Roberts, William (1767-1849) (DNB00)

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ROBERTS, WILLIAM (1767–1849), barrister and author, born at Newington Butts, Surrey, in 1767, was second son of William Roberts. The family in earlier days possessed the manor of Abergavenny, Monmouthshire. A marble tablet describing the genealogy for three hundred years was erected in Abergavenny church by a kinsman, William Hayward Roberts [q. v.], provost of Eton. William Roberts, the father, who appended some Latin hexameters to the inscription, became, after serving in the army, a successful tutor at Wandsworth; he published ‘Thoughts upon Creation’ in 1782, and ‘Poetical Attempts’ in 1784 (Dict. Living Authors, 1816).

William Roberts the younger was sent first to Eton, and afterwards to St. Paul's school, where his uncle, Richard Roberts, was head-master. In 1783 he gained a scholarship at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Here his tutor was Thomas Burgess [q. v.], whom Roberts helped both with his pupils and in his literary work. He graduated B.A. in 1787 and M.A. in 1791. In 1788 he won the English-essay prize, the subject being ‘Refinement,’ and in 1791 edited for the university the ‘Marmora Oxoniensia.’ Dr. Cooke, the president of Corpus, described him as ‘the splendid ornament of his college.’

In 1791 Roberts travelled abroad as tutor. At Zürich he made the acquaintance of Lavater, and Gibbon invited him to dinner at Lausanne. On his return to England he studied law under Sir Allan Chambre. He was called to the bar from the Middle Temple on 28 Nov. 1806, but subsequently entered at Lincoln's Inn. He was already married, and early turned his attention to literature as a source of income. While at Oxford he had contributed to Murray's ‘English Review,’ and in 1792 conducted a bi-weekly publication called ‘The Looker-on,’ the greater part of which he wrote under the pseudonym of ‘the Rev. Simeon Olive-branch.’ Humorous articles were contributed by James Beresford, author of ‘The Miseries of Human Life.’ Eighty-six numbers of the ‘Looker-on’ appeared; all were reissued in Chalmers's ‘British Essayists’ (vols. xxxv–xxxvii.).

From 1811 to 1822 Roberts was editor of the ‘British Review,’ a short-lived periodical, tory in politics, and advocating evangelical views on religious topics. One of the chief episodes of his editorship was a quarrel with Byron. To hostile criticism of Byron's work, the poet retorted by some lines in ‘Don Juan’ (canto i. stanzas 209–10) on ‘My Grandmother's Review.’ Roberts inserted in his paper an indignant reply, which Byron answered in a sarcastic ‘Letter to the Editor of My Grandmother's Review.’ This was published in the ‘Liberal’ in 1819, and was reprinted in Byron's ‘Works’ (1859), with Roberts's original reply.

Meanwhile Roberts had made some progress in his profession. In 1800 he published a treatise on voluntary and fraudulent conveyances, which, according to Kent (Comment. p. 564, 8th ed.), was ‘a useful digest of the law on that subject,’ though ‘written in bad taste.’ The British Museum copy has manuscript notes by F. Hargrave. Four American editions appeared, the last in 1860. In 1805 he issued a work on the statute of frauds, which was republished in 1853, and of which there were three American editions (1823, 1833, 1860). Another legal work ‘On the Law of Wills and Codicils,’ published in 1809, gave Roberts an assured professional position. A second edition in two volumes appeared in 1815, and a third, with supplement, in 1837.

In 1812 Roberts was appointed a commissioner in bankruptcy, and was sent with Sir Benjamin Hobhouse [q. v.] and (Sir) George Sowley Holroyd [q. v.] to inquire into the condition of Lancaster gaol. He also visited the gaols at Chester and other towns, and suggested various improvements. At the same time he practised on the home circuit and took pupils in his chambers when in town. Among them was Lord Melbourne. In 1818 he was appointed a charity commissioner. By 1823 he had an income independent of literature; but he was always extending his acquaintance among politicians and literary men. In 1814 he first met William Wilberforce at the house of Weyland, proprietor of the ‘British Review,’ and subsequently became his intimate friend. In 1814, too, he first visited Hannah More, who had long found in Roberts's sisters her closest friends. With the evangelicals his influence continued great. In 1827 he defended the British and Foreign Bible Society from an attack in the ‘Quarterly Review.’ From 1828 to 1835 he resided at Clapham, where he became acquainted with Charles Bradley [q. v.], the evangelical incumbent of St. James's Chapel, and wrote his ‘Portraiture of a Christian Gentleman’ (1829). This piece, which was inspired by Hannah More's ‘Spirit of Prayer,’ was at first published anonymously; but a second edition, issued within the year, bore the author's name. The work was highly popular in America, where an edition appeared in 1831. In politics he was still a tory, and in consequence of some ‘Letters to Lord Grey on Parliamentary and Ecclesiastical Reform,’ which he wrote in the tory interest in 1830–1, he was deprived by the whigs of his charity commissionership in 1831. When the bankruptcy court was reconstituted in the following January, he was also deprived of his post there. From 1832 to 1835, however, he was secretary to the ecclesiastical revenues commission. Meanwhile Roberts's sister, who was Hannah More's executrix, entrusted him with the life of that lady, and his ‘Memoirs of Hannah More’ was published in 4 vols. in 1834. Two editions of two thousand copies each were sold within the year; and an edition in 2 vols. was even more successful. It was reprinted in 1872 in the Nonpareil series of English classics. The literary merit of the work was not proportionate to its success. The ‘Quarterly Review’ (No. lii. p. 416) criticised it unfavourably; and Prescott the historian declared that ‘Hannah More had been done to death by her friend Roberts’ (Biogr. and Crit. Miscellanies, 1855, p. 180). In 1838 a better ‘Life’ by Thompson appeared.

In 1835 Roberts retired from public life, and settled successively at Wimbledon, Shalford, near Guildford, and Abbey Orchard House, St. Albans. In 1837 he was declared equal with the Rev. William Nicholson in a competition for a prize of two hundred guineas offered by the Christian Influence Society for an essay upon the character and qualifications requisite in ministers of religion. The two essays were printed in a volume entitled ‘The Call upon the Christian Church considered,’ 1838. Roberts's last work, ‘The History of Letter-writing from the Earliest Period to the Fifth Century’ (1843), consisted of selected specimens of ancient letters chronologically arranged, with a few notes. The author lost 200l. by the publication. A posthumous work, ‘Church Memorials,’ was edited by his son Arthur. Roberts was active to the last in charitable and religious work. He died at Orchard House, St. Albans, on 21 May 1849. Roberts married, in 1796, Elizabeth Anne, elder daughter of Radclyffe Sidebottom, esq., bencher of the Middle Temple, and by her had ten children.

Roberts was admitted to the Athenæum Club without ballot in 1825 on the proposition of Heber. He was an excellent public speaker. His energy was abundant, but his critical judgment was hampered by his narrow religious creed. The portrait of him by Woodman, prefixed to his ‘Life,’ shows a refined and rather handsome face. Arthur Roberts (1801–1886), the eldest son, a graduate of Oriel College, Oxford, was rector of Woodrising, Norfolk, from 1831 until his death. He published, among other works, the ‘Life, Letters, and Opinions of William Roberts’ (1850), and edited his father's ‘Church Memorials and Characteristics’ (1874) (Times, 7 Sept. 1886; Record, 10 Sept.).

William Roberts, the barrister and author, must be distinguished from another William Roberts, who was steward of the court leet of the manor of Manchester in 1788. The latter published a ‘Charge’ to the grand jury of his court in 1788, and ‘The Fugitives, a Comedy’ (Warrington, 1791, 8vo).

[Rev. A. Roberts's Life of William Roberts; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Harford's Life of Bishop Burgess, pp. 89–91; Life of W. Wilberforce, by his Sons, iv. 160, and elsewhere; Gent. Mag. 1849, ii. 107.]

G. Le G. N.