WILLIAM DUNCOMBE, an ingenious poetical and miscellaneous writer, youngest son of John Duncombe, esq. of Stocks, in the parish of Aldbury, Hertfordshire, and Hannah his wife, was born, at his father's house in Hatton-garden, London, Jan. 9, 1689-90; and owed his Christian name to the Revolution principles of his father and family. On the same principles, his father in 1693 put his life into the Tontine, or annuities increasing, by survivorship, subscribing £100 on it, for which £10 a year was paid immediately, and from which, in the course of his long life, Mr. Duncombe received some thousands.
Mr. Duncombe was educated in two private seminaries: at Cheney, Bucks, and afterwards at Pinner, near Harrow-on-the Hill, Middlesex, under the tuition of Mr. Thomas Goodwin. In December 1706, he was entered as a clerk in the Navy-office, and was advanced to a higher salary in January 1707-8. So early as 1715, we find a translation by him of the Twenty-ninth ode of the First Book of Horace, in the collection commonly known by the name of "The Wits' Horace." About this time Mr. Duncombe was introduced by Mr. Jabez Hughes to his brother John, author of The Siege of Damascus, and also to his sister (afterwards Mrs. Duncombe), who was a woman of excellent sense and temper. His translation of the Carmen Seculare of Horace was printed in folio in 1721, and was collected in 1731 in Concanen's Miscellany, entitled The Flower-piece. This was followed in 1722, by a translation of the Tragedy of Athaliah by Racine, which was published by subscription, and has gone through three editions. Having contracted an intimacy at the Navy-office with Mr. Henry Needler, a gentleman endued with a like taste, Mr. Duncombe, by supplying him with proper books, enabled him to gratify his ardent thirst for knowledge; and, on his early death, hastened by his intense application, in 1718, discharged the debt of friendship by collecting and publishing his Original Poems, Translations, Essays, and Letters, 1724, 8vo, of which there have been three editions.
December 3, 1725, Mr. Duncombe quitted his place at the Navy-office; and spent the remainder of a long and happy life, among his friends and his books, in literary leisure. Having a share in the Whitehall Evening Post, several of his fugitive pieces appeared occasionally in that paper; in particular, a translation of Buchanan's Verses on Valentine's Day; Verses on Euryalus (Mr. John Carleton) on his coming of age; The Choice of Hercules, from Xenophon (for which there was such a demand, that the paper was in a few days out of print); and A Defence of some passages in Paradise Lost, from the hypercriticism of M. de Voltaire. About the same time, numberless errors in a new edition of Chillingworth were pointed out by him; and Translations of the Letters between Archbishop Fenelon and M. de la Motte, since republished in the appendix to Abp. Herring's Letters, and of the Adventures of Melesickton, and other fables from Fenelon, were published in the London Journal.
In the Lottery of 1723, a ticket which Mr. Duncombe had, in partnership with Elizabeth sister of his friend Mr. John Hughes, was drawn a prize of £1000; a circumstance which probably hastened his marriage with that amiable lady, which took place Sept. 1, 1726, on which he removed to her mother's house in Red-Lion-street, Holborn.
In 1728, a letter from Mr. Duncombe, signed Philopropos, was printed in the London Journal of March 30, containing some animadversions on The Beggar's Opera then exhibiting with great applause at Lincoln's-Inn Theatre, shewing its pernicious consequences to the practice of morality and Christian virtue. And the same popular entertainment having been soon after most seasonably condemned in a Sermon preached at Lincoln's-Inn Chapel by Dr. Herring (afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury), of whom Mr. Duncombe was a constant auditor, in a subsequent letter on the same subject in the London Journal of April 20, subscribed Benlevolus, he paid a just compliment to the "clear reasoning, good sense, and manly rhetoric, the judicious criticism, as well as the Christian oratory," these displayed. This introduced him to the acquaintance and friendship of that very excellent Divine, which continued without interruption till his Grace's death, in March 1757; this favour being gratefully acknowledged by him "as one of the most generous and disinterested offers of friendship which he ever received from any one since he was acquainted with the world." In August of the same year, Mr. Duncombe published (without a name) Remarks on Mr. Tindal's Translation of M. de Rapin Thoyras's History of England, in a letter to S. T. [Sigismund Trafford,] esq., criticising Tindal's style, which is certainly none of the best.
In the summer of 1732, Mr. Duncombe's Tragedy of Lucius Junius Brutus was read and approved by his friend Mr. Mills senior, and by him introduced to the Theatrical Triumvirate, Booth, Cibber, and Wilks, who also approved it, and promised it should be performed. Booth regretted he could not act in it; and Wilks undertook the part of Titus. Unfortunately he died in September following; and the revolt of the Players, with the confusion that ensued, prevented its being brought on the stage till two years after, when Mr. Duncombe, unadvisedly, consented to Mr. Fleetwood's proposal of bringing it out at Drury-lane in November, when the Town was empty, the Parliament not sitting, and Farinelli, the singer, highly popular at the Haymarket. The consequence was natural and obvious. "The quavering Italian eunuch (to use the Author's own words) proved too powerful for the rigid Roman Consul." Yet it was acted six nights with applause, and repeated in February following, and at the same time was printed in 8vo, with a dedication to Lord Chief Justice Hardwicke. A second edition, with a translation of M. de Voltaire's Essay on Tragedy prefixed, was published in 1747.
In April 1735, Mr. Duncombe published, by subscription, in two volumes 12mo, the Poems, &c. of his deceased brother-in-law, John Hughes, esq. which were received by his friends and the publick with the esteem due to Hughes's merit. In the January following Mr. Duncombe's domestic happiness received a severe shock by the death of his wife, which happened at Spring Grove, Middlesex, the seat of his first cousin Mrs. Otley.
In 1737 he collected and published, in one volume 8vo, the Miscellanies in Verse and Prose of Mr. Jabez Hughes, for the benefit of his widow, but the dedication (in her name) to the Duchess of Bedford, was drawn up by the Rev. Mr. Copping, Dean of Clogher. In 1743, on the death of his learned friend Mr. Samuel Say, a Dissenting minister in Westminster, Mr. Duncombe undertook, for the benefit of his widow and daughter, to revise and prepare for the press some of his poems, and two prose essays.
In 1744, The Siege of Damascus, and some other moral plays, having been acted by several persons of distinction for their amusement, Mr. Duncombe was induced to publish An Oration on the Usefulness of Dramatic Interludes in the Education of Youth, translated from the Latin of M. Werenfels, by whom it was spoken before the Masters and Scholars of the University of Basil.
On the breaking-out of the Rebellion in 1745, Mr. Duncombe endeavoured to second his honoured friend, Dr. Herring, then Abp. of York, by reprinting a Sermon supposed to be "preached to the People at the Mercat-cross of Edinburgh, on the Subject of the Union, in 1706," and to the Sermon prefixed a Preface, without his name, setting forth the advantages that have accrued to the Kingdom of Scotland by its Union with England. About the same time he also printed, with a Preface, The complicated Guilt of the Rebellion, which had been written by Mr. Hughes in 1716, but was then suppressed, as the insurrection it related to was soon after quelled: this tract was judged by Mr. Duncombe to be equally applicable to the transactions of 1745.
In the summer of 1749, being with his relation Mr. Brooke at York, Mr. Duncombe was accidentally instrumental to the detection of Archibald Bower, by transmitting to Abp. Herring an account of that Adventurer's escape from the Inquisition, taken by memory from his own mouth, which being published the year following by Mr. Barron, a Dissenting minister, was disavowed by Bower; though, when called upon, the mistakes which he was able to specify were found to be few and trifling. This was the first impeachment of his integrity, and exposed him to the attacks of Dr. Douglas, who had before detected Lauder.
To the periodical publication called The World, Mr. Duncombe contributed one paper, No. 84, Prosperity and Adversity, an Allegory.
In 1753, he commenced an acquaintance, which soon ripened into a friendship, with John Earl of Orrery (soon after Earl of Corke). This connexion was productive of much pleasure and emolument to them both, and in some degree also to the publick, his Lordship's Letters to Mr. Duncombe from Italy having since appeared in print.
In 1754, Mr. Duncombe drew up Remarks on Lord Bolingbroke's Notion of a God, with some occasional notes; to which he annexed a translation from Cicero, De Natura Deorum, of the arguments of Q. Lucilius Balbus, the Stoic, in proof of the being, and of the wisdom, power, and goodness, of God. These were read and approved by the Archbishop, and others of the Author's friends but were not published till 1763, when he allowed the late Dr. Dodd to insert them in The Christian's Magazine. They have since been collected in the Appendix to Abp. Herring's Letters. Horace having always been Mr. Duncombe's favourite Author, he had amused himself for more than thirty years, at different times, with translating several of his Odes, but without any intention of publishing them, or of giving a version of the whole to the world, till his Son offered his assistance for completing the work; and undertook some of the Odes and Satires, all the Epodes, and the first Book of Epistles; and added several imitations, from Sanadon, Dacier, &c. Mr. Duncombe compiled notes to the whole, and published one volume 8vo, in 1757, and the second in 1759. Another edition, in four volumes, 12mo, with several additional imitations, appeared in 1764. On the death of his excellent friend Abp. Herring, Mr. Duncombe, as a token of his gratitude and affection, collected, in one volume 8vo. the Seven Sermons on Public Occasions, which his Grace had separately printed in his life-time, and prefixed to them some Memoirs of his Life. This was his last publication.
With a constitution naturally weak and tender, by constant regularity, and an habitual sweetness and evenness of temper, his life was prolonged to the advanced age of 79; when, without any previous painful illness, he died Feb. 13, 1769, esteemed, beloved, and regretted by all who knew him. He was interred, near the remains of his wife, in the burying-place of his family, at Aldbury, Herts.