When British M.P. Tom Driberg started writing a gossip column in the Daily Express in 1928 he chose the nom de plume ‘William Hickey’. Later the journalist Nigel Dempster took over the name for many years – but why William Hickey?
It turns out that in the 18th Century there was a real William Hickey, and one who was if anything rather more colourful than even Driburg or Dempster (neither of them exactly shrinking violets).He was born in Pall Mall London on June 30, 1749, the seventh son of a successful Irish solicitor and his Yorkshire-born wife. (I love stories about seventh sons – must do a separate post on them some time, preferably accompanied by Georgie Fame crooning ‘I’m the one, I’m the one, the seventh son…’).
He was packed off to Westminster School but was chucked out at the age of 14 for spending too much time in the pub, for leading what he himself described as ‘a life of idleness and dissipation’, and for failing to do any schoolwork. His parents sent him to a private school in Streatham where he seemed to buckle down and obtain a reasonable education. Arguably he didn’t need one, for Master William lived by his wits. He was supposed to be training to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer, but the allure of the gaming tables proved more attractive. That and playing billiards and cricket. And keeping a mistress called Nanny Harris, and generally leading a life of merry debauchery. He was living way beyond his means and ended up embezzling £500 from his father’s firm (perhaps £40,000 would be a modern equivalent, not exactly a minor indiscretion!). For that, Dad packed him off out of harm’s way and sent him to India. The year was 1769, and William was not yet 21…
The signs of a mischievous disposition were there from a far earlier age: in 1755 the Hickey family had moved in to Cross Deep Lodge in Twickenham and became near neighbours of the elderly Thomas Hudson, an artist of some note. Writing about Hudson at a later date Hickey recalled ‘His figure was rather grotesque, being uncommonly low in stature, with a prodigious belly, and constantly wearing a large white bushy periwig. He was remarkably good tempered, and one of my first- rate favourites, notwithstanding that he often told me I should certainly be hanged.’On one occasion Hickey encountered the old gentleman leaning on his stick, and with a deft kick dislodged the stick and sent the unsupported Hudson sprawling on the ground in indignant rage. His other party trick was to paddle out onto the Thames in a canoe, then flail his arms and shout while pretending to be in danger of drowning, just to see if he could lure some unsuspecting Good Samaritan to come to his ‘rescue’.
All that was to end when he was sent out to India in disgrace, but he built up a practice in Calcutta as an attorney and appears to have been a success.
Hickey and his servant William Munnoo in 1819 by Wm. Thomas, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
William kept himself busy jotting down his recollections of life in Calcutta and Madras, adding to it details of a visit to Jamaica as well as reminiscences of his time in London. These memoirs became the basis of a huge project, completed in 1810 but not published until another century had passed (between the years 1913 and 1925).
The Memoirs run to 740 pages and give an extraordinarily vivid picture of life in the late 18th-century. Originally published in four volumes there is also a condensed version entitled The Prodigal Rake: Memoirs of William Hickey’ still in print and available on Amazon.
One of his recollections concerned a night spent with the famous courtesan Emily Warren. He writes: ‘Never did I behold so perfect a beauty. I passed a night that many would have given thousands to do. I however, that night, experienced the truth – that she was cold as ice, seemingly totally devoid of feeling. I rose convinced that she had no passion for the male sex.’
Ah well, William, lesson learned: you may buy the lady’s body but you will never possess her soul…
Emily Warren (otherwise Emily Pott, otherwise Emily Bertie, otherwise …take your pick) had become a prostitute at the age of twelve on the streets of London but rose to achieve considerable fame and notoriety. In the end she joined Hickey’s friend Robert Pott of the East India Company on a trip to India, but died on the voyage in 1782.
‘Portrait of a lady, said to be Miss Emily Bertie, known as Emily Pott’, a painting by George Romney (courtesy of Wikipedia).
For William, a life as a young tearaway, followed by just about every excess available at the time, led to a long and happy (if dissolute) life, He died at the end of May 1830. I like to think that he was most at home in scenes like this, from Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress:
or this one from James Gillray:
William Hickey, rake and libertine: who ever would have thought that you would make it to 80?!