John Cunningham

John Cunningham was an 18th century Scottish poet, actor and playwright, although he was actually born in Ireland, and lived most of his life in the north east of England. He was born some time during the year 1729 in Dublin to parents of Scottish origins.  They had suffered a catastrophic swing in their social standing due to financial problems which resulted in bankruptcy.  John’s attendance at the Drogheda Grammar School had to be curtailed because of this but it did not seem to affect the boy’s ambitions to get into acting and writing.  As it turned out though he achieved much more success off stage rather than on it. His writing had begun at...

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John Cunningham Bio

John Cunningham was an 18th century Scottish poet, actor and playwright, although he was actually born in Ireland, and lived most of his life in the north east of England.

He was born some time during the year 1729 in Dublin to parents of Scottish origins.  They had suffered a catastrophic swing in their social standing due to financial problems which resulted in bankruptcy.  John’s attendance at the Drogheda Grammar School had to be curtailed because of this but it did not seem to affect the boy’s ambitions to get into acting and writing.  As it turned out though he achieved much more success off stage rather than on it.

His writing had begun at the young age of 12 and he penned his first play five years later.  Love in a Mist was staged in Dublin and his talent took him to many other theatres across the north of England and Scotland, including Newcastle, York, Sunderland and Edinburgh, amongst others.  Although earning some kind of living treading the boards he was never truly suited to the actor’s life.  He had neither the stage presence or the voice to make a proper career of it.  He therefore continued to write, especially poetry, and became known as a poet in both Edinburgh and Newcastle.  He actually settled in that north eastern city and spent the rest of his life there.  While never becoming rich or famous he was well received in literary circles and made many friends including Thomas Slack, the man who ran the Newcastle Chronicle.  Slack invited his friend to contribute regular pieces to his newspaper.

Much of his poetry was of the pastoral variety, written in a simplistic yet pleasing style.  While some poets were passionate about their writing Cunningham wrote in quite an understated manner, but his work never suffered because of that.  One of his poems, The Sheep and the Bramble Bush, suggests a piece of work in this style and yet it has an underlying message for the human race as well.  While a sheep thinks he has found welcome shelter from the storm the consequences of his getting too close to the prickly bush are serious.  Men too should heed this tale – an apparently safe situation can leave you “fleeced to the skin”, much like his parents were some years before.  The poem is reproduced here:

Cunningham also wrote a number of pieces eulogising the local Newcastle brew.  There were many city beer brewers at that time and well off connoisseurs would often send their servants out to sample the wares, checking on the quality at different establishments, before venturing there themselves.  In the late 18th century it was common for inns to have in-house brewing facilities and only the best ones would be patronised by the better off clientele.

Cunningham’s literary output was not substantial.  He produced at least one collection of poems though, A Book of Poems being published in 1766.  He did not really need to earn much money from his writing as he led a simple life, often enjoying the hospitality from his wide circle of friends.  Of one of these, Mr Slack, he said:

He was still acting whenever he could and his final performance would be at Darlington on the 20th June 1773.  He fell ill shortly afterwards and returned to his lodgings in Newcastle but never recovered.

John Cunningham died on the 18th September 1773 at the age of 44.