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John Allen, M.D. (1771-1843)

This article was written by William Prideaux Courtney and was published in 1885.

John AllenJohn Allen, M.D., political and historical writer, was born at Redfoord, in the parish of Colinton, near Edinburgh, on 3 February 1771. His father, James Allen, a writer to the Signet and the owner of the small estate of Redfoord, became bankrupt; but the son, through the aid of his mother's family and the liberality of her second husband, was furnished with a good education. He was apprenticed to Mr. Arnot, an Edinburgh surgeon (in whose house his lifelong friend, Professor Thomson, was his companion in instruction), and in 1791 became M.D. of the university of Edinburgh. Whilst living in that city, waiting for a practice which did not come to his doors, he added to his resources by lecturing on medical topics — Francis Horner being one of the students who were attracted to his course — and translated Cuvier's ‘Introduction to the Study of the Animal Economy’ (1801).

In private life he was known for his zeal in promoting the cause of political reform in Scotland, and through his sympathy with the principles of the whig party and his deep knowledge of constitutional history, he was one of the select few to whom the plan of the ‘Edinburgh Review’ was communicated by Jeffrey and his coadjutors. In 1801 Lord Holland desired the services of ‘a clever young Scotch medical man to accompany him to Spain,’ and Allen was recommended, according to one account by Lord Lauderdale, and according to another by Sydney Smith. With this family Allen remained abroad until 1805, and on his return to England became a regular inmate of Holland House. For a few months in 1806 he was under-secretary to the commissioners for treating with America; but that was the only official position which he ever held. Two years later Allen accompanied Lord Holland on a tour in Spain, and whilst there made a close and accurate study of the history and social characteristics of the Spanish people. He made some progress towards a volume ‘on the interior economy and administration of Spain under the different periods of her history,’ with the object of illustrating the different causes that have checked her progress; but it was never finished. Two articles from his pen on Spanish America appeared in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ (April 1810), and in the previous year he printed in Spanish and English, though he did not publish, a pamphlet with the title ‘Suggestions on the Cortes,’ containing his views on the principles which should guide the Spanish statesmen.

It is as a figure in the social life of Holland House that he is best known. With Allen the owner of that great whig house searched the records of history for the materials of his speeches, and to Allen's acute criticism he submitted the historic protests which appeared in the journals of the House of Lords. Allen sat at the bottom of the table and carved, went out with the family to dinner parties, and had a room of his own, still known by his name, in the house. Macaulay styles him ‘a man of vast information and great conversational powers,’ and Lord Byron said that he was ‘the best informed and one of the ablest men’ that he knew. Lord Brougham appended a warm eulogy of Allen to the third series of the ‘Historic Sketches of Statesmen who flourished in the Time of George III’, and there are frequent and laudatory notices of him in Charles Greville's Journals in his description of the famous dinner parties at Holland House. Had it not been for this luxurious retreat, his contributions to literature would have been more numerous. The historical portion of the ‘Annual Register’ for 1806-7 was written by him, and among his articles in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ were the ‘Constitution of Parliament,’ June 1816, a review (December 1816) of Warden's letters from St. Helena, a contribution which is said to have surprised Napoleon by its intimate knowledge of his early life; two criticisms (April 1825, and June 1826) of Dr. Lingard's ‘History of England,’ and a dissertation (October 1834) on the propriety and legality of creating peers for life. To the second review of Dr. Lingard's history, which dealt especially with his account of the St. Bartholomew massacre, the learned historian replied in a ‘Vindication’ (1826) of his accuracy, which went through at least five editions, whereupon the critic issued a rejoinder, which went into a second edition. Allen's best known work was an ‘Inquiry into the Rise and Growth of the Royal Prerogative in England’ (1830), which was reprinted after his death with biographical notices by Sir James Gibson Craig and Major-general Fox, and still remains the standard treatise on the subject. As a Scotchman he resented Sir Francis Palgrave's opinion, that from the seventh century to the reign of Edward I Scotland was a dependent member of the English monarchy, and he issued in 1833 a ‘Vindication of the Ancient Independence of Scotland.’ Considerable portions of the ‘Memorials and Correspondence of Charles James Fox,’ a work which bears the name of Lord John Russell as editor, were left by Allen in a state ready for the press, and the life of Fox in the seventh and eighth editions of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ was his composition. Allen was steeped in the history and traditions of the whigs.

He was warden of Dulwich College from 1811 to 1820, and master from that year until his death. He was auditor of the duchy of Lancaster from 1841 till his death. He died at 33 South Street, Lady Holland's residence, on 10 April 1843, and was buried at Millbrook, close by the third Lord Holland. He left his medical books and manuscripts to Dr. Thomson, his other manuscript journals and diaries to Major-general Charles Richard Fox, and his Spanish and Italian books to Dulwich College.

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