‘the beard was both foxy and fiery’: Another glimpse of James Elmslie Duncan, the ‘Divinearian’


Duncan image


James Gregory, 9 July 2018

Having completed my study of the Chartist poet James Elmslie Duncan, The Poetry and the Politics. Radical Reform in Victorian England in 2014, I imagined that there might still be material out there in the newspapers of the 1840s and early 1850s that I had failed to find: and so it has turned out with ongoing digitisation through the British Newspaper Archives which revealed to me this gem of reportage on the London poet and serial disturber of radical and reform meetings.

Here, through the letter of a ‘constant reader’ to the Lincolnshire Chronicle (published 29 August 1851, p.6) there is not only a description of Duncan’s intervention at a metropolitan meeting of the National Charter Association at the London Tavern (14 January 1850) from his own perspective rather than from a hostile press (such as The Times, 15 January 1850), but also one of his otherwise missing poems. In this case it is to one of his British political heroes, the Chartist Thomas Cooper. Not only that, the material is reproduced seemingly accurately, from Duncan’s own reformed spelling text, from a missing issue of The Divinearian, the only copy (for December 1849) which exists now, being in the Seligman Library, Columbia University.

I have transcribed it below, as it appeared in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section of the Lincolnshire paper. It seems to clarify one important point too, the actual colour of Duncan’s beard.

Sadly for the poet, the reference to Bedlam was already realized through his admission to Colney Hatch lunatic asylum (in July 1851).


* * * * * *


SIR, — Seeing the name of Thomas Cooper in your last week’s paper, reminded me of the scum which floats on the surface of London literature: during a recent visit to London I became possessed of a specimen in the following manner: — Passing up City-road one Sunday after service, I noticed a man selling printed papers at a chapel door, the congregation were leaving: this man had a sandy beard, a dirty face, repulsive countenance, and was dressed in a dirty blouse. I paid a penny, and obtained a number of his paper; it contained four pages of letter-press; the spelling was phonography outdone — a Pitman run mad: the contents your readers shall judge. This dirty fellow, whose appearance in that disgusting garb on the Sabbath, was a proof of his fitness either for the lock-up or Bedlam, was, I found, the author and editor of the pamphlet, which bore the blasphemous title of “The Divinearian;” and the author styled himself as “the man with the red beard.” The god of his idolatry is Thomas Cooper, a person I believe not unknown in Lincoln — he was once a patten-maker there. Amongst the contents is sonnet to this person (which will require but little trouble in correcting the proofs; your compositor cannot make the spelling worse than in the original); here it is—



“O wuod that I had powr to sing ov thee,

To chant in strainz wurthy ov thy briht mind!

How briliant iz thine eloquens — how rich

Thy stream ov glo-ing wurdz, soel tonez combined

In such fair order and rare harmuny.

Thy stately form! — how meet fill a nich

Ov sum quaint Gothic or old Norman fane.

No scofer corse art thou; — the sanctity,

The venerashun deep, the Hevenly goel,

The faith in Gospel, Crist, and Power Divine,

Al thirst sneer at these thou wuodst restrain,

Hwile stil emansipate from the control

Ov superstishun darc for rezunz shrine:

O Bard and Oratur this sacred mishun thine.’’


I find Cooper again alluded to in an article headed, “The Tempel ov Free Thought.” This is to be, it seems, a Chartist and Infidel lecture hall, which is to “exersize a must holesom influens in checing the baneful sway ov preachingz.”

“Thare will be for the oratur a robe ov linen and velvet, grasefully floing around his persun, sihtly and clasic, a contrast bibz and blacnes, or peticoats ov priests. The idea orijinated with Tomas Cuoper, famus for hiz briliant eloquens and ultra democrasy (!!). It been tacen up with enthuziazm by numerus free-thincerz, chiefly Mr. Saul ov the Sity, wine merchant and jeolojitst, hoo imediately that the project woz propounded proferd 500l to help its realizashun. Anuther like practical pursite promist 20l , utherz 10l. several 5l., and scores 1l., the prise of a share.”


But there is still more of “Tomas Cuoper:” another article tells that —

“Tomas Cuoper, at present, is delivering, alternate Sunday cvenings, too corses ov orashuns in the metropolis, wun on the history ov Rome at the Hal ov Siens Sity Road, and the uther on the histury ov Grese. at the Soshal Institushun Jon Street Totenham Cort Road.”


One would have thought that other subjects might have been chosen for Sunday evening lectures, or at least that other evenings might have been selected for these subjects. It appears that Cooper has a new plan of describing the extent of an empire, which beats maps and atlases hollow. The “man with a red beard” states —


“Mr. Cuoper described the extent ov the Roman Teritvry, streching his arm in the diferent direcshuns; he likewise related, most ably, the growth ov the imperial power; and delineated vividly and graficaly, the caracters and conduct of Rome’s divers rulers. The Lecturer now retired; thare wos an interval of music; and he returned to discus, as is invariably his custum, present politics after having discorst ov past events: lisnd to with lively interest and worm sympathy — evident as the admirashun inspired by his previous oratury.”


A fitting finale, truly, to a Sunday evening lecture is a discussion on “present politics.”

The only endurable part of the “Divinearian” is the adventures of the author, and these are amusing for their absurdity. He is describing his visit to Chartist meeting at the London Tavern, and his account is ludicrous enough: —

“I, Editor ov the Divinearian, attended this meeting, rejoist to witness so ecstraordinary an ocurens in the proseedings ov Chartism. I bore with me the Chartist Baner — a desine in water culurs representing a star with six radiashuns, each embelisht with an emblem ov a point ov the Charter, —  a desine so injenius and briliant that Fergus O’Conur himself has acnolejd it as most hapily apropo : hwilst I carid thither too, in a flowerd green bag, democratic balads ov mine, tens ov thousands hwareov hav been distributed by me; and likewise provided with my fonografic reporting aparetus. Accouterd thus, I sat me down at the tabel and likewise provided for the public scribes (i. e. the jents ov the pres), harcend (in English hearkened) to the oraturs, and in an interval ov the proseedings, oferd a brother reporter a set ov my prints. He refused them — wuod give no resun, but bade me hold my tung! This rousd my rath, and resolvd me to denouns the rufian rudenes ov this scoundrel hireling ov sum wun ov the pres-gang — probably the Conservative Post, or Tory Herald; and almost beside my self at the insult, I sprang from beside the base blagard, mounted the tabel, stept on the platform, and roard out a loud shout, and this with a beard, a ful beard be it borne in mind ! ‘I hav been told to hold my tung! Chartists will you permit it? Deth or Liberty ! Here is the Flag ov the Charter, the Day Star ov Freedom ! The Pepel’s Charter, and No Surender!’ Fergus O’Conur president ov the proseedings egsorted me not to disturb thair concord. I proferd him my riht hand, and he graspt it with a harty shace. I next sat myself on the platform — percht as it ware upon a pedestal.”

A rich scene must this have been : we can imagine this friend of Cooper’s pestering reporter with his Chartist prints and in imagination can see the man mounting the table and roaring out (“with a full beard”) “The Charter and no surrender and all for why ? just because a reporter (i. e. a ‘base blagard’ ) had told him to “hold his tung!!”

“ This was just hwot the scribsters wanted — an ocurens calculated to mace the mater luoc ridiculus in respectab’l iis; accordingly the reporter for the Times availd himself ov my beard to give espeshal effect to his account; and not content with the veritab’l hue thareov — brown — he made not a hwite but a red lie ov it, choosing that culur for its raw glare and firy fersenes; thus wos my beard set forth to the public vishunals, sumwhot as is the ree [sic, for red]  rag before those ov the bul hwen his rage is to rousd — myself the apendaje thareto, being ‘a man with a red beard !’ ”

It appears that this friend of Thomas Cooper” and the Times reporter are at issue on the colour of the beard. Truth compels me to state, from what I saw on the Sunday morning, that the beard was both foxy and fiery.

By this time, I suppose you and your readers have had enough of the Divinearian. I will merely add that, on going up the City-road, I saw large placards announcing that Cooper would deliver a lecture on Christian Socialism in some Hall of Science or other that evening.

And these, Mr. Editor, are the lights of the age! These are the men who go lecturing about the country, making dupes and tools of the poorer classes — first exciting them to sedition, and then, coward like, leaving them in the lurch. Oh, yes! lectures on “Greece and Home” — on “Socialism” — and discussions on “Modern Politics,” “Tempels of Free Thought” — delivered by Cooper, are to “exersize a most holesom influens in checing the baneful sway of preaching!!” — So much for one of the miscalled spirits of the age.


Your’s [sic],           A CONSTANT READER.


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