Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Jerdan, William

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JERDAN, WILLIAM (1782–1869), journalist, born at Kelso, Roxburghshire, on 16 April 1782, was son of John Jerdan (d. 1796), a small landowner, by his wife, Agnes Stuart (d. 1820). His eldest brother, John Stuart Jerdan, became lieutenant-colonel in the Bombay native infantry, and died at the Cape of Good Hope on 8 Jan. 1822. William was educated at Kelso parochial school, and was subsequently a private pupil at Maxwellheugh of William Rutherford, D.D., formerly of Uxbridge. While still a boy he entered the office at Kelso of James Hume, writer to the signet and distributor of stamps; but anxious to try his fortune in London, he obtained in 1801 a clerkship in the counting-house of Messrs. Turner, West India merchants. Jerdan had written verse from the age of twelve. The head of the London firm encouraged him in his literary ambitions, and introduced him to many ‘persons of rank and station.’ He had made in Scotland the acquaintance of Frederick Pollock (afterwards lord chief baron), and with him and Pollock's brothers or with Thomas Wilde (afterwards Lord-chancellor Truro) he now passed much of his leisure. An attack of brain fever in the spring of 1802 led to a change of plans, and later in the year he was placed in the office of Cornelius Elliott, a writer to the signet in Edinburgh. Although interested in genealogical researches connected with his professional work, the occupation did not prove congenial, and in 1805 he went south again.

Jerdan finally settled in London in the spring of 1806, and began his long journalistic career by joining the reporters' staff of the ‘Aurora,’ a new daily journal started in the interest of the West-end hotelkeepers. Jerdan soon became editor, but the venture failed, and he transferred himself in 1808 to the ‘Pilot,’ an evening newspaper established in January 1807 by E. Samuel, chiefly to support the cause of the nabob of Oude. Subsequently he was employed for a time on the ‘Morning Post,’ and wrote editorial articles in vindication of the Duke of York. For three sessions of parliament he reported the proceedings in the ‘British Press.’ On the afternoon of 11 May 1812, while in the lobby of the House of Commons in pursuit of his journalistic duties, he witnessed the murder of Spencer Perceval [q. v.] by Bellingham, and was the first to seize the assassin.

In the same year Jerdan purchased of the proprietor, George Manners, the copyright and business premises (at 267 Strand) of a periodical entitled ‘The Satirist, a Monthly Meteor.’ Begun on 1 Oct. 1807, the paper had been noted for its virulence. Jerdan moderated its tone, but it was not a commercial success, and ceased in 1814. Meanwhile Jerdan had secured, on 11 May 1813, the more responsible post of editor of the ‘Sun,’ a high tory daily paper, and a vigorous champion of ‘Pitt politics.’ He received a tenth share of the property, and a vague promise of 500l. a year. He worked energetically. Goulburn complimented him on the promptness with which he published foreign intelligence, and he occasionally gave literary articles—then an unusual feature in daily newspapers—an important place in his columns. In 1814 he visited France, witnessed the entry of Louis XVIII into Paris in May, travelled home with Douglas Kinnaird [q. v.], and published ‘Voyage to the Isle of Elba, from the French of Arsenne de Berneaud.’ His impressions of his visit, which were hardly favourable, he recorded in ‘Six Weeks in Paris, by a late Visitant,’ 3 vols.; 2nd edit. 1818. His connection with the ‘Sun’ procured him the acquaintance of the chief tory statesmen. After 1808 he lived in the neighbourhood of Canning's house, Gloucester Lodge, Old Brompton, and was for many years a welcome guest there. Canning stood godfather to one of his sons in 1819, and corresponded with him on familiar terms. The ‘Sun’ was, however, never very profitable; Jerdan received little or no salary, and the claim of John Taylor [q. v.], the chief proprietor, to interfere with the editing led to complicated legal proceedings between him and Jerdan in 1815. In May 1817 Jerdan was glad to retire from the editorship and sell his interest in the concern for 300l.

On 25 Jan. 1817 Henry Colburn [q. v.] started the ‘Literary Gazette,’ at first a shilling but soon an eightpenny weekly review. In July Jerdan purchased a third share, and on the appearance of the twenty-sixth number was installed as editor. With this enterprise Jerdan was identified for three-and-thirty years. His aim, he tells us, was to ‘praise heartily’ and ‘censure mildly,’ and he gathered around him a very accomplished band of writers, including Crabbe, Barry Cornwall, Dr. Croly, Miss Mitford, Alaric Watts, Maginn, Mrs. Hemans, and Thomas Campbell (for list of writers see Autob. iv. 247). At first the paper proved unremunerative. Jerdan found it necessary to supplement his income by contributing largely to the provincial press, and he edited from London the ‘Sheffield Mercury,’ and ‘at other times a Birmingham, a Staffordshire Potteries, and an Irish journal’ (ib. i. 110). In 1818 he arranged for publication by John Murray Fitzclarence's ‘Journal of a Route across India.’ In 1820 Messrs. Longmans became part-proprietors and publishers of the ‘Gazette,’ and for the next ten years its position in the literary world was supreme. John Wilson (Christopher North), in his account of a conversation with James Hogg (Noctes Ambros. iii. 67, ed. 1866, New York), regarded the paper as unapproachable, because ‘Mr. Jerdan is a gentleman and is assisted by none but gentlemen.’ In February 1820 Letitia Elizabeth Landon, whose father was Jerdan's neighbour at Old Brompton, sent a contribution for the first time, and was subsequently one of the chief writers and the intimate friend of the editor. Jerdan soon removed to a larger house called The Grove, at Old Brompton, and became a leading figure in literary society. In 1821 he helped to found the Royal Society of Literature, and always took an active part in the administration of the Royal Literary Fund. When Sir John Soane, a liberal supporter of the latter, threatened to withdraw his subscription unless the committee removed from their board-room an unflattering portrait of himself, painted and presented by Maclise, Jerdan caused a sensation in London by cutting the picture into shreds, and thus, as he claimed, destroying ‘the bone of contention.’ The exploit was the occasion of many witty epigrams. Jerdan also assisted to promote the formation of the Royal Geographical Society (between 1828 and 1830), and of the Melodists' and the Garrick clubs. In 1826 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and joined the convivial club of the Noviomagians formed of his colleagues in the society. He was an original member of the Camden Society (1838), for which he edited the ‘Rutland Papers’ (1842) and the ‘Perth Correspondence,’ and was on the council of the Percy Society.

About 1826 Jerdan projected, in conjunction with his friend Sir J. F. Leicester, lord de Tabley, an elaborate ‘British Ichthyology,’ but although a prospectus was drawn up, De Tabley's death in 1827 prevented the scheme from going further. In the same year Jerdan collected some articles which had appeared in the ‘Gazette,’ and were chiefly written by Coutts Trotter, in a volume entitled ‘National Polity Finance, a Plan for establishing a Sterling Currency.’

In 1827 Colburn, offended with Jerdan's politics and some of his literary criticisms, aided John Silk Buckingham [q. v.] in founding the ‘Athenæum.’ Many rivals to the ‘Gazette’ had been begun and had failed, and the new venture at first showed so few signs of stability, that its proprietor offered to sell it to Jerdan. Jerdan declined the offer, but in July 1831 the price of the ‘Athenæum’ was reduced from eightpence to fourpence, while the ‘Gazette’ remained at the higher price. The older paper found itself over-matched, and its circulation gradually declined.

In 1829 Jerdan published anonymously a skit on the rage for publishing books of travel, under the title ‘Personal Narrative of a Journey overland from the Bank to Barnes’ (cf. Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. ii. 339, 396). In 1831 he contributed a tale entitled ‘The Sleepless Woman’ to ‘The Club Book,’ ii. 33 sq., and established a ‘Foreign Literary Gazette,’ but it died on reaching its thirteenth number. Between 1830 and 1834 Jerdan brought out annually a volume of memoirs of contemporary celebrities, which was illustrated with portraits, and was entitled ‘The National Portrait Gallery of the Nineteenth Century’ (5 vols. 4to). It was best known, from the name of its publisher, as ‘Fisher's National Portrait Gallery.’ In 1839 he published an elaborate plan of a ‘National Association for the Encouragement and Patronage of Authors and Men of Talent and Genius,’ and although he secured the support of many men of rank and wealth, the scheme proved abortive. Jerdan had personally suffered much pecuniary misfortune. The failure of Whitehead's bank in 1808 and the panic of 1826 both injured him severely, and later the dishonesty of a friend, to whom he had entrusted his savings for investment, utterly ruined him. He was compelled to sell his establishment at Grove House, and after struggling in vain to restore the position of the ‘Literary Gazette,’ he brought his connection with the paper to a close on 28 Dec. 1850. He had been sole proprietor since 1842. The price had been reduced to fourpence, and it was brought down under Jerdan's successor to threepence. A new series, started in 1858, restored the price of fourpence, but the paper was still unsuccessful; in 1862 it was incorporated with a new venture entitled ‘The Parthenon,’ and expired with that enterprise on 30 May 1863.

In 1853 Jerdan obtained a pension of 100l. from the civil list, and his friends presented him with a handsome testimonial. He settled at Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire, in 1856, and, despite increasing years, continued to write occasional articles for ‘Fraser's’ and the ‘Gentleman's Magazine.’ In 1852–3 he published four volumes of a discursive autobiography. In 1854 he drew up for the South-Eastern Railway Company a descriptive handbook to the country traversed by their line, under the title of ‘Manual No. 1. Main Line to the Coast and Continent.’ In 1866 he pursued his reminiscences in ‘Men I have known.’ His last work was a series of biographical articles for the ‘Leisure Hour,’ and he was until the end a contributor to ‘Notes and Queries’ under the pseudonym of ‘Bushey Heath.’ His geniality never forsook him, and although without eminent literary ability, many distinguished authors owed much to his kindly encouragement of their early efforts. He took part in few literary quarrels. While still a young man he was threatened by Byron with a challenge on account of some disparaging criticism, and in 1845 Whewell, the master of Trinity, exhibited marked animosity to him on like grounds (cf. Clark and Hughes, Life of Sedgwick, ii. 99). Jerdan died at Bushey Heath on 11 July 1869, in his eighty-eighth year, and a tombstone was erected above his grave in Bushey churchyard in 1874 ‘by his friends and associates in the Society of Noviomagus.’

Jerdan married twice, and by both wives had large families. His eldest son by his first marriage, John Stuart Jerdan (1808–1839), was a stipendiary magistrate in Jamaica (Gent. Mag. 1835, pt. i. p. 334). A portrait painted by G. H. Harlow in 1815 was engraved by H. Robinson for Jerdan's ‘Autobiography,’ vol. i. A sketch by Maclise appeared in ‘Fraser's Magazine’ in 1830, and is reproduced in Bates's ‘Maclise Portrait Gallery’ (1883). Jerdan also figures in Maclise's well-known group of ‘Fraserians.’

[Jerdan's Autobiography, 4 vols. 1852–3, 8vo, is the chief authority, but is ill-arranged, and supplies few dates. See also Jerdan's Men I have known (1866); Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iv. 67; Bates's Maclise Portrait Gallery, pp. 1 sq.; Moore's Diary; Fraser's Mag. i. 605; Register of Biography, 1869, ii. 94; Halkett and Laing's Dict. of Anon. and Pseudon. Lit. iii. 1889, 2396.]

S. L.