1920. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 10 May 1811

1920. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 10 May 1811 ⁠* 

Keswick. May 10. 1811.

My dear Grosvenor

I have desired Tom to make ready a statement of his services. [1]  Your letter makes me more in hope for him than I have ever before been. – Did you notice a strange story in the papers about a Lt Cunliffe Owen? [2]  – a very bad story, & from the character of the man a very likely one. He belonged to the Dreadnought in Tom’s time & was taken prisoner in one of the most foolish boat-expeditions that ever was attempted, in which by his insolent boastings he in a manner compelled an older & better officer than himself to take part. It was an attempt of almost unprecedented folly, & it was bad enough to set it on foot in the way he did, but the worst part of the affair was that some weeks afterwards he wrote to Admiral Sotheby [3]  to say that if he had been properly supported he should have succeeded, thus shifting off the blame upon the poor fellows who had escaped, most of them dreadfully wounded; & who had heard him scr roaring out lustily for quarter before they left him. These men were kept ignorant of what Tom calls his damnd letter, but it could not be concealed from the other Lt than whom a braver man never lived, [4]  & who was then under the surgeons hands, having returned with a ball in him which was cut out by the side of his back bone, – as desperate a wound as ever any man recovered from. I have often heard Tom speak with the utmost indignation of this Owens whole conduct in the affair, & he says he knows no one so likely to begin & end in the way the French account has stated. I am afraid by his name he stands in some degree of affinity to the family at Ackton. [5] 

Herries is perfectly clear in all his reasonings. [6]  In the concluding part of his argument he seems to see farther than the scope of his immediate argument leads him. I have not no doubt that the pound sterling is our true standard of value & that gold is raised in price by a greatly increased consumption, & a greatly diminished supply. The question as it appears to me is whether this will not soon render it necessary to alter the coinage, – for as soon as gold is issued at its bullion price the temptation for exploiting it ceases. If we did not want it for foreign expenditure it is perfectly clear to me, that it is quite not necessary for home circulation. The whole outcry against paper, wherever it exists, is owing to country banks; the stoppage of one immediately makes all the country people who lose by it, converts to Cobbett  [7]  immediately. We had a specimen of this at Keswick as you may remember. [8]  They ought to be taxed into respectability. xx

I can hardly think it possible that Parliament will act upon the opinion of the Bullion Committee; – it would be the most preposterous instance of suicidal policy upon record. [9]  And yet seeing the fate of the Distillery Bill [10]  my faith in the good sense of parliament (which was never very strong) is shaken. I hope I may be mistaken, but I very much fear that a blind & selfish policy has endangered Martinique & will endanger our own sugar islands.

O dear Grosvenor! Ballantyne has cut out my note about Gog, & qualified the text till he has taken all the force of out of it! – [11] 

Here I am still a close prisoner. 480 pages printed. 100 more in the printers hands, three score in my drawer, – & still three weeks work before me. The moment it is done I st we start, & you may reckon (God willing) upon seeing me by the Birth day, but you must not reckon upon making engagements for me. Eltham indeed is in the road to xxx St Mary Cray, [12]  – but I fear Ealing [13]  is in the road to no place & that I shall have less disposable time than ever, in consequence of being the greater part of the time quartered at Streatham.

Moon desires that his Godfather may know he is reading Robinson Crusoe, [14]  & that his God Uncle, & his great God grand father may know it also. He thinks Robinson exceedingly wrong in going to sea against his fathers inclination consent, & is determined never to be a sailor himself.

Longman writes me word that he thinks the edition of Kehama will be gone by the time a small one is ready, there being 109 on hand, & the demand continuing. [15]  Madoc also is gone to press again. [16] 

God bless you


Mr Bunbury as you have probably heard is gone! He had appeared much better, when on Tuesday noon he was seized with a shivering which left him speechless, motionless, & apparently altogether insensible till midnight when he expired. His servants have shown more affection than I have ever heard of in servants before. – every body talks of their distress.


* MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 24. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Southey was attempting to secure his brother Tom’s promotion from Lieutenant to Captain. BACK

[2] The naval officer Lieutenant Charles Cunliffe-Owen (1786–1872). British newspapers (e.g. the Caledonian Mercury, 6 May 1811) carried reports from the ‘French papers’ that Cunliffe Owen, while a prisoner at Besancon, had tried to persuade two French officers to become involved in a scheme to capture the port of Belleisle-sur-Mer. The clumsy plot had been uncovered and Owen had told all he knew to the French authorities, resulting in the arrest of his co-conspirators. Owen had been taken prisoner on 10 September 1810, when boats from HMS Dreadnought had captured a Spanish merchant ship, which was moored in a creek near Ushant. The boats came under heavy fire and six British sailors were killed, over thirty wounded and two boats drifted onto the shore and their men were imprisoned; see the account in The Times, 15 September 1810. Despite these disasters, Owen escaped in 1813 and eventually became a Captain in 1852. BACK

[3] Rear-Admiral Thomas Sotheby (1759–1831). BACK

[4] Two lieutenants were wounded in this action: Henry Elton (1786–1858) and Stewart Blacker (d. 1826). From Tom Southey’s account, he is more likely to be referring to Lt Blacker. BACK

[5] The Cunliffe family of Acton Hall, Wrexham. Wynn was married to Mary Cunliffe (c. 1785–1838). BACK

[6] Herries’ A Review of the Controversy Respecting the High Price of Bullion, and the State of Our Currency (1811). BACK

[7] William Cobbett was an opponent of paper money. BACK

[8] For the failure of a local bank in 1810, see Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 14 December 1810, Letter 1839. BACK

[9] The Bullion Committee, a select committee of the House of Commons, had recommended in 1810 that convertability between paper currency and gold bullion (suspended in 1797) should be restored. The Commons started to debate the matter on 6 May 1811 and eventually rejected the Committee’s proposals. BACK

[10] The Distillery Bill passed the House of Commons, but was thrown out by the House of Lords on 6 May 1811. For Southey’s summary, Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1811, 4.1 (1813), 92–94. Essentially, the Bill proposed to readjust the duties on sugar and barley to make sugar more attractive for distilling into alcohol. As such it was seen as hostile to British agriculture. Martinique, a sugar-growing island in the West Indies, had been captured from the French in 1809. BACK

[11] See Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 3 May 1811, Letter 1915. BACK

[12] At this time, the home of Peter Elmsley. BACK

[13] Barré Charles Roberts was from Ealing, so this may be a reference to the home of his father, Edward Roberts, Deputy and First Clerk of the Pells office of the Exchequer. BACK

[14] Daniel Defoe (1659/1661–1731; DNB), Robinson Crusoe (1719). BACK

[15] Southey’s The Curse of Kehama (1810); the second, duodecimo edition was published in 1811. BACK

[16] A third edition of Madoc appeared in 1812. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)
Streatham (mentioned 1 time)