Thelwall making a speech about democracy.

James Gillray, Copenhagen House, 1795, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

 

In the early 1790s, Severndroog played host to a traveller whom William Pitt the Younger's government had named the ‘most dangerous man in Britain’. The democratic activist John Thelwall had been at odds with the British government since the French Revolution began in 1789. A prominent supporter of republican government, universal voting rights and freedom of speech, Thelwall was repeatedly persecuted by Pitt’s government, which feared that sympathy for the French revolutionaries’ democratic ideals would bring about a similar revolution in Britain, overthrow the monarchy and abolish Britain’s undemocratic voting laws. In 1794, Thelwall was charged with treason and imprisoned.

 

Thelwall published his recollections of visiting Severndroog in The Peripatetic (1793), an autobiographical work that doubles as a travel guide and democratic political manifesto. In his chapter on Shooter’s Hill, Thelwall called the recently built tower the ‘enchanted castle’. As well as describing a Greek temple (destroyed during World War II) that functioned as the castle’s porter’s lodge and telling the story of a comic encounter with a local workman, who believed that Severndroog was the real Suvarnadurg Fort, captured by Sir William James in 1755 and transported by ship from India, Thelwall was among the first to note the extraordinary view from the top of the tower. He recalled being ‘fixed in what might not improperly be called the fetters of enchantment, by the beautiful prospect’ and later penned a poem about the experience:

 

Here from this hill that aids the raptur’d sight,

Where woods, and vales, and cultur’d meadows lie,

Enough is seen to wake the fond delight,

And spread enchantment o-er the poet’s eye.

 

Early nineteenth-century engraving of Severndroog, showing the Grecian porter’s lodge.

F. R. Hay, after John Hassell, Seven Droog Castle, Shooter’s Hill, 1807.

© Ellen Bulford Welch.

  

Severndroog’s view of London also held a deeper, emotional significance for Thelwall. The castle’s distant view of the metropolis allowed him to see the city in a less threatening light, freeing him from the fears of victimisation that had oppressed him in the capital, where the government had begun to intensify its persecution of democratic activists. Thelwall enjoyed being able to ‘contemplate at a distance what, when immediately present, it is so painful to endure’ and claimed that Severndroog’s view had helped him to process the trauma that he and his fellow democrats were experiencing in the city:

 

Our pains, our disappointments, and our misfortunes, when the hour of sufferance is passed away, and we are enabled to contemplate them thus from some distant happy eminence, become the sources of our amusement and delight.

 

William Pitt portrayed as death on a pale horse, trampling democrats.

James Gillray, Presages of the Millenium, 1795, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

 

Despite his concern for the democratic rights of his fellow Britons, Thelwall did not automatically extend the same empathy to those oppressed by the East India Company abroad. Extraordinarily, given the Company's bombardment and conquest of Suvarnadurg, Thelwall turned the tale of Sir William James’s capture of the fort into a story about acting with compassion towards one’s enemies. He imagined that the family of Suvarnadurg's ruler, Tulaji Angre, had ‘poured forth a flood of tears’ when James stormed the fort, but were immediately ‘raised by the humanity of their conquerors’, who ‘assured the afflicted family of their friendship and protection’. Thelwall expected his readers to note the difference between James’s supposed kindness and the relentless persecution that Thelwall and other democrats were experiencing at the hands of Pitt’s government. Thelwall would have a more convincing anecdote about the ‘humanity of English valour’ to tell the following year when, despite enormous pressure from the government for a conviction, a jury of his peers acquitted him of treason.

 

Sir William James.

John Raphael Smith, after Joshua Reynolds, Sir William James, 1783, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. Richardson Dilworth.

 

 

 

 

JOHN THELWALL

John Thelwall