William Oldys

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 23:334-39.

WILLIAM OLDYS, a bibliographer of great industry and accuracy, was born July 14, 1696. He was the natural son of Dr. William Oldys, chancellor of Lincoln, commissary of St. Catharine's, official of St. Alban's, and advocate 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.

This Mr. Oldys, who was connected with Dryden and others in a translation of Plutarch's lives, to which he contributed the life of Pompey, was advocate of the Admiralty to James II. and served king William in the same department, though he was not fully convinced of the validity of that prince's claim to the crown. When he was ordered, in 1693, to prosecute those deemed as pirates who had attacked the English ships by virtue of a commission from James, he refused to obey; alleging, when he was examined by a committee of the privy council, that they were not traitors or pirates, that they had only acted "animo hostili," not "animo furandi;" that, though James was supposed in England to have abdicated the throne, his authority was still believed to be legitimate by those who had followed him in his exile, as well as by the people of that country from which the commissions had issued; and that, even if his pretensions were false, a reputed power was equivalent to a real one, according to an established maxim "communis error facit jus." Sir John Trenchard, the secretary of state, declared, that these reasons amounted to high treason; but Dr. Oldys would not retract his opinion, in which sir Thomas Pynfold readily concurred. The doctors Littleton and Tindal, on the contrary, maintained that James had no right to grant such commissions, and that all who acted under them were pirates. Oldys was now deprived of his office, which was given to Littleton, and some of the prisoners were condemned and executed. Though not a favourite at court, Dr. Oldys continued to practice as an advocate with great reputation and success, until his death in 1708. As a scholar, he was respectable; as a civilian, he was learned; as a pleader, eloquent and judicious.

Of the early part of his son's 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 felt 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. In compiling the catalogue, it is supposed he proceeded only to the end of the second volume. Dr. Johnson was afterwards employed.

His circumstances through life seem to have been at the best times moderate, and often approaching to necessitous. At one period, which, sir John Hawkins says, was while he was employed on Osborne's catalogue, he was confined in the Fleet-prison, and acquired such a liking for the company be found there, that to the end of his life, he used to spend his evenings in 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 Norroy 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, which is undoubtedly his best biographical work. 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, and his style is very uncouth, 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 sixty-five, and was buried the 19th 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 oculist, to whose family he was under obligations for acts of kindness to him beyond the loan of the money for which he was indebted.

Of the writings of Mr. Oldys, some of which were anonymous, the following account is probably very imperfect: 1. In the British Museum is Oldys's copy of Langbaine's Lives, &c. not interleaved, but filled with notes written in the margin, and between the lines, in an extremely small hand. It came to the Museum as a part of the library of Dr. Birch, who bought it at an auction of Oldys's books and papers for one guinea. Transcripts of this have been made by various literary gentlemen. 2. Mr. Gough, in the first volume of his British Topography, p. 567, tells us, that he had "been favoured, by George Steevens, esq. with the use of a thick folio of titles of books and pamphlets relative to London, and occasionally to Westminster and Middlesex, from 1521 to 1758, collected by the late Mr. Oldys, with many others added, as it seems, in another hand. Among them," he adds, "are many purely historical, and many of too low a kind to rank under the head of topography or history. The rest, which are very numerous, I have inserted, marked O, with corrections, &c. of those I had myself collected. Mr. Steevens purchased this MS. of T. Davies, who bought Mr. Oldys's library. It had been in the hands of Dr. Berkenhout, who had a design of publishing an English Topographer, and may possibly have inserted the articles in a different hand. It afterwards became the property of sir John Hawkins." 3. The British Librarian, exhibiting a compendious Review of all unpublished and valuable books, in all sciences, which was printed without his name, in 1737, 8vo, and after having been long neglected and sold at a low price, is now valued as a work of such accuracy and utility deserves. 4. A Life of sir Walter Raleigh, prefixed to his History of the World, in folio. 5. Introduction to Hayward's British Muse (1738); of which he says, "that the penurious publishers, to contract it within sheet, left out a third part of the best matter in it, and made more faults than were in the original." In this he was assisted by Dr. Campbell. 6. His Observations on the Cure of William Taylor, the blind boy at Ightham, in Kent, by John Taylor, jun. oculist, 1753, 8vo. The title of the pamphlet here alluded to was, Observations on the Cure of William Taylor, the blind Boy, of Ightham, in Kent, who, being born with cataracts in both eyes, was at eight years of age brought to sight on the 8th of October, 1751, by Mr. John Taylor, jun. oculist, in Hatton-garden; containing his strange notions of objects upon the first enjoyment of his new sense; also, some attestations thereof; in a letter written by his father, Mr. William Taylor, farmer, in the same parish: interspersed with several curious examples, and remarks, historical and philosophical, thereupon. Dedicated to Dr. Monsey, physician to the Royal hospital at Chelsea. Also, some address to the public, for a contribution towards the foundation of an hospital for the blind, already begun by some noble personages, 8vo. 7. Various lives in the Biographia Britannica, with the signature G, the initial letter of Gray's-inn, where he formerly lived. He mentions, in his notes on Langbaine, his life of sir George Etherege, of Caxton, of Thomas May, and of Edward Alleyn, inserted in that work. He composed the Life of Atherton; which, if it ever deserved to have had a place in that work, ought not to have been removed from it any more than the Life of Eugene Aram, which is inserted in the second edition. That the publishers of the second edition meant no indignity to Oldys, by their leaving out his Life of Atherton, appears from their having transcribed into their work a much superior quantity of his writings, consisting of notes and extracts from printed books, styled "Oldys's MSS." Of these papers no other account is given than that "they are a large and useful body of biographical materials," but we may infer, from the known industry and narrow circumstances of the writer, that, if they had been in any degree prepared for public consideration, they would not have so long lain dormant. 8. At the importunity of Curll, he gave him a sketch of the life of Nell Gwin, to help out his History of the Stage. 9. He was concerned with Des Maizeaux in writing the Life of Mr. Richard Carew, the antiquary of Cornwall, in 1722. 10. Observations, Historical and Critical, on the Catalogue of English Lives. Whether this was ever printed we know not. 11. Tables of the eminent persons celebrated by English Poets. This he seems to quote in a manuscript note on Langbaine, but it does not appear to have been printed. 12. He mentions, ibidem, the first volume of his Poetical Characteristics, on which we may make the same remark. If these two works continued in MS. during his life-time, it is probable that they were not finished for publication, or that no bookseller would buy them. 13. Oldys seems to have been concerned likewise as a writer in the General Dictionary, for he mentions his having been the author of The Life of sir John Talbot, in that work; and in Birch's MSS. is a receipt from him for 1. 5s. for writing the article of Fastolf. 14. He mentions likewise, in his notes on Langbaine, that he was the author of a pamphlet against Toland, called No blind Guides. 15. He says, ibidem, that he communicated many things to Mrs. Cooper, which she published in her Muse's Library. 16. In 1746 was published, in 12mo, Health's Improvement; or, Rules comprising the nature, method, and manner, of preparing foods used in this nation. Written by that ever famous Thomas Moffett, doctor in physic; corrected and enlarged by Christopher Bennet, doctor in physic, and fellow of the College of Physicians in London. To which is now prefixed, a short View of the Author's Life and Writings, by Mr. Oldys; and an Introduction by R. James, M.D. 17. In the first volume of British Topography, page 31, mention is made of a translation of Camden's Britannia, in 2 vols. 4to, "by W. O. esq." which Mr. Gough, with great probability, ascribes to Mr. Oldys. 18. Among the MSS. in the British Museum, described in Mr. Ayscough's Catalogue, we find p. 24, Some Considerations upon the publication of sir Thomas Roe's Epistolary Collections, supposed to be written by Mr. Oldys, and by him tendered to Sam. Boroughs, esq. with proposals, and some notes of Dr. Birch. 19. In p. 736, Memoirs of the family of Oldys. 20. In p. 741, Two small pocket books of short Biographical Anecdotes of many Persons, and"some Fragments of Poetry, perhaps collected by Mr. Oldys? 21. In p. 750. and p. 780, are two MS letters "of Mr. Oldys," 1735 and 1751. 22. It is said, in a MS paper, by Dr. Ducarel, who knew him well, that Oldys had by him, at the time of his death, some collections towards a Life of Shakspeare, but not digested into any order, as he told the doctor a few days before he died. 23. On the same authority he is said to be a writer in, or the writer of, The Scarborough Miscellany, 1732 and 1734. 24. The Universal Spectator, of which he was some time the publisher, was a newspaper, a weekly journal, said, on the top of the paper, which appeared originally in single sheets, to be "by Henry Stonecastle, in Northumberland," 1730-1732. It was afterwards collected into two volumes 8vo; to which a third and fourth were added in 1747. In one of his MSS. we find the following well-turned anagram:

W. O.
In word and WILL I AM a friend to you,
And one friend OLD IS worth an hundred new.