Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Foster, Joseph
FOSTER, JOSEPH (1844–1905), genealogist, born at Sunniside, Sunderland, on 9 March 1844, was eldest of five sons and three daughters of Joseph Foster, a woollen draper of Bishop Wearmouth, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Emanuel Taylor. Myles Birket Foster, founder of the London bottling firm of M. B. Foster & Sons, was his grandfather, and Myles Birket Foster [q. v. Suppl. I], the water-colour painter, was his uncle. His ancestors were members of the Society of Friends from the earliest times until the resignation of his father a few years before his birth. Educated privately at North Shields, Sunderland and Newcastle, Foster began business in London as a printer, but soon abandoned it for genealogical research, to which he had devoted his leisure from an early age. To that pursuit he henceforth gave up all his time with self-denying enthusiasm and industry.
Foster's genealogical works began with pedigrees of the quaker families of Foster and Forster (1862; 2nd edit. 1871); of Wilson of High Wray and Kendal (1871); and of Fox of Falmouth with the Crokers of Lineham (1872), all of which were printed privately. There followed later pedigrees of the families of Pease, Harris, and Backhouse, as well as of Raikes.
In 1873 he projected his 'Pedigrees of the County Families of England.' The first volume, 'Lancashire Families,' appeared in that year, and it was followed by three volumes of 'Yorkshire Families' (1874). He printed 'Glover's Visitation of Yorkshire' in 1875; in 1877 there appeared his 'Stemmata Britannica,' part only of a collection of pedigrees of untitled gentry, and in 1878 the 'Pedigree of Sir John Pennington, Fifth Lord Muncaster.'
In 1879 he published, in collaboration with Mr. Edward Bellasis, Blue Mantle, his laborious 'Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage.' Foster pursued the main methods of Sir Bernard Burke's work; but aiming at greater accuracy, he exposed, mythical ancestries, and placed in a section entitled 'Chaos' baronetcies of doubtful creation. Foster's undertaking was violently attacked by Stephen Tucker, Rouge Croix, in the 'Genealogist,' iv. 64, on account, principally, of its heraldry, and Foster and his colleague Bellasis defended themselves in a pamphlet, 'A Review of a Review of Joseph Foster's Peerage.' 'The Peerage,' which was re-isssued in 1881, 1882, and 1883, was ultimately amalgamated with Lodge's, which adopted much of its form.
In 1881 Foster established a periodical entitled 'Collectanea Genealogica et Heraldica,' which appeared at irregular intervals up to 1888. There he printed serially transcriptions of legal and other registers and genealogical researches, some of which (i.e. 'Members of Parliament, Scotland') (1882) were re-issued separately, and others were left uncompleted. In the periodical there also appeared much trenchant criticism and exposure of current genealogical myths, in which Foster had the assistance of Dr. J. Horace Round.
Meanwhile Foster, with heroic labour, transcribed the admission registers of the Inns of Court, and the institutions to livings since the Reformation. Some fruits of this labour were published in 'Men at the Bar: a Biographical Hand-List' (1888); 'Admissions to Gray's Inn, and Marriages in Gray's Inn Chapel' (1889); and 'Index Ecclesiasticus: or Alphabetical Lists of all Ecclesiastical Dignitaries in England and Wales, 1800–1840' (1890).
In 1885 Foster undertook to edit for publication the transcripts by Joseph Lemuel Chester [q. v.] of the 'Oxford Matriculation Register,' and the 'Bishop of London's Register of Marriage Licences,' which had become the property of Mr. Bernard Quaritch. Foster copiously supplemented Chester's work from his own independent researches. The 'Oxford Matriculation Register,' alphabetically arranged, was published in eight volumes under the title 'Alumni Oxonienses'; four volumes, covering the period 1715-1886, appeared in 1887, and another four volumes, covering the period 1500-1714, in 1891. By way of recognition of this service the university gave him the honorary degree of M.A. in 1892. Next year he carried his work a stage further in 'Oxford Men and their Colleges.' 'London Marriage Licences' (1521-1869) was published from Chester's transcript in 1887. In later life Foster wrote much on heraldry. There appeared in 1897 his 'Concerning the Beginnings of Heraldry as related to Untitled Persons.' To a series of volumes, issued under the auspices of the eighth Lord Howard de Walden and called the 'De Walden Library,' Foster contributed 'Some Feudal Coats of Arms from Heraldic Rolls' (1902); 'A Tudor Book of Arms,' 'Some Feudal Lords and their Seals,' and 'Banners, Standards and Badges' (1904). Foster's heraldic work was severely censured by Mr. Oswald Barron, editor of the 'Ancestor,' to whose strictures he replied in two pamphlets, 'A Herald Extraordinary' and 'A Comedy of Errors from Ancestor III' (1902-3). Foster's work met with very little support in his lifetime, though some of his compilations are of great and permanent value. He was not a scholarly archæologist, but his energy as a transcriber and collector of genealogical data has few parallels in recent times.
He died at his residence, 21 Boundary Road, St. John's Wood, on 29 July 1905, being buried at Kensal Green cemetery. His name is also inscribed on a memorial stone in Bishop Wearmouth cemetery. He married, on 12 Aug. 1869, Catherine Clark, eldest daughter of George Pocock of Burgess Hill, Sussex, and by her had two sons and three daughters.
Foster's library of books and manuscripts, many of them plentifully annotated, was privately dispersed at his death. Four volumes of grants of arms were secured for the British Museum, Add. MSS. 37147-37150.
Besides the works mentioned, Foster's publications include:
- 'Our Noble and Gentle Families of Royal Descent,' 2 vols. 4to. 1883; large edit. 1885.
- 'Noble and Gentle Families entitled to Quarter Royal Arms,' 1895.
He also edited 'Visitation Pedigrees' for Durham (1887), for Middlesex (1889), for Northumberland (1891), and for Cumberland and Westmoreland (1891).
[Allibone's Dict. Suppl. 1891; Brit. Mus. Cat.; The Times, 1 Aug. 1905; private information.]