Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thoms, William John
THOMS, WILLIAM JOHN (1803–1885), antiquary, born in Westminster on 16 Nov. 1803, was the son of Nathaniel Thoms, who was for many years a clerk in the treasury, and who, among many similar appointments, acted as secretary of the first commission of revenue inquiry. William began active life as a clerk in the secretary's office at Chelsea Hospital, a position which he held till 1845. From an early age he took a keen interest in literature, and especially in bibliography. He received much encouragement from Thomas Amyot [q. v.], the antiquary, through whom he became acquainted with Francis Douce [q. v.] Douce encouraged his studies, lent him books and manuscripts from his great library in Gower Street, and gave him every assistance in editing ‘Early Prose Romances.’ This, Thoms's first publication, comprised, among other English tales, ‘Robert the Devyl,’ ‘Thomas a Reading,’ ‘Friar Bacon,’ ‘Friar Rush,’ ‘Virgilius,’ ‘Robin Hood,’ ‘George a Green,’ ‘Tom a Lincolne,’ ‘Helyas,’ and ‘Dr. Faustus.’ It appeared in 1827 and 1828 in three octavo volumes. In 1858 a revised edition appeared, with which, however, Thoms had nothing to do. He followed this collection in 1834 by ‘Lays and Legends of France, Spain, Tartary, and Ireland’ (London, 12mo), and ‘Lays and Legends of Germany’ (London, 12mo). In 1832 he made his first essay in periodical literature as editor of ‘a miscellany of humour, literature, and the fine arts,’ entitled ‘The Original.’ It had, however, a short life of little over four months.
In 1838 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and in the same year was appointed secretary of the Camden Society, a post which he held until 1873. In 1838 also he published ‘The Book of the Court’ (London, 8vo), in which he gave an account of the nature, origin, duties, and privileges of the several ranks of the nobility, of the great officers of state, and of the members of the royal household. A second edition appeared in 1844. Thoms illustrated his treatise with anecdotes and quotations drawn from sources often inaccessible to the ordinary student. Other works of antiquarian interest succeeded. In 1839 he compiled for the Camden Society ‘Anecdotes and Traditions illustrative of Early English History and Literature from Manuscript Sources’ [see Lestrange, Sir Nicholas]. In 1842 he published an edition of Stow's ‘Survey of London’ (London, 8vo), which was reissued in 1875 without his sanction. In 1844 he prepared for the Early English Poetry series of the Percy Society an edition of ‘The History of Reynard the Fox,’ prepared from that printed by Caxton in 1481.
In 1845 Thoms was appointed a clerk of the House of Lords. Before long his reputation as an antiquary, combined with the charm of his conversation, drew to his room in the printed paper office many of the most learned members of the house, including Brougham, Lyndhurst, Campbell, Macaulay, Stanhope, Ellenborough, Lyttelton, and Houghton. The duties of Thoms's new position permitted him to continue his literary labours, and in 1846, under the pseudonym of Ambrose Merton, he published two volumes of tales and ballads, entitled ‘Gammer Gurton's Famous Histories of Sir Guy of Warwick, Sir Bevis of Hampton, Tom Hickathrift, Friar Bacon, Robin Hood, and the King and the Cobbler’ (Westminster, 16mo), and ‘Gammer Gurton's Pleasant Stories of Patient Grissel, the Princess Rosetta, and Robin Goodfellow, and ballads of the Beggar's Daughter, the Babes in the Wood, and Fair Rosamond’ (Westminster, 16mo). In 1849 he translated Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae's ‘Primeval Antiquities of Denmark’ (London, 8vo).
Shortly afterwards he turned his attention to another form of literary enterprise. As early as 1841 he strongly felt the need of some periodical which might give antiquaries and bibliographers the means of making known to each other points on which they required information. In 1841, with the co-operation of his friend John Bruce (1802–1869) [q. v.], he projected a magazine to supply the deficiency. The journal was entitled ‘The Medium,’ and some specimen pages were actually set up in type. Bruce was, however, compelled for domestic reasons to remove to the country, and the project was for the time abandoned.
In 1846, however, Thoms persuaded Charles Wentworth Dilke [q. v.], the proprietor of the ‘Athenæum,’ to open its columns ‘to notices of old-world manners, customs, and popular superstitions.’ Thoms introduced the subject on 26 Aug. in an article headed ‘Folk Lore,’ a term which was then first introduced into the English language. In 1849 he resumed his project of providing a paper ‘in which literary men could answer one another's questions.’ Dilke encouraged him, with the result that the first number of ‘Notes and Queries’ appeared on 3 Nov. 1849. The name was chosen by Thoms, and he selected for a motto Captain Cuttle's phrase, ‘When found, make a note of.’ In form the journal was modelled on the ‘Somerset House Gazette.’ It was published by George Bell. The price was fixed at 3d., which was raised to 4d. in January 1852. Among the earliest contributors were John Bruce, John Payne Collier, Bolton Corney, Peter Cunningham, Alfred Gatty, Edward Hawkins, Samuel Weller Singer, Mackenzie Walcott, and Sir George Cornewall Lewis. At the end of a few weeks the circulation had reached six hundred copies, and it continued to increase steadily. Thoms acted as editor until September 1872, when he was succeeded by John Doran [q. v.]
Meanwhile, in 1863, Thoms was appointed deputy librarian of the House of Lords, a post which he resigned in 1882 in consequence of old age. During this period of his life he published several antiquarian works. In 1865 appeared ‘Three Notelets on Shakespeare:
- Shakespeare in Germany;
- Folk-lore of Shakespeare;
- Was Shakspeare ever a Soldier?’ London, 8vo.
The second was reprinted from the ‘Athenæum,’ and the third, which was based on an error of identification, had appeared separately as a pamphlet in 1849, London, 12mo. In 1867 four articles from ‘Notes and Queries’ on ‘Hannah Lightfoot,’ ‘Queen Charlotte and the Chevalier d'Eon,’ Dr. Wilmot's ‘Polish Princess,’ and ‘Lord Chatham and the Princess Olive’ were collectively reprinted in book form, with some additions. In 1872 he reprinted from ‘Notes and Queries’ ‘The Death Warrant of Charles I, another Historic Doubt,’ London, 8vo, in which, by a careful examination of the actual document, he convincingly demonstrated the difficulty experienced in obtaining the requisite signatures for Charles I's death warrant, and the irregularity of the expedients to which the army leaders were reduced. Another edition was published in 1880. In 1873 appeared his iconoclastic treatise on ‘Human Longevity, its Facts and its Fictions,’ London, 8vo, which raised a storm of dismayed protest by its forcible contention that the authentic cases in which human life had been prolonged to a hundred years and upwards were extremely rare. Although Thoms proved less sceptical than Sir George Cornewall Lewis [q. v.], not even the histories of Jenkins, Parr, or the Countess of Desmond satisfied his tests of legal evidence. This was followed in 1879 by the ‘Curll Papers,’ London, 8vo. Thoms died in London at his house in St. George's Square, Belgrave Road, on 15 Aug. 1885, and was buried at Brompton cemetery. In 1828 he was married to Laura, youngest daughter of John Bernard Sale [see under Sale, John], a well-known figure in the musical world. By her he left three sons and six daughters.
In 1876–7 he published in ‘Notes and Queries’ an account of the history of the paper, and in 1881 he contributed some very interesting autobiographical memoirs to the ‘Nineteenth Century,’ under the title ‘Gossip of an Old Bookworm.’
Thoms went little into society, but at congenial resorts, such as the ‘Cocked Hat Club,’ he was remarkable for a ready play of wit and an almost inexhaustible fund of humorous anecdote and reminiscence.
[Notes and Queries, IV. x. 241, 383, xii. 1, v. vi. 1, 41, 101, 221, vii. 1, 222, 303, VI. xii., 141, 268, 303; Athenæum, 1885, ii. 239, 272, 304.]