Joseph Ritson, Esq. a native of Stockton in Yorkshire, was for some time a Student in Gray's Inn, and Deputy High Bailiff of the Duchy of Lancaster. That he was a man of considerable research and acuteness, will appear from the following Letter to George Allan, Esq.
"Gray's Inn, Nov. 24, 1780.
I have just time to thank you for your valuable favour, which I have this moment received. I would not lose a minute to prevent, if possible, your having the trouble to copy the briefs. I am sorry I did not make myself properly understood, they are wholly and eternally at your service; and I shall feel much chagrin if my confused note should have occasioned you the least unnecessary inconvenience.
When I am a little more settled (having left Mr. Lloyd, and begun a little drawing business for myself), I shall bestow a few hours, now and then, upon the Villare in earnest. When I have next the honour to write to you, I shall take the liberty of laying my whole plan before you. In the mean time may I beg you, at your best leisure, to recollect the other favours I was free enough to request of you in the note I left, (I mean the two lists, of Knights and Sheriffs). — The inclosed Letter should have attended the briefs, &c. but was mislaid. — I happened to purchase Mr. Noble's book [Mark Noble on Coins] — is the name a real one, or is it only assumed in allusion to the subject? — I inclose you a note of some additions I have collected to Mr. Gough's book for Durham, which will not, I hope, prove unacceptable; — a Mr. Preswich of Lancashire, who seems to have been bit by a Herald, often desires to be remembered to your.
During my researches into the History of Hinckley, in the year 1781, I received from him the following friendly note:
"Mr. Ritson presents his compliments to Mr. Nichols; and returns the papers, with many thanks for his civility. If Mr. Nichols will visit the Duchy-office (and Mr. Ritson apprehends that either Mr. Russell, who is himself a member of the Society of Antiquaries, Mr. Villiers, the Clerk of the Council, or Lord Hawkesbury, will, upon application, grant him free access) he will find an immense quantity of important matter concerning Leicestershire, of which it is probable no one has yet made use. Besides the Great Cowcher of the Duchy, which has an alphabetical table of the names and places, there is a very good Index to the Inquisitions post mortem, an excellent Repertory, an accurate Index to the old Duchy Registers, (compiled by Mr. Topham), indexes of grants, leases, equity causes, and revenue proceedings, together with some useful miscellaneous collections called Great and Little Ayloffe. The Close and Patent Rolls, from the erection of the Duchy, down to Edward the Fourth's time, have unfortunately neither Calendar nor Index, though they most richly deserve one. If Mr. Ritson had been more in the habit of going to the Duchy-office, or possessed any particular right of access to the Records, he would have readily afforded Mr. Nichols any assistance in his power."
Mr. Ritson's principal publications were, Observations on the Three Volumes of Warton's History of English Poetry, 1783; one of the most illiberal productions ever seen. The next was, A Select Collection of English Songs, 1783, 3 vols. 8vo. He published also and wrote three sets of Remarks on the Editors of Shakspeare: 1. on Mr. Steevens's Edition, intituled, Remarks, Critical and Illustrative, on the Text and Notes of the last Edition of Shakspeare, 1784, 8vo; 2. on Mr. Reed's re-publication of that Edition, 1786, particularly illiberal; 3. Cursory Criticisms, &c. on Mr. Malone's Edition, 1790. A well-executed Translation, with Notes, of the Hymn to Venus, ascribed to Homer, 1788, 8vo. Antient Songs, from the Time of Henry II to the Revolution, 1792, 8vo. The English Anthology, a Selection of Poetry, in 3 volumes, 1792, 1793. Law Tract, 1794, 2 vols, 8vo. Scottish Songs, with the genuine Musick, 1794, 2 vols. 8vo. Robin Hood; a Collection of all the Antient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, now extant, relative to that celebrated Outlaw. To which are added, Historical Anecdotes of his Life, 1795, 2 vols. 8vo. Poems on interesting Events, in the Reign of King Edward III. written in the year 1352, by Lawrence Merick, with a Preface, Dissertation, Notes, and a Glossary, 1795, 3 vols, 8vo. Bibliographia Poetica; a Catalogue of English Poets of the Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Centuries; with a short Account of their Works, 1802, 8vo. His last and most extraordinary Work was An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, as a Moral Duty, 1803: the publication of which he scarcely survived, dying, in September of that year, in a madhouse, in a paroxysm of frenzy. Nearly all of Mr. Ritson's publications, it should be observed, are disfigured by an affectation of singularity in orthography. He had made some Collections towards a History of Stockton; and had prepared some materials for a "Villare" of the County of Durham; but died, in a deplorable state of mental derangement, in September 1803. See farther, p. 350.
The Library of this "redoubted champion of ancient lore, and anti-Wartonian Critic," was sold by Leigh and Sotheby, Dec. 5, 1808; and contained, amongst other curiosities, The Sevin Sages, &c. Edinburgh, 1578, 4to; of which no other copy is known to exist, (£31. 10s.) Also Bibliographia Scotica: Anecdotes biographical and literary of Scottish Writers, Historians, and Poets, from the earliest account to the Nineteenth Century, intended for publication (£45 3s.); and Shakspeare, by Johnson and Steevens, 8 vols. containing a great number of manuscript notes, corrections, &c. &c.; together with 3 volumes of manuscript notes by Mr. Ritson, prepared by him for the press, intending to publish it, (£100.) Dibdin's Bibliomania, p. 600.