Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomson, Thomas Napier

740166Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 56 — Thomson, Thomas Napier1898George Stronach

THOMSON, THOMAS NAPIER (1798–1869), historian and biographer, was born at Glasgow on 25 Feb. 1798, and was the fifth son of Hugh Thomson, West India merchant. About 1812 the family removed to London, and young Thomson was placed at a boarding-school near Barnet. Having contracted a bronchial affection, he was sent to his uncle's house in Ayrshire, and in October 1813 he entered the university of Glasgow as ‘Thomas Thomson,’ having dropped the ‘Napier’ owing to a disagreement with the Napier family. Thomson was a distinguished student. In 1818 he published a volume, ‘The Immortality of the Soul, and other Poems,’ his only publication in verse. After entering the divinity hall as a student for the ministry, he was reduced to poverty by his father's misfortunes, but managed to support himself at college as a private tutor, and in 1823 he obtained the two highest prizes in the university of Glasgow. Having received a license as a preacher, he officiated in many parts of Scotland, as well as in Newcastle and Birmingham, besides writing for ‘The Christian Instructor.’ In Glasgow he delivered a series of lectures to ladies on the ‘Philosophy of History.’

In 1827 he was appointed assistant to Laurence Adamson, minister of Cupar-Fife; but, owing to a return of his throat affection, he had to resign. He was then ordained to the charge of the Scottish church in Maitland, New South Wales, for which he sailed on 11 May 1831 with a brother and sister. On arriving at Maitland, he found there was neither church, manse, nor congregation, so he initiated a charge at Bathurst on 13 July 1832. About this time he married. Shortly after the birth of his second child he resigned his charge and returned to England, where he arrived in 1835, to devote himself to literature. Charles Knight (1791–1873) [q. v.] engaged him to edit and remodel Robert Henry's ‘History of Great Britain.’ This was afterwards abandoned in favour of a new work, ‘The Pictorial History of England,’ issued in 1838, to which Thomson was one of the principal contributors. He also wrote extensively for the periodical press, and contributed biographical and critical notices for ‘The Book of the Poets: Chaucer to Beattie’ (London, 1842).

In 1840 Thomson was commissioned by the Wodrow Society to edit Calderwood's ‘Historie of the Kirk of Scotland.’ As he had to make a copy of the original manuscript in the British Museum, the task occupied him nearly five years. In July 1844 he left London for Edinburgh, where he had been appointed by the free church editor of a series of works it was about to publish. After the appearance of several volumes, comprising the ‘Select Works’ of Knox, Rutherford, Traill, Henderson, Guthrie, Veitch, Hog, and Fleming, the scheme collapsed, Thomson again turning his attention to the periodical and newspaper press. In 1851 he became connected with Messrs. Blackie & Son, the publishers, for whom he afterwards turned out an immense amount of work, notably (along with Charles Macfarlane [q. v.]) ‘The Comprehensive History of England’ (4 vols. 1858–61). In 1851 he had written a supplemental volume of R. Chambers's ‘Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen,’ and immediately before his death he prepared a new edition in 3 vols., revised throughout and continued with a supplement, which was published between 1869 and 1871. It is by this work he is best known as a writer. His own biography is contained in the supplement. He died at Trinity, near Edinburgh, on 1 Feb. 1869.

Thomson was the author of small works written in his college days, entitled ‘Richard Gordon,’ ‘The Christian Martyr,’ ‘A Visit to Dalgarnock,’ and ‘The City of the Sun.’ He also published:

  1. ‘British Naval Biography: Howard to Codrington,’ London, 1839, 12mo; 2nd edit. 1854.
  2. ‘British Military Biography: Alfred to Wellington,’ London, 1840, 12mo; 2nd edit. 1854.
  3. ‘History of Scotland for Schools,’ Edinburgh, 1849, 12mo.

Thomson edited Robert Fleming's ‘Discourse on the Rise and Fall of the Papacy,’ Edinburgh, 1846, 8vo; Milton's ‘Poetical Works,’ London, 1853; and the works of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, 2 vols., Edinburgh, 1865, 8vo.

[Chambers's Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen, 1871; Allibone's Dict.]

G. S-h.