1324. Robert Southey to Nicholas Lightfoot, [c. 18 May 1807]

1324. Robert Southey to Nicholas Lightfoot, [c. 18 May 1807] ⁠* 

The story of my unhappy brother Edward Southey (his name is not Tyler) is very different from what he has stated to it to me in his letter accompanying yours, & doubtless from what he had made it appear to you.

From the time he was capable of learning he was placed in the most favourable situations – first at the Grammar School at <in> Bristol – then at the one at <in> Birmingham, – lastly under a Clergyman at Bristol, – & at every place it was absolutely impossible to make him attend to xxx any thing. In 1803 he determined to go to sea. I was then at Bristol, & strongly dissuaded him; no dissuasions were of any avail. go he would, & he was warned by me most earnestly that this step once taken was irrevocable, for he had no friends who could afford the expence of any change of plan. – I could do little for him – as will appear in the sequel of this letter, – he however rigged for sea at the eventual expence of his maternal Uncle Mr Hill of Lisbon – the father of us all – a berth xxx found for him, the last time I saw him was in August of that year, – my first child was then lying dead. – I gave him five guineas & bade him remember that if he did his duty I would do all that it was possible for me to do to serve him, but again bade him remember that I would never rob myself of necessaries to support any folly.

In October came a letter from him telling me that he had left his ship – & was in a Gentlemans house at Exeter (Mr Foster Barham [1] ) – waiting my determination what he should do. The fault he laid upon his Aunt Miss Tyler (of whom it would be necessary to make you understand her character to say more than a letter can hold, – suffice it that the only excuse to be made for her is to suppose her – as I verily do – insane) – & he expressed a readiness to obey my advice. I wrote that nothing else was to be done but to return to sea, the expence of his fitting out having been incurred, & at the same <time> took measures for obtaining him another ship. His answer told me that all his uniforms &c had been sold to a travelling Jew. The same post which brought this provoking letter brought me a draft for about 15£ I think – for a taylors bill at Exeter, – the next day came another from a Gun Smith, – & xxx xxx a third from an alehouse – or brothel at Plymouth. These I instantly returned. When I come to state in such my own circumstances you will perceive that there was no alternative between involving myself in debt or leaving him to what he deserved, – & you will already perceive that had I begun answering such drafts there would xxx have been no end to them.

Well he found his way from Exeter into Herefordshire to a friend of my Uncle, who took lodgings for him, got him <a> a mathematical teacher & wrote to me to get him another ship. Then his bills followed him & were discharged by my Uncle, amounting with his expences there & of a refitment for sea to above 190£. I procured an appointment for him (no easy thing in these times – especially for one who had left the service) – & to Plymouth he went. The next news was that he had left this situation also – had gone to Taunton & there to my fathers elder brother, a man of large fortune & strange character, but finding him in town had written to him & receive an answer bidding him xxx go to his house & stay till his return – a wonderful act of kindness in him, & certainly indicating a disposition to do more. But Edward immediately ordered in a new assortment of bills to this xxx <Uncle>, which so irritated the old man that he turned him out of doors. He now went to Bristol to his Aunt, – & I heard nothing more till my Uncle informed me that he had reached Lisbon in a merchant ship from Bristol, sent by her. Mr Hill I mean by my Uncle – he being the only relation who has ever demeaned himself as such towards us, & <he> is in truth one of the most admirable of men. He spoke of him with bitterness very unusual in him, & added that if he xxx xxx could not be kept in the navy he would come to the Gallows. I should tell you that in 1799 I predicted in the bitterness of my heart that he would turn strolling player, – & that my Uncle having seen him in 1800 felt deeply convinced no good could ever come of him. At Lisbon he was once more shipped in the Egyptienne, [2]  – how or why he left this xxx the service this time is what I have never heard, – but to Bristol he got once more & then got an Ensigncy in the Militia.

There was an a Lady of some rank & interest who he thought could push him in the army. She was a Roman Catholick, – what did he do to win her favour – but turn Roman Catholick with all due forms. On the Good Friday of last year I know a person who saw him take the sacrament at the Catholick altar! – My eye was never off him, – whatever he did at this time I knew: & he left the regiment because he had having charge of the French prisoners he had sold some of these <prisoners> provisions & taken the money – The Colonel very humanely permitted him to resign – He took horse from Bristol from a livery stable, – which horse was seized at Taunton for an old debt contracted at the inn, – & for this he is still liable to arrest: He went to Thomas Southey (who had now succeeded to his elder brother, that elder brother having cut off all his nephews, – an action in some degree perhaps to be imputed to Edwards late misconduct.) & was not xxxx xxx by him – then he took to his present situation &c I think you will also perceive that after thrice quitting the navy, being expelled the army – for such xxx may xxx truly be said to be the case, – & changing his religion upon speculation, – it is the fittest situation for him.

My sole income hitherto has been an annuity of 160£. that annuity xxx has now just ceased because I have a pension of 200£ has just been granted me [3]  – of which the net receipts will not exceed 144£. No efforts of mine in literature have ever yet increased this income to more than 300£. I write as much as any clerk in an attorneys office, – but it is only half my time which I devote to writing for bread, – the other is given for worthier pursuits, on which to build an everlasting reputation, & by which to do my duty in the world by contributing to the stock of knowledge therein. Hereafter this will prove the best worldly policy, – at present all I have is as you may perceive little enough for a married man with a growing family. I have two other brothers – the one is at sea, – there is not a braver nor a <or> better officer, xxx xxx xxx for the other I have done much – even to contracting debt for – & having found friends for him who have done more, he has just graduated at Edinburgh in medicine, & is at this hour without any exception, one of the very finest & most promising young men living. For both of these brothers my house whenever they have been able to make it so has been a home, – & for the last three years the younger has annually spent five months with me.

Now Lightfoot the sum of all this is that it is not impossible possible I can supply the money necessary to place Edward in any situation whatever: & xxx if I could assuredly I would not, because it is my firm belief from the thorough knowledge I have of him, that the same misconduct would be repeated. Dear Lightfoot there <are> insanities & disorders of heart – as well as of intellect, – & defects in our moral being as well as in our physical. Edward was born without the sense of shame – from his childhood he has taken a delight in deceiving others, & the wonderful talents with which he has been gifted have unfortunately have been applied to this purpose – the whole life, wherever he has been, has been one continuous deception, – & he has always imposed upon every body, first for sport, & latterly for worse purposes. It is his own fault that he is not now at Oxford – whither my Uncle would have sent him, – that he is not in the navy – that he is not in the army. He is now fit for nothing but what he is: nor would it be possible to place him in any office of trust, – after what has past. My Uncle is no more able to assist him than I am, he being already embarrassed by the expence so often incurred for him, – for he has cost his family more than either of his brothers.

Any thing I could do would distress myself & be thrown away. I know him too well to expect amendment. – It is a grief to me – as you may well suppose – thank God it is the only one: xxx & having always xxx foreseen it I was prepared for it. His mother happily did not live to see these things but she also had a forefeeling of what would come. – I shall answer his letter tomorrow [4]  – there is no time to do it by this post. He must be content with the lot to which he has reduced himself, – & in whatever lot he shall learn to demean himself honestly & decently I shall ev[er] be ready to acknowledge him as my brother – but help xxx him I cannot.

God bless you


I have left myself no room to thank you for the interest you have taken in this affair, which is what I should have expected in such a case from my old friend Lightfoot.


* Address: To/ The Reverend N. Lightfoot/ Crediton/ Devon./ Single
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: E/ MAY 18/ 1807
Endorsement: [Drawing of a foot on address sheet after ‘Lightfoot’]
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng.lett.d.110. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] John Foster Barham (1763–1822). BACK

[2] A 40-gun frigate, captured from the French in 1801, and commissioned into the Royal Navy. BACK

[3] Before he left office at the fall of the so-called Ministry of All the Talents in 1807, Southey’s patron Wynn had succeeded in arranging that the pension he paid Southey from his personal funds was replaced by a government pension. BACK

[4] This has not survived. BACK