1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Croker, John Wilson
CROKER, JOHN WILSON (1780–1857), British statesman and author, was born at Galway on the 20th of December 1780, being the only son of John Croker, the surveyor-general of customs and excise in Ireland. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated in 1800. Immediately afterwards he was entered at Lincoln’s Inn, and in 1802 he was called to the Irish bar. His interest in the French Revolution led him to collect a large number of valuable documents on the subject, which are now in the British Museum. In 1804 he published anonymously Familiar Epistles to J. F. Jones, Esquire, on the State of the Irish Stage, a series of caustic criticisms in verse on the management of the Dublin theatres. The book ran through five editions in one year. Equally successful was the Intercepted Letter from Canton (1805), also anonymous, a satire on Dublin society. In 1807 he published a pamphlet on The State of Ireland, Past and Present, in which he advocated Catholic emancipation.
In the following year he entered parliament as member for Downpatrick, obtaining the seat on petition, though he had been unsuccessful at the poll. The acumen displayed in his Irish pamphlet led Spencer Perceval to recommend him in 1808 to Sir Arthur Wellesley, who had just been appointed to the command of the British forces in the Peninsula, as his deputy in the office of chief secretary for Ireland. This connexion led to a friendship which remained unbroken till Wellington’s death. The notorious case of the duke of York in connexion with his abuse of military patronage furnished him with an opportunity for distinguishing himself. The speech which he delivered on the 14th of March 1809, in answer to the charges of Colonel Wardle, was regarded as the most able and ingenious defence of the duke that was made in the debate; and Croker was appointed to the office of secretary to the Admiralty, which he held without interruption under various administrations for more than twenty years. He proved an excellent public servant, and made many improvements which have been of permanent value in the organization of his office. Among the first acts of his official career was the exposure of a fellow-official who had misappropriated the public funds to the extent of £200,000.
In 1827 he became the representative of the university of Dublin, having previously sat successively for the boroughs of Athlone, Yarmouth (Isle of Wight), Bodmin and Aldeburgh. He was a determined opponent of the Reform Bill, and vowed that he would never sit in a reformed parliament; his parliamentary career accordingly terminated in 1832. Two years earlier he had retired from his post at the admiralty on a pension of £1500 a year. Many of his political speeches were published in pamphlet form, and they show him to have been a vigorous and effective, though somewhat unscrupulous and often virulently personal, party debater. Croker had been an ardent supporter of Peel, but finally broke with him when he began to advocate the repeal of the Corn Laws. He is said to have been the first to use (Jan. 1830) the term “conservatives.” He was for many years one of the leading contributors on literary and historical subjects to the Quarterly Review, with which he had been associated from its foundation. The rancorous spirit in which many of his articles were written did much to embitter party feeling. It also reacted unfavourably on Croker’s reputation as a worker in the department of pure literature by bringing political animosities into literary criticism. He had no sympathy with the younger school of poets who were in revolt against the artificial methods of the 18th century, and he was responsible for the famous Quarterly article on Keats. It is, nevertheless, unjust to judge Croker by the criticisms which Macaulay brought against his magnum opus, his edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1831). With all its defects the work had merits which Macaulay was of course not concerned to point out, and Croker’s researches have been of the greatest value to subsequent editors. There is little doubt that Macaulay had personal reasons for his attack on Croker, who had more than once exposed in the House the fallacies that lay hidden under the orator’s brilliant rhetoric. Croker made no immediate reply to Macaulay’s attack, but when the first two volumes of the History appeared he took the opportunity of pointing out the inaccuracies that abounded in the work. Croker was occupied for several years on an annotated edition of Pope’s works. It was left unfinished at the time of his death, but it was afterwards completed by the Rev. Whitwell Elwin and Mr W. J. Courthope. He died at St Albans Bank, Hampton, on the 10th of August 1857.
Croker was generally supposed to be the original from which Disraeli drew the character of “Rigby” in Coningsby, because he had for many years had the sole management of the estates of the marquess of Hertford, the “Lord Monmouth” of the story; but the comparison is a great injustice to the sterling worth of Croker’s character.
The chief works of Croker not already mentioned were his Stories for Children from the History of England (1817), which provided the model for Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather; Letters on the Naval War with America; A Reply to the Letters of Malachi Malagrowther (1826); Military Events of the French Revolution of 1830 (1831); a translation of Bassompierre’s Embassy to England (1819); and several lyrical pieces of some merit, such as the Songs of Trafalgar (1806) and The Battles of Talavera (1809). He also edited the Suffolk Papers (1823), Hervey’s Memoirs of the Court of George II. (1817), the Letters of Mary Lepel, Lady Hervey (1821–1822), and Walpole’s Letters to Lord Hertford (1824). His memoirs, diaries and correspondence were edited by Louis J. Jennings in 1884 under the title of The Croker Papers (3 vols.).