The New Foundling Hospital for Wit: From Hanbury Williams to John Wilkes

By Nichol, Donald W. | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The New Foundling Hospital for Wit: From Hanbury Williams to John Wilkes


Nichol, Donald W., Studies in the Literary Imagination


Like its forerunner, The Foundling Hospital for Wit (1743-49),(1) The New Foundling Hospital for Wit (1768-74)(2) is one of the great, popular, yet overlooked collections of British humor. Both series provided English readers with jokes, anecdotes and some of the most downright vindictive satire of the eighteenth century. Early readers must have laughed at ministerial lampoons and early manifestations of Monty Python's "Dirty Vicar" sketch or scratched their heads wondering whether a notice advertising an amputation emporium was serious or not. Perhaps one reason why the two series have been paid scant attention since the eighteenth century is due to the time-limited nature of satire itself. Many of the individuals mocked either directly or indirectly (by allusion or the discreet dash, as in "Sir D--Y R--R, K--T") may not be traced through the DNB although their types--the lusty royal, the adulterous leader, the corrupt MP, the zealous opposition--are still familiar to us. Like Tom Lehrer whose satirical songs had their heyday in the 1960s, the editors of The New Foundling Hospital for Wit knew which buttons to push to make audiences crave more, but their objects of attack gradually faded from public consciousness. The founding editor of the original Foundling Hospital for Wit, Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, had a flair for the ridiculous and scandalous.

Hanbury Williams (1708-59) mixed a life of politics and satire. Educated at Eton, where he numbered Henry Fielding, George Lyttelton and William Pitt amongst his long-term friends, he mixed a career in public life--he served as member of parliament (1734-47; 1754-59)--with the cut and thrust of the miscellaneous writer. After serving as an envoy at several European embassies, he, as the DNB entry puts it, "died by his own hand," following a diplomatic embarrassment. Hanbury Williams's satirical spirit was carried on a quarter of a century later in The New Foundling Hospital for Wit, published by John Almon.(3) While the editorship remains anonymous, Almon's most notorious contributor, John Wilkes, likely had a hand in writing, gathering and selecting material. Contributors ranged from deceased authors to Wilkes's friends from Leiden or London who expected little in the way of payment. Almon was Wilkes's bookseller and close friend for thirty-six years, soliciting columns from him for The Political Register during his self-imposed exile to France from 1763 to 1768 in order to postpone imprisonment in England. Diverting himself from publishing opposition newspapers, Almon adopted a formula of political satire and personal gossip that made The New Foundling Hospital for Wit the most tantalizing expose of its day. The decision to name what turned out to be a six-volume collection The New Foundling Hospital for Wit might have struck some readers as the height of cheek as Wilkes, while acting as treasurer of the Foundling Hospital at Aylesbury in 1761, misappropriated funds (Hart 47-52). Generally known as a political radical, Wilkes also harbored literary aspirations.(4) The institution the two series were named after--the Foundling Hospital--first admitted children in 1741 through the efforts of one of the eighteenth-century's most respected if occasionally irascible philanthropists, Captain Thomas Coram.(5) Coram's more genial side has been passed down through posterity thanks to the portrait done William Hogarth, who along with his wife was a patron of this charitable institution for abandoned children.(6) Coram, who died in 1751, lived long enough to read of the century's most famous (albeit fictional) abandoned baby in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, published in 1749. While illegitimate, and thus treated according to popular prejudice of the day by Deborah Wilkins, Thwackum, Square, and Blifil, Tom nonetheless was legitimized, first, by his innate good nature and finally, by the discovery that his mother was his adoptive father's sister, Bridget Allworthy. …

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