he huge crowd was silent, the only sound the muffled beat of crepe-covered drums. The young surgeon’s clerk, William Jerdan, stood on the deck of the guardship Gladiator in Portsmouth Harbour. He was watching the Victory, flag at half-mast, bring home the embalmed remains of Horatio, Lord Nelson from the Battle of Trafalgar. The date was 2 December 1805, a day the nation would remember. An historic day too, for the man Jerdan loathed. As Nelson’s body sailed into harbour, Napoleon Buonaparte was decimating the armies of Russia and Austria on the battlefield of Austerlitz.
Jerdan was a surgeon’s clerk in name only; his uncle Stuart, the ship’s surgeon, had despaired of helping his young nephew to recover from a recurrent debilitating illness unless he was able to supervise him closely. He realised that this was possible only if William enrolled into the Royal Navy. Jerdan’s time was spent reading, and he occasionally risked a flogging for not dousing his light when ordered. As so often in his youth he was spoilt, being given a cabin and cot by a Captain of Marines who lived ashore, and he was invited to eat with the officers in the gunners’ mess. He often remarked, during later life, that he was spoilt from childhood by indulgence, and felt very strongly that this had created fatal flaws in his character.
Kelso by J. M. W. Turner engraved by A. Wilmore. This image appears on the title-page of the first volume of Jerdan’s Autobiography. Click on this image and those below to enlarge them.
William Jerdan was born on 16 April 1782 into a family who were large fish in the small pond of Kelso, a Borders town at the junction of the Rivers Tweed and Teviot. The Jerdans were amongst the gentry, one of the families of whom the local physician, Dr Douglas, noted in his contribution to Statistical Account of Scotland, “The higher class of inhabitants in this parish are courteous in their manners, liberal in their sentiments, and benevolent in their dispositions.” John Jerdan, William’s father, came from a long line of respectable landowners who had tenanted property around Kelso for over three hundred years. As a young man John Jerdan had wished to improve his prospects by being appointed as purser to an East Indiaman. Whether by accident or design he failed to arrive in London in time to join his ship. Too embarrassed to return home he stayed in London for a while, and in 1760-61 made a ‘volunteer voyage’ to India, an expedition rarely undertaken by a private gentleman at that time, and one that had unforeseen and tragic consequences for his sons.
When John Jerdan returned home he did not deploy his apparently considerable talents, being content merely to own his few fields, which brought in only a small revenue. He spent much of his time reading, acquiring factual knowledge. He was a portly man, easy-going, hospitable and a little indolent. Despite his modest income he married and produced a large family. His wife was Agnes Stuart, who claimed descent from an Abbot of Melrose and an illegitimate son of a “certain King James” (Autobiography, 1.10). William Jerdan himself was doubtful about the truth of the royal element of his maternal ancestry, as most respectable families in Scotland claimed some sort of similar lineage. Jerdan’s mother, Agnes Stuart, was born in 1746, daughter of John Stuart, who held the first appointment as surgeon to the Kelso Dispensary from 1777-89. The family lived in a large stone house called Paradise, in Kelso; the house still stands, now called Halidon. Possibly Agnes felt that in marrying into the Jerdan family she needed to create a more distinguished ancestry for herself, and so the myth of Melrose was born.
The marriage of Agnes Stuart and John Jerdan produced four daughters, followed by four sons, of whom William was the third. The sisters hardly feature in Jerdan’s reminiscences, although he did compose a poem to his sister Mary. His brothers played a more important part in his life. The eldest, John Stuart, was born in 1778, followed at two year intervals by Gilbert, William himself, and George.
William Jerdan’s childhood was idyllic, spent amidst glorious countryside. For Jerdan this was “one of the sweetest rural localities upon the face of the earth” (1.8) and implanted in him a love of beauty in nature. The scene he recalled so nostalgically when he came to write his Autobiography at the age of seventy-four, is little changed in the first decade of the twenty-first century; the tiny island, ‘Ana’, is just as he knew it, a home to wild birds, with Fleurs (now Floors) Castle, home of the Duke of Roxburgh, presiding over the landscape from a short distance.
The house where William was born was called “Lang Linkie”, and described as a mansion two centuries old (1.5). The family soon moved out, and the building became used as a place for town meetings, dancing schools and warehouses; it then became a distillery, and the small road leading to the site is still named “Distillery Lane”. The Jerdans’ new home was situated opposite the “Ana”, and boasted a fine walled garden. Both “Lang Linkie” and the Jerdans’ cottage have vanished, the chalk cliffs to which they clung being eroded over time. However, there is still a wall above the river bank showing infilled windows where they once stood, above the Cobby, a broad strip of grass between the riverside and the gable wall of “Lang Linkie”. The Cobby was the venue for many of the Jerdan children’s games. Favourites were Set-a-foot, Cock’s Odin, Boys and Girls, and Willie Wassle. Even at the age of eighty-five Jerdan remembered these games clearly (Notes and Queries). Both sexes and all classes could play together with impunity, a situation Jerdan looked back on fondly in his old age, sorry for the children of his present-day, who were much more strictly bound by rules of propriety and prudery. He recalled the teams of boys, one representing the Scots, the other the English, the former taunting the latter to “set-a-foot” on their territory, using heaps of discarded clothing to mark the border. Monkey battles of small boys on the shoulders of bigger boys usually resulted in torn jackets, and bruised shins. Bathing in the river was another favourite past-time, and one which caused Jerdan repercussions when he jumped into the cold water before properly recovering from smallpox. This debilitated him, and he suffered throughout his life from recurrent bouts of severe illnesses.
William’s father John Jerdan was appointed by the Duke of Roxburgh, holder of the feudal Barony, to the office of the Baron’s Bailiff, known as the Baron Baillie of Kelso. In effect this made John Jerdan the governor of the town, assisted by fifteen stent-masters, who under the authority of the Baillie, imposed a tax on the inhabitants of the town, the amount dependent upon their judgment of individual means. A duty of the Baron Baillie was to act as the Duke’s representative in the weekly court, administering justice as necessary. As an act of kindness, he was ‘assisted’ in this duty by the local harmless idiot Willy Hawick who, Jerdan maintained, was the original for Goose Gibby, Sir Walter Scott’s fictional creation in Old Mortality (1819). Scott’s frequent summer visits to his relation, Captain Scott of Rosebank in Kelso, led to his acquaintance with the Jerdan family. He was to become a useful connection in William Jerdan’s later life. Scott and Willy Hawick were both frequent visitors to the Jerdan household, even after Willy smashed two large and valuable Chinese mandarins John Jerdan had brought home, because he was sure they nodded and made faces at him! Scott, recalling with gratitude that it was John Jerdan who was the first to encourage his love of poetry, eventually asked William to watch over his own son Charles when he came to London. Thus John Jerdan, a man who was too indolent to make a mark for himself, was highly influential in nurturing the greatest novelist of the period, and his own son, who was to become an important influence on contemporary literature.
William Jerdan spent a great deal of time with his father who not only took him, aged three, to see the great Lunardi’s balloon flight, but actually fired the starting pistol himself. This was the first cross-border hot-air balloon flight, from Kelso graveyard to Doddington Moor, the initiator of the many spectacles which William enjoyed all his life. (Lunardi’s ballooning career in Great Britain ended in tragedy in Newcastle in 1786, when a young man became entangled in the ropes as the unmanned balloon came loose; he fell to his death from five hundred feet.) When he was five years old, his father called him from play to introduce him to the poet Robert Burns, with whom he had been walking. By the time he was seven, the Revolution was raging in France, but as a child this had no impact on him. Far more important to him was the day in 1795 when the whole family turned out to wave farewell to his beloved older brother John, just seventeen, as he set off on his pony from Ednam, happy to be going to India as a soldier. John Stuart Jerdan’s cadetcy had been arranged through his father’s friendship with the influential Mr Kerr, an eminent Scottish solicitor and Governor of Bombay, whom he had met on his own trip to the East some thirty years earlier.
Ednam was a village two miles from Kelso, and unlike many of Scotland’s eighteenth-century villages it still exists. John’s pony came from the wealthy farm of his mother’s brother John Stuart, “downright but gentlemanly, frank and hospitable, and inhabiting a land of Goshen” (1.211). This uncle was to be of great assistance in William’s early life. Ednam had another strong association for William It was the birthplace of the famous poet James Thomson, the author of The Seasons, a poem in four parts, ‘Winter’ being inspired by the Borders countryside. William Jerdan wrote a sketch of the poet, a few copies of which were privately printed. He was deeply influenced by Thomson: in his old age he mused about Thomson’s life, recognising that “at the distance of nearly a century, research into the private circumstances of an individual career could hope but for small reward in the shape of prominent discoveries” (1.211). He noted particularly how much Thomson was influenced by his mother, a circumstance that Jerdan could wholly identify and sympathise with.
While he admired his mother as “one of the best of wives that ever fell to the lot of man” (1.10), Jerdan idolised his father, recognising that “in his limited provincial sphere [he] stood almost alone for a genuine and cultivated taste in literature” (1.12). He encouraged William into an ardent and life-long interest in Scottish Ballads and Border lore, taking him to meet with old weavers, cobblers, and others whose snatches of song and legend he remembered all his life. In pursuance of this interest, the thirteen year old William visited the “gipsy haunts of Yetholm and the legendary den of the Worm of Wormielaw” (1.14). Whilst he was away, in the autumn of 1796, his father died suddenly.
In his Autobiography Jerdan said that a few months after his father’s death, his mother also died. In fact, Agnes lived on until 1820. The “mother” he mentioned was likely to have been a relation of his real mother’s, a Mrs Walker, wife of the Supervisor of Excise, who had “adopted” him from an early age. Jerdan did not explain why he was adopted by the Walkers, neither did he mention whether any of his brothers or sisters were similarly brought up by other than their parents. In any event, his adoptive parents spoilt and cossetted him, were over-generous with spending money, and allowed him considerable freedom. He believed that this caused him to grow up “petulant and self-willed; and it is only extraordinary that the process did not also render me vicious and selfish” (1.16). He believed that he was saved by inheriting his father’s easy-going disposition. Jerdan never took responsibility for trying to improve his flawed character, always blaming the way he was “spoilt” so often, by so many, in his early years.
According to The Statistical Account of Scotland, , Kelso where young William grew up was a prosperous and lively place with a population of 3,557. It had expanded greatly in the previous fifty years, largely because many small farmers and labourers came into the town to find other ways to make a living. Leather by-products were a staple industry of the town; William Jerdan’s grandfather John had been a skinner and tanner, and like others in his trade dried animal skins in the churchyard, a practice deplored by the local physician Dr Douglas, on moral as well as hygiene grounds. This churchyard was overlooked by Rosebank, the home of Sir Walter Scott’s uncle and aunt.
Kelso had benefited from a public library since 1750, housing a valuable collection of books, the stock being regularly updated. Perhaps its most famous volume was the copy of Percy’s Reliques that first inspired Scott. Kelso also boasted a coffee house supplied with the London, Edinburgh and local papers, so that the Jerdans, with other literate residents of the town, had access to current news, opinions and literature. William Jerdan’s father and brother were directly and deeply involved in the public press from the very beginning of the nineteenth century, an example which William Jerdan was eventually to follow for most of his long life.
As would be natural in such an educated and literate town, Kelso supported several schools, the main ones being the English parochial school, and an upper Latin school. At a very young age William Jerdan was outstanding at arithmetic, often invited to perform calculations to earn treats of gingerbread and sweets. (Unfortunately for his peace of mind in adult life, this talent vanished as soon as he learnt to read.) He attended the parochial English school with around 130 pupils who were expected to tip the master, the boy who gave the largest tip being made school captain, an open and frank acknowledgement of favour purchased. The school was attended by all classes of boys, from sons of the gentry to sons of the farm servant. No distinction was made for religious differences, either – only the schooling itself was important. Reading, writing, arithmetic and grammar, broadened into “moral precept and unsectarian advice” (1.20) as the boys grew older. All his life Jerdan believed this was an ideal educational model, free from attempts to subvert the student to any particular creed or opinion.
Leaving the English school Jerdan moved to Kelso’s upper Latin school. His master Mr Taylor left shortly afterwards to establish his own academy in Musselburgh, which William’s elder brother John attended until his education was completed. William, however, stayed in the Latin school for six years under the able tuition of Mr Dymock. Jerdan learnt Latin by drudgery and Greek “by love of its soft and sonorous structure” (1.21). Dymock later moved to Glasgow and edited many educational and classical works which Jerdan was to review in the Literary Gazette, the publication he edited and wrote for over a period of thirty-four years.
Jerdan’s literary interests, fostered by his father, became more defined and encouraged by a fortunate circumstance – another instance where he saw himself as being “spoilt”. As he was ready to leave Mr Dymock’s school, Dr Rutherford who had run a boarding school in Uxbridge retired and settled in Maxwellheugh, just across the river, assisting the Minister of the Established Kirk. He brought with him a young man who had been one of his boarders, entrusted to his care by a family in India. As a result of his achievements at school where he had won many prizes, William Jerdan was chosen to be this young man’s fellow-student. The time spent with Dr Rutherford cultivated Jerdan’s mind beyond mere learning. For about a year he found himself in an environment of “great intelligence and refinement of manners” (1.21) which offered him opportunities in a life and society he had never before known. In his spare time he “scribbled” in the offices of James Hume, a Writer (as solicitors in Scotland were called), to prepare himself for the career in law that he was supposed to follow. Hume’s amusing jumble of Latin and English was especially enjoyed by Jerdan, who was fascinated by language, and so prepared him for the constant puns and word-play for which he was to become well-known.
In 1800, Jerdan met the three Pollock brothers, with whom he formed lifelong friendships, from which he derived much happiness and benefit. The three boys, David, William and Frederick, were sons of David Pollock, originally from Berwick-on-Tweed, saddler to His Majesty King George III. Through distant relationships by marriage, the Pollock boys became guests in the Jerdan household for about ten days, long enough to forge ties with the three younger Jerdans of the same age as themselves, Gilbert, William and George. The provincial Jerdans were in awe of their sophisticated, London-educated friends. The eighteen-year old William thought he knew less of life than a ten-year old brought up in the capital. His particular attachment was to Frederick Pollock, a year his junior, but benefitting from an education at St Paul’s School in London. For the first time Jerdan felt himself weighed in the balance, and discomfited, but between the two young men there nevertheless was established a mutual regard and strong friendship. This brief encounter made Jerdan restless with the idea of studying law in Edinburgh; he was filled with longing to try his luck in London. He believed that he was ready to launch himself into the world.
Jerdan’s whim was yet again indulged, and on his nineteenth birthday, April 16, 1801, he left home and sailed from Berwick to London in a smack. Nine days later he landed at Wapping, was met by his uncle, Mr Stuart, Surgeon, RN, and introduced to the West Indian Merchant House of Messrs Samuel, Samuel and Charles Turner, which employed him as a clerk at fifty pounds a year. He was a poor clerk, bad at figures and at copying, and expected to be dismissed. Instead, again he was spoilt and petted, even when caught in office hours writing verses, as he had done since the age of twelve. Paradoxically, his penchant for writing was his entrée to a grand social circle at the home of his employer Charles Turner, where he was invited to mingle with people of rank and station. His uncle Stuart supplied him liberally with funds, so Jerdan did not take the idea of work too seriously; he was much more interested in pranks and fun, such as breaking eggs into a cask of fine madeira, thereby ruining it, an act greeted by laughter rather than dismay or punishment. Charles Turner’s son was one of Jerdan’s closest companions at this time, and their friendship was renewed years later on a steamship from Liverpool to Dublin, where the Fifth Meeting was held in 1835. This was a British Association visit and Turner represented the ship’s owners. After an excellent dinner, toasts were made, and in proposing Jerdan’s health, Turner regaled the company with a ludicrous account of Jerdan’s youthful inability to add up, or to copy ledgers neatly, while praising his achievements in the world of literature (1.23).
The Pollock brothers featured largely in these early days in London. Jerdan was welcomed hospitably to their home, and treated almost as another son. When David Pollock was called to the Bar of the Middle Temple, his chambers at Elm Court were a favourite haunt of Jerdan’s; David Pollock eventually became Chief Justice of Bombay. William Pollock, also a lawyer, died prematurely in 1817 and his brother Frederick, Jerdan’s special friend, studied law at Cambridge, later becoming Lord Chief Baron in Her Majesty’s Court of Exchequer. A younger Pollock brother, John, became a highly-placed civic official, and yet a fourth, George, covered himself in glory at the Khyber Pass. The family eventually boasted three knighthoods and attained the highest ranks of the legal and military professions, examples of character and self-discipline which might have exerted a very positive effect upon a young man from a Borders town who was more focussed than Jerdan, and not as keen on pursuits of pleasure (1.30).
The Pollocks were not Jerdan’s only acquaintances to make good in the world: the foreman of their saddlers’ shop, Peter Laurie, was destined to become Lord Mayor of London, as was a fellow-clerk of Jerdan’s, John Pirie. Jerdan proudly attended both inauguration dinners at the Guildhall. All these models of hard work and involvement must have impressed him, but he was not induced to follow their example.
Jerdan was always a sociable man, and one of his pleasures at this time was a small society formed to read and discuss papers on various subjects. The three Pollock brothers and other rising young men were also members, as was Thomas Wilde, later Lord Truro, Lord High Chancellor of England. Looking back on this period of his life, Jerdan recognised that he himself had equally good prospects as those of his friends, and was acknowledged by them as clever. Although he did eventually exert a considerable influence, his career did not attain the dizzy heights achieved by his young friends. True to his generous character he rejoiced at their success; he acknowledged this was earned by their unflagging hard work and dedication to their chosen path, a will to succeed and certainty in their own ability. He, on the other hand, forsook a profession, the law, and soon found himself “leaning for life on the fragile crutch of literature for my support” (1.39). But this clear understanding came with hindsight and by no means concerned the young Jerdan as he gleefully enjoyed life in London with his friends and associates. They were a lively, often rowdy group, but not violent or vicious. They indulged in harmless frolics, one of which was quoting passages of Homer in Greek to a bemused constable who took their witness statements after they had seen a man beating a drunken woman in the street (1.47).
At one of many jovial dinners, talk turned to the subject of secret ciphers, of which the company had little knowledge (1.40). Jerdan brashly asserted that it could not be difficult to invent one, and that he could easily design a secret unbreakable code. Thomas Wilde instantly offered him a wager, the forfeit being to provide the company with a dinner. On consulting the ‘Cyclopaedia’ Jerdan was horrified to discover that many schemes had already been devised and broken, and retired to bed discontent with his own pretensions. However, in the morning he found that his subconscious had been at work, and he arose with a system complete in his head. He confided this to a barrister friend, who immediately grasped the importance to the Government of such a scheme and urged Jerdan not to waste such treasure on a trivial bet. Wilde agreed to this proposal. True to form, Jerdan wove his castle in the air, anticipating a huge reward for his scheme. He and Wilde obtained letters of introduction and gained an audience with the private secretary to Lord Sidmouth, Mr Serjeant, who politely received their precious secret cipher and told them to return the following week for a fuller meeting. When they did so, Serjeant had forgotten the whole affair and being reminded, recalled that he had the papers safely in his drawer. More meetings followed but, due to illness, Jerdan was forced to leave the matter in Wilde’s hands and heard nothing more.
There was a sequel to this incident: several years later, around 1813, he was momentarily alone in the office of Rolleston, Under-Secretary to the Foreign Office in Downing Street; seating himself at Rolleston's desk he saw papers covered in hieroglyphics and figures he recognised as his own cipher. Returning to the office, Rolleston laughed and told Jerdan he could publish the content of the papers if he could decipher them. Not having the key to hand, Jerdan could not do this, but explained to Rolleston that he was the inventor of the cipher, describing to him the system employed. Rolleston admitted this cipher was widely used in the Foreign Office for all matters of secrecy. Unfairly, Jerdan received no acknowledgement, much less reward, for his cipher. However, always happy to be of use to his friends, he claimed a key role in being the instrument (through his cipher) by which Thomas Wilde entered into the hallowed halls of government, later rising to the eminence of Lord Chancellor. This gave Jerdan particular pleasure as Wilde came from a modest family, his father being only a junior partner in a small law firm. Wilde had not attended University and furthermore suffered from a stammer which he conquered by sheer will. Even as a young man Jerdan basked in his association with men of public distinction, a characteristic that became more noticeable as he progressed through his life.
Restless without regular employment and wanting to escape the heat of the London summer of 1801, Jerdan undertook a walk from London to Edinburgh, a jaunt he described at some length in the Leisure Hour, (September 1858 564). Leaving London on a Monday, he arrived at Newcastle on Saturday, passing and being passed by an acquaintance making the same journey by carriage and led horse. He claimed to walk at a rate of 40-50 miles a day, starting before breakfast, stopping for only a light snack at midday, then tackling the longest stretch with the incentive of a good dinner and comfortable bed at a convenient inn, to prepare him for the following day’s exertions. From Newcastle he proceeded to Edinburgh via Durham and Alnwick. He talked to everyone he met along the way, making a special point of chatting with labourers and working people. By this means he amassed a store of information, both trivial and profound. He continued to employ this practice to great effect on his subsequent travels. In later life he regretted that the advent of rail travel made such pleasurable encounters unlikely.
In the Spring of 1802 Jerdan and David Pollock spent a few days with their friend Burchell, in Amersham. On their way home Jerdan became seriously ill with “brain fever” and was quickly put under the care of his uncle Stuart, the naval surgeon, at his house in Lower Sloane Street. The air here was cleaner, the environment more rural, than in the City where Jerdan had been lodging close to his place of work. He was dangerously ill for a long time, subject to vivid hallucinations. A distinguished physician, Dr Harness, President of the Sick and Hurt Board, attended him and, Jerdan believed, saved his life. When he was able to travel his long-suffering and generous uncle took him back to Kelso and delivered him to his mother. Having subsidised Jerdan’s sojourn in London, his uncle must have been sorely disappointed to bring home an emaciated invalid rather than a successful prodigy, but this was not the last time he would come to Jerdan’s aid. Wishing for death, Jerdan instead gradually recovered his health and took up his pen again, writing a ten-stanza poem entitled “The Nosegay: To my sister Mary on seeing her gathering wild flowers”. Parts of this verse were surprisingly cynical for a twenty-year-old who had been as generously nurtured as Jerdan:
Nay! Hid beneath Love’s warmest smile,
The female heart t’ensnare;
And, under friendship’s guise,
Too oft, alas! Foul treachery lies,
Deceit and selfish care.
He tried to leave Mary with a more cheerful world view:
Yet suffer not scowling mistrust
To make thee to the world unjust,
And think the whole one blot:
For some there are – alas! How few!
With souls to every virtue true –
Heav’n cast with theirs thy lot!
He published this poem ten years later in his journal The Satirist and even fifty years after it was written he thought it worth repeating in his Autobiography d. But he was not yet on the path of literature. Despite his earlier false start, it was once again decided that Jerdan should go to Edinburgh to study law.
By 1803 he was placed with Cornelius Elliott, Writer to the Signet, (a solicitor who was also a member of the august body, The Society of Writers to the Signet), an aged relation whom Jerdan had not previously met. Yet again Jerdan experienced kindness and indulgence. The year he had spent in London set him apart from the other young men, and made him Mr Elliott’s favourite. He found lodgings in Thistle Street in the heart of the recently-built New Town, and just around the corner from Queen Street where Cornelius Elliott lived at No. 95, next door to Lord Moira, Commander in Chief of the forces in Scotland. Jerdan fell foul of Lord Moira on several occasions. The most serious incident, and perhaps the most silly of Jerdan’s misdeameanours. was when he stumbled home in his red jacket from a night out with the Volunteers, and bribed the sentry guards outside Moira’s house to present arms to him. Unluckily this charade was seen by Lord Moira, who had the soldiers imprisoned, and told Jerdan to wait until he was promoted before such honours were due to him. Much mortified next day, Jerdan made frantic petitions to Moira until the soldiers were released. Jerdan’s penalty was that henceforth Moira greeted him as “Marshal Jourdan”, a reminder not to get above his station.
Jerdan’s daily “studies” mainly consisted of an hour copying deeds, or taking dictation from Mr Elliot, after which they went out to breakfast. Jerdan still heartily disliked the law, eschewing his prescribed classes, but attending instead lectures on medicine and chemistry, which he much preferred. His social life however, made up for the daily drudgery. Elliott’s circle included his beautiful daughters and their bevy of female friends, and the entertainments on offer differed vastly from those he had experienced in London. There was a streak of eccentricity in Edinburgh which appealed to Jerdan. Once he was almost shot as a result of a silly quarrel with a fiery West Indian student, participating in a duel in which, seeing his opponent’s bullet hit the ground, Jerdan did not fire a shot in return. His days were filled with rounds of billiards, luncheons, dinners, drinking and oyster fêtes. Without the benign and balanced influence of his London friends, Jerdan was unable to resist so much temptation and lived to regret the time he later considered wasted.
However, not all of his time was spent on entirely frivolous pursuits: he was initiated into the Ancient Lodge of the Canongate Kilwinning No. 2, which ironically made the much put-upon Lord Moira his Brother in Freemasonry (2.316). He also served in the 1st (Gentleman’s) Regiment of Edinburgh Volunteers. The system of Volunteers had a considerable effect at a dangerous time in Britain’s war, as evidenced by a false invasion alarm caused by the accidental lighting of beacons which brought out between twenty and twenty-five thousand armed men from the region between the Tweed and the Forth alone. This caused Jerdan to reflect that when arms are entrusted to the disaffected, men respond to such confidence with loyalty and patriotism. (The authors of the Bill of Rights amendments to the American Constitution only twelve years earlier may have had this same belief when they decreed that all men could bear arms.) Thousands of Volunteers served in the field, most of whom were killed. Jerdan, who did not see active service, took part in training manouevres at Craigmillar Castle, a prototype for the storming of Badajoz and San Sebastian. At Craigmillar, however, the only casualty was a careless hare.
Literature continued to be a constant tug as Jerdan continued to scribble poems at the same time as indulging in revelries, half-heartedly pursuing law studies and his various other interests. He was in the right place for an aspiring author. For the last two decades of the eighteenth century Scotland’s most profitable trade was book-selling, leading to a boom in the printing industry, of which Scott and Ballantyne were a vital part. Prior to the advent of trains the proximity of Berwick-on-Tweed facilitated transport of books by sea, and books printed in Scotland were sold in London bookshops run by Scotsmen. Periodicals were an influential part of this huge expansion in print, the most notable at this early period being the Liberal Edinburgh Review and the Critical Review. These publications commented on new books, and quoted extensively from them, a template Jerdan was to emulate in his own Literary Gazette some years in the future. The circle whom Jerdan met at Elliott’s house, to which he had been admitted for his literary proclivities, would certainly have subscribed to at least one of these journals, broadening their horizons from the merely provincial to the wider world. The huge success of the novels of Sir Walter Scott gave an enormous boost to the literature industry, rendering inconceivable the disaster that finally befell him. Ballantyne and Constable which was still some years away.
The good life became altogether too much of a good thing: Jerdan’s always delicate health declined, partly as a result of too much high living, and partly caused by the shock of hearing that his West Indian duelling partner, with whom he had remained on the friendliest terms, had committed suicide. Hoping to cheer Jerdan up, Cornelius Elliott played a joke on him, sending him to obtain a signature from a lady client in the town, warning Jerdan not to be overcome by her extraordinary beauty. The lady turned out to be an ancient crone with a beard. Having extracted from Jerdan the reason for his badly-disguised amusement, she luckily turned out to have a sense of humour as well. This escapade did not achieve the desired effect of improving Jerdan’s health. Too much partying had given way to a frantic attempt to make up for months of lost study time, and he was reading avidly, putting a strain on his fragile constitution. He was so ill he was thought to be dying of consumption, and had given himself up for dead.
Salvation came in the form of a client of Elliott’s, whose legal action required minute inspection of parish registers throughout Peebleshire and Tweeddale. Correctly discerning that this task would greatly benefit Jerdan’s health, Elliott sent him off on horseback, and for several weeks he combed the hills, visiting every Manse, enjoying the priests’ simple way of life, and their hospitality, amid the wild countryside. His health restored, he made a final break with any pretence of studying law, and three years after he had been forced by illness to leave London, returned there with no fixed plan, but with a vague notion about pursuing a literary life. In his own words, “Like a child I could only see the gilt edges and gay binding of the book, and little apprehended the toil of the text, the labour of the brain, and all the troubles and ills that were concealed within!”
At the end of January 1805 Jerdan spent several days on board an East Indiaman, a splendid ship called the Earl of Abergavenney, berthed at Northfleet in Kent (1.99). The following week the ship left on its fifth voyage, with a diverse cargo funded from a huge investment by the entire family of the poet William Wordsworth. The plan was that the proceeds of the voyage would enable the poet to concentrate wholly on his poetry. In the Solent the weather deteriorated so badly that a pilot was employed to guide the ship safely out to sea; instead, he grounded her so severely on a notorious reef that, despite the valiant efforts of the crew to pump her out she sank, drowning almost everyone on board, including Commander John Wordsworth, brother of the poet. According to an eye-witness the Commander made no effort to save himself, but went down with his ship. Having met the officers and men so recently, Jerdan felt this dreadful accident most keenly.
Jerdan’s inability to keep his own accounts or to budget within his income, coupled with the profligate high-living habits developed in Edinburgh had not been of much concern to him in that city. In London however, his financial difficulties multiplied and he was in debt. Although these debts were settled for him, more than likely by his patient uncle, Jerdan was – finally – overcome by mortification and shame. He had been flattered since childhood as to his talents, his cleverness, his wit, but here he was in London with no work and little prospect of finding his place in the world. He again succumbed to illness, this time of a severely depressive nature. Once more, his uncle Stuart stepped in to rescue him.
At this time Stuart was the surgeon aboard the gunship Gladiator in Portsmouth Harbour, and enrolling Jerdan as “Able-Seaman Samuel Moses” took him aboard to take care of him and restore him to health. Jerdan served from 1 October 1805 to 28 February 1806 when he was honourably discharged, receiving the sum of £5 3s 1d (1.75). (He claimed that he later returned this sum to Disraeli to clear his conscience for not having in fact earned these wages.) Having no naval duties to attend to, he read voraciously. John Price, Lieutenant to the Dockyard, befriended him, taking him for cruises between Portsmouth and Ryde, thus restoring his mental and physical well-being. These five months considerably matured Jerdan. He discovered that he enjoyed soaking up knowledge and became sharply observant of people and events. This proved to be excellent training for his literary endeavours, as both journalist and editor. He watched the return of the Victory, bearing Nelson’s body, and heard many tales from the seamen who came ashore from the Téméraire, the Mars, the Tonant, and other battle-worn ships returning from Trafalgar. He saw scenes of horror and human misery, finding two bodies on the shore washed up from a recent wreck, and was uncomfortably aware of the proximity of a convict ship moored near to the Gladiator. The disgusting spectacle of a man flogged through the fleet stayed in his mind; the wretched criminal was taken on a specially-fitted boat alongside every ship and lacerated a prescribed number of times at each vessel, with the crews forced to watch. Although removed to hospital the man soon died. Jerdan reported that this experience made him a fervent supporter of reform in the matter of corporal punishment in both navy and army, and he rejoiced when the change in law ensured that such scenes were never to recur (1.78).
He still managed to find ways to enjoy his enforced naval “service”. Lieutenant John Price introduced him to pleasant society in Gosport; he was allowed to visit the local Haslar Hospital to further his interests in medicine and surgical science and, most excitingly for Jerdan, had his first poem published in “the Portsmouth paper” (1.80). The subject was William Wilberforce, who was annually raising Motions in the House of Commons to abolish slavery, a campaign that bore fruit in 1807. Seeing his work in print thrilled Jerdan; he carried the newspaper cutting in his pocket checking it frequently, and was convinced that all who saw him knew him to be the poet. (He kept the precious paper safe and, twenty years later, when he was purchasing Wilberforce’s house in Brompton, he was able to show the great man the poem written in his honour.) Unfortunately, no copies exist in the British Library of the Portsea, Portsmouth and Gosport Journal, which was the probable publisher of this work. The Hampshire Telegraph, the only other Portsmouth paper of that time, carries no poems on Wilberforce until 1807, when an indifferent poem signed with the initials J.H. appeared. It therefore seems likely that Jerdan’s first published work is lost to posterity.
The excitement of being a published poet confirmed Jerdan in his literary ambitions, a path down which his uncle Stuart refused to fund him further. His old friend, Lieutenant John Price, stepped into the breach and provided the money that enabled the young adventurer to again try his luck in London, not in the hated law studies as previously, but in the uncertain and fickle world of letters. An article in the Sun in 1805 has been attributed to Jerdan, probably incorrectly, on the grounds that the author’s penname of Viator was that used by Jerdan when he worked for the Sun several years later. The article, later turned into a pamphlet entitled “Observations on Indecent Sea-Bathing as Practised at Different Watering-Places on the Coast of this Kingdom” has a tone of indignant morality unlikely to be that of the 23-year old William Jerdan. Viator was frequently used as a penname by a variety of writers.
Last modified 16 June 2020