William Oldys

R. L. P., "Oldys's Writings" Gentleman's Magazine 54 (March 1784) 161-64.

March 3.


As hints towards the life of the industrious Antiquary enquired after in p. 32, accept what follows, collected principally from information supplied by his own hand-writing.

WILLIAM OLDYS, Esq. Norroy King at Arms, well versed in English antiquities, a correct writer, and a good historian, was born in or about the year 1687. He was the natural son of William Oldys, LL.D. Chancellor of Lincoln, 1683, Commissary of Saint Catherine's, 1698, Official of St. Alban's, and Advocate of the Admiralty, who died in 1706. By the following transcript of a note in the hand-writing of his son, it appears that Dr. Oldys was concerned with Dryden and others in the translation of Plutarch.

MEM. "To scratch the old papers in one of my large deal boxes for Dryden's letter of thanks to my father, for some communications relating to Plutarch, when they and others were publishing a translation of PLUTARCH'S Lives, in 5 vols. 8vo. 1683."

Of the father I know nothing more, and of the son not much. He mentions his leaving London in 1724, to reside in Yorkshire, and his returning to London in 1730; but whether he resided constantly in town from that time to the end of his life, I cannot say certainly, but think he did. — What follows is a transcript from a manuscript note of Oldys: "Old Counsellor Fane, of Colchester, who, in forma pauperis, deceived me of a good sum of money which he owed me, and, not long after, set up his chariot, gave me a parcel of MSS, and promised me (among others, which he never gave me, nor any thing else besides a barrel of oysters) a MS. copy of Randolph's Poems, an original, as he said, with many additions, being devolved to him as the author's relation."

His death was owing to his great age, rather than any other cause, for he was 74, though only 72 was put upon his coffin. He died at his apartments in the Heralds Office, April 15, 1761, and was buried, April 19, in the north aile of the church of St. Bennet, Paul's Wharf. — At the time of his death he was much straightened in his circumstances; and Dr. Taylor, the oculist, who administered as principal creditor, obtained by that means possession of his effects. The books having been disposed of by public sale, many of them, which were filled with marginal notes, were purchased by collectors. The MSS. mentioned hereafter in art. 7, were purchased by the booksellers, for the use of the Biographia Britannica.

Of the writings of Mr. Oldys, the following account, the best which I can give, is probably very imperfect.

1. In the British Museum is Oldys's copy of Langbaine's Lives, &c. not interleaved, but filled with notes written in the margin, and between the lines, in an extremely small hand. It came to the Museum as a part of the library of Dr. Birch, who bought it at an auction of Oldys's books and papers for one guinea. — It appears that a preceding and more imperfect copy of this book gave rise to the publication of The Lives of English Poets, 5 vols. 12mo, 1753, under the name of Mr. Cibber, &c. [Note: It has been generally understood, that the book which caused The Lives of the English Poets to be undertaken was one of Coxeter's, and Coxeter's name stands in the title-page. We may add also, that Oldys's Notes have been transcribed into interleaved copies, by Bp. Percy, Mr. Steevens, Mr. Malone, and Mr. Reed; and that each of these gentlemen has made considerable additions. EDIT.] — For the particulars of this curious anecdote in literary history, I am indebted to the dition of The Tatler, now preparing for the public, with Notes, &c. vol. I. No. 27.

2. Mr. Gough, in the first volume of his British Topography, p. 567, tells us, that he had "been favoured, by George Steevens, Esq. with the use of a thick folio of titles of books and pamphlets relative to London, and occasionally to Westminster and Middlesex, from 1521 to 1758, collected by the late Mr. Oldys, with many others added, as it seems, in another hand. Among them," he says, "are many purely historical, and many of too low a kind to rank under the head of topography or history. The rest, which are very numerous, I have inserted, marked O, with corrections, &c. of those I had myself collected. Mr. Steevens purchased this MS. of T. Davies, who bought Mr. Oldys's library. It had been in the hands of Dr. Berkenhout, who had a design of publishing an English Topographer, and may possibly have inserted the articles in a different hand. 5 5s. is the price in the first leaf. It has since become the property of Sir John Hawkins. — In a smaller MS. Mr. Oldys says he had inserted 360 articles in the folio, April 12, 1747; and that the late Alderman Billers had a fine collection of tracts, &c. relating to London." — In a MS. note on Langbaine he says, that in June 1748, he had inserted between four and five hundred articles; "and now" (he adds) "in October 1750, six hundred and thirty-six." — He mentions, in a note on Langbaine, that he bought 200 volumes at the auction of Lord Stamford's library, in St. Paul's Coffee-house; where, formerly, most of the capital libraries were sold.

3. In his MS. Notes on Langbaine, Oldys acknowledges, more than once, that he was the author of The British Librarian, exhibiting a compendious Review of all unpublished and valuable Books, in all Sciences, which was printed, without his name, in 8vo, 1727.

4. A Life of Sir Walter Raleigh prefixed to his History of the World, in folio, was printed with Mr. Oldys's name to it.

5. He says himself, that he wrote the introduction to Hayward's British Muse, [1738]; and he adds, that the penurious publishers, to contract it within a sheet, left out a third part of the best matter in it, and made more faults than there were in the original."

6. Oldys mentions "His Observations on the Cure of William Taylor, the blind Boy at Ightham, in Kent, by John Taylor, Jun. Oculist, 8vo. 1753." — The title of the pamphlet here alluded to was, "Observations on the Cure of William Taylor, the blind Boy of Ightham, in Kent. who, being born with Cataracts in both Eyes, was, at Eight Years of Age, brought to sight on the 8thh of October, 1751, by Mr. John Taylor, Jun. Oculist in Hatton Garden; containing his strange Notions of Objects upon the first Enjoyment of h is new Sense; also, some Attestations thereof; in a Letter written by his Father, Mr. William Taylor, Farmer in the same Parish: Interspersed with several curious Examples, and Remarks, historical and philosophical, thereupon. Dedicated to Dr. Monsey, Physician to the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. Also, some Address to the Public, for a Contribution towards the Foundation of an Hospital for the Blind, already begun by some noble Personages." 8vo.

7. There is no doubt but that he was the compiler of various lives in the Biographica Britannica, with the signature G, the initial letter of Gray's-Inn, where he formerly lived. He mentions, in his Notes on Langbaine, his life of Sir George Etheredge, of Caxton, of Tho. May, and of Edw. Alleyn. He composed the Life of Atherton, which ought not to have had a place in that work, any more than the Life of Eugene Aram, which is inserted in the second edition. It seems "toto caelo" irreconcilable to the purpose intended to perpetuate the memories of our illustrious countrymen and visitors, to place among them those who were infamously put to death for shocking and atrocious crimes. — That the publishers of the second edition of the Biographia Britannica (who, by the way, seem to make but tardy progress) meant no indignity to Oldys, by their leaving out his Life of Atherton, appears from their having transcribed into their work a much superior quantity of his writings, consisting of notes and extracts from printed books, styled OLDYS'S MSS. Of these papers no other account is given than that "they are a large and useful body of biographical materials;" but we may fairly infer, from the known industry and narrow circumstances of the writer, that, if they had been in any degree prepared for public consideration, they would not have lain dormant until now.

8. Oldys, "at the importunity of Curll, gave him a sketch of the Life of Nell Gwin, to help out his History of the Stage; which," he adds, "is now published, although the author, I hear, is become quite blind; but," says he, "Dick Leveridge's History of the Stage, and Actors, in his own time, for these 40 or 50 years past, as he told me he had composed it, is likely to prove, whenever it shalt appear, a more perfect work."

9. Oldys says, he was concerned with Des Maizeaux in writing the Life of Mr. Richard Carew, the antiquary of Cornwall, in 1722.

10. Oldys mentions "Observations, Historical and Critical, on the Catalogue of English Lives." Whether this was ever printed, I know not.

11. Oldys mentions, as a book of which he was the author, "Tables of the eminent Persons celebrated by English Poets." He quotes, in a manuscript note in Langbaine, the 6th and 7th pages of the first volume of the work, which seems therefore to have consisted of more volumes than one.

12. He mentions, ibidem, the first volume of his Poetical Characteristics, on which work it is obvious to make the same remark as on the preceding. If these two works last mentioned still continued in MS during his life-time, it is probable that they were not finished for publication, or that no bookseller would buy them.

13. Oldys seems to have been concerned likewise as a writer in the General Dictionary, for he mentions his having been the author of The Life of Sir John Talbot in that work.

14. He mentions likewise, in his Notes on Langbaine, that he was the author of a pamphlet against Toland, called "No blind Guides."

15. He says, ibidem, that he communicated many things to Mrs. Cooper, which she published in her Muse's Library.

16. In 1746 was published, in 12mo, Health's Improvement; or Rules comprising and discovering the Nature, Method, and Manner of preparing Foods used in this Nation. Written by that ever famous Thomas Mossert, Doctor in Physick, corrected and enlarged by Christopher Bennet, Doctor in Physic, and Fellow of the College of Physicians in London. To which is now prefaced, A short View of the Author's Life and Writings by Mr. Oldys; and an Introduction by R. James, M.D.

17. In the first volume of British Topography, page 31, mention is made of a translation of Camden's Britannia, in 2 vols. 4to.; by W. O. Esq. which Mr. Gough, with great probability, ascribes to Mr. Oldys.

18. Among the MSS. in the British Museum, described in Mr. Ayscough's Catalogue, I find, p. 24, Some Considerations upon the Publication of Sir Thomas Roe's Epistolary Collections, supposed to be written by Mr. Oldys, and by him tendered to Sam. Boroughs, Esq. with Proposals, and some Notes of Dr. Birch.

19. In p. 736, Memoirs of the Family of Oldys; [see p. 161.]

20. In p. 741, Two small Pocket-Books of short Biographical Anecdotes of many Persons, and some Fragments of Poetry. Qu. Collected by Mr. Oldys?

21. In p. 750, and p. 780, are two MS. Letters of Mr. Oldys, 1735 and 1751.

22. It is said, in a manuscript paper I received from a respectable gentleman who knew him well, that Oldys had by him, at the time of his death, some collections towards a Life of Shakspeare, but not digested into any order, as he told his friend a few days before he died.

23. On the same authority, he is said to be a writer in The Scarborough Miscellany, 1732, and 1734.

24. The Universal Spectator, of which he was the ostensible publisher, was a News-paper, a Weekly Journal, said, on the top of the paper, which appeared originally in single sheets, to be "By HENRY STONECASTLE, in Northumberland," 1730 and 1732. — John Kelly was also concerned in it. See the Biographia Dramatica. — It was afterwards collected into two volumes 8vo; to which a third and fourth were added in 1747.

25. It remains only to say, that he was some time librarian to the Earl of Oxford; that he selected the pamphlets in the Harleian Miscellany, and probably drew up the quarto catalogue of them; and was principally concerned in drawing up, for Osburne, (who bought the nobleman's library for 13,000.) the Catalogus Bibliothecae Harleianae; most of the curious notes in it being of his composition.

Yours, &c.

R. L. P.