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Croft, Herbert (1751-1816) (DNB00)


CROFT, Sir HERBERT, bart. (1751–1816), author, was born at Dunster Park, Berkshire, on 1 Nov. 1751, being the eldest son of Herbert Croft of Stifford in Essex, the receiver to the Charterhouse, who died at Tutbury, Staffordshire, 7 July 1785, aged 67, by his first wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Young of Midhurst, Sussex, and the grandson of Francis Croft, second son of the first baronet. On the death, without legitimate issue, in 1797, of Sir John Croft, the fourth baronet, he succeeded to that honour, but, unfortunately for his success in life, the third baronet had cut off the entail, the family estates had passed into other hands, and Croft Castle itself had been sold to the father of Thomas Johnes, the translator of Froissart. Pecuniary pressure hampered him from the commencement of his life, but his difficulties were increased by his volatile character, which prevented him from adhering to any definite course of action. In March 1771 he matriculated at University College, Oxford, when Scott, afterwards Lord Stowell, was his college tutor; and as his intention was to have adopted the law as his profession, he accordingly entered himself at Lincoln's Inn, where he became the constant companion, in pleasure if not in work, of Thomas Maurice, the historian of Hindostan, and Frederick Young, the son of the author of the ‘Night Thoughts.’ Want of means did not allow him to continue in the profession of the law, though he was called to the bar, and is said to have practised in Westminster Hall with some success, and about 1782 he returned to University College, Oxford, and under the advice of Lowth, the bishop of London, determined upon taking orders in the English church. In April 1785 he took the degree of B.C.L., and in 1786 his episcopal patron conferred on him the vicarage of Prittlewell, in Essex, a living which he retained until his death in 1816; but for some years after his appointment he lived at Oxford, busying himself in the collection of the materials for his proposed English dictionary. The undertaking which Croft prosecuted, as must be readily acknowledged, with great energy, involved him for many years in labours entirely unremunerative. As he was naturally lavish in money matters, and his whole income consisted of his small vicarage in Essex, producing about 100l. a year, and the balance of the salary assigned to his position of chaplain to the garrison of Quebec, where his personal attendance was not enforced, his expenditure exceeded his means. His first wife, Sophia, daughter and coheiress of Richard Cleave, who bore him three daughters, died 8 Feb. 1792, and on 25 Sept. 1795 he was married by special license by Thomas Percy, bishop of Dromore, at Ham House, Petersham, to Elizabeth, daughter of David Lewis of Malvern Hall in Warwickshire, who died at Lord Dysart's house in Piccadilly, 22 Aug. 1815, without issue. The marriage was celebrated at this famous mansion through the circumstance that one of the bride's sisters was married to Lionel, then the fourth earl of Dysart, its owner, and that another sister was married to Wilbraham Tollemache, afterwards the fifth earl of Dysart. In the ‘European Magazine,’ August 1797, pp. 115–16, is a set of curious verses by Croft, extolling the bride and lauding these alliances, which is entitled ‘On returning the key of the gardens at Ham House to the Earl of Dysart.’ Several of his letters are in the Egerton MSS. 2185–6 at the British Museum, and from one of them (2186, ff. 97–8) it appears that on the day after his second marriage he was arrested for debt and thrust into the common gaol at Exeter. The climax was now reached. He was obliged to withdraw to Hamburg, and his library was sold at King's in King Street, Covent Garden, in August 1797. During his residence abroad he was presented by the king of Sweden with a handsome gold medal, an engraving of which by Basire was published in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ 1801, pt. i. p. 497. At the close of 1800 he seems to have returned to his own country, and during the next year he resided at the Royal Terrace, Southend, discharging in person the duties attached to his living and superintending the passing through the press of two sermons which he preached at Prittlewell. A few years previously he had announced to his friends that the lord chancellor had promised to present him to another benefice of the value of 150l. per annum, but the hoped-for preferment was never conferred upon him. When promotion came neither from lay nor clerical hands, Croft again withdrew to the continent in 1802, and there he spent the remainder of his days. He was engaged at this date on an edition of ‘Télémaque,’ to be printed in a new system of punctuation, but this remains among his many unfinished ventures. His first settlement on his second trip abroad was at Lille, and on the renewal of the war between England and France he was one of those detained by Bonaparte, and would probably have been ordered to dwell at Verdun with his companions in restraint, but, to the credit of Napoleon's government, it should be stated that when it was notified that Croft was a literary man, he was allowed to live where he pleased. According to an elaborate article by P. L. Jacob, bibliophile, the pseudonym of Paul Lacroix, in the ‘Bibliophile Français’ for 1869, he lived for some years in a pleasant country retreat near the château in the vicinity of Amiens which belonged to a Lady Mary Hamilton, who is said to have been a daughter of the Earl of Leven and Melville and the wife of a Mr. Hamilton. At a later period he removed to Paris, where he haunted libraries and sought the society of book-lovers, and at Paris he died on 26 April 1816. A white marble monument to his memory was placed on the north wall of Prittlewell church. His principal support during this period was, according to Charles Nodier, the assistant of Croft and Lady Mary Hamilton in their literary undertakings, the annual salary of five thousand francs which he received from an English paper as its correspondent in France. It is, however, asserted in another memoir of him that for a very considerable period he enjoyed a pension of 200l. per annum from the English government; and, if this assertion be correct, the pension was no doubt his reward for having answered, as he himself confessed in 1794, two of Burke's publications during the American war (Egerton MS. 2186, ff. 88–9). A print of him (‘Drummond pinxt Farn sculpt’) is prefixed to page 251 of the ‘European Magazine’ for 1794. A second engraving of him (Abbot, painter; Skelton, engraver) was published by John B. Nichols & Son in 1828. Busts of his two most illustrious friends, Johnson and Lowth, are represented in the background. Croft's acknowledged works are very numerous, but his name is solely remembered now from the life of Young which he contributed to Johnson's ‘Lives of the Poets.’ His writings were: 1. ‘A Brother's Advice to his Sisters’ [signed ‘H.’], 1775, 2nd edition 1776, when it was dedicated to the Duchess of Queensberry, who patronised Gay. To the advice which he gave little exception can be taken, but it was written in a stilted style. 2. A paper called by the whimsical name of ‘The Literary Fly.’ The first number, ten thousand copies of which were distributed gratuitously, was issued on 18 Jan. 1779, but it soon died of inanition. Some information about it is printed in Cyrus Redding's ‘Yesterday and To-day,’ iii. 274–80. 3. ‘A Memoir of Dr. Young, the Poet,’ which he was requested to write on account of his intimacy with the poet's son, and for which he took considerable pains in collecting information. It was written while Croft was in London preparing for the law, and was included with Dr. Johnson's ‘Lives of the Poets,’ being published by him without any alteration save the omission of a single passage, for which see the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ li. p. 318. Burke said of this production: ‘It is not a good imitation of Johnson; it has all his pomp without his force; it has all the nodosities of the oak without its strength,’ and, after a pause, ‘It has all the contortions of the Sibyl without the inspiration.’ The author was gratified at the distinction by which alone his name is now kept alive, but Peter Cunningham, in his edition of the ‘Lives of the Poets’ (vol. i. pp. xx–xxi), says that he had seen Croft's copy of the lives bound with the lettering of ‘Johnson's Beauties and Deformities.’ 4. ‘Love and Madness, a Story too true, in a series of Letters between Parties whose names could perhaps be mentioned were they less known or less lamented’ [anon.], 1780. Of this volume, which went through seven editions, with many variations in the text, and of the tragedy on which it was based, Carlyle in his ‘Reminiscences,’ p. 224, says: ‘The story is musty rather, and there is a loose, foolish old book upon it called “Love and Madness” which is not worth reading.’ The letters are supposed to have been written by Miss Martha Ray, the mistress of Lord Sandwich, and James Hackman, at one time in the army, but afterwards a clergyman with a living in Norfolk, who was madly in love with her (a love which is sometimes said to have been returned), and by whom she was shot as she was leaving Covent Garden Theatre, 7 April 1779. Into Croft's strange compound of passion and pedantry on this miserable pair there was inserted a huge interpolation on Chatterton, and the fifth edition contained a postscript on Chatterton. Many years later this circumstance inflicted an indelible stain on Croft's reputation. In a letter inserted in the ‘Monthly Magazine’ for November 1799 he was accused by Southey of having obtained in 1778 Chatterton's letters from the boy's mother and sister under false pretences, of having published the letters without consent, and without awarding to the owners an adequate remuneration from the large profits he had himself made by their publication, and of having detained the originals for twenty-one years. To these charges Croft made a very unsatisfactory answer in the pages of the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1800, pt. i. 99–104, 222–6, 322–5), which was subsequently published separately as ‘Chatterton and Love and Madness. A letter from Denmark to Mr. Nichols, editor of the “Gentleman's Magazine,” 1800.’ The manner in which Croft had obtained his information was justly censurable, but the matter which he printed on Chatterton has been said to have afforded ‘more graphic glimpses of the boy than all subsequent writers have supplied.’ He had undertaken to contribute a life of Chatterton to the ‘Biographia Britannica’ (Kippis's ed.), but was prevented by his other labours. The memoir was, however, based on his materials, and a long letter from him at Lincoln's Inn (5 Feb. 1782) to George Steevens on the subject is printed in a footnote, iv. 606–8. Further details concerning Southey's charges are in Cottle's ‘Reminiscences,’ i. 253–71; ‘Southey's Life and Correspondence,’ ii. 186. 5. ‘Fanaticism and Treason, or a Dispassionate History of the Rebellious Insurrection in June 1780,’ 1780, 8vo. 6. ‘The Abbey of Kilkhampton, or Monumental Records for the year 1780’ (anon.), 1780. The popularity of this satirical collection of epitaphs on a number of persons famous or notorious in that age is shown by the fact that eight editions of the first part and three of the second part were published in 1780. At least fourteen editions appeared, and in 1822 there was issued a volume called ‘The Abbey of Kilkhampton Revived.’ Kilkhampton is a fine parish church on the north coast of Cornwall, and the name was no doubt selected by Croft owing to the circumstance that James Hervey's ‘Meditations among the Tombs,’ a very popular volume of that period, was suggested by his visit to that church. A line in the ‘Pursuits of Literature’ condemns those who pen ‘inscriptive nonsense in a fancied abbey,’ and a note ties the condemnation to ‘a vile pamphlet called “Kilkhampton Abbey.”’ 7. ‘Some Account of an intended Publication of the Statutes on a Plan entirely new. By Herbert Croft, barrister-at-law,’ 1782, republished 1784. The gist of the proposition was that the statutes should be codified chronologically. 8. ‘Sunday Evenings,’ 1784, 8vo; fifty copies were printed for the private perusal of his friends. It was of this composition that Johnson expressed himself as not highly pleased, as the discourses were couched in too familiar a style. 9. ‘A Prize in the Lottery for Servants, Apprentices, &c.,’ circa 1786, 2d. each. 10. ‘The Will of King Alfred,’ Oxford, at the Clarendon Press, 1788. This was passed through the press under Croft's superintendence. 11. An unfinished ‘Letter to the Right Hon. William Pitt concerning the New Dictionary of the English. By the Rev. Herbert Croft.’ This letter, which pointed out the defects of Johnson's ‘Dictionary,’ was printed in March 1788, but neither finished nor published. It stopped abruptly with forty-four pages of text and seven pages of postscript, but with a reference to further information on the subject in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for August 1787 and February 1788, in which periodical numerous letters on the progress of the work appeared in volumes lvii–lxiii. In 1787 his manuscripts on this dictionary amounted to two hundred quarto volumes, and in 1790 he claimed to have amassed eleven thousand words used by the highest authorities, but not in Johnson, a number which three years later had more than doubled. Proposals for a new edition of Johnson's ‘Dictionary’ were issued by Croft in 1792, and the work was to have been published in four large volumes, priced at twelve guineas, but the subscribers' names were so few that in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for 1793, p. 491, he announced his intention of not printing until further pecuniary assistance had been received. This result is much to be regretted, more especially as Priestley, who had meditated ‘a large treatise on the structure and present state’ of our language, had dropped the scheme and given the unused materials to Croft. 12. At the close of 1789 Croft communicated to his friend Priestley the speedy appearance of ‘a book against the Socinians of the last age,’ with a letter to him. When it appeared, Priestley, who had previously suspected Croft of longing for preferment, and had ‘always considered him as a mere belles-lettres man,’ was surprised to find the letter ‘not controversial but complimentary, and on that account not politic.’ The anti-Socinian treatise was ‘An Account of Reason and Faith by John Norris of Bemerton, 14th ed., corrected by Herbert Croft,’ 1790. It was dedicated to Lord Thurlow, and the letter to Priestley related to the proposed dictionary. 13. ‘A Letter from Germany to the Princess Royal of England on the English and German Languages,’ Hamburg, 1797. A gossiping, rambling production of ninety-six pages on Johnson's ‘Dictionary,’ translating from German, the connection of the two languages and the charms of the town of Hamburg. 14. ‘Hints for History respecting the Attempt on the King's Life, 15 May 1800,’ 1800; detailing the events and lauding the king's resolution. 15. ‘Sermon for the Abundant Harvest, preached at Prittlewell,’ 1801. 16. ‘Sermon preached at Prittlewell on the Peace,’ 1801. This was dedicated to his old schoolfellow Addington. 17. ‘Horace éclairci par la Ponctuation. Par le Chevalier Croft,’ Paris, 1810. This whimsical production, which consisted of a few of the odes of Horace printed on a new system of punctuation as a specimen of a work which he had long meditated on the subject, was dedicated to Lord Moira, with whom he had been a student of University College, Oxford. 18. Croft was then dwelling near Amiens, and much of his time was spent in the society of the lady whose work, ‘La famille du duc de Popoli, ou Mémoires de M. Cantelmo, son frère, publiés par Lady Mary Hamilton,’ appeared in 1810 with a dedication to Croft, dated 4 June 1810. He acknowledged the compliment by some verses, dated at Amiens 20 Feb. 1811, ‘on the death of Musico, a piping bullfinch belonging to the Right Hon. Lady Mary Hamilton,’ which were added to a second edition of ‘Popoli’ issued in that year. 19. ‘Consolatory Verses addressed to the Duchess of Angoulême,’ Paris, 1814, on the first return of the royal family to France. 20. ‘Réflexions soumises à la sagesse des Membres du Congrès de Vienne,’ 1814. 21. ‘Critical Dictionary of the Difficulties of the French Language.’ 22. ‘Commentaires sur les meilleurs ouvrages de la Langue Française,’ vol. i., Paris, 1815. The whole of this volume was a commentary on the ‘Petit-Carême’ of Massillon and the two sermons printed with it, which was written with great critical acumen and deep knowledge, much of which was probably due to Nodier. Croft had collected a mass of notes on the grammar and the moral teachings of Fontaine's fables, which was to have formed the second volume in the series of commentaries; but his collections never saw the light, meeting a like fate with his observations on ‘Télémaque,’ which he had brooded over for at least ten years. To Croft was due the discovery of the ‘Parrain Magnifique’ of Gresset, which was believed to have been lost, and was published for the first time in Renouard's complete works of that writer.

These are the separate works of Croft, but many fugitive pieces from his pen appeared in the periodical publications of the day. Several sets of his verses in English and Latin appeared in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ and a paper on chess, communicated by him to Horace Twiss, and published in Twiss's ‘Book on Chess,’ was reprinted in that journal, lvii. pt. ii. 590–1. His epitaph on Bishop Hurd is printed in Nichols's ‘Literary Anecdotes,’ vi. 508, and a printed letter from him to a pupil is criticised in Boswell's ‘Johnson,’ June 1784. The faults of Croft's character are perceptible at a glance, but his linguistic attainments—he knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Anglo-Saxon, and spoke French, Italian, and German—exceeded the power of most of his contemporaries. A warm tribute to his charitable disposition was paid by the author of a ‘Poetical Description of Southend,’ who had been his curate for some years.

[Nichols's Lit. Anecd. iii. 204, vi. 508, viii. 498; Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. v. 202–18, vii. 46, viii. 632–3; European Mag. 1794, p. 251; Gent. Mag. 1785, p. 573, 1807, p. 981, 1815, p. 281, 1816, pt. i. 470–2, pt. ii. 487; Annual Biog. ii. 1–15 (1818); Notes and Queries, 4th ser. i. 353, 467 (1868), viii. 319–20 (1871), xii. 133, 237 (1873); Biog. Univ. Supplement; Boswell's Johnson, 1781–4 (Napier's ed.), iv. 21, 128, 220, 226; Benton's Rochford, 593–5; Robinson's Mansions of Herefordshire, p. 82; Johnson's Poets (Cunningham's ed.), i. pp. xx–xxi, iii. 307, 346; T. Maurice's Memoirs, pt. ii. 156; Rutt's Life of Priestley, i. 46, ii. 42, 49; Barker's Parriana, i. 408, ii. 41–2.]

W. P. C.