Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/À Beckett, Gilbert Abbott
À BECKETT, GILBERT ABBOTT (1811–1856), comic writer, was born at the Grange, Haverstock Hill, London, 9 Jan. 1811, being a member of an ancient Wiltshire family which claims direct descent from the father of St. Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. He was educated at Westminster School, and following in the footsteps of his father, William à Beckett (a strenuous supporter of municipal reform), he joined the legal profession, and was called to the bar at Gray's Inn, of which honourable society his father was also a member. From his earliest days he devoted much of his time to literature. When at Westminster, in conjunction with his eldest brother William [q. v.], he started two papers, entitled respectively the ‘Censor’ and the ‘Literary Beacon,’ which attracted much attention. Subsequently he produced, and was the first editor of, ‘Figaro in London’ (illustrated by Seymour and Cruikshank), the immediate precursor of ‘Punch.’ He was afterwards one of the original staff of ‘Punch.’ For many years he was one of the principal leader-writers of the ‘Times’ and ‘Morning Herald;’ and under the signature of ‘The Perambulating Philosopher,’ he contributed a series of articles to the ‘Illustrated London News,’ subsequently continued under other titles by Mr. Shirley Brooks and Mr. George Augustus Sala. On one occasion the whole of the articles in the ‘Times’ were written by him. He edited the ‘Table Book,’ which contained Thackeray's ‘Legend of the Rhine,’ and the ‘Omnibus’—both illustrated by George Cruikshank. In 1846 he conducted the ‘Almanac of the Month,’ to which all the members of the ‘Punch’ staff (then including Leech, Doyle, Lemon, Jerrold, and Hood) were contributors. He was also the author of the ‘Comic History of England’ and the ‘Comic History of Rome’ (both illustrated by Leech), the ‘Comic Blackstone’ (with illustrations by George Cruikshank), and the ‘Quizziology of the British Drama.’
Mr. à Beckett, before his marriage with Mary Anne, daughter of Joseph, third son of Henry Glossop, J.P., of Silver Hall, Isleworth, Middlesex, had been a prolific contributor to the London theatres. During his short life he wrote fifty or sixty plays, some of which still keep the stage. In later years, after his appointment to the bench, he, in collaboration with his friend Mark Lemon, dramatised the ‘Chimes’ and other works of Charles Dickens at the urgent request of the author, who wished to save his stories from the unscrupulous hands of unauthorised adapters.
Although devoting so much of his time to literature, he also was most diligent in the pursuit of his profession. He was chosen by Mr. Buller, the home secretary, as a poor-law commissioner, to inquire into the scandal connected with the Andover union; and it was owing to his report (declared by the minister to be one of the best ever presented to parliament) that important alterations were made in the statute-book. For this and other services of a kindred character, Mr. à Beckett was, at the early age of thirty-eight, appointed a metropolitan police magistrate, an office he occupied until his death in 1856, at Boulogne-sur-Mer, from typhus fever.
The following epitaph by Douglas Jerrold appeared in ‘Punch’ shortly after his decease—the latter portion is inscribed on his tomb in Highgate cemetery: ‘We have to deplore the loss of Gilbert Abbott à Beckett, whose genius has for more than fifteen years been present in these pages; present from the first sheet, 17 July 1841, till 30 Aug. 1856. On that day passed from among us a genial manly spirit, singularly gifted with the subtlest powers of wit and humour, faculties ever exercised by their possessor to the healthiest and most innocent purpose. As a magistrate, Gilbert à Beckett, by his wise, calm, humane administration of the law, gave a daily rebuke to a too ready belief that the faithful exercise of the highest and gravest social duties is incompatible with the sportiveness of literary genius. On the bench his firmness, moderation, and gentleness won him public respect, as they endeared him to all within their influence. His place knows him not, but his memory is tenderly cherished.’