Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Watson, John Selby

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WATSON, JOHN SELBY (1804–1884), author and murderer, baptised at Crayford church on 30 Dec. 1804, is stated to have been the son of humble parents in Scotland. He was educated at first by his grandfather, and then at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated B.A. in 1838, being one of the gold medallists in classics, and proceeded M.A. in 1844. On 30 March 1854 he was admitted ad eundem at Oxford. He was ordained deacon in 1839 by the bishop of Ely, and priest in 1840 by the bishop of Bath and Wells, and from 1839 to 1841 he served the curacy of Langport in Somerset.

Watson continued his classical studies, and through life devoted his leisure to literary pursuits. From 1844 he held the post of headmaster of the proprietary grammar school at Stockwell, a suburb of London, receiving a fixed salary of 300l. per annum, and a capitation fee when the scholars exceeded a certain number. The school was for some years prosperous, but a serious decline in its popularity induced the governors to remove him from its management at Christmas 1870. He lived from 1865 at 28 St. Martin's Road, Stockwell, and there, in a fit of passion, he killed his wife on 8 Oct. 1871. She was an Irishwoman named Anne Armstrong, to whom he was married at St. Mark's Church, Dublin, in January 1845. Three days after the murder he attempted to commit suicide by taking prussic acid. He was tried for murder and found guilty, but recommended to mercy, and the sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. A volume of psychological studies on his married life was published at Berlin in 1875; one of his remarks at Bow Street was ‘sæpe olim semper debere nocuit debitori,’ and Lowe (afterwards Lord Sherbrooke) divided the cabinet on the question whether this was good or bad Latin (Fairfield, Baron Bramwell, p. 41). Watson died at Parkhurst prison in the Isle of Wight on 6 July 1884. He was buried in Carisbrooke cemetery.

Watson published annotated editions of the ‘Prometheus Vinctus’ of Æschylus, Sallust's ‘Catiline’ and ‘Jugurtha;’ and his editions of Pope's rendering of the ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey,’ with notes, appeared in Bohn's ‘Illustrated Library.’ Several volumes of translations by him, comprehending Sallust, Lucretius, Xenophon, Quinctilian, Cornelius Nepos, Velleius Paterculus, and parts of Cicero, were included in Bohn's ‘Classical Library.’ His version of Xenophon's ‘Anabasis’ and ‘Memorabilia’ of Socrates is No. 78 of Sir John Lubbock's ‘hundred books.’ His original works comprised:

  1. ‘Geology: a Poem in Seven Books,’ 1844.
  2. ‘Life of George Fox,’ 1860.
  3. ‘Life of Richard Porson,’ 1861.
  4. ‘Sir William Wallace, the Scottish Hero,’ 1861.
  5. ‘Sons of Strength, Wisdom, and Patience: Samson, Solomon, Job,’ 1861.
  6. ‘Life of Bishop Warburton,’ 1863. 7. ‘Reasoning Power in Animals,’ 1867.
  7. ‘Biographies of John Wilkes and William Cobbett,’ 1870.

In October 1871 Watson had ready for the press several works, including a complete history of the popes to the Reformation, which would have filled two octavo volumes. The sole work of his own composition which is known to have brought him any profit was the memoir of Warburton, from which he derived something under 5l.

[Men of the Time, 7th ed. 1868; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Times, 11, 12, and 13 Jan. 1872, 11 July, 20, 26 Oct. 2, 16 Nov. 1884.]

W. P. C.