I was aware that I come from a family of scribblers – mostly execrable verse with much doggerel, and very poor rhymes. But I had not really appreciated that almost 200 years ago William Seward Hall, son of my ancestor Richard Hall by his first marriage, had published a truly sycophantic piece called “Empire of Philanthropy” It was dedicated to King George III but was actually published in 1822, i.e. two years after the monarch had died.
What I was equally surprised to see was that Americans have written theses about attitudes towards Philanthropy, and have quoted the “dramatic poem” as an example of 18th Century public opinion. I was also staggered to see that some poor blighter bid £150 for a copy of the printed oeuvre a few years back…. a fool and his money are easily parted.
I have scanned in a copy of the frontispiece – the reference to the quote “Philanthropy is the Health of the Heart” by ‘Miss Seward’ is included because Anna Seward, otherwise known as the “Swan of Lichfield” was William’s aunt. I suspect he thought it gave the work added value to have her name on the front page….
The poem contains Preface setting out a declaration of its lofty aims:
To impress on the philanthropic heart, and more especially on that of a generous Briton, the sweet satisfaction of having been the mean of promoting the happiness of Mankind – to generate therein an unremitting effort to increase their felicity – and to raise the soul of the Philanthropist in admiration, adoration, and love of Him who is the Divine Fountain of benignity and mercy – are the objects of the Author in this Poem. And, at the same time, he rejoices in having the pleasurable opportunity of holding up therein his benevolent and beloved Country as the great national example of Philanthropy to the world: while his patriotic aim is, yet higher to improve its elevated character – to cement its population in harmony and love – and to awaken the attention of the generous Briton to those further benevolent pursuits that will advance the happiness of the human race.
It contains the following dedication:
TO THE KING.
SIRE, NO PRINCE who has sat on the Throne of the British Nation has been more solicitous to maintain and illustrate the Dignity and Importance which it has long held among the Nations of the Earth, than your Majesty…
WHILE FANCY, deck’d with varied ﬂowers,
Allures the throng to seek her bowers,
At FICTION’S shrine to spend their hours,
And, with her fascinating smiles,
To evanescent bliss beguiles;
While others, in romantic lays,
Make her the burden of their praise
Be mine my powers in verse t’ employ
To win the soul to fadeless joy;
Observance with Reﬂection blend,
And thus achieve a nobler end;
PHILANTHROPY I’ll make my theme,
Uphold to View her radiant beam,
And call th’ attention of the Earth
To records of BRITANNIA’S worth;
To lead her Sons still more to bless,
And cause increase of happiness.
And, while I sing BRITANNIA’S fame,
Her Deeds of Love around proclaim,
Let BRITONS glory in their name
And, for the bliss they’ve shed abroad,
Let BRITONS raise their thanks to GOD
Then hymn HIS praise who gave the gen’rous mind,
Who sent PHILANTHROPY to bless Mankind
And so it continues for 166 pages! I make no comment on its literary value, but I have referred to it because it is interesting to see how a prosperous businessman viewed the world in 1820.William was by then retired, having been a silk merchant, and in 1820 had been appointed Master of the Haberdashers Guild. Poor blighter – when George IV had his coronation William was one of the twelve representatives of the great Livery Companies who turned up at Westminster Abbey in their finery, only to be told by the Sargeant-at-Arms that their invitations were not in order – and the dozen Masters with their chains around their necks had to sit behind the closed Abbey door throughout the ceremony. William was not amused and penned a letter to the Times complaining at the affront to their dignity – not so much their personal dignity, but because of the insult to the noble trade associations which they represented.
But I digress: The country may have lost the American Colonies but after a long war with France she had emerged victorious, and with a huge sprawling Empire from which goods and wealth flowed back to the Mother Country. In return, we gave the noble savages the one thing they needed most – Christianity, and the chance to be part of a great empire. Nowadays we see that for the poisoned chalice it really was, but to William, British Philanthropy, our kindness and generosity towards others less fortunate than ourselves, was of paramount importance.
Why, we looked after mothers in childbirth (William was Secretary to the Lying-in Hospital); we had homes where the children of the poor could be educated so that they could find employment (e.g.the Foundling Hospital); and there were charities providing literacy classes to the rural poor (e.g. Hannah More in Somerset). We had champions of the rights of prison offenders in John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, we had benefactors who endowed hospitals (Thomas Guy) and we had the saintly William Wilberforce who worked tirelessly to eradicate the scourge of slavery – and sought to eliminate cruelty to animals. In fact the eighteenth century has been described as the Second Golden Age of Philanthropy.
Not only that, but in the eyes of William Hall credit lay at the feet of the monarch. No matter that he had been mad as a hatter and a total recluse for some years, deaf, blind and insane. He was the spirit of goodness, the embodiment of British Excellence. As the portrait of the disheveled monarch states: “When we forget him may God forget us”