Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Strahan, William
STRAHAN, WILLIAM (1715–1785), printer and publisher, was born in April 1715 at Edinburgh, where his father, Alexander Strahan, had a small post in the customs. After serving an apprenticeship in Edinburgh as a journeyman printer, he ‘took the high road to England’ and found a place in a London firm, probably that of Andrew Millar [q. v.] He married, 20 July 1738, Margaret Penelope, daughter of William Elphinston, an episcopalian clergyman of Edinburgh, and sister of James Elphinston [q. v.] About 1739 he was admitted a junior partner of Millar, with whom he was responsible for the production of Johnson's ‘Dictionary,’ and upon his death in 1768 he continued in partnership with Thomas Cadell the elder [q. v.] In 1769 he was able to purchase from George Eyre a share of the patent as king's printer, and immediately afterwards, in February 1770, the king's printing-house was removed from Blackfriars to New Street, near Gough Square, Fleet Street. Strahan was progressively prosperous, and his dealings with his authors were marked by more amenity than had hitherto characterised such relations. Dr. Thomas Somerville (1741–1830) [q. v.] went to dine with him in New Street in 1769, and met at his house David Hume, Sir John Pringle, Benjamin Franklin, and Mrs. Thrale. The publisher recommended him to stay in London, and gave him 300l. for his ‘History of William III.’ Besides Hume, Strahan was publisher, and either banker and agent or confidential adviser, to Adam Smith, Dr. Johnson, Gibbon, Robertson, Blackstone, Blair, and many other writers. In the case of Gibbon's ‘Decline and Fall,’ which had been refused elsewhere, when Gibbon and Cadell thought that five hundred would probably be enough for a first impression, ‘the number was doubled by the prophetic taste of Mr. Strahan.’ Other notable ventures of the firm were Cook's ‘Voyages’ and Mackenzie's ‘Man of Feeling.’ Strahan made large sums out of the histories of Robertson and Hume, and set up a coach, which Johnson denominated ‘a credit to literature.’
At Strahan's house the unsuccessful meeting between Dr. Johnson and Adam Smith took place. In 1776 Adam Smith addressed to Strahan the famous ‘Letter,’ dated 9 Dec., in which he describes the death of David Hume ‘in such a happy composure of mind that nothing could exceed it,’ and which provoked a long reverberation of angry criticisms. Strahan was Hume's literary executor, and on 26 Nov. 1776 he wrote to Adam Smith proposing that the series of letters from Hume to himself should be published along with Hume's letters to Smith, Robertson, and some others. But Smith put his foot down on this proposal decisively, on the ground that it was most improper to publish anything his friend had written without express permission either by will or otherwise. These highly interesting letters were purchased by Lord Rosebery in 1887, and edited by Dr. Birkbeck Hill in 1888 (Letters of David Hume to William Strahan, Oxford, 8vo).
Strahan was rather an advanced whig, and was extremely fond, says Boswell, of ‘political negotiation.’ He tried on one occasion to approach Lord North with the idea of procuring a seat in parliament for Johnson. The attempt happily failed; but Strahan himself was successful in entering parliament for Malmesbury at the general election of 1774, when he had Charles James Fox for his colleague. He sat for Wootton-Bassett in the next parliament, but supported the coalition and lost his seat in 1784. Johnson was disposed to gibe at Strahan's political ambition. ‘I employ Strahan,’ he said, ‘to frank my letters that he may have the consequence of appearing as a parliament man.’ A difference of two months was healed by a letter from Johnson and a friendly call from Strahan. Johnson was gratified at being able to get a young man he wished to befriend into Strahan's printing-house, ‘the best in London;’ he once in Strahan's company fell into a passion over a proof and sent for the compositor, but on being convinced that he himself was to blame made a handsome apology. Towards the end of his life Strahan's old friend Franklin wrote him from Passy (August 1784), ‘I remember your observing to me that no two journeymen printers had met with such success in the world as ourselves.’ He died at New Street, aged 70, on 9 July 1785. Like his old friend Bowyer, he bequeathed 1,000l. to the Stationers' Company, of which he had been master in 1774. His widow survived him barely a month, dying on 7 Aug. 1785, aged 66.
A portrait of William Strahan by Reynolds was in the possession of his son Andrew, and a copy by Sir William Beechey is in the Company of Stationers' courtroom, where is also a portrait of Andrew Strahan by William Owen (see Leslie and Taylor, Reynolds, 1865, ii. 302; cf. Guelph Exhibition, No. 195).
Strahan had five children, three sons and two daughters. The eldest son, William, carried on a printing business for some years at Snow Hill, but died, aged 41, on 19 April 1781; the youngest son, Andrew (1749–1831), carried on his father's business with success, became one of the joint patentees as printer to his majesty, sat in parliament successively for Newport, Wareham, Carlow, Aldeburgh, and New Romney (1796–1818), and died on 25 Aug. 1831, having presented 1,000l. to the Literary Fund, and bequeathed 1,225l. to the Stationers' Company. One of the daughters married John Spottiswoode of Spottiswoode, one of whose sons, Andrew, entered the printing firm, and was father of William Spottiswoode [q. v.]
The second son, George Strahan (1744–1824), matriculated from University College, Oxford, on 13 Nov. 1764, and graduated B.A. 1768, M.A. 1771, B.D. and D.D. 1807. He was presented to the vicarage of St. Mary's, Islington, in 1773, was made a prebendary of Rochester in 1805, and rector of Kingsdown, Kent, from 1820 until his death on 18 May 1824. Strahan was buried in Islington church on 24 May. He married, on 25 June 1778, Margaret Robertson of Richmond; his widow died on 2 April 1831, aged 80. Johnson in later life used to go and stay at Islington, and became much attached to the vicar. Strahan attended him upon his deathbed. Johnson left him by a codicil to his will his Greek Testament, Latin Bibles, and Greek Bible by Wechelius. Johnson also confided to him a manuscript, which Strahan published in its indiscreet entirety under the title ‘Prayers and Meditations composed by Samuel Johnson, LL.D.’ (London, 1785, 8vo; many editions; the manuscript was deposited in the library of Pembroke College, Oxford). The publication was attacked by Dr. Adams (Gent. Mag. 1785, ii. 755), and by John Courtenay (Poetical Review, 1786, p. 7).[Nichols's Lit. Anecd. iii. 390 sq.; Hume's Letters to Strahan, passim; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Hill, passim; Timperley's Encyclopædia, pp. 754–5; Chambers's Biogr. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; Gibbon's Misc. Works, 1816, i. 222; Somerville's Life and Times; Forbes's Life of Beattie, ii. 185; Rae's Life of Adam Smith; Prior's Life of Malone; Lounger, 20 Aug. 1785; Lewis's Hist. of Islington, 1842, pp. 111, 218; Gent. Mag. 1785 ii. 574, 639, 1824 i. 473, 1831 i. 324; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715–1886.]