Vignette: Mrs. Iliff, Poems, 2nd ed., Malta, 1818

According to our publication place data, Mrs. Iliff published Poems, Upon Several Subjects, 2nd ed., in Malta in 1818. We were very intrigued and wanted to learn more about this title and author since it’s the only one in the catalog (we know of at this time) published in Malta.

We had no trouble finding this title in Google Books or Worldcat. There is even an encoded digital edition of this book in UC Davis’s British Women Romantic Poets Project


The title page specifies that the work was “Printed for the Author, at the Government Printing Office, 1818”. 

The first thing I noticed about the volume, using the Google Book edition, is that it has an extensive subscribers list divided by those who received the book in Malta and those who received the book in Corfu. At the very top it lists Sir Thomas Maitland, Commander in Chief of His majesty’s Forces in the Mediterranean, Governor of the Island of Malta and its Dependencies, and His Majesty’s Lord High commissioner in the United States of the Ionian islands” ordered 50 copies. Whoever Mrs. Iliff was, she was well-connected in politics and the militia.

The author uses her preface to recount the publication history of the volume, which I found useful. The first edition was published in London with the support of many “friends.” (again: read, well-connected)

I read this entire volume of poetry save one or two poems. It contains a wide variety of topics and themes, from politics to nature to the domestic and the spiritual. The second edition contains a section of poems added to the first edition, and these include translations of Maltese songs, which I found interesting, so the author should also be considered a translator. While none of these poems struck me as brilliant, I found “The Crazy Maid” to be an entertaining light Gothic tale, and I found “On Revisiting a Former Habitation” thoughtful. “To Walter Scott, on reading ‘Lord of the Isles’” has a very punchy ending in which we get a dose of the author’s sass:  

I think I hear thy sex exclaim / When one such wonder shall expire / There’ll spring to keep the race alive / A Phoenix from her funeral pyre / No rather from her ashes rise /  A creature still more strange and new / A silent Woman may be rare / But rarer still a Man who’s true



The author was far more difficult to find information about, and it appears that perhaps we can learn the most about her from her texts. She has no record in VIAF, Orlando, or the ODNB. I did find a Jane West in Orlando whose maiden name is Iliffe, but she is not our Mrs. Iliff as the spelling difference indicates. I’m glad I caught the spelling difference so that we don’t lose knowledge of an author that needs to be recovered simply because she shares a name, or almost shares a name, with one that is far more documented.



What was most puzzling was the fact that two authors of books on politics and history, one recent and one from the early 20th century, having very little or nothing to do with literature, decided to excerpt the same stanza from Mrs. Iliff’s poem “England’s Defenders.” Why did they wind up using this excerpt by this author, of all the well-known nationalist stanzas?

In The History of English Patriotism, published in 1913, Esmé Cecil Wingfield-Stratford quotes her in a discussion of anti-Napoleon British satire. He is not very generous. First, he quotes four of John Ashton’s English character satires of Napoleon in verse. After them, he writes:

“Or to quote the lines of that very inferior poetess Mrs. Iliff:

Let Buonaparte his legions boast,

We tremble not with coward fears,

Our tars shall keep the sea, our coast

Be guarded by our volunteers”

(Wingfield-Stratford 121)


Then, in 1962 in a multivolume study of the history of party politics, Ivor Jennings uses the same stanza to discuss patriotic English poets. He mentions Wordsworth first and then suggests that both Coleridge and Illif were “inspired by danger” before including the above-quoted stanza by Iliff. Jennings doesn’t cite Iliff directly but instead cites Wingfield-Stratford as his source, which is a shame. It’s ironic that such an ungenerous reference to Iliff as a “very inferior poetess” could help transmit knowledge of her from the early 1900s to the later half of the century.

Last, I found a mention of Iliff in Charlotte Smith and British Romanticism (2015) by Jacqueline Labbe, where she is addressed as an influence on the sonnet writing culture. However, Labbe does not analyze any of Iliff’s poems in her book.

(Note: both of the authors who quote Iliff get her punctuation wrong. In the 1818 edition, the comma after sea is actually an em-dash, and the comma after “fears” is actually a semi-colon.)




One Comment

  1. Mary (Seawell) Iliff

    Mary Iliff (nee Seawell) (1772-1856)
    She has hitherto been identified in library and bookseller catalogues and various reference works
    as an actress and the wife of Edward Henry Iliff. This should now be completely discounted on the basis of the following information.
    She was born 15 Feb 1772 and baptised 15 March 1772 at St Mary the Virgin, Plumtree, Nottinghamshire, the daughter of Bramstone Seawell and Elizabeth Bagaley who had married St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, 23 September 1766. They had at least three children, all baptised at Plumtree: Branston (1768), Thomas (1770) and Mary (1772). (1)
    He acquired an estate at Normanton-on-the Wolds shortly after marriage, possibly as a marriage settlement. He died at Beeston in 1786 and in his will of 1787, it looks as if he had three children from a previous marriage: John, Elizabeth and Ann. The children from the first marriage were of full age and were executors. The children from the second marriage were all minors. His estates consisting of freehold lands and tenements in Normanton were left to his children. His ‘second’ wife had predeceased him with a Plumtree burial record of 19 April 1781. However, no record of a first marriage has been traced, the children of full age are called ‘friends’ (though son and daughters as executors) and there must be a possibility that they were a deceased relative’s children whom he had treated as his own. (2)
    Three months after the will, Elizabeth Seawell, Mary’s half-sister, married Thomas Basnett (1752-1820), a surgeon, 3 July 1787, at St John the Baptist, Beeston. Two of their children, Elizabeth Seawell Basnett (1788-1855) and Thomas Still Basnett (1792-1865) are almost certainly the subjects of two of Mary Iliff’s poems: ‘Epistle to E.S.B.’ and ‘Epistle to T.S.B.’ Thomas and Elizabeth Basnett also took “two Miss Seawells” [Ann and Mary/Maria] to the Hall and Crescent at fashionable Buxton in nearby Derbyshire.(3)

    Mary Seawell married William Tiffin Iliff, a surgeon, at St. Matthew, Friday Street, London, 8 May, 1797. Her half-sister and her husband Thomas Basnett, a surgeon, may very well have facilitated the marriage to a fellow surgeon.) (4)

    William Tiffin Iliff was born 25 Oct 1772, at Kilby, Leicestershire, and baptised 28 Oct 1772. He was the son of the Rev. Daniel Tiffin (1753-1782), Vicar of Wistow cum Newton (1763-1782) and occasional writer of light verse. He seems to have been in financial difficulty from the start of the marriage and was declared bankrupt in April 1798 with the usual dividend declarations being made up to 5 December 1800 by which time he had signed up as a Hospital Mate and begun service in Egypt. (5)
    Mary Iliff had at least three children: William Tiffin (1798) who also became a surgeon, Frederick (1799) who entered the church, and William Henry (1812) who died in Birkirkara in 1898. (6)
    It seems unlikely she joined Iliff at the start of his service in Malta and may very well have been on her own (or with family) 1801-1811. In the Preface to Poems (1808) she states the subscription volume is “an opportunity to a generous public of aiding the exertions of a Mother, towards educating her children during the anxious period of their father’s absence.” However, she was in Malta in 1812 where she gave birth to William Henry Iliff. She probably returned to England where she seems to have had some involvement (along with her half-brother, John, half sister Ann Seawell and Thomas Basnet[t] in The White Bear Inn in Piccadilly from at least 1819. (7)
    Staff Medical Records of the Malta Garrison give an accurate career outline from his time as Hospital Mate in October 1800 when he went to Egypt and his arrival in Malta in November 1801 through his years of garrison duty 1802-1811 when he was promoted to apothecary then Staff Surgeon in 1820. He retired on half pay 25 March 1822 and continued to practice on the island until his death. He died 12 October 1830 and was buried at Msida Bastion Cemetery, Malta. (8)
    Mary Iliff applied for an Army widow’s pension, confirming the marriage date and place and his death, aged 57, in Malta, 12 October 1830. She gave her address as 4 Tenterden Street, Hanover Square. The pension was recommended 6 December 1830. (9)
    At some point she must have moved to South London probably to be nearer her son and grandson who practised as surgeons at 18-19 Canterbury Row, Newington.(10)
    She died 25 November 1856 and was buried on 29 November, at Norwood Cemetery, aged 84, residence Kennington Row. The death certificate identifies her as the “Widow of William Tiffin Iliff, late Apothecary to the Forces in the Island of Gibraltar, and simply gives ‘old age’ as the cause of death. (11)
    Poems (1808) contained a large number of Nottingham subscribers. Eighteen members of the extended Basnett family took copies, as did three members of the Seawell family. Although there were a few military subscribers, it is a predominantly provincial list of families’ networks. At almost a thousand names, someone must have been active on her behalf. By contrast, Poems (1818), printed in Valetta,was a second edition with a few additions on Malta and Corfu and had around two hundred subscribers, mostly military and family in Malta, with an additional thirty in Corfu.

    (1) NFHS, Nottinghamshire Baptism Transcriptions; Marriage Bond and Allegation, Anc.; IGI.
    (2) Nottinghamshire Burials Index 1596-1906 (NFHS) and NBI: Elizabeth, wife of Branston Seawell., Plumtree, 19 April, 1781; Branstone Seawell, Plumtree, 23 November 1786; will of Branstone Seawell, proved 12 April 1787, NA, Prob. 11/1152/91;

    (3) Nottinghamshire Marriage Index, 1528-1929, Fmp. Bath Chronicle, 12 July 1787; Poems, (1808) 64-68, 69-72; Derby Mercury, 7 August, 1788.
    (4) GM, June 1797, 524; IGI;
    (5) CCed; The palladium, London 1748, p. 8; UM, 4, 1749, p.174; ; R. Hovenden, The monumental inscriptions in the old churchyard of St. Mary, Newington, Surrey, privately printed, 1880; UM, 52, 1798, June 455; A. Peterkin and William Johnstone, R. Drewe, Commissioned officers in the medical services of the British army, 1660-1960, 2v. London: The Wellcome Historical Medical Library 1968, I. 224/3371.
    (6) IGI, Anc, Fmp.
    (7) Poems (1808), [v]; John Seawell, Ann Seawell, Thomas Basnet and Mary Iliff : Sun Insurance policy, 3 February 1819, LMA, MS 11936/481/951564.
    (8); United Service Journal, 1831.i, p.286, gives 12 November[1830] but his death was the previous month.
    (9) NA, WO 42, 1 Bundle 25, Officers’ Birth Certificates, Wills and Personal Papers.
    (10) William Tiffin Snr and jnr (Tiffin & Son) are recorded at that address in The London and provincial medical directory 1850, London [1850], p. 50.
    (11) GRO, Lambeth Q4, 1856, 1d, 214; R. Hovenden, p. 155;Nottinghamshire Guardian, 4 December 1856.

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