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An Eccentric Baronet

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     It is not given to every man to be so versatile or so enterprising as was the Rev. Sir Henry Bate Dudley, who, having distinguished himself for more than half-a-century in the literary, the dramatic, the musical, and the political world, and having been in turn editor, clergyman, duelist, volunteer officer, county magistrate, courtier, and baronet, closed his eyes in death at Cheltenham in the year 1824, in the ninety-ninth year of his age. Yet so it was with the somewhat eccentric character whose career I propose to set before readers in this chapter.
     Henry Bate-for that was his original name -was born in 1726, at Chelmsford, in Essex, in the vicinity of which place his father was a clergyman. He was educated probably at the local grammar-school, and sent in due course to Oxford, where I find that he took his Bachelor's degree from Magdalen Hall in 1746. On leaving college, he appears to have lived for a time in the fashionable world, his chief characteristics being a love of enterprise, which was the mainspring of his actions through life.
     His father, for some few years previous to his death, had held the rectory of North Fambridge, near Chelmsford; and on his decease young Mr. Bate was nominated to the vacant living. The revenues of this small rectory, however, appear to have been too small to meet the requirements of the reverend gentleman and his family, and he accordingly decided upon directing his attention to such literary undertakings as might be productive of speedy profit; so, coming to London, and falling in with other men who shared in his Bohemian tastes and ways of life, he earned the first few guineas which he made by contributions to the then existing newspapers. In 1773 he helped in founding the Morning Post. The first number of that journal appeared on the 2nd of November of the above year, thirteen years before the establishment of the Times. Mr. Bate became one of the earliest editors of the Post, and, from the lively writing which it exhibited, it very soon obtained a circulation quite unprecedented. Troubles, however, arose; for he one day inserted an article which happened to give offence to a certain Captain Stoney, and, on his refusing to give up the writer's name, the aggrieved captain sent him a challenge, which he did not hesitate to accept. The parties adjoined to the Adelphi Tavern in the Strand, close by, and, having retired to a private room and ordered 'pistols for two, 'proceeded to fight it out'; the firearms, however, proved a failure, and the combatants had recourse to swords, and, both being wounded, they were with difficulty separated. Shortly after this little episode, Mr. Bate quarreled with the proprietors of the Morning Post; but he solved the Gordian knot by resigning his editorial seat, and, having withdrawn from all his other engagements in connection with the press, started the Morning Herald. This was in the year 1 780. Of this paper he was for some years sole proprietor, and he supported his venture with extraordinary success, through his wit and versatility of talents, and partly through the fact that he had gained access to the best circles of the literary and political world. So successful was this undertaking, that in a short space of time the circulation reached the then extraordinary number of four thousand copies daily.
     Mr. Bate had already made the acquaintance of the Prince Regent, and was also on terms of of the greatest intimacy with Garrick. One day dining with that celebrated actor at his lodgings in the Adelphi, he chanced to meet with the Rev. Mr. Townley, author of the farce of 'High Life below Stairs.' He soon after became Mr. Townley's curate at Hendon, and devoted the greater part of his leisure time to literature and authorship. To the 'Probationary Odes' and the 'Rolliad,' which at that time drew universal attention, he contributed largely; and lie wrote entirely 'Vortigern and Rowena,' a satirical work, portraying, with admirable spirit and in the diction of Shakespeare, the characters of all the eminent personages of that day. This appeared at the time of Ireland's as for some years sole proprietor, and he supported his  forgeries. In the time of Garrick be produced the opera of 'The Rival Candidates' at Drury Lane Theatre, and afterwards 'The Blackamoor washed White,' which, in consequence of party spirit running so high at that period, caused a contest among the audience, with drawn swords, on the stage itself. He was also the author of the operas of 'The Flitch of Bacon' and 'The Woodman'; the former was written for the Haymarket Theatre for the purpose of introducing his friend Shield, as a composer, to the public. The rest of his dramatic works are 'The Travelers in Switzerland' and 'At Home,' a bagatelle produced about ten years before his death.
As a magistrate he was most active and vigilant. By his promptitude and personal courage he suppressed the riots at Ely at the time of the Corn Bill agitation, rushing into the room where the conspirators were in deliberation, and with the help of a few followers secured the ringleaders, notwithstanding the rioters were armed and fired at him. lie received in consequence a handsome piece of plate, presented by the leading gentry of the county.  He performed a variety of other acts as a magistrate equally laudable, and was no less strict in the observance of his clerical duties.
     Settling down in middle life as a country gentleman in a remote village at the eastern end of Essex, in the marshes between the Blackwater and the Crouch, he resolved at least not to drone away his time, or to leave no memory of his name behind him. He had become-not without very strong opposition on the part of the Bishop of London-the proprietor of the perpetual advowson of Bradwell-near-the-Sea, which he had himself created from a deserted marsh, taking large portions of the land from the sea, and expending an ample fortune in general improvements, such as forming sea-walls and erecting an observatory. He was at one period Rector of Kilcornan and Chancellor of the Diocese of Ferns, in Ireland; but, tired of the loneliness of the sister isle, and worn out by the want of society, he resigned his Irish preferment's, and, returning to England, obtained the Rectory of Willingham, in Cambridgeshire, and eventually was made, by the influence of the Regent, one of the Prebendaries of Ely.
It was in the year 1784 that Mr. Bate, under the usual royal authority, took the name of Dudley, in addition to his former name, at the instance of a descendant of that family, to whom be was related. In a 'case' prepared by Air. Dudley in 1802, relating to the purchase of the adowson of Bradwell, he states that upon his first visit to the spot, after the purchase had been completed, he found the church, parsonage, and premises gone to general decay, the churchyard fenceless, the glebe land, consisting of nearly three hundred acres, inundated, the tenant thereof broken, and, from the unhealthiness of the climate, no rector nor vicar residing within many miles of that peninsula, and no decent assistant to be procured for the discharge of the parish duties. Regardless of these appearances, lie states that he immediately became resident curate; caused the church, with all its appendages, to be effectively repaired; and, by establishing, a regular church service, increased, progressively, a long-neglected congregation.
     He also not only built a new dwelling-house and outbuildings necessary for the rectory, but drained the land, and embanked a large addition from the sea (for which he received, at different. times, from the Society of Arts two gold medals), thereby rescuing the place from a putrid swamp. He likewise most effectually suppressed, by his unwearied activity, an extensive system of smuggling, alike dangerous to the health and morals of the people, and injurious to the revenue. Upon these important works it is asserted that he made an expenditure of more than 28,000. The baronetcy was conferred upon him in 1812.
     To Sir Henry Dudley the country is in a great measure indebted for one of its ornaments-Gainsborough. His patronage of this excellent painter in early life principally contributed to his subsequent success. His portrait, painted by Gainsborough, doubtless as a mark of gratitude, long hung in the parlor of his parsonage at Bradwell, and now is in the possession of Mr. John Oxley Parker, of Woodham Mortimer, Essex, whose father bought it at the sale of Sir Henry's effects. It was exhibited by Mr. Parker at South Kensington a few years ago, and again at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1885. Sir Henry was also the patron of De Lolme, who wrote the work upon the Constitution; of Lavoisier, who established the present beautiful system of chemistry; and indeed of almost every man of merit who needed and solicited his assistance. Mr. John Wilson Croker (so long secretary to the admiralty, and M.P.), on his outset in life, was perhaps under no small obligations to him. Besides being the intimate friend of Garrick, as mentioned above, Sir Henry was also on terms of intimacy with the Earl of Sandwich (who patronized Captain Cook) with the elder Colman, with Cumberland and Bonnel Thornton, and Mrs. Cowley, and was the associate of all the wits of his day. He first discovered the merits of Mrs. Siddons, who was then performing in a barn at Cheltenham, and mentioned her to Garrick, who commissioned him to engage her, leaving the question of salary to his discretion.
     Sir Henry was, in fact, well acquainted with the private histories of most of the titled families in the three kingdoms; and, indeed, his memory was known to be so richly stored with authentic scandals, that he was more feared than loved among the upper ten thousand, who regarded him as somewhat of an interloper in their ranks. He was also, as a constant visitor at Carlton House on other than days of state, acquainted with most of the personnel of the Court of George III and of the Prince Regent, with respect to whom he could unfold many a tale which would throw no scanty light on the by-ways of history. It is stated by the writer of an obituary notice of him, which appeared soon after his decease, that, 'Having been formerly honored by the society and the confidence of his present Majesty, even in matters of extreme delicacy, he had so full an opportunity of observing the most amiable private qualityies of His Majesty, that he was ever through life most ardently attached to his person. He was equally devoted to him whether Whig or Tory were in power. This gave his politics an appearance of want of principle, when the vacillation to opposite parties was itself produced by principles more amiable than those which influence politicians generally.'  Sir Henry left no heir to inherit his baronetcy, which therefore became extinct only twelve short years after he received the patent of its creation.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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