Rev. Thomas Birch

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 5:279-90.

THOMAS BIRCH, a late valuable historical and biographical writer, 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-mill maker 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 his inclination, promising, in that case, to provide for himself. The first school he went to was at Hemel-hempsted in Hertfordshire, kept by John Owen, a rigid quaker, for whom Mr. Birch afterwards officiated, some little while, as an usher, but at present he made very little progress. The next school in which he received his education was taught by one Welby, who lived near Turnbull-street, Clerkenwell, a man who 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, and had great success with Mr. Birch, who afterwards lived with him as an usher; as he also afterwards 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 farther 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 removals 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, in which he was indefatigable, 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. In 1728, he married the daughter of one Mr. Cox, a clergyman to whom he was afterwards 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 consumption accelerated by childbearing, and almost in the very article of her death she wrote to her husband the following letter:

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

How much Mr. Birch was affected by this calamity appears from some verses written by him, August 3d, 1729, on his wife's coffin, and inserted in Mrs. Rowe's Miscellaneous Works. That Mrs. Birch was a woman of very amiable accomplishments, is not only evident from the verses now mentioned, 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 knowledge and taste, and many virtues. After this melancholy event, he was ordained deacon by the bishop of Salisbury, Dr. Hoadly, Jan. 17, 1730, and priest by the same prelate, Dec. 21, 1731, and at the same time was presented to the rectory of Siddington St. Mary, and the vicarage of Siddington St. Peter, in Gloucestershire. He had been recommended, by a common friend, to the friendship and favour of the late lord high chancellor Hardwicke, then attorney-general; to whom, and to the late earl of Hardwicke, he was indebted for all his preferments. The chancellor gave him the living of Ulting in the county of Essex, to which 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 afterwards beheaded, on the 18th of August, 1746, for having been engaged in the rebellion of 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 he afterwards became director. A few weeks before he was chosen into the latter, the Marischal college of Aberdeen had conferred on him, by diploma, the degree of master of arts. In the Spring of 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 Pembroke. To this benefice, which was a sinecure, he was instituted on the 7th of May, by Dr. Edward Willes, bishop of St. David's. On the 24th of February, 1743-4, he was presented 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-street, to which he was presented in the beginning of February, 1745-6. 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 late earl of Hardwicke. Depden itself, indeed, was in the patronage of Mr. Chiswell, and in the possession of the rev. 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-street, till his decease. In 1765, he resigned his office of secretary to the royal society, and was succeeded by Dr. Maty. 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 betwixt London and Hampstead, and killed on the spot. Dr. William Watson, of Lincoln's Inn 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 61st 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, with the exception of 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 comprised 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, yet was a work by which the proprietors were great losers. In 1744, Dr. Birch published, in octavo, a "Life of the honourable Robert Boyle, esq;" which hath since been prefixed to the quarto edition of the works of that philosopher. In the same year, our author began his assistance to Houbraken and Vertue, in their design of publishing, in folio, the "Heads of illustrious persons of Great Britain," engraved by those two artists, but chiefly by Mr. Houbraken. To each head was annexed, by Dr. Birch, the 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 in this undertaking did not hinder his prosecuting, at the same time, other historical disquisitions: for, in 1747, appeared, in octavo, "His inquiry into the share which king Charles the First had in the transactions of the earl of Glamorgan." A second edition of the Inquiry was published in 1756, and it was a work that excited no small degree of attention. In 1751, Dr. Birch was editor of the "Miscellaneous works of sir Walter Raleigh;" to which was prefixed the life of that unfortunate and injured man. Previously to this, Dr. Birch published "An historical view of the negociations between the courts of England, France, and Brussels, from 1592 to 1617; extracted chiefly from the MS State Papers of sir Thomas Edmondes, knight, embassador 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 that 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 octavo, appeared in 1749; and, in an introductory discourse to the honourable Philip Yorke, esq. (the late 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 hath 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 1751, was published by our author, an edition, in two volumes, 8vo, of the "Theological, moral, dramatic, and poetical works of Mrs. Catherine Cockburn;" with an account of her life. In the next year came out his "Life of the most reverend Dr. John Tillotson, lord archbishop of Canterbury. Compiled chiefly from his original papers and letters." 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 hath 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 volumes, 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 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; in which our author has shewn himself (as in his other writings) to be a faithful and accurate compiler; and in which, besides 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. The book is now becoming scarce, and, as it may not speedily be republished, is rising in its value. This is the case, likewise, with regard to the edition of sir Walter Raleigh's miscellaneous works. 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 those papers, communicated to the society, which have hitherto not 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 two other 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. 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, 8vo, 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 disquisitions 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 remarkably popular; and that various facts, respecting several other eminent characters, are occasionally introduced. Another of his publications was, "Letters, speeches, charges, advices, &c. of Francis Bacon, lord viscount St. Alban, lord chancellor of England." This collection, which is comprised in one volume, 8vo, 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, he allowed, that nothing can be totally uninteresting which relates to so illustrious a man, or tends, in any degree, to give a farther insight into his character. To this catalogue we have still to add "Professor Greaves's miscellaneous works," 1737, in two vols. 8vo. Dr. Cudworth's "Intellectual System," (improved from the Latin edition of Mosheim;) his discourse on the true notion of the Lord's Supper, and two sermons, with an account of his life and writings, 1743, in two vols. 4to. An edition of Spenser's "Fairy Queen," 1751, in three vols. 4to, with prints from designs by Kent. "Letters between col. Robert Hammond, governor of the Isle of Wight, and the committee of lords and commons at Derbyhouse, general Fairfax, lieut.-general Cromwell, commissary general Ireton, &c. relating to king Charles I. while he was confined in Carisbrooke-castle in that island. Now first published. To which is prefixed a letter from John Ashburnham, esq. to a friend, concerning his deportment towards the king, in his attendance on his majesty at Hampton-court, and in the Isle of Wight," 1764, 8vo. Dr. Birch's last essay, "The life of Dr. Ward," which was finished but a week before his death, was published by Dr. Maty, in 1766.

Mr. Ayscough has extracted, from a small pocket-book belonging to Dr. Birch, the following memoranda of some pieces written by him, of which he was not before known to be the author. 1726, "A Latin translation of Hughes's Ode to the Creator." 1727, "Verses on the General history of Printing;" published in the General history of Printing. Collections for Smedley's View. 1728, "Abelard to Philotas." 1732, Began the General History. 1739, "Account of Alga," published in the Works of the Learned for July. "Account of Milton," published in the Works of the Learned. 1741, Wrote the letter of Cleander to Smerdis, in the Athenian Letters. 1742, Wrote an account of Orr's sermon, in the Works of the Learned. 1743, Wrote the preface to Boyle's works. 1760, By a letter from Dr. Stonhouse, it appears that Dr. Birch was the author of the Life of the rev. Mr. James Hervey, which is prefixed to that gentleman's writings. He was employed, likewise, in correcting a great number of publications, and among the rest Murden's State Papers. At the time of the doctor's death, he had prepared for the press a collection of letters, to which he had given the title of "Historical Letters, written in the reigns of James I. and Charles I. containing a detail of the public transactions and events in Great Britain during that period; with a variety of particulars not mentioned by our historians. Now first published from the originals in the British Museum, Paper-office, and private collections." These are all the separate publications, or intended works, 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. 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 which sets Dr. Birch's industry in a more striking light than the vast number of transcripts which he made with his own bands. 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 other collections; 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 a 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 hath 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, such as sir Hans Sloane, Dr. Mead, Dr. Salter, Mr. Jortin, and Dr. Maty; Daniel Wray, esq. Dr. Morton, Dr. Ducarel, Dr. William Watson, &c. &c. With regard to the great, though perhaps he stood well with many of them, his chief connection was with the earls of Hardwicke, and with the rest of the branches of that noble and respectable family. No one was more ready than Dr. Birch 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, to which we are indebted for the publication of Tanner's Bibliotheca Britannico-Hibernica, and some few other valuable works. In short, Dr. Birch was entitled to that highest praise, of being a good man, as well as a man of knowledge and learning. His sentiments with respect to subjects of divinity resembled those of 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 always 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 has 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. The same circumstance is noticed in the following character of Dr. Birch by one of our predecessors in this Dictionary, Dr. Heathcote, who knew Dr. Birch well, and consorted with him, for the last thirteen years of his life. Dr. Heathcote "believes him to have been an honest, humane, and generous man; warm and zealous in his attachments to persons and principle, but of universal benevolence, and ever ready to promote the happiness of all men. He was cheerful, lively, and spirited, in the highest degree; and, notwithstanding the labours and drudgery he went through in his historical pursuits, no man mixed more in company; but he was a very early riser, and thus had done the business of a morning before others had begun it. He was not a man of learning, properly so called; he understood the Latin and French languages, not critically, but very well; of the Greek he knew very little. He was, however, a man of great general knowledge, and excelled particularly in modern history. As a collector and compiler, he was in the main judicious in the choice of his materials; but was sometimes too minute in uninteresting details, and did not always exercise, with due severity, the power of selection. He had a favourite position, that we could not be possessed of too many facts; and he never departed from it, though it was often urged to him, that facts, which admit of no reasoning, and tend to no edification, which can only serve to encumber, and, as it were, smother useful intelligence, had better be consigned to oblivion, than recorded. And indeed, in this very way of biographical compilation, we have always been of opinion, that, if it were less fashionable to relate particulars of every man, which are common to almost all men, we should be equally knowing, and our libraries would be by far less crowded. In his manners, Dr. Birch was simple and unaffected; very communicative, and forward to assist in any useful undertaking; and of a spirit perfectly disinterested, and (as his friends used to tell him) too inattentive to his own emolument."