by George J. Dance

484px-William Combe, drawn by Georg Dance, 1793. National Portrait Gallery

William Combe (1741-1823). Drawing by George Dance (1741-1825), 1793. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

William Combe (1741 - 19 June 1823) was a satirical English poet, miscellaneous writer, and forger.



Combe's early life was that of an adventurer, his later was passed chiefly within the "rules" of the King's Bench prison. He is chiefly remembered as the author of The Three Tours of Dr. Syntax, a comic narrative poem. His cleverest piece of work was a series of imaginary letters, supposed to have been written by the 2nd, or "wicked," Lord Lyttelton. Of a similar kind were his letters between Swift and Stella. He also wrote the letterpress for various illustrated books, and was a general hack.[1]


Combe was born in Bristol in 1741.[2] The circumstances of his parentage are somewhat doubtful; it is unclear whether his father was a Bristol merchant or William Alexander, a London alderman.

He was educated at Eton – where he was a contemporary of Charles James Fox, the 2nd Baron Lyttelton, and William Thomas Beckford – and then enrolled at the University of Oxford in 1760 or 1761.[2]

He left Oxford without a degree, traveled for some years in France and Italy, then returned to London where he sporadically practiced law. Alexander, Combe's "godfather," had died in 1762, leaving him the sum of £2000 — a small fortune - plus an annuity of £10 a year; and Combe lived in a fashionable (and expensive) style in St. James's.[2] A contemporary account describes him:

He was tall and handsome in person, an elegant scholar, and highly accomplished in his manners and behaviour. He lived in a most princely style, and, though a bachelor, kept two carriages, several horses, and a large retinue of servants.... He was generally recognised by the appellation of "Count Combe".[3]

With his lavish habits and a poor reputation for honesty, he soon squandered his fortune and credit, and was reduced to working at a succession of menial jobs, including common soldier, waiter at Swansea, teacher of elocution,cook at Douai College, and private in the French army. In 1771 or 1772 he returned to London, and began earning a living as a hack writer.[4]

Literary careerEdit

In 1776 he had his earliest success in London with The Diaboliad, a bitter satire "dedicated to the worst man in His Majesty's Dominions." This was Lord Inham, who had promised Combe an annuity in exchange for his marrying Inham's mistress, but who cheated him. The Diabolid passed through several editions. Combe published a sequel, The Diabo-lady ("dedicated to the worst woman in His Majesty's Dominions"), followed by a number of other verse satires, through 1777 and 1778. An early acquaintance with Lawrence Sterne resulted in Combe's anonymous Letters supposed to have been written by Yorick and Eliza (1779).[4]

By 1780 his debts had landed him "within the rules" of King's Bench Prison,[4] where he spent most of the rest of his life - originally within the prison, and later at 12 Lambeth Road, within "the rules" of the prison (meaning within the distance allowed to out-door prisoners). Contemporary accounts say that he remained voluntarily in the prison, where he used “to enjoy much excellent society,” and lived contented "in the midst of an extensive library, his time being constantly exercised for his own profit and the gratification of the world.” Another writer, who offered to arrange a settlement between Combe and his creditors, reported that the author flat-out refused:

‘If I compounded with my creditors’, said Mr. Combe, ‘I should be obliged to sacrifice the little substance which I possess, and on which I subsist in prison. These chambers, the best in the Bench, are mine at the rent of few shillings a week, in right of my seniority as a prisoner.’[5]

His cleverest piece of work was a series of imaginary letters, supposed to have been written by the 2nd, or "wicked", Thomas Lyttelton, 2nd Baron Lyttelton. Letters of the Late Lord Lyttelton (1780) fooled many of his contemporaries; they are admirably written, and are in a much more elevated strain of thought than most of Combe's compositions As late as 1851, a writer in the Quarterly Review regarded these letters as authentic, basing upon them a claim that Lyttelton was "Junius."[4]

In a similar vein were the Original Letters of the Late Mr. Reverend Laurence Sterne, published in 1788. Through the 19th and 20th century scholars have disputed whether these letters were authentic or were forged by Combe.[6]

Also notable were his letters between Swift and "Stella". He also wrote the letterpress for various illustrated books, and was a general hack writer.

Periodical literature of all sorts — pamphlets, satires, burlesques, newspaper columns, and biographies — filled up the next years, and about 1789 Combe was receiving £200 yearly from William Pitt the Younger's government as a pamphleteer. In 1790 and 1791, the 6 volumes of a Devil on Two Sticks in England won for Combe the title of "the English le Sage". In 1794–1796 he wrote the text for Boydell's History of the River Thames. In 1803 he began to write for The Times (columns which he later collected as the Letters of "Valerius").

Between 1773 and 1823 Combe wrote upwards of 100 books, edited or contributed to a score of journals, and furnished (by his own account) 2,000 columns of text to the newspapers and magazines of the time. Almost all of it was written under various pseudonyms, to prevent his creditors attaching the income.[5]

Dr. Syntax and afterEdit

Doctorsyntaxhist00combiala 0006

Dr. Syntax, by Thomas Rowlandson, frontispiece to The Tour of Dr. Syntax, in search of the picturesque, 1812. Courtesy Internet Archive.

Dr Syntax

18th-century porcelain figure of Dr. Syntax. Photo by Victuallers. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In 1809, caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson offered printseller Rudolph Ackermann a series of 24 humorous pictures of an old clergyman-schoolmaster travelling England to see the fine arts. Ackermann, who was in the process of starting a Poetical Magazine to cash in on the new popularity of romantic poetry, decided to print the illustrations in his new magazine, and approached Combe (then in his late 60's) about writing a narrative poem to accompany them. Combe, who was reduced to doing the lowest hack writing to make ends meet (even ghostwriting sermons), readily agreed; and the 1st canto of "The Schoolmaster's Tour", complete with Rowlandson's illustration, appeared in the debut issue of The Poetical Magazine in May 1810.[5]

"The Schoolmaster's Tour" was an immense success, becoming the most popular feature in the magazine. Published in book form 1812 as The Tour of Dr. Syntax: In search of the picturesque, it quickly sold out, and went through 4 more editions within a year.[5] It spawned innumerable copies, and an entire industry of Dr. Syntax memorabilia, including hats, wigs, coats, and china figures.[7]

Then came Six Poems in illustration of drawings by Princess Elizabeth (1813), The English Dance of Death (1815–1816) and The Dance of Life (1816–1817) — both written for Rowlandson's caricatures — and an epic poem on Napoleon, illustrated by George Cruikshank. Combe also wrote prose histories of Oxford and Cambridge; Eton and Winchester colleges; Picturesque Tours along the Rhine and other rivers, Histories of Madeira, Antiquities of York All of this was published by Ackermann, who published whatever Combe would write for him. Combe also wrote the texts for Turner's Southern Coast Views, and made innumerable contributions to the Literary Repository.

After a phenomenal run of 8 years for Dr. Syntax, Combe and Rowlandson followed up the poem's success with 2 similar Tours, "in search of Consolation," and "in search of a Wife," the 1st Mrs Syntax having died at the end of the 1st Tour. "Consolation" was rushed into book form, and immediately passed through several editions; while "A Wife" was serialized in Ackermann's magazine, where it attracted immediate attention. The 3rd tour was published in book form in 1821, along with new editions of the 1st and 2nd tours.[5]

Combe's last poem, in 1822, was another comic narrative, The Adventures of Johnny Quae Genus, in the Syntax style relating the adventures of a foundling who had been taken in by Dr. Syntax. Like the Syntax poems, it was also illustrated by Rowlandson and serialized by Ackermann.

In his later years, Combe was courted for the sake of his charming conversation and inexhaustible stock of anecdote. He died in London.





  • A Letter to the Duchess of Devonshire. London: Fielding & Walker, 1777.
  • A Second Letter to the Duchess of Devonshire. . London: Fielding & Walker, 1777.
  • An Interesting Letter to the Duchess of Devonshire. London: J. Bew, 1778.
  • The History and Antiquities of the City of York. York, UK: A. Ward, for W. Tesseyman, J. Todd, H. Sotheran, et al, 1785.
  • A Letter from a Country Gentleman to a Member of Parliament. London: Logographic Press, for J. Walter, & W. Richardson, 1790.
  • The Royal Interview: A fragment. London: Logographic Press, for J. Walter, C. Stalker, & W. Richardson, 1789.
  • Considerations on the approaching dissolution of Parliament. London: Logographic Press, for J. Waller, 1790.
  • A Word in Season: To the traders and manufacturers of Great Britain. London: John Stockdale, 1792.NF
  • An History of the Principal Rivers of Great Britain. (2 volumes), London: W. Bulmer for J. & J. Boydell, 1794-1796.
  • Two Words of Counsel and One of Comfort. London: T. Mason, 1795.
  • A Letter to the Rt. Hon. William Pitt. London: J. Debrett, 1796.
  • Plain Thoughts of a Plain Man. London: J. Bell, 1797.
  • Brief observations on a letter to Pitt by W. Boyd. London: J. Debrett, 1801.
  • The Letters of Valerius. London: Hatchard, 1804. NF
  • The History of the Abbey Church of St. Peter's Westminster. (2 volumes), London: R. Ackermann, 1812.
  • A History of the University of Oxford. (2 volumes), London: R. Ackermann, 1814.
  • A History of the University of Cambridge. London: R. Ackermann, 1815.
  • The History of the Colleges of Winchester, Eton, and Westminster. London: R. Ackermann, 1816.
  • Observations on Ackerman's Patent Movable Axles. London: J. Diggens, for R. Ackermann, 1819.
  • A History of Madeira. London: R. Ackermann, 1821.
  • Letters to Marianne. London: T. Boys, 1823.


  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Letters of an Italian Nun and an English Gentleman. London: J. Bew, 1781.


Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[8]

Tour of Dr

Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque William Combe Humorous Fiction, Poetry 4 4

See alsoEdit


  • PD-icon.svg Tedder, Henry Richard (1887) "Combe, William" in Stephen, Leslie Dictionary of National Biography 11 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 430-433 . Web, May 16, 2016.


  1. John William Cousin, "Combe, William," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 93-94. Web, Dec. 27, 2017.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Tedder, 430.
  3. Bristol Observer, 16 July 1823. In Tedder, 430.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Tedder, 431.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 John Camden Hotten, "The Life and Adventures of the Author of Dr. Sytax", William Combe and the making of Dr. Syntax,", Web, May 16, 2016.
  6. Harlan W. Hamilton, "William Combe and the Original Letters of the Late Mr. Reverend Laurence Sterne, PMLA 82L5 (October 1967), 420-429. JStor, Web, May 16, 2016.
  7. From Enlightenment to Romanticism: Anthology II (edited by Ian Dommachie & Carmen Levin), Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004, p.5. Google Books, Web, May 16, 2016.
  8. Search results = au:William Combe, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, May 15, 2016.

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