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Joseph Jekyll - Ignatius Sancho's Biographer


Joseph Jekyll Joseph Jekyll was one of the few successful Welsh politicians of his age. Though often thought of as a lightweight, he nonetheless became Solicitor- General and was universally thought of as a wit and pleasant dining partner. Although by no means an active abolitionist, well before his parliamentary career began he wrote The Life of Ignatius Sancho, the work for which he is best remembered now. On this page I give a biography of Jekyll, the author through whom we have learned most of what we know about Ignatius Sancho.

Some of my ideas in this biography made their way into an article, '"The extraordinary Negro": Ignatius Sancho, Joseph Jekyll, and the Problem of Biography', originally published in The British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies in 2003, that is available for download by clicking on the link. (PDF, 1.3mb)

We know very little about the early life of Joseph Jekyll. He was born around 1753, the only son of Edward Jekyll, a captain in the Royal Navy, and was a great-nephew of the famous Sir Joseph Jekyll who had been prominent during the ministry of Sir Robert Walpole. We do not know where he was born, although some eighteen years later his father was described as living at Haverfordwest in the then rather remote county of Pembrokeshire, in south-west Wales. This description is available to us through the records of Christ Church college at Oxford where Jekyll matriculated in February 1771 at the age of eighteen years. He graduated Bachelor of Arts in 1774. Almost immediately afterwards he left the country to live in France for a year, a period of his life which is well documented because his letters to his father have been preserved and were published in 1894, edited by Algernon Bourke.

His trip to France appears to have been the closest approach to the Grand Tour available to him within his family's means. His letters to his father do not dwell on money, but it is clear that he was living on a budget. Towards the end of his stay, in December 1775, Jekyll wrote to his father to say that he had:

Been fortunate enough to fall into what is called the first company, at the expense of what less economical young men would term very little gaming, very little dress, and very little gallantry, for such are the prices of la belle société in France.
Jekyll displays a rather middle-class pride in his economy, seeming rather triumphant at having achieved the social status that he has in France without spending the sort of money put about by those whom he refers to rather smugly as 'less economical young men'. Of course, he is writing to his father, so it is hardly to be supposed that he would advertise any financial indiscretions he may have stumbled into. In general however, his letters are sensible and sober in tone but also rather witty in a light and unstudied manner, and it seems plausible that Jekyll, while no pauper, was able to make his way in the 'first society' of France essentially on the strength of his wits, his social graces, and his novelty value.

Jekyll returned to Britain in February 1776, by this time a young man of twenty two years with a good education, experience of travel and life abroad, an understanding of the ways of the aristocracy, or at least the French aristocracy, and, what seems clear, an ability to present himself well in society and to draw attention to himself through his wit and good humour. These were vital attributes because, as seems equally clear, he was not wealthy enough to be able to do without making some sort of a living. Accordingly, the next we hear of him, he was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1778. For the next few years he learned to be a lawyer.

It was at about this time that Jekyll may have developed an acquaintance with Ignatius Sancho. The nature of this relationship is unclear as is any date at which they may have met and the identity of the person or persons who might have introduced them. Indeed, there is only one piece of evidence - itself not entirely conclusive - to suggest that Sancho and Jekyll even met and that is a letter, apparently written in 1803, from Sancho's son William to Jekyll which was found in Jekyll's own copy of the 1803 edition, which was printed and published by William Sancho. The letter reads:

To Joseph Jekyll Esq. M.P. From the publisher As a most humble testimony of Gratitude for his great Liberality in Affording His Aid in so handsome a manner & rendering the Life Still more interesting by his corrections. - As a Tribute which by Reason of my Infancy I was unable to acknowledge when he stood forth so very much the Friend of myself & Family. - In very grateful Remembrance of these & other obligations I beg leave to subscribe myself, Sir Your most Humble Srvt. Wm. Sancho.
The corrections to which William Sancho is referring would appear to be the footnotes, added to the Letters in the 1803 edition. William was born in October 1775 and would have been just five years old when his father died. William's letter suggests that Jekyll acted charitably towards the family, but we cannot tell whether this was before or after the death of Ignatius Sancho. The aid that was offered may have been no more than the composition of the Life.

After 1782, when the Life was published, Jekyll began to make a name for himself and, though we know little about Jekyll before this date, what came afterwards gives us a good indication of his character. In the 1780s and 90s Jekyll became known as a wit and a 'diner-out'. He practised law on the Western Circuit, to a modest extent, and wrote comic pieces for the Whig newspapers, in particular, The Morning Chronicle and The Evening Statesman. His most famous contribution was a poem called The Tears of the Cruets which appeared in The Morning Chronicle at about the time of Pitt's Salt Tax. Despite its tearful title it is not a particularly sentimental poem, as the following two tearful yet satirical couplets show:

Ah, look not sour, for Pitt serene and placid,
May tax sour looks, that universal acid.
Ah! drop no tears, for Billy won't relax,
And tears are salt, and liable to tax.
The prime minister becomes a harsh and unfeeling monster, rigidly taxing the tearful effusions of an aggrieved nation. This is typical of Jekyll's 'wit': light, satirical, and yet politically in earnest. Indeed, by the time this poem was written Jekyll had been a member of Parliament for several years. In August 1787 he was returned to Parliament for the pocket borough of Calne in Wiltshire. He got the job through the influence of Shelburne, by this time the Marquis of Lansdowne. This was perhaps something of a poisoned chalice. Lansdowne was not popular and so his placemen could come in for some considerable ridicule. But he had patronage and places at his disposal which meant that there were plenty of hangers-on hoping for preferment. One of them was Jeremy Bentham who had rather hoped for the seat himself. His opinion of Jekyll was not high before he heard the news. When he did hear the news he shot off a seventy page letter to Lansdowne, writing:
What! of all the men in the world can you find nobody but Jekyll? How can you think of such a man as that for parliament? Put Jekyll into parliament! it is quite a burlesque upon parliament the very idea of it.
Part of Jekyll's job was to report back to Lansdowne with parliamentary news and gossip. This especially piqued Bentham:
Jekyll's post in your household is that of tale-bearer [...] and if the tale bearer is to be preferred to me for parliament, the same household does not hold me and the tale-bearer.
But Bentham was not the only one to find fault with Lansdowne's adoption of Jekyll. In 1788 a satirical poem entitled Jekyll: an Eclogue appeared, thought to have been written by Joseph Richardson. It was reprinted frequently both on its own and together with The Rolliad (another satirical poem) or in a collection called The Album of Streatham. The poem is mock-heroic in rhyming couplets - standard fare for a generation raised on Alexander Pope. It begins by characterising Jekyll as a self-important joker:
JEKYLL, the wag of Law, the scribler's pride,
CALNE to the senate sent, when TOWNSEND dy'd.
Statesman, and Lawyer now, with clashing cares
The important youth roams thro' the Temple-squares.
It continues: Jekyll is lamenting the cruel fate that has condemned Lansdowne to the political wilderness when he discovers in his pocket Lansdowne's 'book of sarcasms' full of:
Poisonous tribes
Of embryo sneers, and animalcule gibes.
Here insect puns their feeble wings expand,
To speed, in little flights, their Lord's command:
There, in their paper chrysalis, he sees,
Specks of bon mots, and eggs of repartees.
While the reader is disturbed, Jekyll is impressed with these embryonic sarcasms. He magnanimously proclaims himself to be 'no party tool - - - no candidate for pow'r—'. This is a fine irony since one of the main criticisms of Lansdowne and his supporters was that they did not respect political party and, since Pitt had come to power, no-one from Lansdowne's grouping was likely to be a candidate for power in any case. The poem finishes with a portrait of Jekyll courting 'modest eloquence' and practising 'feign'd agitations and assum'd alarms' in order to (falsely) appear natural and unstudied in his parliamentary maiden speech. Jekyll in this poem is a self-important toady, dependant for influence on yesterday's man, sounding off in Parliament with empty wit and hollow rhetoric.

This, of course, was an exaggeration, but not a huge one. Charles Abbot, Baron Colchester, and Speaker of the House of Commons between 1802 and 1816 remembered Jekyll in his diary as 'first rate for convivial wit and pleasantry, and admired by all'. That was the private Jekyll. In Parliament Colchester thought him:

A frequent speaker, but positively without weight, even in his own party. Rancorous in language, feeble in argument, and empty of ideas; few people applaud his rising, and everybody is glad when he sits down.

Jekyll with a dustpan and brush in a detail of Gillray's cartoon 'Integrity Retiring From Office' Amongst his Parliamentary activities he was chiefly remembered for an embarrassing incident in 1798 in which he told the House that an expedition to Ostend had failed. In fact, it was a success as he was forced to acknowledge the following day. Embarrassingly, he was satirised by James Gillray for this faux-pas, in a cartoon which named him 'the little second-sighted lawyer'. The jibes did not end here. He was portrayed on two other occasions by Gillray, and in a famous cartoon in February 1801; Integrity Retiring from Office!, as Pitt resigned from government over Catholic emancipation, little Jekyll the lawyer (he is portrayed as a midget, with a dustpan and brush in his hand) can be seen among the opposition mob waiting to take office. Click here or on the picture to see a more detailed image of this cartoon.

Jekyll's official appointments came in the first decade of the nineteenth century, primarily by the influence of the Prince of Wales who appointed him his solicitor-general in 1805 and Master in Chancery in 1815. It was generally considered that he wasn't up to the job, either of them. Sir Samuel Romilly noted in his diary:

    A more improper [appointment] could hardly be made, for with a thousand good qualities as a private man, Jekyll is deficient in almost every qualification necessary to discharge properly the duties of a Master in Chancery.

As it turned out Jekyll barely attended to the duties at all and he tended to leave the work to others while he continued to dine out entertaining others with his wit. How this social life was affected by his marriage, in 1801, to Maria, the wealthy daughter of Hans Sloane, MP for Lostwithiel in Cornwall, it is impossible to judge. What we can say is that he lived out the remainder of his life without having to work too hard and being a frequent guest at the best dinner tables in London. It was, as the journalist William Jerdan put it in 1866, 'a pleasant life for a pleasant man'. Jekyll died, aged about 84, in 1837.


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