Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wedgwood, Hensleigh

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WEDGWOOD, HENSLEIGH (1803–1891), philologist, grandson of Josiah Wedgwood [q. v.] of Etruria, was the youngest son of Josiah Wedgwood of Maer Hall, Staffordshire. He was born at Gunville, Dorset, in 1803, and educated at Rugby. He matriculated from St. John's College, Cambridge, and graduated from Christ's College B.A. in 1824 and M.A. in 1828. He took a high mathematical degree (1824); but in the classical tripos, initiated the same year, his name occupied the last place, giving occasion to the title ('the wooden wedge') by which the classical equivalent of the mathematical 'wooden-spoon' continued to be known for sixty years. He was a fellow of Christ's College (1829-30). After leaving Cambridge he read for the chancery bar, but never practised, and in 1832 he was appointed police magistrate at Lambeth. This gave occasion to the most characteristic action of his life. Becoming convinced that the administration of oaths was inconsistent with the injunctions of the New Testament, he in 1837 resigned his office, in spite of the expostulations of his friends, stating his decision to his father in words which deserve to be put on record: 'I think it very possible that it may be lawful for a man to take a judicial oath, but I feel that it is not lawful for me, and there is no use in letting 800l. a year persuade one's conscience.' The loss of income was partially recovered in the following year by his appointment to the post of registrar of metropolitan carriages, which he held till its abolition in 1849.

Wedgwood's career as a scholar had in the meantime commenced with two small treatises on 'The Principles of Geometrical Demonstration' (1844) and 'On the Development of the Understanding' (1848), neither of them devoid of acuteness; and the keen interest in psychological processes which inspired them was the chief determining factor in the philological studies by which he first became well known. One of the original members of the Philological Society (founded in 1842), he published in 1857 his 'Dictionary of English Etymology,' a work far in advance of all its predecessors, displaying an extraordinary command of linguistic material and great natural sagacity, marred by imperfect acquaintance with the discoveries of philological science. Much attention, and at first considerable ridicule, were excited by the elaborate introduction, in which he energetically combated the theory, then recently advanced by Professor Max Müller, that language originated in a series of ultimate and irresoluble roots, spontaneously created by primitive man as expressions for his ultimate and irresoluble ideas. Wedgwood's own view, which regarded language as the elaborated imitation of natural sounds, undoubtedly accorded better with the positive instincts of modern philology; and his introduction, though abounding in untenable equations, is a document of great value. Two years later his theory was placed in a new and suggestive light by the publication of his cousin Charles Darwin's 'Origin of Species.' When, in 1881, Professor Skeat completed his 'Etymological Dictionary,' Wedgwood was among its ablest critics; and his volume of 'Contested Etymologies' (1882) deservedly exercised a considerable and mainly beneficial effect upon the second edition (cf. Prof. Skeat's work). In his last years Wedgwood became a confirmed spiritualist and contributed to the periodical 'Light.' Personally, he was a man of extreme modesty. His reputation came unsought, and he saw with unqualified sympathy the final triumph of the movement for the remission of the compulsory oath, a movement in which his own early efforts were forgotten. He died on 2 June 1891 at his house in Gower Street. He married, in 1832, Frances, daughter of Sir James Mackintosh, by whom he had six children.

[Information and letters in the possession of the Wedgwood family.]

C. H. H.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.277
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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140 i 24 Wedgwood, Hensleigh: after sixty years. insert He was fellow of Christ's 1829-30.