RICHARDSON, Joseph (1755-1803), of St. James's, Westminster.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1796 - 9 June 1803

Family and Education

b. 1755, o.s. of Joseph Richardson, tradesman, of Hexham, Northumb. by w. ?Frances née Tod. educ. Haydon Bridge sch., Northumb.; St. John’s, Camb. 1774-7, 1780-1; M. Temple 1781, called 1786. m. 1799, Sarah Fawcett (d.1824), descended from Dr Isaac Watts, the dissenting divine, 4 da. surv.1 suc. fa. c.1780.

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‘Joe’ Richardson’s education at Cambridge, which his father could ill have afforded, was apparently paid for by ‘a titled lady of Northumberland’ (Lady Boughton) until 1778, when she stopped her contributions on discovering that Richardson, ‘a remarkably fine, showy young man’, of excellent understanding and possessed of ‘a sort of intuitive knowledge of mankind’, had given up the idea of going in for the church and was being distracted from his studies by his addiction to the theatre and to scribbling. After the death of his father, he was readmitted to his college, but soon gave it up and read law. He was called to the bar but practised, it seems, only in a few controverted election cases about 1793, though he appeared in the Law Lists 1797/8 as being on the Home circuit. His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine regretted that ‘literary pursuits and political connexions took up too much of his time to enable him to be a barrister’, as he ‘might have been a distinguished ornament of the bar’.2 At the Temple, however, he got to know Fox, Burke and Sheridan, having previously been befriended by Lord John Townshend* at Cambridge. He became Sheridan’s closest friend and boon companion after the death of Richard Tickell in 1793.

By 1780 Richardson was already established as a journalist for the Whig Morning Post and fought a duel, in which he was wounded, with the paper’s former proprietor Henry Bate, who had engaged him to report on debates in the Lords: subsequently he became one of the Post’s proprietors.3 In 1783 he tried unsuccessfully to convert the English Chronicle into a Whig paper; on the failure of the venture, the Whigs compensated him with £200 p.a. (1784-93), on the understanding that he should act as a party agent. Had Sheridan’s brother-in-law Tickell come into Parliament, Richardson was to have replaced him as commissioner of the stamp office. He was active in the elections at Durham and Stafford in June 1790.4 His main contribution, however, was in the way of satirical poetry: the Rolliad owed much to him, as did the Probationary Odes, and Political Miscellanies; he wrote letters under the nom de plume of ‘Englishman’ for The Citizen, and other fugitive pieces for the Whigs. He lampooned Joseph Jekyll* in an Eclogue (1788). His most serious undertaking was a pamphlet The complete investigation of Mr Eden’s treaty (1787), criticizing the commercial treaty with France. In April 1792 his Sheridanesque comedy The Fugitive was produced at the Haymarket, the epilogue being spoken by Mrs Jordan. The Duke of Portland grumbled about his ‘vilifying the aristocracy’. Richardson was a founder member of the Whig Club (1784), a Friend of the People and of the Liberty of the Press, and joined Brooks’s Club with Fox as his sponsor, 24 Apr. 1793.

A fellow barrister and boyhood friend Richard Wilson II* introduced Richardson to the Whig 2nd Duke of Northumberland, who, prompted no doubt by Sheridan, returned him for his borough of Newport in 1796.5 (The duke also subscribed £2,000 to a loan fund in 1801 to enable Richardson to become one of the managers and owners of Drury Lane theatre.)6 In Parliament Richardson, who acted as intermediary between his patron and Fox, supported opposition loyally. He did not secede with Fox. Despite his acknowledged eloquence and love of disputation, he never spoke, it is said, through diffidence and fear of ridicule of the Northumbrian burr he never shook off. He did however recite anecdotes of Parliament at his patron’s table. He preferred Whitbread to Grey as an opposition spokesman.7 Despite failing health (for three or four years before his death he suffered ‘several severe shocks by the rupture of a blood vessel’), he was prepared to wait up until five in the morning to vote with Fox, 24 May 1803, and again acted with him on 3 June. He died at the Wheatsheaf inn near Virginia Water, 9 June 1803 ‘aged 47’, leaving his wife and daughters in want, for he had been ‘rather calculated to do credit to a large fortune than to acquire one’. In February 1802, the Whigs had contemplated raising an annuity of £300 for him: he had to have his election expenses paid by them that year.8

His friends John Taylor and Sheridan were at the funeral at Egham, though Sheridan as usual arrived too late and persuaded the curate to repeat the service for his benefit. Taylor wrote a sketch of his life for an edition of his Literary Relics prepared by his widow (1807) and dedicated to his patron. He was remembered as ‘well-natured Richardson’; he certainly allowed Sheridan many jokes and pranks at his expense and Sheridan, allegedly, ‘never was the same man after Richardson’s death. Richardson’s argumentative turn was of great use to him in stirring up his mind.’ In November 1809, following the destruction of Drury Lane theatre, the Whigs were promoting a subscription for Mrs Richardson, through William Adam and Lord John Townshend, who commented, ‘poor Joe was an honest and excellent hearted fellow and the very staunchest Foxite I knew and dear Charles had a real regard and esteem for him’.9 The subscription proved inadequate and in 1818 the Whigs launched another.10

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. ‘I am perfectly satisfied’, he said in his will ‘that they are all my own children though adverse circumstances having for many years deferred my marriage with their mother, I am obliged to describe them as hers.’; PCC 568 Marriott.
  • 2. DNB (based largely on John Taylor’s prefatory memoir to Richardson’s widow’s edition of his Literary Relics (1807); Gent. Mag. (1803), i. 602.
  • 3. A. Aspinall, Politics and the Press 1780-1850, p. 452.
  • 4. Fitzwilliam mss, box 45, Adam to Fitzwilliam, 4, 26 July, 19 Sept., 3, 31 Oct., reply 2 Aug., Portland to Fitzwilliam, 6 Oct. 1793; T. Moore, Sheridan, ii. 62, 120; Ginter, Whig Organization, 192.
  • 5. Literary Relics, 11; Farington Diary (Yale ed.), iii. 692.
  • 6. Literary Relics, 13; Sheridan Letters ed. Price, ii. 166. The duke forgave his widow the debt and Richardson was able to leave his share in the theatre to be divided among his daughters. The destruction of the theatre by fire a few years later frustrated his bequest.
  • 7. Alnwick mss 58, ff. 109, 186; Literary Relics, dedication and p. 11; Prince of Wales Corresp. iv. 1690; Farington, i. 305.
  • 8. The Times, 13, 16 June 1803; J. Taylor, Recs. of my Life, i. 164; Blair Adam mss, Bedford to Adam, 23 Feb., Richardson to same, Sunday [27 June 1802].
  • 9. Reminiscences of Michael Kelly, i. 358; Moore, ii. 76-77; Moore Mems. ed. Russell, iii. 233; Add. 51570, Townshend to Holland, 13 Nov., 22 Dec.; 51595, Adam to same, 20 Oct. 1809.
  • 10. Add. 51571, Thanet to Holland, Sat. [Aug. 1818].