Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cooper, Charles Henry

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COOPER, CHARLES HENRY (1808–1866), biographer and antiquary, descended from a family long settled at Bray, Berkshire, was born at Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire, on 20 March 1808, being the eldest son of Basil Henry Cooper, solicitor, by Harriet, daughter of Charles Shoppee of Uxbridge. He was educated at home until he reached his seventh year, when he was sent to a school kept by a Mr. Cannon at Reading. There he remained to the end of 1822. From an early age he evinced a passion for reading, and as his father possessed an extensive and excellent library, he was enabled to lay the foundation of that stock of historical and antiquarian learning by which in after life he was so greatly distinguished. In 1826 he settled at Cambridge, and applied himself with great diligence to the study of the law. On 1 Jan. 1836, when the Municipal Corporations Act came into operation, he was elected coroner of the borough, though he was not admitted a solicitor until four years later. In 1849 he was appointed town clerk of Cambridge, which office he held till his death. In 1851 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Having an intimate acquaintance with the law and possessing great powers as an orator, he acquired an extensive practice as a solicitor. In 1855 he was engaged in the Cambridge arbitration which resulted in the Award Act of the following year, and for the learning and legal acumen displayed by him on this occasion a high compliment was passed upon him by the arbitrator, Sir John Patteson.

His claim to remembrance is, however, mainly founded upon his elaborate works relating to the history and topography of Cambridge and the biography of distinguished members of the university. The first production of his pen was ‘A New Guide to the University and Town of Cambridge,’ which was published anonymously in 1831. It is superior to most works of its class, the descriptions of the architecture of the various buildings being very excellent. In 1842 the first volume appeared of the ‘Annals of Cambridge,’ which was followed by three other volumes, dated respectively 1843, 1845, and 1852, and by a portion of a fifth (pp. 1–128) in 1853. This work is arranged chronologically, and contains an account of all matters relating to the university and town from the fabulous times of Cantaber and King Cassibelan down to the close of the year 1853. It was brought out in parts by subscription and amid great difficulties. Many of the academical authorities were much averse to its publication, as they entertained a wholly unfounded idea that it would in some way tend to deprive the university of its ancient privileges. In 1858 the first volume appeared of a work more ambitious in its plan and relating to a subject more widely interesting. This was the ‘Athenæ Cantabrigienses,’ written conjointly by Cooper and his eldest son, Thompson Cooper, F.S.A. The idea of the book was suggested by the famous ‘Athenæ Oxonienses’ of Anthony à Wood. It contains carefully written memoirs of the worthies who received their education or were incorporated at Cambridge, and, like the companion work of Wood, is arranged in chronological order according to the date of death. The first volume embraces 1500–85, and the second, published in 1861, extends to 1609. A portion of a third volume, extending to 1611, was printed but not published, though most of the memoirs in this unfinished volume were afterwards reproduced in Thompson Cooper's ‘Biographical Dictionary.’ Like the ‘Annals,’ this work, which is universally admitted to be a valuable addition to our biographical literature, was published by private subscription. After the decease of the principal author the university handsomely offered to defray the cost of printing at the University Press the remainder of the ‘Athenæ,’ but his two sons, after making some further progress with the preparation of the manuscript, were reluctantly obliged by the pressure of their professional avocations to finally abandon the undertaking. The extensive collection of notes for bringing the work down to 1866 remains in the possession of Cooper's widow, together with another vast mass of manuscript materials for a new ‘Biographia Britannica.’

Cooper's last work, ‘The Memorials of Cambridge,’ appeared at Cambridge in 3 vols. 1858–66. It was originally intended to be based on the work published under the same title by Le Keux, but during its progress it was altered and modified so extensively that it may be regarded as substantially a new and an original work. Cooper was a constant and valued contributor to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ ‘Notes and Queries,’ and the proceedings of the antiquarian societies of London and Cambridge. He always freely and ungrudgingly assisted in any literary undertaking. Thomas Carlyle, in his ‘Life and Letters of Cromwell,’ acknowledges the value of the information given to him by Cooper, and numerous other writers have made similar acknowledgments. Cooper died at his residence, 29 Jesus Lane, Cambridge, on 21 March 1866. The funeral took place at the cemetery, Mill Road, Cambridge, on the 26th, when the members of the corporation attended with the insignia of office. A bust of Cooper, executed by Timothy Butler, was afterwards placed by public subscription in the Cambridge town hall. He married in 1834 Jane, youngest daughter of John Thompson of Prickwillow, by whom he had issue eight children. The survivors were Thompson Cooper (d. 1904); John William Cooper, LL.D., of Trinity Hall, Cambridge; and a daughter, Harriet Elizabeth.

He left in manuscript a ‘Memoir of Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby,’ mother of Henry VII. This work, written in 1839, was edited by the Rev. J. E. B. Mayor ‘for the two colleges of her foundation’—Christ's and St. John's—in 1874, 8vo. Mr. Mayor, who for thirteen years was Cooper's intimate literary friend, wrote a character of him shortly after his death. ‘The best years of his life,’ says Mr. Mayor, ‘were devoted to investigating our academic history, though few of those for whom he toiled appreciated his work, and many ignorantly regarded him as an enemy; they might have learned that he loved to identify himself with the university, rejoicing when he could add a new name to our list of worthies. The void which Mr. Cooper has left behind him cannot be filled. Cambridge never had nor will have a town clerk so entirely master of its archives, or more devoted to its interests; no town in England has three such records to boast of as the “Memorials of Cambridge,” the “Annals of Cambridge,” and “Athenæ Cantabrigienses.” Alma Mater has lost one who did her work, under great discouragement, better than any of her sons could have done it. One need not be a prophet to foretell that two hundred years hence Mr. Cooper's works will be more often cited than any other Cambridge books of our time.’

[Gent. Mag. ccxx. 910; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. ix. 253, 364; Encycl. Brit. 9th edit.; Cooper's Annals of Cambridge, iv. 599, 707; Ashmole's Berkshire, iii. 19; Cambridge Chronicle and Cambridge Independent Press, 24 March 1866; Gardiner and Mullinger's Study of English History (1881), pp. 329, 330.]

T. C.