Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Townsend, Meredith White
TOWNSEND, MEREDITH WHITE (1831–1911), editor of the 'Friend of India' and the 'Spectator,' born in London on 1 April 1831, was the only son (in the family of three children) of William Townsend, one of the sixteen children of Charles Townsend of Ferriers, Bures St. Mary, on the borders of Essex and Suffolk. The family had been long settled in North Essex, both at Coggeshall and Bures, and William Townsend inherited a few hundred acres, which he farmed himself. His wife Alicia was daughter of John Sparrowe of 'The Ancient House' or 'Sparrowe House,' Ipswich. On the death in early middle age of William Townsend, who was unsuccessful in business, his widow returned to Ipswich with her three children.
Meredith Townsend was educated at Queen Elizabeth's grammar school, Ipswich, where he had for schoolfellow Edward Byles Cowell [q. v. Suppl. II], the orientalist, and distinguished himself greatly in classics, but left at sixteen in 1847 to become assistant in a school in Scotland. From this work, on which he looked back with something like horror, he was speedily rescued by an invitation from a friend of the family, John Clark Marshman [q. v], to come out and assist him in the editing of the 'Friend of India' (founded in 1835) at Serampore, near Calcutta. Townsend left the Scotch school on the day on which he received the message, and sailed in 1848 for India. He lived with the Marshmans at Serampore, and sent home the whole of his first year's salary to his mother. From the first he threw himself into his work with such energy and ability that at twenty-one he was already editor of the 'Friend of India' and in 1853 he became proprietor. His knowledge of native affairs was largely derived from an old pundit who taught him Bengali. Amongst others who contributed to the ’Friend' was Dr. George Smith, but it was essentially a one-man paper in Townsend's time. In later years he used to say that he often wrote the whole paper 'except the advertisements.' The influence he exerted and the value of his support were attested by Lord Dalliousie and Lord Canning. The former, whose policy Townsend stoutly defended, writing on the eve of his departure, 3 March 1856, thanked Townsend for the fairness ' with which you have always set your judgment of my public acts before the community whose opinions are largely subject to your influence,' and again on 28 Dec. 1857 for standing by him 'at a time when, literally fettered and gagged, I am deprived of all power of defending myself.' Lord Canning, in a letter dated 2 April 1857, expressed his special satisfaction with the service Townsend had rendered to the army and the state by an article on the officers of native regiments. Besides his work on the ' Friend,' Townsend also undertook temporarily the editorship of 'The Calcutta Quarterly Review' and the 'Annals of Indian Administration.' He further edited a vernacular journal, 'Satya Pradip' formerly 'Sumachar Durpun' (or ’Mirror of News') and acted as correspondent of 'The Times.' Returning to England to recruit his health, he was summoned back to India by the outbreak of the Mutiny. Townsend remained at his post at Serampore throughout this trying period, in which the influence of the ’Friend of India' reached its zenith, but his health broke down- under the strain, which was aggravated by domestic trouble. In 1859 he was peremptorily ordered home by the doctors. Dr. George Smith succeeded him as editor.
Rapidly regaining his health on his return to England, Townsend bought the 'Spectator' in 1860 from Mr. Scott, the successor of Robert Stephen Rintoul [q. v.], and a few months later took into partnership Richard Holt Hutton, to whom he had been introduced by Walter Bagehot. The terms of the agreement made them joint-editors and co-proprietors, but the ultimate control rested with Townsend. Their relations were defined by Townsend in the 'Spectator' (11 Sept. 1897) after Hutton's death as 'an unbroken friendship of thirty-six years and a literary alhance which at once in its duration and completeness is probably without a precedent.' During the first few years of their alliance the 'Spectator,' which had declined in prestige after Rintoul's death, was worked at a loss. The editors ran counter to the opinion of the well-to-do classes in England by their unflinching support of the unpopular side in the American civil war. They upheld and prophesied victory for the North all along ; their excellent military critic, George Hooper, was quick to seize the immense significance of Sherman's famous 'March to the Sea' ; and as the tide of war turned, so also did the fortunes of the paper.
Townsend, though he contributed freely to all departments of the paper, wrote chiefly on foreign politics and always on India. He brought to bear on his special subject an immense store of illustrative information, not invariably accurate, for he was an omnivorous reader, and had a picturesque and even romantic outlook on the future. He wrote with the utmost ease and unfailing zest in a clear, vigorous, natural style and never qualified his statements. He dogmatised freely, but was never pedantic. His habitual indulgence in prophecy occasionally led him astray. Thus his accurate prediction of the danger to Cavagnari's mission to Kabul in 1879 was neutralised by his unfounded pessimism— which he frankly owned afterwards — in regard to the expedition of Lord Roberts. The peculiar quality of the 'Spectator' under the Townsend and Hutton régime was due to the fact that it was written mainly by two men of remarkable ability, whose equipments were supplementary to each other, and who devoted their entire energies to the paper. They enlisted, however, the occasional assistance of many able men, among them Walter Bagehot, Charles Henry Pearson, afterwards minister of education in Victoria, Sir Robert Giffen, Mr. H. H. Asquith, and Mr. W. F. Monypenny, the biographer of Lord Beaconsfield. Townsend's journalistic activity extended over a period of exactly sixty years, during which time he must have written close on 10,000 articles. Besides his work on the 'Spectator,' for many years he contributed the political article in the 'Economist.' In 1898 Townsend resigned his editorial control of the paper on its sale to Mr. St. Loe Strachey, who had been assistant-editor since 1886, but he continued to contribute to its columns with little abatement of his powers though in diminished volume for another ten years. His last article appeared in the issue of 16 May 1908, and bore the characteristic title 'The Unrest of Asia.' In 1909 his health failed rapidly, and after a long illness he died on 21 Oct. 1911 at the Manor House, Little Bookham, in Surrey. He had removed thither in 1899 from the house in Harley Street which he had occupied since 1864. He was buried in Little Bookham churchyard.
Townsend was married thrice: (1) in 1853, to his cousin. Miss Colchester, who died in the same year; (2) in 1857, to Isabel Collingwood, who died shortly after the birth of a son in 1858; and (3) shortly after his final return to England, in January 1861, to Ellen Frances, daughter of John Francis Snell of Wentford House, Clare, Suffolk; she survived him with her three children, a son and two daughters. Townsend wrote Uttle except for the press. But he collaborated with his friend John Langton Sanford [q. v.] in 'The Great Governing Families of England' (2 vols. 1865), which gives in a condensed but animated form 'the leading ascertained facts in the history of our great families.' In August 1901 he republished a number of articles contributed to various reviews besides the 'Spectator' under the title ’Asia and Europe.' The volume, which contains an interesting study of Mahomet, is somewhat pessimistic in tone. Townsend expresses the view that the Indian peoples will almost certainly become Mohammedan, and the general drift of his conclusions is summed up in the sentence 'The fusion of the continents has never occurred, and in the author's best judgment will never occur.' His only non-political essay out-side the 'Spectator' was an appreciative study in the 'Cornhill' of the novels of Mrs. Oliphant, whom he attached to the 'Spectator,' and who for some time wrote for it 'A Commentary from an Easy Chair.'
Townsend went little into society, and never belonged to a club, but received his friends regularly at Harley Street on Mondays. In private life he was remarkable for his genial old-fashioned courtesy and brilliant paradoxical talk. He was generous beyond ordinary experience; no master of his craft was kinder or more helpful to the raw apprentice.
[Obituary notices in The Times, Manchester Guardian, and Glasgow Herald, 24 Oct. 1911, and in British Weekly; personal knowledge; information supplied by the family.]