John Wilson Croker

Date of birth: 

1780-12-20

Date of death: 

1857-08-10

Biography: 

Croker was born at Galway, the only son of John Croker, the surveyor-general of customs and excise in Ireland. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated in 1800. Immediately afterwards he entered Lincoln's Inn, and in 1802 he was called to the Irish bar. His interest in the French Revolution led him to collect a large number of valuable documents on the subject, which are now in the British Museum.

In 1808 Croker entered parliament as member for Downpatrick, obtaining the seat on petition, though he had been unsuccessful at the poll. The acumen displayed in his Irish pamphlet led Spencer Perceval to recommend him in 1808 to Sir Arthur Wellesley, who had just been appointed to the command of the British forces in the Iberian Peninsula, as his deputy in the office of chief secretary for Ireland. This connection led to a friendship which remained unbroken till Wellington's death.

The notorious case of the Duke of York in connexion with his abuse of military patronage furnished Croker with an opportunity for distinguishing himself. The speech which he delivered on 14 March 1809, in answer to the charges of Colonel Wardle, was regarded as the most able and ingenious defence of the duke that was made in the debate; and Croker was appointed to the office of secretary to the Admiralty, which he held without interruption under various administrations for more than twenty years. He proved an excellent public servant, and made many improvements which have been of permanent value in the organization of his office. Among the first acts of his official career was the exposure of a fellow-official who had misappropriated the public funds to the extent of £200,000.

In 1827 he became the representative of Dublin University, having previously sat successively for the boroughs of Athlone, Yarmouth, Bodmin and Aldeburgh. He was a determined opponent of the Reform Bill, and vowed that he would never sit in a reformed parliament; he left parliament in 1832. Two years earlier he had retired from his post at the admiralty on a pension of £1500 a year. Many of his political speeches were published in pamphlet form, and they show him to have been a vigorous and effective, though somewhat unscrupulous and often virulently personal, party debater. Croker had been an ardent supporter of Robert Peel, but finally broke with him when he began to advocate the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Croker is said to have been the first to use (January 1830) the term "conservative". He was for many years one of the leading contributors on literary and historical subjects to the Quarterly Review, with which he had been associated from its foundation. The rancorous spirit in which many of his articles were written did much to embitter party feeling. It also reacted unfavourably on Croker's reputation as a worker in the department of pure literature by bringing political animosities into literary criticism.

He had no sympathy with the younger school of poets who were in revolt against the artificial methods of the 18th century, and he was responsible for the famous Quarterly article on John Keats's Endymion. Shelley and Byron erroneously blamed this article for bringing about the death of the poet, 'snuffed out', in Byron's phrase, 'by an article'. (They, however, attributed the article to William Gifford.)

Croker died at St Albans Bank, Hampton.

This biography draws heavily on Croker's entry at Wikipedia, but is edited slightly with respect to the context of this site.

Boswellian impact: 

Croker's claim to fame in this particular context is his extensively annotated edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson, which was published in 1831. The book itself was reasonably successful and Croker had put a lot of effort and research into the new edition. Still, numerous errors and speculations found their way into the volume, however, and it was heavily critizised in a long and much quoted review by Thomas Macaulay - who also happened to be a political opponent of Croker's. This review did a lot of damage not just to Croker's edition of the Life of Johnson, but especially to the reputation of the then long dead original author, James Boswell the biographer. The review itself can be found in it's entirety on an external site (Macaulay's Review of Croker's Boswell), and a later critical comment on the review can be found on this site (Lord Macaulay's Habit of Exageration). Macaulay later included some of his critique of Boswell in the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Dr. Johnson, which he himself wrote, thus magnifying the damage that had already been done to the public reputation of the biographer.

While researching for his 1831 edition of Life of Johnson, Croker was one of the first scholars who actively tried to gain access to Boswell's papers. He had been acquainted with Boswell's sons, Alexander and James, and in December 1829 (some years after the untimely death of both Boswells), wrote a letter to James Boswell (Alexander's son, and at that time the owner of the Auchinleck estate) requesting information about (and possibly access to) the personal papers of the late biographer. Having received no answer, on January 16, 1830 he wrote his friend Sir Walter Scott, who was also an acquaintance of the Boswell family, asking him to inquire about the papers. Scott was equally unsuccessful, not receiving any reply to his letter, and apparently missing James Boswell when he tried to call personally. James tried to return Sir Walter's call, but also missed him, and that appears to have been the end of the matter. In the published edition of the Life of Johnson (1831), Croker stated that he had it from another source that the papers didn't exist at Auchinleck after all, and had probably been "irretrieveably dispersed".

For more information on Croker's attempt to gain access to Boswell's papers and on the history of the Boswell papers themselves, I can warmly recommend Pottle's Pride and Negligence, which is also one of the main sources for this article.

Bibliography: 

Croker was a prolific writer, who had published numerous writings in addition to his magnum opus, the new edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson (1831):

In 1804 he published anonymously Familiar Epistles to J. F. Jones, Esquire, on the State of the Irish Stage, a series of caustic criticisms in verse on the management of the Dublin theatres. The book ran through five editions in one year. Equally successful was the Intercepted Letter from Canton (1805), also anonymous, a satire on Dublin society. In 1807 he published a pamphlet on The State of Ireland, Past and Present, in which he advocated Catholic emancipation. Other works include:

* Stories for Children from the History of England (1817), which provided the model for Scott's Tales of a Grandfather
* Letters on the Naval War with America
* A Reply to the Letters of Malachi Malagrowther (1826)
* Military Events of the French Revolution of 1830 (1831)

  • * a translation of Bassompierre's Embassy to England (1819)

     

    He also wrote several lyrical pieces of some merit, such as the Songs of Trafalgar (1806) and The Battles of Talavera (1809). He edited the Suffolk Papers (1823), Hervey's Memoirs of the Court of George II (1817), the Letters of Mary Lepel, Lady Hervey (1821-1822), and Walpole's Letters to Lord Hertford (1824). His memoirs, diaries and correspondence were edited by Louis J Jennings in 1884 under the title of The Croker Papers (3 vols.).

    Croker was occupied for several years on an annotated edition of Alexander Pope's works. It was left unfinished at the time of his death, but it was afterwards completed by the Rev. Whitwell Elwin and Mr WJ Courthope. He died at St Albans Bank, Hampton.

    Most of these works are available from AbeBooks.com.

    This bibliography draws heavily on Croker's entry at Wikipedia, but is somewhat edited with respect to the context of this site.