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Rev Dr John Delap Vicar of Iford with Kingston 1765-1812

Thursday 15 November 2012

December 2012 marks the bicentenary of the death of Rev Dr John Delap (1725-1812), poet and dramatist, and Vicar of Iford with Kingston for almost fifty years from 1765 to 1812.
John Delap moved to Sussex in 1765 at the age of 40. He did not make his home in Iford or Kingston but chose to settle instead in South Street in Lewes, where he lived until the end of his life. After his death, his house was sold by his niece Mary Hastings in March 1813. Auction details stated – “The premises Comprise a delightful Drawing Room, a Dining Parlour, Several Comfortable Sleeping Rooms and Closets, an excellent Kitchen, convenient attached and detach’d Offices, a two stall Stable with Loft over, a very large beautiful Garden, Planted with the Choicest of fruit trees and properly cropped etc.” It was from his home in Cliffe that he carried out his pastoral duties in his parishes and continued to write plays and poems. He must have seemed to his parishioners to have been rather an unusual, even exotic, pastor.
In the year before he arrived in Sussex, it was rumoured that he had married a Miss Kitty Hunter who was then boarding with his sister. In an affair that scandalised society, Kitty Hunter had eloped in January 1762 to the Low Countries with the married Earl of Pembroke, returning to England at the end of the year to give birth to a son. Delap who was clearly smitten with Kitty, despite the difference in their ages, was to be disappointed. She went on to have a further affair and a child with the naval hero Augustus John Hervey 3rd Earl of Bristol, a notorious womaniser, before finally in 1770 marrying Sir Alured Clarke, an army officer and colonial governor. The couple had no children and she was to die in 1795. Delap himself was never to marry.
John Delap became acquainted with a large number of important literary, theatrical, and political figures of the day, including the poets William Mason and Thomas Gray, the actor-manager David Garrick, the arts patron Mrs Hester Thrale, the actor Mrs Siddons, the writer Dr Samuel Johnson, and the novelist, diarist and playwright Fanny Burney. It is through the first-hand testimony of their letters and diaries, and his work itself that a picture can be built up of Delap’s circle of acquaintance and his character and personality. Unfortunately, no portrait of him is known to survive.
Comments by Thomas Gray and Dr Johnson, the subject matter of one of his own poems To Sickness, and his surviving letters, suggest that Delap was something of a hypochondriac. Fanny Burney, who met Delap in Brighton in 1779 when he was 54 and she was 27, described him in these terms – “he is commonly and naturally grave, silent and absent, but when any subject is once begun, upon which he has anything to say, he works it threadbare, yet hardly seems to know, when all is over, what, or whether anything, has passed. He is a man, as I am told by those who know, of deep learning, but totally ignorant of life and manners. As to his person and appearance and manners they are much in the John-trot style” – i.e. rather old-fashioned. Hester Thrale’s home at Streatham Park in London became the centre of an important coterie of artistic, literary, and political figures and Delap stayed there and at the Thrale residence in West Street, Brighton on a number of occasions. She seems to have been genuinely fond of him. Writing to an acquaintance at a later date from the continent, she said – “now you live so much at Brighthelmstone (Brighton) you perhaps see Dr Delap often, do tell me how he does: few Men in England have given me more Pleasure unmitigated with any Offence than Dr Delap. I therefore reflect on his past Friendship with great Esteem and Tenderness, and hope he continues it for me; for few people love him so well.”
Delap had three of his plays, all based on Greek tragedies, put on at the Drury Lane Theatre in London to some acclaim. The last time that one of Delap’s plays was to be performed in London was in March 1786. It ran for three nights but met with neither audience approval nor critical success and was the subject of a number of satirical pieces in the London newspapers. The Times reported that the play “experienced marked reprobation from the morose, pity from the kind, and support from the Doctor’s particular friends.”
Despite these setbacks, Delap continued to produce work. Sedition, an Ode occasioned by His Majesty’s late proclamation was written and published in Lewes in 1792 and denounced the writings of Tom Paine as being revolutionary. The Royal Pavilion, an Ode also written in 1792 eulogised the Prince of Wales. He also produced a number of poems on members of the Pelham family. His last published work was Dramatic poems: Gunilda, Usurper, Matilda, and Abdalla in 1803. Abdalla is of particular interest as it is a verse drama condemning slavery and the slave trade, reflecting the strong movement in Britain to abolish the slave trade that had been gaining ground in the previous twenty years or so. It was performed in Lewes in 1804/5 and received a positive response from the townsfolk.
John Delap died in 1812 aged 87 years and was buried in the (now demolished) burial ground of his parish church St. Thomas à Becket in Lewes. Delap’s last will and testament is preserved in the National Archives. He left some £8,453 10s in legacies and gifts of money, about £250,000 in today’s money, together with his property. A special gift of 50 guineas was made to the poor of each of his parishes of Kingston and Iford.
John Delap was not amongst the foremost writers of the Georgian period, but his life and work provide an interesting window on to society and the creative spirit in one of the most turbulent periods of British history.

- Tim Ambrose