This is the second of two posts in which we share the results of our research into the gents of Hereford chess club, depicted in Thomas Leeming’s painting of 1815. Here, once again, is the picture…
In our previous post, we profiled Charles Biss, Theophilus Lane, Samuel Beavan, Francis Lewis Bodenham and Edwin Goode Wright. These were men from the higher echelons of Hereford society, colleagues as well as friends, with close family and business connections. They were confident men, assured of their status in society and comfortable in each other’s company.
But there is one man in the group who doesn’t quite fit the template, John Allen Junior (1787-1829). He is the short and slightly hunched figure on the far left of the picture, and he is the subject of today’s blog.
Allen is an engaging figure - energetic, innovative, radical, impulsive - but a man whose demons ultimately got the better of him. His life has been researched in some detail by Paul Latcham, himself a former Hereford bookseller, and this blog is greatly indebted to an article by him published in A Hereford Miscellany in 2000.
Allen’s father, John Allen Senior, had moved from London to Hereford around 1779 where he founded what was to become a well-regarded bookselling business. From an early age the young Allen was fascinated by things antiquarian and bibliographical. This would have equipped him well for a career in the family business and indeed it traded as John Allen & Son, though only briefly.
He also had military inclinations. In 1808 he joined the local militia, the Herefordshire Volunteers, and by 1813 had risen to the rank of captain. For part of his time in the militia he served in the company commanded by Edwin Goode Wright, the figure in the right foreground of the picture holding a chess piece.
At the time the picture was painted in 1815, Allen was much involved in setting up the Hereford Permanent Library, the city’s first non-commercial library. Allen would have been well qualified to advise on the project, as the family business had previously run a ‘circulating library’ where for 12 shillings a year readers could borrow books from an extensive selection.
Allen travelled frequently to London and it is possible that he met Thomas Leeming on one of his visits, perhaps even at the London Chess Club in Cornhill. It could have been Allen who provided Leeming with his entrée into Hereford society and the commissions which followed.
Today, Allen is mainly remembered for his Bibliotheca Herefordiensis, which can claim to be the first county bibliography of its kind to be published in Britain. It was an ambitious attempt to list all the printed and graphic material relating to Herefordshire. As we recounted in an earlier blog [insert link], when we visited Hereford Cathedral library Martin and I were privileged to examine one of only 25 copies that Allen printed. None of these were offered for sale - Allen kept one copy for himself and gave the others away.
Allen’s magnum opus:
dated 1821 on the title page but not completed until the following year.
Allen was no stranger to controversy. He had campaigned vigorously in the robust 1818 parliamentary election in Hereford, and subsequently played a leading role in inviting the radical MP Joseph Hume to attend a dinner with 300 guests, including many of the great-and-the-good of the county. Allen had also taken a high profile stand against a decision taken by the Permanent Library to destroy two books deemed to be of ‘unmoral and irreligious tendency’.
Allen’s promulgation of the libellous pamphlet was motivated by his sense of moral outrage at the conduct of the solicitor who had brought the original action. When the case against Allen was heard at Hereford assizes in April 1822 an immense crowd had gathered there, according to the Hereford Journal. Allen had little option but to plead guilty, since the libel had already been established. His chess mate Francis Lewis Bodenham (Allen’s opponent in the picture) stood by him - the Bodenham law firm not only took on the case for the defence but waived its fee. They seem to have done their job well as, on the surface, Allen emerged relatively lightly. The plaintiff received only nominal damages of £5, but Allen still had to meet the plaintiff’s costs of over £400.
Then the wheels started to come off. In 1823 Allen Senior sold the family business rather than passing it on to his son, which suggests that their relationship may have broken down. In the same year, Allen Junior moved to London where he dealt in books and continued his bibliographical and antiquarian researches. But he was soon seriously strapped for cash. In 1827 his stock and much of his private library was sold at auction.
A sad note scrawled by Allen in 1827 from Clerkenwell Prison survives, in which he asks his librarian friend William Upcott to stand bail for him so that he can be released ‘from this damned place’.
John Allen Junior's cri de coeur from Clerkenwell Prison
We don’t know why he was there, but Clerkenwell was not a debtor’s prison so perhaps he was detained for attempted suicide, in those days an imprisonable offence. Within a few days a certificate of insanity had been obtained, and Allen spent the next eight months in Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam).
An 1828 engraving showing the the forbidding exteriorOn his discharge he returned to Hereford, but his mental health soon broke down again and in 1828 he was admitted to Hereford Asylum. He died there the following year at the age of 40.
of the Bethlem Royal Hospital .
of the Bethlem Royal Hospital .
His passing was barely noticed in Edwin Goode Wright’s Hereford Journal. John Allen Junior had not so much been forgotten as airbrushed out, perhaps a victim of the stigma that in those days attached to mental illness.
Our next blog in the series will be on 18 June, when we look at the paintings on the walls of the room in which the gents are playing.
Paul Latcham: John Allen, Jun. and his Bibliotheca Herefordiensis, pages 219-223 of D. Whitehead & J. Eisel: A Hereford Miscellany (2000).
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