Sometime in the summer of 1768, Dr. Samuel Johnson supped at the Crown and Anchor, in the Strand, with a little company that Mr. Boswell had collected to meet him. The company consisted of Dr. Percy, afterwards Bishop of Dromore (Percy’s “Reliques”), Dr. Douglas, Mr. Langton (“Lanky”), Dr. Robertson, the historian, Dr. Blair (Blair’s “Rhetoric”) and Mr. Thomas Davies, the bookseller of Russell Street, Covent Garden. The Scots were all prudent and silent, but Johnson was “in remarkable vigour of mind and eager to exert himself in conversation.” He did exert himself in conversation: to the following effect:
“He was vehement against old Dr. Mounsey, of Chelsea College, as ‘a fellow who swore and talked bawdy.’ ‘I have been often in his company (said Dr. Percy), and never heard him swear or talk bawdy.’ Mr. Davies, who sat next to Dr. Percy, having after this had some conversation ‘aside with him, made a discovery which, in his zeal to pay court to Dr. Johnson, he eagerly proclaimed aloud from the foot of the table: ‘O, Sir, I have found out a very good reason why Dr. Percy never heard Mounsey swear or talk bawdy; for he tells me he never saw him but at the Duke of Northumberland’s table!’, ‘And so, Sir (said Johnson loudly to Dr. Percy), you would shield this man from the charge of swearing and talking bawdy because he did not do so at the Duke of Northumberland’s table. Sir, you might as well tell us that you had seen him hold up his hand at the Old Bailey, and he neither swore nor talked bawdy; or that you had seen him in the cart at Tyburn, and he neither swore nor talked bawdy. And is it thus, Sir, that you presume to controvert what I have related?”, Whereupon Dr. Percy left the room in a huff, and next morning Dr. Johnson observed complacently that there had been “good talk.”
Of course, the passage had been long familiar to me, but not reading Boswell in the luxury of an annotated edition, I had always speculated vainly as to this “old Dr. Mounsey,” who appears on the great lantern show for a moment, sets Johnson and Percy by the ears, and then vanishes. It was only the other day that I found in an odd old book (published, strangely enough, at Louisville, Kentucky) the true history of Dr. Messenger Mounsey (or Monsey), Physician to Chelsea Hospital.
He was the son of a country parson, who refused in 1689 to take the oath of allegiance to the Usurpers, William and Mary. He was educated at Cambridge and settled down as a physician in Bury St. Edmunds, where he married a widow with a handsome jointure. He made an income of £300 a year, and grumbled because he had to work too hard for it. Fortunately for him, Lord Godolphin was seized with apoplexy on a journey to his country seat, and Bury was the nearest point where medical help was to be had. Dr. Mounsey was called in, Lord Godolphin got better, liked his physician’s talk, and made Dr. Messenger for life. He had an apartment at Lord Godolphin’s town house, was made Physician to Chelsea Hospital and saw all the best company of the age, from King George II downwards. For a a time he was a great friend of Garrick’s; but Garrick had a sly tongue, and the Doctor had a rough tongue, and the friendship ended in offence and epigrams. Garrick used to make comic business out of Mounsey’s oddities for the entertainment of his friends; Mounsey said that Garrick would never leave the stage “so long as he knows a guinea is cross on one side and pile on the other”— so long as guineas have heads and tails — and the two became sworn enemies. The fact is that Dr. Mounsey was an intensely rude old man, or, in the elegant phrase of my authority, “it became the fashion for the young, the delicate, and the gay to exclaim against him as an interrupter of established forms, and as a violator of those minute rules of good breeding — which, however trifling they may appear to the sage and the philosopher, contribute essentially to the ease and comfort of modern life.” Yet the queer old man had, like the greater Doctor of his age, an interior benevolence. Once, going along Oxford Market, he observed a poor woman asking the price of a fine piece of beef.
“The brute answered the woman, ‘One penny a pound,’ thinking, no doubt, it was too good for her. ‘Weigh that piece of beef,’ said the Doctor.
“‘Ten pounds and a half,’ said Mr. Butcher.
“‘Here, good woman,’ cried the Doctor, ‘hold up your apron and take that beef home to your family.’
“‘God bless your honour!’
“‘Go off, directly, home; no compliments! Here, Mr. Butcher,’ continued the Doctor, ‘give me change out of this shilling for that poor woman’s beef.’
“‘What do you mean, Sir?’ replied the Butcher.
“‘Mean, Sir! why to pay for the poor woman’s beef, what you asked her; a penny a pound. Come, make haste and give me three halfpence; I am in a hurry.’
“‘Why, Sir . . . ’ said the Butcher.
“‘No why sirs with me,’ answered the Doctor, ‘give me my change instantly, or I will break your head.’ The Butcher again began to expostulate, and the Doctor struck him with all his force with his cane.”
But the principal adventure of his life seems to have been the affair of the bank-notes. Dr. Mounsey, who was born in 1693, not long after the foundation of the Bank of England, had an old-fashioned distrust of “securities” of all sorts, and so, being bound on a summer holiday, he hid his notes and gold in his fire-place, putting them under the “cinders and shavings” of the laid fire. A month later Dr. Mounsey returned and found his house-keeper entertaining a few friends to tea in his sitting-room. The fire had just been lighted; the kettle was on the hob. “He ran across the room like a madman, swearing his housekeeper had ruined him for ever, and had burned all his bank-notes. First went the contents of the slop-basin, then the teapot, and then he rushed to the pump in the kitchen, and brought a pail of water, which he threw partly over the fire and partly over the company, who in the utmost consternation retreated as speedily as possible. His housekeeper cried out: ‘For God’s sake, Sir, forbear, you will spoil the steel stove and fire-irons.’ ‘Damn the stove, irons, you, your company, and all!’ replied the Doctor, ‘you have ruined and undone me for ever; you have burned my bank-notes.’ ‘Lord, Sir,’ said the half-drowned woman, ‘who’d think of putting bank-notes in a Bath stove, where the fire is ready laid?’ ‘Fire,’ said he, ‘who’d think of making a fire in summer-time, where there has not been one for months?’” The notes were recovered in a damaged and dubious condition. But Dr. Mounsey’s patron, Lord Godolphin, said that he would go with him the next day to the Bank of England, and everything would be quite all right. But Godolphin had told the King, and the King said that he must hear Mounsey tell the tale of the burning notes and the drenched tea-party. And so, when the Doctor came, King George II was hidden in a cupboard, and was so much amused that he kicked the cupboard door open. “God!” said the Doctor in a rage, and then saw who had been listening, and with considerable tact ran on his sentence, “bless your majesty; this may be a joke with you and his lordship, but to me a loss of near £400.” But Lord Godolphin assured him that he should have his money, and made an appointment to meet him at the Bank a little later. Dr. Mounsey, in the interval, transacted some business at the Horse Guards, and took water at Whitehall for the Bank. In going down the river he felt that he must have a look at the bank-notes, to make quite sure that they were safe. So he pulled out his pocket-book; and a gust of wind blew the notes out of the book and into the river. “The Doctor, with a volley of oaths — the other Doctor was right on one point, at all events — desired the waterman to put back, for that his bank-notes were overboard. He was instantly obeyed; and when he reached them he took the hat from his head, and, dipping it in the river, took up his notes, together with half a hatful of water. With his hat, the notes, and the water under his arm he was landed at the famous stairs called the Three Cranes in the Vintry, and walked straight to the Bank.
“What have you under your arm?” asked Lord Godolphin. “The damned notes,” replied the Doctor, throwing the hat on the table with such violence that the water spurted into the faces of the City Kings who sat about the board. “There,” said the Doctor, “take the remains of your damned notes, for neither fire nor water will consume them.” He got his money in full, but he did not go away in peace. He had forgotten all about the watermen and the fare from Whitehall. They were waiting outside the Bank “howling for their money,” and swearing that the Doctor was a madman. When he came out, one of the watermen laid hold of him — and was instantly knocked down for his pains. However, a crown for the little mistake, with half a crown for the fare, adjusted this little difficulty, and Dr. Messenger Mounsey resolved to invest his money in the Funds for the future.
This remarkable character outlived Dr. Johnson by five years, dying in 1789, at the age of ninety-six. Naturally, he made an eccentric will. He left the bulk of his money to his daughter, tying it up by a complicated system of entail to her female descendants. He mentioned in his will a young lady on whose wit, taste and elegance be “lavished encomiums”— leaving her an old battered snuff-box, worth about sixpence. He mentioned also another young lady to whom he had intended to bequeath a legacy. But she turned out “a pert, conceited minx,” so she got nothing. Then came annuities to two clergymen, who had turned Unitarian.
And I am wondering whether Dr. Johnson knew all that there was to be known about Dr. Messenger Mounsey. He abominated foul and blasphemous language, no doubt; he would have detested a man who abused the Church of England and comforted heretics. But if he had known of the principal clause in old Dr. Mounsey’s will, by which large property was not only left to a woman but entailed in the female line, then he would have dismissed Dr. Mounsey as a wild and irresponsible madman, fit for Bedlam and nothing else.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53