Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Oldys, William
OLDYS, WILLIAM (1696–1781), Norroy king-of-arms and antiquary, born, according to his own statement, on 14 July 1696, probably in London, was the natural son of Dr. William Oldys (1636–1708), an eminent civil lawyer.
The antiquary's grandfather, William Oldys (1591?–1645), born about 1591 at Whitwell, Dorset, was a scholar of Winchester College from 1605, and subsequently graduated from New College, Oxford (B.A. 1614, M.A. 1618, B.D. 1626, D.D. 1643). He was proctor in the university in 1623, and vicar of Adderbury, Oxfordshire, from 1627 till his death. As a devoted royalist be rendered himself during the civil war obnoxious to the supporters of the parliament in his neighbourhood, and, fearful of their threats, he concealed himself for a time in Banbury. In 1645 he met by arrangement his wife and a son, when on a journey either to Winchester or Oxford, and resolved to ride a part of the way with them. Some parliamentary soldiers had, however, learnt of his intention, and intercepted him on the road. He fled before them in the direction of Adderbury, but when be arrived in front of his own house, his horse consequently overtook him, and shot him dead (Walker, Sufferings of the Clergy, ii. 323). A tablet in the chancel of Adderbury Church bears a long Latin inscription to his memory. He married Margaret (d. 1705), daughter of the Rev. Ambrose Sacheverell, and left eleven children (Wood, Fasti Oxon. ed. Bliss, ii. 54, Bresley, Hist. of Banbury, pp. 397, 604).
Of these, William the civilian, born at Adderbury in 1636, gained a scholarship at Winchester in 1648, was fellow of Kew College from 1655 to 1671 (B.C.L. 1661, D.C.L. 1667), and was admitted an advocate of Doctors' Commons in 1670. He became advocate of the admiralty and chancellor of the diocese of Lincoln. He was removed from the former office in 1693 for refusing to pronounce the sailors acting against England under the orders of James if guilty of treason and piracy (Notes and Queres, 3rd ser. i. 417). He unsuccessfully contested the parliamentary representation of Oxford University in 1705, and contributed the life of Pompey to the co-operative translation of Plutarch (1683-6), in which Dryden took port. He died at Kensington in 1708. His 'great library' was purchased by the College of Advocates at Doctors' Commons, whose books were finally dispersed by sale ill 1861. He was unmarried, but he 'maintained a mistress in a very penurious and private manner' (Coite, English Civilians, 1804, p. 95). In his will he devised 'to his loving cozen, Mrs. Ann Oldys, his two houses at Kensington, with the residue of property,' and appointed 'the said Ann Oldys 'whole and sole' executrix of his will. Ann Oldys was the mother of the future king-of-arms. By her will, proved in 1711, she gave, after two or three trifling bequests, 'all her estate, real and personal, to her loving friend Benjamin Jackman, of the said Kensington, upon trust, for the benefit of her son William Oldys,' and she left to Jackman the tuition and guardianship of her son during his minority.
After the death of his parents, William the antiquary made his way in life by his own abilities. In 1720 he was one of the sufferers in the South Sea bubble, and was thus involved in a long and expensive lawsuit. In 1724 he removed to Yorkshire, leaving his books and manuscripts in the care of Burridge, his landlord. The next six years he chiefly spent at the seat of the first Earl of Malton, a friend of his youth. Oldys was at Leeds soon after the death of Ralph Thoresby the antiquary in 1726, and paid a visit to his celebrated museum (Oldys, Life of Raleigh, 1736, p. xxxi). He remained in Yorkshire for about six years, and apparently assisted Dr. Knowler in editing the 'Earl of Strafforde's Letters and Despatches,' 2 vols. 1739. In 1729 he wrote an 'Essay on Epistolary Writings, with respect to the Grand Collection of Thomas, earl of Strafford, dedicated to the Earl of Malton. While on a visit to Wentworth House he witnessed the wilful destruction of the collections of the antiquary Richard Gascoigne [q. v.], consisting of seven great chests of manuscripts [see Gascoigne, Richard, 1579-1661?].
On returning to London in 1730, Oldys discovered that Burridge had dispersed his books and papers. The former included Langbaine's 'Dramatick Poets,' with manuscript notes and references by Oldys. This annotated volume had passed into the possession of Thomas Coxeter, who, says Oldys in his second annotated copy of Langbaine, 'kept it so carefully from my sight that I never could have the opportunity of transcribing into this [volume which] I am now writing in the notes I had collected in that.' The book in question afterwards belonged to Theophilus Gibber [q. v.], and from the notes of Oldys and Coxeter was derived the principal part of the additional matter furnished by Cibber (or rather by Shiels) for the 'Lives of the Poets,' 5 vols. 1753, 12mo. To the 'Universal Spectator ' of Henry Stonecastle [see Baker, Henry, 1698-1774] Oldys contributed about twenty papers between 1728 and 1731. While in 1730 Samuel Burroughs and others were engaged in a project for printing the 'Negotiations of Sir Thomas Roe,' Oldys drew up 'Some Considerations upon the Publication of Sir Thomas Roe's Epistolary Collections' (now in the British Museum, Addit. MS. 4168).
Oldys had by 1731 brought together a valuable library. It contained 'collections of manuscripts, historical and political, which had been the Earl of Clarendon's; collections of Royal Letters, and other papers of State; together with a very large collection of English heads in sculpture, which alone had taken [him] some years to collect at the expense of at least three score pounds.' In the course of the same year he became acquainted with Edward Harley, second earl of Oxford [q. v.], who purchased for 40l., with the prospect of 'a more substantial recompense hereafter,' Oldys's collections, 'with the catalogues' he had drawn 'up of them at his lordship's request.'
Oldys had free access to Harley's celebrated library, and one result of his studies there was the publication of 'A Dissertation upon Pamphlets. In a Letter to a Nobleman' [probably the Earl of Oxford], London, 731 , 4to. It reappeared in Morgan's 'Phœnix Britannicus,' London, 1732, 4to, and in Nichols's 'Literary Anecdotes' (iv. 98-111 ). Oldys also contributed to the 'Phœnix Britannicus' (p. 65) a bibliographical history of 'A Short View of the Long Life and Raigne of Henry the Third, King of England : presented to King James by Sir Robert Cotton, but not printed till 1627.' According to Dr. Ducarel, Oldys wrote in the 'Scarborough Miscellany,' 1732-4. John Taylor, the author of 'Monsieur Tonson,' informed Isaac D'Israeli that 'Oldys always asserted that he was the author of the well-known song
Busy, curious, thirsty fly !
which first appeared in the 'Scarborough Miscellany' for 1732.
The London booksellers employed Oldys in 1736 to see through the press a new edition of Sir Walter Raleigh's 'History of the World.' To this edition (2 vols. 1736, fol.) is prefixed 'The Life of the Author, newly compil'd, from Materials more ample and authentick than have yet been published, by Mr. Oldys.' The 'Life' occupies 282 pages, and embodies much labour and research. It was reprinted in 1740, 8vo, and was prefixed to the collected edition of Raleigh's 'Works,' 8 vols. Oxford, 1829. Gibbon meditated a 'Life of Raleigh,' but he relinquished the design from a conviction that 'his ambition, exclusive of the uncertain merit of style and sentiment, must be confined to the hope of giving a good abridgment of Oldys' (Gibbon, Miscellaneous Works, 1837, p. 68).
The 'Life of Raleigh' greatly increased Oldys's fame. He was frequently consulted at his chambers in Gray's Inn on obscure and obsolete writers by eminent men of letters. He aided Thomas Hayward in compiling his 'British Muse,' and Mrs. Cooper in her 'Muses' Library,' and his jottings for a life of Nell Gwynne he gave to Edmund Curll. In 1737 Oldys published anonymously his 'British Librarian: exhibiting a Compendious Review or Abstract of our most scarce, useful, and valuable Books in all Sciences, as well in Manuscript as in Print: with many Characters, historical and critical, of the Authors, their Antagonists, &c., in a manner never before attempted, and useful to all readers,' London, 1738, 8vo. It was originally brought out as a monthly serial, in six numbers, from January to June 1737, though the postscript is signed 'Gray's Inn, Feb. 18, 1737,' i.e. 1737-8. The work contains curious details of works now excessively rare (cf. Dibdin, Bibliomania, ed. 1842, p. 52).
In 1738 he was appointed literary secretary to the Earl of Oxford, with a salary of 200l., and, during his brief tenure ‘of this office he frequently met George Vertue Alexander Pope, and others. At the death of the earl in 1741 he received about-quarters of a year's salary, on which he lived as long as it lasted, and for the next fourteen years earned his bread by literary drudgery for the booksellers. In 1742 Thomas Osborne [q. v.] the bookseller purchased for 13,000l. the collection of printed books, consisting of 20,748 volumes, that had belonged to the Earl of Oxford, and intending to dispose of them by sale, projected an elaborate classified classified and descriptive catalogue. The editors selected by Osborne were Dr. Johnson and Oldys, who worked together at the task for several years. While the catalogue was progressing Osborne issued proposals or printing by subscription ‘The Harleian Miscellany; a Collection of scarce curious, and entertaining Tracts and Pamphlets found in the late Earl of 0xford's Library, interspersed with historical, political, an critical Notes.' Johnson supplied the ‘Proposals' or ‘An Account of this Undertaking,’ as well as the preface to this work (8 vols. 1744-6, 4to), while Oldys selected ad edited the phamplets. Oldys also drew up and annotated 'A Copious and Exact Catalogue of Pamphets in the Harleian Library,' 4to which is a choice specimen of ‘recreative bibliography.' This was issued in fragments with the ‘Harleian Miscellany,' and also in a separate form. It was reprinted by Park in the last edition of the ‘Harleian Miscellany' (x. 357-471). A new edition of ‘Health's Improvement,' by Thomas Moffett [q.v.], appeared in 1746, with a memoir of the author by Oldys, whose connection with Osborne then terminated. The editorship of Michael Drayton ‘Works,’ 1748 has been attributed to him, but he only furnished the ‘Historical Essay’ to that edition and to the one of 1753.
Between 1747 and 1760 Oldys contributed to the first edition of the ‘Biographia Britannica' twenty-two exhaustive artices. A tabular description of his labours on this important work is given Bolton Corney, who says: ‘It may be safely asserted that no one of the contributors to the “Biographia Britannica" has produced a richer proportion of inedited facts than William Oldye; and he seems to have consulted every species of the more accessible authorities, from the “Fœdera" of Rymer to the inscription on a print. His united articles, set up as the text of Chalmers, would occupy about a thousand octavo pages' (Curiosities of Literature Illustrated, ed. 1838, p. 177). In 1778, when Dr. Kippis undertook the editorship of the second edition of the ‘Biographia Britannica,’ he secured a portion of Oldys's manuscript biographical collections, which were quoted in the articles ‘Arabella Stuart,' ‘John Barclay,' ‘Mary Beale,’ ‘W. Browne,' and 'Samuel Butler.'
From 1751 to 1753 Oldys was involved in pecuniary difficulties, and, being unable to discharge the rent due for his chambers in Gray's Inn, he was compelled to remove to the Fleet prison. In 1753 he, in conjunction with John Taylor the oculist, published ‘Observations on the Cure of William Taylor, the Blind Boy of Ightham in Kent.’ Oldys remained in confinement till Mr. Southwell of Cockermouth (brother of the second Lord Southwell) and other friends procured his release (Gent. Mag. 1784, pt. i. p. 260). John Taylor, however, states that it was the Duke of Norfolk who paid his debts and thus obtained his liberty. Soon afterwards the duke procured for him the situation of Norroy king-of-arms, He was created Norfolk herald-extraordinary at the College of Arms by the Earl of Ellingham, deputy earl-marshal, on 15 April 1755, to quality him for the allies of Norroy, to which he was appointed by patent on 5 May following (Noble, (College of Arms, pp. 386, 419). Oldys appointed as his deputy Edward Orme of Chester, the compiler of pedigrees for Cheshire families. ‘The heralds,’ says Noble, ‘had reason to be displeased with Oldys's promotion to a provincial kingship. The College, however, will always be pleased with ranking so good a writer among their body.’ Francis Grose, Richmond herald, asserts that Oldys was accustomed to indulge ‘in deep potations in ale,' and was so intoxicated at the funeral of the Princess Caroline that he reeled about while carrying the coronet on a cushion. In refutation of this story Noble pointed out that the crown, when borne at the funeral of a king or queen, or the coronet at the burial of a prince or princess, is always carried by Clarenceux, and not by Norroy. In a contemporary account of the funeral of the Princess Caroline, however, it is distinctly stated that the body was preceded by ‘Norroy, king-of-arms, carrying the crown on a black velvet cushion’ (Gent. Mag. 1737, p. 765; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iii. 514).
Oldys was connected with the College of Arms for nearly five years. His library was the large room up one flight of stairs in Norroy's apartments, in the west wing of the college. His notes were written on slips of paper, which he afterwards classified and deposited in parchment bags suspended on the walls of his room. In this way he covered several quires of paper with laborious collections for a complete Life of 'Shakespeare,' and from these notes Isaac Reed made extractswhich are included among the 'Additional Anecdotes' appended to Rowe's life of the poet. At this period Oldys frequently passed his evenings at the house of John Taylor the oculist of Hatton Garden, where he always preferred the fireside in the kitchen, so that he might not be obliged to mingle with the other visitors. His last literary production was ' The Life of Charles Cotton,' prefixed to Sir John Hawkins's edition of Walton's 'Compleat Angler,' 1760. He died at his apartments in the College of Arms on 15 April 1761, and was buried on the 19th in the north aisle of the church of St. Beuet, Paul's Wharf. His friend John Taylor on 20 June 1761 administered as principal creditor, defrayed the funeral expenses, and obtained possession of his official regalia, books, and valuable manuscripts. The original painting of Oldys, formerly belonging to Taylor, was believed in 1862 to be in the possession of Mr. J. H. Burn of Bow Street. An engraving from it by Balston appeared in the 'European Magazine' for November 1796.
Some of the printed books belonging to Oldys were enriched with manuscript additions of great value. His first annotated copy of Langbaine's 'Dramatick Poets' passed out of his hands [see Langbaine, Gerard, the younger]. In 1727 he purchased a second Langbaine,and continued to annotate it till the latest period of his life. This copy was purchased by Dr. Birch, who bequeathed it to the British Museum. It is not interleaved, but filled with notes written in the margins and between the lines in an extremely small hand. Birch granted the loan of it to Dr. Percy, bishop of Dromore, who made a transcript of the notes into an interleaved copy of Langbaine in 4 vols. 8vo. It was from Bishop Percy's copy that Joseph Haslewood annotated his Langbaine, which is now in the British Museum. George Steevens likewise made a transcript of Oldys's notes into a copy of Langbaine, which is also now in the British Museum, having passed through the hands of Sir Samuel Brydges and Dr. Bliss. Malonc, Isaac Reed, and the Rev. Rogers Ruding [q. v.] also made transcripts of Oldys's notes. The Malone transcript is now at Oxford, but Ruding's has not been traced. In Heber's' Catalogue' (pt. iv. No. 1215) is noticed another copy of Langbaine, with many important additions by Oldys, Steevens, and Reed. In 1845 Edward Vernon Utterson had an interleaved Langbaine, but it is not known what became of it. It is hardly possible to take up any work on the history of the stage or the lives of our dramatists without finding these curious collections of Oldys quoted to illustrate some obscure point.
Oldys also annotated a copy of Fuller's 'Worthies of England' (1662), and the notes were transcribed by George Steevens into his own copy of that work, which Malone afterwards purchased for 43l. A copy of Bishop Nicolson's 'Historical Library' (1736), with a great number of manuscript additions and references by Oldys, is preserved in the British Museum. He also annotated 'England's Parnassus' (1600), and discovered the fact that its compiler was Robert Allott [q. v.] This volume belonged successively to Thomas Warton and Colonel Stanley, at whose sale in 1813 it was purchased by Mr. R. Triphook for thirteen guineas.
Among the works he left in manuscript are: 1. Extracts for a work to be entitled 'The Patron ; or a Portraiture of Patronage and Dependency, more especially as they appear in their Domestick Light and Attitudes,' Addit, MS. 12523. 2. 'Of London Libraries: with Anecdotes of Collectors of Books, Remarks on Booksellers, and of the first Publishers of Catalogues.' Appended to Yeowell's 'Memoir of Oldys,' pp. 58-109. 3. 'Catalogue of Books and Pamphlets relating to the City of London,' fol. This was lent by Steevens to Richard Gough [q. v.] who made use of it in compiling his 'British Topography.' The manuscript was subsequently in Sir John Hawkins's library, which was destroved by fire. 4. 'Memoirs relating to the Family of Oldys,' Addit, MS. 4240. The anecdotes relating to Dr. Oldys the civilian are printed in the ' Gentleman s Magazine,' 1784, pt. i. p. 329. 5. A collection of poems by Oldys. 6. Diary, appended to Yeowell's 'Memoir of Oldys,' pp. 1-29. This diary was discovered in a commonplace book of the Rev. John Bowie (1725-1788) [q. v.], usually called Don Bowie, now in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 22667). It was first printed in 'Notes and Queries' for February 1861. 7. Adversaria, from which a selection of' Choice Notes' was printed by Yeowell in 'Notes and Queries for 1861, and subsequently appended to the 'Memoir,' pp. 30-57.