Mitford, John (1782-1831) (DNB00)

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MITFORD, JOHN (1782–1831), miscellaneous writer, was born at Newton Red House and baptised in the parish church of Mitford, on 22 Jan. 1782. He was a member of the elder branch of the family of Mitford of Mitford Castle in Northumberland, was third cousin of the Rev. John Mitford [q. v.], and second cousin three times removed of William Mitford [q. v.] and of John Freeman-Mitford, lord Redesdale [q. v.] In April 1795, by Lord Redesdale's interest, he entered the navy as midshipman of the Victory, in which he went out to the Mediterranean, and was present in the battle off Toulon on 13 July 1795. In the following year he was moved into the Zealous with Captain (afterwards Sir Samuel) Hood [q. v.], and in her was present in the disastrous attack on Santa Cruz in July 1797, and at the battle of the Nile 1-2 Aug. 1798, where, according to his own statement, he was sent in a four-oared boat from the Zealous to the Vanguard, and from the Vanguard to the Leander, then engaged with the Tonnant. The latter, he says, presently struck to the Leander, when he was sent back with the news to the admiral. The story affords a measure of Mitford's credibility: the Tonnant did not surrender till the forenoon of 3 Aug.; she surrendered to the Theseus, and, as it was broad daylight and no other fighting was going on, it could not be necessary to report it on board the flagship by a casual boat from another ship. Mitford was afterwards with Hood in the Courageux. According to his own account, after drinking freely on Christmas day 1800, he insulted his captain and left the service, that is to say, deserted; but as he was with Hood in 1801 in the Venerable the desertion may have been only imagined. From 1804 to 1806 he commanded a revenue cutter on the coast of Ireland, and from 1809 to 1811 was acting master of the Philomel brig in the Mediterranean.

Mitford states that he received a letter from his wife in September 1811 while at Port Mahon, acquainting him with an offer made by Viscountess Perceval, a connection of Lady Redesdale, to secure him a lucrative appointment in the civil service. Accordingly, though not without difficulty, he obtained his transfer to the Canopus for a passage to England. But Lady Perceval's promises proved delusive. She received him on a footing of intimacy, but merely employed him to write in the ' Star,' edited by John Mayne, or the 'News,' edited by T. A. Phipps, articles in support of the Princess of Wales, to whose cause she was enthusiastically devoted. While thus employed, Mitford's brain gave way, and he was removed to Mr. Warburton's private lunatic asylum at Whitmore House, Hoxton. Warburton, calling on Phipps on 8 April 1813, 'stated, in the presence of two witnesses, that Mitford had been under confinement at his house from May 1812 to March 1813' (The Important Trial, &c.,p. 121). In March he was liberated at the desire of Lady Perceval, but afterwards, finding that her writings in the papers were likely to get her into serious trouble, she induced Mitford and his wife to destroy her letters to him, and then brought an action against him for having falsely sworn that the articles were by her. The case was tried before Lord Ellenborough on 24 Feb. 1814, when Phipps produced some of Lady Perceval's letters which had not been destroyed. The evidence was conclusive against her, and Mitford was acquitted.

At the same time Mitford was discharged from the navy as insane, and he took to journalism and strong drink. His wife and family were provided for by Lord Redesdale, but he refused all assistance for himself, and sank to the lowest depths of poverty. He is said to have edited the 'Scourge, or Monthly Expositor of Imposture and Folly,' which, after running for five years, died in December 1815; but though he contributed to the last four volumes, it does not appear that he was the editor. After this he wrote 'The Adventures of Johnny Newcome in the Navy, a Poem in four Cantos,' 1st edit., published under the pseudonym of Alfred Burton, 1818, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1819. The publisher who employed him found that the only way to make him work was to keep him without money. He therefore limited him to a shilling a day, which Mitford expended on two pennyworth of bread and cheese and an onion, and the balance on gin. With this, and his day's supply of paper and ink, he repaired to an old gravel-pit in Battersea Fields, and there wrote and slept till it was time to take in his work and get his next shilling. For forty-three days he is said to have lived in this manner, and, the weather continuing fine, without being conscious of discomfort. The poem is in octo-syllabic verse, reeled off with the most careless ease, but the lines scan, the rhymes are good, and the ' yarns ' such as might have been heard any day in the midshipman's berth. 'The Poems of a British Sailor,' 1818, 8vo, if more reputable is more stupid: it consists of occasional verses written during his life at sea.

His other literary work was anonymous. He is said to have written 'a libellous life of Sir John Sylvester,' recorder of the city of London; to have edited 'The Bon Ton Magazine,' and to have been kept the while by his publisher in a cellar, with a candle, a bottle of gin, and a rag of old carpet for a coverlet. In 1827 he contributed a memoir of William Mitford the historian to the 'Literary Gazette' (p. 187), which called forth a remonstrance from the family, contradicting every detailed statement (p. 220), and an apologetic note from the editor to the effect that the writer had represented himself as a namesake and near relative of the deceased, and 'we could not be aware that he was imposing on us for his wages.' But Mitford had lost the power of distinguishing truth from falsehood. Ragged and filthy in his person, he was no doubt the John Mitford described by Captain Brenton as 'lodging over a coal-shed in some obscure street near Leicester Square ' (Nicolas, Despatches and Letters of Lord Nelson, iii. 521). All attempts made by his friends to reclaim him failed. He was editing a paper called the 'Quizzical Gazette' at the time of his death, which took place in St. Giles's workhouse on 24 Dec. 1831. He was buried in the graveyard of St. Dunstan's, Fleet Street.

He had married in 1808 Emily, daughter of Charles Street of Dullintabor, N.B., and left issue.

[Gent. Mag. 1831, pt. ii. p. 647; Sketches of Obscure Poets, with Specimens of their Writings, 1833, p. 91; Quizzical Gazette, No. 20; Scourge, vol. vii. freq.; A Description of the Crimes and Horrors in the Interior of Warburton's Private Madhouse at Hoxton, by John Mitford; The Important Trial of John Mitford, Esq., on the Prosecution of Lady Viscountess Perceval for Perjury; Foster's Peerage, s.n. 'Redesdale;' private information.]

J. K. L.