Nov 182017

Philip Thicknesse painted by Thomas Gainsborough

I can think of two good reasons to blog about Philip Thicknesse: the first was that he was a seventh son and I haven’t blogged about one of them since doing a piece on Alexander Selkirk. So, it gives me a chance to link to one of my favourite Georgie Fame song ‘Seventh Son’ dating from 1969, with the lyrics

‘I’m the one, I’m the one The one they call the seventh son’

(You know you want to hear it again – you can, here.)

The second reason is that Thicknesse was a world-class act – a man so unbelievably objectionable and argumentative, so full of bile and vitriol that it is amazing that his own mother didn’t drown him at birth. He was born in Farthingoe in Northamptonshire in 1719. His father was a vicar, who died when Philip was six, and poor mother had two daughters to bring up, in addition to the seven sons. Never a keen scholar, Thicknesse spent most of his time honing his truancy skills before becoming apprenticed to an apothecary. There he learned (and tested) the various tinctures and cordials which were the staple of the apothecary – in other words, opiates – which must have stood him in good stead in later life when he became addicted to laudanum.

Aged 16 he decided it was time to visit Georgia, and he accompanied the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, as they set off for America in 1735.   Having reached Georgia he then decided to become a hermit, as one does, and constructed himself a nice little log cabin, on the side of a creek. I suspect that the rest of the world wished that he had stayed there longer, but after a two-year stint he returned to England and took a job working for the Georgia colonists – ostensibly drumming up followers who could be persuaded to part with their cash and head for a new life. The problem was that Philip painted such a dire picture of the place that no-one wanted to come, so he was fired. He then headed for Jamaica  – it is unclear what the islanders had done to deserve him, but he was made captain of a group of militia tasked with hunting down escaped slaves. This, he reckoned, gave him a useful insight into the plight of slaves. What he apparently learned was that slavery was perfectly OK, as long as the slaves were not treated too barbarously.

His fellow officers couldn’t stand him, and he came back to England, basing himself in Southampton where he became captain-lieutenant in a marine foot regiment. Brawling in a public tavern, and then getting involved in a duel with a fellow officer who accused him of running away from the slaves, Thicknesse then set his eyes on marrying into money. His selected victim was Maria Lanove, daughter of a prosperous Huguenot family with a £40,000 inheritance to her name. They eloped in 1742 after he managed to seize Maria from under the noses of armed guards. Having married his girl and got her pregnant he then went off to the Med for a year on board HMS Ipswich. Sadly he returned, whisked Maria off to Bath, and set about spending her money at the gaming tables.

Rowlandson’s “The Kick-up at the Hazard Room” from 1787.

He also sired two more children by her. And then disaster struck: Maria and two of the girls caught a form of diphtheria and all three died, leaving Thicknesse with a young daughter called Anna. His in-laws, with whom he had fallen out, both died suddenly – father in his sleep, mother when she jumped out of a window in Southampton High Street at the exact point where her daughter had been abducted, impaling herself on the railings below the window in the process.

This left Thicknesse with a problem: how to get his hands on mother’s money. It was a dilemma which occupied him for most of the rest of his life, and involved an application to the House of Lords. He lost. Meanwhile he moved to Queen Square in Bath, developed gallstones, and as a result became even more vitriolic and argumentative than before. Opium helped, and he regularly advised all gentlemen acquaintances to take ‘ten to twenty drops of strong laudanum daily’ – or so the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography helpfully tells us.

Within a year Thicknesse had re-married – this time to a well-connected Roman Catholic girl six years his junior. She was Lady Elizabeth Touchet, eldest daughter and heir of Lord Audley, and despite her father’s objections to the match she brought with her a dowry of £5000. That was enough to make Thicknesse king of one particular castle – he purchased the lieutenant-governorship of Landguard Fort in Suffolk, guarding the entrance to Harwich harbour.

© National Trust Images. Landguard Fort from around 1780

Once installed he began to fall out with everyone else in the pecking order above him – especially Colonel Vernon of the Suffolk militia. He was later to become Lord Orwell, but first had to put up with an awful lot of grief from Thicknesse. The latter even went to the expense of buying his own printing press so that his vituperative outpourings were unrestricted, and so that he could say all manner of nasty (and untrue) things about Vernon when he stood for Parliament. It culminated in ‘the case of the wooden gun’. Thicknesse found a floating log, shaped like a cannon, and sent it to his Lordship as an insult (presumably having first wrapped it in pretty paper and put the appropriate stamp on it). Vernon was not amused and sued Thicknesse for previous libels, and won. Exit the detestable Thicknesse for a 3-month stint in prison. He was also hit with a £100 fine and bound over to keep the peace for seven years with a surety of £1000.

Having tried to blackmail Lord Bute, Thicknesse then had to contend with the death of his second wife in 1762. She had never really recovered from giving birth to a son two years earlier, despite being looked after fastidiously by her close friend Ann Ford. Ann had previously been involved in an alleged affair with the ageing Lord Jersey, who had allegedly offered her an annuity of £800 to become his mistress. She declined, amidst rather a public spat with his lordship, and had been living with the Thicknesse family at Landguard Fort for some time. Within months of the death of Wife Number Two she had become Wife Number Three.

Ann Ford, later the third Mrs Thicknesse, holding her viola da gamba when painted by Thomas Gainsborough

Ann was an accomplished singer and a fine player of an instrument known as the viola da gamba. Thomas Gainsborough painted her with her viola da gamba sitting on her lap. Ironically, Thicknesse had helped ‘discover’ the talented Gainsborough, encouraging him to take up portraiture and to set up his studio in Bath. Years later, Thicknesse was to fall out with his artist friend – well, given time, he fell out with absolutely everyone (except his wife). The happy couple remained married for thirty years, and had six children, two of whom died very young. In addition, of course, he still had a daughter by his first marriage and two sons, George and Philip, by his second. George had a very public spat with his dad, and insisted on changing his surname to Touchet to distance himself from father, and in due course became Lord Audley, baron of Castlehaven. To Thicknesse it was intolerable to think that he had given pocket money to the young upstart, and that the ungrateful son was now declining to pick up all of Dad’s bills or to provide him with a comfortable life – I mean, what else are children for? No, don’t answer that!

    In 1776 Thicknesse went on a European tour, and while passing through Ardres dropped off one of his daughters in a convent, where she remained, willingly or otherwise, for the rest of her life. He wrote up his travel experiences in his ‘Observations on the Customs and Manners of the French Nation’ (1766) followed up two years later by his ‘Useful Hints to those who Make the Tour of Franc’e. On his return to England the family settled in Bath. A bitter dispute with the actor-playwright Samuel Foote led to the latter giving Thicknesse the moniker ‘Dr Viper’. Others knew him as ‘Philip Thickskull’.

By the mid-seventies Philip Thicknesse senior had given up all hope of getting his hands on the estate of his first mother-in-law. He took to writing helpful guides on how to live life to the full in a provincial town such as Bath. So we had the 1778 ‘The New Prose Bath Guide’ and the 1780 ‘The Valetudinarian’s Bath Guide, or, The Means of Obtaining Long Life and Health’. These contained the somewhat intriguing suggestion that wine and drink taken to excess were good for you, as was the frequent ‘inhalation of the breath of young women’. Nowadays you get locked up for that sort of thing!

From the 1760s onwards Thicknesse was a regular contributor to the Gentleman’s Magazine using the pseudonym of ‘Polyxena’.  He also contributed regularly to other magazines and demonstrated a wide-ranging if not always accurate interest in matters as diverse as man-midwifery, deciphering, gout, and the exhibition in London of fraudulent automata (including chess-playing machines) by those mischievous foreign johnnies…

While in Bath he fell out with most of the movers and shakers of the city – not least with James Mattrick Adair who was a medical man accused by Thicknesse of being a quack and a charlatan. By now his enmity with his two sons was developing nicely – he resorted to trying to swindle and defame the boys in order to get his hands on their inheritance. He never hesitated to air his dirty linen in public, culminating in the publication of a three volume diatribe entitled ‘Memoirs and anecdotes of Philip Thicknesse, late governor of Landguard Fort, and unfortunately father to George Touchet, Baron Audley’. Things never did really back on an even keel after that – so much so that when he wrote his will Thicknesse directed that on his death his executors should cut off his right arm ‘and send it to his eldest son as a reminder of his filial duties’. Nice one! As a lawyer I can remember being asked to prepare a will in which the testatrix left her son nothing but a glass of brandy. I pointed out that she would have to specify which glass, which brandy, and in the end persuaded her to change it to a bequest of £5 with the expressed hope that he would spend the money on buying a double brandy to celebrate her departure. But a whole hand! That shows real determination and spite!

I leave my son my right hand….

The dedication to the Memoirs shows that Thicknesse believed that these personal attacks often led to him being paid money to shut up and go away. He writes”it be true, that I quarrel with three out of four of my friends, I find that turns up more profitable than living well with them.I know not what I should have done to make both ends meet, in my old age, if it had not been for the repeated kindnesses of my enemies. I can at any time muster ten or a dozen knaves and fools, who will put an hundred pounds or two into my pocket, merely by holding them up to public scorn.”

And there we will leave Philip Thicknesse, until Part Two which will follow tomorrow….


  One Response to “The eccentric and argumentative Philip Thicknesse – a most unpleasant man (part one).”


    Hi, I’ve just done some research on Philip Thickesse and he wasn’t the 7th son but the 8th, Samuel was the 7th born in 1716.

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