The political bases of Thelwall's elocutionary work

John Thelwall is said to be the first person in Britain to make speech correction a profession, the first to write a book on the subject, and the first to establish a school whose pupils were people with "impediments of speech" (Rockey, 1977). This early contributor to disciplines that are now called speech science and speech pathology was primarily known by his contemporaries for his political activities and his talents as a writer and orator. Prior to his becoming an elocution teacher, he published articles and lectured widely, forwarding his democratic principles. In 1794 he was famously jailed for nine months for treason by the government of William Pitt the Younger for his public denunciation of Pitt's policies, advocacy for the common man, and support of the principles of the French Revolution. Before and after his arrest, he lectured in halls, gave speeches at large outdoor meetings (some attended by more than 100,000 people!), and published his lectures and speeches in his political weekly, The Tribune.

Thelwall has been described in a recent dissertation (Kreis, 2002) as "one of the first great leaders of the English urban working class" whose activities included "poet, playwright, pamphleteer and politician." And another author (Scrivener, 2001) describes Thelwall as follows:

He wrote political prose comparable in complexity and rigor to that written by Burke, Paine, and Godwin. An ambitious poet before his conversion to Jacobinism, he continued to write and reflect on poetry throughout his career. Thelwall's influence on the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth has long been of interest to scholars. He wrote two Jacobin novels, several plays, and several autobiographical narratives. As a journalist from the 1790s to the 1820s he edited magazines and newspapers, wrote lead articles, reviewed plays, produced literary criticism, and made political commentary (Scrivener, 2001, p. 6)

What Kreis, Scrivener and others describing his political and literary accomplishments omit are Thelwall's work and stunning contributions as an elocutionist. Inclusion of these activities would but enhance Thelwall's sterling political and literary reputation. His contributions to speech science (in the area of prosody) and to speech therapy were significant to the budding field of elocution and to the not yet existing field of speech pathology (Rockey, 1977, 1979; R. Thelwall, 1981).

Interestingly, Andrew McCann in the paragraph below (as well as in other sections of Scrivener, 2001) makes the case that Thelwall's elocution work should be seen as part of his political and literary contributions. All three activities, elocution, politics, and literary writing, grow out of Thelwall's strong belief that well delivered verbal expression can serve a person as a means to attain political liberty.

Elocution was a growing discipline in the late eighteenth century, one that reflected a radically altered sense of the subject and of its political possibilities. Adapting a Romantic poetic sensibility grounded in the spoken word and a radical political program concerned with unhindered communication as the principle of democratic politics, elocutionists like John Thelwall engaged with the practical treatment of speech impediments, the training of public speakers, the acquisition of language, the anatomy of the speech organs and finally the link between speech and mental illness. In this version of elocution a conventional focus on history as the horizon of possibility for the subject of political liberty was extended and developed in a more pragmatic direction by language itself, in both its socio-linguistic and physiological dimensions. The subject of liberty, as it emerged at the intersection of radicalism and Romanticism, was imagined as, essentially, a speaking subject beholden to reciprocated communicative norms. What I'm calling Romantic self-fashioning suggests that the moral-aesthetic sensibility of Romanticism could, in a therapeutic practice like elocution, become the basis upon which subjects were trained and disciplined for constructive public life. Examining this process, moreover, suggests that an apparent crisis at the heart of the liberal subject, indexed in the figure of the automaton as a speaking machine, is in fact internal to these forms of disciplinarity (McCann, 2001).

John Thelwall expresses this sentiment about elocution being a means to political freedom when he discusses his reasons for becoming an elocutionist. His aim as an elocutionist was to:

[diffuse] those principles that were to give to the Mute, and to the convulsive Stammerer, the free exercise and enjoyment of a faculty, which constitutes the essential attribute of our species (Thelwall, 1810, p. 17).

When describing his aims in working with those with communication disabilities he uses political imagery. His hope is to provide "enfranchisement of fettered (shackled) organs" (Thelwall, 1810, p. 9).

He describes, in a similar way, his decision to include liberal arts subjects in his curriculum for his speech impaired students:

my project, and the studies connected with it, appeared to be, if not absolutely indispensable, yet of the highest importance; since by means of these, the stammerer, the faulterer, and the throttler, while under the necessary regulations for the cure of his impediment, would enjoy all the opportunities, and be stimulated by all the incitements for the cultivation of the most liberal and important branches of efficient education; and the hope might fairly and rationally be entertained, that, even from among the pupils of this description, might start forth some new Demosthenes, to enlighten and to energize the rising generation (Thelwall, 1809, p. 154).

In summary, John Thelwall was committed to supporting the inarticulate and disenfranchised to become full-fledged participants in a democratic society. Work in elocution should be seen, according to Thelwall's professed and lived values, as not only a means to speech improvement, but to social participation, and to personal and political liberation.


Kreis, (2000) (http://www.historyguide.org/thesis/chapter3.html)

McCann, Andrew (2001). Romantic self fashioning: Public speaking circa 1800 http://www.emsah.uq.edu.au/conferences/interdis/abstracts/mccann.html)

Rockey, D. (1977). The logopaedic thought of John Thelwall, 1764-1834: First British speech therapist. British Journal of Disorders of Speech, 12, 83-95.

Scrivener, M. (2001). Seditious allegories: John Thelwall and Jacobin writing. State College, PA: Pennsylvania State University.

Thelwall, J. (1809). Historical and oratorical society at Mr. Thelwall's institution. Monthly Magazine, 28, 152-157.

Thelwall, J. (1810). A letter to Henry Cline, Esq. on imperfect development of the faculties mental and moral as well as constitutional and organic and on the treatment of impediments of speech. London: Richard Taylor & Co.

Thelwall, R. (1981). The phonetic theory of John Thelwall. In R. E. Asher & Eugenie J. A. Henderson (eds). Towards a history of phonetics (pp. 186-203). Edinburgh: At the University Press.