This indefatigable pioneer of literature, to whose industry, accuracy, and attention, much information has been brought to light, whose diligence was equal to his veracity, and whose strict adherence to truth in all his researches might be held out to future biographers as an example worthy of imitation, was born in or about the year 1687. He was the natural son of Dr. William Oldys, Chancellor of Lincoln, Commissary of St. Catherine's, Official of St. Alban's, and Advocate in of the Admiralty, by a woman who was maintained by her keeper in a very penurious and private manner, and whose son, it is probable, had but little assistance in his education from parents so circumstanced.
Of the early part of his life little is known, except that he lost his parents soon, and, probably, was left to make his way in life unassisted by every thing but his own talents. Captain Grose says he soon squandered away a small patrimony, and afterwards became an attendant on Lord Oxford's Library, of which, after Wanley's death, in 1726, it may be conjectured, he had the principal care.
During this period he produced his most valuable works; and, while in this situation, had every opportunity of gratifying his passion for ancient and curious books. On the death of Lord Oxford, in 1741, his valuable library fell into the hands of Osborne the bookseller, who dispersed it by a Catalogue, in the formation of which Mr. Oldys was employed, as he was also in the selection made from the pamphlets, in a work in eight volumes 4to. entitled The Harleian Miscellany.
His circumstances through life seem to have been at the best times moderate, and often approaching to necessitous. At one period he was confined to the Fleet, during which he acquired a liking for the company he found there in so high a degree, that, to the end of his life, he used to spend his evenings at a house within the Rules, with persons who, though confined within a certain district, were exempted from actual imprisonment. The only post he ever held was that of Norry King of Arms, given him by the Duke of Norfolk, in return for the pleasure he had received from his Life of Sir Walter Raleigh.
The chief part of his subsistence was derived from the Booksellers, by whom he appears to have been constantly employed. He seems to have had but little classical learning, but his knowledge of English books has hardly been exceeded.
Captain Grose, who was acquainted with him, says he was a man of great good-nature, honour, and integrity, particularly in his character of an historian. "Nothing," adds he, "I firmly believe, would ever have biassed him to insert any fact in his writings he did not believe, or to suppress any he did. Of this delicacy he gave an instance at a time when he was in great distress. After his publication of the Life of Sir Walter Raleigh, some booksellers, thinking his name would sell a piece they were publishing, offered him a considerable sum to father it, which he rejected with the greatest indignation."
From the same authority we learn, that Mr. Oldys, in the latter part of his life, abandoned himself to drinking, and was almost continually in a state of intoxication. At the funeral of the Princess Caroline he was in such a situation as to be scarcely able to walk, and actually reeled about with a crown on a cushion, to the great scandal of his brethren. He is said also to have been much addicted to low company.
His excesses, however, seem not to have shortened his life, though they might render his old age unrespected; he died April 15, 1761, at the age of 74 years, and was buried the 15th following in the North aisle of the church of St. Bennet, Paul's Wharf, towards the upper end of the aisle. He left no will; and the property he possessed was barely sufficient to defray his debts and funeral expences: Administration therefore was claimed by, and granted to, a creditor, Dr. Taylor the Occulist, to whose family he was under obligations for acts of kindness to him beyond the loan of money for which he was indebted.
He appears to have been continually employed in some literary work or other, and the memory of them (as he seldom put his name to them) are probably lost. The following are the principal:
The Life of Sir Walter Raleigh, prefixed to an Edition of his History of the World. 2 Vols. fo. 1736.
Some Lives in the General Dictionary.
The Lives in the Biographia Britannica marked G.
The British Librarian. 8vo.
Introduction to Hayward's British Muse. 3 vols. 12mo. 1738.
The Life of Richard Carew the Cornish Antiquary.
The Life of Dr. Moffat, prefixed to Heath's Improvement. 12mo. 1746.
Dissertation on Pamphlets in Morgan's Phoenix Britannicus. 4to.
He was also for some time concerned in the publication of a weekly journal, under the name of Henry Stonecastle in Northumberland, parts of which have been collected into 4 Volumes, 12mo: but the most useful of his labours were his Collections for the lives of the English Eminent Men, which have been the source of insemination to late Biographers of various descriptions, and are still likely to be further useful, as some works intended for publication are proceeded on.