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Dr. John London's Punishment in Windsor - © Nash Ford PublishingSir Thomas Noon Talfourd (1795-1854)
Born: 26th May 1795 at Reading, Berkshire
Justice of the Court of Common Pleas
Died: 13th March 1854
at Stafford, Staffordshire

Sir Thomas was born at Reading in Berkshire, on 26th May 1795, not Doxey in Staffordshire in the January as sometimes stated. His father, Edward Talfourd, was a brewer. His mother was a daughter of Thomas Noon, minister of the Broad Street Independent Chapel in Reading. After receiving some instruction at private schools, Thomas was sent to the recently founded dissenting school at Mill Hill, where he remained from 1808 to 1810. He was then placed at Reading Grammar School under Dr. Richard Valpy, of whom he speaks with gratitude and veneration, and, under whom, he continued until the middle of 1812.

He had already, in 1811, published a volume of moralizing ‘Poems on Various Subjects’ designed “to advance the cause of religion and morality,” of which he afterwards, in conversation with Henry Crabb Robinson, professed himself ashamed. “His lines,” observes the ‘Monthly Review,’ “are smooth, but some of his opinions are rather enthusiastic,” by which philanthropic rather than poetical enthusiasm seems to be denoted. In March 1813, he made his first appearance as a public speaker, giving a speech at a meeting of the Reading Branch of the Bible Society, which was printed along with others delivered on the same occasion. In the same year, having made the choice to enter the legal profession, by the advice, as is asserted, of Henry Brougham, he became the pupil of Joseph Chitty, the special pleader, and read law with him until 1817. 

Although no inattentive student of law, Thomas gave more of his time to literature, especially in alliance with philanthropy and politics. He became connected with the ‘Pamphleteer,’ printed by the brother of his Reading schoolmaster, and, at that time, the vehicle for the opinions of many earnest thinkers. In that periodical appeared essays by Talfourd on the Roman Catholic question, on the Royal Marriage Act and on the punishment of the pillory. To the last-named of these “idle scribblings” he himself, rightly or wrongly, ascribed a considerable share in effecting the abolition of the barbarous penalty it denounced. Through William Evans, the proprietor of the ‘Pamphleteer,’ he made, at the beginning of 1815, the acquaintance of Charles Lamb, of whose writings he was already a devotee, having hunted London for a copy of ‘Rosamund Gray.’ Another essay in the ‘Pamphleteer’ naming Lamb among the chief poets of the day procured, for Talfourd through Lamb, the acquaintance of William Wordsworth, to whom Lamb introduced him as “my one admirer”. “My taste and feeling, as applied to poetry,” Talfourd afterwards said, “underwent an entire change, consequent on my becoming acquainted with the poetry of Wordsworth.” A friendship with Coleridge followed. Godwin and Hazlitt, he already knew, and he became an accepted member of a circle including most of the rising names in poetry and elegant literature, holding a sort of general retainer to champion it in the press. His essays in belles-lettres usually appeared in the ‘New Monthly Magazine,’ where, besides articles on Scott, Godwin, Maturin, Charles Lloyd and other contemporaries, he published an elaborate essay on the genius of Wordsworth, expressing views which have since become universal, but, at the time, were a very important manifesto of enlightened critical opinion. The dramatic department of the ‘New Monthly’ was entirely under his direction for several years. When the ‘Retrospective Review’ was established in 1820, Talfourd became a leading contributor. Of Talfourd's essays in general, a writer in the ‘North British Review’ (May 1856) justly observed, “They are remarkable for refinement of observation and facility of phrase, but there is hardly one of them which is brought to a close without being partially impaired by the flux of words which was his bane.” In Crabb Robinson's opinion Talfourd, by writing too many theatrical criticisms for the press, had, at this time, contracted “a style of flashy writing” which he afterwards amended.

Fortunately, these theatrical criticisms at this time supplied a considerable percentage of Talfourd's income, for he had resolved to be of no expense to his father and was still awaiting his call to the bar. From his leaving Chitty's chambers in 1817 up to his call to the bar from the Middle Temple in 1821, he took what business he could obtain as a legal pleader and, was no sooner a barrister, than he thought it necessary to become a husband. His choice had fallen upon Rachel, the eldest daughter of John Towill Rutt, the non-conformist politician and man of lettyers. The marriage took place in 1822. To enable himself to contract it, he had obtained, through the influence of Crabb Robinson, the post of legal reporter for the ‘Times’ on the Oxford circuit, which he selected on account of his local influence. “He made known at once at the bar mess,” says Robinson, “what he was invited to do. Others had done the same thing secretly and most dishonourably.” His first experiences at the bar were discouraging, but he gradually made his way. In 1833, upon an unsuccessful application to be made a QC, he became a serjeant-at-law and, after the retirement of Serjeant Ludlow and the promotion of Justice Maule, he was the unquestioned leader of his circuit. “He was,” says a member of it, the writer of his obituary in the ‘Law Magazine,’ “a sound rather than a first-rate lawyer. What he professed to know he knew thoroughly, and had all the great maxims and principles of the common law firmly and fully impressed upon his mind.” As an advocate he was “eloquent in the exact degree in which he was earnest,” which procured him the happy distinction of being “almost invariably retained on the right side of the causes he was in. The wrong side seldom cared to have him.” He was above all chicanery, was incapable of simulating emotion and neither would, nor could, puzzle an honest witness in cross-examination. When joined in the conduct of a case “with an acute low-minded junior who took technical objections and quibbled, he was like a Brahmin with an unclean animal upon him which he could neither endure nor exterminate.” These causes considerably limited his practice. His most celebrated speeches were in the cause of Richmond V Tait (1835), when a government spy of 1817 sought to recover damages for having been described as such; in his defence of the proprietors of the ‘True Sun’ from a charge of seditious libel; in the prosecution of Thomas Cooper, the chartist (1842); and as the advocate of Edward Moxon, prosecuted for publishing Shelley's ‘Queen Mab’ (1841). In this celebrated case, the sympathies of even the opposing counsel were with Talfourd, but the law, as it then stood, was against him. His speech was the only one of his forensic efforts published by himself. His career at the bar was terminated by his elevation to the bench in the Court of Common Pleas in July 1849.

During the industrious pursuit of law, Talfourd had not been indifferent to literature. He contributed a history of Greek poetry to the ‘Encyclopædia Metropolitana’ and wrote, in the same publication, on Greek and Roman history; but his most acceptable and enduring work in prose was that performed in connection with Charles Lamb, whose executor he was and whose letters and memorials he published with reverent care. The ‘Memoir,’ which admirers of Lamb owe to Talfourd, was issued in two portions, the first in 1837, under the title of ‘Letters of Charles Lamb, with a Sketch of his Life;’ the second, after an interval of eleven years, in 1848, as ‘Final Memorials of Charles Lamb; consisting chiefly of his Letters not before published, with Sketches of some of his Companions.’ The two works were incorporated in 1868. Talfourd's biographical commentary on Lamb's correspondence was first digested into one separate and continuous narrative in 1875, and this was published separately as Talfourd's ‘Memoirs of Charles Lamb,’ the best edition being that of 1892, with the annotations of Mr. Percy Fitzgerald. The peculiar delightfulness of these books is of course principally owing to Lamb, but Talfourd's contribution is in the best taste, and all additions from his own pen are most entertaining.

Talfourd also assisted Edward Bulwer-Lytton in editing the remains of William Hazlitt in 1836, and contributed a valuable essay. An article on Lord Eldon and Lord Stowell in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ December 1844, is perhaps the best specimen of his prose. ‘Vacation Rambles’ (1845) is a pleasant record of tours in France, Germany and Switzerland.

Talfourd was, however, best known as a man of letters by his tragedies, especially ‘Ion,’ which, produced on 26th May 1836, the author's birthday, obtained a brilliant success from its own merits and the great acting of William Macready. Circulated privately in 1835, and again issued privately with the addition of a few sonnets, ‘Ion, a Tragedy in Five Acts,’ was first published in 1836. In an interesting preface to the fourth edition, Talfourd tells his history as a dramatic author: how his inborn taste for the drama was repressed in his boyhood when Shakespeare was denied him, and he had to content himself with the ‘Sacred Dramas’ of Hannah More; how it burst forth on witnessing John Kemble's performance of Cato; how he wrought upon his tragedy in the intervals of legal work and finished it hurriedly under the stimulus of his election to Parliament; how, completed at the end of 1834 and printed privately in the following April, it was on the point of publication when Macready, attracted by a favourable notice in the ‘Quarterly’ of September 1835, insisted that it should first make trial of the public on the boards. ‘The Athenian Captive’ (1838) and ‘Glencoe’ (1840) were less successful. Macready thought ‘Glencoe’ superior to ‘Ion’ in dramatic construction but inferior in poetry, and the ‘Athenian Captive’ inferior in every respect. He consented, nevertheless, to produce both. ‘The Castilian,’ a tragedy on the history of Padilla, was printed privately in 1853. To Talfourd as author of ‘Ion’ was dedicated in 1839 Bulwer's ‘Lady of Lyons.’

Talfourd was returned to Parliament for his native town of Reading in 1835, and again in 1837, lost his seat in 1841, but regained it in 1847. He introduced and carried a useful and humane measure, the custody of infants bill. His style of oratory, so effective at the bar, was too rhetorical for the House of Commons, but he gained great applause by his speech on the copyright bill which he introduced in 1837, as well as the additional honour of Charles Dickens dedicating the ‘Pickwick Papers’ to him on account of it. Rejected for a time, the copyright bill, as remodelled successively by Lord Mahon and Macaulay, eventually passed in 1842, when Talfourd was no longer in Parliament. His most celebrated speech, outside the Commons and the courts, was the very eloquent oration delivered at the soirée of the Manchester Athenæum in October 1845.

Talfourd filled the office of Justice of the Court of Common Pleas with perfect efficiency, if not with conspicuous brilliancy, for nearly five years, dying suddenly of apoplexy in Stafford on 13th March 1854, while delivering a charge to the grand jury, in which he commented strongly on the mutual estrangement of classes in English Society. The last word that he uttered was “sympathy”. He was buried in West Norwood Cemetery in Surrey. His eldest son, Frank, was also a well-known barrister and dramatist.

Talfourd's head, according to Mary Russell Mitford, was quite turned by vanity upon the success of ‘Ion’ and his biographer in the ‘North British Review’ asserts that he became extremely jealous of rival dramatists. Except for such slight foibles, few characters have been depicted in a more amiable light. His principal literary characteristic was eloquence, genuine and impassioned both in prose and verse, but in both too florid to satisfy most tastes. Apart from his work on Charles Lamb, his name will be chiefly preserved by his ‘Ion.’ The subject - the devotion of a youth who first dedicates himself to slay a tyrant fated to destruction, and, after the king has perished by another's hand, discovers that his foe was his father, and that the hereditary doom has fallen upon himself - is impressive and skilfully handled. The diction, though often highly poetical, is less praiseworthy on the whole. Much of it is unduly loquacious and melodramatic.

Partly edited from Leslie Stephens & Sidney Lee's "Dictionary of National Biography" (1891).

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