A Forger’s Tale

savery4b    Most Australians would struggle to name the country’s first published novelist. Prior to researching this book that number would have included its author. While other literary pioneers are luxuriantly memorialised, Henry Savery seemed destined to dwell in obscurity – an author lost in the literary backstreets. Not for our Henry the glory of Henry Lawson Drive, with its postcard-perfect views over Sydney Harbour from McMahon’s Point. Nor anything approaching the mass adulation and leafy avenues accorded a whole anthology of English poets that can be found in Melbourne’s bayside ‘burb of Elwood.
    No, our writer’s name is cemented in history by an entirely nondescript street on the urban fringes of Canberra – and even this is a mere tributary of a larger road commemorating that more sentimental literary bloke, the poet CJ Dennis. At Point Cook in Victoria a tiny cul-de-sac bearing the maverick’s moniker pales into insignificance beside its more glamorously named neighbour, Miles Franklin Boulevard. But at least some history-savvy surveyor appears to have had the wit to call this little dead-end a court, a place in which our unhappy first novelist spent much time…

It turned out that one of my libraries held a copy of Rod Howard’s 2011 publication, A Forger’s Tale: The Extraordinary Story Of Henry Savery, Australia’s First Novelist, so I thought before moving on in my overview of Australia fiction I would take a look at this non-fiction work to see if the representation of Henry Savery in my examination of Quintus Servinton was accurate, and if any more information on his life had come to light since the publication of Cecil Hadgraft’s biography of Savery in 1962.

In some ways, A Forger’s Tale is rather an odd piece of writing. It is biography, but told very much from Henry Savery’s own point of view; and it draws very heavily upon Quintus Servinton—to the point of taking various passages in the life of “Quintus”, which were of course based upon passages in Henry Savery’s own life, and turning them back into passages from Henry Savery’s life. In fact, for a few horrid moments at the outset I really thought I was going to be reading Quintus Servinton all over again (and I may say that Rod Howard seems to take it for granted, perhaps not unreasonably, that the reader of A Forger’s Tale has not read Quintus Servinton); but at length these fears were relieved. What Howard does here is call upon the historical record where there is an historical record, but where there is not, he allows Henry Savery to speak for himself.

Overall, A Forger’s Tale does three crucial things: it reveals the real people and places hidden behind Quintus Servinton‘s pseudonyms and fudging; it clears up the business of the guilty plea; and it offers an explanation for the persecution of Henry Savery following his arrival in Tasmania, which – much to my surprise, I admit – turns out to have been every bit as unjust and brutal as represented; although Henry himself was not (as he suggests in his novel) the real target: he simply had the misfortune to get caught in the middle of a political shitstorm.

As a consequence of these revelations, A Forger’s Tale offers a far more sympathetic portrait of Henry Savery than Cecil Hadgraft’s rather snippy biography; in some ways, perhaps too much so…

Understandably, A Forger’s Tale skips fairly quickly over the early years of Henry Savery’s life—that is, the first two volumes of Quintus Servinton. (There seems to be consensus on that point: Rod Howard quotes the review of the novel that appeared in the English magazine, The Athenaeum, which declared that only the third volume was worth reading, “…and even that might have been infinitely better.”) The story picks up at the point of Henry’s near fatal decision, in the wake of having been financially burned himself, to pass a forged bill; it reproduces the dinner-table conversation in which the horrified Henry learns that putting imaginary names on a bill is the same under the law as literal forgery. The person making this unwelcome revelation was an attorney named Watson, a colleague of Henry’s brother.

Two things are emphasised at this point: the amount of publicity given the arrest, trial and execution of “celebrity forger”, Henry Fauntleroy, and the attitude of Robert Peel. The newspapers did so well out of the Fauntleroy case that, it seems, they tried to exploit Henry Savery in the same way, turning his false £500 bill into merely the tip of a forgery iceberg and insisting that he spent the proceeds of his untold crimes on wine, women and song. Meanwhile, we learn that two years previously, Robert Peel himself had been the victim of a forger, who managed to elude the law and skip the country; it is suggested that he was particularly harsh upon forgers as a consequence, in addition to his loathing of “gentleman-criminals”. Evidently the judges of the time understood what Peel wanted in forgery cases and usually gave it to him; Quintus Servinton indirectly cites the case of John Wait, who was executed in spite of his jury’s recommendation to mercy.

Indeed, the more we learn about the circumstances, the more miraculous it seems that Henry did escape with his life.

The first suggestion of a guilty plea, introduced by Edward Protheroe (“Mr Rothero”), the former mayor of Bristol and a partner in the defrauded Copper Company, seems to have emanated from John Kaye, the solicitor for the Bank of England who was responsible for the bank’s forgery prosecutions, including that of John Wait. Kaye evidently told an associate of Protheroe, Levi Ames, that Wait should have entered a guilty plea.

Furthermore, Ames and his business partner, Stephen Cave, met with Protheroe and pressed upon him the wisdom of Henry Savery pleading guilty, citing not only the condemnation of Wait (who pleaded not guilty) but the case of Francis Greenway, who was told by his judge that he would have been hanged if he had not admitted his guilt. (Greenway, ironically, became a convict success story, gaining both reputation and wealth as a designer of public buildings in New South Wales.) Cave – who was a friend of Eliza Savery’s family, the Olivers – then called upon Henry and urged him likewise. He added that a certain Alderman Daniel had told him that, “Since Bristol was made a city there has been no occasion when the recommendation of the aldermen has been ignored.”

There are still some mysteries in this part of Henry Savery’s story, in particular this business of the aldermen being consulted (Ames and Cave were both aldermen, as well as Daniel), which simply seems not to have happened. Neither Cave nor Daniel had attended the trial, and afterwards Cave denied he had advised Henry to plead guilty: an assertion contradicted by Henry’s jailer, who had overheard their conversation. It also came to light that before the trial, Cave had confronted a solicitor called Bigg, a cousin of Eliza Savery, over the letter written by Henry to his father-in-law, Lionel Oliver, in which he summed up the pros and cons of the advice he was given: after reading the letter, Cave did not repudiate any of its contents.

Charles Savery petitioned Lord Gifford, the judge, but he was unmoved. Charles then undertook the thankless task of petitioning Robert Peel, only too well aware of how slender Henry’s chances were in that quarter. By then the part played by Stephen Cave had been exposed: Charles emphasised both this and, conversely, the grounds for acquittal, backing his legal petition with an actual petition for clemency carrying over two thousand signatures – including those of Henry’s plaintiffs. Henry’s great-uncle, Lord Manvers, also intervened. Finally – and very reluctantly – Robert Peel gave in, commuting Henry’s death sentence to transportation for life. But the whole business infuriated him, so that he never forgot the name “Henry Savery”…

An explanation is also provided in A Forger’s Tale for Henry’s preferential treatment before and during his journey to Australia—a rare instance in this story of someone paying his debts. While Henry was the proprietor of the newspaper, the Bristol Observer, he had dabbled in politics, coming out in strong support of a campaigning politician called Richard Hart Davis, who was duly elected. It was Hart Davis who used his influence to get Henry removed from the hulks to the hospital ship prior to his transportation, and saw that he was permitted to retain his ordinary clothing and mingle with the paying passengers, rather than being confined below decks with his fellow-convicts, during the journey to Tasmania. He also wrote to a friend, Major-General Ralph Darling, asking him to look after Henry following his arrival. However, Darling either forgot or couldn’t be bothered.

Despite this, Henry’s business and financial skills helped him land on his feet. He was immediately seconded for government duty, and devoted his leisure time to quietly doing work “off the books” for various local businessmen, earning a great deal more in that way than he did via his official employment. Eventually he entered into a business partnership with one Bartholomew Thomas, whose Cressy Company had won the exclusive contract to supply “the colony” with horses.  He also leased himself a small cottage, and started getting his life in order generally. So when Henry wrote to his wife, Eliza, talking up his position and urging her to join him, he wasn’t just blowing hot air.

With the shifting of the scene to Tasmania, the story told in A Forger’s Tale takes on a new air of confidence, for obvious reasons. From this point onwards Henry Savery’s own account of events is supported by a written record – newspapers, letters and journals that throw light on his numerous travails. In particular, we have the personal papers of Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, to whom Rod Howard devotes a chapter of his book. Though Arthur’s full story need not concern us, he arrived in Tasmania in 1824 a deeply disgruntled man, with enemies slandering his name in England and a hostile reception waiting for him. His predecessor, William Sorell, was popular locally – chiefly due to his complete failure to actually do his job – and Arthur’s arrival was greeted with anything but an outpouring of joy. Disgusted by the state of the sloppily run penal colony, the puritanical, hard-line Arthur landed on Hobart Town like a ton of bricks.

And Hobart Town – led by Andrew Bent, proprietor of the Hobart Town Gazette (a convicted thief), his offsider, Robert Murray (a convicted bigamist), and local businessman, Anthony Kemp (a former soldier and habitual mutineer) – fought back.

For a variety of reasons – predominantly politics, profit, and sheer bastardry – these three men waged a destructive campaign against George Arthur; one which, in the long run, crippled him. The war was at its height in December of 1825, when Henry Savery arrived in Hobart Town—and found himself caught in the crossfire.

Henry’s very sensible plan for working through his sentence was to pull his head in, keep his mouth shut and stay not only out of trouble, but out of the public eye. He was assisted by his own snobbery: the “upper classes” of Hobart, who he thought of as his social equals, would have nothing to do with him, a convict, and he wanted nothing to do with his fellow-transportees. When he wasn’t working, he kept to himself. Consequently, his dismay upon opening the Colonial Times (renamed after George Arthur founded a government-sponsored newspaper and also called it the Hobart Town Gazette) and finding himself mentioned in a hostile – and largely inaccurate – article may well be imagined. Drawing parallels between him and the much more famous Henry Fauntleroy, the article highlighted Henry’s preferential shipboard treatment, drew attention to George Arthur’s appropriation of his skills, and claimed (wrongly) that Arthur had arranged another “soft berth” for him, in the shape of a superintendentship at the Colonial Hospital.

We need not follow the entire campaign that ensued. Suffice it to say that the account of Henry Savery’s persecution in Quintus Servinton is accurate—except that Henry saw himself as the target, whereas in reality he was just a stick to beat George Arthur with; but in any event, the two men’s names became inescapably linked. Arthur’s appropriation of Henry’s particular skill-set, which was at a premium in the struggling colony, infuriated its embryo business community and seems to have been the catalyst for much of what followed. Again and again, Henry was represented in the press as doing George Arthur’s dirty work, while a variety of false claims were made as to the nature of his government appointment(s)—it was reported, for instance, that he was the editor of Arthur’s version of the Hobart Town Gazette. In reality he was doing straightforward accounting and clerical work, first in the Colonial Secretary’s office, then at the Treasury.

In time the constant slanders had the inevitable effect: people began to look askance at Henry Savery and assume him to be in the wrong. In particular, when the Cressy Company failed – mostly due to Bartholomew Thomas’s mismanagement – it was assumed that Henry was really to blame; that in short, he’d been cooking the books. Finally Henry acquired a real and dangerous personal enemy in the shape of local solicitor, Gamaliel Butler, who was eventually responsible for his imprisonment for debt.

But always George Arthur was the real target. The accusations made against him were transmitted to England, with articles originating in the Colonial Times reprinted in the London papers and constant written complaints directed to the Home Secretary, Lord Bathurst. For reasons that are unclear (beyond Arthur’s personal unpopularity), these reports were accepted at face value. A disbelieving Arthur received letters from Bathurst angrily rebuking him for his conduct, and in particular for his promotion of Henry Savery; an activity in which Lord Bathurst was joined by the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, to whom the thought of Henry Savery receiving privileges was anathema.

Meanwhile, Eliza Savery was on her way to Tasmania. When Henry wrote encouraging her to come, he was gainfully employed, had saved quite a sum of money, and was busy turning his little cottage into a home. By the time she arrived he was destitute, unemployed, and on the verge of a prison sentence.

I have a bit of a problem with A Forger’s Tale‘s attitude to Eliza Savery, wherein Rod Howard takes it for granted that Eliza had an affair with Algernon Montagu. Obviously I don’t believe Henry Savery’s romanticised depiction of his wife as an angel upon earth in Quintus Servinton; but there seems to reason to assume the worst, either. Certainly Montagu had an agenda, and interfered disastrously between Henry and Eliza; but he might well have done that to leave Eliza with no-one else to turn to, rather than because she was his mistress. There is no actual evidence of an affair, only a lot of gossip; yet Howard refers to Henry as “the cuckolded convict” and Eliza as “the adulterous wife”. It seems rather unfair, particularly given the fact that Howard just takes Henry Savery’s word for his own fidelity.

On the other hand, A Forger’s Tale gives an excellent and interesting account of the writing of The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land, Henry’s first venture into print. Since I will be examining this earlier publication in due course, we will not touch that part of the story now. I may say that The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land sounds altogether a more interesting work than Quintus Servinton turned out to be, and apparently includes all the local colour that the novel conspicuously lacks.

The final section of A Forger’s Tale deals with the sad conclusion of Henry Savery’s life. After he emerged from prison in 1831, things went better for Henry—for a time. He was employed as a private tutor in the New Norfolk district, and in 1832 he won his ticket of leave; although it was later rescinded for reasons that really weren’t his fault. Eventually he tried farming; but here he began to get back into financial difficulties. That said, his eventual conviction for passing forged notes seems to have been on pretty flimsy evidence. But perhaps the evidence had less to do with it than the fact that the judge before Henry appeared was none other than Algernon Montagu—while on the jury were two individuals who had been skewered in The Hermit In Van Diemen’s Land. Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that his sentence was that, “…you be transported beyond the seas for the term of your natural life.”

The final mystery of Henry Savery’s life concerns his death. Decades after the event, Henry Melville, the printer who saw to the publication of Quintus Servinton, called Henry’s death suicide; while David Burn, a Scottish poet and journalist, in the course of a bizarre, tourist-brochure-like piece of writing called An Excursion To Port Arthur, describes his encounter with a physically shattered Henry Savery, making reference to “the scarce-healed wound of his attenuated throat”.

Rod Howard accepts this as evidence that Henry Savery died, eventually, after cutting his own throat a second time. Cecil Hadgraft, conversely, in his biographical sketch in the 1962 edition of Quintus Servinton, dismisses Melville’s assertion as the effect of confused memories so many years later, and thinks David Burn was referring to the scar from Henry’s first suicide attempt: he concludes from the description of his general condition that Henry had suffered a stroke.

Either way, Henry Savery died from the complications of something, on the 6th February 1842, and two days later was buried in an unmarked grave on The Isle Of The Dead. His fate is known because the minister who oversaw his interment made a note of it in his journal; the minister’s rider, “His end was without honour”, tends to support the suicide theory.

So—there turns out to be far more truth in Quintus Servinton than we initially supposed; the only real fudging comes with Henry’s description of his relationship with Eliza, and in his parallel efforts to praise George Arthur, and make excuses for Algernon Montagu; none of which we can blame him for—and none of which did him the slightest bit of good. Given the extent to which Savery was in reality a victim, his critical self-analysis in his novel takes on an extra, and most interesting, dimension.

The pity of Quintus Servinton is that it is just not a well-written book; in spite of its importance you can’t really recommend it. However, even if his novel will never be more than a footnote in literary terms, at least Henry Savery’s place in the timeline of Australian literature has, albeit belatedly, been recognised and acknowledged.

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An excerpt from the preface of Quintus Servinton; and the official commutation of Henry Savery’s death sentence (both scanned from A Forger’s Tale, no specific sources given).

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6 Comments to “A Forger’s Tale”

  1. I guess it’s a reminder not to be too quick to judge someone who’s an “obvious” loser.

    • It’s because of the way he writes. There’s so much blather it comes across as obfuscation, so that you assume it’s an attempted cover-up, rather than him telling the story really badly. And he does spend a lot of time making excuses for himself; so that by the time we get to his actual victimisation, it just sounds like more of the same.

  2. I guess even a con man is sometimes unjustly accused.
    And the newspapers made up stories about him? Gasp! The media industry really hasn’t changed much.

    • The newspaper stuff is pretty funny, in a sick and horrifying kind of way.

      I think in the long run, the preferential treatment Henry received on shipboard did him a lot more harm than good, and not just because Andrew Bent & Co. latched onto that as a starting point. It taught him to think of himself as separate and different from the other convicts, and to expect that the difference would continue to be recognised. A lot of his later problems stemmed from that attitude.

  3. I admit to being completely unfamiliar with this story. i’m hoping to address my woeful lack of knowledge of australian literature via a Coursera course starting in March.

    • Ooh, that sounds intriguing! I’ll be particularly interested to hear what gets included in that course and what doesn’t. I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

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