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Whitehead, Charles (1804–1862)

by Clive Turnbull

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Charles Whitehead (1804-1862), novelist, was born in London, eldest son of a well-to-do wine merchant. He was first employed as a clerk in a commercial house but determined to become a man of letters. In 1831 he received favourable notice for his poem, The Solitary, which was later republished in a collection that included his fine sonnet 'As Yonder Lamp in My vacated Room'. In 1833 he married Mary Ann Loomes. He gained a precarious living by recounting the lives of English highwaymen, contributing to periodicals and editing The Library of Fiction (1836) for the publishers Chapman and Hall. The success of his biography of the hangman Jack Ketch led to the offer of a commission to write a serial with illustrations by Robert Seymour; he declined and suggested instead his young friend Charles Dickens who went ahead to write the Pickwick Papers. His play, The Cavalier (1825), was first performed in 1836 but his masterpiece was Richard Savage, a Romance of Real Life (1831, 1842), a bitter novel which its admirers maintain has been consistently underrated.

Whitehead had been a member of the Mulberry Club and knew Douglas Jerrold, Charles Lamb, Thackeray and many other writers of the day. But despite his prolific output he led an increasingly miserable life. Drinking heavily, he became tiresome to some of his friends and was treated coldly by Dickens. His decision to migrate to Victoria was presumably a desperate throw. Described as a 'clerk', he arrived with his wife in the Diana at Melbourne on 17 March 1857. He already knew Richard Henry Horne and was befriended also by James Smith and Dr James Neild and others, who later recalled his 'pale face, attenuated figure, melancholy expression … and stooping gait'. His handwriting, minute but 'beautifully legible' and his scrupulous punctuation, revealed to them an 'almost morbid sensitiveness'. Gentle, nervous and very shy, 'the presence of even a stranger-child would embarrass him'.

Whitehead took lodgings in Melbourne and wrote for the Examiner and Melbourne Punch. He also became a leading contributor of articles and theatrical notices for My Note Book, which published 'Confessions of James Wilson', an episode from his book on Jack Ketch, and from 13 February 1858 'Emma Latham or Right at Last', a new work of considerable quality. His 'Spanish Marriage', a verse drama, appeared in the Victorian Monthly Magazine in July 1859.

Whitehead's small successes were not enough to keep him from poverty. Although very proud, he was forced to ask his friends for money but was elusive when they offered him shelter. His wife had become mentally deranged and died of pulmonary consumption on 21 August 1860 in the Yarra Bend Asylum. Whitehead was still writing comic verse for Melbourne Punch but turned increasingly to alcohol as a solace. Described as a 'respectable old man' (he was 56) he appeared in court charged with 'lunacy, caused through drink'. On meeting him in the street, Horne advised him to seek refuge in the Benevolent Asylum and told him that he had written an article for Thackeray's Cornhill Magazine setting out his sad circumstances; Whitehead was left with an 'agonizing sense of shame and humiliation'.

In early 1862 Whitehead applied vainly for admission to the asylum. Unbeknown to his friends, he was picked up exhausted in the street and taken to Melbourne Hospital where on 5 July 1862 he died, aged 58, of hepatitis and bronchitis. He was buried in a pauper's grave. Some weeks later his friends discovered his death but their efforts failed to have his body exhumed and reburied.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. M. Bell, A Forgotten Genius
  • Charles Whitehead (Lond, 1894)
  • J. Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, J. W. T. Ley ed (Lond, 1928)
  • C. Turnbull, Australian Lives (Melb, 1965)
  • My Note Book, vol 3 (1858)
  • Examiner (Melbourne), 23 Aug 1862
  • Australasian, 17 Nov 1866, 24 Sept 18 May 1889, 28 July 1894.

Citation details

Clive Turnbull, 'Whitehead, Charles (1804–1862)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/whitehead-charles-4842/text8083, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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