Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Byrom, John

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BYROM, JOHN (1692–1763), poet and stenographer, was born 29 Feb. 1691–2 at Kersall Cell, Broughton, near Manchester. He was the second son and seventh of the nine children of Edward Byrom, by his wife Sarah Allen. The Byroms of Manchester were a younger branch of the Byroms of Salford, themselves a younger branch of the Byroms of Byrom. The last representative of the parent stem was Samuel, commonly called ‘Beau Byrom,’ a spendthrift, who sold his estates (some of which were bought by John Byrom's father and uncle), got into the Fleet prison, and there published (in 1729) an ‘Irrefragable argument fully proving that to discharge great debts is .... more reasonable than to discharge small.’ It was sold for the benefit of the author, and was, in reality, a covert appeal for charity. The ‘beau’ got out of prison, and John Byrom helped him to obtain support. The Byroms of Manchester had been prosperous merchants and linendrapers. John Byrom's father, Edward, was son of another Edward (1627-1668), and had a younger brother, Joseph, whose daughter, Euzabeth, was thus John's cousin, and afterwards became his wife (see pedigrees appended to Byrom's Remains). John's name is in the register of Merchant Taylors' School in March 1707. He was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, on 6 July 1708; was elected scholar in May 1709; became B.A. in 1712 ; M. A. in 1715, and was elected fellow of his college at Michaelmas 1714. He had many scruples as to taking the oath of abjuration. While at college he contributed two papers on dreams to the 'Spectator' (Nos. 586, 593, and perhaps 597), and a playful pastoral, called ' Colin and Phoebe (No. 605, 6 Oct. 1714). Joan or *Jug' Bentley, then only eleven years old, daughter of the master, and afterwards mother of Richard Cumberland, is said to have been his Phoebe (Monk's Bentley, i. 200, ii. 113). The poem was very popular. In 1716 Bvrom travelled abroad and studied medicine for a time at Montpelier. He was afterwards called ' doctor ' by his friends, but never took the degree. He declined a proposal to practise at Manchester {Remains, i. 267), and his journey may possibly have had rather a political than a professional purpose. He showed strong Jacobite leanings through life.

He returned to London in 1718, and on 14 Feb. 1721 married his cousin, with the consent of her parents (Remains, i. 43), though the contrary has been alleged as an explanation of his subsequent poverty. His father had died in 1711, and the estates had gone to his elder brother, Edward. Byrom now resolved to increase his income by teaching shorthand. He had invented a new system at Cambridge, in concert, it is said, with Thomas Sharp, a college contemporary, son of the archbishop of York. He issued proposals for publishing his system, dat«d 27 May 1723. During many years he made visits to London, where he often stayed for months, and occasionally to Cambridge, in order to give lessons in his art. His pupils paid five guineas and took an oath of secresy. Byrom was soon challenged to a trial of skill by a rival teacher named Weston, whom he treated with good-humoured ridicule. In June 1725 he acted as moderator between Weston and one Clayton at the Chapter Coffee-house. His pupils formed a kind of society; they called him grand master, and upon opening ms 'sessions' he delivered addresses upon the history and utility of shorthand. His occupation brought him many distinguished acquaintance. On 17 March 1724 he became a fellow of the Royal Society, and contributed two papers upon shorthand to the 'Philosophical Transactions' (No. 488). In June 1727 he had a sharp dispute at the society with Sir Hans Sloane. Byrom seems to have opposed an address to the king, and was accused of Jacobitism. He unsuccessfully supported Jurin against Sloane in the election of the president on 30 Nov. 1727.

Byrom's diary, with many letters, published by the Chetham Society, are full of lively accounts of meetings with distinguished contemporaries during these years. He was intimate with Bentley and nis family ; with Bishop Hoadley's son, whose father he occasionialy met ; he reports interesting conversations with Bishop butler and Samuel Clarke ; David Hartley was a pupil and a very warm friend ; he saw something of Wesley ; and took a great interest in all the relimous speculations of the time. He meets Whiston, the Arian ; the deist Collins ; the heretical Elwal ; and discusses Chubb and Woolston. His own leaning was towards mysticism. He is said to have become acquainted with the writings of Malebranche and Antoinette Bourignon in France. One of his liveliest poems describes his buying a portrait of Malebranche (9 March 1727), whom he calls 'the greatest divine that e'er lived upon earth. In this he sympathised with William Law, whom he went went to see at Putney, 4 March 1729, in consequence apparently of having bought the 'Serious Call,' then just published. Law was at this time tutor to Gibbon's father, whom he accompanied to Cambridge, where Byrom met him again. Bjnrom became an ardent disciple of I^w, whom he calls his master. When Law became a student of Behmen, Byrom followed, with a modest confession of partial comprehension. He versified several passages of Law's writings, hoping that his verse would cling to the prose 'like ivy to an oak' Remains ii. 521), and when Law settled at King's Cliffe, Byrom visited him in his retirement. He corresponded with Law's disciple. Dr. Cheyne, and defended his master against Warburton's brutality. Warburton, who teUs Hurd (2 Jan. 1752) that Byrom is 'not malevolent but mad,' treated his new antagonist with unusual courtesy (see letters in Remains, ii. 522-39).

Byrom's uncle and father-in-law, Joseph, died in 1733, leaving his property to a son, Edward, on whose death, in 1760, it came to John Byrom's family {Remains, ii. 93). The death of his own elder and unmarried brother, Edward (12 May 1740), put him in possession of the family estates, and relieved him from the necessity of teaching shorthand. He had printed new proposals for publishing his system by subscription (dated 1 Nov. 1739). Difficulties arose, and he obtained an act of parliament, passed on 5 May 1742, giving him the sole right both of publishing and teaching the system for twenty-one years. A list of persons testifying to its merits is appended to the proposals, and includes the Duke of Queensberry, Bishop Hoadly and his son, Hartley, R. Smith, the Cambridge astronomer, and other university authorities. The third Duke of Devonshire, Lord Delawarr, Horace Walpole, Gibbon (the historian's father), and, it is said, Lord Chesterfield, were also among his pupils.

At Manchester, Byrom was known as a warm supporter of the high church and Jacobite party. He acted as agent in a successful opposition to a bill for establishing a workhouse in Manchester in the early months of 1731. The objection was that the proposed board of guardians was so constituted as to give a majority to whigs and dissenters (Baines, Lancashire, ii. 293, and Ware's Collegiate Church of Manchester, ii. 79). Byrom was in Manchester during the Pretender's entry in 1745. His daughter's journal (Remains, ii. 385 seq.) shows that, in spite of his strong Jacobite sympathies, he avoided committing himself, though two sons of his intimate friend Dr. Deacon, physician and nonjuring clergyman, joined the regiment raised by the Pretender. A strong party feeling distracted the town for some years afterwards. Jacobites were insulted at public assemblies (ib. ii. 509), and Byrom, with his friend Dr. Deacon, contributed various essays and epigrams to the ‘Chester Courant,’ which were collected in a small volume, called ‘Manchester Vindicated’ (Chester, 1749), and form a curious illustration of the time.

The correspondence of later years is chiefly theological. Byrom died, after a lingering illness, on 26 Sept. 1763. A fine of 5l. was levied on his estate because he was not buried in woollen.

Byrom's poems were collected for the first time and published at Manchester in 1773. They were republished with a life and notes in 1814. To the last is prefixed a portrait, showing a man of great height and a strongly marked face. The poems are also (with some exceptions) given in Chalmers's ‘English Poets.’ Byrom had an astonishing facility in rhyming. Some of his poems are discussions on points of classical or theological criticism (e.g. against Conyers Middleton's reply to Sherlock), and scarcely better than clever doggerel. One is an argument to prove that St. George was really Gregory the Great. Pegge, who is challenged in the poem, replied to Byrom and Pettingall in the fifth volume of the ‘Archæologia.’ Others are versifications of Behmen, Rusbrochius, and Law (e.g. the ‘Enthusiasm’ is from Law's ‘Appeal,’ p. 30 et seq. and the ‘Pond’ from the same writer's ‘Serious Call,’ chap. xi.), and there are a few hymns. Byrom can be forcible, but frequently adopts a comic metre oddly inappropriate to his purpose. Some occasional poems in which his good-humoured sprightliness finds a natural expression have been deservedly admired, especially ‘Colin to Phœbe’ (see above), the ‘Three Black Crows,’ ‘Figg and Sutton,’ printed in the sixth volume of Dodsley's collection and turned to account in Thackeray's ‘Virginians,’ chap. xxxvii.; the ‘Centaur Fabulous’ upon Warburton's ‘Divine Legation,’ and the epilogue to ‘Hurlothrumbo.’ Samuel Johnson, the author of this play, was a favourite object of Byrom's playful satire. Some epigrams are still familiar, ‘Handel and Bononcini’ (see Remains, i. 136), often erroneously given to Swift; ‘Bone and Skin,’ which refers to the mills belonging to the Manchester grammar school, and the well-known

God bless the king, God bless our faith's defender,
God bless—no harm in blessing—the Pretender;
But who pretender is, and who is king,
God bless us all! that's quite another thing.

Byrom's system of shorthand was not printed until four years after his death, when it was explained in a volume illustrated with thirteen copper-plates, and entitled ‘The Universal English Shorthand; or the way of writing English in the most easy, concise, regular, and beautiful manner, applicable to any other language, but particularly adjusted to our own,’ Manchester, 1767, second edit. 1796. The method is in appearance one of the most elegant ever devised, but it cannot be written with sufficient rapidity, and consequently it was never much used by professional stenographers. For reporting purposes it is decidedly inferior to the systems of Mason, Gurney, Taylor, Lewis, and Pitman. Still its publication marks an era in the history of shorthand, and there can be no doubt that the more widely diffused system published by Samuel Taylor in 1786 was suggested by and based upon that of Byrom. Thomas Molineux of Macclesfield issued several elegantly printed manuals of instruction in Byrom's system between 1796 and 1824, but the best exposition of the method is to be found in the ‘Practical Introduction to the Science of Shorthand,’ by William Gawtress, Leeds, 1819, third edit. London, 1830.

[The chief authority for Byrom is The Private Journal and Literary Remains of John Byrom, relaled by Richard Parkinson, D.D. for the Chetham Society, in two vols., 1854–7; some account in given of an unpublished fragment of the journal from 1731 to 1733 by Mr. J. E., Bailey in the Palatine Note-book for May 1882, also printed separately; Chalmers's Life in the Collection of Pools, and Life prefixed to Works; Baines's County Palatine of Lancaster, ii. 79, 293; Hibbert Ware's Collegiate Church of Manchester, ii. 79, 293. 142, &c.; Case in relation to an Act of Parliament. 1731; Case of Petitioners. &c.. 1731. for the Manchester Workhouse question.]

L. S.