George Whyte-Melville

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"The novelist of Society"
Whyte-Melville as caricatured by James Tissot in Vanity Fair, September 1871

George John Whyte-Melville (19 June 1821 – 5 December 1878)[1] was a Scottish novelist much concerned with field sports, and also a poet.[2]

Life and work[edit]

Whyte-Melville (far left) playing in a foursomes golf match, c. 1852. J. O. Fairlie stands second from the right.

Major George John Whyte-Melville was born in 1821,[3] at Mount Melville near St Andrews. He was a son of Major John Whyte-Melville and Lady Catherine Anne Sarah Osborne and a grandson on his mother's side of the 5th Duke of Leeds. His father was a well-known sportsman and Captain of St Andrews Golf Club. He was also Grand Master of the Freemasons of Scotland from 1834 to 1866.[4]

George was tutored privately at home by the young Robert Lee[5] then educated at Eton,[3] entered the army in 1839,[3] became captain in the Coldstream Guards in 1846 and retired in 1849.[3] He married The Hon Charlotte Hanbury-Bateman in 1847,[3] and they had one daughter, Florence Elizabeth, who went on to marry Clotworthy John Skeffington, 11th Viscount Massereene and 4th Viscount Ferrard.

In 1849 Whyte-Melville was the subject of a summons for maintenance by Elizabeth Gibbs, "a smartly-dressed and interesting looking young woman", who alleged that he was the father of her child. She alleged that she had known Whyte-Melville since December 1846 and that she had given birth to his child in September 1847. The Judge found for the defendant as the written evidence could not be proven to be in Whyte-Melville's hand but allowed the complainant to apply for a further summons in order to obtain proof.,[6]

After translating Horace in 1850, he published his first novel, Digby Grand, in 1852, which was a huge success. He went on to publish twenty-one novels and became a popular writer about hunting. Most of his heroes and heroines, Digby Grand, Tilbury Nogo, the Honourable Crasher, Mr Sawyer, Kate Coventry, Mrs Lascelles, ride to hounds, or are would-be members of the hunt. Some characters reappear in different novels, such as the supercilious studgroom, the dark and wary steeple-chaser, or the fascinating sporting widow.

Bones and I, or The Skeleton at Home, is an anomaly to the corpus of his work, since it is far from the worlds of the hunting field or the historical romance. Instead Bones and I centres upon an urban recluse who lives in a small, modern villa situated in a London cul de sac looking out upon "the dead wall at the back of an hospital." His most famous lyric is also unusual in its unexpected deep melancholy – the words to Paolo Tosti's song "Good-bye!" Several of his novels are historical, The Gladiators being the best known. He also published volumes of poetry, including Songs and Verses (1869) and Legend of the True Cross (1873). However, it is for his portrayal of contemporary sporting society that he is most regarded. Henry Hawley Smart is said to have taken Whyte-Melville as one of his models when he set out on his career as a sporting novelist.[7] It is for the words to a song about hunting that he is perhaps best remembered: 'Drink, Puppy, Drink' (whose name will be familiar to readers of The Flashman Papers novels of George MacDonald Fraser, it being frequently mentioned as one of that anti-hero's favourite songs).

In 1876, Whyte-Melville penned the rarely attributed, but widely recognized opening line to the short poem The Object of a Life

To eat, drink, and be merry, because to-morrow we die; [8]

Crimean War[edit]

When the Crimean War broke out, Whyte-Melville went out as a volunteer major of Turkish irregular cavalry,[3] but this was the only break in his literary career.


By a strange accident, Whyte-Melville lost his life in 1878 whilst hunting; the hero of many a stiff ride meeting his fate in galloping quietly over a ploughed field in the Vale of White Horse.[9][10] Having moved to Tetbury in Gloucestershire in about 1875, the better to follow the Beaufort and V.W.H hunts, he was buried in the churchyard of St Mary's, Tetbury, within a few feet of his property, Barton Abbotts.


It has been claimed that Whyte-Melville's death inspired the well-known hunting song "John Peel" - although John Peel was a real-life huntsman in the Lake District, the author of the lyrics, John Woodcock Graves, was a close friend of Whyte-Melville. After imbibing a quantity of alcohol at Whyte-Melville's funeral, Graves penned some verses in tribute to Whyte-Melville, set to the melody of a traditional folk song entitled, "Bonnie Annie".[citation needed]

Whyte-Melville Memorial Fountain, St Andrews, Fife, Scotland

The Scottish Border poet and Australian bush balladeer Will H. Ogilvie (1869–1963) was strongly influenced by Whyte-Melville, so much that he addressed two poems to him. These lines are from the Scattered Scarlet anthology of 1923:

How good it is, how good, to fling aside
The last new garbage-novel of the day
And turn again with pleasure and with pride
To your long line of volumes silver-grey,
And with you, gallant heart, to ride away
Through that clean world where your Sir Galahads ride!

At the instigation of his mother, Lady Catherine Melville, a memorial fountain to Whyte-Melville was erected by public subscription in Market Street, St Andrews, Fife in 1880.[11] This three-tier cascading fountain about 14 foot (427 cm) high was built of sandstone and Dalbeattie granite and features four marble plaques dedicated to him. These show his bust, the family coat of arms, the arms of the Coldstream Guards, and a memorial inscription.[12] Due to corrosion of its internal pipes, it later fell into disuse (possibly in the 1930s)[13]) and was for many decades treated as a flower bed. A successful campaign by a local councillor and the St Andrews Merchants' Association led to its reconnection as a fountain on Wednesday 8 July 2015.[14]


His Songs and Verses (first published by Chapman and Hall in 1869) went through several editions. His other works include:

  • Digby Grand (1852)[15]
  • General Bounce (1854)[16]
  • Kate Coventry (1856)
  • The Interpreter (1858)
  • Holmby House (1860)
  • Good for Nothing (1861)
  • Market Harborough (1861)
  • The Queen's Maries (1862)
  • The Gladiators (1863)
  • Brookes of Bridlemere (1864)
  • Cerise (1866)
  • Bones and I (1868)
  • The White Rose (1868)
  • M or N (1869)
  • Contraband (1870)
  • Sarchedon (1871)
  • Satanella (1873)
  • Uncle John (1874)
  • Sister Louise (1875)
  • Katerfelto (1875) (Katerfelto was the name of a famous, possibly mythical, stallion that lived on Exmoor in the early nineteenth century.)
  • Rosine (1875)
  • Roy's Wife (1878)
  • Black but Comely (1878)
  • Riding Recollections (1878)


  1. ^
  2. ^  "Whyte-Melville, George John". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f "MR. J. G. WHYTE MELVILLE." The Empire. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 2 September 1867. p. 2. Retrieved 18 October 2013. 
  4. ^ Freemasons Hall, Edinburgh, busts of former Grand Masters
  5. ^
  6. ^ Pg 8 "The Times" Saturday July 14, 1849
  7. ^ ODNB entry for Smart by Thomas Seccombe, rev. James Lunt Retrieved 15 January 2013. Pay-walled.
  8. ^ Whyte Melville, George John (September–December 1876). "The Object of a Life". Temple Bar. London, United Kingdom: William Clowes and Sons. p. 514. Retrieved 2017-12-26. 
  9. ^ Henry, Frank (1914). Members of the Beaufort hunt, past & present. Cirencester: Standard Printing Works. pp. 1–80. 
  10. ^ Jessica Hinings, 'Melville, George John Whyte- (1821–1878)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 18 Oct 2013
  11. ^ Visit St Andrews | Whyte-Melville Memorial Fountain
  12. ^ UK Attraction | Whyte-Melville Fountain
  13. ^ The Saint | Plans in full flow to return water to fountain
  14. ^ Fife Today | Water flows again through fountain in heart of St Andrews
  15. ^ Index to Victorian Periodicals 1804–1900. pp. 414–418.  The Autobiography of Captain Digby Grand was published in Fraser's Magazine from November 1851 to December 1852.
  16. ^ Index to Victorian Periodicals 1804–1900. p. 422–426.  General Bounce was published in Fraser's Magazine in 1854 from January to December.

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