Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sheridan, Thomas (1719-1788)

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601451Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 52 — Sheridan, Thomas (1719-1788)1897William Fraser Rae

SHERIDAN, THOMAS (1719–1788), actor and ‘orthoepist,’ father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan [q. v.], was the third son of Thomas Sheridan (1687–1738) [q. v.], Swift's friend, and had Swift for godfather (Sheridan, Life of Swift, p. 382). According to Chalmers he was born at Quilca (Dictionary, xxvii. 458), while Watkins gives his birthplace as King's Mint House, Capel Street, Dublin, adding that he was baptised in ‘the parish church of St. Mary’ (Memoirs of Sheridan, i. 34). There is no record of his baptism in St. Mary's. His father sent him to Westminster school, where he became a king's scholar, but his father's lack of means compelled the boy's return to Dublin. Through the influence of Dr. Sheridan's friends in Trinity College, young Thomas, to use Swift's phrase, ‘was chosen of the foundation’ on 26 May 1735. He was elected a scholar in 1738, and took his B.A. degree in 1739.

Sheridan wished his son Thomas to become a schoolmaster, but the young man preferred to go on the stage, for which, while an undergraduate, he had written a farce called ‘Captain O'Blunder, or the Brave Irishman.’ He appeared as Richard III at the Theatre Royal in Smock Alley in January 1743, and his success determined his vocation. In the following year he obtained an engagement at Drury Lane Theatre. After his return to Dublin he became manager of the Theatre Royal, which he made a more reputable place of resort than it had been. His reforms were unwelcome to many playgoers. A young man from Galway named Kelly, being intoxicated, insulted the actresses one evening, and threatened Sheridan with his vengeance when reprimanded for his conduct. What is called the Kelly riot ensued, with the result that Kelly was sent to prison and fined 500l., and that Sheridan magnanimously sued for, and succeeded in obtaining, his release and the remission of the fine. Miss Frances Chamberlaine wrote verses and a pamphlet in Sheridan's praise, and on his discovering their authorship Sheridan made the lady's acquaintance and married her in 1747 [see Sheridan, Mrs. Frances]. On 2 March 1754 he was the victim of another outbreak of popular fury, because he had forbidden West Digges [q. v.] to repeat some lines from Miller's tragedy of ‘Mahomet the Impostor,’ in which Digges played Alcanor.

Sheridan now left the theatre for two years, started for England, and appeared at Covent Garden Theatre. Many critics praised his acting, and Churchill ranked him, in the ‘Rosciad,’ next to Garrick as a tragedian. In 1756 he was again manager of the Theatre Royal in Dublin; but a new theatre built for Spranger Barry being opened and attracting playgoers to the detriment of his own, Sheridan finally determined to seek in England a new home and a new mode of livelihood as a teacher of and lecturer on elocution. He lectured on elocution with great success in London, Bristol, Bath, Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh. His house in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, became the resort of eminent men; he acquired such an influence with Wedderburn as to persuade him to move the Earl of Bute to bestow a pension of 300l. upon Dr. Johnson; and when he undertook to prepare a pronouncing dictionary, the Earl of Bute procured a pension for him of 200l. Dr. Johnson, who had been on intimate terms with Sheridan, considered this grant of a pension an affront to himself, and talked about giving up his acquaintance. They ceased to meet. Sheridan's revenge was to write of Johnson that had ‘gigantic fame in these days of little men.’ Johnson's contempt for his rival found notable expression. ‘Why, sir,’ he said to Boswell, ‘Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity is not in nature.’ On 28 Nov. 1758 the university of Oxford ‘incorporated’ him as master of arts, and that of Cambridge did likewise on 16 March 1769. He was made an honorary freeman of the city of Edinburgh on 8 July 1761. He conferred on Home, the author of ‘Douglas,’ the honour of a gold medal, specially struck, ‘for having enriched the stage with a perfect tragedy.’ In 1763 he acted at Drury Lane in his wife's comedy, ‘The Discovery.’

He went to Blois in 1764 with his wife, elder son, and two daughters, partly for the sake of his health, but chiefly, as he wrote to Samuel Whyte, to ‘bid defiance to his merciless creditors.’ He returned home after his wife's death in 1766, residing first in London and next in Bath, visiting Dublin at intervals, where his appearance on the stage attracted playgoers. Later in life he gave readings in London, Henderson being his colleague, and Henderson's rendering of ‘John Gilpin’ pleasing the public even more than that of Dryden's ‘Alexander's Feast,’ upon the delivery of which he plumed himself. He died at Margate on 14 Aug. 1788. Having directed in his will that his remains were to be interred in the parish next to that in which he died, he was buried in the centre aisle of St. Peter's Church in the Isle of Thanet. His younger daughter, Elizabeth, who was then unmarried, tended him in his later years, and was present at his deathbed, as was his eminent younger son, Richard Brinsley, who defrayed the expenses of his last illness and his funeral. His second son, Charles Francis, is, like Richard Brinsley, separately noticed.

Thomas Sheridan was a voluminous but not a popular writer. His chief works were:

  1. ‘British Education, or the Source of the Disorders of Great Britain,’ 1756.
  2. ‘A Dissertation on … Difficulties … in Learning the English Tongue, with a Scheme for an English Grammar and Dictionary,’ 1762, 4to.
  3. ‘A Course of Lectures on Elocution, with two Dissertations and some Tracts,’ 1763.
  4. ‘A Plan of Education for the young Nobility and Gentry,’ 1769.
  5. ‘Lectures on the Art of Reading,’ 1775.
  6. ‘A General Dictionary of the English Language,’ 2 vols. London, 1780, 4to; a revised and enlarged edition appeared in 1789, and was frequently reissued as ‘A Complete Dictionary of the English Language, both with regard to Sound and Meaning.’
  7. ‘The Works of Swift, with Life,’ in 18 vols. 8vo, 1784.

[The facts in Thomas Sheridan's life are set forth in the first chapter of the Biography of R. B. Sheridan, by the writer of this notice. See also Boswell's Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill; Baker's Biogr. Dramatica; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Nichols's Lit. Anecd.; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Webb's Compend. of Irish Biography.]

F. R.