Charles Clark: UK Pun Champion, 1852

For the past 8 years, there has been an award for the funniest joke at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This year, the prize went to Darren Walsh for his one liner “I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It’s Hans free.” The joke was delivered as part of Walsh’s show, entitled “Punderbolt” which runs at the Pleasance Theatre in Edinburgh until 31st August. Walsh has published a book of over 1000 jokes, and won the 2014 UK Pun Championship, narrowly missing out on this year’s award which went to Leo Kearse, in part for his effort: ” Marvin Gaye kept a sheep in my vineyard. He’d herd it through the grapevine”.

The reaction to Walsh’s best joke award has been mixed. The award itself is, of course, light hearted, but some responses display a dislike of the humble pun. The great 18th century critic Samuel Johnson famously hated puns, calling them the lowest form of humour, and describing Shakespeare’s fondness for the technique as “malignant”. In a recent article for The Atlantic Julie Beck asks “Why do puns make people groan?”. If Ms Beck had ever read any of Charles Clark’s poetry, she would know.

As well as being a professed bibliomaniac, Clark was a confirmed paronomasiac: he was completely addicted to puns. In the hundreds of letters and poems of Clark’s that we have read, it is extremely rare to find one that either does not contain a pun, or make reference to the art of punning. Even when Clark does write a poem which is pun-less, he can’t help himself making a pun out of that fact – in a letter dated May 8 1841, Clark writes to John Russell Smith of “a little poem by C.C., entitled “Sylvan Shades”, wherein is not to be found one solitary pun! – this may be, perhaps, con-solitary!”. Clark’s described his literary hero, Thomas Hood, as ‘the Prince of Pun’ and in his own poetical efforts, strove to emulate him at every turn.

Clark was particularly fond of writing punning poems to commemorate events, or to celebrate his friends. In October 1838, George Wombwell brought his famous travelling menagerie to Maldon Fair. Clark rose to the occasion:

“I had been perpetrating a long string of puns addressed to a character that you and all the world knows, & [^who is] the “lion” of Bartholomew Fair – I mean that celebrated menagarist, Mr George Wombwell. He was at Maldon Fair on the 13th & 14th of Sept., where he regularly attends every two years. I introduced myself to him, & presented him with some copied of my Address, with which I afterwards found out he was very pleased. I asked him for his autograph, which he readily granted.” Letter to John Russell Smith, October 27 1838

Clark described himself as most at home” in the “punning style”, although he sometimes felt guilty at the volume of puns he was capable of producing. On 27 October 1838 he wrote to Russell Smith about his poem “John Noakes and Mary Styles”, claiming:

“There are two or three pieces of wit in it, but I beg to say that they came quite accidentally into my head – I did not at all aim at introducing those wicked things I am so guilty of perpetrating, id est, – puns – they would have been out of place.”

In July 1842 his love of punning may have led Clark may have found his dream woman, he wrote to Russell Smith of “the literary Miss Clarke, of Heybridge … She professes to be extremely fond of puns …” Sadly however, “she can have “no eye” towards the bard of Tiptree, as she is under the ‘tuition’ of a Mr Parke of Heybridge.” Letter to John Russell Smith, 27 July 1842.

To celebrate Clark’s love of puns, (homophonic puns were his favourite), and inspired by an exceptionally dreary Irish “Summer”, we have transcribed his poem “Dry Thoughts on the Wet.” We hope it makes our readers smile, not groan!




Shall we ne’er see another fine day? – H.W. Challis

The rain it falleth every day. – T.Hood

OH! through the weather, now,

Where’s he who’s no deplorer?

Though each pooe man –

To comfort – can

See in all clouds a –pourer!


She so has won our hearts –

So chec’d cause for complaining,

Our peerless Queen,

Ah! would ‘twere seen

That she alone was – reigning!


The lasses, now, alas!

They must at home be stoppers;

Kept there to pine

Until ‘tis fine,

And eaves prove not – “eaves –droppers!

To “mud-dle” on through mire,

What with the fair can suit less?

And, such the rain,

Shoes now are vain, –

Yea, even boots are – bootless!


Each Sabbath, till of late,

Your shopman stroll’d that one day;

Now, such the gloom,

Smart from his room,

He “shines” not e’en on Sun-day!

Now to seek “heavy wet,”

Quite whets one’s powers of thinking;

Yet cellars waste

From buyers’ taste,

Who, to keep dry, are – drinking!


What will our farmers do?

Of floods their tales are thrilling:

Too wet to plough –

Nor can they sow, –

Though we’ve militia – drilling!


Ah! now “Protection’s” gone,

Can they still fight their battle?

And, through the rain,

They now complain –

To the dogs fast go their cat-tle!

Each Nimrod now despairs –

Sly Reynard’s brush none pluck it;

And “out of luck”

Men spare the buck,

While fields so need the buck-et!

A wet-nurse now, to find,

Proud sires need not go tripping,

Though Moll, the cook,

She scarce can brook

The present sort of – dripping!


But, Muse, our gloomy weather,

It may soon brighten – mayn’t it?

So now give o’er,

We cannot more

In water-colours paint it!


Heybridge, November, 1852.

(See also an earlier post on “Persistent Punning“)

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Letter, March 14th 1837, to John Russell Smith

This is the first in a series of blog posts that features an entire letter from the many sent by Charles Clark to John Russell Smith. The first was posted on this day in 1837, 178 years ago. It is the earliest letter that we know of that survives from Clark to his bookseller.


Great Totham Hall, near Witham, Essex, March 14th 1837


Your parcel, dated February 23d, I safely received – My principal object in writing to you just now is this : – Mrs Gower, the sister of our present worthy vicar, is very anxi14March37aous to obtain for her nieces, who are now at our Vicarage, on a visit, a copy of the book entitled “Woman: as she is, and as she should be”, which I have undertaken to endeavour to procure for her, as soon as possible. You will, doubtless, recollect, that among the lastparcel of Books I sent you, there was a copy of the identical book – which, probably (as you have not published a Catalogue very lately, I believe) is still in your possession. If it is, you will much oblige me by returning it [deletion] (at your own price, of course) immediately, through the medium of Mr Youngman; the same as [my] all the other parcels you have forwarded to me of late. – As I am very anxious to oblige such an amiable lady as Ms Gower, it is right to mention, that if your copy of the above-mentioned work is not now attainable, and you should not know where to obtain one elsewhere, there is a copy in Churton’s (26 Holles Street) List of Second-hand Books, appended to the Gentleman’s Magazine for January last, which, perhaps, is yet to be had. There are two copied amongst Green’s (48, Great Queen St.) Cat., appended to the same No. of the same work, but I happen to know that neither of these are now to be obtained.  – I have not enclosed any cash to pay for the article I require, should you get it, as I intend to send you another parcel of Books, in about a month, when you will have an opportunity of inserting it among your other drawbacks on my account; for as you inform me you canobtain for me 100 impressions of the portrait of Aylet for £1-1-0, and the cost of the paper, I beg to say that you will oblige me by getting the said number printed off, in the course of a month at farthest, so that they may be ready to return with the cash, &c. that will be due to me, as a balance, when I have sent any Books. I shall not sent you near as large a parcel next time – not more than 3 or 4 £’s worth, I guess. – Be careful to order that my 100 impressions of Aylet’s portrait be neatly worked off, and on good paper. – How is it that I have not received any Catalogue from you lately? – you announced one to appear on the 1st instant – I suppose it is not yet ready. – I think it right to mention, now I am writing, that I am in want of a copy of the following books &c. – some of which, perhaps, you may happen of by the time you next hear from me – or if you have any of them already on hand, you can send them, if you please, with my this week’s parcel; of course, supposing you should be able to get the above-named book, which is most probable. I am, then, in want of the following trifles, if they are procurable at a cheap rate:

The Comic Offering – any of the vols. (except that for 1835, which I have) but not at more than 4 or 6/ each.

Hopkins’s (Matthew) Discovery of Witches, &c., 1647. Have you ever seen this book? No doubt, there is a copy in the B. Museum. When you have occasion to visit there again, perhaps you will take the trouble to ask to see it, and at some future opportunity, give me a few particulars respecting it – and what would be (within a little) the expense of a transcript of it; but pray do not take so much trouble, on my account, as you did about Ayelt’s book. There is a portrait, &c., appended to it, I think – I should like to know whether it agrees with the one given in my reprint of the Essex Witches –

Kelly’s (of Paternoster Row) ed. of the Polstead Murder, 8vo, 1828 (or thereabouts) if at a cheap price – it was published at 12/-

Clare’s (the Northamptonshire poet) Moments of Forgetfulness, date about 1825. This is but little known. It was reviewed in the Monthly Mag. at the time

Sale Cat. of Haslewood’s Library – also a portrait of him, if there is one in existence. Can you inform me under what signatures Haslewood generally wrote, when he published [^his original] poetical articles? I wish to get together all the poetical pieces of his I can – have you any?14March37b

A Portrait of Mrs Mary Honywood, of March Hall, Essex, who lived to see so many descendants from her – there is one in existence, I know.

A Portrait of the present Archdeacon Wrangham, if there is one in existence, which is probable. I occassionally correspond with this person, chiefly on Bibliographical subjects, but as he lives at such a distance from Totham, I have never seen him. In a letter I received from him on Saturday last, he informs me, that Dr. T.F. Dibdin’s (the Roxburgher, &c.) address is either 7 (or 14) Wyndham St., Marleybone, – perhaps you can inform me which is the correct number.

Do you know of any work that contains a bibliographical account of Dr R. Aylet? Does not Grainger’s Bio. Dict.? – by-the-bye, I never saw G’s work – common as it is = trusting that you will obligingly attend immediately (or, at all costs, by Saturday) to my request respecting Mr Foster’s (?) “Woman” &c.,

I remain, Sir, yours very respectfully

Cha[rle]s Clark

[to Mr J.R. Smith]


PS Another question! Do you know whether T. Thorpe (of Picadilly) has issued any Catalogues lately? I have seen none of his in the Quarterly Review, or elsewhere, for some time. His Cats. often contain some curiosities – though he prices his articles rather high in general, I think – If you have any lately-published Catalgoues of Books by you, that you do not want, perhaps you will be o good as to enclose them in my parcel – as you may have some that I have not seen. By-the-bye, in collecting Catalogues, I am quite a horse-leech – it is always “give-give-give!” – perhaps (in scripture language) “it is my infirmity!”

Note: The authors of this blog have made every effort, without success, to trace the holders of the copyright to these letters. We invite the holders of of copyright to make themselves known to us.

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Dispatches from Holland…

It is no surprise that, on World Book Day, we are thinking about Charles Clark, and his books. At the time of his death, Clark had amassed a library of over 2,500 volumes. From his letters, and the size of his numerous orders to London booksellers, we can tell that many more hundreds passed through his hands. Clark read, and made, books. He printed his own works, and copied several others. His habit of printing different signifiers of his ownership has made it possible for us to identify books which he owned, and has made it easier for other people to help us ‘Find’ Charles Clark, for example, his volume on balloons and ballooning is now held at Princeton University Library (see our blog post here.)

Recently, we were dDSC_4072elighted to receive an email from Tim Tijssen, in Holland. Tim had purchased a copy of the 1797 edition of James Hervey‘s Meditations and Compilations from a bookshop in Canterbury. On the inside cover board is  a small white label, indicating Clark’s ownership of the volume (see the image to the right). The label reads ‘Charles Clark, Great Totham Hall’. Intriguingly, all over the inside covers, is the name ‘Susannah Clark’. From the varying size and quality of the handwriting, it seems obvious that Susannah used the book to practice her handwriting. We are still in the process of finding out about Clark’s family, but to our knowledge, he had no adult siblings. The signature could not have been that of his mother: his parents were named Robert and Mary Ann. It is possible that the book belonged to a previous occupant of Great Totham, perhaps a cousin or aunt. We are fascinated to learn more about Susannah, whoever she was!

Its definitely the kind of book and the kind of inside cover that would have appealed to Clark. His fascination with provenance and ownership is evident from his letters and from the attitude to his books discernible in them: he would have no doubt placed his self-printed label, an example of just one of several that he used in his books, on this page with a great sense of contributing to a palimpsest of names and marks of ownership.

Stay tuned for more on our search for Susannah Clark …

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The Bard of Totham

The Totham 1821 Symposium, organised by James Bettley, will take place this November. We will contribute to it (sadly from afar), and it has already got us thinking about the reputation of Charles Clark in his own time and his status as a literary figure as well as a printer and collector. Its easy at times to forget that Clark – who achieved renown for his printing specimens and his book-collecting activities and whom we associate so much with letter-writing – was an active poet who was called upon to produce second and sometimes even third editions of his works to satisfy the local and the London market. He was very definitely a part of what was undoubtedly a very active and important local literary and cultural circle that included the artist Miss Ann Hayter, the Rev. Thomas Foote Gower and others, and Clark liked to circulate his poems, ballads, and broadsides amongst his literary friends at the same time as he was selling his works through the shop of his friend John Russell Smith in Soho. And though his works are of dubious literary quality (Clark’s interest in punning and in dialect sometimes make for tedious reading), they seem to have sold well. His ballad “John Noakes and Mary Styles” was especially popular, and it was advertised in John Russell Smith’s circular and sold in his shop.

His works also attracted some extremely positive reviews and some acclaim from admirers. Clark himself printed the following poem written in praise of his work by John Hollamby (the so-called “Unlettered Muse”), a Sussex poet much admired in turn by Clark and with whom Clark corresponded. Clark also printed some of Hollamby’s works and he certainly liked to collect his verse. Clark apparently could not resist printing the poem which Hollamby had written in 1842:

The Bard of Totham

FAIN would my humble muse attempt to sing

The Totham Bard ; for – unlike Byron – he

Does not despisre the humbler “sons of song;” –

While to his pen old Tiptree owes its fame,

And Epsom is indebted for renown.

“John Noakes and Mary Styles” will long be read, –

And will to ages yet unborn transmit,

In purity, the Essex Dialect. –

Though he, at pleasure, can his page adorn

With mirth-inspiring puns, and sparkling wit, –

And though his playful muse can well describe,

In the quaint phrase of drollery and fun,

The Horse-Race or the Fair, – yet is his mind

Attuned to feeling and to serious thought ;

For he will often pay the tribute due

To worth departed, or sing of “Sylvan Shades.”


J[ohn] H[ollamby]

Hailsham, Sussex, December, 1842.

Though none of their letters survive, Hollamby and Clark seem to have been regular correspondents, and Clark continued to write to and receive letters from John’s son Edward after his death; some of those letters, as well as a praise-poem by Edward, are preserved at East Sussex Record Office.


Clark's print of Hollamby's poem in his honour

Clark’s print of Hollamby’s poem in his honour

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Two paintings in St Peter’s Church, Great Totham, are to be conserved and redisplayed in the church, thanks to grants from Heritage Lottery Fund, the Essex Heritage Trust, and the Church Buildings Council, as well as private donations.

Both the oil paintings have been in St Peter’s since at least 1831. This was the year of publication of G. W. Johnson’s History of the Parish of Great Totham, and one of the paintings – ‘Great Totham Church’ by Miss Hayter – was engraved for the frontispiece. The original has not been seen properly for a long time; until last year it was hidden behind a cupboard in the vestry, where it had suffered badly from damp and dirt. It shows the church as it was before changes to the building later in the 19th century, and so is an important historical record as well as a charming work of…

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Charles Clark, Byron, and Don Juan.

Given Charles Clark’s love of comic poetry, satire, and controversy, we should not be surprised to find that Byron was one of his favourite writers.


While Clark considered Thomas Hood and John Clare his literary heroes, his frequent quotations from Byron’s poetry and letters indicate an easy familiarity with the author of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan. Don Juan was certainly one of Clark’s preferred works; he makes countless references to Byron’s masterpiece throughout his correspondence with John Russell Smith.Image

Clark owned a copy of Thomas Medwin’s controversial Conversations with Lord Byron, and several other Byron-related works – he was especially interested in supposed ‘suppressed stanzas’ from Don Juan.

When Byron sent the manuscript of Don Juan to John Murray, the publisher showed it to the poet’s friends who thought the poem was far too scandalous to publish. John Cam Hobhouse sent Byron a letter acknowledging the genius of the work but outlining the reasons why it should never see the light of day, including references to Byron’s wife as well as several living poets, the frank eroticism, and the ‘immoral turn’ of the opening cantos. John Murray decided to publish the poem in an expensive quarto edition; it was agreed that Byron’s name should not appear on the title page. When the poem was finally published it had neither author nor publisher’s name, several pages were left blank, and stanzas were suppressed by being printed as rows of asterisks. 


Contemporary reviewers seized on the absence of the publisher’s name in order to categorise Don Juan as a monstrous birth. The British Critic talked of a poem ‘spawned in filth and darkness’:

A thousand low and portentous murmurs preceded his birth…it was stated to be of a complexion so blasphemous, as even in these days of liberality, to endanger the personal security of the bookseller…Paternoster-row was paralysed…Fearful indeed was the prodigy – a book without a bookseller: an advertisement without an advertiser – a “deed without a name.” After all this portentous parturition, out creeps DON JUAN.

Of course, the reaction, and the supposed immorality of the poem were utterly exaggerated – fuelled by disapproval of Byron himself. Eventually, Byron’s ten year association with John Murray broke down and he transferred publication of the later cantos to the radical publisher John Hunt. A first edition of Don Juan would contain the first five cantos published by Murray, and the remaining eleven by John Hunt (Byron died in Greece in 1824, leaving the poem unfinished). Charles Clark owned such an edition, bought for over two pounds, and sold to John Russell Smith as ‘a scarce edition’, on 29 May 1838.

            By publishing the poem anonymously and without his name, John Murray facilitated wholesale piracy, not to mention countless imitations and spin-off titles. Clark owned several of these, including the bizarrely titled Don Juan Junior: A Poem by Byron’s Ghost by G.R.W. Baxter. In 1838 Clark tried to contact Frederick William Naylor Bayley regarding supposed rejected stanzas of Don Juan. Bayley wrote miscellaneous verse and was the first editor of the Illustrated London News. On 29 May 1838 Clark wrote to Smith:

What a strange being that “F.W.N. Bayley, Esq.” must be! By-the-bye, I have written to him (thro’ his publisher) no less than four times respecting those suppressed stanzas of “Don Juan” which I once troubled you about; offering him no less than three guineas for a transcript only of them, promising never to publish them; and though I am quite sure all my letters duly reached him, he has, as yet, never taken the least notice of any of them! – is he not a polite gentleman? In a late No. of the Torch, he stated that he possesses 150 of these stanzas, all curiously written in double rhyme, but my opinion now is, that he has no such a number.

We do not know whether Clark finally managed to make contact with Bayley, but it is certain that he acquired a copy of the stanzas. In 1845 he printed and circulated ‘Some Rejected Stanzas of Don Juan’. The publication was evidently popular as it appears in several lists of books that Clark sent to Smith, and Smith appears to have asked Clark for copies on numerous occasions. Although he feared it was inappropriate for female readers, Clark delighted in Byron’s Don Juan, especially a stanza from Canto Seven which he liked to send to his friend John Russell Smith of Old Compton Street:

One of the valorous ‘Smiths’ whom we shall miss

Out of those nineteen who late rhymed to ‘pith;’

But ‘t is a name so spread o’er ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam,’

That one would think the first who bore it ‘Adam.’



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A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Charles Clark lived through the invention and solidification of the festive season as we know it today.  Queen Victoria and Prince Albert would popularize the Christmas tree in the late 1840s, while the earliest greeting cards were in production in the middle of that decade. Gift giving also became popular, and though he does not record his habits in his letters to his bookseller, Clark certainly acknowledges the increased association with the exchange of presents when he remarks to Russell Smith on 14 January 1839: “As you guessed, your last letter was one after our heart – it was the most acceptable Christmas-box I received ‘to-year!’ and I heartily thank you for your laborious production”. It is perhaps the traditional Christmas carol, however, that found a special place in the hearts of the Victorians. They revived older carols and were fond of importing new ones. It should not surprise us that Clark particularly engages with books that are dedicated to older, traditional seasonal songs, and that his mentions of Christmas in this batch of letters are almost exclusively connected to, well, books!


Victorian Carollers

Victorian Carollers


We know by now that Clark had a fondness for antiquarian texts and volumes, and that he had a sort of hire-purchase arrangement with his bookseller, John Russell Smith of 4 Old Compton Street in Soho. This enabled him to buy books at full price and then return them used to the shop. He received a percentage of the original price for the used book, and he then used these funds of off-set his (sometimes considerable) account with Russell Smith. Clark ordered a volume that he calls ‘Christmas Carols’ on 1 February 1842, paying 3/- (or, in today’s money, about £6.60, calculated using the National Archives Currency Converter). This volume was Specimens of Old Christmas Carols
Selected from Manuscripts and Printed Books
, compiled by Thomas Wright for  The Percy Society in 1841 (see




The letters that survive from Clark to Russell Smith frequently preserve the hand of the latter in the margins of booklists where he calculates the price that he will let Clark have for each returned volume. Its tempting to imagine him as a Scrooge-like figure, taking an oily pencil to the immaculate letters of Clark and reckoning the best outcome for himself.  But we know that the men were on the best of terms and that the bookseller often sent surprise items as gifts to Clark, and worked tirelessly to search for books that Clark desired. Thus when the volume of carols was returned to London on 14 December 1842, Russell Smith gave Clark a generous price of 1/6 for it. Clark was also interested in Wright’s 1847 publication Songs and Carols Now First Printed, From a Manuscript of the Fifteenth Century (The Percy Society). On 2 February 1848 he declared himself to be ‘very pleased with the contents of Mr. Wright’s “Songs and Carols”, but by 6 April that same year he returned it “by rail”, earning 2/ for the used copy.

Clark and his acquaintances may not have celebrated Christmas quite like we do today. We tend to go on holiday proper, suspending work and sometimes trade. It was altogether a more simple affair for the Clarks, characterized perhaps by attendance at Church services, visits to the homes of neighbours, and some few little indulgences to brighten up the dull midwinter period. Life, trade and work went on, even in the depths of the darkest season. On Christmas Eve Clark writes to Russell Smith to withdraw an order of the Monthly Review citing financial concerns: “What wintery weather it has become! – I can add that I wish you a merry Christmas – I fear trade is not calculated to make you exactly so” (24 December 1849). But it was still a hugely important, symbolic time. We like to imagine Clark and his family gathered over a cheery glass of wine, perhaps at the home of their good friend and neighbour Rev. Gower. And we imagine, too, that Clark would have delighted the gathering with several renditions of those beautiful carols.

Merry Christmas, from us at Finding Charles Clark, to all our readers and friends!  holly

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