Dr. Sylas Neville’s Radical Outlook on Life


In this 1793 caricature by Gillray, Paine (wearing a French Cap of Liberty) is tightening Britannia’s corset to force her into an unnatural shape.

In my first set of extracts from Dr. Sylas Neville’s diary, I concentrated on events in his life. While an understanding of his life is necessary as background, I find the most fascinating parts of his diary are his many statements on the political and religious controversies of his day.

Sylas Neville was far from being the stereotypical spendthrift young gentleman, even in his early years in London. He attended the theatre regularly and inserted thoughtful comments on plays, performances and actors in his diary[1]. He was very prone to ‘sermon tasting’ – attending services where the leading clerics of the area would be preaching and, once again, adding critical and informed comments in his diary. He also took a keen interest in current affairs, recording many conversations with his friends on the politics and politicians of his time, meeting quite a number of major politicians himself.

Radicalism, pre-French Revolution.

Neville’s political views were towards the extremes of his time. He was anti-monarchy, anti-Hanoverian and anti-Church. He looked back on the days of Cromwell as a halcyon time; not because of its Puritanism, but because of its republican and Parliamentarian ideals. I suppose he could best be described as an extreme Whig, in favour of major reforms to the British constitution to make it more representative and to free it from royal and noble domination. He wanted a republic in which decisions would be made by Parliament and the power of the aristocracy would be either curbed or destroyed.

In his diary, and to his friends, he seems to have expressed these views quite freely, finding a good number of others whose views were like his own. How far he would have spoken out beyond this ‘safe’ circle of trusted adherents is not clear. I suspect he tested others’ opinions quite carefully, before sharing his own.

It is also noticeable that the majority of his more extreme statements occur early in the diary. Later on, as Pitt’s government cracked down on all forms of radicalism and dissent in the name of winning the war with France, to speak as he did in earlier years would have become quite dangerous.

Neville’s Political Views

Neville is generally anti-monarchical and pro Parliamentary rule. Here is part of his entry for February 21st., 1767:

“I think that cutting off his [King Charles I’s] head was a justifiable deed … and that pretending to make him a saint is one of our national sins and impieties. I don’t believe so great a criminal has suffered in England from that day to this.”

On August 22nd., 1771, he also records a conversation in which Dr. Jebb, the Dean of Cashel is mentioned as being “of better principles than most churchmen” and “strongly of opinion that something must be done to preserve our freedom…” from monarchical tyranny. This same Dr. Jebb is later described as:

“… a man of good sense & most excellent principles. He abhors priestcraft & is an enemy to civil and religious tyranny of every kind.” (August 30th., 1771)

Neville was also strongly on the side of the American colonists in their bid for freedom. As far back as February , 1767, he is writing:

“May they [those emigrating to America] flourish and set up in due time a glorious free government in the country which may serve as a retreat to those Free men who may survive the final ruin of Liberty in this Country [England]; an event which I am afraid is a no great distance.”

Tom Paine’s book Common Sense was being smuggled into England in May, 1776[2]. Neville quotes “a worthy old gentleman” called Dr. Fleming as having seen a copy and …“likes some parts of it, particularly that where the author treats Geo. III as the dog deserves.” He then goes on to mention the various measures being taken by the government to ensure the Assembly of the Scottish Kirk approves an address condemning the rebellion in the Thirteen Colonies:

“What pains our vile rulers take to obtain a shew of public approbation of their nefarious measures. They descend to some very low tricks – even frauds – to prevent some independent members from opposing this address … What servile wretches the body of Peers are to submit to their mandates! But hereditary Nobles in general are willing to resign their own rights in expectation of being suffered to lord it over the people with impunity.”

Lastly, on August 14th., 1783, Neville is still eager to go down the Thames by boat:

“…almost as far as Deptford to see the flag of the new [United] States, which ought to fill our Government with shame & regret. No ensigns out today, but I had the pleasure of seeing several pendants – some of them bearing the thirteen stripes, other thirteen stars, white of a blue field. The American States may indeed consider themselves as stars of no mean brightness.”

His Religious Views

Sylas Neville never seems to have become a consistent member of any church or sect – he seems to have been too volatile in his views for that – but there can be no doubting his deep interest in religious thought and controversy. What follows is merely a small selection of his comments in his diary on sermons and religious discussions, chosen to illustrate just how heterodox he was much of the time.

“Heard Mr. Fleming’s second lecture[3] on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican [the Good Samaritan]. He justly observed that the divine author of our religion has not subjected us to any order of Priests nor to the payment of Tithes, which are a human institution as much as the Land Tax etc.” (June 21st., 1767)

“It is the Articles of Religion and Tests of orthodoxy, invented and established by man, which give a handle to Infidels to reject and despise the Christian Religion, as all of them are full of inconsistencies and absurdities. God does not require us to believe anything that is either unintelligible or unreasonable.” (July 5th., 1767)

“Mr. Fleming[4] declares himself a Unitarian before God and the world and indeed the Trinity has no other foundation but the Athanasian heresy.” (February 21st., 1768)

“Mr. Fleming preached a curious & excellent sermon from 1 John iii.8. He does not think that the beings of a superior order, who fell, [Satan and his demons] are suffered to influence men or make their probation more difficult. If they were, the fault would be theirs rather than man’s.” (July 31st., 1768)

“Thos. Deverson[5] allows the doctrine delivered by Jesus Christ to be perfectly divine; he thinks the Apostles & first preachers of his Religion sometimes spoke of themselves [i.e. added their own thoughts and beliefs]. Old parson Hickeringill of Colchester used to hold up the Bible & say – ‘Don’t think my friends that all in this book is the word of God: – No, there is the word of men and the word of devils in it as well as that of God’. If this opinion be well founded it accounts for some passages of that Book which seem not altogether consistent with the attributes of God or the Reason of things. Deverson does not believe the eternity of Hell torments more than I do; but I cannot see any reason at present to agree with him in another and more dangerous opinion, that the human soul is begotten with the body & not infused.”

Meeting with Famous Men

Neville remarks from time to time of meeting famous men. He never expresses any surprise at this, nor at their willingness to talk with him as an equal. Despite his various financial problems, he seems always to have been accepted as a gentleman.

“My principles of Liberty were taken notice of at dinner by the celebrated Chevalier D’Eon[6], who admires my ring.” (April 15th., 1768)

“…waited on Mr. Wilkes[7], to communicate to him the suspicion of some of his friends, that the Court-plan is to get him disqualified the day before the new election and then put up a creature of their own … Mr. Wilkes said he was obliged to me for the concern I showed for his interest, but did not ask me to sit.” (February 11th., 1769)

“Mr. Baker and I were introduced to the celebrated philosopher, David Hume[8]. His manner is easy & agreeable as might be expected in a man who has seen so much of life & is so well acquainted with the world. But at first one would not take him for that first-rate genius which he really is. He often talks very vulgar Scotch.” (May 17th., 1773)

“Breakfasted at Lambeth & had the pleasure of seeing my friend Mrs. M [Harriet Martineau, according to the diary’s editor][9], who is just come up from Norwich & looks charmingly.”

How Typical Were his Views?

This is hard to tell for sure, but he seems from the diary to have found a good many people with whom he could speak openly in ways that would clearly have marked them both as potentially dangerous radicals. However, what may have mattered most to any government spy overhearing such talk – and there were plenty of spies and informers, especially during the latter part of the century – was that it was just talk. There is never any mention of action, even in the limited sense of getting involved in supporting radical candidates in elections.

In fact, Neville’s views were not so very different from those of the more radical amongst the Whigs – men like Wilkes or even Charles James Fox – even if he expressed them more crudely in this private diary. The Whigs were frustrated from their attempts to gain power and stop what they saw as Tory warmongering by a combination of the continual opposition of the King, George III, and disunity within their own ranks. Edmund Burke led a right-wing faction of Whigs away from the rest of the party and into coalition with the younger Pitt’s government, based on their total opposition to the French Revolution.

In the country as whole, war with France – yet again – was seriously unpopular in the 1790s; an attitude made worse by high taxes, the negative effect of war on trade and a series of disastrous harvests. Food riots were common and the militia had to be used to maintain the status quo. People might have been horrified by the excesses of the Jacobins across the Channel, but they were not convinced of the need to intervene on behalf of the other Royal powers of Europe. Only when Napoleon had seized power and made himself dictator, then emperor, did public opinion change. Once the war could be depicted as against a rogue dictator, intent on world domination, patriotism surged and the very real fears of invasion produced some kind of unity.

Perhaps that is why the political and anti-Hanoverian remarks in Neville’s diary occur mostly in the early years. As he aged, he became less fiery and far more concerned with his own financial and relationship problems.

  1. : Basil Cozens-Hardy ed., The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767–1788, Oxford University Press, 1950.  ↩
  2. Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809), revolutionary and writer, born in Thetford, Norfolk. Paine emigrated to America, took a leading part part in the revolution there, then returned to Europe in time to get involved in the French Revolution as well. His writings were extremely influential for a time, but he lived to experience the conservative backlash against his advanced, Enlightenment ideas and he died neglected and largely disavowed in New York.  ↩
  3. He means sermon.  ↩
  4. Neville’s favourite preacher at this time.  ↩
  5. Collector of the Salt Tax and a friend of Neville’s.  ↩
  6. Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (1728 – 1810), usually known as the Chevalier d’Éon, was a French diplomat, spy, freemason and political refugee living in London. He is famous for having dressed as a woman for much of his life.  ↩
  7. John Wilkes, MP, (1725 – 1797) an English libertine, radical, writer, maverick politician, who achieved fame as an outspoken opponent of Royal policy in the 1760s. Later, he became Lord Mayor of London, when his harsh handling of the Gordon Riots destroyed much of his radical credentials. Like Neville, he gradually became ever more conservative in his views in later life.  ↩
  8. David Hume (1711 – 1776) was a Scottish historian, philosopher, economist, diplomat and essayist. He was a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. His rational views have remained influential to this day.  ↩
  9. Harriet Martineau (1802 – 1876) was a Unitarian, social and economic theorist and Whig writer, who was was born in Norwich, where her father was a textile merchant.  ↩

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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