Vol. 26 No. 7 · 1 April 2004

The Reptile Oculist

John Barrell on the trail of the mysterious John Taylor

8192 words

John Taylor, the journalist, newspaper editor and poet, was born in 1757. His grandfather, the legendary ‘Chevalier’ Taylor, had been oculist to George II, and afterwards, so his grandson assures us, to ‘every crowned head in Europe’. He was as famous for his womanising as for his knowledge of ophthalmology, but most famous, perhaps, for his habit of prefacing every operation he performed with a long speech in praise of his own skill, composed in what he claimed was ‘the true Ciceronian’, with each main verb cunningly held back to the end of the sentence. According to Johnson, he was a remarkable instance of ‘how far impudence may carry ignorance’. Taylor himself – my John Taylor – later became oculist to George III, a job he shared with his brother. The post was unpaid and undemanding: though Taylor seems to have been a competent ophthalmologist in his twenties, by the time he received his royal appointment he had abandoned the discipline in favour of a career in journalism, and does not appear to have been called in to treat the long series of eye-problems, partly the effects of undiagnosed porphyria, which eventually left the king blind. He was fascinated by the stage, and in the 1780s became drama critic for the Morning Post. He cultivated the friendship of actors, dramatists, theatre managers, with extraordinary assiduity; indeed, over a period of more than forty years he seems to have known everyone: politicians, poets, novelists, painters, journalists, soldiers, clerics, even civil servants if they were sufficiently close to ministers to be worth knowing. During the 1790s, when the social networks in which Taylor moved were everywhere unpicked by political disagreements, Taylor, a known and convinced Tory and devotee of the prime minister, William Pitt, managed to remain on friendly terms with men such as William Godwin and the great satirical poet John Wolcot, ‘Peter Pindar’, whom Pitt’s government regarded as dangerously disloyal.

Friendship was his true vocation and chief talent, and he worked at it tirelessly. The great majority of his numerous poems – he described them, without false modesty, as ‘trifles’ – were puffing prologues and epilogues to plays by friends, or warmly complimentary verses about, or addressed to, the celebrities with whom he was or wished to be intimate. In the end he derived financial if not cultural capital from this lifelong habit of flattery. In 1827, badly short of money after many precarious years as a newspaper proprietor, Taylor published his collected poems. The edition was paid for by nearly four hundred subscribers. There were Tory grandees such as George Canning and Lords Eldon, Liverpool and Sidmouth. There were fellow poets such as Felicia Hemans, Tom Moore, Samuel Rogers, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Southey; artists of various kinds including the gifted amateur Sir George Beaumont, Francis Chantry, John Constable, Thomas Lawrence, James Northcote and John Soane; and from the theatre, Jack Bannister, George Colman the younger, various Kembles, the long-deified Mrs Siddons and very many more. There were peers of the realm, baronets, famous churchmen, a duchess. One hundred or so of these subscribers had been the subjects or recipients of Taylor’s poetic puffs, some many times over, and no doubt there would have been at least twice as many subscribers had so many of his early friends not predeceased him – though in some cases their posthumous dues were paid by surviving relations.

Tom Girtin wrote in 1958 of ‘the ubiquitous John Taylor’, but he could have had no idea how ubiquitous Taylor would turn out to be, as more and more came to be known about the 1790s. The story of his life in that decade, as it has emerged from recent historical research, is unbelievably complex and complicated, a story of espionage, bigamy, perjury and betrayal, all carried out by a man whose outward demeanour seems to have been remarkable mainly for its jocularity and blandness.

The most vivid description of Taylor’s character, at least as he was in the 1810s, is by the Scots-born journalist William Jerdan. ‘He was a very amusing companion, exceedingly facetious, full of anecdote, and endless in witticisms and puns,’ Jerdan claimed, but he was

a being of the artificial stage, not of the actual living world. He was acute, yet trifling; experienced, yet foolish; knowing in one sense, yet absurdly plotting as in a play; and looking for surprises and denouements, as if the game of life were a comedy or a farce. Over his passions he had no control, and though habitually good humoured, his recurrent phrensies were at once ludicrous and affecting.

Jerdan had become Taylor’s bitterest enemy and few people apart from him can ever have seen Taylor in a ‘passion’. Among his contemporaries there are hints, here and there, that his company, though delightful, was dispensable; that his flattery was too constant, his pursuit of friendship too assiduous, but only Jerdan seems to have had more than the odd bad word to say of him.

Jerdan also described Taylor’s appearance: ‘His features were of a form which resembled an animated death’s head, covered with thin muscles and skin; his body rather tapered from the haunch to the shoulder in the sugar loaf fashion; and below, his limbs were muscular and well built, as his casing in knee-breeches and silk stockings was properly calculated to display.’ A mixture of ugliness and vanity, it seems; but Taylor was made to look only slightly more prepossessing by his good friend the artist and architect George Dance, who drew him in profile in 1794 in what another friend, the painter Joseph Farington, described as ‘a very strong likeness’. Taylor is shown in profile, wearing his own hair arranged in a long pigtail and a curious frizzy headphone which covers his ear. He has a short concave forehead, a long straight nose, a round, prominent chin and a huge jowl shaded to look excessively meaty and anything but skull-like. But the face gives little away. His expression is that of a man who is as mildly vain as we all are when our picture is taken. Mostly, however, he has the air of a man who is concentrating hard on sitting still, which is as much as you can say of most portraits before the invention of fast film.

We can put together the story of Taylor’s life in the 1790s from hints offered by three historians: Lucyle Werkmeister in her two monumental studies of the London newspapers, The London Daily Press 1772-1792 (1963) and A Newspaper History of England 1792-1793 (1967); Clive Emsley, in his influential essay ‘The Home Office and its Sources of Information and Investigation 1791-1801’, in the English Historical Review for 1979; and Emily Lorraine de Montluzin in her study The Anti-Jacobins 1798-1800 (1988). At the very end of 1788 George III was still apparently mad, and the Prince of Wales was desperately hoping for an Act of Parliament that would establish him, over Pitt’s dead body, as regent. The Morning Post, a newspaper controlled by the government, published a paragraph hinting that the prince was secretly married to Mrs Fitzherbert, which of course he was. Because it was legally impossible for a prince married to a Catholic to become king, or, presumably, regent, the prince was desperate to prevent the Post revealing any more about his awkward secret. He threatened the conductor of the paper, John Benjafield, with prosecution; Benjafield responded by threatening more disclosures. The prince offered to buy Benjafield’s shares in the newspaper; Benjafield named an absurdly inflated price; the prince paid up. Overnight the Morning Post became an opposition newspaper, and Taylor was promoted from drama critic to editor, though with the politician and dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan managing the paper’s political department. This arrangement lasted for two years, until Sheridan, with whom Taylor, by his own account, was especially intimate, decided to position the Post further to the left, and fired his Tory friend.

Taylor was not unemployed for long. Early in 1791 he was offered and accepted an engagement as a Treasury writer, with a salary of three guineas a week, 50 per cent higher than he had earned on the Post. This salary was paid out of secret service funds and routed to Taylor indirectly through Thomas Harris, the loyalist proprietor of the Covent Garden Theatre. Taylor’s job was to write pro-government pamphlets and newspaper articles, though nothing he wrote in this capacity seems to have been identified. The 1790s was a great age of political pamphleteering, but Taylor appears to have written only one pamphlet, a contribution to the endless political bickering between Whig and Tory over the London theatres, and it came out a few months before he was entered on the Treasury payroll.

It was in the summer of 1792 that Taylor’s life began to get exciting. In early June he arrived in Edinburgh, on his majesty’s secret service, in time for the king’s birthday. By tradition this day had been celebrated in Scotland with carnivalesque disorder in the streets, and sometimes worse than that. This particular year, however, it was clear that something spectacular was being planned, involving serious rioting and the burning in effigy of Henry Dundas, the home secretary and unofficial ‘king’ of Scotland. On the afternoon of 5 June an effigy of Dundas was carried into George Square and set alight outside the house of his mother, Lady Arniston. Despite the intervention of troops, who were strongly resisted by the crowd, windows were broken in her house and in that of Robert Dundas, the lord advocate and Henry’s nephew. One rioter was shot by the soldiers, several injured. The crowd gathered again the next night, and attacked the house of the lord provost in St Andrew’s Square, breaking every window, ‘while the provost’s terrified wife and two daughters remained trapped inside’.

Only three men were ever charged with participating in these disturbances, of whom the first to be tried in the High Court of Justiciary was none other than John Taylor. He was charged with mobbing and rioting: the prosecution claimed that he had been the leader and instigator of the riot in St Andrew’s Square. Taylor’s defence, described by Werkmeister, was astonishing. He appears to have admitted inciting the riot, but pleaded not guilty on the grounds that he had been acting as an agent provocateur on the instructions of the government. He was acquitted. As Werkmeister points out, the instructions must have come from Henry Dundas himself, but what he had to gain from a riot which threatened his mother’s life and left her house carpeted in broken glass will never be understood. Of Taylor’s own motives, Werkmeister had no doubt: ‘He was loyal to the point of fanaticism: there was almost nothing he would not do for money.’

We hear little or nothing of Taylor over the ensuing eighteen months. In January 1793 the truest of blue newspapers, the True Briton, was founded, and Taylor became its theatre and art critic. There are records of his receiving secret service money up to Christmas 1792; thereafter, Werkmeister conjectures, he may have been paid from a different secret fund run by Dundas himself. Then in January 1794 he bumped into an acquaintance called Samuel Webb, a member of the London Corresponding Society, a popular reform society dedicated to achieving universal manhood suffrage. Webb was on his way to a general meeting of the society at the Globe Tavern in Craven Street, and invited Taylor along. He joined the LCS a few days later, becoming a member of one of the most active and numerous divisions, the second, whose members included the radical poet and lecturer John Thelwall. Though Taylor would later claim that he joined the society for ‘amusement’ and with no intention of becoming a spy or informer, he wrote reports for the government on every meeting he attended, including the very first one at the Globe.

He soon became the most eager and industrious of all the many spies who infiltrated the LCS. Every Monday he attended the second division, as a member, in New Compton Street; every Tuesday, as a visitor, he attended the meetings of the large and influential 29th division in Shire Lane. Every Wednesday and Friday he attended Thelwall’s political lectures at Beaufort Buildings in the Strand, and wrote long summaries of them for the Home Office. His dedication is awe-inspiring, especially for a man who was holding down a job as theatre critic for a daily newspaper, and conducting a social life to which he was at least as dedicated as he was to Pitt and Dundas. He was even elected as the second division’s delegate to the society’s general committee, which would have swallowed up his Thursday evenings as well; but this was one commitment too many and he was severely criticised in his division for his failure to attend.

Taylor seems to have taken almost no part in the discussions at divisional meetings, but simply sat at the back of the room, taking notes: it is a striking testament to his social skills that no one appears to have suspected him of spying until May 1794, by which time the leading members of the LCS and the Society for Constitutional Information had been arrested, the first step in the process that would lead to the famous treason trials later that year. Taylor was eventually denounced in his absence by the man who would become his nemesis, John Pearce, an attorney’s clerk, who happened to catch sight of him one night in conversation with a man called Jealous, a well-known Bow Street Runner and one of the king’s garde de corps. Pearce even claimed to know Taylor’s earnings from espionage: £1 11s. 6d. per week, a meagre amount compared with his earlier salary as a government hack. Taylor was ordered to attend the second division to answer the charges against him, but did not respond.

That Taylor was indeed a government spy was put beyond doubt in August 1794. The authorities in Edinburgh had discovered a plot hatched in a reform society, the Friends of the People, to capture the castle, arrest the judges, seize the banks and instruct the king to dismiss his ministers and end the war with France. This plot was the invention of Robert Watt, who until a year earlier had been a spy in the pay of Dundas, and who perhaps even now was acting on Dundas’s instructions as an agent provocateur. Dundas disowned him, however, and Watt was charged with high treason, along with an elderly goldsmith called David Downie, who was unfortunate enough to be at the meeting at which Watt disclosed his crackpot plan. The government was keen to persuade the jury and public opinion (though it was certainly not true) that the Edinburgh plot was part of a co-ordinated insurrection planned to take place simultaneously in Edinburgh, London and Dublin, and so Taylor was packed off to Scotland again to give evidence at Watt’s trial about what had been happening in the LCS. Both Watt and Downie were found guilty, but probably not on the basis of Taylor’s evidence, which suggested no connection between the LCS and Watt’s plot. The transcripts of the trials tell us a little more, however, about Taylor’s circumstances, or about the cover story he had invented to conceal the fact that he was in the pay of the government. He was, he told the court, a man of no profession, with no employment but ‘his own amusement’. He had ‘a small independency’ consisting of £1350 in East India Stock, which gave him an income of £94 per annum. He also claimed to be living at 35 Fleet Street, though among his friends in London his true address was so well known that he was referred to as ‘Taylor of Hatton Garden’.

But Taylor was a liar on a grander scale, as the world was about to discover. While he had been in Edinburgh, Pearce had been making inquiries; and as soon as Taylor returned to London he was arrested at Pearce’s instigation on a charge of bigamy. He was brought to trial on 13 November. The case turned out to be open and shut. Pearce appeared with two parish registers, from which it was plain that Taylor had married Margery Sophia Richardson while already married to Sarah Marshall, whom he knew to be still living. It appeared in evidence that, on his arrest, Taylor had said: ‘There are two marriages, but he had a good defence to make.’ In fact, the nearest thing he had to a defence was ruled inadmissible: Sarah Taylor, née Marshall, was on hand to tell the court that she suffered from ‘a natural defect, which rendered the consummation of the marriage impossible’; but, as his true wife, she was not permitted to testify that she was not his wife at all.

It was left to Margery Richardson to attempt to mitigate Taylor’s offence. She admitted that she had known Taylor was not a bachelor when she went through a form of marriage with him, but claimed that this marriage was ‘perfectly justifiable’, in that it enjoyed the blessing of his first wife, with whom she was on terms of great friendship: indeed, the three were living together under the same roof. Understandably, this appeared to the court less a mitigation than an aggravation of Taylor’s offence. In his summing up, the recorder for London, Sir John Rose, predictably saved his warmest condemnation for Richardson. He ‘felt it his duty to observe’ that ‘with whatever confidence she seemed to pride herself on her connexion with the prisoner’, she was ‘yet to be considered in point of law in no other view than as a prostitute, having violated every legal as well as moral precept’. Emphasising the gravity of the offence of bigamy, and the especially serious circumstances of this case, Rose invited the jury to convict. They returned an immediate verdict of guilty.

It was a verdict that served the interests of justice better than those of the government. The treason trials had begun. Thomas Hardy, the secretary of the LCS, had already been tried and, on 5 November, acquitted. John Horne Tooke’s trial was to begin on 17 November. The trial of John Thelwall was expected to take place shortly thereafter, and Taylor, who had so assiduously attended his lectures and the meetings of Thelwall’s LCS division, was to be the star witness. But bigamy was classified as a felony with benefit of clergy. It carried a maximum sentence of a year’s imprisonment, and as Rose had represented Taylor’s bigamy as unusually heinous he could hardly expect less. Such a thought had no doubt crossed Pearce’s mind when he brought his prosecution.

Astonishingly, however, when he returned to the Old Bailey two days after his trial to receive sentence, Taylor was told by the Recorder that the evidence which had apparently aggravated his offence now appeared to mitigate it. Without for one moment compromising his reputation for political impartiality, for he had none, Sir John Rose sentenced Taylor ‘to be confined for a fortnight, to pay one shilling, and then to be discharged’. He would be at large again on 29 November, with two full days to recover from the horrors of imprisonment before Thelwall’s trial began. I hardly exaggerate: the bitter cold of the winter of 1794-95 had already reached London by mid-November, and the Felon’s Side in Newgate was poorly heated at best. Luckily for Taylor, however, he never heard the cell door clang shut behind him, but served his sentence as a guest in the warm lodgings of the keeper, Mr Kirby.

By the time of Taylor’s release, John Horne Tooke had been acquitted, and it was now clear that the government’s original aim of staging at least a dozen trials would have to be abandoned. On 1 December, the members of the SCI who had been indicted for high treason were discharged. The law officers, however, were keen to proceed against Thelwall, and had been leaking to the press that the evidence against him was new and persuasive, even though much of it would come from the mouth of a convicted felon. On the second day of the trial Taylor gave a long and detailed account of the seditious expressions he claimed to have heard Thelwall utter at his lectures and at LCS meetings. His evidence, if it hardly proved high treason, was confident, detailed, and certainly represented Thelwall as a convinced republican and as thoroughly disaffected.

Taylor’s evidence for the prosecution lasted until late in the day. With barely time to begin his cross-examination, Vicary Gibbs for the defence did his best to ensure that Taylor would pass a sleepless night. His first question was one that Taylor had been dreading. ‘Have you always gone by the name of Taylor?’ ‘I always have,’ Taylor replied. Gibbs left it at that and started another hare. Following his original marriage, he asked, had Taylor ever represented himself as a bachelor? Never, Taylor said. Two questions, two lies.

In his opening speech for the defence, Thomas Erskine brandished an affidavit signed by Taylor, in which he stated that he was a bachelor at the time of his second marriage. ‘He could not procure a licence,’ Erskine pointed out, ‘to marry his second wife without making an affidavit that he was an unmarried man; and he first committed perjury in order to enable himself afterwards to commit felony.’ And in denying that he had ever represented himself as a bachelor following his first marriage, he had committed perjury again.

Worse, for Taylor, was to follow. Earlier, Gibbs had asked Taylor whether he had ever lived with a Mr Phillips, in Cambridge Street, off Broad Street? No, Taylor said. David Phillips was now called to the stand: did he know a John Taylor? A man who called himself Roberts, Phillips replied, had taken lodgings with him in the spring of 1794. During the trials of Watt and Downie someone had called at Cambridge Street and asked to see his lodger, whom he referred to as Taylor. Phillips replied that he had only one male lodger, whose name was Roberts. That is the man, the caller said, and he is now in Newgate. His curiosity aroused, Phillips walked over to Newgate and asked for Taylor at the Felon’s Gate. He was told that ‘Gentleman Taylor’ was staying at Mr Kirby’s, and there Phillips found him. Taylor was amazed and relieved to hear that Phillips had not been subpoenaed by the defence to appear at Thelwall’s trial. But if you are subpoenaed, he added, please tell the court you have always known me as Taylor.

When Phillips was cross-examined, things went from worse to worse still. Since Taylor’s return from Edinburgh, he had taken lodgings in South Street, off Marylebone High Street, but according to Phillips he still spent every night at Cambridge Street with the woman who ‘passed for his wife’. The only other lodger in the house was the widow of a tradesman, which suggested that, along with Taylor’s various perjuries, Margery Richardson had lied in stating that she and Taylor shared their lodgings with the first and only Mrs Taylor.

Thus, by the end of the third day, Taylor, a discharged felon, had been revealed as a serial perjurer who had attempted to suborn a potential witness to commit perjury on his behalf. His evidence, the presiding judge said, should be received with great suspicion, though not totally excluded where it was confirmed by other witnesses. This ruled out virtually everything Taylor had said, and it was his evidence above all which went to incriminate Thelwall himself, as opposed to the LCS in general. The jury brought in a verdict of not guilty. All those long evenings in draughty meeting-rooms, the laborious note-taking and fair-copying, had been labour in vain. But Taylor still enjoyed the protection of the government: no move was made to indict him for perjury. Perhaps the law officers, now forced finally to abandon the trials altogether, wanted their forlorn attempt to hang the leaders of the reform societies to be forgotten as soon as possible. Perhaps they had known about Taylor’s life as ‘Roberts’ before the trial began, but decided to put him on the stand in the hope that it would remain concealed from the jury.

Nor do Taylor’s bigamy and perjury appear to have damaged him much in the eyes of his friends. A hundred years later, and one could easily imagine them leaving him alone in the library with a loaded revolver. As it was, the only hint of unpleasantness came in mid-December, when Ralph Griffiths, the editor of the Monthly Review, considered proposing Taylor for membership of the Athenian Club, 25 literary and artistic types who met regularly for drink and conversation. Griffiths dropped the idea when he found that Taylor would be blackballed. Among his regular circle of friends, however, most of course hostile to the reformers, the exposure of Taylor’s secret life and activities, if it had not made him a hero, had certainly not made him a villain. Five days after Thelwall’s acquittal he went to the Royal Academy to hear Benjamin West’s presidential discourse; the only controversy in the room appears to have been occasioned by the discourse itself, not by Taylor’s presence. On 21 December he sat for George Dance, for the portrait I described earlier. He called frequently on Joseph Farington, who seems to have shared his delight when, on 20 January, Taylor told him that he had sold his first collection of poems to a friendly publisher for 40 guineas. Three days later the two men were among a large group of artists, including Cosway, Dance, Hodges, Hoppner and Smirke, who dined at John Soane’s. Taylor was the only non-artist present, and was probably invited either as a deliberate gesture of friendship or for the sheer pleasure of his company.

Two very different incidents appear to throw light on the question of how the radicals of the mid-1790s reacted to Taylor’s activities. The first develops out of a revival of Thomas Otway’s famous Restoration tragedy Venice Preserv’d. The play had been produced early in 1794 at the pro-government Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. It had always been regarded, indeed, as a royalist play, but at his lectures John Thelwall had pointed out that it could be read and appropriated as a ‘democratic’ text, and to prove the point had turned up at Covent Garden mob-handed and loudly encored the supposedly democratic speeches. Taylor had reported the whole business to the government, and had given evidence about it at Thelwall’s trial. Then in October 1795 the play was staged again, provocatively, by Sheridan at Drury Lane. His timing was unfortunate: on the third day of the run the king was mobbed and pelted on his way to open the new Parliament, and his coach was smashed to pieces, though not with him in it. Under great pressure from the True Briton, which represented the play as obscene, objectionable, disgusting, disloyal, and in effect an incitement to regicide, the production was abandoned.

Robert Merry, the poet celebrated under the name of ‘Della Crusca’ and a brilliant wit, had been hired by Taylor when he was editing the Morning Post, and the two had remained friends even following Merry’s public declaration of support for the new French Republic. But the stories in the True Briton about the Drury Lane production had calumniated several of Merry’s theatrical friends, and, as Taylor was its theatre critic, Merry assumed – wrongly, so Taylor insists in his autobiography – that he was their author. In the Telegraph, then the most radical and most irreverently outspoken newspaper in Britain, Merry inserted this explosive charge.

Who is the man that can violate every principle of private confidence? Who is the man that can sacrifice every principle of public virtue to the most sordid self-interest? Who is the man that, without remorse, can disturb the tranquillity of domestic happiness? Who is the man that, without mercy or common decency, can wound the peace of every honest individual? Who is the man that is false to his friends, inimical to the liberties of his country, the slanderer of all merit, the panegyrist of all infamy? Who is the most venal, the most shameless, the most savage of mankind? The enemy of hope, the advocate of despair? It is the reptile oculist.

This looks like Taylor to a T: agent provocateur, spy, bigamist and perjurer, every aspect of the dark side of his character seems to be there. He probably threatened legal action, for the Telegraph soon printed a full retraction, professing itself convinced that ‘the gentleman alluded to is not a proper object for such an attack.’ Merry followed this up with a personal letter of apology, saying that when he wrote his attack he had been drunk and misinformed as to the authorship of an article which, however, he still regarded as ‘cruel and malignant’. This and a second letter from Merry were ignored by Taylor, and the two were still not on terms when, a few years later, Merry died. The quarrel suggests, though, that one at least of Taylor’s radical friends could not so easily forgive him for the offences that others had apparently agreed to forget.

Early in 1801, Wordsworth and Coleridge arranged for a copy of the newly published second edition of their Lyrical Ballads to be sent to John Taylor. He was in exalted company: other recipients of presentation copies included Charles James Fox, the Duchess of Devonshire, Anna Barbauld, ‘Monk’ Lewis, Dorothy Jordan and William Wilberforce. Taylor’s politics had not changed: he was still involved with the True Briton, and had recently been contributing to the Anti-Jacobin Review. In his letter to Wordsworth, whose contents we know only from Wordsworth’s reply, he seems to have congratulated Wordsworth for capturing in his poems the ‘pathos of humanity’, while censuring in Coleridge’s his ‘jacobinical pathos’. Wordsworth was humbly grateful for Taylor’s good opinion; and Coleridge, he assured Taylor, was properly penitent. As Kenneth Johnston has written: ‘If one were trying to cover over traces of youthful Jacobinism, what better way than to send a book of reformed poems to a potentially virulent enemy, and then follow it up with a fawning reply agreeing with his strictures against "jacobinical pathos"?’ Wordsworth and especially Coleridge had been friends of Thelwall, and it seems an extraordinary instance of the eagerness with which Taylor’s spying and perjury had been forgotten and forgiven that the two men, however far by now from their radicalism of the mid-1790s, should be soliciting the good opinion of a man who had told lies in court in order to get Thelwall killed. One poem in the Lyrical Ballads, ‘Anecdote for Fathers’, was written at (or as if at) Liswyn Farm in Wales, to which Thelwall had retired after quitting active political life. For Wordsworth to send that poem to Taylor seems like a breach of the laws of hospitality.

One more anecdote. In November 1795 we find Taylor advising his friend the painter John Opie about the law on bigamy and perjury. Opie wished to marry the young Norwich radical writer Amelia Alderson, but he was already married to a woman who had since run off with an Irish army officer, as so many young wives did in those days. Opie wanted to prove that his marriage had not been valid in law, and that he was free to marry: he had been under-age when he married, not yet 21, and had not had his father’s permission. He had gone back to his birthplace in Cornwall to procure proof of his date of birth, but found that his name had never been entered on the parish register. According to Farington, Taylor warned Opie that ‘if He produced such proof He wd. render himself liable to be indited for perjury; as, at the time of his marriage to procure a license, He had sworn that He was of age.’ As I have commented elsewhere, Taylor seems to have learned the lesson of his visits to the Old Bailey; indeed they may have turned him into a tiresome cynic where marriage was concerned. He advised Opie not to proceed to a divorce as it would ‘only enable him again to do a foolish thing’.

A number of historians have noted, with some regret, that Taylor makes no mention in his autobiography of the work he undertook on behalf of the government in the early 1790s. But this is hardly surprising. Records of My Life was published in the year the Great Reform Act was passed. Few by then thought that the dirty tricks by which the government had sought to suppress the reform movement nearly forty years earlier had been entirely appropriate to the threat it represented. Thelwall, who had campaigned hard for the Reform Act, had become an almost respectable citizen. And if the Tories had no wish that every detail of their behaviour in the 1790s should be remembered, the same must have been true of Taylor, whose friends had apparently agreed to forget so much.

On the subjects of marriage and bigamy, however, Records of My Life is not so much reticent as teasing. On its very first page Taylor announces that he long ago ‘conceived a degree of horror against wedlock’, a positive ‘aversion to matrimony’ which ‘could only be subdued by the merits of the two amiable partners to whom I have since been united’. That said, he barely mentions his wives again: not their names, their ages, whether either is still living. Does he count the first Mrs Taylor among his ‘amiable partners’? We do not know. The second? We do not know. On the other hand, he takes a close interest in the bigamy of others and seems to find nothing reprehensible in it. The great classical scholar Professor Porson, he tells us, ‘married’ the sister of James Perry, the proprietor of the Morning Chronicle, though she was already married to a bookbinder named Lunan. Lunan himself ‘married’ again. Taylor comments on these marriages by quoting The Beaux’ Stratagem:

Consent, if mutual, saves the lawyer’s fee,
Consent is law enough to set you free

– precisely the view of Taylor and his wives on their own situation. Reminiscing about his friend, the famous financier and moneylender John ‘Jew’ King, he tells us that King had married early in life ‘according to the Jewish rites’, and then, without divorcing his first wife, married Lady Lanesborough ‘according to the forms of the Church of England’. The arrangement appeared to Taylor to work perfectly well, and he offers no word of censure.

For several years I have been intrigued by the contrast between the dark side of Taylor’s life, of which I knew something, and his sunny side, as Tory hack, bad poet and celebrity-chaser, of which I knew little. When suddenly I found myself with time for research, I turned straight to Taylor, and began putting together a narrative of his life in the 1790s. It became very detailed – much more so than the version I have told above – and took me a good few weeks of hard but enjoyable work. I was not sure where it was taking me but I was too fascinated to ask. Then, one day, reading William Jerdan’s autobiography, I smelled a rat.

In the 1810s Jerdan was editor of the Tory newspaper the Sun when Taylor became the majority shareholder. It was a disastrous pairing, complicated by the fact that, under the terms of the newspaper’s constitution, Taylor had no power to fire Jerdan, which much of the time he wanted to do. Effectively the owner of the paper, he wanted far more influence over its contents than Jerdan would allow him: in particular he wanted to be allowed to insert little puffing pieces in verse or prose about his famous friends, a practice Jerdan thought unprofessional. Taylor gives a guarded account of all this in Records of My Life; but Jerdan’s autobiography was written when Taylor was dead, and so could be altogether more explicit about their quarrels. He tells the story of the relationship as a tragi-comedy in which, if he is victim, Taylor is the buffoon.

On one occasion, according to Jerdan, Taylor wanted to take over responsibility for the political section of the paper. Jerdan believed that Taylor was hopelessly unfitted to the task: ‘Mr Taylor’s ignorance of matters familiar even to uneducated persons and children was utterly astonishing.’ Nevertheless, he offered to hand over the section to Taylor ‘if he could, at the moment, and without reference to a book on geography, repeat the names of the capitals of the principal nations in Europe. He could no more have done this, as I was quite aware, than he could have flown to them; and of course he did not accept the challenge.’ Jerdan gives a second, yet more incredible instance of Taylor’s ignorance of geography:

Mrs Taylor, an amiable and excellent lady of good family in Scotland, went on a visit to that country, by the usual mode of conveyance, a Leith smack; upon which Mr Taylor, who be-rhymed almost every incident, wrote as usual a short poem. It commenced –

‘Hail, Sister Isles!’

And it was with much argument in reference to the map he could be persuaded that England and Scotland were but one island, and that Mrs Taylor might have gone by land, although she chose to go by sea.

I was delighted by this story, and longed to believe it – but Taylor, I knew, had been twice to Scotland, once as agent provocateur, once as spy. How could he not have known it was not separated from England by sea? There was an obvious answer, of course, that like his wife he went there and back by smack, and that when he disembarked at Leith he indeed believed that he had crossed a channel. For some reason, however, this story activated other suspicions about Taylor that I had succeeded in suppressing, desperate not to spoil a good story. I forced myself to go over, once again, the narrative I had been assembling.

There appears to be no question about Taylor’s early work as a hack government propagandist paid out of secret service money, information I picked up first from Arthur Aspinall’s now venerable book Politics and the Press. Taylor’s name appears in the records of the payments he received alongside little identifying phrases such as ‘Mr Taylor who writes in the papers’; ‘for writing in the papers’. Thereafter the story becomes very much less secure. I dug up the pamphlet of 1791 which Werkmeister attributes to him and describes as a ‘pamphlet on Drury Lane’. It is called A Concise Statement of Transactions and Circumstances respecting the King’s Theatre, in the Haymarket. By Mr Taylor, the Proprietor. Had Taylor added the ownership of a theatre to his extraordinary cv? I think not. The pamphlet is signed at its end by William Taylor, who did indeed own the King’s Theatre Haymarket. It is possible that Werkmeister discovered that the pamphlet was ghost-written by John for William, but if so she does not say so, and as the pamphlet is not about Drury Lane, it seems more likely that she was making a guess at the authorship as well as the content.

So what of Werkmeister’s most exciting anecdote about Taylor, that on Dundas’s instructions he had engineered a riot in Edinburgh in June 1792? Werkmeister gave a source for this, the Oracle newspaper of 17 July, and the story is confirmed by both Emsley and de Montluzin. But although the trial of John Taylor was briefly reported by some London newspapers of that date, I have been unable to locate the edition of the Oracle for 17 July that Werkmeister saw. The only edition of the Oracle for 17 July which I have seen has nothing about Taylor, his trial or the riots. So I went to Scotland to check the stories of the trial in the Scottish newspapers. They all describe Taylor in similar words: he ‘had the misfortune’, his advocate had told the court, ‘to be placed in one of the lowest situations in life, for he was a servant or assistant to a brewer’s sledgeman, and that the barm that remained in the casks was the pittance he received for his labour’. It is impossible to believe that this John Taylor, a labourer wearing ‘a rough, hairy, or fur cap’, and paid not in cash but in yeast, was my John Taylor. Nor did this Scottish Taylor suggest that he was an agent provocateur employed by Dundas. The newspapers disagree for some reason about the verdict of the jury, either not proven or not guilty, but it is clear from the reports that Taylor was freed against the advice of the brutal lord justice clerk Braxfield, who seems almost to have instructed the jury to convict. The whole story, I later discovered, is set out with great clarity by Kenneth Logue in his Popular Disturbances in Scotland 1780-1815. Werkmeister must have had some source for her story: perhaps she picked up a squib in one of the Whig newspapers, pretending that Taylor the Tory writer and this Edinburgh Taylor were the same, and was taken in.

My John Taylor, international man of mystery, was beginning to look a little thin, and he would soon be looking thinner still. It was, I think, Clive Emsley who first identified Taylor the spy with Taylor the journalist (and Taylor the agent provocateur); if not, I apologise to him. Following Emsley, de Montluzin had been quite definite that they were one and the same person. ‘It is true,’ she had written in her brief biographical sketch of Taylor the journalist, ‘that during the first half of 1794 Taylor operated as a government spy at LCS meetings.’ But then she had also said: ‘It is true that, as the Oracle reported on 17 July 1792, Taylor was once arrested and brought to trial for inciting Jacobin riots in Edinburgh.’ That hadn’t been true at all. Could it be that Taylor the spy and bigamist was an entirely different man from Taylor the journalist?

In fact, as I realised agonisingly late, the near-impossibility of the two men being one and the same had been staring me in the face all the time, but I had somehow refused to notice it. According to the newspaper reports of the trial, spy Taylor’s first marriage took place in Baldock on 16 May 1771. The date of birth usually attributed to John Taylor the journalist is 9 August 1757. If Taylor the journalist had married Sarah Marshall, he had been 13 at the time, below the age of consent, which for boys was then 14. He is, however, occasionally recorded as having been born in 1755, and, supposing that Sarah was of age, and the couple’s fathers approved, the marriage would then have been legal. I was researching the various legal considerations that might have been raised by such an early marriage in a trial for bigamy when the postman turned up with Taylor’s 1827 collection of poems, which, by a delightful coincidence, turned out once to have belonged to the barrister who had led for the prosecution in the bigamy trial. It contained a series of sonnets to Taylor’s dead first wife, the first of them dated 1790. She had been called ‘Maria’. A few days later I discovered the identity of his second wife: before their marriage she had been Mrs Hepworth, the widow of Captain Brodie Hepworth, who had commanded an East Indiaman. I also noticed for the first time that on 18 November, four days into his supposed prison sentence, Taylor had called on Joseph Farington. The regime in Kirby’s lodgings was lax, no doubt, but could it really have been as relaxed as that?

Nine tailors make a man, says the proverb, so perhaps I should be grateful that only four Taylors made up the John Taylor of the historians. On the rootstock of journalist John Taylor had been grafted an angry theatre proprietor, an ex-watchmaker struggling to pass for a gentleman and support two wives on an income so insufficient that he resorted to spying, and an impoverished brewer’s sledgeman’s assistant living four hundred miles away. John Taylor the journalist had said nothing of his undercover work because there had been none. He had not the slightest difficulty in spying on the LCS while working as a theatre critic, for he had never been near an LCS meeting. The silence of Farington, even in his private diary, about Taylor’s bigamy, his alias, his perjury, is explained by the fact that there was nothing at all to say. The same goes for the silence of Jerdan, who would surely not have allowed such a damaging story to be forgotten. We know now why Gibbs, who questioned spy Taylor about where he had lived for the previous ten years, did not bother to ask him whether he had ever lived in Hatton Garden. Taylor’s friends forgave him so readily because there was nothing to forgive. Whichever member of the Athenian Club intended to blackball Taylor probably objected not to his dishonesty but to his tedious name-dropping, his relentless flow of puns and anecdotes. Though Merry seemed plainly to have been alluding in his attack to Taylor’s spying, bigamy and perjury, it is now even plainer that he was not. Wordsworth and Coleridge were not betraying their former friendship with Thelwall by presenting Taylor with a copy of the Lyrical Ballads, however self-serving their action may have been. The story is that there is no story.

Even Taylor’s interest in bigamy may be less intriguing than it first appears. Of all the London newspapers, the True Briton carried by far the longest and most circumstantial account of spy Taylor’s trial. It is surprising to see such a rabidly Tory paper giving so much publicity to a spy friendly to its own political agenda, but it did so, perhaps, in pursuit of an in-joke. Imagine the leg-pulling Taylor must have endured or enjoyed in the office of the newspaper when his namesake emerged first, in Edinburgh, as a government spy, then, back in London, as a bigamist and perjurer. Taylor the journalist must have taken an almost personal interest in spy Taylor’s difficulties. He may even have written the account of the trial himself.

A small part of the story I told of John Taylor’s life I found out after I realised that he was more than one person. I cheated a little, partly because I wanted to see how far, on the basis of the historical record, the character invented by Werkmeister, Emsley and de Montluzin could be taken before it became entirely implausible, partly because I wanted to share with them the pleasure of invention. Perhaps I have been wasting your time; I have certainly been wasting my own.

The most obvious moral of this story is that writers of history should check every single fact they borrow from their predecessors; though if they do it is hard to see how history can ever be written. And I protest, with all the hurt pride of a man who believes he has been swindled, that I should be forgiven for taking on trust, as a mere historian of literature, what three proper historians had affirmed to be true and had supported with copious footnotes. More positively, the story of ‘John Taylor’ contains the promise of a new and exciting way of writing biography, a genre that, though popular, has become rather moribund. It is fascinating to see how exciting a person’s life can be made to appear if you graft on to it the most disreputable incidents in the lives of a few other people. Even now I am on the lookout for men alive in the 1790s called Roberts, about whom nothing is known except a disgraceful incident or two; a poisoner would be good.

Perhaps, too, the story of ‘John Taylor’ does say something useful, though hardly new, about the reawakened thirst for narrative history, the eagerness to connect as many facts as possible together to make, or make up, a story as coherent and circumstantial as we can manage. For those of us who study a period as full of secrets and mysteries as the 1790s in Britain, where agents provocateurs, spies and misinformation abounded, the desire to make stories probably becomes stronger in proportion to the difficulty of doing so. We become like conspiracy theorists, eagerly joining entirely disparate facts into a story that becomes, to us if to no one else, more convincing as it becomes more improbable.

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