1800 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Birch

Anonymous, "Life of Thomas Birch" Universal Magazine 106 (April 1800) 249-54.



This very distinguished character in the republic of letters, was born in the parish of St. John's, Clerkenwell, on the 23d of November 1705. His parents were both of them Quakers, and his father, Joseph Birch, was a coffee-millmaker by trade. Mr. Joseph Birch endeavoured to bring up his son Thomas to his own business: but so ardent was the youth's passion for reading, that he solicited his father to be indulged in this inclination, promising, in that case, to provide for himself. The first school he went to was at Hemel-hempsted, in Hertfordshire. It was kept by John Owen, a rigid Quaker, for whom Mr. Birch afterward officiated, some little while, as an usher. The next school in which he received his education was taught by one Welby, who lived near Turnbull-street, Clerkenwell. This Welby never had above eight or ten scholars at a time, whom he professed to instruct in the Latin tongue, in the short space of a year and a half. To him Mr. Birch was likewise an usher; as he also afterward was to Mr. Besse, the famous Quaker, in George's-court, near St. John's-lane, who published, the posthumous Works of Claridge. It is further said, that he went to Ireland with dean Smedley; but in what year he passed over to that country, and how long he resided with the dean, cannot now be ascertained. In his removal, as an usher, he always took care to get into a still better school, and where he might have the greatest opportunity of studying the most valuable books. He was indefatigable in his application, and stole many hours from sleep to increase his stock of knowledge. By this unremitting diligence, though he had not the happiness of an university education, he soon became qualified to take holy orders in the church of England; and as his early connections were of a different kind, his being ordained was a matter of no small surprise to his old acquaintance. We do not precisely know when this event took place; but it must have been as early as 1728. In the same year, he married the daughter of one Mr. Cox, a clergyman to whom he was curate; and in this union he was singularly happy: but his felicity was of a short duration, Mrs. Birch dying in less than twelve months after their marriage. The disorder which carried her off was a puerperal fever, and almost in the very article of her death, she wrote to her husband the following short, but affecting letter:

"This day I return you, my dearest life, my sincere, hearty thanks, for every favour beloved on your most faithful and obedient wife.
HANNAH BIRCH.
July 31, 1729."

How much Mr. Birch was affected by this calamity, appears from a copy of verses written by him, August 3, 1729, on his wife's coffin. That Mrs. Birch was a woman of very amiable accomplishments, is not only evident from what is said in those verses, but from two Latin epitaphs drawn up for her; one by her husband, and the other by Dr. Dale, which last was translated into English by Mr. James Ralph. In both these epitaphs, she is celebrated as having possessed an uncommon share of know]edge and taste, as well as the most excellent moral virtues.

From the time of his wife's death, in the year 1732, till the year 1737 we learn nothing of Mr. Birch, excepting that, during this interval, he had been recommended by a common friend, to the friendship and favour of the late lord high chancellor Hardwicke, then attorney-general; to which noble peer, and to the present earl of Hardwicke, he was indebted for all his preferments. The first proof he experienced of his patron's regard, was his being recommended to the living of Ulting, in the county of Essex. To this living he was instituted by Dr. Gibson, bishop of London, on the 20th of May, and he took possession of it on the day following. In 1734, he was appointed one of the domestic chaplains to William earl of Kilmarnock, the unfortunate nobleman who was afterward beheaded, on the 18th of August 1746, for having been engaged in the rebellion, which began in 1745. The earl of Kilmarnock was, we believe, in more early life, understood to be a whig; and under no other character could Mr. Birch have been introduced to his lordship's notice. On the 20th of February 1734-5, Mr. Birch had the honour of being chosen a member of the Royal Society, sir Hans Sloane taking a leading part in the election. The same honour was done him on the 11th of December 1735, by the Society of Antiquaries; of which society he afterward became a director. A few weeks before he was chosen into the Antiquarian Society, the Marischal College of Aberdeen had conferred on him, by diploma, the degree of Master of Arts. In the spring of the year 1743, by the favour of his noble patron before-mentioned, he received a more substantial benefit; being presented by the crown to the rectory of Landewy Welfrey, in the county of Pembrok. To this benefice, which was a sinecure, he was instituted on the 7th of May, by Dr. Edward Willes, bishop of St. David's.

In January 1743-4, Mr. Birch was preferred, in the same manner, to the rectory of Sidington St. Peter's, in the county and diocese of Gloucester. We find no traces of his having taken possession of this living; and, indeed, it is probable that he quitted it immediately, for one that was more suitable to his inclinations, and to his literary engagements, which required his almost constant residence in town; for on the 24th of February 1745-4, he was instituted to the rectories of St. Michael, Wood-street, and St. Mary, Staining, united.

His next preferment was likewise in the city of London; being to the united rectories of St. Margaret Pattens, and St. Gabriel, Fenchurch. To this benefice, he was presented in the beginning of February 1745-6, and received institution to it on the 13th of that month. In January 1752, he was elected one of the secretaries of the Royal Society, in the room of Dr. Cromwell Mortimer, deceased. In January 1753, the Marischal college of Aberdeen created him Doctor of Divinity; and in that year, the same honour was conferred on him by that excellent prelate, Dr. Thomas Herring, archbishop of Canterbury. Our author was also a trustee of the British Museum. The last preferment given to Dr. Birch, was the rectory of Depden, in Essex; for which he was indebted to the present earl of Hardwicke. Depden itself, indeed, was in the patronage of the late opulent and unfortunate Mr. Chiswell's family, and in the possession of the reverend Dr. Cock. But the benefice in lord Hardwicke's gift, being at too great a distance from town, to be legally held by Dr. Birch, he obtained an exchange with Dr. Cock. Dr. Birch was instituted to Depden by the late eminent bishop Sherlock, on the 25th of February 1761; and he continued possessed of this preferment, together with the united rectories of St. Margaret Pattens, and St. Gabriel Fenchurch, till his decease. In 1765, he resigned his office of secretary to the Royal Society, and was succeeded by Dr. Morton.

Dr. Birch's health declining about this time, he was ordered to ride for the recovery of it; but being a bad horseman, and going out, contrary to advice, on a frosty day, he was unfortunately thrown from his horse, on the road between London and Hampstead, and killed on the spot. Dr. William Watson, of Lincoln's-in-fields, as soon as he heard of the accident of the fall, hastened to the relief of his friend, but in vain. It is not known whether Dr. Birch's fall might not have been occasioned by an apoplexy. This melancholy event happened on the 9th of January 1766, in the sixty-first year of his age, to the great regret of the doctor's numerous literary friends. Some days after his death, he was buried in the chancel of his own church of St. Margaret Pattens. Dr. Birch had, in his life-time, been very generous to his relations; and none that were near to him being living at his decease, he bequeathed his library of books and manuscripts, many of which are valuable, to the British Museum. He likewise left the remainder of his fortune, which amounted to not much more than five hundred pounds, to be laid out in government securities, for the purpose of applying the interest to increase the stipend of the three assistant librarians. Thus manifesting at his death, as he had done during his whole life, his respect for literature, and his desire to promote useful knowledge.

Having related the more personal and private circumstances of Dr. Birch's history, we proceed to his various publications. The first great work he engaged in was the General Dictionary, Historical and Critical, wherein a new translation of that of the celebrated Mr. Bayle was included; and which was interspersed with several thousand lives never before published. It was on the 29th of April 1734, that Dr. Birch, in conjunction with the rev. Mr. John Peter Bernard, and Mr. John Lockman, agreed with the booksellers to carry on this important undertaking; and Mr. George Sale was employed to draw up the articles relating to Oriental history. The whole design was completed in ten volumes folio; the first of which appeared in 1734, and the last in 1741. It is universally allowed, that this work contains a very extensive and useful body of biographical knowledge. We are not told what were the particular articles written by Dr. Birch; but there is no doubt of his having executed a great part of the dictionary: neither is it, we suppose, any disparagement to his coadjutors, to say that he was superior to them in abilities and reputation. However, in this observation, we except Mr. George Sale, who was, without controversy, eminently qualified for the department he had undertaken. The next great design in which Dr. Birch engaged, was the publication of Thurloe's State-papers. This collection, which comprized seven volumes in folio, came out in 1742. It is dedicated to the late lord chancellor Hardwicke, and there is prefixed to it a life of Thurloe; but whether it was written or not by our author, does not appear. The same life had been separately published not long before. The letters and papers in this collection throw the greatest light on the period to which they relate, and are accompanied with proper references, and a complete index to each volume. In 1744, Dr. Birch published, in octavo, a Life of the honourable Robert Boyle, esq. which has since been prefixed to the quarto edition of the works of that excellent and eminent philosopher. In the same year, our author began his assistance to Mr. Houbraken and Mr. Vertue, in their design of publishing, in folio, the heads of illustrious persons of Great Britain, engraved by those two artists, but chiefly by Houbraken. To each head was annexed, by Dr. Birch, a brief life and character of the person represented. The first volume of this work, which came out in numbers, was completed in 1747, and the second in 1752. Our author's concern for this undertaking did not hinder his prosecuting, at the same time, other historical disquisitions; for in 1747, appeared, in octavo, His Enquiry into the Share which Charles the First had in the Transactions of the Earl of Glamorgan. A second edition of the Enquiry was published in 1756, and it was a work which excited no small degree of attention. In 1748, Dr. Birch was the editor, in two volumes, octavo, of the miscellaneous works of sir Walter Raleigh; to which was prefixed the life of that great, unfortunate, and injured man. The next publication we meet with of our author is, An Historical View of the Negotiations between the Courts of England, France, and Brussels, from the Year 1592 to 1617; extracted chiefly from the MS. State Papers of sir Thomas Edmondes, knight, ambassador in France, and at Brussels, and treasurer of the household to the Kings, James I, and Charles I, and of Anthony Bacon, esq. brother to the lord chancellor Bacon. To which is added, a Relation of the State of France, with the Character of Henry IV, and the principal Persons of the Court, drawn up by sir George Carew, upon his return from his Embassy there in 1609, and addressed to king James I, never before printed. This work, which consists of one volume in 8vo, appeared in 1749; and, in an introductory discourse to the honourable Philip Yorke, esq. (the present earl of Hardwicke) Dr. Birch makes some reflections on the utility of deducing history from its only true and unerring sources; the original letters and papers of those eminent men, who were the principal actors in the administration of affairs; after which he gives some account of the lives of sir Thomas Edmondes, sir George Carew, and Mr. Anthony Bacon. The Historical View, is undoubtedly a valuable performance, and has brought to light a variety of particulars relative to the subjects and the period treated of, which before were either not at all, or not so fully known. In 1752, was published, by our author, an edition, in two volumes, octavo, of the theological, moral, dramatic, and poetical works of Mrs. Catherine Cockburn; with an account of the Life of that very ingenious lady. In the next year came out his Life of archbishop Tillotson. A second edition corrected and enlarged, appeared in 1753. This work, which was dedicated to archbishop Herring, is one of the most pleasing and popular of Dr. Birch's performances; and he has done great justice to Dr. Tillotson's memory, character, and virtues. Our biographer has likewise intermixed with his narrative of the good prelate's transactions, short accounts of the persons occasionally mentioned; a method which he has pursued in some of his other publications. In 1753, he revised the quarto edition, in two vols. of Milton's Prose Works, and added a new Life, of that great Poet and Writer. Dr. Birch gave to the world, in the following year, his Memoirs of the reign of queen Elizabeth, from the year 1581, till her death. In which the secret intrigues of her court, and the conduct of her favourite, Robert earl of Essex, both at home and abroad, are particularly illustrated, from the original papers of his intimate friend, Anthony Bacon, esq. and other Manuscripts, never before published. These memoirs, which are inscribed to the doctor's great friend, the present earl of Hardwicke, give a minute account of the letters and materials from which they are taken; and the whole work undoubtedly forms a very valuable collection; wherein our author has shewn himself (as in his other writings) as a faithful and accurate compiler; and in which, beside a full display of the temper and actions of the earl of Essex, much light is thrown on the characters of the Cecils, Bacons, and many eminent persons of that period. Dr. Birch's next publication was, The History of the Royal Society of London, for improving of natural Knowledge, from its first rise. In which the most considerable of these papers, communicated to the Society, which have not hitherto been published, are inserted in their proper Order, as a Supplement to the Philosophical Transactions. The two first volumes of this performance, which was dedicated to his late majesty, appeared in 1756, and the other two volumes in 1757. The history is carried on to the end of the year 1687; and if the work had been continued, and had been conducted with the same extent and minuteness, it would have been a very voluminous undertaking. But, though it may, perhaps, be justly blamed in this respect, it certainly contains many curious and entertaining anecdotes concerning the manner of the society's proceedings at their first establishment; and has presented to the public a variety of valuable communications. It is enriched, likewise, with a number of personal circumstances relative to the members, and with biographical accounts of such of the more considerable of them as died in the course of each year.

In 1760, came out, in one volume octavo, our author's Life of Henry prince of Wales, eldest son of king James I. compiled chiefly from his own papers, and other manuscripts, never before published. It is dedicated to his present majesty, then prince of Wales. Some have objected to this work; that it abounds too much with trifling details, and that Dr. Birch has not given sufficient scope to such reflections and disquisition as arose from his subject. It must, nevertheless, be acknowledged, that it affords a more exact and copious account than had hitherto appeared of a prince whose memory has always been popular; and that various facts, respecting several of the eminent characters, are occasionally introduced. The last publication of our diligent searcher into the history and biography of his native country, was, Letters Speeches, Charges, Advices, &c. of Francis Bacon, lord viscount St. Alban, lord chancellor of England. This collection, which is comprized in one volume octavo, and is dedicated to the honourable Charles Yorke, esq. appeared in 1763. It is taken from some papers which had been originally in the possession of Dr. Rawley, lord Bacon's chaplain, whose executor, Mr. John Rawley, having put them into the hands of Dr. Tenison, they were, at length, deposited in the manuscript library at Lambeth. Dr. Birch, speaking of these papers of lord Bacon, says, that it can scarcely be imagined, but that the bringing to light, from obscurity and oblivion, the remains of so eminent a person, will be thought an acquisition not inferior to the discovery (if the ruins of Herculaneum should afford such a treasure) of a new set of the epistles of Cicero, whom our immortal countryman most remarkably resembled as an orator, a philosopher, a writer, a lawyer, and a statesman. Though this, perhaps, is speaking too highly of a collection, which contains many things in it seemingly not very material, it must, at the same time, be allowed, that nothing can be totally uninteresting which relates to so illustrious a man, or tends, in any degree, to give a further insight into his character. These are all the separate publications of Dr. Birch that have come to our knowledge, excepting a Sermon on the Proof of the Wisdom and Goodness of God, from the Frame and Constitution of Man, preached before the College of Physicians, in 1749, in consequence of lady Sadlier's will: to which we may add that he revised new editions of Bacon's, Boyle's, and Tillotson's works. The lives of Boyle and Tillotson, though printed by themselves, were drawn up partly, with a view to their being prefixed to these great men's writings.

It would swell this article too much, were we to enter into a detail of our author's communications to the Royal Society, and of the papers transmitted by him to that illustrious body. For these it must suffice to refer to the Philosophical Transactions. Whoever looks into his history of the early proceedings of the society, will have no doubt of the assiduity and diligence with which he discharged his peculiar duty as secretary. But there is nothing that sets Dr. Birch's industry in a more striking light than the vast number of transcripts which he made with his own hands. Among these, not to mention many other instances, there are no less than sixteen volumes in quarto, of Anthony Bacon's papers, transcribed from the Lambeth library; and eight more volumes of the same size, relative to history and literature. Our author's correspondence, by letters, was, likewise, very large and extensive; of which numerous proofs occur In the British Museum. What enabled Dr. Birch to go through such variety of undertakings, was his being a very early riser. By this method he had executed the business of the morning before numbers of people had begun it; and, indeed, it is the peculiar advantage of rising betimes, that it is not in the power of any interruptions, avocations, or engagements whatever, to deprive a man of the hours which have already been well employed, or to rob him of the consolation of reflecting that he has not spent the day in vain. With all this closeness of application, Dr. Birch was not a solitary recluse. He was of a cheerful and social temper, and entered much into conversation with the world. He was personally connected with most of the literary men of his time, and with some of them he maintained an intimate friendship. When we mention among these, sir Hans Sloane, Dr. Mead, Dr. Salter, Mr. Jortin, and Dr. Maty; Daniel Wray, esq. Dr. Morton, Dr. Ducarel, and Dr. William Watson, we would not be understood to exclude others, who may, perhaps, be equally entitled to notice. With regard to the great, though he stood well with many of them, his chief connection was with the late and present earl of Hardwicke, and with the rest of the branches of that noble and respectable family. In his manner, Dr. Birch was simple and unaffected, and his disposition was truly obliging and benevolent. No one was more ready to assist his fellow creatures, or entered more ardently into useful and laudable undertakings. He was particularly active in the society for promoting literature by the printing of books, in which we are indebted for the publication of Tanner's Bibliotheca Britannica-Hibernica, and some few other valuable works. In short, Dr. Birch was entitled to the highest praise of being a good man, as well as a man of knowledge and learning. His sentiments with respect to subjects of divinity were rational and enlarged, and he was a zealous friend to religious and civil liberty. His turn of thinking was similar to that of the late bishop Hoadly.

We have seen that it has been objected to Dr. Birch, that he was sometimes too minute in his publications, and that he did not exercise, with due severity, the power of selection. The charge must be confessed not to be totally groundless. But it may be alleged in our author's favour, that a man who his a deep and extensive acquaintance with a subject, often sees a connection and importance in some smaller circumstances, which may not immediately be discerned by others; and, on that account, may have reasons for inserting them, that will escape the notice of superficial minds.