Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Birch, Samuel

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

BIRCH, SAMUEL (1757–1841), dramatist and pastrycook, was born in London 8 Nov. 1757. He was the son of Lucas Birch, who carried on the business of a pastrycook and confectioner at 16 Cornhill. This shop, though the upper portion of the house had been rebuilt, still (1885) retains its old-fashioned front, and is probably the oldest shop of the kind in the city. The business was established in the reign of George I by a Mr. Horton, the immediate predecessor of Lucas Birch. Samuel was educated at a private school kept by Mr. Crawford at Newington Butts, and upon leaving school was apprenticed to his father. Early in life, in 1778, he married the daughter of Dr. John Fordyce, by whom he had a family of thirteen children. He was elected one of the common council on 21 Dec. 1781, and in 1789 became deputy of the Cornhill ward. In May 1807 he was elected alderman of the Candlewick ward in the place of Alderman Hankey. When young he devoted much of his leisure time to the cultivation of his mental powers and the improvement of his literary taste; he was a frequent attendant of a debating society which met in one of the large rooms formerly belonging to the King's Arms Tavern, Cornhill, and there, in the winter of 1778, he made his first essay in public speaking. In politics he was a strenuous supporter of Pitt's administration, though he vigorously opposed the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. He became a frequent speaker at the common council meetings. When he first proposed the formation of volunteer regiments at the outbreak of the French revolution, not a single common councilman supported him. Subsequently, when the measure was adopted, he became the lieutenant-colonel commandant of the 1st regiment of Loyal London volunteers. The speech which he delivered in the Guildhall on 5 March 1805 against the Roman catholic petition was severely criticised in an article entitled 'Deputy Birch and others on the Catholic Claims, which appeared in the 'Edinburgh Review' (x. 124–36). It was, however, highly commended by the king, and the freedom of the city of Dublin was twice voted him at the midsummer quarter assembly of the corporation of that city on 19 July 1805 and 18 July 1806, for his advocacy of the protestant ascendency in Ireland, In 1811 he was appointed one of the sheriffs of London, and on 9 Nov. 1814 Birch entered on his duties as lord mayor. Tory though he was, he opposed the Corn Bill of 1815, and presided at a meeting of the livery in common hall on 23 Feb. 1815, when he made a vigorous attack upon the intended prohibition of the free importation of foreign corn. The course he took on this occasion is commemorated by a medal struck in his honour on the obverse side of which is the bust of the lord mayor, and on the reverse a representation of a wheatsheaf, with the legend, 'Free Importation, Peace and Plenty.' During his mayoralty the marble statue of George III by Chantrey, the inscription on which was written by Birch, was placed in the council chamber of Guildhall. Almost his last act as lord mayor was to lay the foundation-stone of the London Institution in Finsbury Circus (then called the Amphitheatre, Moorfields) on 4 Nov. 1815. In 1836 Birch, who had for many years carried on his father's old business in Cornhill, disposed of it to Messrs. Ring & Brymer, the present proprietors. He retired from the court. of aldermen in 1810, and died at his house, 107 Guildford Street, London, on 10 Dec. 1841, aged 84. Birch was a man of considerable literary attainments, and wrote a number of poems and musical dramas, of which the ‘Adopted Child’ was by far the most successful. His plays were frequently produced at Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and Haymarket theatres. His varied activity was the subject of a clever skit, in which a French visitor to London meeting with 'Birch the pastrycook' in such different capacities as Guildhall-orator, militia-colonel, poet, &c., returned to France, believing him to be the emperor of London! His portrait, presented by his granddaughter in 1877, hangs in the Guildhall library.

He published the following works:

  1. ‘The Abbey of Ambresbury,’ in two parts, 1788-9), 4to (a poem).
  2. 'Consilia, or Thoughts on several Subjects,' 1785, 12mo.
  3. 'The Adopted Child,' 1795, 8vo (a musical drama, first produced at Drury Lane 1 May 1795; music by Thomas Attwood).
  4. 'The Smugglers,' 1796, 8vo (a musical drama, first produced at Drury Lane 13 April 1796; music by Thomas Attwood [q. v.]).
  5. ‘Speech in the Common Council against the Roman Catholic Petition,’ 8vo, 1805.
  6. ‘Speech in the Common Council on the Admission of Papists to hold Commissions in the Army.' March 1807.

He also wrote the following dramatic pieces, which were never published:

  1. ‘The Manners,’ 1793 (a musical entertainment, first produced at the opera house in the Haymarket 10 May 1793).
  2. ‘The Packet Boat, or a Peep behind the Veil,’ 1794 (a masque, first produced at Covent Garden 13 May 1794; music by Thomas Attwood).
  3. ‘Fast Asleep, 1797 (a musical entertainment, produced at Drury Lane 28 Oct. 1795, and never acted again).
  4. ‘Albert and Adelaide, or the Victim of Romance,' 1798 (a romance first produced at Covent Garden 11 Dec. 1798).

[Baker's Biographia Dramatica, 1812, i. 41-3; Chambers's Book of Days, 1869. p. 64; Thornbury's Old and New London, 1st ed. i. 412-3, ii. 172; Era, 15 Jan. 1881, p. 7; Annual Register, 1841, appendix, p. 238.]

G. F. R. B.