Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Perry, James
PERRY, JAMES (1756–1821), journalist, son of a builder, spelling his name Pirie, was born at Aberdeen on 30 Oct. 1756. He received the rudiments of his education at Garioch chapel, in the shire of Aberdeen, from the Rev. W. Tait, a man of erudition, and was afterwards trained at the Aberdeen high school by the brothers Dunn. In 1771 he was entered at Marischal College, Aberdeen University, and he was placed under Arthur Dingwall Fordyce to qualify himself for the Scottish bar. Through the failure of his father's speculations he was compelled to earn his own bread. He was for a time an assistant in a draper's shop at Aberdeen. He then joined Booth's company of actors, where he met Thomas Holcroft [q. v.], with whom he at first quarrelled, but was later on very friendly terms (cf. Holcroft, Memoirs, i. 293–300). Perry is said to have been at one time a member of Tate Wilkinson's company, when he fell in love with an actress who slighted him. His cup of misery was filled on his return to Edinburgh, when West Digges, with whom he was acting, told him that his brogue unfitted him for the stage. Perry then sought fortune in England, and lived for two years at Manchester as clerk to Mr. Dinwiddie, a manufacturer. In this position he read many books, and took an active part in the debates of a literary and philosophical society. In 1777, at twenty-one years old, he made his way to London with the highest letters of recommendation from his friends in Lancashire, but failed to find employment. During this enforced leisure he amused himself with writing essays and pieces of poetry for a paper called ‘The General Advertiser.’ One of his pieces attracted the attention of one of the principal proprietors of the paper who was junior partner in the firm of Richardson & Urquhart, booksellers. Perry was consequently engaged as a regular contributor at a guinea per week, with an additional half-guinea for assistance in bringing out the ‘London Evening Post.’ In this position he toiled with the greatest assiduity, and during the trials of the two admirals, Keppel and Palliser, he sent up daily from Portsmouth eight columns of evidence, the publication of which raised the sale of the ‘General Advertiser’ to a total of several thousands each day. At the same time he published anonymously several political pamphlets and poems, and was a conspicuous figure in the debating societies which then abounded in London. He is said to have rejected offers from Lord Shelburne and Pitt to enter parliament.
Perry formed the plan and was the first editor of the ‘European Magazine,’ which came out in January 1782; he conducted it for twelve months. He was then offered by the proprietors, who were the chief booksellers in London, the post of editor of the ‘Gazetteer,’ and he accepted the offer on condition that he should be allowed to make the paper an organ of the views of C. J. Fox, whose principles he supported. One of Perry's improvements was the introduction of a succession of reporters for the parliamentary debates, so as to procure their prompt publication in an extended form. By this arrangement the paper came out each morning with as long a chronicle of the debates as used to appear in other papers in the following evening or later. He conducted the ‘Gazetteer’ for eight years, when it was purchased by some tories, who changed its politics, and Perry severed his connection with it. During a part of this time he edited ‘Debrett's Parliamentary Debates.’
About 1789 the ‘Morning Chronicle’ was purchased by Perry and a Scottish friend, James Gray, as joint editors and proprietors. The funds for its acquisition and improvement were obtained through small loans from Ransoms, the bankers, and from Bellamy, the caterer for the House of Commons, and through the advance by Gray of a legacy of 500l. which he had just received. In their hands the paper soon became the leading organ of the whig party. Perry is described as ‘volatile and varied,’ his partner as a profound thinker. Gray did not long survive; but through Perry's energy the journal maintained its reputation until his death. Its circulation was small for some years, and the cost of keeping it on foot was only met by strict economy; but by 1810 the sale had risen to over seven thousand copies per diem. Perry was admirably adapted for the post of editor. He moved in many circles of life, ‘was every day to be seen in the sauntering lounge along Pall Mall and St. James's Street, and the casual chit-chat of one morning furnished matter for the columns of the next day's “Chronicle.”’ In the shop of Debrett he made the acquaintance of the leading whigs, and, to obtain a complete knowledge of French affairs, he spent a year in Paris ‘during the critical period’ of the Revolution. On taking over the newspaper Perry lived in the narrow part of Shire Lane, off Fleet Street, lodging with a bookbinder called Lunan, who had married his sister. Later Perry and his partner Gray lived with John Lambert, the printer of the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ who had premises in Shire Lane. Eventually the business was removed to the corner house of Lancaster Court, Strand, afterwards absorbed in Wellington Street. The official dinners of the editors in this house were often attended by the most eminent men of the day, and Porson playfully dubbed them ‘my lords of Lancaster.’ John Taylor states that Perry had chambers in Clement's Inn (Records of my Life, i. 241–2).
During Perry's management many leading writers contributed to the ‘Morning Chronicle.’ Ricardo addressed letters to it, and Sir James Mackintosh wrote in it. Charles Lamb was an occasional contributor, and during 1800 and 1801 Thomas Campbell frequently sent poems to it, chief among them being ‘The Exile of Erin,’ the ‘Ode to Winter,’ and ‘Ye Mariners of England’ (Beattie, Life of Campbell, i. 305, &c.) Hazlitt was at first a parliamentary reporter and then a theatrical critic. Perry expressed dissatisfaction with the length of his contributions, which included some of his finest criticisms. Coleridge was also a contributor, and Moore's ‘Epistle from Tom Cribb’ appeared in September 1815. Serjeant Spankie is said to have temporarily edited it, and he introduced to Perry John Campbell, afterwards lord chancellor and Lord Campbell, who was glad to earn some money with his contributions to its pages (Life of Lord Campbell, i. 45–182). During the last years of Perry's life the paper was edited by John Black [q. v.]
The success of the ‘Morning Chronicle’ was not established without prosecutions from the official authorities. On 25 Dec. 1792 there appeared in it an advertisement of the address passed at the meeting of the Society for Political Information at the Talbot Inn, Derby, on the preceding 16 July. An information ex officio was filed in the court of king's bench in Hilary term 1793, and a rule for a special jury was made in Trinity term. Forty-eight jurors were struck, the number was reduced to twenty-four, and the cause came on, but only seven of them appeared in the box. The attorney-general did not pray a tales, and the case went off. In Michaelmas term the prosecution took out a rule for a new special jury, and, on the opposition of the defendants, the case was argued before Buller and two other judges, when it was laid down ‘that the first special jury struck, and reduced according to law, must try the issue joined between parties.’ Ultimately the case came before Lord Kenyon and a special jury on 9 Dec. 1793, the defendants being charged with ‘having printed and published a seditious libel.’ Scott (afterwards Lord Eldon) prosecuted, and Erskine defended. The jury withdrew at two in the afternoon, and after five hours they agreed to a special verdict, ‘guilty of publishing, but with no malicious intent.’ The judge refused to accept it, and at five in the morning of the following day their verdict was ‘not guilty.’ This result is said to have been due to the firmness of one juryman, a coal merchant (State Trials, xxii. 954–1020).
On 21 March 1798 Lord Minto brought before the House of Lords a paragraph in the ‘Morning Chronicle’ of 19 March, sarcastically setting out that to vindicate the importance of that assembly ‘the dresses of the opera-dancers are regulated there.’ Printer and publisher appeared next day, when Lord Minto proposed a fine of 50l. each and imprisonment in Newgate for three months. Lord Derby and the Duke of Bedford proposed a reduction to one month, but they were defeated by sixty-nine votes to eleven. Perry and Lambert were committed accordingly (Hansard, xxxiii. 1310–13). During the term of this imprisonment levées of Perry's friends were held at Newgate, and presents of game, with other delicacies, were sent there constantly. On his release from gaol an elaborate entertainment was given to him at the London Tavern, and a ‘silver-gilt vase’ was presented to him.
Perry was tried before Lord Ellenborough and a special jury on 24 Feb. 1810 for inserting in the ‘Morning Chronicle’ on 2 Oct. 1809 a paragraph from the ‘Examiner’ of the brothers Hunt that the successor of George III would have ‘the finest opportunity of becoming nobly popular.’ Perry defended himself with such vigour that the jury immediately pronounced the defendants not guilty (State Trials, xxxi. 335–68).
With increasing prosperity Perry moved into Tavistock House, in the open space at the north-east corner of Tavistock Square, London, and also rented Wandlebank House, Wimbledon, near the confines of the parish of Merton. Tavistock House was afterwards divided, and the moiety which retained that name was occupied by Charles Dickens. The house was long noted for its parties of political and literary celebrities, and Miss Mitford, who from 1813 was a frequent visitor, says that ‘Perry was a man so genial and so accomplished that even when Erskine, Romilly, Tierney, and Moore were present, he was the most charming talker at his own table’ (L'Estrange, Life of Miss Mitford, iii. 254). His house near Merton adjoined that of Nelson, who stood godfather to his daughter, and wrote him a letter on the death of Sir William Hamilton (Notes and Queries, 4th ser. v. 293). On the banks of the Wandle, near this house, some machinery for multiplying pictures, designated the ‘polygraphic art,’ was set up by Perry. It resulted in failure, and after some years the premises were converted into a corn-mill. In his hands this undertaking was not a success, but it was afterwards let at a good profit. Particulars and a plan of this estate, comprising house, mill, calico factory, and in all 160 acres of land, were drawn up by Messrs. Robins for a sale by them on 24 July 1822.
Perry's health began to decline about 1817 through an internal disease, which compelled him to undergo several painful operations. In 1819 Jekyll writes that he was ‘quite broken up in health and cannot last.’ His physicians recommended him to spend the close of his life at his house at Brighton, and he died there on 5 Dec. 1821. He was buried in the family vault in Wimbledon church on 12 Dec., where a tablet to his memory was erected by the Fox Club on the east side of the south aisle. He married, on 23 Aug. 1798, Anne Hull, who bore him eight children. Apprehensive of consumption, she took a voyage to Lisbon for the benefit of her health. Her recovery was completed, and she was in 1814 on her way back to England in a Swedish vessel when it was captured by an Algerine frigate and carried off to Africa. She suffered much through these trials, and even after her release, by the exertions of the English consul, was detained six weeks waiting for a vessel to take her away. Her strength failed, and she died at Bordeaux, on her way home, in February 1815, aged 42. Their son, Sir Thomas Erskine Perry, is mentioned separately. Another son was British consul at Venice (cf. Sala, Life and Adventures, ii. 94–5). A daughter married Sir Thomas Frederick Elliot, K.C.M.G., assistant under-secretary of state for the colonies, and soothed the last years of Miss Berry (Journals, iii. 513). Perry maintained his aged parents in comfort, and brought up the family of his sister by her husband Lunan, from whom she was divorced by Scottish law. This sister married Porson in November 1795, and died on 12 April 1797. Porson lived with Perry before and after his marriage, and it was at his house in Merton that the Greek professor lost through fire his transcript of about half of the Greek lexicon of Photius and his notes on Aristophanes (‘Porsoniana’ in Rogers's Table Talk, p. 322).
Perry had remarkably small quick eyes and stooped in the shoulders. Leigh Hunt adds that he ‘not unwillingly turned his eyes upon the ladies.’ His fund of anecdote was abundant, his acquaintance with secret history ‘authentic and valuable.’ J. P. Collier complains that he was ‘always disposed to treat the leaders of the whigs with subservient respect. He never quite lost his retail manner acquired in the draper's shop at Aberdeen.’ He is said to have died worth 130,000l., the sale of his paper realising no less than 42,000l. He reprinted, with a preface of thirty-one pages, the account of his trial in 1810, and he drew up a preface for the reprint from the ‘Morning Chronicle’ of November and December 1807 of ‘The Six Letters of A. B. on the Differences between Great Britain and the United States of America.’
A portrait was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Of this Wivell's drawing was engraved by Thomson in the ‘European Magazine’ for 1818. An original drawing in water-colours by John Jackson, R.A., is at the print room of the British Museum.[Gent. Mag. 1797 pt. i. p. 438, 1798 pt. ii. p. 722, 1815 pt. i. p. 282, 1821 pt. ii. pp. 565–6; Ann. Biogr. and Obituary, vii. 380–91; European Mag. 1818 pt. ii. pp. 187–90; Grant's Newspaper Press, i. 259–80; Fox-Bourne's Newspapers, i. 248–68, 279, 363–7; F. K. Hunt's Fourth Estate, ii. 103–13; Andrews's Journalism, i. 229–33, 248, 265–6, ii. 40, 48; Cunningham's London (ed. Wheatley), ii. 365, iii. 349; Watson's Life of Porson, pp. 125–9; Collier's Old Man's Diary, pt. ii. pp. 42–5, 86; Jerdan's Men I have known, pp. 329–35; Miller's Biogr. Sketches, i. 147–9; P. L. Gordon's Personal Memoirs, i. 235–63, 280–285; Bartlett's Wimbledon, pp. 83, 89, 170–1.]