Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Whitaker, John (1735-1808)

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WHITAKER, JOHN (1735–1808), historian of Manchester, son of James Whitaker, innkeeper, was born at Manchester on 27 April 1735, and attended the Manchester grammar school from January 1744-5 to 1752, when he entered Brasenose College, Oxford, with a school exhibition. He was elected on 2 March 1753 a Lancashire scholar of Corpus Christi College, and became fellow on 21 Jan. 1763. He graduated B.A. on 24 Oct. 1755, M.A. on 27 Feb. 1759, and B.D. on 1 July 1767. He was ordained at Oxford in 1760, and acted as curate successively at Newton Heath chapel, near Manchester, 1760-1, and at Bray, Berkshire. He was elected F.S.A. on 10 Jan. 1771, and later in the year published his first work, 'The History of Manchester,' vol. i. 4to, forming book i., and containing British and Roman periods. A second edition of this, in two vols. octavo, is dated 1773, and at the same time a quarto volume of 'The Principal Corrections' to the original edition was published. The second volume, embracing the Saxon period, was published in 1775, 4to, and never reissued in octavo, and only two of the projected four books were completed. A transcript of Whitaker's manuscript continuation to the fifteenth century is preserved at the Chetham Library, Manchester. This work has been termed 'an antiquarian romance,' and Francis Douce [q. v.], on leaving his annotated copy to the British Museum, applied the inappropriate epithet 'blockhead' to the author. In spite of its diffuseness and untenable hypotheses, it is a valuable and interesting book, showing acute research and profound learning, as well as bold imagination and originality. Some of its weaknesses were ably criticised by John Collier (Tim Bobbin) in 'Remarks on the History of Manchester,' by Muscipula, 1771, and 'More Fruit from the same Pannier,' 1773 (cf. Trans. Lanc. and Chesh. Antiq. Soc. 1895). Whitaker next published 'The Genuine History of the Britons asserted in a … Refutation of Mr. Macpherson's "Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland,"' 1772, 8vo, 2nd edit, corrected, 1773, which would have been more valuable if it had been less controversial. For a short time (November 1773 to February 1774) he held the morning preachership at Berkeley Chapel, London, but left it owing to a dispute, concerning which he published an intemperate 'State of the Case.' While in London he made the acquaintance of Dr. Johnson and Edward Gibbon. The first volume of the latter's 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' was submitted in manuscript to Whitaker, but Gibbon withheld his chapter on Christianity, and Whitaker first read it in the published volume, whereupon he wrote indignantly to the author.

In 1776 he actively participated in measures for the improvement of the town of Manchester, and in an angry paper war which arose in connection with the improvement bill. During the next year he wrote 'An Ode' to promote the formation of the Manchester regiment, intended for 'reducing the American rebels,' The regiment never reached its destination, but was diverted to Gibraltar, where it won its laurels.

On 22 Aug. 1777 he was presented by Corpus Christi College to the rectory of Ruan Lanyhorn, Cornwall. In 1787 he published 'The Charter of Manchester translated, with Explanations and Remarks,' prepared at the request of a committee of inhabitants engaged in vindicating the rights of the town against the lord of the manor. For this service he received the thanks of the townspeople in 1793. In his 'Mary Queen of Scots vindicated,' 1787, 3 vols. 8vo, he went beyond all previous writers in defending the queen and incriminating her enemies. A second edition is dated 1790, and to the same date belongs a volume of 'Additions and Corrections.' In 1791 and 1794 he announced the 'Private Life of Mary Queen of Scots.' This was not published until George Chalmers made use of the unfinished manuscript in his life of the queen, 1818. His 'Origin of Arianism disclosed,' 1791, 8vo, while praised by William Mildert [q. v.] in his Boyle lectures, was severely handled by Coleridge (Literary Remains, 1838, iv. 296). In 1791 he published ‘Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in vols. iv. v. and vi. reviewed’ (styled by Macaulay ‘pointless spite, with here and there a just remark’); and in 1794 ‘The Course of Hannibal over the Alps ascertained,’ 2 vols. 8vo. The latter was the subject of ‘A Critical Examination’ by Alexander Fraser Tytler (Lord Woodhouslee) [q. v.], 1794, 2 vols. 8vo. In 1804 he issued his ‘Ancient Cathedral of Cornwall historically surveyed,’ 2 vols. 4to, perhaps his ablest production.

He died at Ruan rectory on 30 Oct. 1808. He married Jane, daughter of the Rev. John Tregenna, rector of Mawgan-in-Pyder, Cornwall, and had by her three daughters; she died on 30 Dec. 1828.

His other works were:

  1. ‘A Course of Sermons upon Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell,’ 1783; another edition, 1820.
  2. ‘The Real Origin of Government,’ 1795, expanded from a sermon against the results of the French Revolution. It was denounced by Sheridan and others in the House of Commons.
  3. ‘The Life of St. Neot,’ 1809, upon which he was engaged when he died. He contributed to Richard Polwhele's ‘Poems chiefly by Gentlemen of Devonshire and Cornwall,’ 1792; wrote an introduction and notes to Flindell's Bible, 1800; and ‘Remarks on St. Michael's Mount,’ in vol. iii. of Polwhele's ‘Cornwall;’ besides articles in the ‘English Review,’ the ‘British Critic,’ and the ‘Anti-Jacobin Review.’

Among his contemplated but unaccomplished works were histories of London and Oxford, a military history of the Romans in Britain, notes on Shakespeare, and illustrations to the Bible.

His letters to George Chalmers between 1791 and 1804 remain in manuscript in the Chetham Library. They show, inter alia, that he hankered after the wardenship of Manchester Collegiate Church. Other letters, to George Browne of Bodmin, are in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 29763). Polwhele, Britton, Wolcott (Peter Pindar), and others attest great admiration for Whitaker's intellectual eminence and conversational powers. A good portrait, after a miniature by H. Bone, is engraved in Britton's ‘Autobiography,’ 1850, i. 335.

[Polwhele's Biogr. Sketches, iii. 1; Polwhele's Reminiscences, i. 83, ii. 185; Polwhele's Traditions, p. 152; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Gent. Mag. 1808, ii. 1035; Smith's Manchester School Register, i. 18; Baines's Lancashire, ed. Harland, i. 410; J. E. Bailey's Memoir in Papers of the Manchester Literary Club, 1877; Britton's Autobiogr. i. 215, 335; Britton's Reminiscences, ii. 170, 205, 379; Boase and Courtney's Bibliotheca Cornubiensis, ii., and the authorities cited there; Palatine Notebook, i. 77 (with portrait); the Life of S. Drew, 1834, contains letters from Whitaker; Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. viii. 563; Worthington's Diary and Corresp. (Chetham Soc.) ii. 237; Boswell's Johnson (ed. G. B. Hill), ii. 108, iii. 333; Imperial Magazine, iii. 1238; Trevelyan's Life of Macaulay, 1897, ii. 285; Southey's Doctor, i. 20.]

C. W. S.