Black, John (DNB00)

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BLACK, JOHN (1783–1855), journalist, editor of the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ was born in a poor cottage on the farm called Burnhouses, four miles north of Dunse in Berwickshire. His father, Ebenezer Black, had been a pedlar in Perthshire, of the stamp of Wordsworth’s hero in the ‘Excursion.' In the decline of life he accepted employment at Burnhouses, and married Janet Gray, another worker on the farm. Four years afterwards Janet was left a widow with one daughter and a son, John, and before the latter had reached his twelfth year mother and sister died. The orphan was sheltered and fed by his mother's brother, John Gray, a labourer on the same farm, who sent him to the parish school at Dunse, four miles off. Black gained at Dunse a knowledge of English, Latin, and Greek. He became the friend of James Gray, scholar, met, and missionary, of Adam Dickenson, of James Cleghorn, of Jock M'Crie, brother of the biographer of Knox, and others. At the age of thirteen Black was articled by his uncle to Mr. Turnbull, a Writer of Dunse, with whom he remained four years. During this time he read all the books of the subscription library in the town, and formed a very creditable collection of his own. He accepted a well-paid clerkship in the branch bank of the British Linen Company, but was obliged to leave the town on account of a practical joke played upon one of the ‘respectabilities.'

Black found a situation in Edinburgh in the office of Mr. Selkrig, an accountant, who, in addition to an adequate salary, allowed his clerk time to attend classes at the university. His official duties were strictly performed, his attendance in the lecture-rooms never failed, and he undertook any remunerative work that offered, notably some translations from the German for Sir David Brewster's ‘Edinburgh Cyclopædia.' He met with an intellectual companion in William Mudford, the son of a London shopkeeper. ‘Cobbett's Political Register' was then a popular serial, and there Black and Mudford engaged in another ‘battle of the books,' the former defending ancient classical study, the latter insisting on the acquisition of modern learning as better. ‘Doctor Black, the feel-osopher,’ seemed to be at a rather later time Cobbett's favourite aversion.

In Edinburgh Black is reported to have delivered a dozen challenges before he was thirty years old. His schoolfellow James Gray was now classical master at Edinburgh High School, and exercised a moderating influence upon him. ln 1809 he was in the way of making a happy marriage with a lady from Carlisle, but the engagement, was broken off by him because he was disappointed of an expected increase of income. The failure of this engagement seems to have had a demoralising effect upon Black. He fell into the coarse indulgences of low dissipation, quarrelled with his employer, from whom he was receiving a salary of 150l. a year, and distressed his best friends. His friend Mudford was then in London and editor of a ‘Universal Magazine,’ to which Black contributed articles on the Italian drama and on German literature in 1807-8-9.

By Mudford’s persuasion he left Edinburgh for London in 1810. Dr. C. Mackay gives as a doubtful statement of Black himself, that he walked with a few pence in his pocket all the way from Berwickshire to London, subsisting on the hospitality of farmers. He carried a letter of introduction to Mr. Cromek, engraver and publisher, who received him at once into his friendly home. Three months after his arrival in London he was engaged as a reporter by James Perry, an Aberdonian, who, with another Scotsman named Gray, had in 1789 become proprietors of the ‘Morning Chronicle.' Besides reporting Black had to translate the foreign correspondence. As a reporter he was considered to be very rapid, but Mr. Proby, the manager of the paper, used to say that Black’s principal merit consisted in the celerity wit which he made his way from the House of Commons to the Strand. He was already, in 1810, engaged in translating into English ‘Humboldt's Political Essay on New Spain,’ which was published in four volumes (1811-12). In 1813 Black completed the translation of a quarto volume of ‘Travels in Norway an Lapland, by Leopold von Buch,' and, in 181-1, ‘Berzelius on a System of Mineralogy.' In 1814 he translated ‘Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Literature] and the ‘Memoirs of Goldoni.’

At the house of one of his London friends Black was introduced, in the autumn of 1812, to his friend’s mistress, who was not averse to a marriage which her old lover seemed anxious to promote. Black fell into the snare, and five days later, in the month of December 1812, they were married. The union was a most unhappy one. His wife made no pretence of love for him. In the space of two months she had involved him in debt, sold some of his furniture, and clandestinely renewed acquaintance with her former lover. Black bore patiently with her whims. Before the beginning of March 1813 she left him altogether, and Black knew how much she and their common friend had befooled him. He challenged the betrayer. But the spell was not broken. His wife had only to write him a penitent letter to obtain from him the money supplies she demanded. In 1814, however, he sought a divorce. An arrangement was made that the wife should go to Scotland and be domiciled there long enough to sue for a divorce on her petition. The project, however, failed, the proof of domicile of both parties not being deemed adequate by the court. Black, in full expectation of a divorce, had uttered marriage to an old friend, who became his housekeeper and bore the name of Mrs. Black. The undivorced wife did not fail to extract money from her husband. This pertinacious persecution went on for many years.

This episode in Black s career explains the disorganisation of his official labours which led to a quarrel with Mr. Perry. Due explanation being given the breach was healed. In 1817 Mr, Perry’s health was giving way, and the functions of editor gradually devolved on Black.

The ‘Morning Chronicle’ was the most uncompromising of all the opposition papers, and Black maintained its position, being much assisted by the counsels of Mr. James Mill. At one time there was scarcely a day that they did not walk together from the India House giving and receiving political inspiration. John Stuart Mill wrote of Black: ‘He played a really important part in the progress of English opinion for a number of years which was not, properly recognised. I have always considered Black as the first journalist who carried criticism and the spirit of reform into the details of English institutions. Those who are not old enough to remember those times can hardly believe what the state of public discussion then was. People now and then attacked the constitution and the boroughmongers, but no one thought of censuring the law or the courts of justice, and to say a word against the unpaid magistracy was a sort of blasphemy. Black was the writer who carried the warfare into these subjects, and by doing so he broke the spell. Very early in his editorship he fought a great battle for the freedom of reporting preliminary investigations in the police courts. He carried his point, and the victory was permanent. Another subject on which his writings were of the greatest service was the freedom of the press on matters of religion. All these subjects were Black’s own’ (Private Letter, 1869). At the outset of his editorial career he attracted much public attention by his determined condemnation of the authorities in their conduct at Manchester in the affair long known as the Peterloo massacre (16 Aug. 1819). In the matter of the queen’s trial the ‘Chronicle’ leaned to the unpopular side, deeming her majesty guilty, and the circulation of the paper was greatly diminished.

In 1821 Mr. Perry died, and his executors sold for 42,000l. the newspaper which thirty years before had been bought for 1501. Bloch retained his post, of editor, but the new proprietor, Mr. Clement, owner also of the ‘Ob- server’ and of ‘Bell’s Life,’ had not the public spirit of his predecessor, and the paper began to decline in a commercial sense. In 1834 it was again sold for the sum of 16,500l. to Sir John Ensthope and two partners. The ‘ Times ' had distanced the ‘Chronic1e,’ when, by a sudden change in its politics in 1835, it caused numbers of its Whig subscribers to abandon it and support the ‘Chronicle.’ Black was so elated by this turn of fortune that he exclaimed, ‘Now our readers will follow me anywhere I like to lead them!’

In 1835 Black fought a duel with John Arthur Roebuck. The latter had published a pamphlet in which cowardice was attributed to the editor of the ‘Chronicle.' A meeting took place at which the principals fired twice, and the seconds nearly engaged in mortal combat.

When Lord Melbourne returned to office (8 April 1835) he found a useful ally and a congenial companion in Black. A story is told of the prime minister having vowed he would make Black a bishop on an occasion when he was foiled of his intention to confer that dignity on Sydney Smith. Black supported the ministry with all his powers, and wrote some specially vigorous articles against Sir Robert Peel in 1839. Melbourne during his next administration professed a desire to serve Black, who declined the offer on the ground that he ‘lived happily on his income.’ ‘Then by ——— I envy you,’ said the peer, ‘and you’re the only man I ever did.’ With Lord Palmerston he did not get on quite so well. He once vexed the soul of the busy foreign secretary by launching out into half an hour’s dissertation on the ethnological peculiarities of the yellow-haired races of Finland, when the business of the interview was simply to know what the government meant to do at a certain crisis in foreign affairs. Lord Brougham was very intimate with ‘Dear Doctor,’ as he styled Black, a title derisively applied by Cobbett, and not agreeable to Black's ears. It was Black's great pleasure to encourage the budding talents of the young writers around him, and among others that of Charles Dickens, who began his literary career as a reporter for the ‘Chronicle.' Latterly there was thought to be a decline of energy in the management of the paper, and Black, in 1843, received an intimation that his resignation would be accepted. Black, who was now sixty years old, had saved no money, and had to part with his beloved books, some 30,000 volumes. Friends and admirers rallied round him, and a sum, to which the proprietors of the ‘Chronicle’ contributed, was raised sulticient to buy him an annuity of 150l. His old friend Mr. Walter Coulson placed a comfortable cottage at Snodland, near Maidstone, at his disposal, and there Black passed the remaining twelve years of his life in the study of his favourite Greek, chiefly the Septuagint version of the Scriptures, and in the assiduous practice of gardening. B1ack’s Newfoundland dogs, Cato and Plutus, were as well known as himself. One of them rescued from the Thames a boy, who subsequently attained a seat on the judicial bench. Mr. James Grant describes Black in his latter years as having ‘the blunt and bluff appearance of a thickset farmer . . . never seen in the streets without being accompanied by a large mastiff (? Newfoundland), and a robust stick in his hand.' He died 15 June 1855.

[Hunt's Fourth Estate; Mackay's Forty Years’ Recollections; Grant's Newspaper Press; B1ack‘s Private Papers]

R. H.