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

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FRANSHAM, JOHN (1730–1810), freethinker, son of Thomas and Isidora Fransham, was born early in 1730 (baptised 19 March) in the parish of St. George of Colegate, Norwich, where his father was sexton or parish clerk. He showed precocity at an elementary school. He wrote sermons, which the rector of St. George's thought good enough to submit to the dean. The aid of a relative, probably Isaac Fransham (1660–1743), an attorney, enabled him to study for the church. His relative dying, Fransham, at the age of fifteen, was apprenticed for a few weeks to a cooper at Wymondham, Norfolk. By writing sermons for clergymen he made a little money, but could not support himself, though he went barefoot nearly three years. John Taylor, D.D., the presbyterian theologian, gave him gratuitous instruction. A legacy of 25l. determined him to buy a pony, not to ride, but to ‘make a friend of,’ as he told a physician consulted by his father, who thought him out of his wits. As long as the money lasted, Fransham took lessons from W. Hemingway, a land surveyor. He then wrote for Marshall, an attorney, but was never articled. one of Marshall's clerks, John Chambers, afterwards recorder of Norwich, took great pains with him. He made the acquaintance of Joseph Clover [q. v.], the veterinary surgeon, who employed him to take horses to be shod, and taught him mathematics in return for Fransham's help in classics.

In 1748 he joined a company of strolling players. He is said to have taken, among other parts, those of Iago and Shylock. The players got no pay and lived on turnips; Fransham left them on finding that the turnips were stolen. He sailed from Great Yarmouth for North Shields, intending to study at the Scottish universities and visit the highlands. But at Newcastle-on-Tyne he enlisted in the Old Buffs, was soon discharged as bandy-legged, and made his way back to Norwich with three halfpence and a plaid. After this he worked with Daniel Wright, a freethinking journeyman weaver. The two friends sat facing each other, so that they could carry on discussions amid the rattle of their looms.

After Wright's death, about 1750, Fransham devoted himself to teaching. For two or three years he was tutor in the family of Leman, a farmer at Hellesdon, Norfolk. He next took pupils at Norwich in Latin, Greek, French, and mathematics. He only taught for two hours a day, and had time to act as amanuensis to Samuel Bourn (1714–1796) [q. v.] He became a member of a society for philosophical experiment, founded by Peter Bilby. His reputation grew as a successful preliminary tutor for the universities; he reluctantly took as many as twenty pupils, being of opinion that no man could do justice to more than eight. His terms rose from a shilling a week to 15s. a quarter; out of this slender income he saved money, and collected two hundred books towards a projected library. If he got a bargain at a bookstall he insisted on paying the full value as soon as he knew it.

In 1767 he spent nine months in London, carrying John Leedes, a former pupil, through his Latin examination at the College of Surgeons. In London he formed a slight acquaintance with the queen's under-librarian, who introduced him to Foote. Foote, in ‘The Devil upon Two Sticks’ (1768), caricatured teacher and pupil as Johnny Macpherson and Dr. Emanuel Last. Fransham wore a plaid, which suggested the Mac, a green jacket with large horn buttons, a broad hat, drab shorts, coarse worsted stockings, and large shoes. The boys called him ‘old horn-buttoned Jack.’

On his return to Norwich, the Chute family, who had a country house at South Pickenham, Norfolk, allowed him (about 1771) to sleep at their Norwich house (where his sister, Mrs. Bennett, was housekeeper) and to use the library. He taught (about 1772) in the family of Samuel Cooper, D.D. [see Cooper, Sir Astley Paston], at Brooke Hall, Norfolk, on the terms of board and lodging from Saturday till Monday. This engagement he gave up, as the walk of over six miles out and in was too much for him. When Cooper obtained preferment at Great Yarmouth, Fransham was advised by his friend Robinson to write and ask for a guinea. The difficulty was that Fransham had never written a letter in his life, and after he had copied Robinson's draft, did not know how to fold it. Cooper sent him 5l. The death of young Chute (of which Fransham thought he had warning in a dream) threw Fransham again on his own resources. He reduced his allowance to a farthing's worth of potatoes a day; the experiment of sleeping on Mousehold Heath in his plaid brought on a violent cold, and was not repeated. For nearly three years, from about 1780, he dined every Sunday with counsellor Cooper, a relative of the clergyman, who introduced him to Dr. Parr. From about 1784 to about 1794 he lodged with Thomas Robinson, schoolmaster at St. Peter's Hungate. He left Robinson to lodge with Jay, a baker in St. Clement's. Here he would never allow the floor of his room to be wetted or the walls whitewashed, for fear of damp, and to have his bed made more than once a week he considered ‘the height of effeminacy.’ In 1805 he was asked for assistance by a distant relative, Mrs. Smith; he took her as his housekeeper, hiring a room and a garret in St. George's Colegate. When she left him in 1806 he seems to have resided for about three years with his sister, who had become a widow; leaving her, he made his last move to a garret in Elm Hill. In 1807 or 1808 he made the acquaintance of Michael Stark (d. 1831), a Norwich dyer, and became tutor to his sons, of whom the youngest was James Stark, the artist.

Fransham has been called a pagan and a polytheist chiefly on the strength of his hymns to the ancient gods, his designation of chicken-broth as a sacrifice to Æsculapius, and his describing a change in the weather as Juno's response to supplication. His love for classical antiquity led him to prefer the Greek mathematicians to any of the moderns, to reject (with Berkeley) the doctrine of fluxions, and to despise algebra. Convinced of the legendary origin of all theology, he esteemed the legends of paganism as the most venerable, and put upon them a construction of his own. Taylor, the platonist, he observed, took them in a sense ‘intended for the vulgar alone.’ Hume was to him the ‘prince of philosophers;’ he read Plato with admiration, but among the speculations of antiquity the arguments of Cotta, in the ‘De Natura Deorum,’ were most to his mind. He annotated a copy of Chubb's posthumous works, apparently for republication as a vehicle of his own ideas. In a note to p. 168 of Chubb's ‘Author's Farewell,’ he puts forward the hypothesis of a multiplicity of ‘artists’ as explaining the ‘infinitely various parts of nature.’ In his manuscript ‘Metaphysicorum Elementa’ (begun 1748, and written with Spinoza as his model) he defines God as ‘ens non dependens, quod etiam causa est omnium cæterorum existentium.’ He thinks it obvious that space fulfils the terms of this definition, and hence concludes ‘spatium solum esse Deum,’ adding ‘Deus, vel spatium, est solidum.’ His chief quarrel with the preachers of his time was that they allowed vicious and cruel customs to go unreproved. Asked at an election time for whom he would be inclined to vote, he replied, ‘I would vote for that man who had humanity enough to drive long-tailed horses.’ He was fond of most animals, but disliked dogs, as ‘noisy, mobbish, and vulgar,’ and in his ‘Aristopia, or ideal state,’ he provided for their extermination.

Fransham brought under complete control a temper which in his early years was ungovernable. He rose at five in summer, at six in winter; a strict teetotaller, he ate little animal food, living chiefly on tea and bread-and-butter. To assure himself of the value of health, he would eat tarts till he got a headache, which he cured with strong tea. For his amusement he played a hautboy, but burned the instrument to make tea. Supplying its place with a ‘bilbo-catch,’ he persevered until he had caught the ball on the spike 666,666 times (not in succession; he could never exceed a sequence of two hundred). His dread of fire led him constantly to practise the experiment of letting himself down from an upper story by a ladder. In money matters he was extremely exact, but could bear losses with equanimity. He had saved up 100l., which he was induced to lodge with a merchant, who became bankrupt just after Fransham had withdrawn 75l. to buy books. To his friends' expressions of condolence he replied that he had been lucky enough to gain the 75l.

At the latter end of 1809 he was attacked by a cough; in January 1810 he took to his bed and was carefully nursed, but declined medical aid. When dying he said that had he to live his days again he would go more into female society. He had a fear of being buried alive, and gave some odd instructions as to what was to be done to prove him ‘dead indeed.’ On 1 Feb. 1810 he expired. He was buried on 4 Feb. in the churchyard of St. George of Colegate; his gravestone bears a Latin inscription. A caricature likeness of him has been published; his features have been thought to resemble those of Erasmus, while his double-tipped nose reminded his friends of the busts of Plato. He left ninety-six guineas to his sister; his books and manuscripts were left to Edward Rigby, M.D. (d. 1821); some of them passed into the possession of William Stark, and a portion of these is believed to have perished in a fire; William Saint, his pupil and biographer, seems to have obtained his mathematical books and most of his mathematical manuscripts.

He published: 1. ‘An Essay on the Oestrum or Enthusiasm of Orpheus,’ Norwich, 1760, 8vo (an anonymous tract on the happiness to be derived from a noble enthusiasm). 2. ‘Two Anniversary Discourses: in the first of which the Old Man is exploded, in the second the New Man is recognised,’ London, 1768, 8vo (anonymous satires; not seen; reviewed in ‘Monthly Review,’ 1769, xl. 83, and identified as Fransham's on the evidence of his manuscripts). 3. ‘Robin Snap, British Patriotic Carrier,’ 1769–70, fol. (a penny satirical print, published in Norwich; 26 numbers, the first on Saturday, 4 Nov. 1769, then regularly on Tuesdays from 14 Nov. 1769 to 30 Jan. 1770, and again 13 Feb.–24 April, also 15 May and 29 May 1770; the whole, with slight exceptions, written by Fransham; his own copy has a printed title-page, ‘The Dispensation of Robin Snap,’ &c.; ‘snap’ is the local term for the dragon carried about the streets of Norwich on the guild day.)

Of Fransham's manuscripts six quarto volumes remain. Five of these are described by Saint; they are prepared for the press and indexed, and contain a few allegorical drawings. They bear the general title ‘Memorabilia Classica: or a Philosophical Harvest of Ancient and Modern Institutions.’ In the first volume is (No. 2) the original draft of his ‘Oestrum,’ and (No. 5) ‘The Code of Aristopia, or Scheme of a perfect Government,’ the most remarkable of his writings. He advocates (p. 175) a decimal system of coinage and measures. The second volume, ‘A Synopsis of Classical Philosophy,’ embodies his ‘Essay on the Fear of Death,’ expressing a hope of a future and more perfect state of being, a topic on which he had written in his nineteenth year. At the end of the third volume is his ‘Antiqua Religio,’ including his hymns to Jupiter, Minerva, Venus, Hercules, &c. The fourth volume includes the draft of his ‘Anniversary Discourses,’ and others in the same strain. The fifth volume contains thirty numbers of ’ Robin Snap,’ some of which were worked up in the published periodical. A sixth volume, ‘Memorabilia Practica,’ is perhaps that which is described by Saint as ‘a mathematical manual;’ it contains a very interesting compendium of all the subjects which he taught. Fransham's style is uncouth and emotional, but bears marks of genius; his prose becomes rhythmical when he is strongly moved.

There was an earlier John Fransham (d. July or August 1753), a Norwich linendraper, rent-agent to Horace Walpole, and correspondent of Defoe, 1704–7 (Notes and Queries, 5th ser. iii. 261 sq.), a contributor to periodicals (ib. ii. 37); author of: 1. ‘The Criterion … of High and Low Church,’ &c., 1710, 8vo; reprinted, Norwich, 1710, 8vo (by ‘J. F.’) 2. ‘A Dialogue between Jack High and Will Low,’ &c., 1710, 8vo (anon.; both of these are identified as Fransham's by a note in his handwriting); and in all probability the ‘Mr. John Fransham of Norwich,’ who published 3. ‘The World in Miniature,’ &c., 1740, 2 vols. 12mo. To him has also been ascribed a valuable tract by J. F., ‘An Exact Account of the Charge for Supporting the Poor of … Norwich,’ &c., 1720, 8vo (British Museum, 104, n. 44; catalogued under ‘John Fransham’), but this is assigned, in a contemporary Norwich hand on Mr. Colman's copy, to James Fransham.

[Saint's Memoir, without date (preface dated Norwich, 3 Oct. 1811), is a perplexing jumble of contradictory accounts, and it is quite probable that the attempt made above to present the narrative in its true sequence has not been entirely successful. Saint's extracts from the manuscripts, made partly with the view of exhibiting Fransham's ‘Christian character,’ are well chosen. It would appear from a letter, dated 3 Aug. 1811, that ‘the Rev. W. J. F.,’ i.e. William Johnson Fox [q. v.], had something to do with the publication. An earlier memoir, in some respects better (dated Norwich, 20 March 1811), appeared in the Monthly Magazine, 1811, pt. i. pp. 342 sq., see also pt. ii. p. 463. Another is in Gent. Mag. vol. lxxxi. pt. ii. pp. 11, 127. A short biography is given in the Norfolk Tour, 1829, ii. 1232 sq. Fransham's manuscripts and other works are in the collection of J. J. Colman, esq., M.P.; information (respecting the Stark family) has been supplied by Mr. J. Mottram and (respecting the earlier John Fransham) by Mr. F. Norgate.]

A. G.