hen Jerdan arrived back in London early in 1806 the country was in a dangerous state. The severe economic distress caused by the French wars and bad harvests had resulted in food riots in 1801-02; the price of wheat and other foods was at an all-time high. The Peace of Amiens, which failed after a year, had given Napoleon time to enlarge his Empire in Europe. Britain therefore had to redirect attention from the people’s clamour for reform to the patriotic imperative to crush Napoleon. The task fell to William Pitt the Younger who, in May 1804, had resumed the office of Prime Minister. During his Ministry Spain declared war on Britain, leading to the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. The nation’s victory over the Spanish was tempered only by its mourning for the loss of Lord Nelson.
Thus 1806 and the ensuing years were a turbulent time for the whole country and life in the capital was no exception. Spurred on by events and by his earlier publishing success Jerdan wrote a long verse, The British Eclogue for the Year 1805, which was printed in a forty-eight page pamphlet by T. Wilson in 1806. As a pseudonym, the author used an anagram of his name, W. J. André. The pamphlet also included two minor works of Jerdan’s, “The Lord Mayor’s Day” and “A Tale for the Benefit of the Ugly.” The Eclogue filled thirty pages with 870 lines in couplets. Near the beginning of his verse he reflected on the uncertain state of the country:
The social compact, once, without alloy,
A source of safety, truth and love and joy,
Transform’d by baleful passions now appears
A scene of rapine, treachery and tears:—
From such a man of folly, vice and pride
Satire disgusted, turns with scorn aside
Even Misanthropy with tearful eye
Deplores the aggregate of misery –
He attacked the government as being “exalted far above the storms” as they “never feel the unpropitious hour/Of chilling penury’s resistless power”. The government had little use for soldiers who had suffered so much and fought for thirty years for King and Country, but would now only “clog the state machine.” Such men had a chance of preferment only if they had a wife or sister with “handsome legs or pretty face”, to bestow upon some Lordling:
Let his sweet partner some soft moment find,
Her noble gull to dalliance inclined;
Then beg (when he’s in such an am’rous mood)
He’d give her kinsman some appointment good.
‘Tis but to ask, he surely will eftsoons,
Strut forth a gaudy Captain of Dragoons,
Or else, perhaps, a Counsellor of State
Or, may-be, a Physician to the Fleet,
Or, likely, a Comptroller of Finance,
Or even an Ambassador to France.
But has he talents? Do not ask such stuff – She has, - and certes, that is quite enough.
Injustice, corruption, unfair treatment of Catholics, and unseemly behaviour of the clergy were among the ills scourged by Jerdan’s satiric pen; he made personal attacks too, using asterisks instead of names, but his references would surely have been clear to his contemporary readers. In his Autobiography Jerdan mourned that he had not kept a copy of his Eclogue (1.119); he had been proud of it, and it is indeed an unusually highly political and critical work for Jerdan to have produced at the very outset of his career.
Satire could be a defence against what Jerdan perceived as injustice, as in his Eclogue. It had seemed inadequate to address an incident in which he unwittingly became involved when he visited David Pollock in Elm Court Chambers. Jerdan found a pocket-book belonging to a letter-carrier who was thus was exposed as having been stealing money from letters. Jerdan was appalled at the prospect of having any part in a capital prosecution and pleaded illness. Served with a subpoena he was forced to appear in court where the letter-carrier, a German called Nicolai was tried, sentenced and later executed. Whilst the lawyers adjourned to enjoy a merry evening, Jerdan deplored their apparent levity, and could not get the misfortunes of the poor man out of his mind.
Despite such a distressing incident, Jerdan plainly relished his carefree bachelor life, but his status, if not his habits, were about to change. He made scant reference to this important life event in his Autobiography. Rather oddly, in Volume I he noted that “In enumerating misfortunes, I will close this chapter with the publication of banns, and the commission of matrimony” (1.100). This was Jerdan’s sole reference to his wife Frances in the four volumes of his Autobiography, a circumstance rendered more noticeable as he dedicated one of these volumes, and devoted several chapters to the poetess L.E.L.
Jerdan’s wife was Frances Eggar; he did not reveal how or when they met, or where they married, and these facts are, so far, unknown. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography cites a marriage entry in the parish records of Temple, Edinburgh, 5 September 1806. However, this entry does not refer to the William Jerdan of this biography, but to a different William Jerdan (possibly a cousin) who married Margaret Olridge. Frances was christened on 2 March 1781 in the church of Elstead, Surrey. Her parents John and Mary (neé Knight) already had three children, and after Frances’s birth they moved to Bentley, just across the county boundary in Hampshire. Here four more children were born, of all whom were duly christened. The Eggars were part of a large family, farming in nearby Binsted as well as Bentley, and were renowned for their hops. The family name is memorialised today by Eggar’s Field, and Eggar’s School. It could be expected that from such a respectable background, Frances would have been married in the local church surrounded by her family, or in nearby Winchester, but no such record exists in any parish church in Surrey, Hampshire or Sussex. I have requested every English County Record Office and many Scottish ones to search for a record of Jerdan’s marriage, but none has been found. The absence of a marriage record might suggest that the family disapproved of her bridegroom, a young Scotsman with a history of failed starts behind him, so that the couple were forced to marry elsewhere. Jerdan's reference to the “publication of banns” implies that a formal church ceremony took place. The mention of banns also indicates that the traditional Scottish practice of hand-fasting was not used, which might otherwise explain why no record has been discovered. It is just possible that Jerdan’s reference to banns covered up an omission of any official marriage, but this seems unlikely, given the status in their local societies of both families.
At the end of 1806, probably about the time of his marriage, Jerdan found his first employment. It could be that he needed work in order to afford to marry Frances, or that having found employment already, he was in a position to contemplate matrimony. In any event, he began work on a new newspaper. Its prototype was the successful Morning Advertiser, which had prospered under the guidance of publicans. The new paper was conceived by a group of hotel keepers and landlords of major inns and taverns in the West End of London, a class above that of their model. Such a society was well suited to Jerdan’s appreciation of bonhomie, and he recalled that the planning and consultation meetings were held in the hotels of the proprietors where the participants were generously entertained. The atmosphere was one of confidence in the paper’s success and a determination to create a reputable and impartial organ of news (1.82).
The new paper appeared on 19 January 1807 on the birthday of Queen Charlotte, and was named for her, the Aurora. The first issue. of which the British Library has a copy, was a splendidly elegant affair printed on white silk, but is now not easy to read; subsequent issues appeared on good quality paper with clear typography. The Aurora’s first Editorial claimed that there was “a peculiar difficulty in starting a paper in such a political turmoil”. Its declared object was to establish a free press in the Metropolis, unassailable by venality or corruption, politically unbiased, impartial, independent, morally upright so as not to offend “the Fair” (possibly an attempt to obtain a wider readership by reassuring women that the paper could safely be read by them without danger of shock or horror). Reporters, claimed the Editorial, would not make speeches for Members of the Legislature, “but shall inform the People what their Representatives did say, not what they ought to have said.” This was to be Jerdan’s job. The paper would aim to always uphold the British Constitution and the Law, and to “assert and defend equally against the levelling hand of Republicanism and the encroachments of Court, or Ministerial influence.” This was not the high-Tory line of Jerdan’s family, and especially not of that arch-conservative his brother George, with his ultra-reactionary policy dominating the Kelso Mail. For Jerdan however, it was a useful introduction to journalism. The Aurora largely comprised political reporting, and also carried news of ships’ movements, and columns on fine art, exhibitions at the Royal Academy, and police business.
Jerdan was twenty-five, keen to make a name for himself, full of enthusiasm and impatience. His colleagues were older, set in their ways, and mainly concerned, it seemed to Jerdan, with finding ways to avoid doing any actual work. As a raw recruit, Jerdan had as yet little experience of reporting parliamentary debates, but his superiors, rather than undertake the job themselves, threw him in at the deep end to report on the Chancellor’s budget speech. His work somehow managed to pass muster, but the Editor was not as demanding in his duties as his impressive mission-statement had implied. Jerdan recalled that he tended to write his editorial leaders after midnight, in fits and starts, a line or two at a time, in between smoking his pipe, drinking his porter and dozing. By three a.m. he had usually produced an acceptable column.
At first Jerdan found his new occupation absorbing and exciting, and he enjoyed the challenge of understanding the issues and questions raised in the House. He was very conscious of the journalist’s responsibility to his readers to present the truth as best he could. After a while however, he found the routine dull and irksome with only occasional highlights in the parliamentary business. To relieve his boredom he started to frequent clubs and taverns on his way between the House and the printing office (1.89). In this habit he claimed to be merely emulating the practice of his fellow-journalists, but nevertheless always had to deliver his report in time for the morning paper. The young Charles Knight, about to start work as an apprentice reporter, was taken to a coffee house near the House of Commons to meet other reporters. He recalled, “I especially remember [Jerdan] as looking upon the laughing side of human affairs, and never unmindful of the enjoyment of the passing hour, even amidst the monotonous performance of his duty in the reporter’s function” (Pyle 15). After long acquaintance with Jerdan, Knight’s first impressions were unchanged: “Age could not wither, nor custom stale, the infinite sociality of William Jerdan, as I knew him in the years when the third and fourth Georges had passed away” (Pyle 15).
Although Jerdan was reporting before the electric telegraph made communication amazingly speedy, technology was beginning to make itself felt in the streets. As a demonstration, Pall Mall was now lit by a few gas lights, and the advent of coal-gas for domestic use was only a few years in the future. Parliamentary reporters had not yet been given the convenience of a Press gallery to which reporters could come and go at will, so that newspapers could arrange for their staff to cover the day’s business in shifts. In Jerdan’s day the Reporters’ Bench was at the back of the Strangers’ Gallery. To reach it, the reporter thrust his way through the crowd and then through a doorway about two feet wide. A journalist who suffered the same difficulties as Jerdan described how “There were, perhaps, a hundred seats under him, benches filled with ‘strangers’ and in this back bench it was very difficult to hear. When he sought egress he had a hard fight with the intervening legs and arms to reach his own door; often jaded, heated and laden with anxiety, he had absolutely to push his way in and out – struggling to make room for his successor who was pushing his way in” (Hall 113). Jerdan found that the back row of the gallery was the prized position, so that the journalist’s frantically writing arm would not be jogged by the knees of anyone seated behind him.
In an area set apart outside the Members’ Dining room, excellent meals could be purchased for three shillings and sixpence. Once, when this place was full, Jerdan was permitted access to the Members’ Dining Room, and found himself a place at a table shared by the Marquis of Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington and Mr Canning (later Prime Minister). George Canning was to become Jerdan’s “idolised friend” and godfather to one of his sons.
At the Aurora the dozy pipe-smoking Editor soon retired, and only months after the paper was launched Jerdan was appointed to succeed him. Things proceeded satisfactorily enough for a time but cracks soon appeared. Jerdan found the proprietors intelligent and sensible but they were neither literary men nor journalists. They even differed from each other in their politics and two or three of them wrote leaders upholding opposing views. Jerdan had neither the authority nor experience enough to take a firm hold. He recalled that readers became confused by the paper’s vacillations and within a short time the Aurora’s sun had set and it was no more.
Throughout this period Jerdan worked steadily at various jobs, needing a sufficient income to provide for his young family. His first son John Stuart was born in February 1807, and daughter Frances-Agnes in September 1809 (Bishops Transcripts, St. Mary Abbot, Kensington DL/T.47/14.). They were christened together in October 1810, a delay which suggests that church attendance was not a significant part of William and Frances Jerdan’s domestic routine, and may also reflect the question of whether an official marriage had taken place. They had started wedded life in furnished rooms in Craven Street, Strand and then in Curzon Street, Mayfair. As Jerdan’s income improved they moved to Cromwell Cottage, Old Brompton, a large unfurnished old house, near to Gloucester Lodge, home of George Canning. They settled here for several years, Jerdan happy to be in the neighbourhood of many “noticeable” people. Throughout his Autobiography, written in 1852-3, he name-dropped continually, as if to increase his own importance by association with the famous. This was a central trait of Jerdan’s character, and one which often guided his actions.
His main employment (although not long-lived) commenced in the Spring of 1808, when he joined the Pilot, an evening newspaper which had been launched in January 1807. The proprietors were all educated gentlemen and Jerdan flourished in their company, finding this a very different and much more congenial environment than the Aurora. The Pilot had links with the Horse Guards, from whom it derived prime information; additionally, the officers shared some excellent dinner parties with the newspaper’s officials, a bonus welcomed by Jerdan.
Newspapers at this time had the sword of Damocles hanging over them, wielded by the Attorney-General Sir Vicary Gibbs (called by Queen Caroline, Jerdan says, “Vinegar Gibbs”). Gibbs had the power of issuing ex-officio ‘informations’ against writers, printers, booksellers and publishers whom he considered offensive or dangerous to the government. In exchange for not proceeding to trial he exacted their promise to desist from publishing such material again. Gibbs was a man feared by the press but he was not their only concern – the price of paper rose, and could not be absorbed by putting up the cost of the newspaper, as the Stamp Office confined a ten percent discount on duty payable only to newspapers costing less than sixpence (Andrews). Mr Huskisson MP proposed to offer some relief to newspapers and a Bill to this effect was passed by Pitt and the House in 1809.
Issues of the Pilot ran to four pages, each of four columns; the paper dealt almost entirely with politics and war, news from Portugal and Spain, and listed London shipping and passengers. It carried a small section on actions in the law courts, and extracts of official reports such as the Committee on Public Expenditure. None of these features gave Jerdan much opportunity to flex his journalistic muscle, but he had several more irons in the fire.
At the same time as his parliamentary reporting for the Pilot, for nearly eight years Jerdan also had a lucrative sideline in editing a provincial newspaper, the Sheffield Mercury, and at other times papers in Birmingham, Staffordshire and Ireland (although he was never paid for the latter), all without leaving London (1.110). He found this a satisfactory occupation which worked well, as political news emanated from the capital and had in any event to be sent out to the provinces, while local sub-editors provided local news. Jerdan remarked that this system was “to the sound edification of their readers, and the entire relief of their proprietors, who had nothing to do but eat their puddings and hold their tongues” (1.110). His exact contributions to these newspapers are untraceable as no names were appended to articles.
Jerdan also helped to translate Madame de Staël’s Corinne with which he was pleased. Coincidentally, this novel was to have a great influence on his protégée Letitia Landon’s poem “The Improvisatrice” several years later. Jerdan was, however, dissatisfied with a novel he wrote in collaboration with a Michael Nugent, based on material furnished by an unnamed captain, and entitled New Canterbury Tales (1.110) published by Henry Colburn, an aggressive publisher who played a crucial role in Jerdan’s subsequent life. New Canterbury Tales takes the form of a bawdy exchange between a Major-General without prospect of a regiment, and a retired general. (The British Library has a book by this name published in 1811, by Oliver Outline, Major-General, but Jerdan’s name is not mentioned). They journey together to Canterbury and meet two other characters. Their talk is full of puns and sarcasm; one character jeers at another ‘Your Scotch brogue unfitted you for any character beyond a mute in Mahomet’, a jibe that Jerdan may well have heard addressed to himself. This jeer possibly refers to the chapter, ‘The Life of Mahomet’ in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an abridged edition of which was published in 1807, in which he says that “the jurisdiction of the magistrate was mute and impotent”.
Jerdan published many essays in both prose and verse, most anonymously, but occasionally using the name ‘Teutha’, an ancient name of the River Tweed. Under his earlier pseudonym as the author of the British Eclogue — the British Library copy is dated 25 October 1809 — W.J. André also published a poem on the occasion of George III’s Jubilee, admitting later that he had lost his copy). Jerdan prefaced his 590 lines of fairly pedestrian verse with a breathlessly apologetic explanation and excuse for its poor quality, claiming that as the country had decided only in September to celebrate the King’s Jubilee, he had not had time to polish his work. The verse is replete with footnotes, in one of which he took the golden opportunity of mentioning his favourite theme: patronage for literature. The note declared that the King alone had been the sole patron of genius and science for the preceding fifty years, no Minister having been appointed to patronize literature. The stanza in which he drove this point home gives a flavour of the entire tribute:
No Minister in Britain's isle
Of late has risen, alas the while!
To rescue genius from neglect,
Unshielded merits to protect,
To dissipate poor Talent's gloom,
Or bid the buds of Poesy bloom -
’Tis his alone – ’tis GEORGE'S praise,
Neglected genius to praise,
To Merit's modest plea t'attend,
And lowly Talent to befriend -
In him alone does Britain find
Mecenas and Augustus joined.
There is no doubt that Jerdan had a genuine deep regard and affection for his King, and would have preferred time to perfect this celebratory tribute to do his Monarch justice. This tribute was not intended to be ironic. His later strenuous efforts to ensure that a statue of George III was erected in his memory show that Jerdan’s regard was genuine.
Having completed his short time with The Pilot, although he still continued to edit the provincial papers, Jerdan wrote regularly for the Morning Post. This, like most newspapers of the day, was mainly concerned with political matters and also included news from overseas, law reports and extracts from the London Gazette.
Two portraits of Mary Ann Clarke and a caricature satirizing her involvement in selling army commissions. Left: Mary Ann Clarke by Adam Buck. Middle: York Commission Warehouse attributed to Charles Williams. Right: Mary Ann Clarke by Lawrence Gahagan. All three Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery London. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
He considered that his most effective contributions were leaders on the hot topic of the day: the conduct of the Duke of York and his mistress, Mary Ann Clarke. This scandal took up a considerable amount of parliamentary time, and it was Jerdan’s task to report on the debates. Jerdan’s leaders in the Morning Post staunchly supported the Royalist cause, “denouncing the conspiracy against him and exposing the misdeeds of his enemies.” This partisan approach proved disastrous to the Morning Post, and within two weeks the circulation was dropping by hundreds every day. This galling fact did not reflect the enormous effort Jerdan was putting into his articles. He attended the House every night, making notes on the entire debate, after which he went to the offices of the Morning Post in the Strand, to prepare the next day’s column. From there, often at three a.m., he virtually sleep-walked three miles home to Brompton, to partake of a pint of mulled madeira, a bit of dry toast, and four hours’ sleep, until the whole circus started again next day.
William Jerdan was not a man to miss a chance to meet a member of “the Fair”, so when Mary Ann Clarke invited him to her house in the King’s Road, he accepted eagerly. Her purpose was to cajole him into softening his acerbic leaders which cast her as the villain of the scandal. He was conscious of, and enjoyed, her obvious feminine wiles and seductive skills, to the extent that he did indeed moderate his tone about her.
Benefitting from his intensive experience in reporting parliamentary debates, Jerdan subsequently covered three sessions of Parliament for the daily British Press or Morning Literary Advertiser. He also contributed to a monthly publication called The Satirist, or Monthly Meteor which was soon to become an important part of his life.
Somehow, in between all his frantic journalistic activity, and family demands, Jerdan still found time for a social life, and even some trips. In the summer of 1809 he managed a holiday of almost a month, including a visit to the mess of the 95th Rifle Regiment at Hythe, in Kent, where he admired the soldiers’ devotion to their military duties, and their equal devotion to dinners and balls. He became well acquainted with many of the officers and men, marching with them to their embarkation at Deal, where he stayed on board the Superb and Seraphis, at the invitation of a surgeon colleague of his uncle Stuart. A sight never to be forgotten was the departure of over three hundred vessels sailing down the Channel. Most of the men with whom he had made friends in the soldiers’ mess were lost either in the Peninsular Campaigns or the ill-fated Walcheren expedition, an invasion by 40,000 British troops of the Isle of Walcheren in the Scheldt, with the aim of capturing Antwerp and destroying the French fleet. It was a disastrous failure (1.114).
On a lighter note, in 1810 Jerdan attended the “stately and brilliant” proceedings which installed Lord Grenville (one of the controversial “Ministry of all the Talents” and later Prime Minister) as Chancellor of Oxford University. He grumbled, though, at having to pay five guineas a week for a “3-pair back room”, suggesting, with his tongue in his cheek, that the expense “may, perhaps, account for my education not being finished as it might have been!” (1.126). In the autumn of that year he returned to his beloved Tweedside for a short visit, and the following year spent almost ten days at Harlow Bush near Cambridge enjoying shooting, one of his favourite sports. Although all his professional life was to be spent in London, his heart was always in the country, and he escaped at every possible opportunity to shoot, hunt, fish, or merely to bask in the peace of a rural setting. Jerdan earned extra income by attending series of committee meetings discussing the Regent’s Canal, producing a précis of half a sheet after each meeting. For this he earned a total of one hundred and fifty pounds, a surprisingly considerable sum for a simple task. (James Morgan, Engineer of the Regent’s Canal, drafted plans in 1811 which became the basis of the Regent’s Canal Bill that passed Parliament after a stormy passage in July 1812.)
One of Jerdan’s more endearing traits was his wish to help people in distress; this characteristic evinced itself quite early in his London life when a friend and Brompton neighbour, 23 year old George Hammon, found himself in deep trouble. He had defrauded his employers, the banking house of Birch & Co. He could have escaped to France but was caught, and sentenced to death. He wrote to Jerdan from Tothill-fields prison, begging for help. Appalled, Jerdan wrote to government authorities asking for mercy for his friend, raising a petition, and using his position as parliamentary reporter to plead for leniency. Although by no means condoning Hammon’s actions, Jerdan felt, at the prospect of Hammon’s execution, that “there were palliatives in the case which might make stern Virtue pause, and Justice hesitate” (1.127). Visiting Hammon in his cell, he found himself locked in, an experience which so upset him that he fainted, and suffered nervous attacks for several weeks afterwards. He took Hammon’s wife to plead before the Recorder of London, the infamous “Black Jack” who, as a condition of offering to help, propositioned the distraught wife. Through Jerdan’s efforts, and with assistance from Canning, Hammon’s death sentence was commuted to transportation for life. Jerdan arranged for him to be employed with a wine merchant in Bordeaux, but caught sight of him many years later on an incognito and risky visit to England. He was later seen as a dapper waiter in a hotel between Calais and Paris, while his blameless wife retired to the north of England. This exploit to help someone in distress was one of the more dramatic of Jerdan’s interventions. As time went on and he acquired influence in certain circles, he was frequently instrumental in arranging financial and other assistance when it was most desperately needed.
A mood of desperation and depression was the norm in the England of 1810: Napoleon was at the height of his power; the Industrial Revolution was causing social and economic upheaval; King George III was becoming increasingly incapacitated, and in 1811 the Prince Regent was installed. This was an uneasy year, when the Regent’s political allegiances changed dramatically as he betrayed those who had supported him. The poet Anna Barbauld marked the year with her poem entitled “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” giving a gloomy view of the present and future prospects for the country; in the Examiner of 29 December 1811.John and Leigh Hunt labelled it “a strange and perplexing year”. The following year Napoleon marched on Moscow and the United States Congress declared war on Great Britain.
Britain was about to face a unique situation. Following Lord Grenville’s Whig Ministry, the Duke of Portland had assembled a coalition of Tories in 1807. However, Portland was old and ill, and Spencer Perceval was effectively the chief minister. In 1809 he was formally appointed Prime Minister, to the displeasure of most senior statesmen who absented themselves from his government. However, the economic health of the country was gradually benefitting from the improvements Perceval’s government was making. The Prime Minister had held office for two years and 221 days when, on 11 May 1812, he was assassinated, the only British Prime Minister to have died in this manner.
At the fatal moment Jerdan was within inches of Spencer Perceval. He had arrived at the House of Commons at 5 p.m. for his usual stint of attending and reporting debates, at the same moment as the Prime Minister walked through the lobby on his way to the Chamber to attend an inquiry into the recent Luddite riots. Jerdan greeted him, and was saluted in return. As Jerdan held open the door for Perceval to pass into the Chamber, Jerdan heard nothing, but saw
a small curling wreath of smoke rise above his head, as if the breath of a cigar; I saw him reel back against the ledge on the inside of the door; I heard him exclaim, ‘Oh God!’ or ‘Oh my God!’ and nothing more …I saw him totter forward, not half way, and drop dead between the four pillars which stood there in the centre of the space, with a slight trace of blood issuing from his lips. [1.136]
In the ensuing alarm and confusion several men rushed forward to carry Perceval’s body into a side room. Hearing a clerk call out “That is the murderer!” Jerdan seized the assassin by the collar, a feat not too heroic, as by this time Bellingham was sitting quietly on a bench, offering no resistance. The discharged pistol was beside him, and another, loaded and primed, removed from his pocket. An opera glass, papers and other articles were also found on his person. A surgeon pronounced Perceval dead, the shot having entered his heart in a slanting direction as Bellingham was a tall man, and Perceval of short stature. To Jerdan, at such close quarters, it was clear that Bellingham was in a state of considerable agitation:
His countenance wore the hue of the grave, blue and cadaverous; huge drops of sweat ran down from his forehead, like rain on the window-pane in a heavy storm, and coursing his pallid cheeks, fell upon his person where their moisture was distinctly visible; and from the bottom of his chest to his gorge, rose and receded, with almost every breath, a spasmodic action, as if a body, as large or larger than a billiard-ball, were choking him. The miserable wretch repeatedly struck his chest with the palm of his hand to abate this sensation, but it refused to be repressed. [1.136]
Jerdan himself was close to fainting, and long remembered the kindness of a friend who found some water to revive him. Jerdan took charge of the pair of pistols until the trial, taking the opportunity of tracing them onto a piece of paper to show their size and strength. He also retained, and kept for many years, Bellingham’s opera-glass in a red case, used by the assassin in several visits to the House of Commons to survey the assembly. Bellingham was escorted to the bar of the House, with Jerdan still holding him firmly by the collar. He was then taken before magistrates, and remanded to Newgate until his trial three days later.
Reflecting upon the legal procedures of the Grand Jury many years later, Jerdan expressed his concerns about what he called “the evils of the system”. He identified particularly the perversion of facts that could so easily arise when witnesses are kept together in one room prior to the hearing, so that they may compare notes and potentially change their stories to fit another’s recollection. He believed that the Scottish system of law, as of education, was superior, as this situation could not occur there. In Scotland, a case conducted by the public prosecutor contributed “admirably to the pure and satisfactory administration of justice, between the country and the accused” (1.138). Jerdan was subpoenaed to appear at Bellingham’s trial on 15 May, but was not examined. The outcome of the proceedings was a foregone conclusion: Bellingham was found with the pistol that killed Perceval in his possession, and had admitted his guilt. However, the transcript throws light upon his reason for the killing which was not directed against Perceval the individual, but Perceval as the representative of a government against whom Bellingham harboured a deep and abiding resentment at his treatment by the British government when imprisoned in Russia. In 1804 Bellingham had left his native Liverpool and travelled to Russia, engaged in his business of trading, where he was imprisoned for some connection which he strenuously denied, with the loss of a ship for which the Lloyds underwriters refused to pay insurance. He appealed to Lord Gower, then British Ambassador to Russia, who did request his release from the military governor of Archangel. This request was refused on the grounds that Bellingham was imprisoned for a legal cause, and he was kept incarcerated for six years, being moved from dungeon to dungeon, fed on bread and water, and sometimes marched through the streets with hardened criminals, once under the very windows of the British Minister. He was eventually released from prison.
In instructing the jury, the judge burst into tears when speaking of Spencer Perceval, and the reverence in which he was held. The jury was out for fourteen minutes, returning a verdict of guilty. Bellingham was hanged on 18 May, a week after his violent and desperate act. Jerdan ensured that his own connection with the case lived on in his subsequent writings.
Jerdan never claimed to have played a pivotal role in the arrest of Bellingham, admitting that “there is little to boast of in having seized an unresisting man”, but was at pains to make it clear that there were those who let it be known they had faced with courage the danger of a loaded pistol, although in truth there had never been the slightest possibility of the second pistol being fired. In 1830 Jerdan wrote the entries for individuals portrayed in Fisher’s National Portrait Gallery. In his entry on Spencer Perceval, Jerdan published a facsimile of the manuscript petition he and Mr Dowling had removed from Bellingham’s jacket at the time of his arrest, identified by the initials JH, those of Mr Hume, to whom the papers had been passed for the trial. In this article Jerdan also provided a detailed sketch of the lobby of the House of Commons, showing the numbered positions of himself, Perceval and Bellingham at the moment the shot was fired, as well as those of various other witnesses. Jerdan also published the outline he had made of Bellingham’s pistol, as part of his article. Of the eleven pages of text that comprised his article on Perceval, Jerdan devoted four pages to the minutiae of the murder, an indulgence for which he could be excused as he was, first and foremost a journalist, and was at exactly the right place and time when the most heinous political crime in British history took place – a scoop indeed!
So thoroughly did Jerdan claim his place in history, that when a question was raised in Notes & Queries in April 1855 as to whether it was Jerdan or Hume who had seized Bellingham, the respondent quoted Jerdan’s words and concluded “I should have thought the fact that it was Mr Jerdan who seized Bellingham to have been as well known as that Wellington was at Waterloo.”
The experience was so important to him, that he relived the incident again almost fifty years later, giving it considerable coverage in his Autobiography. His part may not have been as crucial as he implied: he was not called upon as a witness, despite his close proximity to the victim, neither was his name mentioned by any of the several witnesses called upon at the trial. Nevertheless, it would have been an unnerving experience. News of the murder travelled fast, causing alarm and uneasiness. The assassination changed the political leadership of the country.. Within days the Earl of Liverpool had been appointed as Prime Minister, and retained this position until 1827.
Examples of title pages and articles from The Satirist. The one at right comes from a negative review of Sir Walter Scott
For Jerdan, life went on as usual. He attended and wrote up reports of debates in the House, and met all his other journalistic commitments. He continued to contribute to The Satirist or Monthly Meteor with pleasure but only rarely, over a period of several years. This journal had been launched in October 1807 by George Manners, and to Jerdan it came to represent “a very essential section of my literary career” (2.309). Its tone was a relief from the turgid reports of parliament with which he had been so involved. He commented that “its talent and virulence very speedily attracted general notice, warm partisanship, and bitter hate”. Against the economic depression and political uncertainty in the difficult days of 1812, some sections of the press wielded a potent weapon: satire. In the visual arts, Rowlandson and Cruikshank were among the foremost political cartoonists and their work sometimes found a place in The Satirist. Each issue included a political cartoon on a fold-out sheet, and few were safe. One such caricature appeared which included Lord Grenville, the long-suffering Lord Moira of Jerdan's Edinburgh days, Sheridan, John Kemble, and many other public literary, political and dramatic figures, all with the figure of the Satirist looming over them, brandishing his whip. The Whig government, the “Ministry of all the Talents” came in for especial virulence. The Satirist was more than a solely political journal; it was a magazine with various features, and Jerdan particularly relished, and contributed enthusiastically to one entitled “Comparative Criticism” in which contradictory reviews of plays, and new publications, from other periodicals were placed in juxtaposition to each other, highlighting how ridiculous it was to place any reliance upon such opinions.
In January 1808 Jerdan had provided The Satirist with an introduction to his political drama Vox et Praeterea Nihil [A voice and nothing more], or Parliamentary Debates in Rhyme, a comic ridicule against Opposition leaders and adherents. The ‘drama’ itself followed in the February issue. Wrapped in the conceit of a letter to “Mr Satirist”, Jerdan introduced his subject, explaining: “Anxious to rescue from disgrace and obloquy a certain body of political worthies, self- named ALL THE TALENTS, I long ago exerted all my talents to discover a method of doing justice to their virtuous patriotism; but so much had been written and said upon their arrogance in power, their meanness while falling, and their rancour since that lamentable event, that I began to dispair [sic] of success.” After twenty false starts, he continued, he lit upon the notion of presenting his characters in the process of deliberating upon their future actions in the format of a “tragic-comic-melo-drame in rhyme”. Jerdan clearly enjoyed choosing the names of his dramatis personae, including the easily identifiable Mr Grin-vile, Mr Chance-seller and Mr Wind-I-am. Readers were advised that four acts of the play were concerned with the usual “lamenting, regretting, groaning, reviling, quarrelling, bragging and cursing” of the various characters, but in the fifth act the author must make a happy ending. In this drama, the final act was a discussion about creating the means to harass their successors in office, noting with heavy irony that
the old palaver about the freedom of the people, reform of parliament, liberty of the press etc. etc. won’t go down now, since they have been tried and found wanting. At last, however, they agree that nothing can render them more hateful, despicable and ridiculous than they are already and determine to rail against ministers for…speaking in a haughty tone to America, for vexing and thwarting the designs of Buonaparte etc. etc. and above all, for not promising any thing while they perform a great deal, which my heroes conclude is not done from any love to the country, but solely with the design, Mr Satirist, of satirising them!!!
Complaining that both Drury Lane and Covent Garden had rejected his drama, Jerdan begged “Mr Satirist” to show the world how clever he was by publishing his work, not in its original dramatic form, but in monthly instalments of rhyming debates. He did not need to notice the present ministry of course, as “they never say or do anything worth preserving” and could not compare with the virtues of a C-nn-ng or a P--l, and various other almost-named Tories. He declared to the “great Satirist” “what a grand thing it will be to consecrate all the effusions of All the Talents; not in the slovenly way of a daily paper – not choaked with the numerous weeds which spring up so luxuriantly with every little flower of rhetoric, vanity and patriotism – not buried beneath the dross of extraneous matter…” and so on and on, and with a final ironic flourish, signs himself “Brevis Curtis”. The actual “drama” appearing in the February issue consisted of a few maudlin drunken exchanges between his main characters; it was the minor roles of Mistresses Fitz and Bucks (called Mrs and Miss Prompter) who were given the thrust of the scene:
Miss P. Nay, dearest Mother, prithee cease to sorrow,
Tho’ wrong today, all may be right tomorrow:
Pray take some ratafia to quell these shocks,
The Talents yet may overthrow the Blocks.
Mrs P. Ah! By the virgin! That will never be,
They’ve bragged and blundered on to that degree,
The people’s eyes are opened to their shame,
And all the world, save France, detest their name.
How could these lips so foolishly persuade
Prompter to lend such cursed fools his aid.
Jerdan concluded his address to “Mr Satirist” by remarking that the public had been greatly deprived by the refusal of the theatres to produce his drama – ironic to the end.
Given its nature, The Satirist was a journal which was constantly in trouble with the law, monthly battling law-suits, writs for libel and assaults on its proprietor (2.313). Despite these unfavourable conditions, when George Manners wished to dispose of his interest in the paper Jerdan purchased the copyright from him, together with the house at 267 Strand in which it was published. The house purchase proved to be an albatross around Jerdan’s neck. He took over editorship of The Satirist on 1 July 1812 and eliminated from its tone the vituperative rancour that had made it so popular and notorious. He was not sanctimonious about this, however, stating his aims clearly, if rather lengthily. Recognising that satire was a potent instrument, he announced in The Satirist of 1 August 1812 that he intended to use it impartially, to correct crimes “that flaunt in the broad face of day”, but not to gratify envy, disseminate slander, or poison the confidence of social intercourse (2.314). He dropped “Comparative Criticism” but introduced a new feature called “The Moon”, offering lighter literature such as anecdotes and epigrams. Jerdan intended to greatly expand articles on politics, theatre, and critical reviews. He continued to include a cartoon at the beginning of every issue, with an “Explanation of the Caricature”. One, dated 1 August 1812, depicted The Satirist under new management: Jerdan driving a coach and four, symbolising the magazine, trampling on a woman, Vice, who has dropped her sword. The image contained witches, thunderbolts and sunrays, with a crest of the letters SNS (Satirist New Series), a laurel wreath, a snake and crossed pens. For a few months, his new approach was successful (Brooke).
In his second volume, January-June 1813, Jerdan printed The Satirist’s first advertisement (for Ladies’ Riding Habits), announcing that advertising would henceforth be a regular feature. It was apparently unsuccessful, as no more appeared [Sullivan 386]. The third volume of The Satirist commenced in July 1813 and Jerdan deemed it a success. The tone of his editorial leader in the issue for September of that year was entirely serious and political, and concerned the Congress for Peace at Prague. Napoleon was in trouble on all sides; he had left his army retreating from Moscow, Prussia had declared war on France, and Napoleon had allowed Metternich to attempt to mediate peace. Napoleon had just lost Spain as a result of Wellington’s victory at Vitoria. Even from such a disadvantaged position, Napoleon declined the terms offered to him under the Congress of Prague. Jerdan was cynical – or perhaps realistic – about the Congress, calling it
the solemn trickery in which every sovereign of Europe engages, well-knowing that it will lead to nothing – the breathing-time armistice…the most hostile meeting for pacific purposes that Form and Folly ever exhibited to an astonished world…is it not a shame…that credulous mankind should yet, …be so marvellously stupid as to be blinded by the flimsy pretexts. Alas! When will age bring wisdom to this same world of ours… But perhaps, in after ages, when all our other labours are forgotten, and the bright pages of this work are buried in the dust of oblivious antiquity so deeply, that not even black-letter zeal will venture to assail the mouldering heap; in those days when the fingers which form these letters, and the stump with which they are written, shall be alike insensible; it may be remembered, that, at least, one miserable scribbler could tell his country to expect nothing but war from the pantomime at Prague. [1 September 1813]
He was right. Napoleon’s rejection of the Congress for Peace offer resulted in Austria joining Russia, Prussia, Britain and Spain in the war on France and the fighting continued.
A fourth volume of The Satirist followed but Jerdan rapidly became disenchanted with it, partly because Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 left a large void, where previously space given to attacks on him had been increasing [Sullivan 386]. His publisher, Williams, had been persuaded by the Duke of York’s old adversary, Mary Ann Clarke, to produce a libellous pamphlet against Fitzgerald, the Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer. Jerdan wrote to Fitzgerald to apologise for his publisher’s part, and then went to visit Mrs Clarke who had been arrested, finding her as self-satisfied and cheerful as ever. She was sentenced to nine months in the Marshalsea Prison, from where she sent out cards proclaiming “Mrs M. A. Clarke At Home every Evening till farther notice”. At this time Jerdan began an association with the Sun newspaper and could not devote sufficient attention to The Satirist. Its circulation dropped, because the paper did not titillate the public as the original version had, and Jerdan ceased publication. He attempted to revive it under another name, The Tripod or New Satirist, but this paper lasted only a very short time; as he said “it had soon hardly a leg to stand upon, and so was kicked over” (2.315), ceasing in August 1814 [Sullivan 386].
The property in the Strand that Jerdan acquired from George Manners in the purchase of The Satirist proved to be a drain rather than a benefit to his resources. Not only did the paper fail, but so did his feeble attempts to be a landlord. At the time of purchase Jerdan was assured the tenants were respectable – but he was not ruthless enough to force them to pay rent, and was led a merry dance. The mantua-maker and her young assistants, tenants of the first floor, laughed in his face when he called for the rent; his threats against another tenant, an agent for a wealthy Welsh mine, resulted in the man sending him the door-key to the Strand house in a letter for which, to add insult to injury, Jerdan had to pay the postage. He received nothing at all for his property, which he continued to own for five years. He still owned it when he commenced work on the Literary Gazette in 1817 when it became the publishing offices of Pinnock and Maunder. Thus the property-owning venture was a disaster for Jerdan. Even when he eventually managed to dispose of it, he received bills on the Newbury bank for the price, but this bank was robbed, and payment was stopped. Jerdan had to wait a further twelve years before the purchasers finally paid him the debt due.
Fortunately for him, Jerdan was now firmly launched upon the path of journalism: he had written up parliamentary debates for the Aurora, the Pilot, and the Morning Post; he had tried his hand at writing for, and editing The Satirist and Tripod and published several poems. With this wealth of experience (but little to show in the way of financial benefit) he was ready for his next step, into the illustrations/satirist1x.
Pyle, G. P. “The Literary Gazette under William Jerdan.” PhD dissertation. Duke University, 1976.
Catalogue of Personal and Political Satires preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. Ref. No. 11894. W. H. Ekoorb (Brooke).
Sullivan, Alvin. British Literary Magazines 1789-1836. The Romantic Age.. London: Greenwood Press, 1983.
Last modified 17 June 2020