Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomson, William (1746-1817)

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THOMSON, WILLIAM (1746–1817), miscellaneous writer, born in the parish of Forteviot, Perthshire, in 1746, was son of Matthew Thomson, builder, carpenter, and farmer, by his wife, the daughter of Miller, the schoolmaster of Avintully, near Dunkeld. Educated at the parish school, Perth grammar school, and St. Andrews University, he became librarian at Dupplin Castle, Perthshire, to Thomas Hay, eighth earl of Kinnoull [q. v.], who encouraged him to study for the church, and promised him a parish in his patronage. Completing his theological studies at St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Thomson was ordained on 20 March 1776 assistant to James Porteous, the minister of Monivaird, Perthshire, but soon displayed tastes and affinities discordant with his office. Constrained by the urgent complaints of the parishioners, he resigned his post on 1 Oct. 1778 and settled in London as a man of letters.

At first unsuccessful, Thomson depended mainly for several years on an annual income of 50l. granted by the Earl of Kinnoull. At length he won notice and regard by his successful continuation of Watson's ‘History of Philip III of Spain,’ 1783, for which he wrote the fifth and sixth books. In the same year, on 31 Oct., he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from Glasgow University, and he presently had his hands full of work. For the next five-and-thirty years he wrote on almost every subject, producing pamphlets, memoirs, elaborate biographies, voyages, travels, commentaries on Scripture, and treatises on military tactics. He even essayed novels and dramas, but seems to have avoided verse. Besides writing in his own name he collaborated with others, and he appears also to have used pseudonyms. A man of great and varied ability and very wide attainments, he could always produce respectable and sometimes even excellent results. He died at his house at Kensington Gravel Pits on 16 Feb. 1817.

Thomson was twice married: first, to Diana Miltone, a Scotswoman. His second wife is described as the authoress of ‘The Labyrinth of Life’ and other novels of some merit. There were children by both marriages.

Of the numerous works written or edited by Thomson the chief are: 1. ‘Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa,’ 1782. 2. ‘The Man in the Moon,’ a satirical novel after the manner of Swift, 1783. 3. ‘History of Great Britain from the Revolution of 1688 to the Accession of George I,’ 2 vols. 4to, 1787, from the Latin manuscript of Alexander Cunningham (1654–1737) [q. v.] 4. ‘Memoirs of the War in Asia from 1780 to 1784,’ 2 vols. 1788. 5. ‘Appeal to the People on behalf of Warren Hastings,’ 1788. 6. ‘Mammuth, or Human Nature displayed on a grand scale, in a Tour with the Tinkers into the Central Parts of Africa,’ 1789. 7. ‘A Tour in England and Scotland by an English Gentleman,’ 1789, enlarged into ‘Prospects and Observations on a Tour in England and Scotland, by Thomas Newte, Esq.,’ 1791. 8. ‘Memoirs of Sergeant Donald Macleod,’ 1791. 9. ‘Travels into Denmark, Norway, and Sweden,’ by Andrew Swinton, 1792. 10. ‘Introduction to the Trial of Mr. Hastings,’ 1796. 11. ‘Memoirs relative to Military Tactics,’ 1805. 12. ‘Travels in Scotland by James Hall,’ illustrated, 1807.

Thomson also continued Goldsmith's ‘History of Greece;’ expanded in 1793 Buchanan's ‘Travels in the Hebrides;’ translated ‘Travels to the North Cape,’ from the Italian of Acerbi; compiled under the name of Harrison a commentary on the Bible; and edited ‘Narrative of an Expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam,’ by John Gabriel Stedman. A five-act tragedy, ‘Caledonia, or the Clans of Yore,’ appeared posthumously in 1818. Thomson prepared from 1790 to 1800 the historical part of Dodsley's ‘Annual Register.’ From 1794 to December 1796 he owned ‘The English Review,’ and largely furnished its contents. When he relinquished the ownership it was incorporated with the ‘Analytical Review’ [see Johnson, Joseph]. He also wrote for the ‘European Magazine,’ the ‘Political Herald,’ the ‘Oracle,’ and the ‘Whitehall Evening Post.’

[Annual Biogr. and Obit. 1818, pp. 74–117; Chambers's Biogr. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; Anderson's Scottish Nation; Scott's Fasti Eccles. Scot. II. ii. 772; Gent. Mag. 1817, i. 279, 647; information from Mr. J. Maitland Anderson, university librarian, St. Andrews.]

T. B.