Birch, Thomas (1705-1766) (DNB00)

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BIRCH, THOMAS, D.D. (1705–1766), historian and biographer, was born of quaker patients in St. Georges Court, Clerkenwell, on 23 Nov. 1705. His father, Joseph Birch, was a coffee-mill maker. The son received the rudiments of a good education, and when he left school spent his spare time in study. He was baptised, 15 Dec. 1730, at St. James's, Clerkenwell, having been bred as a quaker (Register of St. James, Harleian Soc. ii. 191). He is believed to have assisted a clergyman called Cox in his parochial duty, and he is known to have married, in the summer of 1728, Cox's daughter Hannah. His wife’s strength had been undermined by a decline, but her death was caused by a puerperal fever between 31 July and 3 Aug. 1729. A copy of verses which the widowed husband wrote on her coffin on the latter day is printed in the ‘Miscellaneous Works of Mrs. Rowe,’ ii. 133-7, and in the 'Biographica Britannica.' Birch was ordained deacon in the church of England on 17 Jan. 1730, and priest on 21 Dec. 173l. Being a diligent student of English history and a firm supporter of the whig doctrines in church and state, he banked in the patronage of the Hardwicke family, and passed from one ecclesiastical preferment to another. The small rectory of Ulting in Essex was conferred upon him 20 May 1732, and the sinecure rectory of Llandewi-Velfrey in Pembroke in May 1743. In January 1744 he was nominated to the rectory of Siddington, near Cirencester, but he probably never took possession of its emoluments, as on 24 Feb. in the same year he was instituted to the rectory of St. Michael, Wood Street, London. Two years later he became the rector of St. Margaret Pattens, London, and on 25 Feb. 1761 he was appointed to the rectory of Depden in Suffolk. The last two livings he retained until his death. Birch never received the benefit of a university education, but in 1753 he was created D.D. of the Marischal College, Aberdeen, and of Lambeth. He was elected F.R.S. 20 Feb. 1735, and F.S.A. 11 Dec. 1735. From 1752 to 1765 he discharged the duties of secretary to the Royal Society. Whilst riding in the Hampstead Road he fell from his horse, it is believed in an apoplectic fit, and died on 9 Jan. 1766. He was buried in the chancel of the church of St. Margaret Pattens. Horace Walpole, in a letter to his antiquarian friend Cole, makes merry over the insertion of a life of Dr. Birch in the edition of the 'Biographica Britannica' which was edited by Kippis, and styles the doctor 'a worthy good-natured soul, full of industry and activity, and running about like a young setting-dog in quest of anything new or old, and with no parts, taste, or judgment.' In another letter the newswriter of Strawberry Hill asks the question, 'Who would give a rush for Dr. Birch's correspondence?' Walpole's censure, though exaggerated, rests on a basis of truth, but the fact remains that, in spite of their wearisome minuteness of detail and their dulness of style, the works of Dr. Birch are indispensable to the literary or historical student. His principal books were: 1. 'Life of the Right Honourable Robert Boyle,' 1744. 2. 'An Inquiry into the Share which King Charles I had in the Transactions of the Earl of Glamorgan, afterwards Marquis of Worcester, for bringing over a body of Irish Rebels to assist that King,' 1747 and 1756, an anonymous treatise written in reply to Carte's account of the same transaction, and answered by Mr. John Boswell of Taunton, in 'The Case of the Royal Martyr considered with candour, 1768.' 3. Lives and characters written to accompany 'Heads of Dlustrious Persons of Great Britain, engraven by Houbraken and Vertue,' 1747-52, and reprinted in 1760 and 1813. 4. 'Historical View of Negotiations between tbe Courts of England, France, and Brussels, 1592-1617,' 1749. 6. 'Life of Archbishop Tillotson,' 1762 and 1763, a whig memoir which provoked a thrice-issued phamphlet from the opposite camp of 'Remarks upon the Life of Dr. John Tillotson, compiled by Thomas Birch.' 6. 'Memoirs of reign of Queen Elizabeth from 1681 till her death [chiefly from the papers of Anthony Bacon],' 1764, 2 vols. 7. 'History of Royal Society of London,' 1766-7, 4 vols. 8. 'A Collection of Yearly Bills of Mortality from 1667 to 1768,' 1769, an anonymous publication. 9. 'Life of Henry, Prince of Wales,' 1760. 10. 'Letters between Colonel Robert Hammond and the Committee at Derby House relating to Charles I while confined in Carisbrooke Castle,' 1764, also anonymous. 11. 'Account of Life of John Ward, LL.D., Professor of Rhetoric in Gresham College,' which was published in 1766, after its author's death. These works, important and numerous as they are, by no means exhausted Dr. Birch's contributions to literature. He assisted, in common with the other members of the literary circle which was formed around the Hardwicke family, in composing the ' Athenian Letters ... of an agent of the King of Persia residing at Athens during the Peloponnesian War ; he edited the 'State Papers of John Thurloe' in seven folio volumes, and corrected Murdin's 'State Papers of Queen Elizabeth,' 1759. When Dr. Maty was carrying on the 'Journal Britannique,' he obtained the aid of Dr. Birch, and when Cave was editing the 'Gentleman's Magazine' he sought the assistance of Birch both in the general articles and in the parliamentary debates. Most of the English lives in the 'General Dictionary, Historical and Critical,' which appeared in ten folio volumes (1734-41), were written by him, and his communications in the 'Philosophical Transactions' were numerous and valuable. His biographies were held in such high estimation that his memoirs of Chillingworth, Mrs. Cockburn, Cudworth, Du Fresnoy, Greaves, Rev. James Heney, Milton, and Raleigh were prefixed to editions of their works, which appeared between 1742 and 1763, and his critical aid was sought for the superintendence of an edition of the works and letters of Bacon and of Spenser's 'Fairy Queen.' He bequeathed his books and manuscripts to the British Museum, together with a sum of about 500l. for increasing the stipend of the three assistant librarians. The manuscripts are numbered 4101 to 4478 in the 'Additional MSS.,' and are described in the catalogue of the Rev. Samuel Ayscough (1782). They relate chiefly to English history and biography. Among them were a series of letters transcribed from the originals at his expense and in course of arrangement for publication at his death. These were published in 1849 in four volumes, under the title of 'The Court and Times of James the First' and 'The Court and Times of Charles the First.' Numerous letters between Dr. Birch and the principal men of his age are printed in Nichols's 'Literary Anecdotes' and 'Literary Illustrations,' the 'Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica,' iii. 398-410, and in Boswell's 'Johnson.' Dr. Johnson acknowledged that Dr. Birch 'had more anecdotes than any man,' and is reported to have said that 'Tom Birch is as brisk as a bee in conversation, but no sooner does he take a pen in his hand than it becomes a torpedo to him and numbs all his faculties.' The justice of this condemnation of his writings is apparent to every one who consults them. The high estimation of his good qualities which was held by the tory and high-church Johnson in social life is continued by those; who agreed with the political and religious opinions of Dr. Birch.

[Kippis's Biog. Brit.; Boswull's Johnson (ed. 1848), pp. 48, 351; Ayscough's Catalogue, pp. v-vi; Weld's Roy. Soc. ii. 561; Thomson's Roy. Soc. p. 14, and App. p. xl; Edwards's Brit. Mus. ii. 415; Walpole's Letters, i. 384. vii. 326; viii. 260; Pink's Clerkenwell, 269-71; Morant's Essex, ii. 565; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 535-637, ii. 507. iii. 258, v. 40-3, 53, 282-90; Lit. Illust. iv. 241; Gent. Mag. 1766, pp. 43, 47.]

W. P. C.