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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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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