Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Povey, Charles

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594925Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 46 — Povey, Charles1896George Atherton Aitken

POVEY, CHARLES (1652?–1743), miscellaneous writer and projector, was probably descended from a family which had settled at Shookledge, Cheshire, and may have been son of Ralph Povey (b. 1607) and a relative of Pepys's friend, Thomas Povey [q. v.] (cf. Addit. MS. 5529, f. 59 b). He had a brother, Josiah (d. 1727), who was rector of Telscombe, Sussex. When twitted with his obscure origin, he said his birth was neither noble nor ignoble. According to his own statements, he spent the flower of his youth and middle age in study and thought, and during the reign of James II he was twice imprisoned for writing against that king (English Memorial). In 1689 he printed ‘A Challenge to all Jacobites,’ which was followed in 1690 by ‘A Challenge in vindication of the Revolution’ (State Tracts, 1705, vol. i.). In 1699 he printed ‘Proposals for raising One Thousand Pounds.’ Next year he was living at Wapping, and entered the coal trade; but, being persecuted by other merchants, he published ‘A Discovery of Indirect Practices in the Coal Trade,’ 1700, in which he described one of his inventions, an engine for clearing a coal-ship quickly. This was followed in 1701 by ‘The Unhappiness of England as to its Trade by Sea and Land truly stated,’ a piece containing proposals for employing the poor by founding four hospitals of industry, each to hold fifteen hundred people. Povey also dwelt upon ‘the pernicious consequence of wearing swords, and the ill precedents acted at the two theatres.’ This book was succeeded by two religious works, ‘Meditations of a Divine Soul,’ 1703, of which ten thousand copies are said to have been sold, and ‘Holy Thoughts of a God-made Man,’ 1704.

By 1705, and probably some time earlier, Povey was in possession of the Traders' Exchange House, Hatton Garden, where he carried on for several years the business of a commercial agency, and floated life and fire insurance schemes. He estimated the subscriptions to the exchange house at 2,000l. a year. His Traders' Exchange House Office for Lives was started about 1706. It was an insurance scheme for four thousand members, reputed healthy persons, and was to make an annual contribution to the building fund of a projected college for one hundred decayed men and women. Other funds were to be obtained from the proceeds of advertisements in the ‘General Remark on Trade,’ a periodical which appeared three times a week from October 1705 to March 1710. This paper, of which 3,500 copies are said to have been printed, was distributed gratis. Dunton said it was published in rivalry of Defoe's ‘Review,’ and complained that Povey plagiarised from the ‘Athenian Oracle.’ The life-insurance scheme collapsed in 1710, but in the meantime Povey had floated (1707–8) the Exchange House Fire Office for Goods (London), or the Sun Fire Office. Business does not seem to have been begun before 1708, and in December of that year a salvage corps scheme was suggested. The office proved a success, but Povey parted with his interest in it at an early date, although he remained a member of the board. He was at first promised by the managers an annuity of 400l. a year during the lives of himself and his wife, and of the survivor, and he was also to receive 960l. This arrangement, however, was altered, to Povey's annoyance, in October 1710, when the twenty-four acting members of the society said they would give Povey only 20l. each, and an annuity of ten per cent. of the profits, up to 200l. a year.

Povey started in 1709 a scheme called the halfpenny carriage of letters, an imitation of the penny post of William Dockwray or Dockwra [q. v.] The post was confined to the cities of London and Westminster and the borough of Southwark, and the collections seem to have been made by tradesmen. But in November 1709 the postmasters-general proceeded against Povey for an infringement of their monopoly, and in Easter term 1710, when the action was heard in the court of exchequer, Povey was fined 100l. Another scheme, for the carriage of small parcels of goods into the country, which was broached in 1709, never came to maturity (cf. Treasury Papers, 1708–14, vol. cxx. No. 33).

The first number of ‘The Visions of Sir Heister Ryley’ was published by Povey on 21 Aug. 1710; the eightieth and last number appeared on 21 Feb. 1711. Each paper consisted of two quarto leaves, and the periodical, which was sold for a penny, was confessedly an imitation of Steele's ‘Tatler.’ In 1712 Povey let the house and park at Belsize, Hampstead, of which he was tenant, and on which he claims to have spent 2,000l., to Count d'Aumont, the French ambassador-extraordinary, who was to pay 1,000l. for the term of his residence in England, but Povey refused to ratify the agreement when he found that the newly erected chapel would be used for mass (English Memorial). Povey then vainly offered the house and chapel to the Prince of Wales, and the house remained vacant. One of his later schemes was to set up a factory for weavers in part of the house, with a warehouse for the sale of the goods. Povey says he was imprisoned on a false action for 10,000l. in September 1713 (Subject's Representation), and that no bail could be obtained. A half-sheet was published, stating that he was imprisoned for conspiring against the queen and government; but Judge Tracey declared that there was no cause of action, and ordered the release of Povey, who afterwards obtained judgment for false imprisonment against the ringleaders. They, however, fled in order to evade justice (cf. Post Boy, 13–15 Oct. 1713).

Povey published anonymously in 1714 an ‘Enquiry into the Miscarriages of the last Four Years' Reign,’ and he says his life was threatened on account of it. It went through eight editions, some of which were spurious, and was answered by Atterbury's ‘English Advice to the Freeholders of England.’ In the following year he printed ‘A Memorial of the Proceedings of the late Ministry’ and ‘The English Parliament represented in a Vision,’ which were entered at Stationers' Hall on 15 Dec. 1714 and 7 March 1715 respectively. ‘The Subject's Representation,’ 1717, and ‘English Inquisition,’ 1718, were full of complaints of persecution by the whigs. Povey estimated his loss by public services at 1,700l. a year, and 15,673l. in money; and he complained (English Memorial) that when any scheme of his came to perfection the government seized the good seed. In ‘Brittain's Scheme to make a New Coin of Gold and Silver to give in exchange for Paper Money and South Sea Stock,’ 1720, he said that a brewhouse at Hampstead belonging to him had been seized in 1718, and his goods sold by excise officers. In 1723 he designed a fire-annihilator, a bomb containing water, the idea of which was said to have been stolen from an invention of a chemist named Ambrose Godfrey or Godfrey-Hanckwitz [q. v.] , who in 1724 tried to convict Povey of the theft.

In 1733 Povey printed ‘The Secret History of the Sun Fire Office,’ and in 1737 the ‘English Memorial to obtain Right and Property.’ These were followed in 1740 by ‘The Torments after Death,’ in which he said that all the profits from his works went to ministers' and tradesmen's widows and charity children, and described a number of charitable projects, including the relief of distressed families, prisoners, and the sick. In 1741 Povey brought out a curious book, ‘The Virgin in Eden, or the State of Innocency. … Presenting a Nobleman, a Student, and Heiress, on their progress from Sodom to Canaan,’ in which there is a section criticising Richardson's new novel, ‘Pamela's Letters proved to be Immoral Romances, printed in Images of Virtue.’ ‘Torments after Death’ and ‘Virgin in Eden’ contain long catalogues of subjects on which he had written. In 1718 he stated that he had produced over six hundred pieces; but this must include the separate numbers of the periodicals which he brought out. His last invention was a self-acting organ (announced in the ‘Daily Advertiser’ for 23 Nov. 1742), which he left by will to the parish of St. Mary, Newington Butts.

Povey died on 4 May 1743, aged upwards of ninety (Gent. Mag. 1743, p. 274), in Little Alie Street, Goodman's Fields, and was buried on the 8th at St. Mary's, Newington, in the church, where his wife Ann was buried. He left directions that his will, which is dated 30 Jan. 1742–3, should be printed twice in a public newspaper, and it was given in imperfect form in the ‘Daily Post’ for 1 and 8 July 1743. Povey mentions land at Cheadle, Staffordshire; and he left money for the charity school in the parish of St. Mary, Newington (with which he was presumably connected through his wife), for the poor of Whitechapel, and for the widows of poor tradesmen and ministers. Of every pound received for his books ninepence was to go to the rector of St. Mary's, Newington, and ninepence to the dissenting minister at the Broad Street meeting-house, for the use of poor ministers' widows. The residue was left to two widows, who were executrixes—viz.: two-thirds to Elizabeth Smith, a niece, and one-third to Margaret Stringer. Povey declared that he never set up any undertaking with the intent to enrich himself by fraud or injustice, and never wrote anything which did not tend to promote virtue and unity among men. A prolific schemer and writer, his statements are untrustworthy and exaggerated. He was quarrelsome, and his vanity is shown by his practice of printing his coat-of-arms on his title-pages instead of his name. But some of his schemes were ingenious, while the Sun Fire Office became a great success. He took pleasure in charitable work and in the promotion of friendliness among persons of different religious beliefs.

[Almost everything that is known about Povey has been collected together by Mr. F. B. Relton in his Account of the Fire Insurance Companies. … Also of Charles Povey, 1893; see especially pp. 261–84, 447–543. Other works which may be consulted are Joyce's History of the Post Office, 1893; Lewins's Her Majesty's Mails, 1865; the Hope Catalogue of Early Newspapers; Notes and Queries, passim; Walford's Insurance Cyclopædia, iii. 465–7.]

G. A. A.