Charles Reece Pemberton (1790-1840) ‘Poet, teacher and friend of the poor man; of the working man.’

This is one of those ‘Archives tales’ which shows the way something selected at random can lay trails for the curious; opening doors on, and raising questions about all sorts of subjects. I started with a volume titled ‘Charles Reece Pemberton. Lecturer on Poetry, Eloquence etc. 1790-1840’. I knew nothing about him. The word ‘poetry’ and his dates had drawn me in.

The volume in question, bought for 6 guineas by Birmingham Reference Library in 1888, contains letters, printed pamphlets and notices, newscuttings, an etched portrait and ‘A Sketch of the Life and a few of the Beauties of Pemberton’, written by George Jacob Holyoake of Birmingham, 1842. Holyoake had started work in a foundry in Birmingham aged 8 years. He had attended lectures at the Mechanics’ Institute from 18 years where he discovered the socialist writings of Robert Owen. He became an assistant lecturer and then an Owenite Social Missionary.

Title page of [MS 3022]

Title page of ‘A Sketch of the Life and a few of the Beauties of Pemberton’ [MS 3022]

Holyoake states that Pemberton was born in Pontypool, South Wales, in 1790, and that his father was a mechanic. He was brought to Birmingham and was educated at the Unitarian Charity School in Park Street. Apprenticed to a merchant uncle, he ran away to Liverpool where he was seized by the Press Gang and sent to sea. He spent several years at sea serving in various battles. During his wanderings he became proprietor and manager of several theatres in ‘the East’ and married a lady ‘of talent as extraordinary as his own’. After an ‘unlooked for occurrence’ separated them, he continued ‘a solitary wanderer’ through the world.

Portrait of Charles Reece Pemberton [MS 3022]

Portrait of Charles Reece Pemberton
[MS 3022]

The Dictionary of National Biography gives a little more information, sometimes contradicting Holyoake’s version. It states that Pemberton’s father was a Warwickshire man, his mother Welsh, and they came to Birmingham when he was about 4 years old. He studied under Daniel Wright at the Unitarian school and his uncle to whom he was apprenticed, is described as a brass founder. His naval service was apparently near Cadiz and after the war he became an actor and ran several theatres in the West Indies where he made an unhappy marriage to one Fanny Pritchard, and they soon separated. The DNB records that he returned to England in 1827.

Holyoake continues that Pemberton had acquired the skills of oratory as an actor. He first saw a play in Birmingham and was inspired to act. According to the DNB, on his return to England Pemberton acted the tragic characters of Shakespeare, such as Macbeth and Shylock, in Bath, Hereford, at Covent Garden and in Birmingham. Sergeant, later Sir Thomas Talfourd (1795-1854), judge, politician and author of several plays seems to have been very impressed by his performances; others less so. After a few years Pemberton seems to have abandoned acting and he became a lecturer on Shakespeare, and an author. He gave a lecture on Brutus at Birmingham Mechanics’ Institute and Holyoake said of him: ‘as a Lecturer on Oratory & Poetry he was equally great and instructive and was probably without a living equal. His illustrations, being gathered from the study of men and things in all climes, seldom failed to awaken new and elevated ideas.’  An obituary notice in the Sheffield ‘Iris’ says: ‘Many will remember the thrilling effect which his original and splendid lectures in illustrating the creation of the poet’s [i.e. Shakespeare’s] fancy produced.’

From 1833-1835 he wrote sketches of his life under the title ‘The autobiography of Pel Verjuice’ in the Monthly Repository, London.  In 1838 he fell ill, but thanks to the generosity of Talfourd and many other friends, he travelled to Egypt for two years in the hope of recovering his health. He published a series of letters in the Iris, describing Egypt and the Mediterranean. [If this is the Birmingham literary magazine, Isis, then, sadly, Archives & Collections holds only one volume, for 1830, at L08.2].

Finally, he returned to his brother’s, William D. Pemberton’s house, at 3, Ludgate Hill, Birmingham, where he died on 3 March 1840, aged 50. He was carried to his grave in Key Hill cemetery by members of the Mechanics’ Institute, of which Holyoake was Secretary. A memorial was laid, with an epitaph by William Johnson Fox, minister, political orator and journalist, editor of the Monthly Repository. The ‘corn-law rhymer’, Ebenezer Elliott (1781-1849) also wrote some valedictory verse for him.

Pemberton directed that all his manuscripts, except three plays, should be destroyed. His ‘Life and Literary Remains’, 1843, edited by Mr John Fowler, with a memoir by Fox, contains ‘The Autobiography of Pel Verjuice’; the Podesta, a Tragedy in Five Acts’; The Banner, a Tragedy, in Five Acts’; Two Catherines, a Comedy, in Five Acts, with pieces in prose and verse.

The volume held in Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham, may have been put together by one Joseph Mayer (1803-1886) of Messrs. Wordley and Mayer, Lord Street, Liverpool, jewellers. Mayer was an antiquarian and collector, who seems to have been known to Pemberton. The volume includes letters from Pemberton to Mayer, one from Thebes in Egypt, written 18 February, 1839. Pemberton was cold. He describes himself as ‘in fleecy hosiery, lambswoolled from shoulder to toe’, attempting to block the keen piercing winds. He mentions a plan to go to San Lucar (‘a small, quiet, sea-shore place looking south’), near Cadiz. His intention was to return to England to die as he intended his body to be gifted to the surgeons, thus avoiding funeral expenses.

The obituary in the Sheffield ‘Iris’ also says: ‘His philanthropy was of the most exalted and expanded nature, his benevolence pure and disinterested, his friendship sincere and steadfast, while his sympathy with the distressed of every colour flowed from a heart bent only in raising them to the a level with those whose interest it was to keep them depressed.’

The volume of MS 3022 also includes a printed booklet of Pemberton’s, ‘Sixpennyworth of Truth, Good Measure by ‘One of the Faction’ (According to the Standard Newspaper) ‘without a God’. London, 1836. This included ‘Pack Together Reformers’ and ‘Warning and Advice to Reformers’ and is dedicated to ‘his friend Joseph Mayer’. The subtitle is:

’This small book will give large offence to Knaves and to their Friends the fools and hypocrites.’

This volume has given me reason to investigate 19th Century radicals; 19th century antiquarians; George Jacob Holyoake; the Birmingham Mechanics’ Institute; and makes me interested to know more of 19th Century visitors to Egypt , West Indian theatres and the importance of Literary magazines for those whose publications took place only after raising sufficient subscriptions. The education of archives is long reaching.

Ref No: MS 3022 (1888/002)

Fiona Tait





2 responses to “Charles Reece Pemberton (1790-1840) ‘Poet, teacher and friend of the poor man; of the working man.’

  1. Very interesting article showing the rabbit holes you can fall into after serendipitous finds. You may also be interested to know that there’s several pages relating to Pemberton in Harry Howells Horton’s ‘Birmingham : a poem, in two parts, with appendix, 1852 on pp254-261…..Might be worth taking a look.

  2. Reblogged this on keithbracey and commented:
    Charles Reece Pemberton a Birmingham Poet like me #KeithBracey: The #BrummieBard

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