited forgery and, inevitably, sentences of transportation or capital punishment. [return]
Grimes, Kyle. "Daniel Defoe, William Hone, and The Right Divine of Kings to Govern Wrong! A New Electronic Edition." Digital Defoe 4.1 (2012): 13 pars. Web. Link to journal. Likewise, the Editor's Introduction to the Right Divine etext is relevant in this context. [return]
See Bowden, William Hone's Political Journalism, 1815-1821. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Texas at Austin. 1975.pp. 293-94. For a more detailed look at the Cato Street Conspiracy, see John Gardner's Poetry and Popular Protest: Peterloo, Cato Street and the Queen Caroline Controversy, (New York, 2011). [return]

Date: 2013-11-13
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