Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Tragic Life of Thomas Mayhew


by Robert J. Kirkpatrick 

The name of Mayhew will be very familiar to students of 19th century literature. Henry Mayhew was one of the founders of Punch, but perhaps better-known for his monumental work London Labour and the London Poor. His brother Horace was a journalist (he wrote for, amongst others, The Illustrated London News and Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper) and comic novelist; and another brother, Augustus, was a journalist (on The Illustrated Times), novelist and comic dramatist. A fourth brother, Thomas, also had a very brief and ultimately tragic career as an author, and consequently has been all but airbrushed from history.

The Mayhew brothers were born into a wealthy family headed by Joshua Dorset Joseph Mayhew, a solicitor, and his wife Mary Ann. Their first son, Thomas Charles Wilson Mayhew, was born on 19 May 1807 and baptised at St. James’s Church, Westminster, on 1 March 1811. He entered Westminster School on 31 May 1820, and after leaving he was articled to his father for five years in November 1825, and wrote his first book, A Complete History of an Action at Law, published by J. & W. Clarke, whilst still a student at Lincoln’s Inn (to which he been admitted in January 1827) in 1828. Two years later, his translation of the French drama Ambition, or Marie Mignot, was performed at the Haymarket Theatre, with the script published by Thomas Richardson in the same year. Also in 1830 he was enrolled as Attorney of the Court of the King’s Bench, and was subsequently admitted as Attorney of the Court of Common Pleas.

His journalistic activities also began in 1830, when he became editor of Henry Hetherington’s Penny Papers for the People, an unstamped series of one penny weekly pamphlets, and the following year he edited the first issues of Hetherington’s The Poor Man’s Guardian. A syndicated newspaper article after his death claimed that he was “the proprietor of Barnett’s Library of Music, The Parterre, and a number of other literary productions…. [and] part proprietor of the Fitzroy Theatre,”[1] although his assocaition with The Parterre was subsequently denied by its editors.[2] A subsequent article claimed that he was also “the proprietor and projector of several cheap popular works,” and was “connected at one time with Figaro, The Studio, compiler of The Diamond Shakespeare, superintended and almost wholly edited The Popular Dictionary of Universal Information…..”[3]

In the meantime, he had married Catharine Lawrance (born in Somerset in around 1806) at St. James’s Church, Westminster, on 1 January 1831. They had a still-born son on 20 November 1831, but went on to have a daughter, Catharine Mary Anne, born on 15 October 1833.

As a solicitor, he was briefly in partnership in 1831 with Thomas Edlyne Tomlins, as Tomlins and Mayhew, at 3 Staple Inn, and he was also in partnership with his father and James Johnson at 26 Carey Street, Lincoln’s Inn, but he left in March 1833.[4] According to an affidavit which was an adjunct to his will he had homes in Amwell Street and Myddleton Square, Clerkenwell, although a syndicated newspaper article reporting that he was living in Camden Town  at the time of his death.

In August 1832 he launched The Penny National Library, an ambitious project (published by Frederic Lawrance at 113 Strand – by December 1832 it had moved to 369 Strand). This initially consisted of six weekly serial educational publications – a grammar and dictionary, a universal biography, an ancient history, a history of England, a law library and a geography and gazetteer, with other similar serial works being added a few weeks later. Other publications soon followed, including The Comic Magazine, edited by “The Editor of Figaro in London” i.e. Gilbert Abbott à Beckett, and, in March 1833, The Critic, a literary and satirical journal.  

However, Thomas soon found himself in financial difficulties, and on 30 October 1833 he was arrested on a unpaid bill of exchange for £159, and was committed to the Fleet Prison. He disputed his arrest, claiming privilege as an attorney, although the person to whom Mayhew owed the money had him arrested on the basis he was trading as a printer and publisher.[5] The following month he entered into partnership with George Frederick Isaacs and Irenaeus Mayhew (his uncle), as printers and publishers, from 369 Strand and 14 Henrietta Street, although steps were already being taken towards his liquidation[6] – the partnership was formally dissolved in March 1834.[7] It was later suggested that Mayhew had lost £10,000.[8]

Thomas Mayhew committed suicide on Thursday 23 October 1834 at his chambers at 2 Barnard’s Inn, Holborn. This fact, and the subsequent inquest, was widely reported in London newspapers. It was initially reported that his body was discovered by his wife and her brother, who were concerned that he hadn’t come home and that he was in straitened financial circumstances, and that they forced open the door to his rooms.[9] This version of events was contradicted during the inquest, which was held on the evening of Saturday 25 October at the Swan and Sugar-Loaf public house, Fetter Lane. This heard that a solicitor, Philip Lawrence, had been approached by Thomas’s wife, concerned about his absence – he went to the chambers, where the porter gave him a package which contained the keys to the chambers, and these were used to gain access.[10]

It was clear from the evidence given that Thomas had swallowed a large quantity of prussic acid, and had also deliberately inhaled the fumes from a piece of burning charcoal. The inquest was told that that as well as his financial problems, Thomas was overwhelmed by work. At the time of his death he was apparently working on a history of England, an encyclopaedia, and a translation of French plays. He was subsequently buried in the churchyard of St. James’s Church, Westminster, on 29 October.

It is hard to believe that in the short period of time between 1832 and 1834 Thomas Mayhew was both working as a solicitor and had his fingers in so many literary projects. Yet there is no doubt that this was the case, as confirmed in the Law Report referred to earlier. It was rare for writer in Bohemian Fleet Street to commit suicide, although several killed themselves in other ways, so this was a measure of just how overwhelming the pressure on Thomas Mayhew was. 

His wife Catharine subsequently moved back to her parents in Somerset, and went on to marry James Thomas, a solicitor, in Lyncombe, on 29 February 1848. She died later that year, and was buried in the cemetery at Bath Abbey on 29 September 1848. His daughter Catharine married Charles Arthur Raynsford in 1864, and they went on to have one daughter born in 1866. They divorced in 1890. She went on to spend a year in Otto House, a private asylum in Hammersmith, between August 1894 and 1895, and she was re-admitted in February 1900 – she died there on 14 March 1900, and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, Kensington.

[1] See, for example, Morning Post, 25 October 1834, p 4.

[2] See, for example, Morning Post, 31 October 1834, p 3.

[3] See, for example, Morning Advertiser, 27 October 1834, p 1.

[4] London Gazette, 30 August 1833, p 1614.

[5] The Law Journal for the Year 1834, Vol. 3, p 47.

[6] Morning Herald, 4 December 1834, p 7.

[7] London Gazette, 25 April 1834, p 755.

[8] Men of the Time, Kent & Co., 1857, p 522.

[9] See, for example, Morning Post, 25 October 1834, p 4.

[10] See, for example, Morning Post, 31 October 1834, p 3.


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