Thomas Holcroft

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For other people named Thomas Holcroft, see Thomas Holcroft (disambiguation).
Portrait, oil on canvas, of Thomas Holcroft (1745–1809) by John Opie (1761–1807)

Thomas Holcroft (10 December 1745 – 23 March 1809) was an English dramatist and miscellaneous writer.

Early life[edit]

He was born in Orange Court, Leicester Fields, London. His father had a shoemaker's shop, and kept riding horses for hire; but having fallen into difficulties was reduced to the status of hawking peddler. The son accompanied his parents in their travels, and obtained work as a stable boy at Newmarket, where he spent his evenings chiefly in miscellaneous reading and the study of music. Gradually he obtained a knowledge of French, German and Italian.

When his job as stable boy came to an end, he returned to assist his father, who had resumed his trade of shoemaker in London; but after marrying his cousin, the half-sister of Maj. Charles Marsack of Caversham Park, in 1765, he became a teacher in a small school in Liverpool. He failed in an attempt to set up a private school, and became prompter in a Dublin theatre. He acted in various strolling companies until 1778, when he produced The Crisis; or, Love and Famine, at Drury Lane. Duplicity followed in 1781.

Literary and political career[edit]

Two years later Holcroft went to Paris as correspondent of the Morning Herald. Here he attended the performances of Beaumarchais's Mariage de Figaro until he had memorized the whole. His translation of it, with the title The Follies of the Day, was produced at Drury Lane in 1784. The Road to Ruin, his most successful play, was produced in 1792. A revival in 1873 ran for 118 nights.

His novels include Alwyn (1780), an account, largely autobiographical, of a strolling comedian, Anna St. Ives (the first British Jacobin novel, published in 1792), and The Adventures of Hugh Trevor (1794–1797). He also was the author of Travels from Hamburg through Westphalia, Holland and the Netherlands to Paris, of some volumes of verse and of translations from the French and German. One of these was Letters Between Frederic II and M. De Voltaire (1789).

Sympathetic to the early ideals of the French Revolution, Holcroft assisted in the publication of the first part of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man in 1791 He joined the Society for Constitutional Information (SCI) in 1792 and was appointed a member of a liaison committee to work with the LCS in early 1794. As a result of his activism, in the autumn of 1794 Holcroft was indicted for high treason and held in Newgate Prison whilst three other treason trials proceeded. In early December 1794, Holcroft was discharged without trial after those cases, against London Corresponding Society secretary Thomas Hardy, and SCI figure John Horne Tooke, resulted in acquittals.[1]

As one of what Secretary of War William Windham called "acquitted felons", Holcroft's post-arrest reputation meant that his plays achieved little success after 1795, although he was instrumental in bringing melodrama to Britain at the end of the decade with his Deaf and Dumb (1801) and A Tale of Mystery (1802) (an unacknowledged translation of de Pixerécourt's Cœlina, ou, l'enfant du mystère). Despite a modicum of success with A Tale of Mystery, the remainder of the decade was marked by unsuccessful attempts to return to the public eye. He died in 1809, not long after a deathbed reconciliation with his closest friend from the 1790s (but lately estranged), William Godwin. His Memoirs written by Himself and continued down to the Time of his Death, from his Diary, Notes and other Papers, by William Hazlitt, appeared in 1816, and was reprinted, in a slightly abridged form, in 1852.

Fanny Holcroft[edit]

Thomas Holcroft's daughter, Fanny Holcroft (1780–1844), wrote the noted Romantic anti-slavery poem, "The Negro" (1797), as well as novels such as Fortitude and Frailty (1817) and The Wife and the Lover (1813–14).[2]


  1. ^ For more on Holcroft's activities in the SCI, and the connections between his theatrical and political dissent, see: Karr, David S. (July 2001). ""Thoughts That Flash like Lightning": Thomas Holcroft, Radical Theater, and the Production of Meaning in 1790s London". Journal of British Studies 40 (3): 324–56. doi:10.1086/386246. JSTOR 3070727. 
  2. ^ Corvey Library catalogue: Retrieved 30 July 2012.


  • Bour, Isabelle (July 1993). "Raison, esprit, psyché dans les romans révolutionaires de Thomas Holcroft". Bulletin de la Société d'études anglo-américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles 36: 71–82. 
  • Holcroft, Thomas; Hazlitt, William (1852). Memoirs of the Late Thomas Holcroft: Written by Himself; and Continued to the Time of His Death. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. 

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