Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brewer, John Sherren

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BREWER, JOHN SHERREN (1810–1879), historical writer, was the son of a Norwich schoolmaster who bore the same Christian names. His family originally belonged to Kent. His father was brought up in the church of England, but became a baptist. He was a good biblical scholar, and devoted his leisure to the study of Hebrew. He had a large family, but only four sons grew up, of whom John Sherren, the eldest, notwithstanding his father's nonconformist leanings, was sent to Oxford, where, having joined the church of England, he entered Queen's College, and obtained a first class in literis humanioribus in 1832. In his Oxford years every one seems to have been struck with the extraordinary range of his reading. For a short time he remained at the university as a private tutor, but he shut himself out from a fellowship by an early marriage. In 1870 he was elected honorary fellow of Queen's College. During this time (1836) he brought out an edition of Aristotle's 'Ethics.' His domestic life was soon clouded, first by a great change of circumstances, his father-in-law having lost a fortune; afterwards by the death and infirmity of some of his children. He removed to London, where he took deacon's orders in 1837, and was the same day appointed chaplain to the workhouse of the united parishes of St. Giles-in-the-Fields and St. George, Bloomsbury.

He had been strongly influenced by the Oxford movement of those days, and retained to the last, notwithstanding differences, a very warm regard for its leader, Cardinal Newman. He devoted himself to the duties of his chaplaincy with a zeal which was gratefully remembered by old persons forty years after. One result of his experience was a lecture on workhouse visiting, which is included in a volume entitled 'Lectures to Ladies on Practical Subjects,' published in 1855. He valued highly, but not fantastically, the artistic element in religious worship, and from the first taught the boys, and even some of the older inmates, of the workhouse to sing the psalms to the Gregorian chants. When the church adjoining the workhouse in Endell Street was built, it was proposed that the chaplaincy should be united with the incumbency, and that Brewer should be the first incumbent. He took great interest in the architecture, making models with his own hand in cardboard and bark. But a difference of opinion with the rector of St. Giles prevented his appointment, and made him resign the chaplaincy, after which, though he assisted other clergymen at times, he for many years held no cure.

Meanwhile, for a short time he found some employment in the British Museum. Before leaving Oxford, he had drawn up for the Record Commission a catalogue of the manuscripts in some of the colleges there. In 1839 he was appointed lecturer in classical literature at King's College, London. His friend, the Rev. F. D. Maurice, became professor of English literature and modern history the year after; and from that time, notwithstanding some differences in their views, he most cordially co-operated with him in many things. After the removal of Mr. Maurice from King's College, Brewer, in 1855, was appointed professor of the English language and literature and lecturer in modern history. An ardent lover of the classics, he was not less devoted to English literature, the study of which he invariably combined with that of modern history as the only mode of making either study fruitful; and his method of teaching was highly calculated to awaken the best thinking power in his hearers. His classes both at King's College and afterwards in the Working Men's College, where he for some years assisted Mr. Maurice, and ultimately succeeded him as principal, were always numerously attended by a highly interested audience.

He was also busy with his pen—at first mainly as a journalist. From about the year 1854 he continued for six years to write in the columns of the 'Morning Post,' the 'Morning Herald,' and the 'Standard,' of which last paper he became the editor. He resigned in consequence of a dispute with the manager about the employment of a Roman catholic contributor, whose claims he supported. Thoroughly liberal-minded, he appreciated every man's capacity, whatever his leanings might be, and strove to give every one a fair field for his talents. But he soon became absorbed in other work, far less remunerative, though in his eyes of very high importance; and after quitting the 'Standard' he wrote little in any newspaper except a number of very strong letters in the 'Globe' against the policy of disestablishing the Irish Church. In 1856 he was commissioned by the master of the rolls, Sir John Romilly, to prepare a calendar of the state papers of Henry VIII—a work of peculiar labour, involving concurrent investigations at the Record Office and the British Museum, as well as at Lambeth and other public libraries; and in this he continued to be engaged till the day of his death. His advice was for a long time continually sought by Sir Thomas Hardy, the deputy-keeper of the public records, on matters connected with the literary work of the office. He was also appointed by Lord Romilly reader at the Rolls, and afterwards preacher there—a post of greater name than emolument. Some years later he was consulted by the delegates of the Clarendon Press as to a projected series of English classics, of which several volumes have now been published. The plan of the series was drawn up by Brewer, and it was intended that he should write a general introduction to it; but he died before the scheme was sufficiently advanced to enable him to do so.

In 1877 the crown living of Toppesfield in Essex was given to him by Mr. Disraeli, who was then prime minister. He gave up his professorship at King's College, but still remained editor of the calendar of Henry VIII, though he endeavoured to take his editorial work more lightly, while he threw himself into his parochial duties with the zeal and energy he had displayed in everything else. For some time his usually robust health had been slightly impaired. In February 1879 he caught cold after a long walk to visit a sick parishioner. The illness soon affected his heart, and in three days he died.

His principal works are those which he produced for the Record Office, among which the calendar of 'Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII' holds the first place. The prefaces to the volumes of this calendar have been collected and published in a separate form with the title of 'the Reign of Henry VIII,' 1884, under the editorship of J. Gairdner. And besides some other calendars and official reports, his 'Monumenta Franciscana,' and his editions of certain works of Roger Bacon and Giraldus Cambrensis, also published for the master of the rolls, deserve particular mention. Besides these he published, through ordinary channels, Bishop Goodman's account of the 'Court of King James I.,' an admirable edition of Fuller's 'Church History,' another of Bacon's 'Novum Organum,' 'An Elementary Atlas of History and Geography,' and the 'Student's Hume,' revised edition 1878. He was also the author of some treatises published by the Christian Knowledge Society on the 'Athanasian Creed' and the 'Endowments and Establishment of the Church of England.' Early in his career he had also undertaken an edition of Field's 'Book of the Church,' of which, however, only one volume was issued, in 1843. Dr. Wace edited in 1881 his 'English Studies,' reprinted from the 'Quarterly Review.'

[Memoir prefixed to Brewer's English Studies by Dr. Wace, supplemented by personal knowledge and information derived from the family.]

J. G.