Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Barrett, William
BARRETT, WILLIAM (1733–1789), surgeon and antiquary, was born early in 1733 at Notton, in Wiltshire. Upon completing his twenty-second year, the stipulated age, he passed his examination as a surgeon on 19 Feb. 1755 (see pp. 77 and 94 of a well-kept manuscript folio volume at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields, entitled Examination, with Index, from July 1745 to April 1800). William Barrett is stated to have obtained from the College of Surgeons a ‘2nd mate's’ certificate after having given evidence of ‘1st rate’ capacity. He appears to have settled down from the first at Bristol for the practice of his profession. There, very soon afterwards, the idea occurred to him of writing the history of that city. He began, from an early period, to collect materials for the enterprise. From that time forward his life was about equally divided between his labours as a surgeon and as an archæologist. Although the work was not published until more than thirty years after his arrival in Bristol, a fine engraving of him, by William Walker, from a portrait by Rymsdick, ‘ætatis 31’ (that is, in 1764), was issued exactly a quarter of a century before the book itself was printed, and he is there described as ‘William Barrett, Surgeon and Author of the “History and Antiquities of Bristol.”’ Eager in his search at all times after any scrap or shred of antiquity that might throw light upon his labours, Barrett heard that parchments containing monkish poems, heraldic blazonries, and historical memoranda, ostensibly from a remote epoch, had been recently brought, one by one, to such casual acquaintances of his as Catcott and Burgum, the pewterers, by a bluecoat boy, Thomas Chatterton, the posthumous son of a sub-chanter at St. Mary Redcliffe's. Barrett caught eagerly at these reputed authorities prepared in rapid succession by a hand so young as to have entirely disarmed suspicion. He accepted all the boy's statements. Nothing, however remarkable, could startle him into incredulity. Having avowed himself zealous to establish beyond dispute the antiquity of Bristol, Barrett had, a day or two afterwards, handed to him Rowley's escutcheon of Ailward. Whatever information he wanted for his immediate purpose was placed by Chatterton, within a few hours' time, at his command, whether accounts of churches, of chapels, of statues, of castles, of monuments, or of knightly trophies. The instantaneous appearance of documents, turn by turn, in answer to his summons, never once seems to have awakened a doubt in Barrett's mind as to their authenticity. So entirely did he give himself up to the Rowley delusion, that two years after Chatterton's death we find him, in 1772, exclaiming in innocent exultation to Dr. Ducarel, ‘No one surely ever had such good fortune as myself in procuring manuscripts and ancient deeds to help me in investigating the history and antiquities of this city’ (Gent. Mag. lvi. 544). Nearly twenty years after Chatterton's death these audacious hoaxes were given to the world, in 1789, in the history of Bristol. Opposite page 196, ornately engraved upon a folded folio sheet, is the boyish delineation of ‘Bristol Castle as in 1138,’ knight in armour, cross, ground plan, and all, with, at the foot of it, as its alleged authentication, ‘T. Rowleie canonicus delin. 1440.’ Opposite page 637, again, there is displayed, with the same amazing innocence on the part of the historian, a carefully engraved facsimile of the Yellow Roll quaintly announcing itself in its title as ‘England's glorye revyved in Maystre Canynge, beynge some Accounte of hys Cabynet of Auntyaunte Monumentes.’ Other fabrications are scattered up and down the book among the letterpress, which extends to upwards of 700 quarto pages. On pp. 639 to 645 of this wonderful gallimaufry of a history there are given at full length those two highly elaborated epistles of Chatterton which Horace Walpole has twice averred in his ‘Letters’ that he never received, once in a letter to Hannah More dated 4 Nov. 1789 (Letters, ix. 230), and a second time three years afterwards in a letter to the Countess of Ossory (ibid. ix. 380) dated 7 July 1792. Chatterton had taken the full measure of the Bristol archæologist. Years before Carlyle's Dryasdust was dreamt of, the young satirist sketched Barrett to the life under the significant name of Pulvis. In a single line, indeed, of that caustic delineation—
Blest with a bushy wig and solemn grace—
he gives the whole effect of Rymsdick's elaborate portraiture.
Barrett looked forward with complacency to the longed-for date of its publication. He was, as one whose credentials were taken for granted, on 9 Nov. 1775, enrolled a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. But thirteen years still elapsed before, in 1788, he put forth his proposals for the publication of his ‘History’ by subscription.
Originally intended, as the folded embellishments indicate, to have been given to the world as a stately folio, the work at length appeared in the spring of 1789 as a solid quarto. Its dedication to Levi Ames, Esq., the mayor, to the worshipful the aldermen and to the common council of the city of Bristol, was dated Wraxall, 15 April, 1789. On 13 Oct. 1789, doubtless overwhelmed by disappointment at the ridicule heaped upon the book, William Barrett died in his fifty-sixth year at Higham, in Somersetshire. Writing seven weeks later, from Strawberry Hill, to Hannah More, Horace Walpole, on 4 Nov. 1789, thus significantly commented upon the reception of the ‘History’ and upon the death of the historian: ‘I am sorry, very sorry for what you tell me of poor Barrett's fate; though he did write worse than Shakespeare, it is great pity he was told so, as it killed him’ (Walpole's Letters, ix. 230). Yet, dead though the book itself is, and as it has been from the first, as an authority, it will long be regarded as a curiosity from its association with ‘the marvellous boy’ Chatterton. The full title of the work runs:—
‘The History and Antiquities of the City of Bristol, compiled from original records and authentic manuscripts, in public offices or private hands; illustrated with copperplate prints. By William Barrett, surgeon, F.S.A.,’ Bristol, 1789, 4to, pp. xix, 704.
[Gent. Mag. lix. 1052, and 1081-5; Rose's Biog. Dict. iv. 580. Principally, however, abundant reference to William Barrett will be found in the thirteen lives of Chatterton already published— namely those by (1) Dr. Gregory, 1789; (2) Kippis, Biog. Britannica, 1789 iv. 573-619; (3) Anderson, British Poets, 1795, xi. 297-322; (4) Sir H. Croft, Love and Madness, 1809, pp. 99-133; (5) John Davis, 1809; (6) Chalmers, English Poets, 1810, xv. 367-379, revised and extended in 1813 in his Biog. Dict. ix. 177-193; (7) Walsh, English Poets, 1822 Philadelphia, xxix. 115-193; (8) John Dix, 1837; (9) the anonymous memoir prefixed to the two-volume Cambridge edition of Poems 1842, i. pp. xvii-clxvii; (10) Masson, Essays chiefly on English Poets, 1856, pp. 178-345; (11) Martin Life prefixed to Poems, 1865, pp. ix-xlvi; (12) Professor D. Wilson 1869 (13) Bell, Life prefixed to the two-volume Aldine edition of Poems, 1875, i. pp. xiii-cvii. See also the original Chatterton MSS. at the British Museum, three folio volumes, Egerton MSS. 5766, A, B, C, one of these manuscripts, B f. 199 b, containing elaborate marginal notes in Barrett's handwriting.]