Thomas Holcroft

Thomas Holcroft (1745-1809) was born in London but spent part of his youth in Berkshire and East Anglia before being apprenticed to a stocking weaver at Nottingham. He left that to become a stable boy for a horse farm in Newmarket. His father had taught him to read and write and Holcroft was largely self-educated after that. He left Newmarket for London to work for his father in his cobbling stall in South Audley Street. At 19 he went with his father to Liverpool where he taught for a time, then returned to London to work as a cobbler. He married in 1765 and had a daughter, Ann, but little is known of his wife or her death.  He turned to acting in the early 1770s and in 1774 married Matilda Tippler from Nottingham, but she died within a few years from complications during childbirth. He continued to travel around England pursuing acting jobs before returning to London in 1777 to begin his stage career there.  He married again in 1778 and had a daughter, Fanny (1780-1844), who later became a novelist and playwright. Holcroft began writing his own plays in 1781. He turned to journalism in 1783, serving as correspondent for the Morning Herald in Paris. He returned to London the next year and by 1787 was earning a good living for his theatrical productions and translations. He met Godwin in 1786 and by 1788 they were close friends, both advocating an idealized philosophy of humanity freed from the debilitating forces of government so as to exercise general benevolence and disinterested virtue. Holcroft's son committed suicide in 1789 and his wife died the following year. He continued to write profitable plays through 1798. His support of the French Revolution and many of the ideas of Thomas Paine in The Rights of Man (1791, 1792) led to his first attempt at fiction, Anna St. Ives (7 vols, 1792),  believing fiction to be a proper vehicle for the kind of social criticism that could mold public sentiment and values. That same year he began attending meetings of the Society for Constitutional Information, the same society Hays's friend Robert Robinson had helped found in 1780. After the publication of Godwin's Political Justice in 1793, Holcroft's plays drew more strident criticism of his politics, and in 1794, he and several other reformers, including Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall, and Horne Tooke, were arraigned for treason and confined in Newgate Prison. They were acquitted, and Holcroft responded with his pamphlet, A Narrative of Facts, relating to a Prosecution for High Treason (1795). He had the year before published another novel, The Adventures of Hugh Trevor. He married again in 1799, and left England for Hamburg that May, where his daughter, Sophy, and her husband, a Mr Cole, were living. They spent two years in Paris and returned to London in October 1802. His plays were once again profitable on the London stage and other prose works produced some substantial sums for him, though financial problems consistently plagued him. By 1806 he was in straightened circumstances and his health was failing. He reconciled with Godwin in 1808 (they became estranged upon his return to London in 1802) and he died the following year, leaving behind an autobiography that was published, through the assistance of William Hazlitt, in 1816.