August 21 1815: Southey and Wordsworth Party on Skiddaw

On August 21 1815, Robert Southey celebrates the victory at Waterloo with a party on the slopes of Skiddaw.  He is joined by friends and family, including William Wordsworth and his family. The festivities include a bonfire, rolling large blazing balls of tow and turpentine down the mountain; singing “God save the King” around burning barrels of tar; eating roasted beef, boiled plum puddings, and drinking punch from a huge wooden bowl. Southey describes the festivities to his brother in a letter on August 23 1815:

“Monday, the 21st of August, was not a more remarkable day in your life than it was in that of my neighbour Skiddaw, who is a much older personage. The weather served for our bonfire*, and never, I believe, was such an assemblage upon such a spot. To my utter astonishment. Lord Sunderlin rode up, and Lady S., who had endeavoured to dissuade me from going as a thing too dangerous, joined the walking party. Wordsworth, with his wife, sister, and eldest boy, came over on purpose. James Boswell arrived that morning at the Sunderlins. Edith, the Senhora†, Edith May, and Herbert were my convoy, with our three maid-servants, some of our neighbours, some adventurous Lakers, and Messrs. Rag, Tag, and Bobtail, made up the rest of the assembly. We roasted beef and boiled plum-puddings there; sung ‘God save the king’ round the most furious body of flaming tar-barrels that I ever saw; drank a huge wooden bowl of punch; fired cannon at every health with three times three, and rolled large blazing balls of tow and turpentine down the steep side of the mountain. The effect was grand beyond imagination. We formed a huge circle round the most intense light, and behind us was an immeasurable arch of the most intense darkness, for our bonfire fairly put out the moon.

“The only mishap which occurred will make a famous anecdote in the life of a great poet, if James Boswell, after the example of his father, keepeth a diary of the sayings of remarkable men. When we were craving for the punch, a cry went forth that the kettle had been knocked over, with all the boiling water! Colonel Barker, as Boswell named the Senhora, from her having had the command on this occasion, immediately instituted a strict inquiry to discover the culprit, from a suspicion that it might have been done in mischief, water, as you know, being a commodity not easily replaced on the summit of Skiddaw. The persons about the fire declared it was one of the gentlemen—they did not know his name; but he had a red cloak on; they pointed him out in the circle. The red cloak (a maroon one of Edith’s) identified him; Wordsworth had got hold of it, and was equipped like a Spanish Don—by no means the worst figure in the company. He had committed this fatal faux pas, and thought to slink off undiscovered. But as soon as, in my inquiries concerning the punch, I learnt his guilt from the Senhora, I went round to all our party, and communicated the discovery, and getting them about him, I punished him by singing a parody, which they all joined in: ‘’Twas you that kicked the kettle down! twas you, Sir, you!’

“The consequences were, that we took all the cold water upon the summit to supply our loss. Our myrmidons and Messrs. Rag and Co. had, therefore, none for their grog; they necessarily drank the rum pure; and you, who are physician to the Middlesex Hospital, are doubtless acquainted with the manner in which alcohol acts upon the nervous system. All our torches were lit at once by this mad company, and our way down the hill was marked by a track of fire, from flambeaux dropping the pitch, tarred ropes, &c. One fellow was so drunk that his companions placed him upon a horse, with his face to the tail, to bring him down, themselves being just sober enough to guide and hold him on. Down, however, we all got safely by midnight; and nobody, from the old Lord of seventy-seven to my son Herbert, is the worse for the toil of the day, though we were eight hours from the time we set out till we reached home.”

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