Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Townley, James (1714-1778)
TOWNLEY, JAMES (1714–1778), author of ‘High Life below Stairs,’ the second son of Charles Townley, merchant, of Tower Hill, and of Clapham, Surrey, was born in the parish of All Hallows, Barking, on 6 May 1714. Sir Charles Townley [q. v.] was his elder brother. He was admitted at Merchant Taylors' school on 7 Feb. 1727, and matriculated as a commoner from St. John's College, Oxford, on 15 May 1732, graduating B.A. 14 Jan. 1735 and M.A. 23 Nov. 1738. He took deacon's orders at Grosvenor Chapel, Westminster, from Bishop Hoadly of Winchester on 6 March 1736, and priest's orders on 28 May 1738. On 12 Oct. in the same year he was chosen lecturer of St. Dunstan's-in-the-East, and three years later he became chaplain to Daniel Lambert, lord mayor. He was third under-master at Merchant Taylors' from 22 Dec. 1748 until July 1753, when he left his old school to become grammar-master at Christ's Hospital. In 1759 he was chosen morning preacher at Lincoln's Inn, and on 8 Aug. 1760 he returned to Merchant Taylors' as headmaster. Under his predecessor, John Criche, an avowed Jacobite, the school had lost ground in the favour of the magnates of the city, which Townley set himself speedily to recover. In this he was in the main successful; but his endeavours to modernise the curriculum were thwarted by the Merchant Taylors' board. In 1762 and 1763 dramatic performances were revived at the school at the wish and under the direction of Townley, whose friend David Garrick took an active interest in the arrangements. In 1762 the ‘Eunuchus’ of Terence was played in the schoolroom, Dr. Thomas, bishop of Salisbury, and other distinguished alumni being present. In 1763 were played six times to large audiences ‘Senecæ Troades et Ignoramus Abbreviatus, in Schola Mercatorum Scissorum’ (both programmes are preserved at St. John's College, Oxford), but the trustees intervened to prevent any further representations.
Townley's interest in the drama was not confined to these schoolboy performances. In 1759 he had written (the authorship was for several years carefully concealed) the laughable farce, in two acts, ‘High Life below Stairs,’ first acted at Drury Lane on 31 Oct. 1759, with O'Brien, Yates, and Mrs. Clive in the leading rôles. ‘This is a very good farce,’ says Genest. George Selwyn expressed his satisfaction with it as a relief from ‘low life above stairs.’ At the time it was attributed to Garrick; the vein is rather that of Samuel Foote. The plot is rudimentary—that of a long-suffering master disguising himself in order to detect the rogueries of his servants; but the presumption and insolence of flunkeydom are hit off in a succession of ludicrous touches, and the fun never flags. Nor was the satire without its sting. At Edinburgh the servants in their gallery created an uproar, and the privileges hitherto accorded to livery had to be withdrawn.
First published by Newbery at the Bible and Sun as ‘High Life below Stairs, a Farce of Two Acts, as it is performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, “O imitatores servum pecus!”’ (with an advertisement dated 5 Nov. 1759), it went through many editions, was translated into German and French, and has been frequently produced upon the stage in all parts of the world.
Townley's two other farces, ‘False Concord’—given at Covent Garden on 20 March 1764 for the benefit of Woodward—and ‘The Tutor’—seen at Drury Lane on 4 Feb. 1765—were not successful. It is to be remarked, however, says a writer (probably his son-in-law, Roberdeau) in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1805, i. 110), ‘that “False Concord” contains three characters, Lord Lavender, Mr. Suds, an enriched soap-boiler, and a pert valet, who are not only the exact Lord Ogleby, Mr. Sterling, and Brush of the “Clandestine Marriage,” brought out in 1767 by Colman and Garrick conjointly, but that part of the dialogue is nearly verbatim.’ As ‘False Concord’ was never printed, there is no means of verifying this statement; but it is broadly ‘supposed that many of Mr. Garrick's best productions and revisals partook of Mr. Townley's assisting hand.’ It is known that Townley materially assisted another friend, William Hogarth, in his ‘Analysis of Beauty.’ He was known among his friends for his neat gift of impromptu epigram. In the pulpit he was admired for his impressive delivery and skill in adapting his remarks to his auditory. His later preferments were the rectory of St. Benet's, Gracechurch Street (27 July 1749), and St. Leonard's, Eastcheap, 1749, and the vicarage of Hendon in Middlesex (patron, David Garrick), which he held from 3 Nov. 1772 until the close of 1777. His curate was Henry Bate, ‘the fighting parson’ [see Dudley, Sir Henry Bate]. Townley died on 15 July 1778. A tablet was erected to his memory in St. Benet's, Gracechurch Street.
He married, in 1740, Jane Bonnin of Windsor, a descendant from the Poyntz family and related to Lady Spencer, through whose influence came some of his preferments. Townley's daughter Elizabeth (d. 1809) married John Peter Roberdeau [q. v.] His son James, who was entered at Merchant Taylors' in 1756, became a proctor in Doctors' Commons.
A portrait of James Townley was engraved by Charles Townley in 1794; a second was drawn and engraved by H. D. Thielcke.
[Gent. Mag. 1805 i. 110, 1801 i. 389; Wilson's Hist. of Merchant Taylors' School, 1814, ii. 1119; Robinson's Reg. of Merchant Taylors', vol. i. p. xv; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715–1886; Hennessy's Novum Repertorium, 1898; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. ix. 271; Genest's Hist. of the Stage, iv. 576; Baker's Biogr. Dramatica, i. 717; Knight's David Garrick, pp. 176, 228; Dobson's Hogarth, pp. 113, 142; Selwyn and his Contemporaries, 1882, i. 20; Wheatley and Cunningham's London, i. 158.]