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READERS of A Shropshire Squire will remember that on Christmas Eve 1818, the diarist received a message thus: “…Both [Mr Houlbrooke] and his good wife [Mary] express great kindness to you and say that when you next go to London, they hope to see much more of you.” (p. 58).

At last this figure has been identified as Rev. Dr. Theophilus Houlbrooke LL.B, FRS Ed. (1745-1824), originally from Shrewsbury and latterly of Barnes, Surrey. He was a president of the Liverpool Athenæum, and unanimously elected first president of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool, a position in which he was succeeded by the poet, historian, botanist and politician, William Roscoe (1753-1831).

Originally a clergyman in the established church, Houlbrooke moved towards Unitarianism. He delivered “an eloquent and instructive discourse” on 15 May 1796 at the Unitarian chapel in High Street, Shrewsbury, where the diarist’s uncle Isaac Wood was secretary in 1798.

Rev Houlbrooke was considered a close friend of the Plymley (later Corbett) family of Shrewsbury where he discussed subjects including constitutional reform. Also counted in this circle were Anglicans such as Archdeacon Clive (d. 1792) [cousin of Lord Clive of India (1725-1774) and married to Lord Clive’s eldest sister Rebecca] who had recommended young William Wood to service in East India. (See Kathryn Gleadle, ‘Opinions Deliver’d in Conversation’: Conversation, Politics, and Gender in the Late Eighteenth Century, in Civil Society in British History, OUP, 2003)

Houlbrooke was a friend of both the Quaker ironmaster and philanthropist Richard Reynolds (1735–1816), and his daughter Hannah Mary, who married in 1786 William Rathbone IV of Liverpool. Houlbrooke permanently resided at the Rathbone family home, Greenbank in Liverpool, to tutor their children.

Among the many visitors to the Rathbones at Greenbank (now part of the University of Liverpool) were Capt Wood, his daughter Maria and possibly John C. Wood.

When Houlbrooke sought the company of the diarist John C. Wood, the range of common interests – whether it be philosophy, literature, politics, ecclesiastical matters or simply news of the Rathbones of Liverpool or Shropshire county matters – was likely to be considerable.

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