Alas! how false are our hopes! – The short life of John Grisdale

Posted: November 13, 2012 in Christ's College Cambridge, Cumberland, Grisdale, History, Lincoln's Inn
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At eight o’clock on a fine tuesday morning in late May 1805, a young London lawyer called John Campbell climbed on top of a stage-coach outside the White Horse tavern in Fetter Lane. John, who would later become the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, was accompanying his close friend and legal colleague John Grisdale to Cambridge. Grisdale was to be admitted as a fellow of the university having achieved high academic distinction there on his graduation three years earlier. He had in fact been the Second Wrangler in mathematics; an honour later awarded to physicists James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin and economist Alfred Marshall.

Christ’s College, Cambridge

John Campbell was somewhat in awe of his brilliant friend and he wrote to his father about their “pleasant excursion” to Cambridge shortly after his return to his chambers in London. The letter gives us a real flavour of young John Grisdale’s world, so I will quote from it at some length.

The weather was delightful. I cannot describe to you how much I was exhilarated by once more breathing the fresh air and viewing the green fields. It is now near a year and a half since I entered with Tidd, and during that time I had been only one day absent from the office, when I had gone down to the House of Commons. I am of opinion with Dr. Johnson that human life has few things to offer better than travelling at a good pace in a post-chaise, or upon a stage-coach. We took the same road as the celebrated Mr. John Gilpin, through Islington and Edmonton to Ware. We observed his adventures recorded upon several sign-posts as we passed along. About a quarter before three we came in sight of King’s College Chapel. I was very much struck with this noble building, one of the most perfect specimens of Gothic architecture extant. In a few minutes we were in the streets of Cambridge—narrow, crooked and dirty.

John Grisdale was obviously expected because Campbell continues:

 As soon as we alighted we walked up to Christ’s College, where there was a numerous party of Grisdale’s friends drawn up to receive him. He introduced me to the circle, and from that moment till my departure I met with every kind of attention and politeness.

After dining with a Mr. Kaye, “a young man scarcely of age, who had been at once a senior wrangler and first medallist (the highest mathematical and classical honours), and who in consequence had been immediately elected a fellow”, the pair took a stroll along the “grand promenade belonging to Clare Hall” where they found “crowds of townsmen and ladies”. After another supper they adjourned to their lodgings: Campbell to an inn but John Grisdale to the rooms of a famous jockey which Campbell found highly amusing:

Nothing that I saw amused me more than the manner in which they were fitted up. Not a book was to be seen in them. The walls were hung round with portraits of Eclipse, Hambletonian, and other famous racers. From each side of the looking-glass depended a fox’s brush. Behind the door were several hunting caps and (upon my honour) ten different whips, which the bedmaker assured us were not half the number this gentleman possessed.

John Campbell as Lord High Chancellor

The next day was the day of the election, and, says Campbell “considerable anxiety prevailed”. But the fellows unanimously elected Grisdale to a fellowship and after he had taken an oath with the Vice-Chancellor the revels began. John Campbell tells his father: “Dinner was given in the hall. I was taken to the fellows’ table, and was asked to sit next the master. As soon as the cloth was removed we all retired to what is called the combination room, where there was such a drinking bout as I have seldom witnessed. ‘Alma Mater lay dissolved in port.’ Each man must have had above two bottles. Of course those who remained to the last were most excessively tipsy. There was afterwards a supper given by Grisdale, the particulars of which I am not at all able to describe. By some means or other I got safe home to my inn, but several of the fellows continued reeling through the streets for a great part of the night.”

Later on Campbell comments:

You can scarcely form an idea of the sumptuous manner I fed and soaked at Christ’s, and it seemed to be their common mode of life. This being a small college, the men belonging to it form but one society, and at every meal they are feasting with each other. If they dine in the hall, one of them regularly gives wine and fruit after dinner at his rooms. It is impossible they should spend less than £300 or £400 a year. How different from St. Andrews, where the whole expense of the session may be defrayed for £10 or £15! But I scarcely ventured to whisper that I had been at a Scots university.

The next day, no doubt nursing hangovers, the two young men occupied themselves with sight-seeing, Grisdale being Campbell’s guide to Cambridge. Campbell wrote:  “From breakfasting in one place, dining in another, and supping at a third, I mixed with all the classes of which the University is composed.” But the one thing that most gave him cause for thought was a visit to the county goal. They went to visit a friend, and possibly former tutor, of Grisdale’s called Dr. Fisher, who was a fellow of Christ’s College where Grisdale had studied. He was, says Campbell, a “senior doctor at Doctors’ Commons, often sits there as a judge, and is intimately acquainted with Sir William Scott, Lord Eldon, Lord Ellenborough, and all the leading men of the day”. “Do not suppose, however”, says Campbell, “it (his imprisonment) was for housebreaking or any such enormity.” Fisher had been imprisoned for debt. He had provided a guarantee for his brother whose business had failed. Goals In England were at the time sink-holes of squalor, disease and brutality; but not if you had money or a “name”.

We went to drink wine with Dr. Fisher…. We had here a proof of how much there is in a name. There was nothing to tell that we were not in a well-furnished private house.

The latter part of the friends’ stay “was somewhat clouded” when news arrived of the death of John Grisdale’s Cambridge tutor, the very eminent Dr William Paley – a man to whom I will return. Dr Paley’s son also worked as a lawyer in London, indeed in the same chambers as John Campbell:

Young Paley, I believe I have told you, is in Tidd’s office. On Monday night I parted with him in the highest spirits, and it was shocking to think of the news to be brought to him by Tuesday’s post. Besides I was uneasy to think of the inconvenience Tidd might be suffering, being thus deprived of the man he chiefly relied upon in my absence.

So after a visit of some delight, though tinged with sadness, on Sunday morning Grisdale and Campbell set off “upon the top of a coach” on their return journey to London. They arrived at the Blue Boar Inn in Holborn at five in the afternoon.

And for seven years this is the last we hear of the brilliant scholar and promising young lawyer John Grisdale; a man who his friend John Campbell, the future Lord High Chancellor, had told his father proudly, “had been second wrangler about three years ago, and had thus acquired no mean fame in the University. To take such a degree requires reading that in Scotland we have hardly any notion of. If there are greater instances of idleness in English seminaries, there are likewise more astonishing proofs of application”.

So who was John Grisdale? How had a member of this Cumberland family risen to such heights?

Carlisle Cathedral – Where John’s father was Chancellor

John was born in Carlisle, Cumberland, in 1780. He was the son of the Rev. Dr. Browne Grisdale, the “Chancellor of the Diocese of Carlisle, and Chairman of the Cumberland Quarter Sessions”. He was also the nephew of the Rev. Benjamin Grisdale who was captured by the Americans at the Siege of Yorktown, about whom I wrote recently.  His father’s story is also of great interest but I will leave it for another time. Browne Grisdale, like most of the Cumberland Grisdales who were to go to University, studied at Queen’s College, Oxford. John went to Christ’s College, Cambridge and won the second highest prize in mathematics. John had first entered Trinity college in 1799 but switched the following year to Christ’s. His decision to move to Christ’s was probably connected with Dr William Paley. Paley had graduated from Christ’s in 1763 as “senior wrangler”, became a tutor at Christ’s and since 1782 had been Archdeacon of Carlisle Cathedral and a colleague and friend of John’s father Browne Grisdale.

John had attended Carlisle Grammar School where we are told “he gave promise of extraordinary attainments in literature, his mind was stored with much acquired knowledge, and he possessed a judgement clear and comprehensive, which enabled him to select the most useful parts of science; while his superior taste led him to choose for the objects of his imitation the most pure compositions in ancient and modern literature”.

 While at the Grammar-school at Carlisle, his compositions were admired for possessing force, elegance and beauty, far beyond his years; and his friends could not help expecting anxiously, that powers of mind so highly gifted, with application so steady, and a demeanor at once gentle and manly, might achieve a distinguished situation in the learned profession which he had chosen.

As the writer of John’s obituary would later say, his life had opened “most auspiciously”. “His friends beheld with joy the dawn of uncommon talents. There seemed nothing in literature too difficult for his attainment; his application was unwearied; and he was not merely a student by profession; he brought to literature an ardent and noble mind, fraught with all the enthusiasm of a poet; and all the subtleness of a critic.”

Lincoln’s Inn

When John Grisdale graduated as second wrangler in 1802 he found a position in chambers at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the London Inns of Court. From the little we know his life was progressing nicely. We have heard a little about (part) of the life he led from his visit to Cambridge to receive his fellowship in 1805.

But unfortunately John’s great promise did not have time to flower. In The Cumberland Pacquet and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser, on Tuesday, 11th February, 1812, local Cumbrians read of John’s death: “The 29th ult. at his chambers in the Temple, London, aged 31, after a short illness, John GRISDALE, Esq. only surviving son of the Rev. Browne GRISDALE, D.D, Chancellor of the diocese of Carlisle. At Cambridge he obtained very high academic honours; and in his profession was much distinguished.”

Slightly later the London-based Monthly Magazine, Volume 33, published John’s obituary, almost a eulogy, from which I have been quoting. Coming to John untimely death the author continues:

Alas! how false are our hopes!

Not only his parents and relatives must deeply lament a fate so lively distressing, but the numerous acquaintances which his superior understanding and excellent qualities had procured him, must deplore a stroke which has cut short the career of one who, had he lived, it is no exaggeration to say would have been one of the brightest ornaments of the nineteenth century.

When a sap, who has attained celebrity in science, fails, we lament his departure, but we regret his loss the less because he has perhaps left a monument behind him, which will not speedily perish; but, when a young man of promising talents… is cut off in the very prime of life, it is truly lamentable…

John Grisdale was buried on February 7th 1812 at the Church of Saint Dunstan in the West in the City of London. His address being given as Elm Court, North Vault.

Dr William Paley

What type of man John would have been and whether he would have put his talents in the service of the mass of the people, as had his teacher and mentor Dr William Paley, we can never know. When Dr Paley’s name was mentioned to King George the third he shouted “Pigeon Paley? Not sound, not sound”. One can’t get higher praise than that! But why Pigeon Paley? In Paley’s book titled Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy he had included a fable of the pigeons:

If you should see a flock of pigeons in a field of corn; and if (instead of each picking where and what it liked, taking just as much as it wanted, and no more) you should see ninety-nine of them gathering all they got, into a heap; reserving nothing for themselves, but the chaff and the refuse; keeping this heap for one, and that the weakest, perhaps worst, pigeon of the flock; sitting round, and looking on, all the winter, whilst this one was devouring, throwing about, and wasting it; and if a pigeon more hardy or hungry than the rest, touched a grain of the hoard, all the others instantly flying upon it, and tearing it to pieces; if you should see this, you would see nothing more than what is every day practised and established among men. Among men, you see the ninety-and-nine toiling and scraping together a heap of superfluities for one (and this one too, oftentimes the feeblest and worst of the whole set, a child, a woman, a madman, or a fool); getting nothing for themselves all the while, but a little of the coarsest of the provision, which their own industry produces; looking quietly on, while they see the fruits of all their labour spent or spoiled; and if one of the number take or touch a particle of the hoard, the others joining against him, and hanging him for the theft.

I wonder whether those involved in the Occupy movement know when they chant their slogan “We are the 99%” that William Paley had said the same thing over two hundred years ago?

Saint Dunstan in the West, Fleet Street – where John Grisdale is buried

  1. Michael Grisdale, Saskatoon, Canada (Ex Newcastle upon Tyne ) says:

    How interesting !

  2. […] Alas! how false are our hopes! – The short life of John Grisdale […]

  3. […] I told John’s story in an article called Alas how false our hopes! – the short life of John Grisdale. […]

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