807. Robert Southey to Charles Biddlecombe, 18 July 1803

807. Robert Southey to Charles Biddlecombe, 18 July 1803 ⁠* 

My dear Sir

It is very long since I have heard from you – & the defaulture is certainly on your side now. but I suppose you are soldiering again & busy in organizing the defence of the country. [1]  this unlucky, &, in my judgement, unavoidable war has actually placed England in greater peril than she has ever been subject to since the days of the Armada, [2]  but that peril is every day diminishing, & if the measure of teaching every man the use of arms be carried into effect, the country will be safe for ever. tis what old Major Cartwright [3]  has been crying out for these thirty years – & now Wyndham [4]  proposes it – & we are to have it decreed by parliament! [5]  Wyndham arming the people! such are the odd changes of the world. It is a most important step, for if it be acted upon with common prudence it would preclude the necessity of ever keeping up any other military establishment, but this must not be looked for. patronage is too essential to the governors to let them ever drop a standing army.

I was in town last week – as if you have seen Miss Rickman [6]  you probably have learnt. & I had the good fortune to see Westminster Abbey [7]  before the fire was quite extinguished. a most impressive sight it was, & a very fine one. when the extent of the mischief was known – & that in fact it was rather a good thing than an evil, as nothing but the poor & paltry patchwork – wooden roofs & painted canvass. the works of modern parsimony were consumed. the Choir was full of smoaking ruins when I got into the Church, & sparks & burning fragments still falling – & the light came in thro the chasm & made the noble pillars & stone arched roof look far more grand & magnificent than I had ever before seen them: they looked as if they had been built for eternity. the floor in Poets Corner sunk so with the effect of the water that I half expected to have seen my old acquaintance Lady Strathmore [8]  & her speaking trumpet. there ought to be some punishment for the Plumbers when they occasion such fires. it is perpetually happening. one or two of these fellows should be thrown into the flames – it would not be the first time that men had been so sacrificed for the good of the Church.

I am going to reside near London – probably at Richmond. will you have the goodness to send off the remainder of my books &c to Rickman. I hope soon to collect them all together, & indeed have already begun the heavy labour of cataloguing them. The main motive which takes me to that neighbourhood is to manage & superintend a great literary undertaking – a Bibliotheca Britannica which you will see announced as to be done, in the next Monthly Magazine. [9]  this title commonly means only a dictionary of authors & their works, but by giving it a chronological arrangement, adding biography & criticism, & connecting chapters it may be made a readable & very interesting book, as well as the most important work for a scholar & indeed for every man of letters, that exists in the language. the extent cannot be guessed – eight or ten large quartos at least, but it will be published in parts – that is half volumes like the Cyclopaedia. [10]  Of course I am to have many assistants, but the plan & authority & whole management are mine.

My brother is in the Galatea, [11]  now in sight of you at Yarmouth, & wishing to reach you, but no leave is given to sleep on shore. he saw your neighbour Captain Somebody – who I conceive must be living in Cookes house, & who described his situation as being near the cottage of Southey the poet – not knowing that Tom was my brother. poor fellow there he has been for three months or more, waiting for men, & still without them, & almost without hope of getting them, while others are reaping the harvest of prizes, & bringing them in under his very nose! is it not mortifying.

Edith desires to be remembered to you & to your good Mother. [12]  I heard of your little girls [13]  well doing from Miss Rickman. Remember us too to Mr Coleman. [14] 

God bless you –

Yours very truly

R Southey.

Kingsdown. Bristol.

July 18. 1803.


* Address: To/ Charles Biddlecombe Esqr/ Burton/ near Ringwood/ Single
Postmark: [partial] OL/ 18 1803
MS: Berg Collection, New York Public Library. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Biddlecombe had been a member of the Christchurch Gentlemen and Yeomanry Cavalry until October 1801. BACK

[2] The attempt to invade England in 1588 by Spain. BACK

[3] John Cartwright (1740-1824; DNB), radical and proponent of universal suffrage. BACK

[4] William Windham (1750-1810; DNB), Secretary at War 1794-1801. He played a prominent part in the debates over the Army of Reserve Acts in June and July 1803. BACK

[5] The Army of Reserve Acts (1803) provided for a new Army of Reserve to defend Britain from invasion. If any parish could not provide enough volunteers, there was a ballot of all the adult male parishioners. The government also called for a new volunteer force to harass any invading French army. BACK

[6] Rickman’s sister, Mary Rickman (dates unknown). BACK

[7] There was a fire in the roof of Westminster Abbey on 9 July 1803. BACK

[8] Mary Eleanor Bowes, Lady Strathmore (1749-1800; DNB). She was buried in Westminster Abbey. BACK

[9] Monthly Magazine, 16 (August 1803), 51; the project was abandoned by Longman and Rees in August 1803. BACK

[10] The Cyclopaedia: or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences was an encyclopaedia, first published in 1728, and much expanded and republished throughout the eighteenth century, especially by Abraham Rees (1743-1825; DNB), The New Cyclopaedia, 45 vols (1802-1820). BACK

[11] HMS Galatea, a 32-gun Royal Navy frigate. BACK

[12] Mrs Biddlecombe’s first name and dates are unknown. BACK

[13] Biddlecombe’s daughter was born in 1799. Her name is unknown. BACK

[14] Unidentified; an acquaintance of Southey’s from his residence at Burton in 1797 and 1799. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Burton (mentioned 1 time)