Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Singer, Samuel Weller
SINGER, SAMUEL WELLER (1783–1858), author, born in London in 1783, was son of Thomas Singer, a feather and artificial-flower maker, who carried on business in Princes Street, Cavendish Square. George John Singer [q. v.] was his younger brother. His father died when Samuel was ten years old, and his mother, whose maiden name was Elizabeth Weller, continued the feather and flower business. Samuel received a scanty education at a day school kept by a Frenchwoman. There he acquired facility in writing and speaking French, but such knowledge as he gained of other subjects he owed to his own exertions. As a boy he read widely, and taught himself Italian, in which he perfected himself by frequent visits to the Italian opera-house. At an early age he was apprenticed to a hatter near Cavendish Square, but the occupation proved distasteful, and the indentures were cancelled. His mother afterwards employed him in her feather- and flower-making business, and about 1808 he set up for himself in the same trade in Duke Street, St. James's. But his growing absorption in literature unfitted him for commercial pursuits, and the concern was soon brought to a close. Somewhat greater success attended his next venture, a bookseller's shop, which he opened in St. James's Street. Book-collectors like Heber, Grenville, and Francis Douce were among his customers, and Douce became a lifelong friend.
With bookselling he combined some literary work. In 1811 he prepared for private circulation a limited edition (of one hundred copies) of a 16mo reprint of Fénelon's ‘Deux Dialogues sur la Peinture,’ with a preface in French. There followed similar editions of ‘Lionora de' Bardi ed Hippolito Buondelmonte’ (1813), ‘Novelle Scelte Rarissime stampate a spese di XL Amatori’ (1814), and ‘Balivernes ou Contes nouveaux d'Eutrapel’ (1815). In 1812, too, he entered into literary controversy by printing for private distribution fifty copies of ‘Some Account of the Book printed at Oxford in mcccclxviii under the title Exposicio sancti Jeronimi in simbolo apostolorum’ (London, 8vo). Here Singer displayed much bibliographical knowledge, but there can be little doubt that Rufinus's Latin treatise on the Apostles' Creed was published at Oxford in 1478, and not, as Singer maintained, in 1468, and that the earlier date in the colophon was a misprint (Madan, Oxford Press, pp. 1, 247). This view Singer himself subsequently adopted, and called in as many copies of his tract as he could. He finally recanted his original opinion in Sotheby's ‘Principia Typographica,’ iii. 19.
In 1815 Singer abandoned his bookseller's shop and definitely embarked on a literary career. Retiring from London, he settled first at Bushey, Hertfordshire, and afterwards at Boxhall (cf. Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 28654, ff. 135–7). Robert Triphook, the antiquarian publisher, and Charles Whittingham, the owner of the Chiswick Press, gave him much employment. For the latter he edited a series of reprints of more recondite specimens of sixteenth-century English literature. These included Sir John Harington's ‘Metamorphosis of Ajax’ (1814), ‘Shakespeare's Jest Book’ (3 parts, 1814–15), Roper's ‘Life of More’ (1817), poems by Lovelace (1817), Chapman (1818), Lodge, Shakerley Marmion, Chalkhill, and Marlowe (all in 1820), and Hall's ‘Satires’ (1824), as well as Puckle's ‘Club’ (1834). Other rare poems reproduced by Singer in his early days were Bartholomew Griffin's ‘Fidessa’ (1815), Fairfax's ‘Tasso’ (1817, 2 vols.), and Henry Constable's ‘Diana’ (1818, in facsimile). In 1815 he prepared from the Lambeth manuscripts the first complete edition of the life of Wolsey by George Cavendish [q. v.] (2nd ed. 1827).
His most interesting original compilation was his ‘Researches into the History of Playing Cards; with Illustrations of the Origin of Printing and Engraving on Wood’ (1816). Only two hundred and fifty copies were printed. The beauty of the engravings added greatly to the work's value and interest. Dibdin praised it highly, and recommended it to the notice of connoisseurs; but as regards value to collectors it has been superseded by the ‘Playing Cards of Various Ages and Countries,’ published in three volumes (1892–5) by Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Schreiber [q. v.] In 1820 Singer printed for the first time a full transcript of the interesting ‘Anecdotes of Joseph Spence’ [q. v.], the manuscript of which he found among Spence's papers. An incomplete edition prepared by Edmund Malone was published independently on the same day as Singer's fuller version, which was reprinted in 1859 (cf. Quarterly Review, July 1820; Athenæum, 1859, i. 249). In 1823 he printed for the first time Sir Philip Sidney's paraphrase of the psalms. In 1828 he made an important contribution to historical literature in ‘The Correspondence of Henry Hyde, earl of Clarendon, and of his brother Lawrence Hyde, earl of Rochester, with the Diary of Lord Clarendon, 1687–1690, and the Diary of Lord Rochester; published for the greater part for the first time from the original MSS.’ The latter belonged to Singer's friend, William Upcott.
A more popular venture was an edition of Shakespeare in ten volumes, which Singer undertook for Whittingham; it was issued by the Chiswick Press in 1826. Singer was responsible for a careful collation of the text and many useful notes. A life of the poet was contributed by Dr. Charles Symmons, and there were wood engravings after the designs of Stothard and others. The edition was frequently republished, and won much reputation in America. A reissue in 1856 included a series of critical essays by Singer's friend, W. Watkiss Lloyd. Singer proved his skill as a textual critic by preparing the earliest attack on the genuineness of Collier's manuscript corrections in the so-called Perkins folio. The work appeared in 1853 as the ‘Text of Shakespeare vindicated from the Interpolations and Corruptions advocated by J. P. Collier in his Notes and Emendations.’
Meanwhile Singer had extended his linguistic studies to Anglo-Saxon and Norman-French, and began the compilation of an Anglo-Saxon dictionary. He abandoned the project on learning that Joseph Bosworth [q. v.] was engaged on a like undertaking. He turned his researches to some effect by issuing adverse critical ‘Remarks on the Glossary [by Sir Frederic Madden] of Havelock the Dane’ (1829, 4to), to which Madden replied. He also printed, with an English translation, ‘The Departing Soul's Address to the Body, a fragment of a semi-Saxon Poem discovered among the Archives of Worcester Cathedral by Sir Thomas Phillipps’ (1845, one hundred copies).
Singer was elected F.S.A. in 1825, but in 1827 his literary activity was checked by his acceptance of the office of librarian to the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street. He retained the post till 1835. A year earlier his friend Francis Douce [q. v.] died, and, to Singer's surprise, left him a competency. Relieved of the necessity of earning a livelihood, Singer finally retired in 1835 to Mickleham, near Dorking, Surrey, and devoted the rest of his life to leisurely study. He edited Herrick's ‘Poetical Works’ (1846), Bacon's ‘Essays’ (1856), and Selden's ‘Table Talk’ (1847; 2nd edit. 1856). He translated Luther's ‘Way to Prayer’ (1846), and (with original additions) ‘Wayland Smith’ from the French of G. P. Depping and Francisque Michel (1847). He died suddenly at Mickleham on 20 Dec. 1858, and was buried there. He had married, in 1808, Miss Harriet Robinson, by whom he was father of a son, Alfred (1816–1898), and three daughters. His library, which included many valuable Italian books, was sold by auction in 1860.
Singer's zeal for accumulating knowledge and his native shrewdness atoned for the defective training of his youth. He unostentatiously did much to advance the study of Elizabethan literature. He mixed to a very small extent in literary society, and his amiability and modesty held him, as a rule, aloof from literary controversy.[Private information; Athenæum, January 1859; Brit. Mus. Cat.]