William Oldys

Francis Grose, "Mr. William Oldys" 1780 ca.; in Grose, The Olio (1792) 136-38.

WILLIAM OLDYS, Norroy King of Arms, author of the life of Sir Walter Raleigh, and several others in the Biographia Britannica, was the natural son of a Dr. Oldys, in the Commons, who kept his mother very privately, and probably very meanly; as, when he dined at tavern, he used to beg leave to send home part of the remains of any fish or fowl "for his cat," which cat was afterwards found out to be Oldys' mother.

His parents dying when he was very young, he soon squandered away his small patrimony; when he became at first an attendant in Lord Oxford's library and afterwards librarian.

He was a little mean-looking man, of a vulgar address; and when I knew him, rarely sober in the afternoon, never after supper.

His favourite liquor was porter, with a glass of gin between each pot. Dr. Ducarrel told me, he used to stint Oldys to three pots of beer whenever he visited him.

Oldys seems to have had but little classical learning, and knew nothing of the sciences: but for index-reading, title pages, and the knowledge of scarce English books and editions, he had no equal; this he had probably picked up in my Lord Oxford's service, after whose death he was obliged to write for the booksellers, for a subsistence.

Among many other publications, chiefly in the biographical line, he wrote the life of Sir Walter Raleigh, which got him much reputation: the Duke of Norfolk in particular was so pleased with it, that he resolved to provide for him, and accordingly gave him the patent of Norroy King at Arms, then vacant. The patronage of that Duke occasioned a suspicion of his being a papist, though I think really without reason: this for a while retarded his appointment; it was underhand propagated by the heralds, who were vexed at having a stranger put in upon them.

He was a man of great good nature, honour, and integrity, particularly in his character of a historian. Nothing, 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.

He was much addicted to low company; most of his evenings he spent at the Bell in the Old Bailey, a house within the liberties of the Fleet, frequented by persons whom he jocularly used to style "Rulers," from their being confined to the rules or limits of that prison. From this house, a watchman, whom he kept regularly in pay, used to lead him home before twelve o'clock, in order to save sixpence paid to the porter of the herald's office by all those who came home after that hour: sometimes, and that not unfrequently, two were necessary.

He could not resist the temptation of liquor, even when he was to officiate on solemn occasions; for, at the burial of Princess Caroline, he was so intoxicated that he could scarcely walk, but reeled about with a crown on a cushion to the great scandal of his brethren.

His method of composing was somewhat singular; he had a number of small parchment bags, inscribed with the names of the persons whose lives he intended to write; into these bags he put every circumstance and anecdote he could collect, and from thence drew up his history.

By his excesses he was kept poor, so that he was frequently in distress; and at his death, which happened about five on Wednesday morning April 15, 1761, he left little more than was sufficient to bury him. Doctor Taylor, the oculist, son of the famous Doctor of that name and profession, claimed administration at the Commons, on account of his being "nullius filius," Anglice, a bastard. He 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 was about seventy-two years old.

Among his works is a preface to I. Walton's Angling.