Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ayscough, Samuel
AYSCOUGH, SAMUEL (1745–1804), librarian and index-maker, was the grandson of William Ayscough, a stationer and printer of Nottingham, where he introduced the art of typography about 1710, and died on 2 March 1719, and the son of George Ayscough, who succeeded to his father's business, which he carried on upwards of forty years. George Ayscough was much esteemed in the neighbourhood, and was connected with some of the most respectable families in the county. His first wife died childless. He then married Edith, daughter of Benjamin Wigley of Wirksworth, by whom he had a son, Samuel, and a daughter, Anne. He inherited a good business, but, instead of devoting his energies to its development, launched into various wild speculations, among others being one to extract gold from the dross of coals. Having in this way gradually got rid of nearly all his money, about the year 1762 he took a large farm at Great Wigston in Leicestershire, where he was still more unfortunate, losing not only the remainder of his own property, but the fortunes of his two children.
Samuel Ayscough was born in 1745, and was educated at the free grammar school in Nottingham. The son assisted his father in the successive failures of business, speculations and farm. At last, when complete ruin confronted the family, Samuel hired himself to take care of a mill in the neighbourhood, and bravely laboured as a working miller to keep his father and sister. The new start in life proved unsuccessful, but an old schoolfellow and intimate friend of early life, Mr. Eamer (afterwards Sir John Eamer, lord mayor of London), hearing of his distress, about the year 1770 sent for him to come to town, clothed him, and procured for him a situation as overlooker of street-paviors. It was doubtless this employment which gave him the capacity for such rude labour as index-making. Soon afterwards he entered the shop of Mr. Rivington, bookseller, of St. Paul's Churchyard, and subsequently obtained an engagement at a very modest salary as assistant in the cataloguing department under the principal librarian of the British Museum. This was the turning-point of his laborious and useful career. His value was soon recognised by a small increase in his weekly stipend, and he was able to occupy some of his leisure in arranging private libraries. These additions to his income, added to some assistance from Mr. Eamer, enabled him to send for his father, whom he maintained in comfort till his death, in November 1783. Ayscough's excellent catalogue of the undescribed manuscripts in the British Museum was commenced in April 1780 and published in 1782 by leave of the trustees, but as a private venture of the compiler. The plan of the book was original, and the publication reflects credit upon the enterprise of Ayscough, who claims (Preface, p. x) that no work of like extent was ever completed in so short a time. He acknowledges the help received from previous catalogues and occasionally from frequenters of the reading room, but to all intents and purposes the two quarto volumes were the work of Ayscough's unaided efforts. He states that the catalogue was drawn up on 20,000 separate slips of paper. Each manuscript was specially examined. The classification is ample, and two indexes, the first of the numbers of the manuscripts and pages of the catalogue where they are described, and the second of all names mentioned in the two volumes, render the book of easy reference. In 1783 he issued anonymously a small pamphlet in reply to the ‘Letters of an American Farmer,’ printed the year before by Mr. Hector St. John [Crevecœur], a French settler. Ayscough contended that the writer was neither a farmer nor a native of America, and that his sole purpose was to encourage foreigners to emigrate to that country, called by a reviewer in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1783, liii. 1036) ‘an insidious and fatal tendency, which this writer, as an Englishman, is highly laudable for endeavouring to detect and counteract.’
After wearily waiting for fifteen years, during which time he had vainly applied for five different vacancies, about 1785 Ayscough was appointed an assistant librarian at the museum. He had long desired to take holy orders, and in spite of some difficulties, the exact nature of which cannot be traced, was at length enabled to accomplish his desire. The precise period of the event is uncertain. Nichols places it soon after 1785, and a notice of the death of the father (Gentleman's Magazine, liii. 982) supports this view; but he styles himself ‘clerk’ on the title of his ‘Catalogue’ (1782), and a letter of the father, dated 13 Jan. 1781 (Nichols's Illustrations, iii. 571), styles the son ‘Rev.’ He was ordained to the curacy of Normanton-on-Soar in Nottinghamshire, and afterwards appointed assistant curate of the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. Here his regular attendance to his duties and excellent character gained him the friendship of Dr. Buckner, afterwards bishop of Chichester, Mr. Southgate, Dr. Willis, and other eminent persons. A general index to the ‘Annual Register’ (1758–80), which came out in 1783, is ascribed to Ayscough without sufficient evidence. In 1786 the conductors of the ‘Monthly Review’ brought out an index to the first seventy volumes of that periodical, compiled by Ayscough, the first volume consisting of the articles, &c., classified under subjects with a full index, and the second forming an alphabetical index to passages in the body of the ‘Review.’ A continuation extending to the eighty-first volume, and issued in 1796, was from the same hand. His publications so far had been of a private nature; his next appearance was in connection with his official position. The catalogue of books in the British Museum, printed in 1787, 2 vols. folio, was compiled by Dr. P. H. Maty, S. Harper, and Ayscough; one-third of the work is due to the latter. On 12 March 1789 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.
All students of the history of the eighteenth century are grateful to Ayscough for his share in indexing the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1731–86), consisting of the two volumes printed in 1789, the first of which includes an index of the essays, dissertations, and historical passages in one alphabet, and the second being divided into four parts, is devoted respectively to poetry, names of persons, plates, and books noticed. Useful as it is, the index is not by any means perfect. The lists of persons in each volume of the periodical had unfortunately never been furnished with christian names, and where more than one reference occurred no sort of distinction was introduced. This method was continued by Ayscough in his general index, so that in the case of common names, such as Smith or Williams, there are hundreds of references, making the task of hunting up any particular fact almost hopeless. In the continuation on the same plan, published in 1821, the evil is made worse by the increase of the materials, so that there are no less than 2,411 entries under Smith without further particulars. It has been calculated that, owing to the time taken up in referring back to each volume, it would occupy eighty hours of hard work to look through all the Smiths in search of one particular individual of that name (see Wheatley's What is an Index? p. 46). Until Ayscough brought out his ‘Index’ in 1790 there was no concordance to Shakespeare. This was a speculation on the part of the publisher, John Stockdale, who paid two hundred guineas for the index, which was specially designed to accompany his edition of the ‘Dramatic Works,’ in 2 vols. roy. 8vo. In this excellent compilation the words are arranged alphabetically with the lines in which they occur, then the name of the play, and in five separate columns the act, scene, page, column, and line. The last three particulars of course refer only to the edition of 1790, but the index may be made to serve any other text. Francis Twiss compiled a ‘Verbal Index’ in 1805, not so useful as that of Ayscough, and both were superseded by Mrs. Cowden Clarke's valuable ‘Concordance’ (1845). All three are devoted to the plays alone, and require to be supplemented by Mrs. Furness's ‘Concordance to Shakespeare's Poems’ (1874). There is still no complete concordance to the entire works.
Ayscough was chosen to deliver the Fairchild lectures, established in 1729 by Thomas Fairchild, gardener, of Shoreditch, who bequeathed a sum of money for a sermon on each Whit-Tuesday on the ‘Wonderful Works of God in the Creation.’ The first sermon was delivered by Ayscough in 1790 before the Royal Society at Shoreditch Church, and he completed the series of fifteen sermons in 1804. They were to have been printed after his death, but never appeared.
Dr. Birch had left for press among his papers at the Museum a collection of historical letters written during the reigns of James and Charles, which Ayscough proposed to publish if he could find two hundred subscribers at a couple of guineas apiece. But it was left to Mr. R. F. Williams to carry the scheme into effect in 1849, when the documents were printed under the title of ‘The Court and Times of James I and Charles I,’ 4 vols. 8vo. An important work which still remains in manuscript is Ayscough's catalogue of the ancient rolls and charters in the British Museum, forming three large folio volumes, with two indexes, the first to names of places and some other matters, and the second to names of persons. A table of contents records the number of charters, rolls, and seals at 16,000. The preparation of the catalogue occupied from 8 May 1787 to 18 Aug. 1792, with a few additions subsequently made. It is still used for reference. Ayscough's last work at the Museum consisted in arranging the books in classes and cataloguing the King's Tracts.
About a year before his death he was presented to the small vicarage of Cudham in Kent by Lord Chancellor Eldon. Although from his official position he was permitted non-residence, he conscientiously fulfilled his religious duties, making the journey of seventeen miles each Saturday, and returning on the Monday. He never passed the workhouse without calling to read prayers or to preach. He took great pains to excel as a preacher. In the national library may be seen a copy of Letsome's ‘Preacher's Assistant’ (1753, 2 parts, 8vo) marked with those sermons which might be consulted at the Museum, and with twenty-one leaves of manuscript additions not taken notice of by Letsome. Ayscough's salary had been recently increased, which, added to his clerical preferment, placed him in a position of comparative comfort; but his bountiful disposition led him to spend all his modest income, and he scarcely left sufficient to meet the claims upon his executors. In 1802 he edited, with John Caley, a volume of the patent rolls in the Tower, but does not seem to have been concerned in the ‘Taxatio Ecclesiastica Nicholai IV’ (1802) also published by the Record Commission, and sometimes ascribed to him. He died of dropsy in the chest, at his apartments in the Museum, on 30 Oct. 1804, and was buried in the cemetery of St. George's, Bloomsbury, behind the Foundling Hospital.
Ayscough has been termed the ‘Prince of Index-makers,’ and if the title conveys any idea of the extent and usefulness of his labours he well deserves it. Besides the many works already spoken of, he compiled the indices to Bridges' ‘Northampton’ (which took him nine months), to Manning's ‘Surrey,’ and, according to Nichols, the indices to the ‘New Review,’ edited by Dr. Maty. His life of indexing produced him altogether about 1,300l., not to be compared with the vast sums gained by those fortunate persons who jobbed the indices to the journals of parliament, but sufficiently handsome when one remembers the usual rate of pay for such work. Ayscough was no mere drudge, but did his laborious tasks with careful skill and loving diligence, and the variety of his services is not to be exceeded in the annals of literary hewing and delving. In spite of imperfect education and a youth of toil, he attained by his own exertions a very extensive knowledge of history, antiquities, and bibliography. His acquirements in palæography caused him to be in request for copying documents and to assist in the arrangement of the records in the Tower. He was a frequent contributor to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine.’ Although somewhat blunt in manner, students found in him a ready and accomplished helper. His friend Nichols (Gentleman's Magazine, lxxiv. 1094) pays a touching tribute to his good heart and benevolent character. He was of tall and bulky figure, as is shown by his portrait (ib. 1804, lxxiv. 1093). A friend tells a long story (ib. 1811, p. 319) about a young lady who was reproved for her want of attention when being shown the ‘curiosities’ by Ayscough, ‘than whom perhaps a kinder-hearted, better-humoured man never existed,’ and ‘who, although an old bachelor, was a great admirer of beauty.’ One of the duties of the assistant librarians was to take round the parties of visitors, and Ayscough, unlike some of his brother officers, seems to have taken an interest in this service.
Besides two contributions to the ‘Archæologia’ (1797) and his share in the production of several books, Ayscough published the following works: 1. ‘A Catalogue of the MSS. preserved in the British Museum hitherto undescribed, consisting of 5,000 volumes, including the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, the Rev. Thomas Birch, and about 500 volumes bequeathed, presented, or purchased at various times,’ London, 1782, 2 vols. 4to. 2. ‘Remarks on the Letters from an American Farmer; or a detection of the errors of Mr. J. Hector St. John, pointing out the pernicious tendency of those letters to Great Britain,’ London, 1783, 8vo (Anon.). 3. ‘A General Index to the Monthly Review from its commencement to the end of the 70th volume [1749–84],’ London, 1786; a continuation down to the 81st volume (1784–9) was compiled by Ayscough in 1796, 8vo; and there is a continuation by another hand down to 1816. 4. ‘A General Index to the first fifty-six volumes of the Gentleman's Magazine, from its commencement in 1731 to the end of 1786,’ London, 1789, 2 vols. 8vo; continued by Nichols to 1818, 2 vols. 8vo, with an index to the plates (1731–1818), by Ch. St. Barbe. 5. ‘An Index to the remarkable words and passages made use of by Shakespeare, calculated to point out the different meanings to which the words are applied,’ London, 1790, roy. 8vo; reprinted in Dublin 1791, and ‘second edition, revised and enlarged,’ London, 1827, demy 8vo; the last is adapted to the edition of the plays published in 1823 by the booksellers. 6. ‘A general index to the first 20 volumes of the British Critic, in two parts; part i. contains a list of all the books reviewed, part ii. an index to the extracts, criticism, &c.,’ London, 1804, 8vo (Anon.), continued by Dr. Blagdon.[Memoir of Ayscough contributed by Nichols to Gent. Mag. lxxiv. 1093–5, revised by Chalmers and reproduced in Literary Anecdotes (ix. 54–6). See also Gent. Mag. li. 69, 117, liii. 982, 1014, 1036, lxxiv. 518, lxxxi. 319; and General Index, v. 8; Nichols's Lit. Anecdotes and Illustrations; Description of Works printed by Record Commission, 1831; S.D.U.K. Biog. Dict.; Allibone's Dict. of English Literature.]