The Hanging of William Dodd

Anthony Lynch

William Dodd was a priest who led an extraordinary life.
Dodd at Tyburn
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The eighteenth century – its art and its manners, have always absorbed me. Some years ago when I was researching British artists’ portraits of black men and women and children for an article in a learned journal, I needed to go no further it so happened than to look on the portrait covers of three books about or by three black people: Olaudah Equiano – showing a portrait of him by an anonymous artist. Ignatius Sancho appears in a half- length portrait by Thomas Gainsborough on the cover of Sancho’s Letters. Zoffany claims a special place in my memory because his double portrait of Lord Mansfield’s daughter with his adopted African daughter Dido, summed up the open mindedness of the great artists of the period.  As I read, in Sancho’s letter to The Morning Post in early June 1777 and written from his grocery shop in Westminster, the name William Dodd came first to my attention in this way:

“Sir, I am one of the many who have often been edified by the graceful eloquence and truly Christian doctrine of the unfortunate Dr Dodd:-as a Divine, he had, and still has, my love and reference; his faults I regret….”

The rest of the letter and footnotes explain that Dr Dodd had been sentenced to death.  My curiosity was raised. The next day I had promised myself a day of pleasure amongst the book shops of Hay-on-Wye. Dodd was not on my mind but black people and slavery in London were, with reference to The Lord Chief Justice Mansfield who played a significant part –almost despite himself – in furthering the cause of the abolitionists; he had commissioned the painting already referred to.

Olaudah Equiano

The Old Cinema Book Shop – was the first to be submitted to my deliberate inspection. In the middle row of row after row of metal shelving the spines of all the books and their titles were clear to read. But one book had little more left than string and paper on its spine. Irritated I took it down. Within the book, in bold black copperplate and easily read was “Clare College Library 1879”. (Dodd’s college in Cambridge). The title A Famous ForgeryThe Story of the “Unfortunate Doctor Dodd” by Percy Fitzgerald, M.A. F.S.A. and below this again were the titles of Fitzgerald’s other books: Never Forgotten, The Life of Sterne (a clergyman with different talents to Dodd’s) Bella Donna &c [It was Edward Fitzgerald who was responsible for The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam]. At the bottom of the title page of A Famous Forgery is the publisher Chapman and Hall, 193 Piccadilly, London: 1865.

I was gripped. Then began the search for this extraordinary man. The powers of Google were immediately at hand and soon Gerald Howson’s The Macaroni Parson published by Hutchinson in 1973 was in my library. Within weeks I was on the way to Dodd’s birth place – Bourne in Lincolnshire and later to the Churches in many different places where he preached or held chaplaincies – in Buckinghamshire, Middlesex, West Ham and the city churches; I was invited to the basement underneath the public house in the city of London. Before it held beer, brandy and gin it was a part of the prison where Dodd spent his last days before sentencing at The Old Bailey. More academic searches were enjoyed at The British Library, Clare College (in Dodd’s time called Clare Hall), The Hunterian Museum in London, The Bodleian in Oxford, The Masonic Library in London. In every case the staff showed all that helpfulness and knowledge that is outstanding in all academia in the British Isles. Sadly I was not able to travel to The West Indies to follow up the life of Thicknesse – who appeared early on in the books mentioned above and when I began my own journeys to uncover The Reverend Doctor William Dodd. One of my last research trips was to Durham where Mary Perkins, a Cathedral Verger’s daughter was born and in London at age seventeen was within two years to be Dodd’s wife.

William became part of my life in the first weeks of my retirement in the year 2000. With breaks for other writing, hospital interventions by colleagues with perhaps sometimes it seemed too much surgical enthusiasm to operate on my cardiovascular system, I did not always have a clear run with my pen – which fountain pen was given to me by a member of my staff the Christmas prior to my retirement. It was the only pen used to write the whole of the first draft of The Hanging of William Dodd.

I should start now writing the article I had begun to research (about portraitists of black men and women in the eighteenth century if you remember…but I have also just become very interested in.

Anthony Lynch is the author of Y Block and The Hanging of William Dodd.