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Patrick Welland on William Hickey, B. Lodge

Artless but not Heartless

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In May 1797, the 33rd Regiment of Foot Officers arrives in Calcutta. A round of parties ensues, one at Colonel Sherbrooke’s ‘small mansion’ in the village of Alypore three miles from the city. A guest later describes the company – which includes 28-year-old Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington – as ‘eight as strong-headed fellows as could be found in Hindustan’. He recalls fondly:

After drinking two and twenty bumpers in glasses of considerable magnitude, the considerate president said everyone might then fill according to his own discretion . . . we continued to follow the Colonel’s example of drinking nothing short of bumpers until two o’clock in the morning, at which hour each person staggered to his carriage or palankeen. The next day I was incapable of leaving my bed from an excruciating headache, which I did not get rid of for eight and forty hours; indeed, a more severe debauch I never was engaged in in any part of the world.

This was praise of a high order from our guest, for 48-year-old William Hickey had behind him more than thirty years’ experience of getting drunk and into trouble, be it in the bagnios and taverns of London, or in India, China or Jamaica. To call William incorrigible is vastly to overestimate his capacity for shame. He was expelled from school in ‘high disgrace’, became a hopeless spendthrift and was then dispatched to India by his father after embezzling his employers’ funds. He was ‘fixed’ from his early teens in his ‘attachment to women of loose and abandoned principles’. And he was a martyr to claret. He confesses: ‘Society proved my bane . . . I never could flinch from the bottle . . . though always cheerful and good humoured in my cups . . . I transgressed, repented, and transgressed again, thus continuing an endless course of folly.’

Hickey today is better known as a Daily Express gossip column laun

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In May 1797, the 33rd Regiment of Foot Officers arrives in Calcutta. A round of parties ensues, one at Colonel Sherbrooke’s ‘small mansion’ in the village of Alypore three miles from the city. A guest later describes the company – which includes 28-year-old Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington – as ‘eight as strong-headed fellows as could be found in Hindustan’. He recalls fondly:

After drinking two and twenty bumpers in glasses of considerable magnitude, the considerate president said everyone might then fill according to his own discretion . . . we continued to follow the Colonel’s example of drinking nothing short of bumpers until two o’clock in the morning, at which hour each person staggered to his carriage or palankeen. The next day I was incapable of leaving my bed from an excruciating headache, which I did not get rid of for eight and forty hours; indeed, a more severe debauch I never was engaged in in any part of the world.

This was praise of a high order from our guest, for 48-year-old William Hickey had behind him more than thirty years’ experience of getting drunk and into trouble, be it in the bagnios and taverns of London, or in India, China or Jamaica. To call William incorrigible is vastly to overestimate his capacity for shame. He was expelled from school in ‘high disgrace’, became a hopeless spendthrift and was then dispatched to India by his father after embezzling his employers’ funds. He was ‘fixed’ from his early teens in his ‘attachment to women of loose and abandoned principles’. And he was a martyr to claret. He confesses: ‘Society proved my bane . . . I never could flinch from the bottle . . . though always cheerful and good humoured in my cups . . . I transgressed, repented, and transgressed again, thus continuing an endless course of folly.’ Hickey today is better known as a Daily Express gossip column launched in 1933 by another old rogue, the future Labour MP and peer Tom Driberg. I worked at the Express in the early ’70s and remember in my ignorance being surprised to learn that the man apparently responsible for the column had died 140 years earlier. The choice of the name, however, was apt. For William Hickey, born in Pall Mall in 1749, was a splendid observer of the English social scene at its most vibrant. And, fortunately for us, he recalls his spectacular follies and modest triumphs in his captivating Memoirs of a Georgian Rake. Perhaps the best-known memoir of Georgian London is James Boswell’s London Journal, 1762–3. Boswell, like William, is unashamed to tell us of his falls from grace. But he is armoured by his pompous self-belief and ambition for advancement. I find William more appealing, for he lacks vanity. He can never resist a daring décolletage and he is even less likely to protest at the withdrawal of a convivial cork. But he is open-hearted, generous and loyal, and acts without selfish motive. He is feckless, but not fickle. Artless, but not heartless. William, the son of a wealthy Irish solicitor, revealed his dubious colours early on. Aged 7, he sat upon the knee of his godfather Colonel Matthews at dinner. ‘Having just swallowed a bumper of claret which he had given me I, with a deep sigh, said to him “I wish I was a man.” “Aye,” observed the Colonel, “and pray why so, William?” To which I quickly replied, “That I might drink two bottles of wine every day.”’ This precocious ambition was soon achieved. Drink is a constant feature of William’s memoirs. Here he is at 13 having attached himself, while bunking school, to a river outing of the Fishmongers’ Company which ended with the revellers inviting him to a turtle and venison feast at Richmond: ‘I poured down champagne at a great rate. . . [and told them] I could drink as much as the best of them . . . the party sat to a late hour but I held out until they broke up, when I was so drunk that on rising from my chair I fell flat on the floor.’ He did not return home until the next day. Over the following years, this prodigious appetite for the bottle led him into a succession of rumbles in which he was often more victim than perpetrator. But he always bounced back: above all, William was a happy drunk. And then there was sex. Some of William’s candid recollections were considered too ripe for publication in early editions. His childhood nanny, Nanny Harris – ‘as wanton a little baggage as ever existed’, he recalled with admiration – took an unseemly interest in him. Far from being emotionally scarred by what today would land Nanny in court, he continued to adore ‘that infatuating jade’, years later taking her as his mistress. He lost his virginity at 13 (a busy year) and by 14 was a regular habitué of brothels. Two years later, when he joined a legal partnership, it was his ‘peculiar good fortune to meet with uncommonly generous and disinterested whores and rogues’ and he delighted in their lusty company. And what fun there was to be had. London in the eighteenth century was a sink of unbridled lubricity. As Fergus Linnane points out in his London: The Wicked City: ‘There was a gusto about eighteenth century vice unmatched before or since. The fashionable worlds of vice and entertainment were contained within a few square miles . . . more men were making more money from trade, banking, the stock market and the growing sales of luxury goods and they, or in many cases their sons, had no moral scruples about how they spent it.’ The result was a fever of gambling and a sex industry of exotic variety. In a rare display of self-discipline William forswore gambling, having been told he was so incompetent a card player he was sure to lose all. But he enthusiastically joined a riot of low life played out in pleasure gardens, drinking dens, coffee houses, bathing houses and brothels. In his memoirs William does not explore any motive behind his relentless search for gratification. We are occasionally treated to an anguished expression of remorse and a vow to reform, but we know this is idle talk. The quest is all. However, at a time when the miserable reality of prostitution went largely unremarked, he does evince some moral scruple. He is disgusted by Wetherby’s hellhole in Little Russell Street ‘where such a scene was exhibiting that I involuntarily shrunk back with disgust and dismay’. Nor does he condemn or patronize. Instead, he speaks of his casual liaisons with unmistakeable affection. On one occasion he donates 10 guineas (£600 today) towards the relief of a popular prostitute, commenting: ‘I had afterwards the satisfaction of hearing that this seasonable aid had probably saved the life of a deserving woman who, in her prosperity, had done a thousand generous actions.’ The mind reels at William’s capacity for excess. But the reader of his memoirs will find much more than a rake’s progress. William gives us an eyewitness account of the mass demonstration in support of the then imprisoned John Wilkes and its murderous suppression by troops. We meet Lord George Gordon – half-mad instigator of the bloody 1780 anti-Catholic Gordon Riots, but then ‘a volatile and elegant young man of the most affable manners’. We also learn about duelling, smuggling, slavery, contemporary enthusiasms for sailing and rowing, and the eccentricities of trade and social life in India, China and the West Indies. William made the first of three visits to India when he was sent there in 1769 after fiddling the books of his law firm to fund his dissipations. The trip was not a success and he returned to England soon afterwards via Canton. Back in London it was not long before, with his ‘usual want of resolution’, he yielded again to his old bad habits. The inevitable result was more debt, more peculation, more disgrace and in 1775 a second exile, this time in Jamaica. William returned to India in 1777 and finally achieved financial success in Calcutta as an attorney. ‘Notwithstanding I lived so dissipated a life in point of drinking and late hours,’ he boasts, ‘no man laboured harder.’ But two years later he was on his way back to London again after volunteering to bear a legal petition to Parliament. He guiltily admits: ‘The idea of revisiting old haunts having once got into my giddy brain, I had neither prudence nor fortitude to resist.’ William was now 30 but he had lost none of his zest for life, and for the next four years he burned the candle with as much diligence as before. For the first time, however, he appeared genuinely to lose is heart. After chasing the courtesan Emily Warren to a disappointing finale, he fell for the delectable Charlotte Barry. The fiction of Georgette Heyer could not better the course of their amour. With considerable courage William rescued Charlotte from her jealous ‘protector’, the vicious Colonel Henry Mordaunt.

Seizing a knife from the table he swore with the most horrible oaths that rather than permit her to quit his house he would bury it in her heart . . . armed with a poker I set him at defiance. . . and told him I would not stir unless Mrs Barry accompanied me. The perspiration ran down his face in streams from rage and I actually thought he must have died from passion.

The couple fled first to Lisbon and then India, enduring a hurricane on the way. Poignantly, on Christmas Day 1782, Charlotte died of a wasting fever in Calcutta, so ending the most important relationship of William’s chaotic life. ‘She kissed me with her almost clay-cold lips, such a kiss as I never can forget . . . safely may I say, I truly, fondly, loved her, loved her with an affection that every new day, if possible, strengthened.’ William spent the next twenty-six years in India, eventually accumulating more than 60 servants and setting up home for seven years with his Hindustani mistress Jemdanee. My edited Folio edition of the Memoirs devotes only 60 out of 400 pages to this period of his life. But we are left with a vivid picture of a man whose appetite for life and jovial company was undiminished. William may have achieved respectability, but, happily, the fire still burned and he spent money with abandon. In his last three years on the sub-continent he finally decided to put aside cash for his return to England and in August 1808 landed at Deal. He then settled down in Buckinghamshire before moving to London where he died in 1830. The Memoirs are not reflective. William is a player, not a critic. His recollections are all the better for it. In these austere times it is a joy to read of a more vigorous world – especially in the company of such a transparently good-natured man.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 34 © Patrick Welland 2012


About the contributor

Patrick Welland lives in Sussex. He would love to have joined William Hickey on a night out but fears he would not have lasted the distance.

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