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Reference group
Nonsense Club (act. c.1750–1764) was a group of London wits—all former pupils of Westminster School—who met on Thursday evenings during the 1750s and early 1760s and were responsible for a wide-ranging and extensive literary output. In varying combinations they conducted one of the more popular essay series of the mid-eighteenth century, edited several literary magazines and journals, produced two of the finest examples of theatrical ‘laughing comedy’, fought a much publicized paper war over contemporary drama and acting, burlesqued subjects ranging from Thomas Gray's odes to art exhibitions, produced a fitfully brilliant body of satiric poetry, and joined John Wilkes in fomenting the most important domestic political debate of their time. Two decades on, one of its members, William Cowper, wrote of ‘a Club of seven Westminster men to which I belonged, who dined every Thursday’ (Cowper to William Unwin, 30 April 1785, Letters and Prose, 2.346). The other four identifiable club members were Bonnell Thornton, George Colman, Robert Lloyd, and James Bensley (d. 1765). The identity of the remaining two members remains uncertain. In 1777 Cowper wrote that Thomas Gray ‘did not belong to our Thursday Society & was an Eaton man’ (Cowper to Joseph Hill, 20 April 1777, ibid., 1.99). Other possible candidates include Joseph Hill (who was present and writing at a meeting but was not an old Westminster) and Chase Price. During the early 1760s Charles Churchill, a Westminster schoolmate of the club members, began to play an increasingly important role in the literary and political activities associated with the club. In current literary history, the Nonsense Club has come to denote the network of literary and personal relationships linking Cowper, Thornton, Colman, Lloyd, and Churchill.

While a student at Oxford Thornton had written an Ode on Saint Caecilia's Day, Adapted to the Ancient British Musick (1749; first performed 1763)—a parody designed for hurdy-gurdy, Jew's harp, saltbox, and marrow bone and cleaver—and had served as a contributor to and sometime editor of The Student, or, The Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany (1750–51), a periodical that may have prompted anonymous contributions from Lloyd, Cowper, Colman, and Churchill. On 16 January 1752 Thornton launched his own periodical, Have At You All, or, The Drury-Lane Journal, and on 15 September 1753 Colman's first identifiable publication appeared in The Adventurer, a periodical to which Thornton contributed the eight essays signed A. Thornton's and Colman's own periodical essay series, The Connoisseur, appeared on 31 January 1754 and was the first collaborative effort of the group. Of the 140 numbers, Cowper is usually assigned five: numbers 111, 115, 119, 134, and 138. Lloyd contributed songs and verses to numbers 67, 72, 90, 125, and 135. Bensley is credited with sketches of numbers 75, 78, 87, and 104. Colman and Thornton undertook the bulk of the writing in a bantering, ironic style that perhaps caught the tone of the Nonsense Club itself: a slightly cynical laughter masking indifference and moral confusion. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, comradeship was paramount. Cowper in his ‘Epistle to Robert Lloyd, Esqr. 1754’ confides that besides writing to alleviate an attack of depression,
there's another reason yet,
Which is, that I may fairly quit
The debt, which justly became due
The moment when I heard from you.
(Poems, 1.55)
And Lloyd perhaps sums up the aesthetics and ethics of the group's correspondence in the closing lines of ‘A Familiar Epistle to—’:
Besides in writing to a friend
A man may any nonsense send,
And the chief merit to impart
The honest feeling of his heart.
(Poetical Works, 2.154)
In 1760 an outpouring of Nonsense Club publications began with Colman and Lloyd's Two Odes burlesquing Gray's The Progress of Poesy and The Bard and, to a lesser degree, William Mason's Pindaric efforts. Titled ‘To Obscurity’ and ‘To Oblivion’ and perhaps written as early as 1757, the odes exaggerated Gray's and Mason's epithetical style and created such absurd scenarios as the Bard riding Pegasus to ‘Lyrick Glory in the clouds’, hitting his head on the stars, and tumbling into a Welsh canyon. Colman in 1757 had charted his own progress from law to theatre in ‘The Law Student’; in the same year his ironically titled pamphlet A Letter of Abuse to D— G—k, Esq. appeared. The theatre also drew the attention of Lloyd, whose most successful poem, The Actor (April 1760), was addressed to ‘Bonnell Thornton, Esq.’. On 5 December 1760 Colman's afterpiece Polly Honeycombe opened at Drury Lane to substantial success; on 12 February 1761 his three-act play The Jealous Wife, with a prologue by Lloyd, began a run of twenty nights. On 14 March Thornton and Colman joined David Garrick in a consortium of ten investors which launched a new thrice-weekly newspaper, the St James's Chronicle, a publication that would serve in many ways to advance Nonsense Club interests. And on that same day the Nonsense Club's group identity exploded into the public consciousness with the publication of Churchill's The Rosciad.

The Rosciad—a poem brilliantly satirizing current actors and acting styles—was an immediate and tremendous success. The poem was first thought a joint effort by a ‘triumvirate of wits’—Thornton, Colman, and Lloyd—but when Churchill's identity became known, he took his place as a leading member of the group. Under heavy attack in the subsequent ‘battle of the players and poets’, this group achieved clear definition in an ostensibly satirical poem entitled The Triumvirate (1761), a work that contains vivid portraits of Churchill, Colman, and Lloyd, and may in fact have been written by them. Churchill defended The Rosciad in The Apology, Addressed to the Critical Reviewers (May 1761), and Lloyd defended Churchill in An Epistle to C. Churchill (July 1761). Churchill sought to justify his and Lloyd's bohemian existence in Night: an Epistle to Robert Lloyd (November 1761). In quick succession followed the first two books of Churchill's The Ghost (March 1762), an edition of Lloyd's poems including Two Odes and a version of Colman's ‘The Law Student’ (4 March 1762), and Colman's third play, The Musical Lady (6 March 1762). On 22 April 1762 Thornton collaborated with William Hogarth on the Sign Painters' Exhibition—a satire on the Society of Arts and Society of Artists exhibitions—to which other club members contributed. A satirical print from this period, A Brush for the Sign-Painters (British Museum, catalogue, no. 3841), contains recognizable portraits of Thornton, Lloyd, Colman, Churchill, and Hogarth. In September 1762 Lloyd launched the St James's Magazine, the introductory ‘puff’ for which contains, in the guise of a bookseller's comments, solicitations for contributions from his now famous friends:
There's CHURCHILL—will not CHURCHILL lend
Assistance? … COLMAN and THORNTON, both will join
Their social hand, to strengthen thine.
(Poetical Works, 1.178)
Thornton, Colman, Churchill, Cowper, and Garrick all contributed to the magazine, and in April 1763, Colman's and Garrick's The Cobler of Cripplegate's Letter to Robert Lloyd, A.M. included extended discussions ‘Of THORNTON's humour, GARRICK's nature, / And COLMAN's wit, and CHURCHILL's satire’ (ibid., , 2.98).

By this time the group had become so widely known that James Boswell called them ‘the London Geniuses’. He recorded an encounter with a subset of the group at Thornton's house on 24 May 1763. Thornton he found
a well-bred, agreeable man, lively and odd. He had about £15,000 left him by his father, was bred to physic, but was fond of writing. So he employs himself that way. In a little, Mr. Wilkes came in, to whom I was introduced, as I was to Mr. Churchill. Wilkes is a lively, facetious man, Churchill a rough, blunt fellow, very clever. Lloyd too was there … They were high-spirited and boisterous, but were very civil to me. (Boswell, 266)
By the time of this vignette Churchill had been collaborating with Wilkes on the North Briton for nearly a year, as well as vying with him in extensive libertine activities. Churchill published the anti-Scots satire The Prophecy of Famine in January 1763 and on 30 April barely escaped capture at the time of Wilkes's arrest for the publication of North Briton number 45. In the weeks following Wilkes's discharge on 6 May Churchill, Thornton, and Lloyd became his closest allies in a concerted media campaign against the government. Thornton served as Wilkes's conduit to both the St James's Chronicle and Henry Sampson Woodfall's Public Advertiser, convincing Woodfall to print extensive pro-Wilkes material. Lloyd wrote anti-government letters and squibs for the Public Advertiser, including a satirical description of the licentious gardens of Sir Francis Dashwood (2 June 1763).

In December 1763 Cowper attempted suicide, lost his sanity and separated from the group. In February 1764 Lloyd was arrested for debt and incarcerated in the Fleet prison. After Wilkes's flight to France on 24 December 1763, Churchill continued to publish a stream of pro-Wilkes, anti-government poems until the time of his death on 4 November 1764. Lloyd expired in the Fleet on 15 December 1764 after accusing Thornton of neglecting him. Another member, James Bensley, died in the following year from injuries sustained while fox hunting. These debilities and deaths marked the effective dissolution of the Nonsense Club. However, it was still recalled fondly in June 1786 by Cowper who, on receiving a letter from Colman, wrote that such notices
refresh the remembrance of early days, and make me young again. The noble Institution of the Nonsense Club will be forgotten when we are gone who composed it, but I often think of your most heroic line written at one of our meetings, and especially think of it when I am translating Homer—To whom replied the Devil yard-long-tailed. (Cowper to Joseph Hill, 9 June 1786, Letters and Prose, 2.563)

Lance Bertelsen


L. Bertelsen, The Nonsense Club: literature and popular culture, 1749–1764 (1986) · Boswell’s London journal, 1762–63, ed. F. A. Pottle (1950), vol. 1 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell, trade edn (1950–89) · A. Chalmers, ed., The British essayists, 25 (1823) · The poetical works of Charles Churchill, ed. D. Grant (1956) · [G. Colman and B. Thornton], eds., The Connoisseur (1754–6) · G. Colman, The dramatick works of George Colman, 4 vols. (1777) · G. Colman, Prose on several occasions, 3 vols. (1778) · The letters and prose writings of William Cowper, ed. J. King and C. Ryskamp, 5 vols. (1979–86) · The poems of William Cowper, ed. J. D. Baird and C. Ryskamp, 3 vols. (1980–95) · E. R. Page, George Colman the elder (1935) · Public Advertiser (1762–3) · C. Ryskamp, William Cowper of the Inner Temple, esq.: a study of his life and works to the year 1768 (1959) · St. James's Chronicle (1761–4) · St. James's Magazine (1762–4) · F. G. Stephens and M. D. George, eds., Catalogue of prints and drawings in the British Museum, division 1: political and personal satires, 11 vols. in 12 (1870–1954) · The triumvirate (1761) · E. H. Weatherly, ed., The correspondence of John Wilkes and Charles Churchill (1954)