John Thelwall (27 July 1764 – 17 February 1834), was a radical British orator, writer, and elocutionist.
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.
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". 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 in order to dodge censorship.
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. Two years later he reappeared as an elocution teacher, a sum 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. 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 resumed thus his lecture touring and died in Bath during one of those tours.
Among his other views, Thelwall was known for his denunciation of all wars except those of self-defence.
- Poems on Various Subjects (1787)
- Incle and Yarico (1787)
- The Incas (1792)
- An essay towards a definition of animal vitality (1793)
- The Peripatetic; or, Sketches of the Heart, of Nature and Society; in a Series of Politico-Sentimental Journals (1793)
- Poems written in close confinement in the Tower and Newgate (1795)
- The Natural and Constitutional Right of Britons to Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and the Freedom of Popular Association (1795)
- The Tribune (1795–96)
- The Rights of Nature Against the Usurpations of Establishments (1796)
- Sober Reflections on the Seditious and Inflammatory Letter of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke to a Noble Lord (1796)
- Poems chiefly written in retirement … with a prefatory memoir of the life of the author (1801)
- The Fairy of the Lake (1801)
- The Daughter of Adoption (1801)
- Poem and Oration on the Death of Lord Nelson (1805)
- Treatment of Cases of Defective Utterance (1814)
A restoration project on Thelwall's grave was launched in 2006 by the Regional History Centre at University of the West of England (UWE).
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.
Thelwall's eldest son was the clergyman and scholar Algernon Sidney Thelwall; his lesser-known younger son was called John Hampden Thelwall or Hampden Thelwall, they were named after 17th century republicans.
- Quoted in Seccombe, T. John Thelwall, in Stephen L. and Lee S. (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography, Smith Elder & Co., London 1885-1900.
- 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.
- John Thelwall (1764-1834)
- Boyle C., The life of John Thelwall, London 1837
- Claeys, Gregory (ed.), The Politics of English Jacobinism Writings of John Thelwall, Penn State Press, 2001 ISBN 0-271-01347-8
- Felsenstein F. e Scrivener M. (eds.), Incle and Yarico and The Incas: Two Plays by John Thelwall, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, Madison 2006.
- Poole S. (ed.), John Thelwall: Radical Romantic and Acquitted Felon, Pickering & Chatto, London 2009.
- Scrivener, Michael, Seditious Allegories: John Thelwall and Jacobin Writing, Penn State Press, 2001 ISBN 0-271-01348-6
- Thompson, E.P., The Making of the English Working Class especially Chapter 5
- Solomonescu, Y. John Thelwall and the Materialist Imagination. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014 ISBN 978-1-137-42614-7