Bevan - Sir William Petty (1894)/Bio

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Sir William Petty : A Study in English Economic Literature  (1894)  by Wilson Lloyd Bevan
Chapter I: Materials for Petty's Biography

Sir William Petty : A Study in English Economic Literature was published as Vol. IX, no. 4 of the Publications of the American Economic Association




Petty' s Will.

Petty's will, dated May 2, 1685, printed in the Dublin collection (1769) of his writings, gives the following autobiographical data:

"In the first place I declare and affirm that at the full age of fifteen years I had obtained the Latin, Greek and French tongues, the whole body of common arithmetick, the practical geometry and astronomy, conducing to navigation; dialling, &c. with the knowledge of several mathematical trades, all which, and having been at the University of Caen,1[1] preferred me for the King's Navy, where at the age of twenty years I had gotten up about three-score pounds, with as much mathematicks as any of my age was known to have had.

"With this provision, anno 1643, when the civil wars betwixt the King and Parliament grew hot, I went into the Netherlands and France for three years, and having vigorously followed my studies, especially that of medicine, at Utrecht, Leyden, Amsterdam, and Paris, I returned to Rumsey, where I was born, bringing back with me my brother Anthony, whom I had bred, with about ten pounds more than I had carried out of England. With this seventy pounds, and my endeavours, in less than four years more I obtained my degree of M.D. in Oxford,2 and forthwith thereupon, to be admitted into the College of Physicians, London, and into several clubs of the virtuous;3 after all which expences defrayed I I had left twenty-eight pounds, and in the next two years, being made Fellow of Brasenose4 and Anatomy Professor in Oxford and also Reader at Gresham College, I advanced my said stock to about £400, and with £100 more advanced and given me to go for Ireland, unto full £500. Upon the 10th of September, 1652, I landed at Waterford in Ireland, physician to the army, who had suppressed the rebellion begun in 1641, and to the general of the same, and the headquarters, at the rate of twenty shillings per diem, at which I continued till June, 1659." Here follows an account of his public career in Ireland, more fully related in his other works. He estimates his profits at £13,000. "I bestowed part of the said £13,000 in soldiers debentures, part in purchasing the Earl of Arundel's house and garden in Lothbury, London, and part I keep in cash to answer emergencies. I purchased lands in Ireland, .... a great part whereof I lost by the Court of Innocents, anno 1663, and built the said garden called Token House Yard in Lothbury, which was for the most part destroyed by the dreadful fire, anno 1666. Afterwards, anno 1667, I married Elizabeth, the relict of Sir Maurice Fenton, Bart. I set up iron works and pilchard fishing in Kerry, and opened the lead mines and timber trade there." Here follow detailed accounts of his investments by all of which he estimates that he has an income of £15,000, "As for myself, I being now three-score and two years old, I intend to attend the improvement of my lands in Ireland, and to get in the many debts owing unto me, and to promote the trade of iron, lead, marble, fish and timber whereof my estate is capable: and as for studies and experiments, I think now to confine the same to the anatomy of the people and political arithmetic, as also to the improvement of ships, land carriages, guns and pumps, as of most use to mankind, not blaming the studies of other men. As for religion, I die in the profession of that faith, and in the practice of such worship as I find established by the law of my country....."

Aubrey's Biography of Petty.

The following life of Petty is printed in "Letters of Eminent Persons," by J. Aubrey, London, 1813, volume II., pages 481–491:

Sir William Petty was the son of ——— Petty,5 of Rumsey, in Hampshire, by ———, his wife. His father was born on the Ash Wednesday before Mr. Hobbes, sc. 1587. He was by profession a clothier, and also did dye his own clothes. He died and was buried at Rumsey 1644, where Sir William intends to set up a monument for him. He (Sir William) was born at his father's house, aforesaid, on Monday, the twenty-sixth of May, 1623, eleven hours 42′ 56″ afternoon. Christened Trinity Sunday.6

Rumsey is a little haven town, and hath most kinds of artificers in it. When he was a boy his greatest delight was to be looking on the artificers, smyths, watchmakers, carpenters, joiners, and at twelve years old he could have worked at any of these trades. Here he went to school, and learned by twelve years a competent smattering of Latin, and was entered into the Greek before he was fifteen. He has told me there happened to him the most remarkable accident of his life (which he did not tell me), and which was the foundation of all the rest of his greatness and acquiring riches. He informed me that about fifteen, in March, he went over to Caen, in Normandy, in a vessel that went hence, with stock, and began to play the merchant, and had so good a success that he maintained himself and also educated himself. This, I guess, was that most remarkable accident that he meant. Here he learned the French tongue and perfected himself in Latin, and had Greek enough to serve his turn. At Caen he studied the arts. At eighteen he was, I have heard him say, a better mathematician than he is now. But when occasion is he knows how to recur to more mathematical knowledge. At Paris he studied anatomy; and read Vesalius with Mr. Hobbes, who loved his company. Mr. Hobbes then wrote his "Optics." Sir William Petty then had a fine hand in drawing, and drew Mr. Hobbes' optical schemes for him, which he was pleased to like. At Paris, one time, it happened that he was driven to a great straight for money, and I have heard him say that be lived a week on two pennyworth (or three, I have forgot which, but I should think the first) of walnuts. Query: whether he was not some time a prisoner there.7 Anno Domini 1644 he came to Oxford8 and entered himself of Brasenose College. Here he taught anatomy to the young scholars. Anatomy was then but little understood by the university, and I remember he kept a body that he brought by water from Reading a good while to read on, some way preserved or pickled. Anno Domini —— happened that memorable accident and experiment of the reviving Nan Green, which is to be ascribed and attributed to Dr. Petty, as the first discoverer of life in her and author of saving her.9 Here he lived and was beloved by all ingenious scholars, particularly Ralph Bathurst, of Trinity College (then Dr. of Physic); Dr. J. Wilkins, Warden of Wadham College; Seth Ward, Professor of Astronomy; Dr. Wood, Thomas Wallis, M. D., etc.10 Dr. Petty was resident in Oxford 1648, 1649, and left it, if Anthony A. Wood is not mistaken, in 1652. He was about 1650 elected Professor of Music at Gresham College by the interest of his friend, Captain John Graunt, who wrote the "Observations on the Bill of Mortality," and at that time was worth but forty pounds in all the world.11 Shortly after (A. D. 1652), in August, he had the patent for Ireland; he was recommended to the Parliament to be one of the surveyors of Ireland, to which employment Captain John Graunt's interest did also help to give him a lift; and Edmund Wyld, Esq., also, then a member of Parliament and a great fautor of ingenious and good men for mere merit's sake (not being formally acquainted with him) did him great service, which, perhaps, he knows not of.12 To be short he is a person of so great worth and learning, and hath such a prodigious working art, that he is both fit for and an honor to the highest preferment. By this surveying employment he got an estate in Ireland (before the restoration of Charles II.) of £18,000 a year. He hath yet there £7,000 or £8,000 a year, and can from Mt. Mangorton, in the county of Kerry, behold 5,000 acres of his own land.[2]

A. D. 1667, on Trinity Sunday, he married the relict of Sir Fenton, of Ireland, Kt., daughter of Sir Hardress Waller, of Ireland, a very beautiful and ingenious lady, brown, with glorious eyes, by whom he hath sons and daughters, very lovely children, but all like the mother. I remember there was a great difference between him and Sir ———, one of Oliver's Knights, about 1660. They printed one against the other. The knight had been a soldier and challenged Sir William to fight with him. Sir William is extremely short-sighted, and being the challengee, it belonged to him to nominate place and weapon. He nominates for the place a dark cellar and the weapon to be a great carpenter's axe. This turned the knight's challenge into ridicule, and so it came to nought.13 He can be an excellent droll (if he has a mind to it), and will preach "ex tempore" incomparably either the Presbyterian way, Independent, Capucian friar, or Jesuit.14 He had his patent for Earl of Kilmore and Baron of Shelborne, which he stifles during his life to avoid envy, but his son will have the benefit of the precedency.15 A. D. 1660 he came into England, and was presently received into good grace with His Majesty, who was mightily pleased with his discourse. A. D. 1663 he made his double-bottomed vessel, of which he gave a model to the Royal Society made with his own hands, and it is kept in the repository of Gresham College. It did do a very good service, but happened to be lost in an extraordinary storm in the Irish Sea.16

He is a person of an admirable inventive head and practical parts. He hath told me that he hath read but little, that is to say, not since twenty-five years, and is of Mr. Hobbes' mind, that had he read much, as some men have, he had not known so much as he does, nor should he have made such discoveries and improvements.17

He went towards Ireland in order to be a member of that Parliament, March 22, 1679-1680.18 I remember one St. Andrew's Day (which is the day of the general meeting of the Royal Society). I said methought it, was not so well that we should pitch upon the patron of Scotland's day; we should rather have taken St. George or St. Isidore (a philosopher canonized). "No," said Sir William, "I would rather had it been on St. Thomas, for he would not believe till he had seen, and put his fingers into the holes according to the motto, 'nullius in verba.' "

He hath told me that he never got by legacies in his life but only ten pounds, which was not paid. He hath told me, that whereas some men have accidentally come into the way of preferment by being at an inn, and there contracting an acquaintance on the road, or as some others have done, he never had any such like opportunity, but hewed out his fortune himself.19

He is a proper handsome man, measured six-foot high, good head of hair moderately turning up: vide his picture as Dr. of Physick. His eyes are a kind of goose-grey, but very short-sighted, and as to aspect beautiful, and promise sweetness of nature, and they do not deceive, for he is a marvelous goodnatured person. Eyebrows thick, dark and straight. His head is very large. He was in his youth slender, but since these twenty years and more past he grew very plump, so that he is now abdomine tardus. This last March I persuaded him to sit for his picture to Mr. Logan, the graver, whom I forthwith went for myself, and he drew it just before his going into Ireland, and is very like him. But about 1659 he had a picture in miniature drawn by his friend and mine, Mr. Samuel Cowper (prince of limners of his age), one of the likest that ever he drew.

I have heard Sir William say more than once that he knew not that he was purblind, till his master (a master of a ship) bade him climb up the rope ladder, and give notice, when he espied such a steeple (somewhere upon the coast of England or France, I have forgot where), which was a landmark for the avoiding of a shelf. At last the master saw it on the deck, and they fathomed and found they were but —— foot of water.20 Before he went into Ireland he solicited, and no doubt he was an admirable good solicitor. I have heard him say that in soliciting he could dispatch several businesses, nay, better than one alone, for by conversing with several he should gain the more knowledge and the greater interest.

In the time of the war with the Dutch they concluded at the council board at London, to have so many out of Ireland (I think 1,500). Away to Ireland came one with a commission, and acquaints Sir William with it. Says Sir William: "You will never raise this number here." "Oh," said the other, "I warrant you I will not abate you a man." Now, Sir William knew it was impossible, for he knew how many ton of shipping belonged to Ireland, and the rule is to so many ton of shipping so many men. Of these ships half were abroad, and of those at home so many men imperfect. In fine, the commissioner could not raise above 200 seamen there. So we may see how statesmen may mistake for want of this political arithmetic. Another time the council of Dublin were all in a great racket for the prohibition of coal from England and Wales, considering that all about Dublin is such a vast quantity of turf, so they would improve their rents, set poor men on work and the city should be served with fuel cheaper. Sir William knew prima facie this project could not succeed. Said he: "If you will make an order to hinder the bringing in of coals by foreign vessels, and bring it in vessels of your own, I approve of it very well. But for your supposition of the cheapness of the turf, it is true it is cheap on the place, but consider carriage, consider the yards that must contain such a quantity for respective houses; these yards must be rented. What will be the charge?"

Memoranda: About 1665 he presented to the Royal Society a discourse of his in manuscript of building of ships, which the Lord Brounker (then president) took away and still keeps, saying, "It was too great an arcanum of state to be commonly perused;" but Sir William told me that Dr. Robert Wood has a copy of it, which he himself hath not.

Sir William Petty died at his house in Piccadilly (almost opposite to St. James' Church), on Friday, 16th day of December, 1687, of a gangrene in his foot, occasioned by the swelling of the gout, and is buried with his father and mother in the church at Rumsey, in Hampshire. My Lady Petty was declared Baroness of Shelborne and her eldest son Baron of the same, a little before the coming in of the Prince of Orange.

  1. The notes in this chapter can be found in chapter II (Wikisource-ed.)
  2. Most editions give 50,000 acres; see for instance Edition 1898, editor Andrew Clark, which also says: "He hath an estate in every province of Ireland". (Wikisource ed. 2018-01-27)