3514. Robert Southey to John May, 26 July 1820

3514. Robert Southey to John May, 26 July 1820⁠* 

Keswick. Wednesday Evening. July 26th. 1820

My dear friend John May,

Some old Divine has said that Hell is paved with good resolutions; [1]  – if Beelzebub has a tesselated pavement of this kind in one of his state rooms, I fear I shall be found to have contributed largely to its unsubstantial materials. But that I may save one good resolution at least from being trodden under hoof by him & his imps, here I begin the performance, hoping rather than promising even to myself, that I shall <may> find leisure & courage to pursue it to the end, — courage, I mean, to write of live again in remembrance with the dead. There were are certain Savages who never mention <among whom> the name of a deceased person is never mentioned; some superstition may have attached to this custom, but the feeling in which it originates is a natural one. My children [2]  never speak of their brother Herbert, & I never utter his name, except in my prayers, without some special cause, acting upon me like a moral obligation.

I begin xx in the cloudy evening of a showery, lowering, ungenial day. No very desirable omen for one who is about to write record the recollections of six & forty years, but a most inappropriate one in the present case. For I have lived in the sunshine, & am still looking forward with hope.

I cannot trace my fathers family farther back by the Church Registers than Oct 25. 1696 on which day my grandfather Thomas, [3]  ye son of Robertt Sowthey & Ann his wife [4]  was baptized at Wellington in Somersetshire. The said Robert Sowthey had seven other children, [5]  none of whom left issue, & in the subsequent entries of their birth (for Thomas was the eldest) he is designated sometimes as yeoman & sometimes as farmer. The Register at Wellington goes back only to the year 1683. But I have heard that Roberts grandfather [6]  (that is my great-great-great-grandfather) was a great clothier at Wellington, & had eleven sons, who peopled that part of the country with Southeys. In Roberts days there were not less than seven married men of the name in the same parish. Robert himself was the younger of two sons, & John [7]  his elder brother was the head of the family. They were must have been of gentle blood, (tho so obscure that I have never by any accident met with the name) for they bore arms in an age when armorial bearings were not assumed by those who had no right to them. The arms are a chevron argent, & three cross crosslets in a field sable. I should like to believe that one of my ancestors had served in the crusades, or made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. [8] 

One of them left behind him the reputation of having been a great soldier, in the great rebellion [9]  I guess it must have been, – but I neither know his name, nor on what side he fought. Another, (& this must have been the Robert with whom my certain knowledge begins) was out in Monmouths rebellion. [10]  If he had come before Judge Jeffries [11]  in consequence, – xxxx Nash would never have painted the happy <but too-handsome!> likeness of your God daughter, [12]  which I have risen from my work ten times this day to look at in its progress, – nor would you have had to pay postage for this letter. The entail of my mortal existence was in no small risk of being cut off by the executioner. My father had the sword which was drawn <(not bloodied I hope)> in this unlucky quarrel, but it disappeared in the wreck of his affairs [13] 

John, [14]  the brother of this bold reformer & succesful runaway, married the heiress of the Cannon family, & <upon the death of her father, [15] > fixed his residence at the manor house of Fitzhead in Somersetshire, which was her property. By this marriage he had one son & two daughters. [16]  The son John Cannon Southey [17]  practised the law, & lived a most licentious life as a single man. <One daughter died unmarried single.> [18]  Her xxxxx sister [19]  married one of the Lethbridges & had only one child, a daughter. [20]  That daughter married Colonel Somerville, brother to James Lord Somerville, [21]  & died in childbed of an only child. That child John Southey Somerville, her only issue. [22] 

My grandfather settled at Holford Farm, an estate belonging to his Uncle John, in the parish of Lydiard St Laurence, about ten miles North of Taunton, under the Quantock Hills. This is a very retired place, containing only three farm houses, & having no other habitations within two miles of it. There he brought his grandmother, [23]  who died there at the great age of 102. A maiden sister [24]  lived with him; of whom she had a small estate held upon three lives, [25]  – two of them fell, & the third a xxxx worthless profligate, contrived from that time, almost to support himself upon it. For knowing that my poor Aunt Hannah was now dependent upon his life he would never would strike a stroke of work more. When his debts became troublesome, away went his wife to the poor old woman with a tale about writs, bailiffs, the jail, & the jail-fever; & in this manner was she continually fleeced, & kept in continual fear, till the rascal died at last of close attendance at the alehouse. This story is worthy of insertion in an account of English Tenures.

The removal from Wellington to a lonely village seems to have brought my Grandfather within the pale of the Church, for he had been bred up as a Dissenter. (The old sword therefore was probably pursuing its old courses when it went into the field in rebellion.) Aunt Hannah however retained so much of the essential acid of dissent in her composition, that she frequently chastized her niece Mary for going into the fields with her playmates on a Sunday; – she & her brothers & sisters, she said, had never been suffered to go any where except to meeting on the Sabbath day.

My Grandfather did not marry till he was turned of forty. His wifes name I believe was Joan Mullens. [26]  They had three sons, John Robert & Thomas, & two daughters, Hannah [27]  & Mary, all born at Holford. The boys received what in those days was thought a good education; the elder being designed for the law, learnt a little Latin; the two younger were qualified for trade. My father had preserved his cyphering book, & I would have preserved it too, as carefully as any of my own manuscripts, if it had not been lost in the household wreck at his bankruptcy. If you will look in that little treatise of mine upon the Origin Nature & Object of the New System of Education you will find a passage at pp 85–86 written in remembrance of this xxxx cyphering-book, & the effect which it produced upon me in early boyhood. [28] 

When my Uncle John was about to begin business as an Attorney in Taunton, Cannon Southey, as the head of the family, lent him 100£ to start with. That 100£, he used to say, with a sort of surly pride, I repaid him, with interest, in six months, – & that is about <the only favour> for which I was ever obliged to my relations. Cannon Southey, however, tho not very liberal to his kin had a proper regard to their legal rights, & left his property in trust for his <great> nephew, John Southey Somerville & his issue, with the intention that if that child died without issue the estates should descend to the Southeys; & that the whole property might go together, he willed his <lease>copyhold estates (which would else have been divided among his next of kin) in remainder to my Uncle John & his two brothers, [29]  & their children in succession.

<Robert,> My father, was passionately fond of the country & of country sports. The fields should have been his station instead of the shop. He was placed with a kinsman in London, [30]  who I believe was a grocer, somewhere in the city; I have heard him say that as he was one day standing at this persons door, a porter went by carrying a hare, & that he could not help crying at the sight. In Wordsworths hand this anecdote would be worth as much as the Reverie of Poor Susan. [31]  Before my father had been twelvemonths in London, his Master died, upon which he was removed to Bristol, & apprenticed <placed> with William Britton, [32]  a linen-draper in Wine Street: the business was then a profitable one, & Brittons the best shop in the city, – which is as much as saying that it <there> was the best <not a better> in the West of England. This must have been about the end of George the Seconds reign. [33]  Shop windows were then as little used in this country as they are now in most of the continental towns; I remember Brittons still open to the weather, according to old custom, long after all his neighbours were glazed; & I remember him from being the first tradesman in his line, fallen to decay in his old age, & sunk in sottishness, still keeping on a business which had gradually dwindled almost to nothing. My father I think was not apprenticed to him, because if he had served a regular apprenticeship, it would have entitled him to the freedom of the city & I know that he was not a freeman. He lived with him however twelve or fourteen years. Among the acquaintance with whom he became intimate during that time, was my Uncle Edward Tyler, [34]  then employed in a Coventry Warehouse in Broad Street, belonging to the Troughtons. [35] He introduced him This introduced him to my grandmothers house. – And here endeth the first epistle.


July 31st.


* MS: Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester, Robert Southey Papers A.S727. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), I, pp. [1]–8 [in part].
Note on MS: The letter was sent as an enclosure in Southey to John May, 31 July 1820, Letter 3518. BACK

[1] A proverb of very long standing; it has been traced back to St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153). BACK

[2] In July 1820, five of Southey’s children were living: four daughters, Edith May, Bertha, Kate, Isabel, and an only son Cuthbert, who was still an infant and had been born three years after the death of his brother Herbert. BACK

[3] Thomas Southey (1696–1777), a farmer. The parish register at Wellington, Somerset, ancestral home of the Southeys, went no further back than 1683, as Southey had discovered in his fruitless investigations into the will of John Cannon Southey (d. 1768), under which he had hoped to have some claim on the Fitzhead estate; see Southey to Henry Herbert Southey, 28 February 1820, Letter 3447. BACK

[4] Robert Southey (1670–1726) and his wife Anne Locke (b. 1675). BACK

[5] Mary Southey (b. 1698); John Southey (b. 1700); Ann Southey (b. 1701); Robert Southey (b. 1703); Mary Southey (b. 1704); Hannah Southey (b. 1706); and William Southey (b. 1708). BACK

[6] Thomas Southey (1545–1601), though he had eleven children (six sons and five daughters) rather than eleven sons. He was a successful clothier at Wellington, Somerset. BACK

[7] John Southey (1666–1728), a lawyer. BACK

[8] These arms were certainly displayed on Southey family monuments in Fitzhead and Bishops Lydeard churches in the eighteenth century. The legend that the three crosslets represented the three crusades that a Southey ancestor had embarked on was much-repeated. BACK

[9] The English civil war of 1642–1651. BACK

[10] James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth (1649–1685; DNB), illegitimate son of Charles II (1630–1685; King of Great Britain 1660–1685; DNB). His rebellion against his uncle, James II (1633–1701; King of Great Britain 1685–1688; DNB), in 1685 had a great deal of support among the small farmers and textile workers of Somerset (especially Nonconformists). However, if Robert Southey (1670–1726) was part of Monmouth’s army, he was only fifteen at the time. BACK

[11] George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem (1645–1689; DNB), Lord Chief Justice 1683–1685, who presided over the ‘Bloody Assizes’ after the failure of the Monmouth Rebellion. BACK

[12] This portrait is now in the Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere. BACK

[13] Southey’s father had been declared bankrupt shortly before his death. BACK

[14] John Southey married, in 1698, Mary Cannon (1678–1730), co-heiress of the Fitzhead estate. BACK

[15] Simon Cannon of Fitzhead (dates unknown). The Cannons were well-established minor landowners in Somerset, and Major Robert Cannon (d. 1685) had been a prominent local Royalist in the civil war and had built Fitzhead Court. BACK

[16] There were in fact three daughters: Mary Southey (1704–1789), Elizabeth Southey (1705–1767) and Jane Southey (d. 1722). BACK

[17] John Cannon Southey (d. 1768), a lawyer, like his father, John Southey. He was not a bachelor, but married a wealthy heiress, Betty Periam (1698–1760) of Bishops Lydeard, Somerset, in 1725 (she inherited £2,000 from her father, John Periam (d. 1711)). However, the couple had no surviving children. BACK

[18] Jane Southey (d. 1722) died unmarried, but Elizabeth Southey (1705–1767) married John Periam of Sandhill Park, Bishops Lydeard (1701–1755), the brother of Betty Periam. The couple had no surviving children. BACK

[19] Mary Southey (1704–1789) married the landowner Christopher Lethbridge, of Westaway House, Devon (1685–1746). Lethbridge’s brother, Thomas Lethbridge (b. 1698), married Sarah Periam (d. 1771), another sister of John Periam, and their descendants inherited the Periam estates and Sandhill Park. BACK

[20] Elizabeth Cannon Lethbridge (d. 1765). BACK

[21] Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Somerville (1729–1795) of the Dragoon Guards, whose elder brother was James Somerville, 14th Lord Somerville (1727–1796). BACK

[22] John Southey Somerville, 15th Lord Somerville (1765–1819; DNB), agricultural reformer and Southey’s third cousin. BACK

[23] Mary Southey (dates unknown). BACK

[24] Hannah Southey (b. 1706). BACK

[25] The name of the relative about whom Southey tells this story is unidentified. Southey’s aunt, Hannah Southey, held her estate ‘pur autre vie’, in this case only for the duration of the lives of three named individuals. See Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 359–360. BACK

[26] Joan Mullens (1698–1769). BACK

[27] Hannah Southey (b. 1744). BACK

[28] Southey, The Origin, Nature, and Object, of the New System of Education (London, 1812), pp. 85–85: ‘It was in the cyphering book that the master used to display his power of penmanship … Even the flourishes … are not without beauty: we remember with pleasure the pens, angels, and eagles which were the admiration of our boyhood. For the sake of these head and tail pieces, the book wherein they had been “flourished” was frequently preserved; to the son it became a point of comparison, and an object of blameless emulation; to the father it brought back the remembrance of his youth; and though the Arabians tell us that “the remembrance of youth is a sigh,” it brings with it something more profitable than regret.’ BACK

[29] The Poet Laureate’s father, Robert, and uncle, Thomas Southey. BACK

[30] Unidentified. BACK

[31] ‘Poor Susan’, first published in Lyrical Ballads, With Other Poems, 2 vols (London, 1800), II, pp. 80–81. BACK

[32] William Britten (dates unknown), Bristol linen draper. BACK

[33] i.e. around 1760, when George II (1683–1760; King of Great Britain 1727–1760; DNB) died. BACK

[34] Edward Tyler (1744–1786), son of Southey’s grandmother, Margaret Bradford (1710–1782) and her first husband, William Tyler (1709–1747). BACK

[35] Probably Joseph Troughton (dates unknown), a silk merchant; silk was often known as ‘Coventry’, as the city was a centre of silk manufacture. BACK

People mentioned

Southey, Herbert (1806–1816) (mentioned 1 time)
Southey, Bertha (1809–1877) (mentioned 1 time)