An Eighteenth-Century Rogue

A letter that begins “Since the Unfortunate Affair in Kensington whereby I lost all my Substance, My Expectations and my friends” caught my attention while I was rooting through documents in the archives.

Botanist Richard Bradley found himself strapped for cash. He was managing to scrape by “at the publick Expence”, but publishing was an expensive business and all of his money had gone to paying off booksellers. He was even considering going abroad: “my Inclinations are for it, Even into the Most Dangerous country”. Bradley was unsure which was worse: “to live upon Expectations at home is as bad as it can be to venture one’s Life among Savages abroad”. What he truly wanted was “to have a Garden of Experiments for General Use”—something, no doubt, that Bradley hoped would capture Sloane’s attention, given his interest in and support of the Chelsea Physic Garden. He concluded that such a garden would allow him to “gain an Improving Settlement” and to “do my Country some Service without restraint of Booksellers”.

As a scholar, I was struck by his indebtedness to booksellers, but what on earth was his “Unfortunate Affair”? I just had to explore the letter’s background! A bit of digging revealed Bradley to be a bit of a rogue who constantly asked for (and received) money from his friends. Historian Frank Egerton has taken a sympathetic view; Bradley was a man who lived in an age when there was no government support for scholarship and, lacking personal wealth to support his investigations, he ended up in a cycle of constant debt. A fair point… though Bradley seems to have been particularly bad at managing his affairs.

Cannons Park, Middlesex (destroyed). Engraving from Vitruvius Brittanicus, vol. 4, by J. Badeslade & J. Rocque (London, 1739), plate 24. From Wikimedia Commons.

Born in 1688 to a middle-class London family, Bradley received a good education, but never attended university. He published widely on popular medical and scientific topics. He was known for his expertise in botany and managed to attract high-ranking patrons, including James Brydges, the Duke of Chandos (and husband of Cassandra Willughby). Brydges hired Bradley to oversee the planting of gardens at his estate, Cannons Parks, and even helped him out financially in November 1717, sending money to pay off personal debts. Then, in 1719, Brydges found that Bradley had mismanaged a substantial sum. It seems likely that this is the “Unfortunate Affair”. But he recovered and by 1724, William Sherard had recommended him for the position of Professor of Botany at Cambridge. As part of the Professorship, Bradley promised to found a botanical garden.

Bradley was, perhaps, generally unreliable. The Royal Society notes that “his ignorance of Latin and Greek and his failure to perform his duties caused great scandal”. Yet, despite his many problems, Bradley was still able to persuade people to invest in him. If his relationship with Sloane is typical, I can understand why. Bradley comes across as likeable in his correspondence. Starting in 1714, he occasionally sent Sloane news (e.g. of a hermaphroditic horse) and illustrations (e.g. a lizard from Sloane’s cabinet). In return, he sometimes asked Sloane for advice or employment recommendations.

Bradley again found it difficult to make ends meet by 1726. He had not founded his botanical garden and had trouble attracting students (whose fees were needed to support him). He wrote to Sloane offering him a saffron kiln in return for a favour: help in—of course—getting free from the “booksellers’ hands”. The following year, Sloane noted at the bottom of another letter from Bradley: “Sent him a guinea”. In 1729, Bradley’s financial problems appeared to have been sorted he married a wealthy woman. But within a short time, Mary Bradley’s money had gone to pay off his many debts, and the unlucky couple was forced to sell off household furnishings and move into more modest lodgings.

Bradley died as he lived in 1732, after a long and expensive illness that left his wife and child in debt. The last letter about Bradley was from his widow, asking Sloane for support. And, given his history with Bradley, Sloane likely provided the widow with assistance.

Perhaps Mrs Bradley was better than her husband at money management, as she was never heard from again.

Sources

F. N. Egerton, “Richard Bradley’s relationship with Sir Hans Sloane”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 25 (1970), 59–77.

F.N. Egerton, “Bradley, Richard (1688?-1732)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005.

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