ventually the time came for Jerdan to leave Paris, with all its charms and difficulties, and return to London. He was fortunate in finding a congenial travelling companion in Douglas Kinnaird, a member of the Drury Lane Management Committee, but was told a story that astonished and upset him: Jerdan had published some mildly critical remarks on some lines of Byron’s (concerning a Mrs Charlemont, his lady’s attendant whose name was also spelled Charlmont or Clermont in contemporary documents), which had offended the poet.
George Gordon Lord Byron. Engraved by H. Robinson after a painting by Richard Westall, R.A.
From the 1840 Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrapbook edited by L.E.L. and Mary Howitt.
Byron, using Kinnaird as his messenger, had demanded satisfaction by challenging Jerdan to a duel. Kinnaird soon told Byron that his quarry was nowhere to be found as newspaper men were notoriously difficult to pin down, and were often drunk. He suggested to Lord Byron that it was “beneath his dignity to call out a paltry scribbler” who might accidentally kill him. His ploy worked and Byron acceded to his advice, thus ensuring that the world was deprived of neither Jerdan nor Byron. Jerdan was conscious that he owed his life to Kinnaird, for his kindly intercession, for Byron was renowned as a certain shot. (Jerdan recounts the story about Byron’s challenge to a duel in his Autobiography, but Byron’s Sketch from Private Life, was not published until 1815, a year after his journey with Kinnaird. Their discussion must therefore have occurred on another occasion and become confused in Jerdan’s memory so many years later.)
Safely back in London in the summer of 1814, Jerdan resumed his editorial duties on the Sun. He could not resist creating his own private celebratory verse, producing a ballad entitled Everywhere Happy to be sung to the old Scots tune of ‘Maggy Lauder’. A single verse will suffice to give the general idea of his gloating over Napoleon’s downfall:
At Paris, then, I took my way,
No scoundrel e’er went further,
And revell’d nobly night and day,
In rapine, blood and murther;
For when the Jacobins began
Their Revolution Free tricks,
They found I was their very man, And Ubicumque Felix! [chorus]
At this time he also wrote “Serpentine Sea Song,” which appeared in the Sun on 4 August 1814, with the refrain “We’ve caught the [fellow] at last” (the word used, he thought, was not suitable for ladies to hear). This was again a celebratory song about the transportation of the “Corsican Felon” to Elba. He never believed these works to be of immense literary value, but thought them interesting enough to include in his Autobiography, as they were “smart enough for immediate purpose and display cleverness and talent well fitted for the small ready change of temporary currency” (2.29). Jerdan ingenuously assured his readers that he could judge his own works as fairly as if they had been written by somebody else. He certainly enjoyed playing with words; puns and anagrams were his favourites, and he celebrated Napoleon’s exile with:
ANAGRAM: BONAPARTE IN ELBA
In Elba is placed (an appropriate station!)
Napoleon, once ABLE – once feared by each nation;
Now stript of his empire, his legions dispersed,
His real situation is ABLE reversed.
Although the country still suffered from the costs of the long war, London was full of continental visitors; luxuries which had been forbidden for so long were now being imported. Art treasures, hidden from Napoleon’s armies, found their way on to the English market, and for the first time in more than twenty years peace reigned. London hurled itself into pleasure: fêtes and entertainments abounded. A particularly popular event was the great Peace Jubilee, with bridges and pagodas in St James’s Park, and a model fleet on the Serpentine. Jerdan’s boyhood friend, David Pollock, was involved in promoting the new invention of gas and for thirty years was governor of the Chartered Gas Light and Coke Company. Pollock rushed to London to watch the lighting of the bridge and pagoda with this new invention. Mortifyingly, the bridge caught fire, and everything was plunged into darkness. Pollock was the butt of his friends’ jokes for quite a while afterwards. Of the successful and unsuccessful amusements, Jerdan remarked, slightly cynically perhaps, that “all rulers who take the trouble to devise amusements for the populace know what they are about, and how to smother disaffection, and create loyal attachment. The effect of a genuine holiday upon a working population is not to be calculated, and politicians would do well to study the problem” (1.204).
Whilst the country, for the time being putting aside economic despondency, resounded with rejoicings at the cessation of war, all was not well within the Royal household. As an ardent Monarchist as well as a political journalist, the situation would have been of great concern to Jerdan. In 1811 King George III’s sufferings from porphyria had necessitated the appointment of his son, George Prince of Wales, as Regent, a role he fulfilled until he became King on George III’s death in 1820. On the positive side the Regency saw the arts, literature and architecture blossom as never before. On the negative side, the Prince of Wales was widely despised for his marital and domestic problems and financial profligacy. In exchange for the King paying off his enormous debts, George had been forced into marriage in 1795 with Princess Caroline of Brunswick, even though, to his father’s disgust and rage, he was already (illegally) married to the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert. Princess Caroline was famously repulsive to her husband, but they had an only child, Princess Charlotte, who became the prize in a tug of war between her parents. Caroline was effectively banished to Blackheath in South London. She was heard to remark bitterly, “Je suis la fille d’un Hero; la femme d’un Zero.” “I am the daughter of a hero; the wife of a zero” (4.171).
As a consequence of this unsatisfactory childhood, Charlotte grew up rebellious and reckless and was virtually imprisoned in Cranbourne Lodge in Windsor Great Park for eighteen months, to prevent unsuitable liaisons. Byron and Shelley both wrote poetry praising her and attacking the Prince Regent for his behaviour towards her. At the same time as her daughter was under virtual house arrest in Windsor, Princess Caroline had her own severe problems. An investigation had been launched into whether a four-year old child, who formed part of her entourage, was the offspring of the Princess and one of her footmen. She turned for comfort and advice to George Canning, (see illustration no. 5.) and it was at this point that the story of the royal difficulties touched upon the life of William Jerdan.
Canning was a career politician and a man of principle and sympathy, with a love of literature; these aspects of his character endeared him to William Jerdan, who grew to idolise him. He admired Canning’s “profundity and firmness”, his “simplicity and playfulness”, his sweet tone of voice and courteous manner (2.10). Lest this sound like too much hagiography, Jerdan also related that Canning expressed contempt and disgust when confronted by anything base.
At the time of Princess Caroline’s distress in 1814, Canning was appointed as Ambassador to Lisbon, where he was to stay until the autumn of the following year. Before he left for Lisbon, the Princess sometimes visited him at Gloucester Lodge, his home in Brompton, a few minutes from Jerdan’s Cromwell Cottage. Jerdan was in the habit of dropping in to see Canning, often on a Sunday after church. In good weather they strolled in the garden for a couple of hours, and if wet, sat talking in the library. Jerdan appreciated and relished being so warmly welcomed into Canning’s home and circle, which included poets, painters, philosophers, and wits as well as the inevitable statesmen.
One Sunday afternoon as he approached Canning’s house for their regular meeting, Jerdan saw Princess Caroline’s coach at the door. As he hesitated to intrude, the Princess, highly flushed, came out of the house, escorted by Canning who seemed emotional. She entered her coach and drove off. Canning motioned Jerdan to go inside, where he entered the room and stood with his arm on the mantelpiece. Canning came in, in an excited and agitated state, and theatrically exclaimed: “Take care, sir, what you do! Your arm is bathing in the tears of a Princess!” (2.15). Caroline had indeed been weeping on the very spot, having just then accepted the advice of Canning and Lord Gower that she should leave England. She left on 9 August 1814 for her native Brunswick, and did not return until 1820, three years after the death of her twenty-one year old daughter Charlotte, in childbirth, who had been happily married to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. She was the only eligible heir to George III in her generation, so her death was a national disaster. Her baby son also died.
Canning and Gower’s advice that Caroline leave England was partly for sound political reasons, to create more tranquillity in the country, but also to remove a source of royal scandal which was a perpetual harassment to the ailing King George and a thorn in the side of the Prince Regent. This was not to be the end of Canning’s advice and sympathy towards Princess Caroline, a loyalty which would cost him dearly. Once the Princess had left England, Canning began to make preparations for his departure to Lisbon, and Jerdan found the atmosphere at Gloucester Lodge more cheerful. He affectionately recalled a particular quirk of Canning’s: on meeting a mere acquaintance, he offered only one or perhaps two fingers when shaking hands, and Jerdan had been pleased to graduate to receiving three fingers. After the episode of the Princess’s tears however, Canning shook hands with the delighted Jerdan using his whole hand, a sign of esteem given by Canning to very few.
Jerdan gained obvious benefits from such proximity to a senior politician: as a political journalist, he was at the very centre of things. Canning, apart from enjoying Jerdan’s good company, was pleased to have an opportunity to learn from him what people thought about political matters, knowing that in his daily work the journalist met with intelligent men in many fields, such as literature, agriculture, mercantile and professional. On one occasion Jerdan recalled that he went too far in his outspokenness, and Canning mentioned this to another MP who took him to task over it. Jerdan defended himself on the grounds that he believed Canning would prefer truth rather than concealment, and he was forgiven his trespasses.
Jerdan’s interest in Canning’s appointment to Lisbon was personal as well as professional. Canning had agreed that he should look in on Gloucester Lodge and its gardens in his absence, and report on any problems to Canning’s ‘man of business’ for action. Canning also asked Jerdan and his friend Francis Freeling to send butter and mutton to Portugal for his family. Jerdan enjoyed the correspondence he received from Canning, especially those personal notes from such an exalted person familiarly addressing him as “My dear Sir” and ending “Yours most sincerely”. (Political or business letters were more formally just “Sir” and “Yours respectfully”.) Canning received sets of the Sun by every packet, in fact two sets, and asked Jerdan to cancel one, sent from the Foreign Office.
Canning’s appointment as Ambassador to Lisbon, and his tenure there was the subject of much animosity in the House of Commons and therefore was reported in the Press. Jerdan, of course, ensured that the Sun supported Canning in the opposition war being waged against him. In the absence of his idol, Jerdan was in constant touch with William Huskisson, MP, an active proponent of free trade who, though he became President of the Board of Trade and Colonial Secretary, is best remembered as the first person to die in a railway accident. Huskisson corresponded with Jerdan concerning Canning’s financial difficulties in maintaining a fitting Representation of the Court in Lisbon on an inadequate allowance, and also about incorrect rumours of Canning’s early return to Britain. These matters and others were for Jerdan’s private ear only, and not for publication. The Sun merely announced that Canning was remaining in Portugal in his personal, not state, capacity, and firmly refuted rumours spread by the Whig Morning Chronicle, Jerdan’s old nemesis.
In the autumn of 1814 there existed fifteen daily papers in Britain, of which eight were published in the morning and seven in the evening. Jerdan classified these as Ministerial or pro-government, Opposition or Neutral. This latter group he dismissed as being not truly independent, but leaning merely a little more or a little less to one side or the other. His own paper, the Sun, was indeed a Tory organ, but in an article on 21 October 1814 he was insistent that he and it were never mere tools of the Party. Politicians, he said, had no influence on what went into his paper and no influence on what was omitted. The same held true in reverse: the paper would not attempt to influence politicians to uphold any particular action or opinion. Jerdan strongly maintained that the connections between politics and the Press were natural but never corrupt. This was his published manifesto.
However, he had other interests besides the politicians: he was always keen to make everyday lives better, and claimed to be “one of the boldest and earliest, if not the very earliest, champion for cheap bread, cheap food, and cheap clothing for the poorer classes, and the downfall of war prices, which enriched only one class, the agricultural, including landlords and tenants!” (2.22). For Jerdan, his newspaper was a powerful tool in achieving his laudable aims. Throughout that autumn his pieces in the Sun reflected his campaign to improve the lot of the working classes. He called persuasively for lower food prices, fairer prices for imported goods, wages that would enable British manufacturers to compete with continental rivals, and a properly regulated property tax.
Whilst promulgating these economic theories, Jerdan did not lose sight of his first love. Now that the war was over – or so it was believed – he was finally able to turn his attention, coupled with his journalistic experience, to the literary leanings nurtured by his schoolteacher Dr Rutherford. He printed a verse called “The March to Moscow”, accepting it from a Mr Sayer, an official in the Tower. The author was many years later revealed as the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey. Jerdan reprinted this ‘jeu d’esprit’ in Volume I of his Autobiography in 1852, and referred to Southey’s trick again in an article in 1866. To celebrate the peace, Jerdan launched a new feature in the Sun, a Review of new Works. This, he said, was the first of its kind in a newspaper, and from this small beginning grew, over the years, press influence upon the literature of the nation. This grandiose claim is one that Jerdan made more than once, and its truth has not been challenged by subsequent historians of the press. “When I look around me at this date,” mused Jerdan forty years later, “I cannot but feel a sensible gratification on witnessing this little plant become the parent of a vast tree that overspreads the land and possesses a universal influence upon the interests of literature” (2.203). The newspapers of the time paid scant attention to any of the arts, merely listing exhibitions, seldom mentioning books. The arts were the province of the monthly, or quarterly, reviews of which there were several competing for circulation and sales.
This was an optimistic and productive time for Jerdan. But then, to use a meteorological metaphor, storm clouds erupted, threatening to obscure the Sun. The clouds were in the shape of Jerdan’s colleague and co-proprietor of the Sun, John Taylor.
Taylor was a ‘character’, known by London society, especially the worlds of theatre and literature; he was a favourite of actors, knew how to flatter them, and enjoyed their company above all others. Jerdan saw this as a failure of intellect, and thought that Taylor lived in a make-believe world of theatre, not in the real world. His facility for puns attracted Jerdan, who displayed a similar ability and appreciation for word-play. As the creator of “Monsieur Tonson”, Taylor was known as a prolific versifier, who turned out rhymes on the instant, a collection of which was published by John Murray in 1812. Jerdan esteemed this talent of Taylor’s, and as both men were famous for their good company, they should, by all outward signs, have been good friends. Indeed, at the outset of Jerdan’s editorship of the Sun they were friends and compatible working colleagues.
Taylor was of unusual appearance, having a ‘death’s head’ skull, weak shoulders, and a thin torso, but muscular legs, fetchingly displayed in knee breeches and silk stockings. The humorist George Colman nicknamed him ‘Merry-death’, declaring that “Taylor’s body would do for any legs, and his legs for any body!” (2.73). His father, or possibly grandfather, was the Chevalier Taylor, famous in his time (but quickly forgotten) as an ‘Opthalmiator’, or quack oculist. In 1761 he produced a book described by Jerdan as ‘one of the most amusing and ludicrous books in the English language’. This colourful character was welcomed into the Courts of Europe where he was believed to exercise amazing healing powers, to such an extent that a grateful and rich widow of ninety years of age, whose sight he had apparently restored, proposed marriage to him. Jerdan included extracts from the Chevalier’s book in his own Autobiography, as a token of his admiration.
Not long after Jerdan joined the paper, the majority shareholders Herriot and Clarke, apparently overlooking their dissatisfaction with John Taylor, sold Taylor their shares, thereby making him a nine-tenths owner of the Sun. Jerdan believed that Clarke was tired of arguments with his co-proprietor and sold out to him rather than being continually at loggerheads. Unfortunately, this transfer of shares had an immediate and deleterious effect upon Jerdan.
The Sun’s circulation had improved noticeably since Jerdan became editor, but when Taylor acquired nine-tenths of the shares in the paper, he tried to annul Jerdan’s contract and assume control over the paper’s content, the very area of Jerdan’s complete control according to his agreement. This was a red rag to a bull, and in retelling the escalating controversy Jerdan was aware how childish it sounded, but at the time it was a very real threat to his autonomy. The struggle was not only about who was boss, who had the say-so of what was published, but in Jerdan’s eyes it became a struggle about issues of morality. Taylor would try to insert articles or opinions that were contrary to Jerdan’s notions of public propriety. In his professional life at least, Jerdan saw himself as a highly moral man, admitting that although he had his “fallings-off”, he “never consented to the promulgation of an opinion or sentiment in the press under my direction that could deprave the moral obligations of society, or sully the purity of innocence” (2.71). This was a retrospective view of his literary career, written at the age of seventy; how much more fiery was his reaction at age thirty-one, when Taylor tried to hi-jack improper material into the Sun. Jerdan reacted furiously, inveighing against Taylor’s interference into his realm of editorial control. His opponent’s mind was disturbed. Taylor, living in his theatrical, fantasy world, behaved as if on stage, acting out his passions in a violent manner. Jerdan noted that “At the wildest time of our differences he would cast himself down upon his knees, clasp his hands, gnash his teeth, and imprecate curses on my head for five minutes together, till some one humanely lifted him up and led him away to privacy” (2.73).
Jerdan found that his misfortunes did not come singly. In the midst of his battles with Taylor, he suffered a crushing financial blow. He had developed a close friendship with Peter Begbie, whose daughters Anna and Helen wrote poetry for the Sun, and later for the Literary Gazette. Jerdan enjoyed twice-weekly visits to the Begbie home, where he met Mr Whitehead, principal of the long-established and respectable bankers, Whitehead, Howard and Haddock. Jerdan lodged his hard-won savings with the bank, but on 17 November 1814 it was forced to wind up its business and stopped all payments. It took Jerdan two years to recover from this disaster, which he cited as one of the myriad misfortunes that can befall literary men. (It would be a misfortune for anyone, but when he wrote his memoirs Jerdan was focussed on dissuading young people from a literary life.) These two years of poverty shook Jerdan’s sense of security for ever; once on the slopes of financial struggle, he found himself preyed upon by those who in all ages take advantage of such victims. His friend David Pollock later observed that “Jerdan has always been kept back for the want of those few hundred pounds” (2.46). It was a bad way to end a year that had started with such promise.
In March 1815 another, more far-reaching disaster occurred. Napoleon escaped from Elba and landed in France. On the day the news broke in London, Jerdan was leaving his office in the Strand early, at five o’clock. The Sun had been reduced to only two or three editions a day as, with the advent of peace, there was not enough news to fill the five or six editions of the previous year. As he stepped out of his door, he saw a thin pale youth whom he knew slightly, shouting, laughing and rejoicing that "Our old friend Bonny's got loose again, hurra! old Bonny for ever!” Jerdan put his unpatriotic enthusiasm down to the effects of drink, but the youth was not the only one who thought well of Buonaparte. There had been some in Britain who supported his ambition for Empire, such as Hazlitt who published a Life of Napoleon Buonaparte in 1830. His escape revitalised the newspapers: at last there was news again. On 18 June, at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was finally defeated by the combined armies of Wellington and Blucher and again exiled, this time to St. Helena.
Whilst this renewed and longer-lasting peace once again allowed Jerdan to develop his ground-breaking reviews of art and literature in the Sun, his problems with Taylor had not gone away. Taylor became obsessed with what he saw as Jerdan’s villainy and oppression. He wrote about it to ministers, harangued his friends, and publicised his grievances. According to Jerdan his actions “ruined the paper”. Whilst Jerdan recognised his partner’s talents and ability, he also knew that some vital part was missing in Taylor’s understanding of the world. The New Monthly Magazine of November 1857 quoted M. Clarigny, late Editor of “The Constitutional”, writing of this time, that Jerdan “was a man of talent and good sense, but deficient in taste and but an average writer. He had sound views in politics.” Taylor was “Gay, sharp, sparkling…he was a lion of supper parties...[but] no serious idea could lodge in the head of this intelligent man…He once saluted Scotland as “Hail, sister island!”; his daily contact with celebrated men left no trace on his mind.”
In the presence of Robert Clarke, who tried to mediate between the warring proprietors, Jerdan offered to relinquish his control of political writing in the Sun if Taylor would name the major European capital cities. This he was quite unable to do. Thus Jerdan was forced to edit his paper alongside a majority shareholder who appeared to be unstable, unpredictable and psychologically unbalanced. They fought their battle in public, in the paper: Jerdan refused to print paragraphs Taylor wrote if he considered them indecorous; Taylor became mad with rage over Jerdan’s tyranny. They may eventually have somehow resolved their differences in the interests of the Sun, but as their fire raged on, someone came forward to throw more fuel upon it.
This someone was Acheson, a founder of the Pitt Club, whose private views on the treaty of America were at odds with those of the government. He wrote a long letter to Jerdan, endeavouring to persuade him to publish his views; these, of course, went against Jerdan’s own opinions as a fervent Tory supporter. Acheson’s motivation was not political but mercantile: his interest was in promoting the import and export of Canadian timber in which he had invested. Jerdan absolutely refused to go against the government, so Acheson’s next target was to lobby Taylor. By working on his already violent resentment of Jerdan, Acheson contrived to link Taylor to him, leading Taylor to “years of delusion into pecuniary distress” (2.76). Taylor’s obsession had deprived him of whatever judgment he had, and although he lived to deeply regret his alliance with Acheson, even apologising to Jerdan years later, for his behaviour, the damage to the Sun was severe. In September 1815 Jerdan published a notice to the effect that all communications to the Sun must be addressed solely to him, and for a month all was calm. In October, against Jerdan’s remonstrances, Taylor inserted a notice which appeared several times, demanding that his “friends” write only to him with their contributions, with all general letters to be addressed to the editor. The staff were confused, not knowing whose instructions to obey, and were witness to daily scenes of unedifying squabbling between the two proprietors. The climax came in a form that to the combatants was a lethal weapon: poetry.
Taylor published a sonnet to Byron; Jerdan thought it was not only bad poetry, but far worse, bad taste, as it referred to Byron’s well-known marital difficulties. Rashly, Jerdan responded the following day with a doggerel parody on this sonnet, signed “W. J. Extempore, Poet Laureate”. Infuriated, Taylor advised readers of the Sun that the perpetrator of this attack on Byron was by William Jerdan and that it had been inserted in Taylor’s absence.
These doggerel verses were not the only examples to appear in the Sun. Both Jerdan and Taylor indulged their tastes for punning and word-play, sometimes on harmless neutral topics. Jerdan however, used his abilities in this area to fight his political fights. He especially loathed an opposition MP named Whitbread, who had been an ardent Buonapartist, and had earned a reputation for pestering Ministers in the House of Commons with constant questions. In the paper of 25 April Jerdan published a ‘squib’ against him, which included a verse parodying Whitbread’s constant questioning. The next verse ended:
But the cream of the jest is the fellow, odd rot it,
Can never make use of a fact when he’s got it.
Much as he detested his quarry, on hearing of Whitbread’s death Jerdan was in the middle of writing an appreciative obituary of his adversary’s “indefatigable diligence, perseverance and constancy” when he was told that Whitbread had committed suicide, news which “stopped my pen”.
Jerdan’s passions ran high, but he did not bear grudges; he was by nature an optimist who inherited his father’s relaxed attitude, a Panglossian view that in life all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. He did his best to forward the interests of his friends, such as William Todd, printer and proprietor of the Sheffield Mercury for which, earlier in his career, Jerdan had written leaders for six or seven years. Through Francis Freeling, Jerdan was instrumental in Todd’s appointment as Postmaster of Sheffield. Freeling was also instrumental, at Jerdan’s behest, in obtaining permission for the artist William Pyne to have access to the royal apartments in Windsor, to make drawings for his book on royal palaces — The History of the Royal Residences published in three volumes in 1819, which provides an invaluable insight into the decorative schemes of the palaces and the placement of art within the rooms. This negotiation was delicate in the extreme, because of the King’s illness and unpredictable behaviour.
Jerdan’s Scottish heritage was of utmost importance to him, so he had been happy to accept an invitation in June 1815 to exhort the Scottish community in London to subscribe to the erection of a monument over the grave of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, in Dumfries. His appeal was well-received and followed up in May 1816 by a dinner and meeting at the Freemasons’ Tavern. Jerdan worked hard to arrange this event, and was cheered to find that the name of Burns was a “rallying-point for Scotchmen at home or abroad”. The Earl of Aberdeen took the Chair, and the thirty supporters, not all of whom could attend the dinner, included Peter Laurie, Jerdan’s old acquaintance from Kelso days and later Lord Mayor of London, the Royal Academician David Wilkie, the writer Thomas Campbell, Cosmo Orme who was to become Jerdan’s publisher at Longman’s, and various Lords, Admirals and Generals. The Scotsmen knew how to enjoy themselves whilst raising funds for their cause. The Chairman made a moving speech acknowledging that Burns had not received recognition in his lifetime and had died in obscurity, so their monument was an attempt to make amends. There were innumerable toasts, giving rise to innumerable responses; Campbell had written an Ode for the occasion and subsequently printed and distributed with two other works, one by ‘an English lady’, the other by Jerdan – an “After Battle Sang” in Scots dialect, lauding the Scotsmen who had fought with Wellington. A band played, and the mandatory Scottish piper paraded in full costume with a melody Jerdan admitted as “only ravishing, at such close quarters, to Scottish ears.” Robert Burns’ son was present at the Dinner, enabling Jerdan to make another of his helpful and kindly intercessions, by introducing him to a fellow guest, Charles Grant. Grant assisted young Burns to a cadetcy in India, from which he eventually returned to Britain as a respected and prosperous officer.
Jerdan’s contribution to the evening’s proceedings were in his capacity as Hon. Secretary, when he read out the list of subscriptions, amounting to three hundred and fifty pounds. Peter Laurie proposed Jerdan’s health, flattering him as “the individual who had originated this Commemoration, and whose exertions, for the last two years, to accomplish this interesting object, had been as great and unremitting as they had ultimately proved successful” (2.117). Jerdan naturally responded to the toast, and was well satisfied with the entire event. He appreciated a subscription from James Perry, editor of the abhorred Morning Chronicle, who gallantly disregarded “the hostility of rival editors”. His secretarial work continued after the Dinner, chasing those who “forgot” their promises, and sorting out the finances. David Wilkie sent ticket money for himself and his friends to Jerdan, with a letter suggesting that future festivals take place to benefit Burns’ family; as Jerdan had done such a good job, he should organise them. Long after, Jerdan was “almost ashamed to confess I never made an effort” to comply with Wilkie’s suggestion (Jerdan, Men I Have Known 458). Thomas Hunt, the architect of Burns’ monument never received any payment for his work, but Peter Turnerelli received two hundred and twenty pounds in part payment for his sculpture. The Burns Monument was completed in September 1817. His ongoing tensions with Taylor apart, Jerdan was happy and engaged with his work. Family news was encouraging: his brother, John Stuart Jerdan, whom he had last seen aged seventeen, setting off from Ednam, had been promoted to Major and commanded a battalion in the expedition to Kutch, in western India. His name was mentioned in despatches, although misspelled ‘Jardine’. John wrote to William that he was pleased to have seen his younger brother’s name also “honourably mentioned” in a magazine. Jerdan was understandably delighted that his fame had spread so far and had impressed his successful older brother. On the home front, William and Frances Jerdan’s family of three children was joined by the addition, on 30 June 1816, of William Freeling Jerdan (Bishops Transcripts, St. Mary Abbott, Kensington. DL/T/47/23). He was the first (but not the last) of Jerdan’s children to be named to honour a distinguished friend. (Francis Freeling was at this time Secretary of the General Post Office. In 1830 the humorist Thomas Hood named his daughter Frances Freeling in honour of her godfather.)
Some time in 1815, when Jerdan was thirty-three years old, he sat for his portrait to the painter George Henry Harlow, a young artist whose talent and facility astonished him. One day Harlow kept him waiting for his sitting and rushing in, asked Jerdan to wait while he made a memorandum of a Rubens’ landscape he had just seen at the British Institution. Within a very short time he had produced a painting in an impressive feat of memory that Jerdan said compared minutely with the original when he had a chance to see the two together. Five years later Harlow toured Italy, and was lavished with honours in all the great cities, but on returning to London fell ill and died in February 1819, aged thirty-two. The portrait he painted of William Jerdan, engraved by Robinson, adorns the first volume of Jerdan’s Autobiography, and shows a good-looking young man with unruly dark hair, large dark eyes looking directly at the viewer, straight nose and full lips, wearing a fashionable stock and leaning with a clenched left fist on some papers. The gaze is challenging, and slightly humorous, a young man who has started upon his life’s work, and is ready for anything.
During 1815 Jerdan translated Jouy’s L’Hermite de la Chaussée d’Antin. His work was dedicated to Canning and appeared in three volumes under the title of The Paris Spectator, published by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown. Jerdan had seen the original version whilst in Paris, and thought the English public might welcome his selection. Longman’s advertisement in The Times of 21 September read:
This lively and entertaining view of the State of Society in Paris, at the most eventful period of its annals, obtained great celebrity in that city, and has been unanimously accorded a high rank among the periodical productions of French literature. The amusements, annoyances, pleasures and discomforts of a Paris fashionable life are sketched with a humorous and witty hand: nor has there ever issued from the press of that country a more animated and close imitation of our own exquisite Spectator.
Sales were not spectacular and the book was re-advertised three months later. Jerdan sent a copy to Sir Walter Scott in 1815, as a token of his “esteem and admiration”. Begun as a recreation, he said, it had become “a serious toil, and I am ashamed to see how many blunders have escaped me, how much the style ought to have been polished, and in short how incautiously I have exposed myself to the critical lash…I must abide the consequence with all my imperfections on my head” (7 October 1815. National Library of Scotland, 3886/195). Jouy himself made some critical and some amusing comments on Jerdan’s translation, and translated his next book himself. The Paris Spectator was favourably received, but not reprinted, and brought Jerdan scant financial reward.
The end of the year saw the death of Jerdan’s beloved friend Peter Begbie, who succumbed to consumption leaving a widow, several children and no money. Begbie’s friends, including Jerdan and Freeling, were of great practical help in finding employment for the sons. Was Jerdan disingenuous, or merely vain, when he chose to print in his Autobiography Mrs Begbie’s letters of gratitude for his help? He made the point, in case his readers should miss it, “that in this, as in many an other instance, my character, from youth to age, was genial, kindly of heart, and rejoicing in the privilege of doing good when in my power” (2.91). His own excuse, or reason, for this pat on his own back was that as his memoirs openly admitted his failures, he was therefore at liberty to also disclose his good deeds.
A few days after Begbie’s miserable death Jerdan took the fast-deteriorating battle with Taylor into his own hands. His spirits were at a low ebb, the Sun was fading. As Taylor became even more demented, Jerdan’s reaction was often anger, and he admitted that he provoked Taylor, sometimes without real cause. To taunt his adversary, who had accused Jerdan of a false alias when he signed his Jubilee poem of 1809 ‘Teutha’, Jerdan inserted doggerel couplets into the Sun using the same pseudonym. Another provocation was his refusal to publish a particular poem of Taylor’s, although it was no worse than much that was being published. (As a belated gesture to make some amends Jerdan included the verse in his Autobiography, but too late, of course, to appease its author.) Jerdan was aware that the Sun’s standards had dropped, and in desperation to stop the rapid slide into oblivion, he applied for an injunction in Chancery to prevent Taylor’s interference with his running of the newspaper; to refrain from inserting any article without Jerdan’s consent; and not to give any instructions to the staff or printers of the paper, on the penalty of forfeiting five thousand pounds.
Predictably, Taylor responded with another outburst of rage. Worn out and weary, Jerdan wrote him a letter in February 1816, in which he clearly set out his case (2.103). He was no longer prepared to submit to Taylor’s daily interference and distraction in his running of the paper, and had decided that the only course was to have nothing to do with him. Such a drastic step had been brought about by Taylor’s persecution and ill-usage. He could not understand how Taylor could expect his insults and enmity to be returned by courtesy and friendship. Should Taylor attempt to reverse the injunction placed upon him, the Sun would close in a fortnight; it would close if Taylor published one line injurious to Jerdan, and if Jerdan was to be ruined, then so would Taylor, who had invested about fourteen hundred pounds in the paper.
Taylor’s insults and accusations continued and Jerdan was forced to law again, aware that some stigma always adheres to a man slandered, even if the accusations are proved groundless. He was advised that no action could be taken against the slanders, as Taylor had not imputed any felonious act to him. He could sue for libel, but even then Taylor’s abusive letters might be construed as just within the law. The problem lay in that although Taylor called him “a thief”, Jerdan had no control over any monies to do with the Sun. He was its editor, and his control was solely over its content. Taylor could therefore not be shown to accuse him of any financial felony. This bruising experience soured Jerdan’s opinion of the law, and he warned literary men to steer clear of it, as the law would punish them, the police ridicule them, and justice balk them. They would suffer in purse, person and hopes (2.109). It is easy to understand his jaundiced view.
In an attempt to find a way to carry on working with Taylor for the good of the Sun, Jerdan asked his lawyer to demand that Taylor write him a reference, stating that he knew of nothing that could militate against Jerdan’s reputation as an honest man, or his honour as a gentleman. Jerdan was sinking under the weight of legal expenses, and hoped this would end the sorry quarrel without further ado. His salary was due and he did not wish to incur further expense to secure it. He was amazed to discover that Taylor was talking about either selling his share in the Sun, or purchasing all of it, that is, Jerdan’s one-tenth share. Furthermore, Jerdan was appalled to hear that Taylor denied there had ever been a partnership deed between the two protagonists. His lawyer advised him that this plea would fail, and the only question would be the amount of damages granted. By October nothing had been resolved, and Jerdan’s lawyer consulted Frederick Pollock for his learned advice. Pollock recommended that Jerdan settle for only moderate damages to enable the working relationship, such as it was, to proceed. He urged that Jerdan should not consider indicting Taylor for perjury as that would prevent any continuation of the paper. He suggested appointing a mutual friend as arbitrator, but Taylor refused the mediation of the original proprietors of the paper, Herriot and Clarke, and also turned down others in the publishing business.
These damaging and unsettling skirmishes were only a microcosm of what was happening in the country, as it struggled to return to peace. Riots and revolutionary meetings had been occurring since 1811, of which the best known were the Luddites. Demonstrations were becoming more common as the economic depression deepened. The price of wheat rose again, income tax was abolished as the wars were over, but the Stamp Act of 1815 had increased newspaper tax to four pence a copy, making the retail price of six pence or seven pence beyond the reach of many. Every advertisement incurred a duty of three shillings and six pence, so that these imposts added to the cost of papers, reporters, printing etc. left very little profit for publishers. The collective name for the whole raft of problems was “The Condition of England Question”.
The parlous “Condition of England” had encouraged another Scotsman, John Trotter, to a new venture, one which Jerdan strongly supported even in the midst of his contretemps with Taylor. Trotter had been an army contractor who became rich during the Napoleonic Wars, and finding himself with a huge warehouse in Soho Square and no further need to store army equipment, turned it into a Bazaar, then a venture unique in Europe, and the first time the term ‘Bazaar’ had been used in Britain (see Dyer). This was not merely a mercantile operation, but had been conceived to provide an opportunity for the wives and daughters of army officers to sell their handiwork. Stalls could be hired for threepence per foot, and the Bazaar was entirely enclosed, affording security to the stall-holders, who had to be vetted before admission. Jerdan interceded for an acquaintance, Mrs Sell, for a position there, and even she had to be closely vetted by the Trotters. Trotter asked Jerdan to write an explanatory notice about the Bazaar so that the public could understand its nature and objects. This notice, in the form of a letter, was inserted into the New Monthly Magazine of February 1816 (26). Jerdan’s seven-page article on the Bazaar noted that its purpose was partly to relieve the current state of wretchedness. “Alas Sir! The miseries of mankind are too certain, too universal, too obvious, to admit of doubts either as to their reality, their extent or their afflictiveness…there is no class free from its share in the common lot of humanity.” The Bazaar was not a charity, he explained, but designed “to encourage FEMALE AND DOMESTIC INDUSTRY”. His long article clarified how this was to be done, noting particularly the difficulties of providing for daughters in large families. Setting them up in the Bazaar would make them prudent and industrious. The Bazaar was also to function as a Gallery to encourage arts. The moral value of the Bazaar was incalculable, both for those selling and for purchasers, with the Bazaar acting as a union to ensure fair prices for goods sold by respectable women in a safe environment. Jerdan’s article was shortly afterwards enlarged into a pamphlet sold in the Bazaar for a few pence. (“A Visit to the Bazaar” by ‘A Lady’, published in 1818 by Harris, which is a detailed promotional account of the Bazaar and its offerings, was possibly based on Jerdan’s original work. The Bazaar was in existence until 1855.)
A year later Trotter presented Jerdan with a substantial cheque, the proceeds of the pamphlet’s sale. Jerdan was persuaded to accept the money only when Trotter produced his “Big Book” (Jerdan called it his conjuring-book) in which meticulous accounts were kept, and also minute details on every aspect of Trotter’s business transactions, from the great to the insignificant, proving the extent of the pamphlet’s sales. So precise was Trotter that the government relied upon his records for recovering stores left behind in foreign parts by the army. Jerdan greatly admired such accurate record-keeping, but was utterly unable to emulate it in his own affairs – his early facility with numbers had vanished when he learnt to read, and he did not have a methodical bone in his body. He was like Leigh Hunt, a writer whose life had many parallels to Jerdan’s. Hunt admitted, “To this day I cannot do a multiplication sum, or any other” (quoted Holden 226). Jerdian he did not keep good records, nor even copies of his own published works, an odd oversight, until one recognizes the pace at which he had to work, and the vast amounts of paper crossing his desk every day, all demanding review or reply, writing with his scratchy pen by candlelight, far into the night.
Jerdan was also in awe of Trotter’s domestic felicity and his inventiveness. Trotter’s eldest daughter, Stuart, was a help to her father in one of his inventions, a universal language. Jerdan was always intrigued by such ciphers, and was mindful of the one he had invented that the government failed to acknowledge. Trotter’s system was based on pasigraphs, which work by using characters to represent ideas not words, perhaps similar to Chinese where the written sign is understood in all parts of the country, but spoken language differs from one area to another. Jerdan tested this out by giving young Stuart a passage in a language she did not know, and she was able to transpose this to prove her understanding of it. To Jerdan’s eternal regret the system was never written down. Stuart died shortly afterwards, and Jerdan was moved to write a verse to comfort her bereaved parents.
John Trotter and his two brothers, like the Pollocks, had come to London and made a great success, one becoming a partner in Coutts Bank, and the other an advisor to Lord Melville. They were yet more examples of achievement that Jerdan highlighted with admiration, and apparently without envy. He and John Trotter remained close friends for many years. Trotter sent him a gift of a small milking cow to Brompton, sympathetic to the needs of Jerdan’s growing family. He took Jerdan in his own carriage to the coronation of George IV, a privilege Jerdan recognized that “few literary gentleman could hope to emulate”. He and Trotter were to co-operate on one or two other projects in the years to come.
One of the most famous confrontations during this period of the “Condition of England Question” was the Spa Fields riot, in December 1816, which led directly to severe consequences for publishers, editors and writers. A meeting had been called in November for the purpose of raising a petition to the Prince Regent from the people of London asking for poor relief and parliamentary reform in the shape of universal suffrage (males only), annual general elections and a secret ballot. The organizers were prevented from delivering the petition leading to the Spa Fields Riot which at last brought home to the government the realization that discontent had been brewing for years, and that a revolution in England was entirely possible. This belief was reinforced when the Prince Regent’s carriage was mobbed and its windows broken after the State opening of parliament. This led to the “Gag Acts” being quickly passed, suspending Habeas Corpus and banning seditious meetings; the government also attempted to arraign printers and writers responsible for blasphemous material, but this move failed as juries refused to risk the freedom of the press. The Sun, in the person of a writer called Mr Mulock, treated the Spa Fields Riot with the lash of satire. His humour and wit were not unworthy of Dean Swift, according to Jerdan, who reprinted some of these stinging attacks in his memoirs. Canning, who had returned from Portugal in June, made a special request for copies of these articles, which would have amused him in those tumultuous days. Mulock was still writing 40 years later in support of Louis Napoleon; he wrote three letters to the Literary Gazette under the name ‘Satan’, which stirred attention at the time, and he also gave a course on English Literature in Geneva and London.
In the new year 1817, Jerdan’s own tumultuous time with Taylor was finally to reach its climax. At the beginning of February Taylor wrote a letter to Jerdan, full of complaints and accusations, but here and there with a ring of credibility, such as that Jerdan came late to the office, and turned it into a coffee-room and a gossiping mart – presumably one at which Taylor was not welcome (2.148). Taylor claimed that he and Herriot had not taken their salaries for two years, enabling Jerdan to take out £800 which he owed to the paper. Jerdan was also accused of taking £131 5s for French papers he never bought, and £116 for legal expenses involved in a breach of covenant whereby he hired writers without Taylor’s consent. These dull figures belie Taylor’s frantic tone, question after question tumbling cross the page: “Is it not your absolute tyranny over my property a continued provocation to me? Is your conduct to be reconciled to any principle of justice, any feeling of shame?” and so on. Jerdan had apologised to Taylor’s wife for his reactions to her husband’s provocations, and Taylor hit back with “I most heartily pity your poor wife, for her afflictions must be heightened by the consideration that you bring all that she suffers on yourself by your conduct towards me.” This may have been a spiteful, retaliatory remark that Frances Jerdan’s “afflictions” were in having to live with Jerdan, or merely that she had several children to take care of whilst he was so distracted by his work.
Taylor’s next letter, a few days later, threw more missiles Jerdan’s way. He disbelieved Jerdan’s friendship with Canning, and argued that he would advise Francis Freeling (to whom Jerdan had presented the bound copy of Bellingham’s manuscript which he had taken from the assassin at the time of Perceval’s murder), to surrender it to the widow or the law. Jerdan, who had received a note of gratitude from Freeling, said his friend would merely laugh at Taylor’s advice. In evident frustration and desperation, Taylor asked point blank what Jerdan would take to sever his connection with the Sun which, he said, Jerdan had “nearly ruined”. He worked himself into a frenzy, saying “You have often accused me of attempting to undermine your character ------- your character !!!” his emphasis and punctuation encapsulating all his contempt for his one-time friend and colleague.
Taylor went to see landscape painter Joseph Farington, well connected to many influential people. In his diary Farington recorded that:
Taylor I met. Taylor sd. that Jordain (sic.) had offered to give up His share and situation as Editor, if a settlement of £200 per annum for Life were assured to Him. Taylor thought he might be induced to do it if £1000 shd be offered Him, and as He himself had no money, if His friend wd raise that sum they shd have interest for their money and the principal gradually liquidated. He sd He stood so well with Men in high official situations, and with eminent Literary Characters that could He get possession of the Editorship He cd soon raise the character of the Sun. [The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 14, 1817]
Taylor came to dinner two days later, when Sir Thomas Lawrence was also a guest. He explained the present situation concerning shares in the newspaper, but Farington took an objective view:
I remarked to Him that he had purchased 8 of the 9 shares He possessed of the paper after he had full knowledge of Jerdain’s (sic) character. – He granted it; but sd He cd not suppose that Jerdain wd continue to act towards Him as He had done when He became Proprietor of all the Shares but one which Jerdain held. Nothing followed from this conversation; nothing was said about purchasing the Editorship from Jerdain for £1000.
In his diary Farington noted that when Jerdan had been made Editor of the Sun, Heriott held seven shares, Clarke had two and Taylor one share.
One of Heriott’s shares was then made over to Jerdain and by this deed Taylor was to have apartments at the Sun office and £200 per annum. Heriott at that time valued his seven shares at £3000; but their value was lessened after Jerdain became Editor and I understood from Taylor that He purchased six shares from Heriott and two from Clarke for about £700. He spoke of Heriott with much dissatisfaction and also of Freeling of the Post Office who, he said, had aided Jerdan’s interest with the Government. The Deed secured to Jerdain the Editorship of the Sun for 900 years. The dispute rumbled on. Jerdan told his lawyers he would accept one thousand pounds in salary, which was between five and six hundred pounds in arrears, and profits as his due as proprietor of the paper, together with a well-secured annuity of two hundred pounds for life. Taylor countered with an offer of twenty shillings annuity as long as the Sun was published. The impasse was eventually resolved: Jerdan settled for eight hundred pounds for his four years’ work which, at five hundred and forty-six pounds a year should have brought him nearly two thousand two hundred pounds. This substantial loss was the outcome of Jerdan’s appeal to Chancery, where it was deemed by the Master that his co-partnership deed entitled him to a salary of ten guineas weekly. In allowing the arrears to accumulate rather than drawing his salary regularly (how did he live, meanwhile?), the law decided he was not entitled to a verdict. Despite representations from Fladgate who drew up the deed, and Robert Clarke a party to it, giving evidence that this had not been their intention, the judge decreed that the case was so hard he would not give judgment in it. Jerdan knew that even had the decision gone in his favour, the Sun could not have paid him out, but the victory of principle would have been his.
Jerdan’s ever-loyal friend Francis Freeling made funds available to him so that he could keep his head above water for some time. Freeling also tried to salvage Jerdan’s share in the Sun, but Taylor’s abusive letters to all and sundry continued and Jerdan was nervous that some impressions would stick. In the Spring of 1817 he gladly sold his one-tenth share for three hundred pounds, and the dissolution of partnership was announced in the Gazette of 3 May. In The Newspaper Press (1871) James Grant, concluded that this sum shows that the Sun was a good property; at that time The Courier was divided into 24 shares, The Times into 16. Taylor placed a notice in the Sun saying that it was now entirely under his control. A second notice announced that Taylor had become a member of the Pitt Club, “as a pledge for his upholding the principles of the paper founded under the auspices of the illustrious Pitt”, evidence to Jerdan that the abhorred Acheson still had Taylor in his grasp. Jerdan did not bear a grudge, and in a typically generous gesture in the Literary Gazette of 5 August 1826 announced a subscription to publish a volume of Taylor’s poems. It referred briefly to “the misconduct of some person…has rendered the present measure...essential to his comforts. We trust the public, especially the town, will not be deaf to the invitation.”
Having left the Sun, Jerdan was once again free from commitments — but without income. With his wife and children to support, he needed urgently to find his next employment. He could not know that the exhausting fight with Taylor, and the loss of the Sun was to lead him into a position offering power, influence, riches and ultimately penury that he was to experience for the next thirty-four exciting and challenging years.
Dyer, G. R. “The ‘Vanity Fair’ of 19th century England: Commerce, women and the East in the Ladies’ Bazaar.” Nineteenth Century Literature. 46 No. 2 (September 1991_.
Grant, James. The Newspaper Press. London: Tinsley Bros., 1871.
Holden, A. The Wit in the Dungeon: A Life of Leigh Hunt. Little, Brown, 2005.
Last modified 19 June 2020