Radical Rakes: The Friendship of G. W. M. Reynolds and Hugh Forbes

By: David Dixon

The early life of G. W. M Reynolds is shrouded in mystery, despite the efforts of a small but dedicated cadre of scholars, researchers, and enthusiasts. A conspicuous dearth of primary sources, including personal papers and family correspondence are one reason why the best-selling English novelist of the Victorian era remains an obscure figure today. In the absence of such evidence, historians must stitch together tidbits of evidence from various archives and draw reasonable, informed conclusions about their subject’s life based on their historical and cultural milieu. On rare occasions, an oblique reference and a bit of serendipity can lead to a minor breakthrough.

I must admit to a complete ignorance of G. W. M Reynolds until just a few months ago. Having recently published a biography of a Prussian noble who became a socialist revolutionary in 1848 and a US Civil War General in 1861, I became fascinated with nineteenth century transnational radicals.[1] My current project is a biography of English Garibaldian Hugh Forbes, who was employed by John Brown to train his guerilla fighters for a raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859. Research into Forbes’s early life is slow and painstaking, mirroring the challenges that face Reynolds’s biographers. Fortunately, I uncovered a link between these two men that helps us better understand both of them.

The parallel lives of Reynolds and Forbes reveals a potential impetus for their long friendship. Like Reynolds, Forbes rebelled against his military father by refusing to attend the Queen’s birthday celebration and was drummed out of the Coldstream Guards in 1832. They may have met in the fashionable gambling dens that both men frequented. Forbes was pilloried by a London scandal sheet, unsuccessfully sued them for libel, then arranged and failed to appear for duels with Edward Tarleton.  George Reynolds served as Forbes’s second in October. A number of men named George Reynolds resided in London in 1832, so this event alone does not prove that Forbes’s trusted second was G. W. M Reynolds.[2]

The only known portrait of Hugh Forbes (1851).

The following year, Forbes was arrested and jailed for non-payment of a debt, skipped bail, and fled to Paris.[3] Dick Collins’s research concluded that Reynolds had moved to Paris by 1833 and that he had a history of illicit activity.[4] These two men shared a taste for radical politics and scandalous personal behavior. The friendship with Reynolds endured Forbes’s ten-year sojourn in the US. Upon his return to England, the penniless Forbes stayed at Reynolds’s London residence at 41 Woburn Square. “He [Reynolds] is a friend of mine, editor of a liberal London newspaper,” Forbes wrote to Garibaldi in May 1860.[5] In August, Reynolds risked prosecution by encouraging Englishmen to illegally enlist to fight with Garibaldi under Forbes, whom he called “an old friend of our own.”[6]

Their relationship continued, despite the questionable behavior of Colonel Forbes in the Italian revolution of 1860. In 1862, Reynolds’s Newspaper ran advertisements for Forbes’s new weekly journal aimed at volunteer militias. It was published by George Vickers, suggesting that Reynolds himself may have footed the bill.[7] The journal failed after a few weeks. In 1863, Reynolds suggested that Forbes was slated to become a volunteer general and fight for Polish liberation.[8] He reviewed Forbes’s pamphlet on Poland in 1864.[9] In an 1866 letter from Gracchus that his family believed had been authored by Forbes, the writer criticized “thick headed” and “stupid” British military authorities for failure to modernize their weaponry, then made a blatant pitch for Forbes’s pamphlet on needle guns.[10] The flavor and content of some Gracchus editorials during the 1860s raises the question of authorshipand the possibility that some of these articles may have been penned by Forbes.[11]

Forbes moved to the Continent in the early 1870s, exiting politics and military adventurism as he passed his sixtieth year. It is unlikely that he had enough resources to attend Reynolds’s funeral in 1879. Their friendship was one of few such relationships that Forbes managed to maintain over the course of his adult life. Forbes was a hard man to love or like, but these two men shared an unusual bond. Reynolds described Forbes as “a true friend of freedom” and his loyalty to his friend strengthens the notion that Reynolds was a sincere and committed radical.[12]

[1] David T. Dixon, Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2020).

[2] The Satirist (London), Jul 22, Sep 9, 23, 30, Oct 7, 21, 28, Nov 4, 11, 18, Dec 9, 1832.

[3] The Satirist (London), Jan 20, Oct 20, 1833, The True Sun (London) Oct 25, 1833, London Morning Chronicle, Jun 8, 1833, Bell’s Life in London, Jun 9, 1833, British Liberator (London), Jun 9, 1833.

[4] Dick Collins, “George William MacArthur Reynolds: a biographical sketch,” in G.W.M. Reynolds, The Necromancer (Kansas City, Missouri: Valancourt Books, 2007), vii — xv.

[5] Hugh Forbes to Giuseppe Garibaldi, May 24, 1860 in Giacomo Emilio Curatulo, Garibaldi, Vittorio Emanuele, Cavour nei fasti della patria: documenti inediti, dieci lettere di Vittorio Emanuele a Garibaldi nel 1860. Scritti di Cavour, Mazzini, Cattaneo, Pallavicino, Cosenz, Cialdini, etc., di Garibaldi all’imperatore Guglielmo I ed a Bismarck, con facsimili e quattro …, (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1911), 278.

[6] Reynolds’s Newspaper (London), Aug 26, 1860.

[7] Reynolds’s Newspaper (London), May 11, 1862.

[8] Reynolds’s Newspaper (London), Aug 16, 1863.

[9] Reynolds’s Newspaper (London), May 15, 1864.

[10] Reynolds’s Newspaper (London), Jul 22, 1866.

[11] See especially letters from Gracchus in Reynolds’s Newspaper (London), Nov 11, 1860, Mar 10, 1861, Jul 15, 1866.

[12] Reynolds’s Newspaper (London), May 15, 1864.

2 thoughts on “Radical Rakes: The Friendship of G. W. M. Reynolds and Hugh Forbes

  1. Of interest here is that George Vickers and Reynolds may have maintained a relationship after 1848. Did a relationship between Vickers, George Stiff and Reynolds exist after the same date? Were the gentlemen in cahoots?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s