LANCING AND SOMPTING
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© John Harris May 1992 (used by kind permission)
For twelve years until his death, Trelawny lived in a house in Sompting which is a small village just east of Worthing, Sussex. Although he was 77 years old when he came to live there, his remarkable strength and fitness allowed him to lead an active, outdoor life. He would drive himself down to the sea for a swim regularly and work hard in his garden. From a balcony at the front of the house, he could see the sea which was about a mile or so across the open fields. The local people must have been aware that he had been a sea-faring man, and they may have heard stories that he had once been a pirate. They may also have read that he was an author and had been a friend of the poets Shelley and Byron. All this was true and much more. He had a truly extraordinary life.
He was descended from two famous Cornish families: the Trelawny's and the Hawkins', both sea-faring families, though he was born in London. His father was heir to the Shotwicke estate, so while he was still a child, the family went to live on the estate in the Wirral, Cheshire. When he was 6 years old, Owen Brereton died and Trelawny's father Charles became Master. At this time there were five children: an older brother and three sisters.
He appears to have been a high-spirited boy who was always in trouble with his father. Trelawny and his brother were sent to a local school and here he was also in trouble. He was expelled for assaulting the teacher and sent home. His father then arranged to have him sent away to sea. Charles Trelawny had a friend who was Captain of a ship "Colossus" which was under the command of Lord Nelson. When Trelawny reached Portsmouth, the Colossus was out fighting in Nelson's fleet, so he was put aboard "Superb" which was also to join the fleet. He sailed with them and joined the Colossus after the battle of Trafalgar for the journey home. He shared the glory of victory when the fleet arrived in Portsmouth. Amazingly, he was still only 13 years old.
He continued with the sea and sailed to Spain, South America and the west coast of Africa followed by a voyage to the Orient. He had continually been in trouble for fighting, and when his ship reached Bombay, he deserted and eventually took up with an American called De Ruyter who was a privateer in the French service. Though barely 16 years old, he was now a "Pirate".
With De Ruyter he sailed to Goa, Mauritius and Madagascar, always returning to their base in Isle de France. He spent from the age of 16 to 21 sailing around the Eastern Seas, fighting, hiding from the English and having great adventures. He even married a young and beautiful Arab girl that he had rescued during a fight in Madagascar. Her name was Zela and she sailed with him on his adventures. He learned about Eastern and Arabic customs and when Zela died, the result of a bad fall onto sharp rocks while out swimming, he cremated her body and gave her all the traditional rites of such occasions. During his time with Zela, he had been to Borneo, Java, The Sunda Islands and many places between, and the English had become more and more powerful in that part of the world. So much was this the case that following Zela's death and with the threat that they would soon take Isle de France, Trelawny and De Ruyter felt it was time to return home.
It must have been difficult to adjust to life in England. While he had been away, his father had become a member of parliament for Mitchell. It was a "Rotten Borough" owned by a relative from the Hawkins side of the family. This was during some of the most turbulent times for working people. The new machinery was making many tradesmen's skills obsolete, and they did not know how they would support their families. This upheaval led to the Luddite movement. Through direct action, they hoped to counter the callousness of parliament. There were riots in various parts of the country and the authorities, fearful of revolution, had spies everywhere. Liberty and justice were suspended, the rights and freedoms of ordinary folk were taken away, and one of the most repressive eras in British history was under way. It was a shameful time to have been an MP.
Trelawny appears not to have involved himself in these events. As far as we know he went about in society, met a girl and married her. Her name was Caroline Julia Addison. Between 1813 and 1816 they had two children, Maria Julia and Eliza. Then, when Caroline had an affair with a soldier, the marriage broke up. Divorce proceedings were started but not finalised until 1819. This was the year of the shameful events called ironically "Peterloo" when a peaceful demonstration was attacked by the Yeomanry and Hussars and many people were massacred in St. Peter's Field, Manchester. Trelawny was living in a cottage in Pinner when his divorce came through and the following year he went to the continent. Perhaps he was just getting away after the divorce or he wanted to take up his travelling lifestyle again. Whatever the reason, he was at Lake Geneva where he met an old friend from the Navy - Dan Roberts. While they were there, they met a group of men among whom were Edward Williams and Thomas Medwin. Medwin was Percy Shelley's cousin and he must have offered to introduce Williams and Trelawny to Shelley, who was at that time in Pisa, because the plan was to go there. However, news came that Trelawny's father had died so he returned to London. Williams and Medwin went on to Pisa.
Later that year, Williams wrote to Trelawny inviting him to come over to meet Shelley as he had become great friends with the poet. Dan Roberts was in Geneva so Trelawny went to see him after the Christmas holiday and then in January 1822 arrived in Pisa. It seems that Trelawny and Shelley got on well from the first. He was introduced immediately to Lord Byron, who was also living there, and within a short time, a plan to build a boat for each of them was hatched. Perhaps Trelawny's stories of exotic adventures fired their imagination. Dan Roberts was contacted and the project begun. Meanwhile Trelawny went to parties with Mary Shelley who was obviously taken with the tall romantic figure. There are frequent mentions of him in the journals Mary kept. She was particularly taken with his long moustache and slightly disreputable past. Percy Shelley disliked parties and was happy for Mary to have someone new to take around.
As Spring came on, there was a plan to move the commune of friends to a new place somewhere by the sea. Williams and Trelawny went off to find suitably poetic accommodation, and near Lerici they found a house on the sea shore - Casa Magni. Soon the boats were built and brought from Genoa to the house by the sea. Trelawny became captain of Byron's larger vessel while Shelley had Williams as his sailing companion. Mary Shelley's half-sister Clair Clairmont came to stay with them and Trelawny fell madly in love with her. She was not, however,in any mood for a new romance having been involved in an affair with Lord Byron. She had had a child, the affair had ended and the child had died while in Byron's care. This caused very bad and complicated feelings within the group.
In June a friend of Shelley's arrived at Leghorn with his family. Leigh Hunt had come to join Shelley and Byron in a project to start a new magazine. Their journey from England had been beset by illness and difficulties so having finally arrived in a town not far away, it was decided to take the boats and meet them. Trelawny went in Byron's boat and, as usual, Shelley and Williams sailed together. After staying a few days with the Hunts, Shelley and Williams, who were anxious to get back to their wives, sailed without Trelawny. He had been delayed by Customs officials and was still at Leghorn when their boat went down in a storm. Trelawny had the desperately sad task of bringing the news to Mary Shelley and Jane Williams and trying to comfort them.
He seems by all accounts to have taken control of the situation and organised the funeral - a cremation of the bodies on the beach where they were washed up. During the cremation of Shelley's body, Trelawny took the heart from the fire because it would not burn. The ceremony had finished 3 hours before and Byron, Leigh-Hunt, soldiers and villagers had stood there not knowing what to do. Trelawny's action allowed everyone to go home. He took the heart to Mary but she was so horrified that she could not accept it. Leigh-Hunt took it instead, and later there were disagreements as to ownership. Trelawny continued to take charge of things for Mary by organising the burial of the ashes in the Protestant cemetery in Rome where Shelley's son William was buried. It had been Shelley's wish to be with his son there. Trelawny kept to this task faithfully in spite of many difficulties, and continued to support Mary until she eventually returned to England. He had first met the Shelleys in January 1822 and by the time he had settled everything it was November of the same year. He was 3O years old.
In the new year, after a holiday in Maremma with Dan Roberts, Byron contacted Trelawny about the possibility of going to Greece to help in the war of independence. Because of his great popularity in England and his previous association with Greece, Byron had allowed his name to be used to collect funds to help the Greeks. There was by the Spring of 1823 a considerable fighting fund and the committee were urging him to go as the leader of a British expedition. He was anxious to have Trelawny with him but because of Clair, there had been some bad feeling. Trelawny eventually agreed to go and they set sail in July 1823. They arrived at Cephalonia in August and Byron took a house near Argostoli while Trelawny went over to the mainland to meet some of the rebel leaders. He travelled around Greece and by Christmas had met most of the important leaders and gathered a great deal of information which he sent back to Byron. One of the leaders - Odysseus Kamenu had greatly impressed Trelawny so he decided to fight with him.
Early in 1824, a meeting of all the rebel leaders was planned for Athens and Trelawny went off to escort Byron there. However, by the time he arrived at Missolonghi, Byron had died of fever. Trelawny decided to go back to Odysseus in the mountains of Parnassus and continue the fight. He married Odysseus's sister Tersitza and had a daughter named Zella after his first wife. By all accounts it was a stormy marriage which ended in divorce after a short time. The war too had reached a critical phase and Trelawny was nearly assassinated by two British agents he had taken from Byron's camp to meet Odysseus. The British were backing a different leader to run the independent Greece. Shortly afterwards Odysseus was captured and executed and it must have seemed to Trelawny that all was lost. However, Byron's death caused such a wave of feeling in London that the authorities were forced to act. After a flurry of diplomatic activity, it was agreed that a combined English, Russian and French force should be sent to fight the Turks and the Battle of Navarino (1827) settled the matter and assured Greek independence.
Trelawny returned to England and spent some time with his family. He was still recovering, no doubt, from the severe wounds he had received in the attempted assassination, but also from the deaths of his friends and the divorce from Tersitza Kamenu. Perhaps thoughts of his little daughter Zella led him in the following year to return to Italy to try to set up a home for his two surviving daughters: Maria Julia who was about 13 years old and little Zella who was about 3 years old. He went via Paris and stayed with a friend of John Keats - Charles Armitage Brown - in Florence. He had wanted to write about Shelley but Mary would not give him any of the documents he needed, so in 1829 he set about writing his own life story "Adventures of a Younger Son". Zella came to stay with him there but his other daughter Maria Julia stayed in London with his old friend and solicitor John Burley, whom she later married.
He finished the book at the end of 183O, and about a year later came back to England with Zella who spent some time with Mary Shelley. Zella was a fairly wild young thing and Trelawny hoped Mary might "make something of her". Mary had been helping Trelawny with his book and acting as go-between with the publishers. Early in 1832, the book was published and he was the talk of London along with the riots and public agitation in support of reform or as someone wrote "An entire change in society - a change amounting to a complete subversion of the existing order of the world...". On top of that there was an outbreak of Asiatic Cholera.
In 1833 Trelawny left England for Canada. It had been arranged that Zella would go back to Florence to stay with Jane Boccella, an English friend who had married an Italian Marchese. Seymour Kirkup, another friend from his time in Florence, was to see to her education. Trelawny went to stay with Augusta White, with whom he had been close during the difficult time of the divorce from his second wife Caroline. Augusta was now married and living in Little York, Canada. He met her husband and daughter and stayed a while, then went South via Niagora Falls to New York. Here he met a young woman called Fanny Kemble and was invited to join her party who were travelling to Canada. Fanny was English but had gone to America to become a famous actress. They went up the Hudson river by steamboat, with Trelawny reading Don Quixote aloud and acting out some of Byron's eccentric sayings. Later Trelawny took Fanny to see Niagara which had impressed him very much. Eventually the party were to move on to Quebec and it was apparent that Fanny would marry a doting young man who had been on the scene all the time they had been together. Trelawny left the party and went South. He first called again at Niagara and tried to swim the river near the Falls, but he wrote of the experience " My youth and strength have fled". He was 42 years old and wondering why he was still so restless; but he went on up the Mississipi and Ohio rivers, in search of perhaps peace and rest. Later he was in Charlestown, South Carolina where, from papers found years after, we learn that he bought a slave for a thousand dollars and set him free. From here he travelled along the Atlantic coast and in 1834 was in Philadelphia visiting Fanny Kemble, now married and living there. From her letters, she was bored with marriage and Philadelphia society so she was more than happy to renew their friendship and have someone exciting to go around with.
In 1835 Trelawny returned to England and spent the Summer as the guest of Sir William Molesworth - "a radical in politics and an infidel in religion" - in Pencarrow, Cornwall. There he met John Temple Leader and Charles Buller. Buller had just been elected MP for Trelawny's village - West Looe, and Leader he may have known from Florence. Most of the intelligentsia of the day found their way at some time to that house, as Sir William was well-known in radical circles. Trelawny became very friendly with John Leader during this visit and when they returned to London, he went to live with Leader at Upper House, Putney Hill. From here Trelawny went about in society and was in great demand by the society hostesses - Lady Blessington, Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Basil Montague and Mrs. Grote. At these parties he would have met most of the important people of the day including Disraeli and other politicians, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Dessauer, Thalberg plus all the influential artists and actors. Strangely he did not take up writing again though he was surrounded by writers. Also because he was living with Leader, he must have become involved in politics (Leader was always either just in or out of parliament). Yet he did not try for parliament himself. In 1837 Leader fought the Westminster election against the Tory - Sir Francis Burdett, now very old, and it was remembered as one of the most exciting of its time. Leader lost the election but 3 months later was MP for Westminster. Trelawny wrote to Mary Shelley during this time about the possibility of his entering parliament and his family connections would have made it a fairly easy task to obtain one of the rotten boroughs they controlled; but he never became an MP. Instead he fell in love.
He had known Augusta Goring, the wife of Sir Harry Dent Goring of Highden, Sussex, for some time, but now he eloped with her and found himself in another divorce case. This time he was the co-respondent and things became very unpleasant. Sir Harry Goring won the suit and Trelawny was able to marry Augusta. She was an intimate friend of Mary Shelley and from a letter at this time appears to be a strong- willed, passionate woman who wanted to "estrange him from my enemies in his own family" and "gain power over him". She was also very extravagant and ran up bills. One day she arrived home to find the house bare. Trelawny had sold the furniture to pay off the bills. They lived in London for 6 years and then in 1847 moved to Wales. Interestingly, things were building up to such a pitch politically that the move may be seen as escape from a revolutionary cataclysm. Many people left London and those that stayed were shivering in their shoes. The Royal children were sent to the Isle of Wight in 1848 when the Chartist agitation and riots were at their height.
Down in the country in Wales, Trelawny and Augusta took a cottage in the village of Usk, Monmouthshire. Then they bought a small house and after some time, they bought the largest estate in the area. The estate was called Cefn Ila and Trelawny proceeded to build himself a house and settle down to the life of a country gentleman. There were 3 children by this time: Edgar, Frank and Letitia. Zella, his other daughter came sometimes from London, where she lived with Trelawny's mother, to meet the local intelligentsia who came to their house- parties. They used to put up a tent near the river and go swimming or take part in other country pastimes. Zella seems to have been still as wild as ever in spite of living a rather dull life in London with her grandmother. Trelawny planted trees, went shooting or fishing or riding, grew his fruit and vegetables, and performed sufficient of the duties expected of him to be accepted locally. All went well until 1857 following a visit of Augusta White and her husband to Cefn Ila, when Trelawny began to write again. His old idea of writing about Shelley took hold of him once again. Mary Shelley had died 6 years before so he was no longer inhibited by her objections to the project. He wrote to Clair asking for details of Shelley's early life and set to work on his book 'Recollections of the last days of Shelley and Byron". The following year he and Augusta Goring had broken up, she had moved away and the house was sold. Quite why this happened is not clear but, from Trelawny's letters to Clair, it seems they had not been getting on for some time and Trelawny had become restless again. The book seems to have been the way he coped with his restlessness.
We next find him driving a pony and light trap along the coast of Southern England. In a letter to Dan Roberts, his old friend, he talks of the reception his book received and the bare facts of his leaving Usk. He also gives him a description of his fitness and tells him his recipe for good health and a long life: "No wine, only rarely; beer occasionally; tobacco regularly but not to excess and a cold bath every day, Summer or Winter". Though he kept a pied-a-terre in London, he decided to buy a house on the south coast. He chose a house in Sompting, near Worthing because he could grow figs there and keep fit and healthy by the sea. He went up to town when he felt like mixing in society and stayed at his London home or The Savage Club where he met the next generation of writers and artists. Among them were William Rosetti and Walter Swinburne. The painter Millais asked him to sit for a portrait called North West Passage though when it was finished, Trelawny did not approve. His daughter Letitia came to visit him regularly and eventually she married a Lt. Colonel in the British army. His sons Edgar and Frank both died before he did. Zella married, became Mrs. Olguin, and lived mostly in the Argentine. Interestingly, she is buried in a cemetery in Brighton, Sussex.
Towards the end of his life, Trelawny continued to mull over the events surrounding Shelley's death. He talked incessantly about Shelley and the Pisa circle of friends to William Rosetti who was working on a new edition of Shelley's poems. He gave Rosetti a number of originally printed copies of poems that Shelley had given him including the previously unpublished "Queen Mab", and helped him all he could. He also rewrote some of his book "Recollections..." and had it published under the title "Records of Shelley, Byron and the Author". His becoming a vegetarian during the later years is very uncharacteristic as he had enjoyed hunting and shooting all his life. Perhaps it was the influence of Shelley who was a vegetarian all his adult life.
In old age he was still fit and healthy taking his two black-and-tan terriers for walks on the Downs every day. He also enjoyed feeding the ducks on the village pond and talking to the children. He was rather a frightening and eccentric character but when he gave them pieces of Turkish Delight, he did perhaps build up a friendly rapport. His garden was his pride and joy and became a sanctuary for birds. He would ring a bell to call them to dinner. In 1881 he died aged 89. His body was cremated and his house-keeper took his ashes to Rome where they were buried next to Shelley's. He had prudently bought a plot for himself in 1822.
All that remains of him now are his books and a few portraits but he also survives in the work of other artists. As well as the angry old sea-dog who stares out of Millais' painting "North West Passage", he is the model for the old Buccaneer in Meredith's "The Amazing Marriage". He is also almost certainly the model for Captain Shotover -George Bernard Shaw's old sea-farer with the disreputable past in his play "Heartbreak House". Of course, he is most widely remembered today as a minor character in the aftermath of the tragic death of Shelley, but Edward John Trelawny's own story stands alone as an adventure spanning a century.
John Harris May 1992