A literary outcast of social life

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Amongst Robert Blakey’s many acquaintances was John Mitford, 1782-1831, naval officer, author and alcoholic.

In his Memoirs, published in 1879, he says: “I met with John Mitford, commonly called ‘Jack Mitford’, at the office of the Scourge, to which he was in the habit of contributing many pungent articles. I made his acquaintance by accident. He recognised me, he said, by my Northumberland burr.

“When I told him I knew his relations, Captain Mitford, of Mitford Castle, and his cousin, Bertram, with whom I had often angled in the North River, he seemed delighted; but said, with an air of sadness, that they did nothing now for him.

“I told him I had read, with many thousands in all parts of the world, with great pleasure, his Johnny Newcome in the Navy; when he said it was the best paid job he ever had, with the exception of a few articles he wrote for Catnach, of the Seven Dials.

“He had a broken-down appearance, and was one of the outcasts of social life.

“Some time after, I met him one summer’s day between Notting Hill Gate and Shepherd’s Bush, when he told me he had slept the previous night in a field of barley, then uncut. He died not long after this in St Giles’s Workhouse.

“He was unquestionably a man of genius and of great versatility of mind. He was one of the branches of the Mitford family, who pride themselves with having come in at the Norman Conquest.

“Though several members of the house occupy a distinguished position in literary history, I question whether any one of them will obtain more lasting fame than their thoughtless and improvident kinsman, ‘Jack Mitford’.

"No amount of personal folly and waywardness can shut out the claims of the mind in the estimation of the world at large.”

As with some of his other contemporaries, the interest lies not in the connection between Mitford and Blakey, for there hardly was one, but in the incidentals.

We learn, for instance, that Blakey had the Northumbrian burr, the guttural sound of the ‘R’ when produced far back on the tongue, also about his taste in reading.

Johnny Newcome, which he regarded as a work of genius, is a long narrative poem written in a breezy style, but it hardly merits his encomium that: “No amount of personal folly and waywardness can shut out the claims of the mind in the estimation of the world at large.”

We also learn of his acquaintance with Mitford’s rich relations, members of the local gentry of Morpeth, who, under any other circumstance than a sporting encounter, were not people one would expect a radical young tradesman to mix with.

There is something odd about the timing of their first meeting. According to the Cambridge Bibliography, the Scourge, at whose office they first met, ran from 1811 to 1815. But Johnny Newcome was only published in 1818. So they could not have discussed Johnny Newcome at the offices of the Scourge, although it reads as if they did.

It also means that if Blakey was remembering correctly, he must have been only 20 or younger when they first met in London.

Mitford was born in 1781 or 1782. He was baptised in Mitford church: “1782: January ye 22d ~ John son of John & Dorothy Mitford ~ Newton Red House.”

Newton Red House was a large farmstead two miles west of the village, suitable to a well-to-do farmer or a minor member of the gentry. Mitford belonged to the ancient family, but being a younger son of a younger son was comparatively poor.

He was distantly related to Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister, and to the first Lord Redesdale, who assisted him to become a midshipman in the Royal Navy.

He rose through the ranks, commanded three small vessels, and was on active service until 1811. He was discharged in 1814, following a bout of insanity and a political scandal.

His Northumberland cousins disowned him because of his drinking, but Lord Redesdale continued to support his wife and family.

Poor Mitford was the victim of a cruel deception. Different versions of it differ in the detail, but in brief, Lady Perceval, the wife of another distant relative and friend of Caroline, Princess of Wales, used him as a go-between to feed newspapers with information on the Princess’s behalf, promising him a position in the civil service.

In March-April 1813, after his first attack of insanity, she asked him to take copies of three letters to T.A. Phipps, the owner of The News, for £2,000, a huge sum for a poor man.

Two were from Government ministers and one from one of the Princess’s ladies-in-waiting. In fact, Lady Perceval had written them all, her idea being to create a stir, then deny responsibility and blame Mitford.

Mitford and Phipps were both taken in. She had Mitford locked up in a private asylum, but he escaped, told Phipps the whole story, and swore an affidavit accusing her of forgery.

She prosecuted him for perjury, but in February 1814, before Lord Ellenborough, the jury found him not guilty, even before the judge had finished summing up.

Mitford wrote for various publishers, mainly at the rougher end of the magazine and book trade.

He wrote at least two articles for respectable magazines, but both made embarrassment for the publishers.

One was a story called The Vampyre for the New Monthly Magazine. He claimed that it was co-written by Lord Byron, but Byron denied this.

He also wrote a life of William Mitford, an historian and a distant relative, for the Literary Gazette. The Mitford family refuted it, and the editor apologised, explaining that he had been imposed upon by Mitford.

The man he wrote Johnny Newcome for, realising that he was a hopeless alcoholic, kept him on a steady path of work by giving him a shilling a day, plus paper and ink.

The weather was fine, and for six weeks Mitford lived in the open in a gravel pit in Battersea Fields. Every day, he bought two-pennyworth of bread and cheese and an onion, and spent the rest on gin.

The story, which gives a vivid account of life in the Navy, is about a boy under much the same circumstances as himself. His first captain, Captain Dale, is kind, but Johnny suffers much at the hands of his fellow midshipmen. His second captain, Captain Teak, is a brutal bully and Newcome resigns from the Navy.

“At length he plainly told his Father.

That tho’ he lov’d his KING, he’d rather

(For reasons which he would not say)

Serve him in any other way—

His Father kindly acquiesced,

So there we let our Hero rest.”

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and A Aspinall, Politics and the Press, 1780-1850, 1949. You can read The Adventures of Johnny Newcome in the Navy on the Open Library website.