Shebbeare, John

, a notorious political writer, was born at Biddeford in Devonshire in 1709. His father was an attorney, but having small practice and little fortune, he carried on also the business of a corn-factor. Of his children, John was the eldest, and was educated at the free-school of Exeter, then conducted by the learned Mr. Zachary Mudge. Of his progress at school, it is recorded that he had a tenacious memory, much application, some wit, and a temper quarrelsome, dissatisfied, and irritable. In his fifteenth or sixteenth year he was bound apprentice to a surgeon in his native town, and acquired a considerable share of medical knowledge. To this situation he brought the unamiable disposition of his earlier years; no one could give him the slightest offence with impunity, and almost every person avoided his acquaintance. When out of his time he set up in trade for himself, and then shewed a taste for chemistry; but having little business, removed in 1736 to Bristol.

In 1739 he attracted the attention of the public, we are told, by an epitaph to the memory of Thomas Coster, esq. member for Bristol; in which it has been observed, “that he has contrived to raise emotions of pity, grief, and indignation, to a very high degree.” How far these lines are calculated to produce such an effect the reader may judge.*


Coster! adieu, to native skies return’d,

By ev‘ry patriot bosom lov’d and mourn’d.

E’en party frenzy, now no more his foe,

Weeps into sense, and swells the general woe.

Friend to all virtue howsoe’er depress’d,

Foe to all vice bowe’er by courts caress’d.

From commerce rich, yet rich without a stain,

Tho‘ wealthy humble, and tlio’ wise not vain.

A breast no passion once could discompose,

Save that which bade him mourn his country’s woes.

This consolation yet be mine, he cry’d,

not to survive dear liberty, and dy’d.”

Gent. Mag. Vol. IX.

The next year he published a pamphlet on the Bristol waters; but from this period we hear no more of | him until 1752, when he was at Paris, and there obtained the title of Doctor, if he obtained it at all. Until this time he appears to have lived in obscurity, but at an age when vigorous exertion usually subsides, he seems to have resolved to place himself in a conspicuous situation whatever hazard might attend it, and commenced a public writer with a high degree of intrepidity and virulence. In 1754 he began this career with “The Marriage Act,” a political novel, in which he treated the legislature with such freedom, that it occasioned his being taken into custody, from whence, however, he was soon released. This was followed by “Letters on the English Nation, by Battista Angeloni, a Jesuit, who resided many years in London. Translated from the original Italian by the author of the Marriage Act,1755, 2 vols. 8vo. It is perhaps unnecessary to say that the author and translator were the same person, and that the imposition was immediately detected by the similarity of language, and virulent abuse of the establishment in church and state to that which pervades the “Marriage Act.” But his most celebrated performances were a series of “Letters to the People of England,” written in a style vigorous and energetic, though slovenly and careless, yet well calculated to make an impression on common readers; and they were accordingly read with avidity, and circulated with diligence. They had a very considerable effect on the minds of the people, and galled the ministry, who seem to have been at first too eager to punish the author. On the publication of the “Third Letter,” we find warrants dated March 4th and 8th, 1756, issued by lord Holdernesse, to take up both Scott the publisher and the author. This prosecution, however, seems to have been dropped and the culprit proceeded for some time unmolested, “having declared (says one of his answerers) that he would write himself into a post or into the pillory, in the last of which he at length succeeded.” On Jan. 12, 1758, a general warrant was signed by lord Holdernesse, to search for the author, printer, and publishers of a wicked, audacious, and treasonable libel, entitled “A sixth Letter to the People of England.” At this juncture government seems to have been effectually roused: for having received information that a seventh letter was printing, by virtue of another warrant dated Jan. 23, all the copies were seized and entirely suppressed. In Easter Term an information was filed against him by | Mr. Pratt, then attorney-genera], afterwards lord Camden; and on June 17th, the information was tried, and the author found guilty. On Nov. 28th following, he received sentence, by which he was fined five pounds, ordered to stand in the pillory Dec. 5, at Charing Cross, to be confined three years, and to give security for his good behaviour for seven years, himself in 500l. and two others in 150l. each.

On the day appointed he was exhibited on the pillory; but the under sheriff, a Mr. Beardmore, himself a political writer, and Shebbeare’s coadjutor in the “Monitor,” a paper of the same tendency with the “Letters,” &c. permitted him merely to stand on the platform of the pillory, tmconfined and at his ease, with a servant in livery (an Irish chairman equipped for the occasion) holding an umbrella over his head. For this wilful perversion of the sentence, Mr. Beardmore was fined 50l. and suffered two months imprisonment. Some time before Shebbeare was tried for the publication already mentioned, the duchess of Queensbury as heir of Lord Clarendon, obtained an injunction to stop the publication of the continuation of that nobleman’s history; a copy of which had got into the hands of Francis Gwyn, esq. between whom and the doctor there had been an agreement to publish it and equally divide the profits. The care and expences attending the publication were to be wholly Dr. Shebbeare‘ s, who caused it to be handsomely printed in 4to, with a Tory preface, containing frequent reflections on, and allusions to, recent events, and living characters, which gave it the appearance rather of a temporary pamphlet than of a work calculated for posterity. On the injunction being obtained, Dr. Shebbeare was under the necessity of applying to the aid of law to recover the money expended by him in printing, amounting to more than 500l., of which more than half had been wasted on his side in the courts of law and equity*.

* This story has been differently the publisher, and the edition was suptold. Mr. Gough, in a letter in the pressed, so that the rarity of the quarto Gent. Mag. Vol. LXXII. says that copies, more than any intrinsic merit, “Shebbeare being engaged by the has now enhanced their value.” This university to arrange or transcribe the seems probable, except what relates to Clarendon Mss. transmitted a copy to Cooper being an assumed name. M. a ncokseller in London to publish under or Mary Cooper was at that time a the assumed name of Cooper. The well known bookseller in Paternosteruniversity, a? soon as they discovered row, and was frequently Dodsley’s city the trick, obtained an injunction against publisher. | While confined in the King’s Bench prison, he solicited Subscriptions for the first volume of a History of England, ’ from the revolution to the then present time; but this, at the persuasion of his friends, he altered to a first volume of the History of England and of the.constitution from its origin, and is said to have made some progress in the design, which, however, after many excuses and promises, was never accomplished. At the expiration of his imprisonment a new reign had commenced, and the king was not only persuaded to entertain a favourable opinion of Dr. Shebbeare, but to grant him a pension. From this time he became an uniform, defender of the measures of government; but still his character was not such as to conciliate the good opinion of all the friends of power. Smollet introduced him in no very respectful light, under the name of Ferret, in the novel of Sir Launcelot Greaves, and Hogarth made him one of the groupe in the third Election print. Scarce a periodical publication was without some contemptuous notice of him, to which he in general paid little attention: but in 1774 he published a pamphlet in his own defence, coupled with such a virulent attack on the character of king William, as roused the indignation of every Whig in the kingdom.

Early in life he appears to have written a comedy, which in 1766 he made an effort to get represented at Coventigarden; and as the manager, Mr. Beard, had not returned it in what Shebbeare called proper time, the latter published a pamphlet of correspondence on the subject. In 1768 he wrote the review of books in the “Political Register” for three mouths, and was often engaged to write for particular: persons, with whom he frequently quarrelled when he came to be paid, and sometimes prosecuted them in the courts. His pen seems to have been constantly employed, and he wrote with great rapidity what certainly can now be read with little satisfaction, and must soon be forgotten. Though pensioned by government, he added little to its support, and gave disgust to its friends from the virulence with which he attacked its adversaries, and which defeated his own purpose. During the latter part of his life, he retired more from public view. In defence, however, of the measures of administration respecting the American war, he wrote two pamphlets, one against Mr. Burke, and another against Dr. Price.

His publications, satirical, political, and medical, amount, | it is said, to thirty-four, besides a novel called “Lydia, or Filial Piety,” in which also he has introduced living characters. He died Aug. 1, 1788, leaving, we are told, among those who knew him best, the character of a benevolent man, which, from the affectionate manner in which he speaks of his relations, he probably deserved. His character, in other respects, cannot be held up to admiration. 1


Europ. Mag. for 178S. Dr, Gleig’s Supplement to the Eocycl. Britannica.