John Thelwall: political radical, Romantic poet, speech therapist

“In his utterances, Englishmen experienced the full beauty and energy of their native speech. His oratorical powers were only surpassed by his devoted zeal and unflinching efforts to promote the best liberties of his fellow men.”

This wonderful  epitaph is on this tombstone in a neglected chapel in the city Bath. It commemorates one of the most radical thinkers of the 18th century, and also one of the bravest, John Thelwall (1764-1834). A few years ago the University of the West of england organised a 2 day conference in his memory, and funds had been raised to restore this flaking tombstone which we all made a pilgrimage to.

Like many of my heros, he was a polymath; in this case, a campaigner for free speech, pioneer of speech therapy, romantic poet, and political radical.  He was a poet, from 1795-6 he published The Tribune, which was mostly his own political writing. In 1792 he became one of the founders of the London Corresponding Society, advocating reform of parliament and expansion of the voting franchise.

They organised a number of very large public meetings; the one at Copenhagen House in London was said to have attracted a crowd of 100,000, as shown in this cartoon by Gilray. With his fellows, he was put on trial for treason in 1794, so was at risk of execution. Habeus Corpus was suspended, allowing them to be imprisoned without trial for inciting rebellion against the crown. Though all were acquitted, he was called by some members of government ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ and the taint of the trial stayed with him.

He was a Romantic poet and close friend and collaborator of Wordsworth and Colerige, during the period of the Lyrical Ballads. For a time he attempted to become a farmer in the Wye Valley, but returned to London to establish the Phonetics Institute to try  to cure people of stammering, so became a pioneer of speech therapy.

In 1826 he edited and wrote Panoramic Miscellany which promoted a wide range of journalism and was noteworthy for its promotion of women writers, its  international outlook, and its independent reviews.

2 thoughts on “John Thelwall: political radical, Romantic poet, speech therapist

    • the thing with him is his role as a speech therapist. He is the only person to advocate public access to power, but also to help people to do it. He comprised a very intriguing combination of the solitary romantic, the populist radical, and someone utterly absorbed by the proces of communication. I try to visit his grave whenever I’m in Bath, tho the churchyard is onlly open when there is an art exhibition in the chapel, so all very hit and miss.


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