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Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Australia's colonial poet laureate

Michael Massey Robinson was transported in 1798 for writing a criminal poem. Others came free or were born free, and as we will see shortly, they wrote poetry that many would regard as a crime against good taste. Robinson’s poem was written as part of a criminal act.

Called Old Ham Fresh Drest, the poem was an attempt to demand money with menaces from one James Oldham Oldham, an ironmonger in Holborn, who had been apprenticed to a Mr. Dolly. When Oldham completed his apprenticeship, Dolly took him on as a partner. Dolly then became ill and bed-ridden, so Oldham ran the business until Dolly died, in about 1774. Some 13 months later, Oldham married the widow Dolly. He later became an alderman of London.

Well before that, an attorney called Peake told the neighbours that Oldham was responsible for Dolly’s death, but as Dolly was not yet in his grave, a coroner examined the case and declared that the death was due to natural causes. Peake kept up his claims, and Oldham sued him and won £500 in damages.

The case went all the way to the House of Lords, but Oldham still won. In 1796, Robinson went a letter to Robinson under a false name. He claimed to be acting for the author of a poem making the same allegations. He explained that the author was in prison and needed money.
Oldham entered into negotiations with the blackmailer, placing an advertisement in the Daily Advertiser, seeking a meeting. The blackmailer instructed him to send “a Banknote in a letter addressed to R.R., to the Cambridge coffee-house, at the top of Newman-street in Goodge-street …” This letter was to be placed in a letter rack there.

Oldham played for time, saying he wanted to see the manuscript that he was being asked to buy, and some twenty six-line stanzas were sent to him. A sample of four verses will show the nature of the writing:

“THE DEED WILL OUT,” the phantom cried,
And forwards mov’d from side to side
To intercept his rout;
Whilst our pale traveller dismay’d,
With falt’ring speech address’d the shade,
And ask’d, “WHAT DEED WILL OUT?”

“Pause thee a while, and list!”—it said,
And sigh’d and shook its aged head.
(Our hero trembling stood!)
“Why in the early scenes of age,
“Didst thou in such a deed engage?
“Remember—BLOOD for BLOOD

“Of years, not five times five are past,
“Since, circled round thy humble waist,
“The dingy apron hung,—
“Thy heart then no foul mischief brew’d;
“Thy mind a moral track pursu’d;
“And guileless was thy tongue:

“Till dire ambition, like a fiend,
“That hurls destruction, without end,
“On each devoted slave,
“Burst forth. —Then lust assum’d a name
“To hide a secret guilty flame,
“And doom me to the grave!

Oldham told his clerk to deliver the letters and then watch to see who collected them. One letter was collected without him seeing anybody, but the second one was collected by Robinson, and he was seen by both the clerk and a waiter. Oldham’s attorney, a Mr. Sarrell, with his (Sarrell’s) clerk, a Bow Street (police) officer named Rivett and another man then arrested Robinson. He was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death, but this was commuted — at Oldham’s request.

Robinson was then aged 52, but he lived on to the ripe old age of 82. On the way out, his superior manners led to him being allowed to dine with the petty officers, and he was allocated wine each day. One Richard Dore was travelling to Sydney to take up the post of deputy jusge advocate, and by careful cultivation, two weeks after landing in Sydney, he had a conditional pardon and a post as Dore’s secretary.

He was convicted of accepting bribes and spent some time on Norfolk Island, but by 1810, he was chief clerk in the secretary’s office under Lachlan Macquarie, and the composer, each year, of an ode on the day of the king’s birthday. In 1819, Macquarie gave him two cows “for his services as Poet Laureate”.

Five verses from one of the odes will suffice. This was for the King’s birthday in 1811:

To trace the mystic Course of TIME
Thro’ each revolving Age,
The MUSE aspires, with Views sublime,
And, wondering, turns the Page !—

That Page, where Hist’ry’s treasur’d Lore
Legends unfolds of Days of yore, 
When Rome her sov’reign Flag unfurl’d,
Rose the proud Mistress of the World;

And, rich in Arts, in Arms renown’d,
Aw’d the devoted Nations round;
‘Till LUXURY’S imtemp’rate Trains
Spread Desolation o’er her Plains;

And INDUSTRY, with nerveless Hand,
Retir’d, dejected, from the Land :
Whilst rent by Faction’s wily Spell,
Her Senates droop’d—her Fame and Freedom fell

Not so, yon ISLE, against whose sacred Shore
Bellona bids reluctant Thunders roar!
Not so, our ALBION, whose imperial Shield
Still waves triumphant in the tented Field!

An unbiased judge might be drawn to the opinion that Michael Massey Robinson’s criminal poetry had become a continuing habit.

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