Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ruffhead, Owen
RUFFHEAD, OWEN (1723–1769), miscellaneous writer, the son of Owen Ruffhead, the descendant of a Welsh family and baker to George I, was born in Piccadilly in 1723. When still a child his father bought him a lottery ticket, and, drawing a prize of 500l., invested the money in his son's education. He was entered of the Middle Temple in 1742, was called to the bar in 1747, and he gradually obtained a good practice, less as a regular pleader than as a consultant and framer of bills for parliament. In the meantime he sought to form some political connections, and, with this end in view, he in 1757 started the ‘Con-Test’ in support of the government against the gibes of a weekly paper called the ‘Test,’ which was run by Arthur Murphy [q. v.] in the interests of Henry Fox (afterwards first Baron Holland) [q. v.] Both abounded in personalities, and the hope expressed by Johnson in the ‘Literary Magazine,’ that neither would be long-lived, was happily fulfilled (cf. A Morning's Thoughts on Reading the Test and the Con-Test, 1757, 8vo). From about 1760 he commenced editing, at the cost of great labour, ‘The Statutes at Large from Magna Charta to 1763,’ which was issued in nine volumes folio, London, 1762–5, and again in 1769. Ruffhead's collection maintained a position of authority, and has been continued successively by Runnington, Tomlins, Raithby, Simons, and Sir George Kettilby Rickards. In 1760 Ruffhead addressed to Pitt a letter of some eloquence upon the ‘Reasons why the approaching Treaty of Peace should be debated in Parliament,’ and this was followed by pamphlets, including ‘Considerations on the Present Dangerous Crisis’ (1763, 4to), and ‘The Case of the late Election for the County of Middlesex considered’ (1764, 4to), in which he defended the conduct of the administration in relation to Wilkes.
About 1767 Bishop Warburton asked Ruffhead to undertake the task of digesting into a volume his materials for a critical biography of Alexander Pope. Warburton reserved to himself the reading of the proof-sheets and the supervision of the plan. Ruffhead set to work with the methodical industry that was habitual to him, and the result appeared in 1769 (preface dated Middle Temple, 2 Jan.) as ‘The Life of Alexander Pope, from Original Manuscripts, with a Critical Essay on his Writings and Genius;’ in an appendix were printed letters from Pope to Aaron Hill. Though tame and lifeless, the book was read with avidity as affording for the first time a quantity of authentic information about the best-known name of a literary epoch; four editions appeared within the year (one at Dublin), and the work was translated into French (it was also prefixed to Pope's ‘Works,’ Paris, 1799). The verdict of a reviewer (possibly Johnson) in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ that ‘Mr. Ruffhead says of fine passages that they are fine, and of feeble passages that they are feeble; but recommending poetical beauty is like remarking the splendour of sunshine—to those who can see it is unnecessary; to those who are blind, absurd,’ was subsequently abridged by Johnson into ‘Ruffhead knew nothing of Pope and nothing of poetry.’ Elwin dismisses him as ‘an uncritical transcriber.’
Ruffhead was himself a reviewer for the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ and he had in hand simultaneously with his ‘Life of Pope’ an edition of Giles Jacob's ‘New Law Dictionary’ (published after his death in 1772), and the superintendence of a new edition of Ephraim Chambers's ‘Encyclopædia.’ His close application to this literary work, in addition to his legal duties, undermined his health, and a cold taken in a heated court resulted in his premature death on 25 Oct. 1769. A few days before his death, in recognition of his political services, he had received an offer of a secretaryship in the treasury. He left one son, Thomas, who died a curate of Prittlewell in Essex in 1798. The publishers recovered from him a sum advanced to his father on account of ‘Chambers's Encyclopædia,’ the supervision of which was transferred in 1773 to John Calder [q. v.]
[Gent. Mag. 1799, ii. 283, 388; Noorthouck's Classical Dictionary; Spence's Anecdotes, 1856, passim; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Disraeli's Miscellanies of Literature, p. 165; Nichols's Lit. Anecdotes, iv. 97, v. 633, and Illustrations, iv. 801; Walpole's Correspondence, ed. Cunningham, i. 92; Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill, ii. 166; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope, passim; Marvin's Legal Bibliogr.; Brit. Mus. Cat.]