Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Topham, Edward
TOPHAM, EDWARD (1751–1820), journalist and play-writer, born in 1751, was the son of Francis Topham, LL.D. (d. 15 Oct. 1770), master of faculties and judge of the prerogative court at York. This official obtained from Archbishop Hutton the promise of the reversion for his son, but, in consequence of the action of Dean Fountayne, the pledge was withdrawn. There was open war between Topham and the dean, and the former was lampooned by Laurence Sterne in ‘A Political Romance, addressed to——, Esq., of York,’ printed (perhaps privately) in 1759, and reissued in 1769; it was frequently reprinted as ‘The History of a Warm Watch Coat’ (Davies, York Press, pp. 256–60; see Sterne, Laurence).
The boy was educated at Eton under Dr. Foster, and remained there for eleven years. While at school he dabbled in poetry and was one of the leaders in the rebellion against Foster's rule. He was admitted at Trinity College, Cambridge, as pensioner on 22 April 1767, and as fellow-commoner on 23 Oct. 1769, but he left without taking a degree. Possibly he was the Topham mentioned as having drawn a caricature of the under-porter of Trinity (Wordsworth, Social Life at the Univ. p. 409).
On leaving the university, Topham travelled on the continent for eighteen months, and then, in company with his old schoolfellow Sir Paul Jodrell, spent six months in Scotland, publishing upon his return in 1776 a sprightly volume of ‘Letters from Edinburgh, 1774 and 1775, containing some Observations on the Diversions, Customs, Manners, and Laws of the Scotch Nation.’ He next came to London and purchased a commission in the first regiment of lifeguards. In 1777 he was ‘cornet of his majesty's second troop of horse-guards,’ and for about seven years he was the adjutant. He brought his regiment to a high state of efficiency, for which he received the thanks of the king and figured in print-shops as ‘the tip-top adjutant.’ In 1777 he published a tory ‘Address to Edmund Burke on Affairs in America.’
Topham soon became conspicuous in the fashionable world of London for his original style of dress and for the ease and elegance of his manners. His sartorial and other peculiarities were subsequently introduced to enliven the comedies of Frederic Reynolds [q. v.], who was Topham's guest in Suffolk in 1789 (cf. Reynolds, Memoirs, ii. 25–46). Meanwhile Topham associated with Wilkes, Horne Tooke, the elder Colman, and Sheridan; his talent as a writer of prologues and epilogues introduced him to the leading actors of the day, and led to his appearance as a play-writer. An epilogue, spoken by Charles Lee Lewes [q. v.] in the character of Molière's old woman, filled Drury Lane for several nights; and another, spoken by Miss Farren, on an unlucky tragedy recently brought out at that theatre, was equally popular. He wrote an epilogue for the benefit of Mary Wells [q. v.], and their friendship soon ripened into the closest intimacy. They lived together for several years, and four children resulted from the union (Mrs. Sumbel, Memoirs, i. 56, &c.). The plays produced by Topham during this period of his life were: 1. ‘Deaf Indeed,’ acted at Drury Lane in December 1780, but not printed; a ‘stupid and indecent’ farce. 2. ‘The Fool,’ a farce in two acts, performed at Covent Garden, and printed in 1786, with a dedication to Mrs. Wells, owing to whose admirable impersonation of Laura it was well received. 3. ‘Small Talk, or the Westminster Boy,’ a farce, acted at Covent Garden for the benefit of Mrs. Wells on 11 May 1786, but not printed. The Westminster boys effectually resented this production by coming to the theatre in force and preventing it being heard. 4. ‘Bonds without Judgment, or the Loves of Bengal,’ acted for four nights at Covent Garden in May 1787, but not printed.
The daily paper called ‘The World’ was started by Topham, partly with the object of puffing Mrs. Wells, on 1 Jan. 1787. Two of his principal colleagues in its direction were Miles Peter Andrews [q. v.] and the Rev. Charles Este; and John Bell (1745–1831) [q. v.], the publisher, had a share in the management (Hist. MSS. Comm. 14th Rep. i. 368, 378). Its ‘unqualified and audacious attacks on all private characters’ were at the start ‘smiled at for their quaintness, then tolerated for their absurdity,’ and ultimately repudiated with disgust (Gifford, Baviad and Mæviad, p. xi). In it appeared accounts of ‘elopements, divorces, and suicides, tricked out in all the elegancies of Mr. Topham's phraseology’ (Hannah More, Memoirs, ii. 77). It was in this paper that the fantastic productions of the Della Cruscans, a small set of English poetasters dwelling for the most part at Florence, made their appearance [see Merry, Robert]. Topham contributed to his paper articles under the title of ‘The Schools,’ in which he gave reminiscences of many of his companions at Eton, and his ‘Life of the late John Elwes’ (1790) made its first appearance in its columns. This memoir of the miser (whom Topham, much to his credit, had persuaded to make a sensible will in the interest of his two illegitimate sons) passed through six editions during 1790, and in 1805 reached a twelfth edition, ‘corrected and enlarged, and with a new appendix.’ A German translation was published at Danzig in 1791, and it was included in the ‘Pamphleteer’ (xxv. 341 et seq.) Horace Walpole considered it ‘one of the most amusing anecdotal books in the English language.’ It is said to have raised the sale of the ‘World’ by a thousand copies a day; but an even better hit was made by the correspondence on the affairs of the prize ring between the pugilists Humphries and Mendoza.
When George Nassau Clavering, third earl Cowper, died at Florence on 22 Dec. 1789, his character was assailed with virulence in the ‘World.’ Topham was indicted for libel, and the case was tried before Buller, who pronounced the articles to have been published with intent to throw scandal on the peer's family and as tending to a breach of the peace. The proprietor was found guilty, but counsel moved for an arrest of judgment on the ground of the misdirection of the judge to the jury. It was argued at great length before the court of king's bench, and after a protracted delay Kenyon delivered on 29 Jan. 1791 the judgment of the court in favour of Topham (Durnford and East, Reports, iv. 126–30). By the autumn of 1790 he and Este had separated in anger. The latter had acquired a fourth share in the paper, but had surrendered it from 25 Dec. 1788 conditionally on the payment of an annuity to him. Topham claimed that its payment was dependent on the existence of the paper, and Este thereupon ‘opened a literary battery against him in the “Oracle.”’ The printed letters are appended to a copy of Este's ‘My own Life’ at the British Museum.
After five years Topham disposed of his paper, abandoned Mrs. Wells for another beauty, and retired with his three surviving daughters to Wold Cottage, about two miles from Thwing in the East Riding of Yorkshire. It was rumoured that he intended to spend the rest of his days in farming some hundreds of acres of land and in writing the history of his own life. His kennels were considered the best in England, and his greyhound Snowball was praised as ‘one of the best and fleetest greyhounds that ever ran,’ and ‘his breed all most excellent’ (Mackintosh, Driffield Angler, Ode to Heath). His ‘Memoirs’ did not appear, but he published in 1804 an edition of Somerville's ‘Chase,’ with a sketch of the author's life, preface, and annotations.
While Topham was living at Wold Cottage a meteoric stone fell about three o'clock on the afternoon of Sunday, 13 Dec. 1795, within two fields of his house. Part of it was exhibited at the museum of James Sowerby, London, and this piece is now in the natural history department, South Kensington Museum. Topham published ‘An Account’ of it in 1798, and in 1799 erected a column on the spot. The stone was ‘in breadth 28 inches, in length 36 inches, and its weight was 56 pounds’ (King, Sky-fallen Stones, pp. 21–22; Sowerby, British Mineralogy, ii. 3*–7*, 18*–19*; Beauties of England, Yorkshire, pp. 398–405). Topham died at Doncaster on 26 April 1820, aged 68. He had three daughters, who were reckoned ‘the best horsewomen in Yorkshire.’
Topham's portrait, with a pen in his hand, was painted by John Russell (1745–1806) [q. v.] and engraved by Peltro William Tomkins [q. v.] That of ‘Mrs. Topham and her three children’ (1791) was also painted by Russell. They were the property of Rear-admiral Trollope (Williamson, Life of Russell, pp. 40, 74, 167–8; Boaden, Mrs. Inchbald, i. 271).
The costume, the plays, and the newspaper of Topham alike exposed him to the satire of the caricaturist. He is depicted in the ‘Thunderer’ of Gillray (20 Aug. 1782) as a windmill, together with the Prince of Wales and Mrs. ‘Perdita’ Robinson, who is said to have found refuge in his rooms when deserted by her royal lover. In another cartoon (14 Aug. 1788) he is bringing to Pitt for payment his account for puffs and squibs against the whigs in the Westminster election. Rowlandson introduced Topham into his print of Vauxhall Gardens (28 June 1785). This was afterwards aquatinted by F. Jukes and etched by R. Pollard (Miller, Biogr. Sketches, i. 29–30). In other cartoons of Rowlandson (5 Oct. 1785) he figures as ‘Captain Epilogue to the Wells’ (i.e. Mrs. Wells), and as endeavouring with his squirt to extinguish the genius of Holman.[Baker's Biogr. Dramatica; Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. History, vii. 484; Biogr. Dict. of Living Authors, 1816; Gent. Mag. 1820, i. 469; Ross's Celebrities of Yorkshire Wolds, pp. 163–6; Public Characters, vii. 198–212; Annual Biogr. 1821, pp. 269–79; Redding's Fifty Years' Recollections, i. 80–2; John Taylor's Records of my Life, ii. 292–6; Grego's Rowlandson, i. 158, 166–7, 183, 320; Wright and Evans's Gillray's Caricatures, pp. 26, 378, 382–4; Memoirs of Mrs. Sumbel, late Wells, passim; information from Mr. W. Aldis Wright of Trin. Coll. Cambr.]