Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wiffen, Benjamin Barron

WIFFEN, BENJAMIN BARRON (1794–1867), biographer of early Spanish reformers, second son of John Wiffen, ironmonger, by his wife Elizabeth (Pattison), was born at Woburn, Bedfordshire, in 1794. His elder brother was Jeremiah Holmes Wiffen [q. v.] He followed his brother to Ackworth school in 1803; on leaving in 1808 he went into his father's business, and remained in it at Woburn till 1838, when his health failed, and he retired to Mount Pleasant, near Woburn. His literary tastes were encouraged by his brother, and by Richard Thomas How of Aspley Guise, Bedfordshire, owner of a remarkable library (collected by his father, Richard How [1727–1801], editor of Lady Rachel Russell's ‘Letters’). How, portrayed in Wiffen's posthumous poem, ‘The Quaker Squire,’ first gave him the hint of an ‘old work, by a Spaniard [one of the works of Juan de Valdés], which represented essentially the principles of George Fox.’

Early in 1839 Luis de Usóz y Rio (d. 13 Aug. 1835, aged 59) came to London from Madrid, and was introduced by George Borrow [q. v.] to Josiah Forster. When Wiffen came up to the Friends' yearly meeting in Whitweek, Forster told him that Usóz y Rio had inquired after his brother as a translator of Spanish poetry. At Forster's request he called on Usóz y Rio in Jermyn Street, when there at once sprang up a lifelong friendship between them, and ‘henceforward Spain took entire possession’ of Wiffen. Towards the close of 1839 he made his first visit to Spain with George William Alexander, as a deputation to forward the abolition of the slave trade. It was in the summer of 1841, during a visit of Usóz y Rio to Mount Pleasant, that ‘they formed the common purpose to rescue from oblivion the works of the early Spanish reformers.’ In 1842 he accompanied Alexander a second time to Spain and Portugal; on his return he began his book-hunting, of which he gives a most interesting account (‘Notices and Experiences,’ printed by Boehmer in Bibliotheca Wiffeniana, 1874, i. 29–57; and partly embodied in Pattison's Life). He obtained some unique treasures. Many rare works he himself copied line for line; of others he obtained transcripts. Without his aid the collection of ‘Obras Antiguas de los Españoles Reformados’ (1847–65, 16mo and 8vo, 20 vols.) could not have been produced. The volumes were privately printed under his superintendence. He himself edited vol. ii., the ‘Epistola Consolatoria’ (1848, 8vo) by Juan Perez, with a notice of the author in English (this notice is reprinted with the English translation, 1871, 8vo, by John T. Betts) and Spanish; and vol. xv., the ‘Alfabeto Cristiano’ (1861, 8vo) by Juan de Valdés, in Italian, with modern versions in Spanish and English. The remaining volumes were edited by Usóz y Rio. Wiffen wrote also the ‘Life and Writings of Juan de Valdés’ (1865, 8vo) which accompanies the English translations of works of Valdés by John T. Betts; and a ‘Biographical Sketch’ (1869, 8vo) of Constantino Ponce de la Fuente, to accompany the English version of his ‘Confession of a Sinner,’ by the same translator. Eduard Boehmer has printed two volumes (1874 and 1883, 8vo) of the ‘Bibliotheca Wiffeniana,’ containing lives and writings of Spanish reformers from 1520, ‘according to … Wiffen's plan, and with the use of his materials.’ Ticknor in his standard ‘History of Spanish Literature’ spoke of Wiffen in 1863 as ‘an English quaker, full of knowledge of Spanish literature.’

In early life, and again later, Wiffen had written verses of some merit, but published nothing separately. His ‘Warder of the Pyrenees’ appeared in Finden's ‘Tableaux of National Character’ (1845, fol.), edited by his sister, Mrs. Alaric A. Watts. This is reprinted in the selection of his poems (unpublished previously, for the most part) given in ‘The Brothers Wiffen’ (1880), edited by Samuel Rowles Pattison.

He died, unmarried, at Mount Pleasant on 18 March 1867, and was buried in the Friends' graveyard at Woburn Sands on 24 March. His portrait is given in ‘The Brothers Wiffen.’ He was ‘a small, pale, keen-eyed man,’ delicately organised, always wearing quaker garb, and strict in all observances of the Friends.

[Memoir, by his niece Mary Isaline W. Wiffen, in Boehmer's Bibliotheca Wiffeniana, 1874, i. 1–25; S. R. Pattison's Life in The Brothers Wiffen, 1880; Doeg's Ackworth School Catalogue, 1831; Seebohm's Memoirs of Stephen Grellet, 1862, ii. 72; Obras Antiguas de los Españoles Reformados, 1865, xx. 156; Smith's Catalogue of Friends' Books, 1867, and Supplement, 1893; Martin's Catalogue of Privately Printed Books, 1854; Menéndez y Pelayós' Heterodoxos Españoles, 1880 i. 11, 1881 iii. 675; Biographical Catalogue of Portraits at Devonshire House, 1888, p. 727.]

A. G.