The Jolly Pauper
Thomas Creevey, 1768-1838
Had it not been for the efforts of several gentlemen who seriously feared what might be contained within it, the diary of Thomas Creevey might well have been as famous as that of Sam Pepys. Judging from his letters, which didn’t get destroyed, it’s likely that his journal would have been just as candid as Pepys’s – and equally entertaining.
As it was, the very fact that Creevey left the diary in the possession of his mistress, (with whom he lived openly for four years before his death in 1838) and the knowledge that he was one of the most notorious gossips of the Regency period, made several good men sweat.
Lord Brougham was sweating most. ‘Bruff’ had done some really interesting stuff in his life – not least defending Queen Caroline at her trial, as well as ‘discovering’ Cannes and inventing the Brougham Carriage – but he’d also done other ‘interesting’ stuff.
While the Duke of Wellington just said “publish and be damned” to courtesan Harriet Wilson when she tried to blackmail him about their ‘arrangement’, Brougham coughed up the cash. He wasn’t about to let another call-girl do the same thing. Creevey’s pal, Charles Fulke-Greville couldn’t help but snigger at the efforts of Brougham and other notables to suppress the diary, but it doesn’t change the fact that Bruff was ultimately successful.
What survives is a bunch of correspondence that Brougham’s gang didn’t manage to snaffle.
There must be a whole slew of worthy titles that spend their days alternating between charity shops and people’s bookshelves. I found a Penguin edition of Creevey’s papers in a charity shop some years ago, with every intention of reading it ‘some day.’ It was only when clearing my shelves of all the books I’d bought at charity shops to read ‘some day,’ so that they could – well – go back to where they came from so someone else could buy them to read ‘some day,’ that I actually looked at it again and discovered a curious thing.
Phantom’s Law dictates all interesting people end up in Greenwich at some point. Thomas Creevey did just that – end up here.
Creevey is immediately endearing – not least because he was a truly happy soul. He was a dreadful tittle-tattle – he couldn’t help himself – but he meant well.
“…The Duke of York was so tipsy that he fell down and was blooded immediately, and whilst the Queen was delivering her warlike manifesto, the little Pss was making game and turning her back upon her. Poor Courtney has had a paralytic stroke and Nollekens the sculptor…”
After his wife died, the cash ran out. But because of his sunny nature, he was still accepted in Society, even if he didn’t have two farthings to rub together.
Fulkes-Greville noted “old Creevey is a living proof that a man may be perfectly happy and exceedingly poor. I think he is the only man I know in Society who possesses nothing.”
He refused to take the money left to his stepchildren (his wife had been married before) and instead led a nomadic life between friends and family. His step daughter is the one to thank for keeping the correspondence we have left – she and he were close to the end.
That’s not to say there wasn’t a mischievous streak in him. A glance at the nicknames he uses in his diaries for various worthies of the day provides some insight into his naughty-boy humour. Here are a few examples:
Comical Bob – The Duke of Marlborough
The Frog – William of Orange
Niffy-Naffy – Lord Darlington
Prinny and Mrs P – Prince Regent and Princess Caroline
Squire Stiffrump – C. Western
Widow’s Mite – Lord Russell
And Brougham himself? Alternately Wickedshifts and Beelzebub.
Creevey was a Whig, a political advisor to various politicians of the day, but frankly, that’s not what he’s known for. Much like Pepys, he was a relatively minor character in a time of world events – but with an excellent front seat view of things such as the death of Nelson, Princess Caroline’s scandalous life, the amours of Lord Byron and the ascent to the throne of ‘Viccy.’
Although much of his correspondence tends to be more interesting to political historians as he discusses issues of the day, he was also just one of those guys that just happened to be around when the day’s celebrities were doing outrageous things, and he just couldn’t help telling the world about it.
In 1834, Creevey finally found some stability when he was offered the job of Commissioner of Greenwich Hospital, with a salary of £600 per year and a nice house – I don’t know where that would have been. The next year his sister’s death ensured his income almost doubled and he decided to find himself a mistress “from the nocturnal pavement.”
Some people couldn’t be seen to be socialising with Creevey once he’d done such a socially unacceptable thing as finding himself a nice Greenwich hooker, but Emma Murray, in a wonderfully anti-stereotypical fashion, doesn’t seem to have latched onto an old man for his cash. She was liked by his step daughters and when he died (in 1838, in Greenwich, from a chill after staying out too late gossiping with Admiral Hardy’s daughters) and she was made sole executrix of his will, she took advice on what to do with the diaries, believed to contain ‘revelations,’ rather than immediately flogging them off to the highest bidder. The diaries did get destroyed – but it doesn’t seem to have been because of any gold-digging on Emma’s part.
“Old Creevey” loved Greenwich “Oh – that you could have seen the beauty of Greenwich Park and everything about it yesterday,” he wrote in 1835. And of the town itself “I have the best victuals London can afford of all kinds within ten yards of me.” He never gave up trying to get his mates over to visit him – “you know as well as I do that my apartments are yours” – though he does admit “I am afraid you will find Greenwich at this season a very inconvenient distance from your dentist.”
His body, as far as I know, still rests in the grounds of Davenport House. Certainly he is listed on the large monument erected when many of the bodies were exhumed for moving to East Greenwich Pleasaunce. But for a true memorial of the man, try his papers. They don’t appear to be in print just now, but they turn up in charity and secondhand shops on a regular basis. Hell – you might even end up with my old copy…