Magdalene College Cambridge Notes: Pompey the Little and Mid-Eighteenth Century Magdalene

The History of Pompey the Little: or, The Life and Adventures of a Lap-Dog was a popular satirical novel, which passed through two editions and several printings during the two decades after its first publication in 1751.[1] The author, Francis Coventry, matriculated at Magdalene College Cambridge in 1745-6, and graduated early in 1749.

A former pupil at Eton, he was a nephew of the fifth Earl of Coventry, and cousin of the sixth Earl, who appointed him Vicar of Edgware, although there must be some doubt his ordination.[2] His cousin, Henry Coventry, had been a Fellow of Magdalene since 1730. Henry died in 1752, and Francis edited an edition of his cousin's theological dialogues, Philemon to Hydaspes,  the following year, informing the sixth Earl, in an extended dedication, that Henry 'was pleased on his deathbed to bequeath me the care of his writings'.[3]  Francis Coventry did not long survive his cousin, dying of smallpox in January 1754.

            Pompey the Little is a light-hearted novel, whose loosely-linked narrative follows a picaresque pooch, the eponymous lapdog, through a series of adventures in the company of different owners, one of whom become a student at Cambridge. The principal target of the Cambridge chapters is a 'Mr Williams', a young College Fellow 'who had been elected into the Society, in Preference to one of greater Genius and Learning, because he made a lower Bow to the Fellows ... and was not likely to disgrace any of his Seniors by the Superiority of his Parts.'[4] As Eamon Duffy rightly surmised, the venomous portrayal of "Williams" 'may reflect some personal disappointment on Coventry's part.'[5]

The story can be told with reasonable confidence on the basis of two examination results. Cambridge's examination system was passing through a phase of transition, as the Ordo Senioratitis metamorphosed into the Mathematical Tripos, the University's blue-riband test of ability. The Ordo had listed the best candidates, between twenty and forty each year, into an order of merit, grouped into two classes. The Senate House exercises (inconveniently held in January, in a building with no heating) were still notionally based upon disputations between students. In 1753, the first class came to be referred to as 'Wranglers' (clever debaters). The lower group were called 'Optimes', a notably brutal adaptation into English of the vocative of the Latin 'optimus' (best), addressed to the winner of a disputation. In January 1748, a Magdalene candidate, William Roberts, ranked nineteenth 'In Comitiis prioribius', the upper cohort. The following year, Coventry massively out-performed him, coming second in the University.[6] Indeed, it is possible that he had a moral claim to be regarded as Cambridge's top student:  the candidate who beat him was from Corpus Christi, as was one of the two 'moderators' who ran the competition, and there were always suspicions that examiners favoured their own.[7] Yet, in 1749, Roberts was elected to a Magdalene Fellowship, while Coventry was passed over. To add further insult, Coventry's contemporary William Durance became a Fellow a year later: Durance had been grouped 'In Comitiis posterioribus', the lower cohort, 26 places behind Coventry. Given that Pompey the Little was evidently a roman à clef, a novel whose characters were intended to be recognisable, it seems overwhelmingly likely that "Williams" was William Roberts, upon whom Coventry delighted in taking savage revenge. Perhaps Durance unwittingly contributed to a composite portrayal, or it might be that Coventry was no longer in residence by the time of his contemporary's elevation.

The refusal of a Fellowship to Francis Coventry was a remarkable snub.[8] In the thirty years between 1748 and 1778, a relatively successful era for Magdalene examination results, his was one of the four best Senate House performances by members of the College. On the face of it, he combined academic merit with the glamour of aristocratic connection, a combination that ought to have proved irresistible to any eighteenth-century High Table. By contrast, William Roberts had entered the College as a sizar, a poor student who undertook menial tasks in return for reduced fees. Although the son of a clergyman,[9] if Roberts was indeed "Williams", Coventry mocked his social origins, having a cousin who was a gossipy milliner, and enjoying friendships with barmaids and the daughters of innkeepers. William Durance was the son of a recent mayor of Lincoln,[10] but he too had entered as a sizar. In the case of Durance, Magdalene may have been attempting to counter allegations that it had neglected its Lincolnshire base by failing to fill endowed scholarships originally presented by a late sixteenth-century benefactor, Sir Christopher Wray, an important figure in Magdalene's collective memory, a controversy that is further explored below.[11] Naturally, we can rule out any notion that an eighteenth-century College was engaged in a policy of affirmative action. It was true that Coventry could rely on family patronage to make his way in the Church,[12] but his failure to secure a Fellowship remains striking.

Of course, it is not difficult to conclude that the author of Pompey the Little possessed a sharp and uncharitable tongue that would have made him an uncomfortable member of a small academic society. Perhaps, indeed, his bows to the Fellows were not only perfunctory, but were also conveyed in body language that indicated an outright lack of respect. More to the point, his advancement would not been welcome to the Master of Magdalene, the unashamed careerist Thomas Chapman.[13] When the post fell vacant in 1746, Chapman had secured the Visitor's nomination, despite having no previous connection with the College. 'Tom Forward' or Tom Bounce', as he was known, was also only 28 years of age. Since the Statutes required the Master to be 'thirty or thereabouts', the Fellows initially resisted his appointment. However, they surrendered when Chapman established that he had turned 29, which was about as 'thereabouts' as one could get, and he was admitted in January 1747. Chapman promptly attached himself to the prominent Whig politician – and master-manipulator of patronage – the Duke of Newcastle, using his office as Vice-Chancellor to secure the Duke's unopposed election as Chancellor of the University in December 1749, at just the moment when Francis Coventry was undertaking final preparations for his examination triumph. Having manoeuvred his candidate into office, Chapman now planned spectacular inauguration festivities for July 1749. These culminated in a banquet at Trinity, where one onlooker found it 'shocking and disgusting' that Chapman bawled out endless toasts to the great men present.[14] An early historian of Magdalene, E.K. Purnell, thought there were 'reasons for assuming' that Francis Coventry was 'the author of "The Fragment", a skit on Newcastle's election as Chancellor', but no modern source mentions this possibility.[15] Even so, it is unlikely that Chapman would have wished to have the caustic-tongued Coventry present when Newcastle dined at Magdalene High Table, two days after his installation.[16]

College and national politics intersected with Chapman's priorities at University level. On becoming Master, in the face of an unwelcoming Fellowship, Chapman had targeted Henry Coventry as a desirable ally. A Fellow since 1730, and with aristocratic connections, he was a doubly desirable target. Furthermore, Henry Coventry was an authority on pagan religion, while Chapman was working on a history of the Roman Senate – which (to his credit) he published in 1750. The campaign was not welcomed by the intended recipient, who grumbled to Thomas Gray of Pembroke that 'he can't open his Door, but he finds the Master there', usually bringing his manuscript to seek the older man's advice.[17] Even so obtuse a self-promoter as Tom Forward would have realised that his attempted ingratiation had failed. By 1749, he would have nothing to gain from the election of a second Coventry, and everything to fear of the creation of a family party within the Magdalene Fellowship.[18] Something similar happened the following year at Trinity Hall, when a vacancy occurred in the twelve-strong Fellowship. Matthew Robinson, a lawyer and MP, already had the support of four colleagues, while one of the remaining six rarely put in an appearance in Cambridge. When Robinson succeeded in securing the election of his younger brother to the vacant slot, he effectively took control of the institution.[19] The Trinity Hall statutes considerably limited the authority of the Master. By contrast, at Magdalene, Chapman's power was much greater, not least because he exercised a double vote among a smaller Fellowship. Equally, the Newcastle interest would have seen no need to make any gesture to the Coventry family. The future sixth Earl sat in the House of Commons as Lord Deerhurst from 1744 until he inherited the title in 1752. Although he was the Duke's godson, he took an independent line on several major questions, and was regarded by the ministry as unreliable. He made his peace with his godfather when he succeeded his father in 1752, securing the lord-lieutenancy of Worcestershire as a result, but there seems to have been no incentive for Newcastle and Chapman to advance his cousin Francis at Magdalene two years earlier.[20]

For Chapman, his investment in Newcastle's success brought prompt dividends, with two remunerative ecclesiastical posts conferred upon him in 1749-50. Even here, there was a Coventry dimension, for, in what was even by eighteenth-century standards, an unusually obscure theological controversy, Henry was accused of taking the 'infidel' side, and it would hardly have suited Chapman's careerism to have favoured the kinsman of a heretic.[21] Although he made Magdalene Lodge a glittering social centre, Chapman was reportedly worth £15,000 when he died – allegedly over-eating played its part in his demise – still a comparatively young man in 1760.[22] Ruthless in the pursuit of his own interests, he could afford to regard Francis Coventry's academic pretensions as collateral damage. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the involvement of Thomas Chapman in his academic fate is what it tells us about the author of Pompey the Little. Coventry was no Voltaire. A grand satirist would surely have gone after Chapman, whose arrogant foibles provided a broad target, rather than concentrating his scorn on the hapless William Roberts, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong moment.


Coventry summarised Williams as 'a most egregious Trifler', mocking 'the most exact and punctilious Neatness' of a man who 'would scold his Laundress for a whole Morning together, if he discovered a wry Plait on the Sleeve of his Shirt, or the least Speck of Dust in any part of his Linen.' His followed daily round of time-wasting rituals: breakfast took two hours of sipping tea, after which he would fastidiously 'wash up the Cups with the most orderly Exactness, and replace them with the utmost Regularity in their Corner-cupboard.' In his 1753 revision, Coventry elaborated on his victim's compulsive behaviour. One daily activity was the reorganisation of 'the few books in his study. The Spectators were removed into the place of the Tatlers, and the Tatlers into the place of the Spectators.' Essentially, Williams had concluded that 'there was no farther occupation of Study, after he had obtained a Fellowship'. In any case, his timetable was entirely filled with attendance at Chapel, dining in Hall, reading newspapers in coffee houses and drinking tea with young ladies. As Coventry wrote, with mock pomposity, 'the reader will see how very impossible it was for him to find Leisure for Study, in the midst of so many important Avocations', although 'once in a Quarter of a Year', he found time 'to transcribe a Sermon out of various authors'.[23] Roberts, the original of Williams, had been ordained deacon in June 1750, and would proceed to full orders in 1752. His subsequent career does not seem to have been recorded.

            Much of the portrait of Williams in the preceding paragraph was conveyed by Purnell through a long extract in his 1904 history of Magdalene.[24] However, this is an example where extensive quotation may produce the misleading impression of total coverage. In fact, Coventry's attack on Williams broadened into areas that a Victorian historian preferred to ignore. The egregious trifler was mocked for affecting 'expensive Entertainments, which neither his private Fortune or [sic] the Income of his Fellowship could afford.' Given the opportunity to show three ladies of high rank around the University, he persuaded them to dine in his rooms in a magnificent style that would 'send them away with an Opinion of his Politeness.' Coventry's scorn focused on one specific preparation 'of a very academical Nature indeed', the purchase of 'a China Vase of a certain Shape, which sometimes passes under a more vulgar Name, to set in his Bed-Chamber'. This would provide the opportunity for his visitors to withdraw after dinner 'for the sake of looking at the Pattern of his Bed or to see the Prospect out of his Window, or from any other motive of Curiosity, they might have the pleasure of being served in China.' While Coventry relentlessly lampooned Williams – 'his Conversation was as ridiculous as his Behaviour' – it is possible to sympathise with his sanitary precautions. Even two centuries later, Magdalene was totally deficient in toilet facilities for women, and undergraduates required considerable ingenuity to oblige visiting female relatives who needed to spend a penny.

            Williams was not just targeted for affecting 'an air of acquaintance with the genteel world', but for consorting with young women of less impressive social background – the daughter of a baker, 'Miss Jenny of the Coffee-house' and the 'sole heiress of a Tailor', whose fictional name, 'Fanny Hill' was hardly original.[25] All had fallen victim to his 'dangling Good-nature' – a grudging tribute – so much so that it was rumoured that 'he had Admission to some of their Bed-chambers, at [sic] well as to their Tea-tables.'[26] These reports prompted a rich student to play a prank on the hapless Williams.

            'About this Time, a Bed-maker of the College was brought to Bed, without having a Husband to father the child'. Williams 'was suspected, among others, to have had a share in the generation of the new-born infant'. As he emerged from his rooms one morning on his way to early chapel, he discovered a basket outside his door, which appeared to contain a baby. (Cruelly, I spoil the story here by revealing that it was in fact Pompey, presumably trussed up and happily silent.) An attached note, signed by 'Betty Trollop', accused Williams of 'a Shame and a wicked Sin' in failing to send even 'one Farthing of your Money' in support of his child. Convinced, in this case, of his own innocence, Williams prevailed upon the Master of the College to summon an emergency meeting of Fellows, where the outraged victim 'made a long Oration on the unparalleled Impudence of the Harlot,' concluding with a demand that 'the most exemplary Punishment might be inflicted upon her'. Many of his colleagues 'seemed to rejoice inwardly, that the Basket had not travelled to their Doors; as thinking, perhaps, that it would have been unfatherly and unnatural to have refused it Admittance.' It is at this point that the Master makes his sole contribution to the story, reproving Williams that 'the Girl would never have singled him out to father her Iniquities upon him' had his immorality not given rise to suspicion. His homily confirms the curious omission of Thomas Chapman from Coventry's target list. The episode concluded, as already revealed, with the discovery that the basket contained not a child but a dog.

            From the quiescence of the pooch to the gullibility of the academics, the tale contains a number of features suggestive of fantasy. Of more interest is the identity of the prankster, "Qualmsick". It is suggested that he was Cecil Wray, a wealthy undergraduate at Trinity College. This identification is offered with less confidence than Roberts = Williams, but nonetheless it will be argued that it carries some degree of plausibility. Qualmsick, who brought Pompey to Cambridge, was 'blessed with a good Share of Health, had a great Flow of Animal Spirits, and a most violent Appetite for Pleasure.' He was a former pupil of Westminster School, 'where he had acquired what is usually called, a very pretty Knowledge of the Town', becoming familiar with its brothels from the age of thirteen. By the time he was seventeen, Qualmsick 'could drink his two Bottles of Claret in an evening, without being greatly disordered in his Understanding.' He therefore seemed ready for the next stage of his education, and was entered at Cambridge, 'whither he went with a hearty Contempt of the Place, and a determined Resolution never to receive any Profit from it.' As a wealthy young man – his father's income was £2,000 a year – Qualmsick became a Fellow Commoner, 'one who sits at the same Table, and enjoys the Conversation of the Fellows.' He was compelled neither to attend classes nor pass examinations, while his social status allowed him to set authority at defiance. His mockery of Williams formed part of a wider campaign of wild behaviour.

            The name, Qualmsick (meaning "queasy") gives no specific clue to his identity. The name had been introduced into Coventry's narrative in a preceding chapter, to lampoon the hypochondriac wife of a long-suffering husband, whose fortune she wasted upon physicians and apothecaries. Qualmsick senior was a 'good-natured simple Man' who adored his wife 'and paid a blind Obedience to her Will in every Thing.' Medical specialists, in endless procession, were happy to encourage Mrs Qualmsick in her remunerative delusions. Eventually, however, one physician concluded that her ailments were entirely imaginary, an opinion which her husband unwisely passed on to her. Denouncing her husband as a barbarous monster and inhuman wretch, Mrs Qualmsick forced him into unconditional surrender. 'The Physician who gave Occasion to this Dispute, now fell a Sacrifice to it, and was immediately discarded for daring to suppose that a Lady was well, when she had made such a vehement Resolution to be ill.'[27]     

            The cameo of Mrs Qualmsick's enjoyment of ill health leads into the Cambridge phase of Pompey the Little, with the assurance that the young man who would terrorise the University 'inherited neither the hypochondriacal Disposition of his Mother, nor the insipid Meekness of his Father'. It is of course possible that the younger Qualmsick was either a composite portrait, or an entirely imaginary invention. Fellow Commoners at this period were notorious as a class for drunken and disruptive behaviour.[28] In the England of George II, Westminster was the leading public school: it would be overtaken in social clout by Eton partly through the patronage of George III. Westminsters were in the ascendancy at Cambridge, since one of their number was the Duke of Newcastle, who was particularly proud of his old school. [29]  Former pupils were accustomed to gather at a Cambridge tavern for an annual dinner on 17 November, in commemoration of the accession of Elizabeth I, who had refounded their institution in 1560. The 1750 celebration became the occasion for a confrontation staged by the Proctors, the University's own police, who raided the party just after 11 p.m., to demand that 'every person under the degree of M.A. should immediately refer to their respective colleges.' The chairman of the gathering, Thomas Francklyn, the Professor of Greek, seemed to imply that the junior members present were exempt from the usual University curfew regulations, while two of the Fellow Commoners adopted a defiant attitude towards the intruders. Frederick Vane of Peterhouse, the younger son of a peer, made a dignified protest pledging solidarity with his fellow students. Edward Vernon of Trinity was openly contemptuous of proctorial authority. Disciplinary proceedings extended through November 1750, at about the time when Coventry may have been completing Pompey the Little.[30]  Vane managed to excuse himself, while Vernon could hardly have been Qualmsick. He was the son, probably born of out of wedlock, of a national hero, Admiral Edward Vernon, hailed for his capture of the Spanish Caribbean town of Porto Bello (now Portobelo, Panama) in 1739, a national triumph recalled in the naming of London's Portobello Road, an Edinburgh suburb and George Washington's plantation, Mount Vernon. While young Vernon might have contributed to the portrait, he could hardly have been satirised as the son of a downtrodden husband.

            Coventry's narrative makes Qualmsick a member of the same college as Williams. Unfortunately, no Magdalene candidate from the pages of Venn's Alumni Cantabrigienses fits the bill. The only Fellow Commoner the College appears to have admitted in the relevant period was John Chaytor, who had been at school in Yorkshire, and arrived on 24 October 1750, surely too late to establish himself as a leader among the hell-raisers. In any case, Magdalene received few students from Westminster, and none at all were in residence around 1750. (College admission registers generally noted the last institution or tutor that had prepared a candidate for Cambridge, so it is possible that there were undergraduates who had attended the school earlier in their teens.)

            In default of any Magdalene possibility, Cecil Wray can be put forward as the next-best candidate for Qualmsick. Wray had been admitted as a Fellow Commoner to Trinity in November 1749. He inherited the family baronetcy, and extensive Lincolnshire estates, in January 1752. Clearly, Wray is not an exact "fit". He was reported to be only fifteen, not seventeen, at his admission, although he might well have adjusted his age to gain campus-cred with his associates. He was at Trinity, and so not under the same roof as William Roberts, the probable original for Williams. But this need not be an impediment to an identification with Qualmsick. Coventry could be pardoned for rounding off minor details. A century later, there was certainly a strong Trinity-Magdalene axis among wealthy young men. Furthermore, Cambridge was at a low point for student numbers around 1750.  Matriculations fell to an annual intake of around 150, and not all entrants stayed the course: BA graduates numbered little more than 100. A cumbersome ten-term degree programme meant a bulge in resident members each Michaelmas term, but it is likely that there were much more than 500 undergraduates in Cambridge at any one time. The entire University was no larger than a medium-sized college of today. Wealthy and assertive young men would have had no difficulty in finding one another.[31]

            A later commentator noted that Cecil Wray possessed 'no superior talents'. He did not stay in Cambridge long enough to collect a degree and, as he is not mentioned in the November 1750 confrontation with the proctors, he may have left after one academic year. In 1768, he was elected to parliament, where he adopted a consistently independent, even radical, political stance. He supported John Wilkes and was a member of the Yorkshire Association of 1780, arguably the first modern national political reform movement. Wray also spoke up for the American colonies: his argument in 1775 that it would only be fair to tax the colonists if they were granted complete freedom of trade suggests a sophisticated grasp of political economy. It is no surprise that he condemned 'the cursed American war', nor that he was an ally of Charles James Fox, for whom he professed 'the most enthusiastic reverence'. Indeed, he proved more Foxite than the master himself: when his hero formed a coalition with Lord North in 1783, Wray described himself as 'thunderstruck', and opposed Fox in the 1784 Westminster constituency, one of the most notorious electoral contests of the era.[32]

            The fact that, until 1783, Wray agreed with Fox's politics does not in itself prove that he also shared the Whig leader's morals: like Qualmsick, Fox sacrificed his virginity at the age of fourteen, in his case with the help of Parisian courtesan. Equally, we cannot infer from Wray's radical politics that he would have left a basket containing a fake baby on the staircase of the hapless Williams, although his outspoken views were consistent with a lack of respect for office-holders of all kinds. But it is worth underlining that Wray had closer ties with Magdalene than his Trinity affiliation might initially suggest. He was the direct descendant of Sir Christopher Wray, the College's late-sixteenth century benefactor – and the history of Magdalene was hardly littered generous supporters. The obsequious and self-advancing Master, Thomas Chapman, was a classic tuft-hunter, who would surely have made young Wray welcome in the College.[33]

            Snobbery and sentimentality were not the only reasons for welcoming Cecil Wray to Magdalene. As noted in connection with the election to a Fellowship of the under-qualified William Durance, Magdalene was seeking to mend fences with the city of Lincoln over its failure to make available scholarships that Sir Christopher Wray had endowed for pupils of two schools in the county. The College had certainly succeeded in turning an administrative failure into a public relations disaster. In 1745, the father of a potential candidate for a one of the scholarships had asked the then-Master of Magdalene, Edward Abbott, for information about them. Evidently not even bothering to check the College's own records, Abbott resorted to outright denial, assuring the enquirer that no such scholarships existed. Forced to retreat from this position, Abbott then invoked a technicality to rule out any application. So casual was his handling of the affair that Abbott even confused the College's benefactor, Sir Christopher, with Sir Cecil Wray, the eleventh baronet and grandfather of the Trinity Fellow Commoner, who had died in 1736. The name was known in Magdalene.

            Abbott's successor, Thomas Chapman, inherited a problem that he had not caused. Unfortunately, Tom Forward possessed his own special talents for making a bad situation worse. Formally notifying the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln cathedral, who possessed the right to nominate to the scholarships, of no fewer than six vacancies, he could not resist insinuating that the breakdown in relations between college and city was the fault of the latter, for failing to protect its rights. When the nominators could find only two candidates, Chapman went over to the offensive, not only criticising the failure to fill all six slots, but brazenly complaining that Magdalene's good name had been traduced in Lincolnshire, by reports that 'we had endeavoured to conceal and pervert a Foundation, in which that County was so greatly interested'.  This counter-attack was a serious blunder. The Dean and Chapter icily made clear that they did not consider themselves answerable to the Master of Magdalene, and alleged that the College had not informed them of vacancies for at least half a century.[34] Faced with what was tantamount to an accusation that they had persistently misappropriated one of their principal endowments, the Master and Fellows of Magdalene needed all the friends in Lincolnshire that they could find. The heir to the Wray baronetcy was an obvious target. Indeed, the Wrays were unusual among titled families in having as their principal residence not a country estate, but a town house, in Lincoln's Eastgate, very close to the cathedral close. Cecil Wray himself would later move out to the countryside, because the area was too industrial.[35] All in all, the contemporary context strongly points to the likelihood that young Cecil Wray would have been made welcome in Magdalene, where he would doubtless have learned of frictions and feuds, thereby making him a plausible candidate for Qualmsick, the persecutor of Williams.

            One final shred of evidence may round off the circumstantial identification. In his 1753 revision of Pompey the Little, Coventry deleted the story of the psychosomatic Mrs Qualmsick. This was a piece of drastic surgery to his text, one that robbed the Fellow Commoner of any surname at all. The deletion may perhaps be explained by the death of Sir John Wray, Cecil's father, in January 1752. Perhaps Coventry did not wish to lampoon the dead; perhaps Cecil Wray requested the deletion. The otherwise-puzzling removal of Mrs Qualmsick would make sense if Qualmsick was Cecil Wray. If so, the last laugh may be found in the fact that his mother survived until 1770, outliving her much-put-upon husband by eighteen years.


One further tentative identification may also be offered from the Cambridge section of Pompey the Little. The three respectable ladies who asked Williams to show them around the University had initially presented a letter of introduction to 'an ancient Doctor of Divinity', who had rebuffed them in amusing circumstances. It is a sign of Coventry's hasty composition, noted by Gray, that this character is named only in passing, and well into the episode, as Dr Clouse. The writer of the letter of introduction had been an undergraduate contemporary of Clouse, and remembered him as 'a man of great Gaiety' who was 'the first person who introduced Tea-Drinking into the University of Cambridge.' Unfortunately, his character had soured in the succeeding decades. Clouse had fallen in love with an apothecary's daughter, but a passionately celibate courtship of twenty years never led to matrimony, since the suitor failed to secure the ecclesiastical appointment necessary to support a wife. Eventually, the embittered Clouse had retreated to his College rooms, where he became a recluse, rarely even appearing in Hall, where his wild appearance and outdated apparel led younger men to conclude that he was mad. The episode in which the ladies knocked on his door forms a cameo, detailing Clouse's consternation, his protestations that he no longer knew his way around the University (''Tis many years since I ventured out of my own College'.) The visitors had difficulty even in rousing him, since Clouse was dozing at his fireside, wearing 'sevenfold Night-caps'. He prevented them from entering his chamber by keeping the door half-shut, but they glimpsed cobwebs 'from one Corner of the Room to the other' , plus the remnants of the previous night's supper – stale beer and cheese parings – in a rodent-infested room that 'seemed not to have been swept for Twenty Years past'.[36]

            If Coventry was offering some hint in his choice of 'Clouse', it remains an obscure one. (A "clouse" is a variant term of the word "clow", meaning a dam or sluicegate. No obvious connection springs to mind. A pun on 'recluse' is possible, but seems tortured.) But a puzzling italicisation in a brief dialogue may represent a more obvious clue. 'I warrant you are the Folks that I received a Letter about last Week,' the recluse told his visitors. In modern times, 'folks' would be an informal usage, hardly appropriate to a first meeting among the genteel, and a brief content analysis of Henry Fielding's 1749 novel, Tom Jones, suggests that the term had a similar status in the mid-eighteenth century.[37]  It is tempting to assume that Coventry's use of italics signalled an allusion to Robert Foulkes, a senior Fellow of Magdalene. Foulkes had come to the College not fifty years before – given the generally shorter life spans of the eighteenth century, half a century could well have been an exaggeration – but in 1713, proceeding to ordination and a Fellowship six years later. We should of course bear in mind that undergraduates habitually exaggerate both the antiquity and the foibles of senior academics. Foulkes can hardly have cut himself off from the world entirely since he was President of Magdalene – in effect, Vice-Master, with responsibility for the internal running of the College. In 1746, he had led the opposition to Chapman's appointment, and he was consulted by at least one aspirant for the succession to the Mastership in 1760.[38]  But internal administration could be undertaken by College servants coming to the President in his rooms for instructions. Coventry located Williams and Slouse in different colleges, but this may simply have been a smokescreen, the obverse of placing Qualmsick in the same institution, a device that would permit the disavowal of any direct challenge by an aggrieved victim.

            A more serious objection would seem to be the information in Venn's Alumni Cantabrigienses that Foulkes held two Church appointments, one in London and the other in Cambridgeshire. In fact, closely examined, they bear out a picture of a man struggling to achieve profitable preferment. Stow-cum-Quy, on the edge of the Fens, where Foulkes was appointed five years after his ordination, was the lowest form of ecclesiastical life, a perpetual curacy. In 1763, it was worth £32 a year. The incumbent had no residence and probably would not have wished to live in such an unhealthy place anyway.[39] Magdalene's right to appoint the incumbent of St Katharine Cree church in the City of London was a survival from the College's Aldgate property, of which it was defrauded by the Crown in the late sixteenth century. This, too, was a subordinate form of Church patronage, a donative curacy, with an annual value of £70, with apparently no accommodation provided. Foulkes had been awarded the position in 1732.[40]  Thus his progress up the preferment ladder had indeed been slow, and was disappointing. For Foulkes, a double absentee, the two ecclesiastical jobs no doubt provided a useful supplement to his Fellowship dividend. However, to have moved to the expensive city of London and attempted to live a genteel life on an annual income of £102 – less the cost of hiring a working curate to undertake his duties at Stow-cum-Quy – would not have proved an inviting prospect for the apothecary's daughter. Fortune finally smiled upon Robert Foulkes in 1752, when he traded in his two existing benefices, and traded up to accept Magdalene's plum piece of ecclesiastical patronage, Steeple Ashton in Wiltshire, although he remained resident in Cambridge. Unluckily, Steeple Ashton did nothing to reignite his love life, since the post of vicar was accompanied by a curious provision that the incumbent must be unmarried. [41] Perhaps the belated resolution of Foukes's ambitions accounts for the removal of the Dr Slouse cameo from the revised edition of 1753.


A brief summary of the arguments should be preceded by several large disclaimers. There is no reason to assume that the characters lampooned in Pompey the Little were identifiable individuals at all. They might have been composites, or even entire inventions of Coventry's imagination. For none of the three suggested identifications offered here has it proved possible to locate independent confirmation that the individuals possessed any of the quirks or foibles portrayed.  Modern editions of Coventry's squib, edited by Robert Adams Day (1974) and Nicholas Hudson (2008), make no attempt to name these characters. [42] Of the three identifications attempted here, the strongest would seem to be the unmasking of "Williams" as William Roberts, Coventry's fellow student at Magdalene, who had the unlucky temerity to overtake him in the Fellowship stakes. The suggestion that Dr Clouse was Robert Foulkes rests upon two main props, the similarity in career profile, and Coventry's use of italics for the homely word, "Folks", perhaps a nudge and a wink of allusion. The contention that young Qualmsick may have been Cecil Wray is essentially circumstantial: Wray would fit the role, but other candidates could well be discovered. Perhaps the final reflection is that discussion of the material does not increase regard for Coventry as a satirist, nor indeed for him as a person (let alone a clergyman). If the sketches are indeed portrayals of individuals, they were both unkind and lacking in selectivity and creativity. Qualmsick and Clouse were reprieved in the second edition, but the hapless Williams continued to be pilloried. The fact that William Roberts seems to have achieved no subsequent glittering career might suggest that his reputation was permanently tarnished by the ridicule heaped upon him. The moral case against Coventry's cruel levity can be simply summed up: if you are going to use the slashing weapon of satire, direct your scorn against the powerful, not the weak. The Master of Magdalene, Thomas Chapman, was an obvious target, an obsequious careerist, in Eamon Duffy's dismissal, 'a shameless jobber, with all the delicacy of feeling of a hog'.[43]  Six years later, Voltaire wrote Candide, in which a young innocent confronts the philosophy of Optimism, that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire would have made short work of 'Chappy'. But by 1758, Lisbon had been destroyed by an earthquake, and a British admiral had faced the firing squad for losing an unwinnable campaign. Perhaps Francis Coventry would have broadened his satirical targets too, but his untimely death in 1754 meant that he never had to confront the emerging challenges of the mid-eighteenth century world. Maybe, too, much can be forgiven a man who liked dogs.








[1] For the first edition, second printing, dated 1751,  see:

The 1753 revisions may be seen in a 1761 printing:    The poet Thomas Gray called Pompey the Little 'a hasty production' and claimed to have identified three characters from the draft of a play that Francis Coventry had shown him. Gray to H. Walpole, 3 March 1751, consulted as  Internet sources were consulted during October 2016.

[2] David Oakleaf, 'Coventry, [William] Francis Walter, 1725-1753/4', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Identifications generally are from Venn's Alumni Cantabrigienses (consulted as Examination results are from J.R. Tanner, Historical Register of University of Cambridge ... (Cambridge, 1917), (consulted as

[3] Philemon to Hydaspes: or, The History of False Religion in the Earlier Pagan World... The introduction by Francis Coventry is a 4th edition, printed in Glasgow in 1761, consulted as The quotation is at page 4.

[4] Pompey the Little (1751 ed.), 234. The Cambridge chapters are Book 2, 10-13.

[5] Eamon Duffy in P. Cunich, et al., A History of Magdalene College Cambridge 1428-1988 (Cambridge, 1994), 177. This essay gratefully draws upon Professor Duffy's portrayal of the College in the mid-eighteenth century, especially 168-79.

[6] Tanner, Historical Register, 443-4. Coventry's name is given as 'Coventrye'. Class lists may have been transcribed orally, and the final 'e' suggests an attempt to distinguish pronunciation of his surname from the family title.

[7] D.A. Winstanley, The University of Cambridge in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1958), 14.

[8] One other Magdalene examination success, John France (10th Wranger in 1759), was not elected to a Fellowship. However, France was ordained deacon in the diocese of Bristol in March 1759, and had probably left Cambridge. I am grateful to Dr Ronald Hyam, Archivist of Magdalene College, for confirming this.

[9] The Clergy Database ( confirms that the father, John Roberts, was Vicar of the Suffolk parishes of Framsden and Cretingham. William Roberts attended school at Monk Soham, near the latter. There is no information about the education of Roberts senior.

[11] Cunich, et al., A History of Magdalene College, 174-77, where he is called 'Durrance'.

[12] Francis Coventry does not appear on the Church of England Database, and Venn gives no dates for his ordination. However, it seems that he was appointed to Edgware by his cousin in 1751. The poet Gray regarded Francis Coventry as 'a young clergyman' in 1751. Gray to H. Walpole, 3 March 1751, consulted as

[13] William Marshall, 'Chapman, Thomas', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Cunich et al.,  A History of Magdalene College, 168-79.

[14] Winstanley, The University of Cambridge in the Eighteenth Century, 34-54. William Boyce composed a special Installation Ode for the Senate House ceremony, which may be heard on:

[15] E.K. Purnell, Magdalene College (London, 1904), 162.

[16] Purnell, Magdalene College, 164. Newcastle gave the College servants a present a guinea apiece as a tip.

[17] Gray to Thomas Wharton [17 March 1747], consulted as

[18] But Dr Ronald Hyam informs me that Henry Coventry, although a long-time member of Magdalene, was a Bye-Fellow, who did not usually take part in College administration.

[19] Winstanley, The University of Cambridge in the Eighteenth Century, 269-70.

[20] Chapman's successor, George Sandby, assured Newcastle in 1765 that he had secured a Magdalene Fellowship for 'a domestick of Lord Rockingham's', on the understanding that he would reciprocate with his vote at elections. Sandby was also keeping open three bye-fellowships, with the intention of filling them for the next general election campaign. The recipient was James Dixon, domestic chaplain to the influential Whig, the Marquess of Rockingham. As 6th Senior Optime in 1763, Dixon's election was doubtfully justified on academic grounds. Cunich, et al., A History of Magdalene College, 182; Tanner, Historical Register, 451.

[21] John Nichols, Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, vol. 5 (London, 1812), 568-9, consulted as In his 1853 edition of Philemon to Hydaspes, Francis Coventry vigorously defended his cousin against the charge of heresy.

[22] Chapman became Rector of Kirkby Overblow in Yorkshire in 1749, and secured a Prebend's stall at Durham the following year. The latter was worth £400 a year. From the list of well-born clergy, it appears that Kirkby Overblow was also a plum preferment. Marshall, 'Chapman, Thomas'; H. Speight, Kirkby Overblow and District (London, 1903), 51-8. Chapman is not mentioned, and was almost certainly non-resident. Consulted as

[23] Quotation are taken from Book 2, chapters 12-15, in the editions given in note 1.

[24] Purnell, Magdalene College, 159-60.

[25] Fanny Hill was the narrator in John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published in two parts in 1748-9.

[26] The error ('at' for 'as') is corrected in the 1761 printing.

[27] Mrs Qualmsick and her maladies appear in Book 2, Chapter 11 of Pompey the Little.

[28] Winstanley, The University of Cambridge in the Eighteenth Century, 17, 21-3. When in June 1750, the University passed regulations regarding academic dress, it prudently exempted 'any fellow commoner who is at this time of two years standing in this University.' C.H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iv (Cambridge, 1852), 278, consulted as

[29] Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (Oxford, 1989), 83; Winstanley, The University of Cambridge in the Eighteenth Century, 11, 298.

[30] Winstanley, The University of Cambridge in the Eighteenth Century, 211-16. As noted above, Pompey the Little was published by early March 1751, when Gray referred to it.

[31] Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire, iii, 214, 223.

[32] For biographical notes on Cecil Wray, see Mary M. Drummond in and David Wilkinson, 'Wray, Sir Cecil', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[33] Fellow Commoners wore distinctive academical dress, including tassels (known as 'tufts') on their caps (in slang terms, "mortar boards"). Those who cultivated the society of their social superiors were known as 'tuft-hunters'.

[34] The sad story is well told by Eamon Duffy in Cunich, et al., A History of Magdalene College, 174-7.

[35] W.P. Courtney, 'Wray, Sir Cecil', in Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 63, consulted as,_Cecil_(DNB00).

[36] The Clouse episode is in Book 2, Chapter 14.

[37] 'Folks' is used 19 times in Tom Jones, plus 6 examples of 'gentlefolks' and one of 'men-folks'. The term is predominantly associated with characters of low social status, although it is used one by Thwackum the sadistic schoolmaster, and twice by Squire Western who (like Clouse) was a relic of a past era. Analysis based on

[38] Cunich, et al, A History of Magdalene College, 170; Purnell, Magdalene College, 167. Another longtime Fellow, William Beaty, elected in 1719, held two apparently prosperous livings. Cuthbert Douthwaite (Fellow 1735), Philip Bennet (1738) and Laurence Eliot (1749) seem too young to have been models for Clouse.

[39] Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire, vol. 10, 242-5.

[41] Victoria County of History of Wiltshire, vol. 8, 198-218.

[42] I am grateful to Professor Helen Cooper for checking this point for me.

[43] Cunich, et al, A History of Magdalene College, 171.