Thomas Ashe [Capt.]

1770-1835 [Capt. Ashe, ‘gentleman vagabond’]; b. Glasnevin, Co. Dublin; ran away to join the army; served with the Duke of York; held a commission in the 83rd foot; clerical work in Bordeaux and Dublin; years of foreign travel; with Lord Edward Fitzgerald at his marriage to Pamela; caught in flagrante delicto with the mistress [Mrs. Leeson] of the Viceroy Lord Westmoreland in Dublin; discovered embezzling a sinecure obtained through the offices of his brother, a clergyman; sold his black wife to a backwoodsman in America; reput. ed. National Intelligencer for Thomas Jefferson, and quarrelled with him; brought the first mammoth’s bones to Britain; arrested for stealing church treasures in Latin America; engaged in journalistic wars with Pitt and Cobbett in London;

Ashe is believed to have acted at the Theatre in Fishamble St., in 1793; gained confidences from Caroline of Brunswick and was bought off before their publication; Travels in America (1806, var. 1808); The Liberal Critic (1812) contains his estimates of literature; Memoirs and Confessions (1815), autobiography recounting criminal escapades beginning with the seduction of a girl in France and the killing of her brother in a duel; The Soldier of Fortune (1816); The Soldier of Fortune (1816); also Spirit of the Spirit, a concise abridg. of The Spirit of ‘The Book’ or Memoirs of Caroline Princess of Hasbrugh (1811), running to six editions; his memoirs are the subject of a play by John Arden poor ‘Tom, thy Horn is Dry’. ODNB DIW OCIL DIL

[ top ]

Travels in America [...] 3 vols. (London: Richard Phillips 1808); The Spirit of ‘The Book’, or Memoirs of Caroline, Princess of Hasburgh, 3 vols. (London: Allen 1811); The Liberal Critic, 3 vols. (London: B. &: R. Crosby 1812); A Commercial View and Geographical Sketch of the Brasils in South America, and of the Island of Medeira (London: Allen 1812); History of the Azores, or Western Islands (London: Sherwood, Neely & Jones 1813); Memoirs and Confessions of Captain Ashe, Author of "The Spirit of the Book", &c. &c. &c., written by himself in 3 vols. (London: Henry Colburn 1814), [Vol. II: 322pp.]; The Soldier of Fortune, 2 vols. (London: Sherwood, Neely & Jones 1816).

A copy of The Memoirs and Confessions of Captain Ashe (H. Colburn 1815) is available at Internet Archive - online.

[ top ]

Eric Korn, ’The Life and Times of a Regency Blackmailer’, Times Literary Supplement (24 Apr. 1992) pp.13-14 [see extracts].

See also ...

Robert McKie, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert – review in The Guardian (16 Feb. 2104).

[...] We live in an era defined by extinctions. Yet the concept is fairly new. Until the 18th century, when French anatomist Georges Cuvier decided the elephant-like remains of a creature found in the US were that of a mastodon – an “especes perdues” [sic] or lost species – such fossil finds were always assumed to belong to creatures that still lived. They were just somewhere else. “Such is the economy of nature,” claimed Thomas Jefferson, who took a keen interest in the strange bones being dug up in his new republic.
 However, Cuvier persisted and such was his skill as an anatomist and showman that he triumphed. “On the basis of a few scatter bones, Cuvier had conceived of a whole new way of looking at life,” notes Kolbert.
“Species died out. This was not an isolated but a widespread phenomenon.”

Guardian (16 Feb. 2104) - available online; accessed 25.01.2016.

[ top ]

Eric Korn, ‘The Life and Times of a Regency Blackmailer’, in Times Literary Supplement (24 April 1992), pp.13-14.

Korn calls Ashe ‘the worst rogue, spiv, spendthrift, turncoat, seducer, deserter, literary journalist and all round scoundrel of a scoundrelly age’ [p.13], and recites in detail the tale of the career in ‘literary prostitution’ and blackmail which Ashe himself considered the most glorious of that or any age. Korn’s considers the ODNB article on Ashe to be no more than a summary of the uncreditworthy Life and Confessions, itself an uproarious work that remains unpublished though the very stuff of a BBC2 classic serial.

Korn provides an alternative tale: Impoverished Irish gentry; an overbearing father; eleven siblings; Ashe absconds ‘on the smallest provocation to the poor and the peasantry for weeks together’; joins regiment which revolts and is disbanded; sent to Bordeaux of business; seduces [Melanie]; gets post in Dublin and inadvertently becomes Lord Lieutenant’s mistress’s lover [“I prepared to depart for the Continent with all that caution and precipitancy with characterise the conduct of corruption and guilt”]

In Zurich he meets Lavater and Gibbon; joins Duke of York’s forces; is heroically wounded; goes recruiting and gathers debts; Portugal, Sardinia, London - where an untimely satire on Pitt dashes preferment [promotion] - fights in the French and Austrian armies; deserts back; goes to Isle of Man and publishes the Manks Monastery or Memoirs of Belvil and Julia (no copy in English Short Title Cat.); establishes schools in Coventry, Hammersmith, and Falkirk; tries navy; fights duel; made army commission agent and embezzles £8,000;

removes to America; lives at headwaters of Patuxent, mostly on squirrels; becomes “acquainted with several Indian dialects and made much progress in the interpretation of their hieroglyphics; socialises with Jefferson in Washington; joins Canadian Fencibles, but returns to London; gives expensive trinket to Anne Clark, the mistress of Duke of York [“a sedulous imitation of Fanny Hill and pampering some low rascal in a corner with the wages of her iniquity”]; sent recruiting to Canada, where he raises no recruits; pay stopped;

takes to natural history [“I found a few skeletons which proved to demonstrate that men were formerly at least a foot taller ... that the diminution of size followed the precession of the equinoxes and most probably had some secret connection with these”]; returns to England with relics, starts a theme park where [“the fragrance of exotic flowers was to be smelt and the wobbling music of Indians was to be heard”]; Customs demands 35% duty and he goes mad [“the springs and principles of my mind broke down”];

sells an option to Bullock of Bullock’s Museum, in a deal which involved Ashe writing the guide book, for which there is a copy in the British Library of an MS note: “Mr Ashe is extremely sorry to have mislaid a pamphlet for Mr B. he will search for it with assiduity”; jailed for debt; takes to literature [“during my residence in the Kings Bench which did not exceed 6 months, I composed three distinct works namely Political Arguments in Favour of Parliamentary Reform, which I sold to William Honeywood Yate Esq. for £300” - others being a History of the Azores, and a pamphlet on the State of Ireland for Lord Jervis”]; Sir Richard Murray paid £50 for an MS [worth 1,500 guineas];

travels to Madeira and Brazil and collects a double handful of diamonds, and is imprisoned; wrote Spirit of the Book, an imaginative - or imaginary - version of the “black book” of charges against Queen Caroline that her enemies in the Spencer Percival faction had printed and suppressed [“He exhibits the fruit of his labours - it is despised by the booksellers - instead of a publisher he meets with a creditor and is again imprisoned - visited by his creditors - treats them with contempt - libels them in a poem - they tremble” - Korner];

commences on a blackmailing career [“I completed a large work in 4 weeks called The Claustral Palace or the Memoirs of the Family. As I came to the close of the fourth volume I issued a circular letter; such was the interest the circular exerted that before I had revised my manuscript I received several proposals respecting it and was visit by several violent characters from London”]; sold half-share to a Mr C., to sell the suppression rights; Mr C. panics and flees the country leaving Ashe to pay the bills; approaches the lady in question, Lady Berkeley (Mary Tudor), and offers to write her memoirs; she declines; he proceeds; touched and “smiling most bewitchingly” she told him her story and gave him “some correspondence”;

the collaboration is unsuccessful [“I frequently yielded to her opinion and altered or mutilated those very passages which I esteemed the brightest ornaments of the work”]; upon completion, she burst into tears [“notwithstanding all the merit of your work and the great and valuable services its is universally calculated to render me I would not now for millions that it was printed or published.”]; he insists that he must publish or accept £1,000 from her; she become “no longer Lady - mild, lovely and benevolent, but Mary C. the butcher’s daughter, rude, vulgar and termagant with gore upon her mouth, blood upon her hands; famine in her aspect, and fury in her face”;

intimid[at]ed, he sells the MS for £100 changing title from ‘The Persecuted Peeress’ to ‘The Perjured Peeress’, and re-offers it [“On the following day a creature of the family came and treated with me for the manuscript and paid me for it 500 guineas on the express obligation however of my dropping the subject.”]; then sells the MS to a private Gentleman in Bath for £200, this being Yate, who was cowed by threats of criminal proceedings; Yate handed the MS over for destruction;

engenders an Abridgement, The Spirit of the Spirit of the Book [“I had now moved to Park Place, Baker Street North, and Pursued such a life of literary prostitution as is perhaps unparalleled in the history of letters”]; becomes involved in the Princess Caroline scandal on several sides; publishes the Liberal Critic [“where the reader will find a characteristic review of all the books I had perused”]; also A Soldier of Fortune, a historical novel [“the grand principle of which is to invigorate the spiritual health, rouse the loyalty and fortify the mind of the public against the invasion of the levelling and deleterious doctrines which pervade the writings and orations of the opposition.”]

Note: The above account incorporates reading of the Memoirs and Confessions of Captain Ashe [...] 3 vols. (London: Henry Colburn 1815) - a copy of which i held in the Belfast Central Library (York St., Belfast.) BS.

[ top ]

Memoirs and Confessions (1815), Preface: Ashe delineates both his wickedness and his remorse but writes: ‘[W]ith all this singularity of manner and with so much loud and pompous pretences to undeviating turpitude and folly, my mind is not formed of that vacillating stuff that never settles, or stops to attend to the voice which conveys satisfaction to the judgement, conviction to the understanding and strength to the memory. If I unwittingly draw up me the censure of the public, the reproach must, in justice, be attached to my head, and not to my heart, which now beats more fervently, in the general cause of human nature, and the best interest of my fellow subjects in particular.’ (Memoirs and Confessions of Captain Ashe [...] , London: Henry Colburn 1814, [q.p.])

[ top ]

Brian Cleeve & Ann Brady, A Dictionary of Irish Writers [rev. edn.] (Dublin: Lilliput 1985), refer to Spirit of ‘The Book’, Soldier of Fortune and Liberal Critic as novels but Ashe’s Confessions makes it clear that these are documentary and critical works instead.

Encyclopaedia Britannica (1949 edn.), account of Amelia Elizabeth Caroline, dg. of Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel; cites the Creevey papers (1905) as giving the most interesting contemporary sidelights as well as F. Chapman, A Queen of Indiscretions, the Tragedy of Caroline of Brunswick Queen of England, trans. from Graziano Paolo Clerici (1907), but not the works of Thomas Ashe. Vide also Charles Phillips writing on Princess [Queen] Caroline (1768-1821) in ibid. The details of her history are: m. then Prince of Wales, 1795; sep. Jan. 1896, after birth of dg., Princess Charlotte; resided at Blackheath; reports of misconduct led to commission of inquiry, 1806; acquitted of serious fault, but improprieties of conduct pointed out; left England, 1814; name formally excluded from embassies and liturgy on accession of George IV, 1820; rejected proposed annuity and returned to England as claimant; bill to dissolve marriage on grounds of adultery with Irlan, Bartolomeo Bergami, House of Lords trial began 17 Aug. 1820; bill abandoned on third reading; boldness of Queen’s counsel, Brougham and Denman, unparalleled; smallness of majority counted as virtual defeat; allowed to assume title but refused admittance to coronation; died shortly after. Bibl., The Trial at Large of Her Majesty Containing the Evidence, Speeches, &c. printed from the journals of the House, 3 vols. (1821).

Central Public Library (Belfast) holds a copy of Memoirs and Confessions of Captain Ashe [...] 3 vols. (London: Henry Colburn 1815).

[ top ]

Fishamble St.: The cast list for a performance at Fishamble St. Theatre in 1793 includes a Capt. Ashe. (See John Gilbert, History of Dublin, Vol. I, Dublin: McGlashan & Gill 1854-59, p.87.)

John Arden, John Arden poor ‘Tom, thy Horn is Dry’, a play dir. by Roland Jacquerello, BBC N. Ireland Drama (2003); with Aidan McArdle, David Calder, Jim Norton, Rakie Ayola and Marcella Riosrdan. (BBC3, Sun. 21 Dec. 2003; 8.00-10.00).

Namesakes: He is a namesake of Captain Thomas Ashe, the defender of Derry (1688-91) and Thomas Ashe, the Irish Republican and 1916 signatory of the 1916 Declarations.

[ top ]