The Life of John Blackner.
By J. C. Warren, M.A.
A CONTEMPORARY sketch of the life of John Blackner, which is among the contributor's papers, gives a good deal of information concerning this Nottingham historian which is not otherwise available, and some part of which, at all events, seems worthy of preservation in the pages of the Transactions. It was written by the late Mr. John Crosby of Nottingham (1775—1846), well known as an antiquarian and numismatist, whose help is acknowledged by Orange in his History of Nottingham, and by Captain Barker ("The Old Sailor") in his "Walks Round Nottingham"; to whom Blackner himself was greatly indebted; and from whose notes no small portion of Sutton's Date Book was compiled. Mr. Crosby evidently writes from personal knowledge of the man and his life.
John Blackner, he says, was born at Ilkeston in 1769. His father died during his infancy, and his mother married, a second time, a Mr. Joseph Large, whom Blackner speaks of as "a kind parent, a father to the fatherless, a meek Christian and a good man," and for whom he composed a lengthy poetical epitaph.
Blackner served his apprenticeship to a framework knitter of Ilkeston, and married a young woman of that place named Sarah Brown, whose brother was a respectable farmer living at Kirk Hallam. He and his wife came to reside in Nottingham in 1792, and here he learned to make point-net. Though his wages were substantial, his love of company was such that he was always in poverty. He frequently spent the early part of the night at the public-house, and the early morning in poaching, and "so far had he lost his respectability" (as it was thought in those days) that at one time he enlisted in the 45th Regiment, and his friends had to join their mites to purchase his discharge. Yet in the midst of this life of dissipation, he learned to write and spell, for at the time of his coming to Nottingham he did not even know his letters. His instructor was a Scotsman, a shoemaker named Arthur Gordon, who was greatly attached to him, but whose own acquirements were of a very rudimentary nature. Blackner by some means became possessed of Louth's Grammar, and by paying very close attention thereto, he became a tolerable grammarian, and began to form a few sentences and attempt to write a letter. In this he persevered, and earned many a shilling by writing for soldiers' wives to the War Office, and to their absent husbands.
The first of his productions that met the public eye was a set of rules for a Benevolent Society, which was printed. As his education progressed he threw himself with great ardour into all the controversies which were rife at the time, both in political and local matters, taking, it perhaps need scarcely be said, the extreme radical position. He engaged in active polemical warfare with Mr. John Wright, the Banker, and Mr. George Bown, a hatter in the town, on the Corn Laws, and drove them from the field, Mr. Bown, it is said, leaving the town in consequence. In connection with this controversy, he published in 1805 a pamphlet, entitled "A few reflections on the Corn Laws," which was followed by another, "The Utility of Commerce Defended." In 1806 he wrote another pamphlet, "Thoughts on the late Change of Administration," which was dedicated to Major Cartwright, and to this succeeded in 1807 a severe attack on Mr. Bristow, the Vicar of St. Mary's, in connection with the House of Industry. In the preceding year (1806) a handbill was printed by Jonathan Dunn reflecting on the administration of the Ann Ball and Margaret Doubleday Charities. This handbill was written by John Hawksley, but Blackner adopted it as his own, and went to Mr. John Smith, the Banker (whose family had been attacked) as a willing sacrifice to an action of which notice had been served upon the printer. This somewhat quixotic proceeding on the part of Blackner led to a friendship with Mr. Smith, of which the poor fellow was proud so long as he lived. (1)
In June, 1808, the Nottingham Review was established, to which Blackner regularly contributed, and on the 30th April, 1809, his first retrospect of "Home News" was printed in that paper. He continued writing for the Review till July, 1812, when he was engaged by Mr. Lovell, the proprietor of the "Statesman," a London Evening Paper, to be its Editor. (2) In this post he stayed for some time, but, growing tired of the laborious duties he had to perform, he returned to Nottingham and again engaged with the Review. He was particularly capable as a writer of political sqibs, for which he was in great request, and some of the smartest handbills in the remarkable election of 1812. when Lord Rancliffe first, became member for Nottingham, were from his pen. He died before his History of Nottingham was fully completed.
It may be added that in 1808 a number of burgesses petitioned the Common Hall that the Freedom of the Town might be conferred upon him. This was complied with, and the Lace Trade Committee paid the stamp and enrolment fees.
At the commencement of "Ludding" he assisted the deluded men with his advice and in other ways, thinking that the system of terror they sought to establish was more likely to operate on the minds of the hosiery masters than cool dispassionate reasoning, but he lived to see the folly of the attempt, and was sorry for the part he had acted.
Blackner died on the 22nd December, 1816, in his 47th year, and was buried at St. Mary's four days afterwards. His widow survived him. John, his eldest son, who was then a private soldier, died in America some time about the taking of Washington City. His next son, Algernon Sidney, married Susan Thatcher, and his third son, Lucius, took to wife a sister of hers, Rebecca Thatcher. Both left families. His fourth son, Alfred, died during his apprenticeship to a laceinaker. His eldest daughter, Mary, married a person of the name of Lynam, and had children. Both his younger daughters, Sarah and Lucretia were married, but died without issue.
From early life Blackner was an ardent lover of liberty and, of course, was an admirer of the revolutionists of France. He as firmly believed that Bonaparte (even after he had ascended the imperial throne) would give freedom to the world, as he believed in his own existence. His love of popularity was unbounded, and for this bauble he sacrificed both his money and his constitution. In 1813 his friends enabled him to enter upon a public-house, the "Bull's Head," in Turn-Calf Alley (Sussex Street) which lie opened under the sign of the "Rancliffe Arms." Now, for the first time in his life, he could call himself comfortable, as he had a wonderful run of custom, and when trading or political questions ran high, his house was regularly filled, and his pen constantly at work.(3)
In manner he was rather insinuating, and in private conversation mild and unostentatious; but in public he was boisterous in speech and argument, and overbearing in behaviour. When heated in disputation he generally had recourse to free drinking, a habit which sapped a constitution which had been strong in early life. The decline of which he died had been approaching for several months, and he was unwell for a year and a half before he passed away.
As a friend, he was warm-hearted and kind. In cases of distress he was always the first to relieve, and his pocket was never closed against the unfortunate. On religious subjects, his mind wavered. Among his associates he generally declared himself a Deist, but in private he used always to express his doubts on the subject, and as he found his end approaching he clung to Christianity, and died sincerely believing in its truths.
(1) It will be remembered that his History is dedicated to Mr. John Smith, who was then M.P. for Nottingham.
(2) In this he succeeded a Mr. Houston, a Scotsman, the author of a work called '"Ecce Homo."
(3) Blackner's literary efforts do not seem to have been confined to controversial writings and newspaper articles or to historical work, however, as the contributor of this article has in his possession a very lengthy MS. poem by him descriptive of the battle of Marengo.