John Thelwall

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John Thelwall, depicted by John Hazlitt

John Thelwall (27 July 1764 – 17 February 1834) was a radical British orator, writer, political reformer, journalist, poet, elocutionist and speech therapist.[1]


Thelwall was born in Covent Garden, London, but was descended from a Welsh family which had its seat at Plas y Ward, Denbighshire. He was the son of a silk merchant, Joseph Thelwall, who died in 1772 leaving the family in economic distress. It was not until 1777, though, that John had to leave school to help his mother, who had decided to keep the silk business running.

Thelwall's fondness for books showed up at an early age, earning him the scorn of his mother. It also made it impossible for him to fulfill an apprenticeship as a tailor. Young Thelwall also tried to make a living in an attorney office, but his morals and eccentricity made him quit the job and try to depend on his writing as a journalist and editor.

Thelwall's career as an editor and journalist was quite successful, but the highlight of this period was his political activism. In the wake of the French Revolution, he became "intoxicated in the French doctrines of the day".[2] He started to hold talks in London's radical societies and, having made acquaintance with fellow radical John Horne Tooke, contributed to ground the London Corresponding Society in 1792. In 1794 he, Horne Tooke and Thomas Hardy were tried for treason following lectures protesting the arrest of other political activists. After spending some time at the Tower and at Newgate, the three were acquitted. Government officials who considered him to be the most dangerous man in Britain continued to hound him even after his acquittal. In 1795, after prime minister William Pitt the Younger's Gagging Acts (the Treason Act and Seditious Meetings Act) received Royal Assent, Thelwall's lectures had a shift in theme, from contemporary political comment to the history of Rome to dodge censorship.[3]

Still, loyalists stormed Thelwall's public outings, forcing him to leave London and tour England. During many of the lectures in eastern England angry mobs impeded the hearings and in 1798 Thelwall decided to retire from politics.

Thelwall also wrote poetry and in the second half of the 1790s associated with Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth.[4][5][6] Coleridge praised Thelwell as "intrepid, eloquent, and honest; perhaps the only acting democrat that is honest".[1] Through his correspondence and meetings with these poets Thelwall would forge a link between the Romantic movement in poetry and radical politics.

In 1800 Thelwall reappeared as an elocution teacher, which in practice was a combination of speech therapist and rhetoric teacher.

His career was very successful, and by 1818 he had earned enough money to buy a journal, The Champion, through which he called for parliamentary reform and in which he "denounced the government’s actions in the Peterloo massacre, and voiced scepticism about the Cato Street conspiracy".[1] His volcanic style and political views, though, were not fitting for the middle class public of the journal, which ended up in considerable losses. Thelwall therefore resumed his lecture touring and died in Bath during one of those tours.


In the field of politics Thelwall promoted "democratic reform, universal suffrage and freedom of speech".[1] Steve Poole has argued: "Thelwall's was perhaps the most important individual voice in the history of British radicalism... Nobody was better than Thelwall at communicating the Rights of Man to a wide audience."[7]

In the field of speech therapy, he was the "first to make speech correction a profession" and the first to write a book on the subject and to establish a school.[8]


John Thelwall aged 32 from John Baxter's Impartial History of England, 1796.

Thelwall in the 20th century[edit]

In October 2009, the Dalhousie University Theatre Department produced the first ever staging of Thelwall's 1801 melodrama The Fairy of the Lake, as a complement to the John Thelwall conference being hosted at the time by the University's English Department.[9]

A restoration project on Thelwall's grave was launched in 2006 by the Regional History Centre at University of the West of England (UWE).[7]

Personal life[edit]

Thelwall married twice. In 1837 his second wife, Cecil, wrote a biography on the early life of her husband.[8]

Thelwall's eldest son was the clergyman and scholar Algernon Sidney Thelwall and his lesser-known younger son was called John Hampden Thelwall or Hampden Thelwall. Both sons were named after 17th century republicans.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Thelwall, John (1764-1834), Retrieved 30 May 2019.
  2. ^ Quoted in Seccombe, T. John Thelwall, in Stephen L. and Lee S. (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography, Smith Elder & Co., London 1885–1900.
  3. ^ Thelwall's approach to history is closely examined in Steve Poole's Not Precedents to be Followed, but Examples to be Weighed in Poole 2009.
  4. ^ David Fairer, 'A little sparring about Poetry': Coleridge and Thelwall, 1796-8, Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 21, Spring 2003, pp. 20-33. Retrieved 30 May 2019.
  5. ^ Patty O'Boyle, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Thelwall’s Fairy of the Lake, The Coleridge Journal: The Journal of the Friends of Coleridge, New Series 28 (NS), Winter 2006. Retrieved 30 May 2019.
  6. ^ Penelope J. Corfield, Thelwall versus Wordsworth:Alternative Lifestylesin Repressive Times, Retrieved 30 May 2019.
  7. ^ a b UWE helps restore forgotten radical's grave in Bath, Retrieved 30 May 2019.
  8. ^ a b Denyse Rockey, "The Logopaedic thought of John Thelwall, 1764-1834: First British Speech Therapist", in: British Journal of Disorders of Communication, Volume 12, 1977, Issue 2, p. 83.
  9. ^ "Fairy of the Lake". Archived from the original on 1 November 2009. Retrieved 19 October 2009.
  10. ^ John Thelwall (1764–1834)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]