Catalogue description Diary and letter of Thomas De Quincey (1785 - 1859)

This record is held by Liverpool Record Office

Details of 920 MD 424
Reference: 920 MD 424
Title: Diary and letter of Thomas De Quincey (1785 - 1859)

The Diary, 1803


This diary was written in April - June 1803 during a visit to Everton on which De Quincey had been sent to recover from his experiences in Wales and London (see above). He had stayed in Everton with his family in the summer of 1801 and by himself in the spring of 1802. One "... of the attractions of Everton" may have been William Clarke [presumably William Clarke, Junior, (1754 - 1805), banker and close friend of William Roscoe, see John Hughes Liverpool Banks and Bankers, 1760 - 1837, 1906, Ch. 5, William Clarke and Sons, pp. 56 - 83] who had been a friend of De Quincey's father and whose house in Everton was "... the centre of a circle of minor writers and local intellectuals ..." De Quincey met "... these Liverpool worthies and ... observed them ... with the merciless eye of intelligent adolescence (Lindop, p. 52). (Those he met included William Roscoe (1753 - 1831), Rev. William Shepherd (1768 - 1847) and Dr. James Currie (1756 - 1805). (Years later in Autobiographical Sketches in 1837 De Quincey was to write with good humoured contempt of this circle, portraying them as ... postasters, and dilettanti amusingly burdened with delusions of grandeur ..." In Liverpool, where Roscoe and his friends were still warmly remembered, great offence was taken ..." (see Lindop, p. 323). Hughes op. cit. p. 58 writes of this "Liverpool Literary Coterie" " ... whose hospitality as an unlicked cub of sixteen, De Quincey enjoyed, and on whose memory he, after years of debauchery had dulled his moral feelings, scattered the venom of ingratitude.")


Everton in the first years of the 19th century was reached by a road which was "pleasant and rural" and was a "... favourite resort of opulance ... [with] an assemblage of elegant villas, many of which ... connect with architectural taste, the beauty of situation and the decorations of rural scenery ...", see The Stranger in Liverpool, 2nd ed., 1810, pp. 185, 186. William Moss' Liverpool Guide, 1801, p. 80, describes the descent towards the lower part of Everton which "... offers a very charming display of the river and sea, with the town below, which would afford a subject for the pencil of an artist ... that could scarcely be exceeded in beauty, variety and extension ...". As on previous visits De Qu9ncey stayed at the cottage of a Mrs. Best in Everton Terrace (formerly called Middle Road). This cottage stood opposite the "far grander mansion of William Clarke".


Eaton, p. 8, quotes a letter from De Quincey's mother - "Mrs. Best's cottage is on the middle road ... it is a sweet cottage which has a delightful view of the water; the bathing is not so near as might be wished, but within compass of a walk ...". A watercolour of H.C. Pidgeon (1807 - 1880), c. 1840, shows Everton Terrace with Mrs. Best's former cottage. Gore's Directory of Liverpool, 1803, lists "Best, Anabella. Loding House, Everton" and Robert Syers History of Everton including familiar dissertations on the people ..., 1830, p. 303, gives the following "Crossing the Terrace-road ... stands a humble looking but very comfortable, brick-built cottage ... there long dwelt a good and kind matron, one who has often attended and cherished, with care and tenderness, the sick, the infirm, the delicate of constitution, and the convalescent, and at all times administered to the comforts, wants and conveniences of those who occasionally lodged under her roof. Such was the late Nurse Best, who died 23rd November, 1815; her daughter ... still strives to make her residence a happy and confortable home to its inmates ..."


The diary itself is part diary and part notebook. According to Lindop, p. 99, there was little to record in the diary because De Quincey "... was bored at Everton and the general atmosphere of the diary is one of mild depression ..." His time was spent walking in the country near Everton (Walton, Bootle, Kirkdale), visiting booksellers and circulating libraries, paying visits to drink tea or coffee, dining out and talking, going to church, reading by himself. These activities are recorded in the diary but it also serves as a notebook with copies and drafts of letters (a number of these to his mother), lists of expenses, lists of books, of poets and of "... works which I have, at sometime or other seriously intended to execute ..."


Lindop states on p. 101, that at the time the diary was written De Quincey was "preoccupied with questions of literary theory" and that the diary shows "signs of a developing critical intelligence". In the diary De Quincey states his own theories and reflections and enlarges on and extends themes discussed at social gatherings. Eaton, p. 12, writes that the "... major emphasis of the little book is not upon creation, but as we might expect, upon analysis and intellectual interest" and on p. 13 "that he does not develop his half thoughts so that they may be clearly comprehensible to us who were never meant to overhear them ... He gives us jottings only, merely meant to remind himself ...". Dr. Woof, p. 40, suggests that from certain passages in the diary "... De Quincey was concerned with reverie and dream even before he took any opium ...". There are some references to national and local events (see draft letter to De Quincey's mother, 31 May 1803 referring to Pitt and "The Corsican", and accounts of the press gang in Liverpool, notably on 9 May 1803) but the diary does not concern itself too much with these.


Sources (if not quoted in full above):


Horace Eaton (ed.) Diary of Thomas de Quincey ... (see full details at end of list of 920 MD 424/1).


Grevel Lindop The Opium Eater ... (as given above under biographical details) (ref. 828.808 DEQ).


Thomas De Quincey catalogue, notes by Dr. R. Woof (a given above under biographical details).

Date: 1803
Related material:



De Quincey, Thomas in Dictionary of National Biography, 1908, Vol. 5


Grevel Lindop. The Opium-Eater: a life of Thomas De Quincey, 1981


Thomas De Quincey: an English Opium Eater, 1785 - 1859 [catalogue to an exhibition, Grasmere, Jun. - Oct., Edinburgh, Nov. 1985 - Jan. 1986, notes and introduction by Dr. Robert Woof].

Held by: Liverpool Record Office, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

Quincy, Thomas De, 1785-1859, writer and author

Physical description: 1 vol., 1 doc.
Immediate source of acquisition:

Acc. 2646


Acc. 2657

Administrative / biographical background:

The manuscript diary, listed at 920 MD 424/1 below, was bequeathed to this library by the Rev. C.H. Steel and was received here on 19th September 1951. According to the Libraries, Museums and Arts Committee Minute Book, Jun. 1948 - Nov. 1951 (352 MIN/LIB 1/33), p. 740, the following was noted at a meeting of the Libraries and Reading Rooms Sub-Committee on 14th September 1951 "Bequest: Rev. C.H. Steel, Deceased ... The City Librarian submits a letter dated the 6th of July from Messrs. Belk and Smith, solicitors, of Albert Road, Middlesborough, stating that the Rev. C.H. Steel had bequeathed to the Liverpool Public Libraries the original MSS diary of Thomas de Quincey written whilst staying with Mrs. Best in Everton during the spring of 1803 ..." It was stated that the reference library already held a copy of A Diary of Thomas de Quincey, 1803: ... reproduced in replica as well as in print from the original manuscript in the possession of the Reverend C.H. Steel ..., edited by Horace Eaton, Professor of English at Syracuse University, New York [1927] and it was ... Resolved that the bequest be accepted with thanks". On coming to this library the diary was placed in the Hornby Library but in view of its local connections was transferred to the Record Office in January 1974.


The Rev. Charles Henry Steel is last listed in the Crockford's Clerical Directory for 1949 - 1950, p. 1128, at an address in Middlesborough. He had been educated at Keble College, Oxford, ordained in 1895 and apart from periods as a naval chaplain, 1916 - 1919 and in Coldstream, Berwickshire, 1919 - 1924, all of his working life appears to have been spent in Yorkshire, much of it in or near Middlesborough.


Professor Eaton in his Introduction to the Diary ... (see above), p. 1, described the Rev. C.H. Steel as being "... formerly of Carlisle". He died in Middlesborough on 5th April 1951 aged 83 years (according to details supplied by the staff of the Reference Library, Central Library, Middlesborough).


It is not clear when the De Quincey diary came into the possession of the Steel family. If Charles Henry Steel was aged 83 years at the time of his death in 1951, he would have been born in 1867 or early in 1868. Steel himself wrote in a Foreword to the Diary ... [1927], p. ix, "This diary written by Thomas de Quincey at the age of seventeen, was given to my father about sixty years ago" [i.e. c. 1867] "by an old friend in the Lake District. Beyond this nothing is known of its history". A slip of paper pasted on to the inside front cover of the volume reads "Robert Steel from J. Martindale Scott of Penrith by Jos Wilkinson Esq., Bowscale". According to Eaton, p. 2, "All that Mr. Steel knows is that somewhere about 1860" [i.e. some years prior to Charles Henry Steel's birth] "his father Robert Steel, Esq., returned one day from an expedition of hunting or fishing in the Lake District with the treasure in his pocket ..." However, Steel himself wrote an account in A De Quincey Relic in The Bookman's Journal and Print Collector, 1 Oct. 1920, Vol. 2, No. 49, p. 365 (ref. Rq 805 B00) which makes it clear that he himself remembered this event which must have taken place at some time in the 1870's 'Do you see' said my father as he boisterously entered the parlour where we were hungering for tea ... ' do you see this square old yellow book I toss in the air' (doing so) 'and catch again' - the plate of bread and butter really caught it ...', 'and twirl about' By the crumpled yellow covers'?' 'Is that by Shakespeare, papa? said I, meaning ...; the quotation. Being (in the early seventies) about six years old, had ... a strong conviction I that ... blank verse ... came originally from Stratford ...". He continued What was the story of the unattractive looking little book? It had been given to my father he said, by an acquaintance in the course of his travels [in the Lake District] ... The volume remained in the Steel family's possession ... reticent and almost forgotten in an old clock ... [which] was the repository of a varied and unclassified collection of autographs, scrapbooks and other similar curiosities ..." On his own account in both the Bookman's Journal article and the Foreword to the Diary, 'the Rev. C.H. Steel twice offered The volume for sale at Sotheby's, in 1905 and in 1919 but on neither occasion was the reserve price reached, ; though he ... was not inconsolable when the reserve price proved too high and my father's find returned to its corner in the old clock. At some time during the 1920's, the Rev. C.H. Steel met or contacted Professor Eaton ... who was engaged in researches concerned with De Quincey and together [they] took steps for publication ... of the diary, (see Steel's Foreword to the Diary..., p. ix). Professor Eaton published a limited edition of 1500 copies of the Diary... in 1927. This publication dedicated to De Quincey's grand-daughters, Florence and Margaret Bairdsmith, includes a foreword by the Rev. C.H. Steel, an introduction by Professor Eaton, a facsimile reproduction of the diary, a printed transcript of it and detailed notes on the text (see A Diary of Thomas de Quincey, 1803 ... available in the Rare Books sequence at H 920 DEQ).


The manuscript diary itself was lent for display in a major bicentenary exhibition Thomas De Quincey: An English Opium Eater at the Grasmere and Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere, Cumberland, Jan. - Oct. 1985.


Thomas De Quincey (1785 - 1859)


Thomas De Quincey, writer and author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, was born Thomas Penson Quincey, one of seven children and son of a Manchester linen merchant, on 15th August 1785. The family lived for a while at Greenhay on the edge of Manchester but the father died in 1793 and in 1796 the mother sold Greenhay and moved the family to Bath. At about this time the family began to call itself De Quincey. Between 1796 and 1799 Thomas attended schools in Bath and Wiltshire. In November 1800 he was entrolled as a pupil at Manchester Grammar School. The summer holiday of 1801 he spent staying with his family in Everton. The following year he ran away from Manchester Grammar School in July and spent four months wandering in Wales. In November of the same year, 1802, he moved on to London. His experiences there and in Wales are described in his Confessions. By March 1803 he had returned to his family, now living in Chester, and he appears to have been sent off almost immediately to recover from his experiences of the previous months, to Everton, where the diary listed here was written (see below).


In December 1803 De Quincey entered Worcester; College, Oxford. The following year saw his first introduction to opium (taken "... to alleviate pain) to which he was to become addicted. Between 1805 and 1808, the year in which he left Oxford without taking a degree, De Quincey entered into friendship with Charles Lamb, Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth. In 1809 he spent some time with his family, now living near Bristol but in October, of that year he moved to the Lake District. He moved "... with 29 chests of books" into his new home, the cottage at Town End, Grasmere, formerly the home of the Wordsworths, later to be known as Dove Cottage.


He paid visits to London and in 1814 - 1815 to Edinburgh and was introduced "... to literary people there. In 1817 he married Margaret Simpson, daughter of a Rydal farming family, three months after the birth of their eldest son. The couple had seven further children to whom De Quincey was always an affectionate father.


De Quincey suffered severe financial hardship. He was editor of the Westmorland Gazette briefly in 1818 - 1819. In 1820 he went to Edinburgh to write for Blackwood's but failed to produce any work. In the second half of 1821 he went to London and his Confessions of an English Opium Eater appeared in the London Magazine. This was published in book form in 1822. In 1825, despite an annual allowance from De Quincey's mother, financial problems forced his wife and children to return to her family home, the Nab, Rydal. De Quincey was now working mostly in Edinburgh. By 1830 the whole family had moved to Edinburgh and never again returned to the Lake District. In 1832 it was necessary to sell the Nab, Rydal and in 1833 the De Quincey family moved to a cottage "... on the outskirts of Edinburgh, near the grounds of Holyrood where debtors could claim Sanctuary. In 1834 De Quincey began to write his Autobiographical Sketches which appeared irregularly until 1841. De Quincey's wife, Margaret, died in 1837 and in 1840 he took Mavis Bush Cottage at Lasswade, six miles south east of Edinburgh, to which his eldest daughter, Margaret, moved with the younger children. De Quincey himself continued to struggle against financial hardship and opium addiction. He lived sometimes in Glasgow and; sometimes in Edinburgh, in lodgings where he filled his room with books and papers "... until he was 'snowed up"'. When forced out of his lodgings "... by such a catastrophe, he simply locked the door and went elsewhere. Conscientious landladies were overwhelmed with the responsibility this imposed upon them, while others took advantage of the deposits in their care to extort money. Six of these storehouses existed at the time of his death ..." He wrote throughout this period, contributing to Blackwood's, Tait's Magazine, to the Encyclopaedia Britannica etc. In 1851 - 1852 seven volumes of De Quincey's collected works were published in America and a Collected Edition of his works appeared in this country between 1853 and 1860. These collected works did bring De Quincey a profit. His two elder daughters had married in 1853 and 1855 respectively. From about 1857 De Quincey became physically weaker and he died at Lasswade, now the home of his unmarried daughter, on 8th December 1859.

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