Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thompson, William Hepworth

THOMPSON, WILLIAM HEPWORTH (1810–1886), master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was born at York on 27 March 1810. His father was a solicitor, of whose eleven children he was the eldest. He received his first education at a school in York kept by a Mr. Richardson, and afterwards from several private tutors, the last of whom was the Rev. Thomas Scott, perpetual curate of Gawcott, Buckinghamshire, and father of Sir George Gilbert Scott [q. v.] Thompson entered Trinity College as a pensioner in 1828, his tutor being the Rev. George Peacock [q. v.] A lifelong friendship resulted from this early association with one whom he used to describe as ‘the best and wisest of tutors.’ Connop Thirlwall [q. v.] was junior dean and Julius Charles Hare [q. v.] one of the assistant tutors. Thompson derived great benefit from Thirlwall's lectures. In 1830 he was elected a scholar of his college, and in 1831 he obtained one of the members' prizes for a Latin essay. He proceeded to the B.A. degree in 1832, being placed tenth senior optime in the mathematical tripos. He was subsequently fourth in the first class of the classical tripos, and obtained the second chancellor's medal for classical learning. In 1834 he was elected fellow of his college, and in the following year proceeded to the M.A. degree.

Thompson's classical attainments marked him out for work in college, but, as there was no immediate prospect of a vacancy among the assistant tutors, he accepted in 1836 the headmastership of an experimental school at Leicester, called the collegiate school. In 1837, on the appointment of E. L. Lushington to the Greek chair at Glasgow, he was recalled to Trinity College and became one of the assistant tutors. He was ordained deacon in 1837 (4 June) and priest in 1838 (27 May). In 1844 he was appointed a tutor. In that capacity Thompson followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, George Peacock. In days when undergraduates were kept at a distance by their seniors, he made his pupils feel that he really stood to them in loco parentis. He could be severe when discipline required it, but he was always inflexibly just and untrammelled by pedantic adherence to tradition.

Thompson remained tutor of Trinity till 1853, when he was elected regius professor of Greek, and was appointed to a canonry at Ely, at that time annexed to the professorship. After his election as Greek professor, he was nominated one of the eight senior fellows of his college, under the belief that the statutes, as revised in 1844, permitted the Greek professor to remain a fellow. A chancery suit was, however, instituted against him by the Rev. Joseph Edleston, the fellow next below him on the list, and, judgment having been given against Thompson by the lord chancellor on 4 March 1854, he became a nominal fellow only, retaining his rooms in college and residing there when not at Ely. In the spring of 1856, in company with William George Clark [q. v.], he visited Greece, and spent some months in studying Athens and the Peloponnese.

Thompson's lectures were modelled upon those of his early teachers, Hare and Thirlwall, while containing characteristics peculiar to himself. ‘It would be difficult to speak too highly of his scholarship,’ wrote Dr. Henry Jackson in the ‘Athenæum’ for 9 Oct. 1886. ‘He had read widely and deeply, yet his strength lay not so much in the amount of his reading, or in his command of it, as in his sure judgment and fine tact. His criticisms were appreciative and sympathetic, those of a lover of literature rather than of a grammarian.’ His translations reflected the original with exact fidelity, while they had a literary flavour and distinction of their own. His views on the direction of classical study exercised a powerful influence on the university.

The author of his choice was Plato; and, though his over-fastidious temper prevented him from publishing either a complete edition or a translation, both of which he is said to have once meditated, he has left behind him much that is valuable. Of his published works the most considerable are his editions of the Phædrus (1868) and the Gorgias (1871). These are admirable specimens of interpretative exposition. The notes are learned and judicious, and the introductions masterly. Of his minor works, the most important is the dissertation on Plato's ‘Sophist,’ read before the Cambridge Philological Society on 23 Nov. 1857 (‘Trans. Cambr. Phil. Soc.’ x. 146; reprinted in ‘Journal of Philology’). This paper was directed against Whewell, who, after Socher, had called in question the genuineness of the dialogue. But Thompson did not confine himself to this polemical issue. He made it the occasion for a singularly acute investigation of the logical bearings of Eleaticism, and of the influence of the Zenonian logic upon the history of Greek philosophy. The paper on the ‘Philebus’ (1855) is a brilliant fragment (‘Journ. of Phil.’ xi. 1882). In general accord with the theory of Schleiermacher, Thompson held that the Platonic dialogues, with all their diversity of style, treatment, and subject, rest upon and present a definite system of philosophy.

In March 1866, on the death of Dr. William Whewell [q. v.], Thompson was appointed master of Trinity College. Soon afterwards he married the widow of George Peacock. He resigned the professorship of Greek in December of the same year. In 1867–8 he was vice-chancellor of the university. The twenty years of his mastership were years of activity and progress. Although he disliked the routine of ordinary business, he had a strong sense of the responsibilities of his office, and shrank from no effort where the good of his college was concerned. He was alive to the necessity for reform, and the statutes framed in 1872, as well as those which received the royal assent in 1882, owed much to his criticism and support. He died at the master's lodge at Trinity on 1 Oct. 1886.

Thompson was tall, and bore himself with a stately dignity which was enhanced by singularly handsome features and, during the last years of his life, by silvery hair. The portrait painted by Mr. Herkomer, R.A., in 1881, which hangs in the hall of Trinity College, gives a lifelike idea of him at that time, though the deep lines on the face and the sarcastic expression of the mouth are slightly exaggerated. When Thompson first saw the picture he is said to have exclaimed, ‘Is it possible that I regard all mankind with such contempt?’ Those who knew him superficially thought him cold, haughty, and sarcastic. In reality he was shy, diffident of himself, and slightly nervous in society. But he had a quick appreciation of the weak points in an argument or a conversation, together with a keen literary faculty, so that he would rapidly gather up the results of a discussion into a sentence which fell, as though of itself, into an epigram. One of Thompson's sayings, ‘We are none of us infallible, not even the youngest among us,’ has become proverbial. It was a reply made incidentally at one of the college meetings held for the alteration of statutes in 1877 or 1878, to a junior fellow who had proposed to throw upon the senior members of the society a new and somewhat onerous responsibility. To the young, the diffident, the little known, the poor, Thompson was uniformly kind, helpful, and generous; it was only for the vulgar, the pretentious, the vicious, or the sciolist that he had no mercy. He had a wide knowledge of English and foreign literature; he travelled a good deal, and spoke French and German fluently; he was fond of art, and a good judge of pictures and sculpture.

Besides the editions of dialogues of Plato already mentioned, Thompson published:

  1. ‘Old Things and New,’ sermon in Trinity College Chapel, 15 Dec. 1852, Cambridge, 1852, 8vo.
  2. ‘Funeral Sermon on Dean Peacock,’ preached in Ely Cathedral, 14 Nov. 1858, Cambridge, 8vo.
  3. ‘Family Prayers,’ Cambridge, 1858, 8vo.

He also edited ‘Lectures on the History of Ancient Philosophy, by William Archer Butler, M.A.,’ with notes, Cambridge, 1856, 8vo. The following papers by him appeared in the ‘Journal of Philology,’ viz.: ‘Platonica’ (vol. v.), 1874; ‘Euripides,’ lecture delivered 1857 (vol. xi.), 1882; ‘On the Nubes of Aristophanes’ (vol. xii.), 1883; and ‘Babriana’ (vol. xii.), 1883.

[Cambridge Graduates, ed. 1884; Cambridge University Calendars; obituary notices in the Athenæum, 9 Oct. 1886 (by Henry Jackson, Litt.D., fellow of Trinity College), and the Academy (by H. R. Luard, D.D., fellow of Trinity College, and registrary of the university); information from Dr. Jackson; private knowledge.]

J. W. C-k.