William Oldys

William Oldys, Letter to Sir Peter Thompson, 1755 ca.; Notes and Queries 5 (5 June 1852) 529-31.

After my unfortunate adventures in the South Sea, my long and expensive law-suits for the recovery of my right, and five years' retirement to a nobleman's in the country, with whom I had been intimate in my youth, I became, in less than two years after my return to London, first known to the Earl of Oxford in the year 1731; when he invited me to show him my collections of MSS. Historical and Political, which had been the Earl of Clarendon's; my collections of Royal Letters, and other Papers of State; together with a very large collection of English heads in sculpture, which alone had taken me up some years to collect, at the expense of at least threescore pounds. All these, with the catalogues I drew up of them, at his lordship's request, I parted with to him for forty pounds, and the frequent intimations he gave me of a more substantial recompense hereafter, which intimations induced me to continue my historical researches, as what would render me most acceptable to him. Therefore I left off writing in the Universal Spectator, in which I had then published about twenty papers, and was proffered the sole supply thereof; which would have returned me fifty-two guineas per annum.

Further, when his lordship understood that my printed books consisted chiefly of personal history, he desired catalogues of them also: which I drew out, and he had several large parcels of the most scarce and curious amongst them, in the two years following; for which, though I never received more than five guineas, not the fourth part of their value, yet his friendly deportment towards me increased my attachment and zeal to oblige him. This friendship he further exerted, in the assistance he afforded me out of his own library, and procured of his friends, towards completing my Life of Sir Walter Raleigh; and his opinion of the further encouragement I therein deserved may appear in the letters he honoured me with upon that occasion. But as to money, the five guineas more he gave me upon my presenting him with the Life and the History of the World annexed to it, in 1736, was all that I ever received from him in five years. In the latter end of the year 1737 I published my British Librarian; and when his lordship understood how unproportionate the advantages it produced were to the time and labour bestowed upon it, he said he would find me employment better worth my while. Also, when he heard that I was making interest with Sir Robert Walpole, through the means of Commissioner Hill, to present him with an abstract of some ancient deeds I had relating to his ancestors, and which I have still, his lordship induced me to decline that application, saying, though he could not do as grand things as Sir Robert, he would do that which might be as agreeable to me, if I would disengage myself from all other persons and pursuits. I had then also had, for several years, some dependence upon a nobleman, who might have served me in the government, and had, upon certain motives, settled an annuity upon me of twenty pounds a year. This I resigned to the said nobleman for an incompetent consideration, and signed a general release to him, in May, 1738, that I might be wholly independent, and absolutely at my Lord Oxford's command. I was likewise then under an engagement with the undertakers of the Supplement to Bayle's Dictionary. I refused to digest the materials I then had for this work under an hundred pounds a year, till it was finished; but complied to take forty shillings a sheet for what I should write, at such intervals as my business would permit: for this clause I was obliged to insert, in the articles then executed between them and myself, in March the year aforesaid; whereby I reserved myself free for his lordship's service. And though I proposed, their said offer would be more profitable to me than my own, yet my lord's employment of me, from that time, grew so constant, that I never finished above three or four lives for that work, to the time of his death. All these advantages did I thus relinquish, and all other dependence, to serve his lordship. And now was I employed at auctions, sales, and in writing at home, in transcribing my own collections or others for his lordship, till the latter part of the year 1739; for which services I received of him about 150 pounds. In November the same year I first entered his library of manuscripts, whereunto I came daily, sorted and methodised his vast collection of letters, to be bound in many volumes; made abstracts of them, and tables to each volume; besides working at home, mornings and evenings, for the said library. Then, indeed, his lordship, considering what beneficial prospects and possessions I had given up, to serve him, and what communications I voluntarily made to his library almost every day, by purchases which I never charged, and presents out of whatever was most worthy of publication among my own collections of which he also chose what he pleased, whenever he came to my chambers, which I have since greatly wanted, I did thenceforward receive of him two hundred pounds a-year, for the short remainder of his life. Notwithstanding this allowance, he would often declare in company before me, and in the hearing of those now alive, that he wished I had been some years sooner known to him than I was; because I should have saved him many hundred pounds.

The sum of this case is, that for the profit of about 500 I devoted the best part of ten years' service to, and in his lordship's library; impoverished my own stores to enrich the same; disabled myself in my studies, and the advantages they might have produced from the publick; deserted the pursuits which might have obtained me a permanent accommodation; and procured the prejudice and misconceit of his lordship's surviving relations. But the profits I received were certainly too inconsiderable to raise any envy or ill will; tho' they might probably be conceived much greater than they were. No, it was what his lordship made me more happy in, than his money, which has been the cause of my greatest unhappiness with them; his favour, his friendly reception and treatment of me; his many visits at my chambers; his many invitations by letters and otherwise, to dine with him, and pass whole evenings with him; for no other end, but such intelligence and communications, as might answer the inquiries wherein he wanted to be satisfied, in relation to matters of literature, all for the benefit of his library. Had I declined those invitations, I must, with great ingratitude, have created his displeasure; and my acceptance of them has displeased others. Some survivors would surely, in respect to the memory of such a noble and honourable person, not totally disregard what he had so distinguished; but think a man worthy of being recommended to some provision, whom he, after a very deliberate experience, had seen reason so decently to provide for. I look upon most places of attendance at Court to be an idle, loytering, empty course of life; in which a man is obliged to dress expensively, keep frothy, vain, or vicious company, and to have the salary more backwardly paid than in other places. Therefore I should prefer some office in the Revenue, rather than upon the Civil List.

Any clerkship, that must double a man down to a desk for a set of hours, morning and afternoon, he should be inured to from his youth, to be anything dextrous or easy in; but one, who has been the greatest part of his life master of his own time and thoughts, has his head pre-occupied; at least is commonly fitter for the direction than the execution of business; unless it be such in which his head will concur with his hand. Besides, not to mention other incongruities, how would it fit a man, growing in years, to be company for a pack of young clerks? or, how could he hope to be continued, of such honourable persons, as should recommend him even to that situation, but might with the same trouble to something more convenient for him?

I have been assured by persons of experience, that an handsome post is not only sooner procured as having less candidates, but a man's pretension is more regarded. Whereas, in business of ordinary or mean account, his merits and abilities are thought proportionable, and therefore his pretention or request is less regarded. Besides, places that are something considerable, are generally less slavish and engrossing of a man's time; which, God knows, I desire not to be better employed than mine is, and may be by myself; only, a part of it more profitably: and yet, the convenience of such leisure, with the credit attending such a place, I should more value than the profit.

There is a common advice, that a man should not put in for everything, because it implys too high thoughts of his own sufficiency, as if he thought himself fit for everything: which is the character of an arrogant and conceited coxcomb. This offering of one's self, without latitude or limitation, is indeed one extreme; but the other is, to nail one's self down to some one individual place, like a dainty guest, that can taste but of one dish, and so wait for the vacancy; wherein he is led, by his own election, first to go barefoot (perhaps to his grave) in waiting for a dead mart's shoes; and when he is dead, then he shall probably see another wear them. So that any vacancy which will accommodate the candidate with a competency suitable to his condition and qualifications; or at least, equal to what he has appeared in, and decently enjoyed, cannot, 'tis presumed, be thought unreasonable.

Two or three hundred a year may be thought a very liberal allowance from a single person; in of the government 'tis thought no burden, the publick contributions are settled for the payment: there is no new charge or salary created, and they have stood the test of various changes or revolutions in the administrations. If I were to be restored to a place of two hundred a year now, it would not be by one fourth part of the advantage to me that it might have been five years since: for I should look upon myself in conscience obliged to sequester so much, even though I should live long enough to enjoy such a place ten years, to re-imburse such friends as have assisted me in all that time, but can no longer now. So that this one act of accommodation would indeed save more persons than one from ruin.

[Endnote by Charles Butler: If it is not already known that Oldys obtained the appointment of Norroy through the intercession of Sir Peter Thompson, to whom the above autobiographical sketch was addressed, I think I can confidently assert such was the fact. I am collecting materials for biographical notices of the King's Heralds and Pursuivants-at-Arms. Will you permit me, through the medium of N. & Q. to make known to your correspondents that I have such a work in hand; and that I should be obliged for any unpublished particulars, either relative to Oldys, or any other members of the College of Arms.]