Heathcote, Ralph (DNB00)

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HEATHCOTE, RALPH (1721–1795), divine and miscellaneous writer, was born on 19 Dec. 1721 at Barrow-upon-Soar, Leicestershire, where his father (d. 1765), afterwards vicar of Sileby and rector of Morton, Derbyshire, was then curate. His mother was a daughter of Simon Ockley [q. v.], the historian of the Saracens. After receiving instruction from his father, and at Chesterfield grammar school, he entered at Jesus College, Cambridge, and graduated B.A. in 1744, and M.A. in 1748. In March 1748 he became curate of St. Margaret's, Leicester, and vicar of Barkby in 1749, preferments which brought him 50l. a year. In 1746 he published a Latin dissertation on the history of astronomy (‘Historia Astronomiæ sive de ortu et progressu astronomiæ’), which attracted considerable notice; but when in 1752 he essayed to take a part in the Middletonian controversy on the miraculous powers ascribed to the early church, he discovered that ‘though I had gone through a school and a college, and had produced a Latin work which had been applauded for its language, I could not express myself tolerably in English. I mention this chiefly to note what I take to be a great defect in most of the grammar schools, viz. a total neglect to cultivate our own language.’ He produced two pamphlets anonymously notwithstanding, entitled respectively ‘Cursory Animadversions on the Controversy in General’ (1752), and ‘Remarks upon a Charge by Dr. Chapman (1752);’ and in the following year wrote a reply to Thomas Fothergill's sermon on the uses of commemorating King Charles's martyrdom, ‘a slight production, yet sufficient, perhaps, to show that there is neither reason nor use in any such commemoration.’ These publications attracted the notice of Warburton, who presented Heathcote to the assistant preachership at Lincoln's Inn. Accordingly Heathcote, who had in August 1750 obtained a comfortable independence by his marriage to Margaret Mompesson, a descendant of the heroic vicar of Eyam, removed in June 1753 to London, where he ‘found his way into the society’ of Jortin, Birch, Maty, and others, ‘who met once a week to drink coffee and talk learnedly for two or three hours.’ He took a part in the controversy against Bolingbroke on the one hand, publishing in 1755 ‘A Sketch of Lord Bolingbroke's Philosophy,’ and in that against the Hutchinsonian Dr. Patten on the other. His tracts, he says, were favourably received, ‘yet when the heat of controversy was over I could not look into them without disgust and pain. The spleen of Middleton and the petulancy of Warburton had infected me as they had other young scribblers.’ Their substance, however, ‘purged from that ferment which usually agitates theological controversy,’ formed the staple of his dissertation on occasion of his D.D. degree at Cambridge in 1759, and of his Boyle lectures, 1763–5. In 1761 he became one of the chief writers in the ‘Biographical Dictionary,’ and in 1767 published an anonymous letter to Horace Walpole on the dispute between Hume and Rousseau, which was attributed to Walpole himself. About this time he returned to the midland counties, where he had received several small pieces of preferment, usually residing at Southwell, Nottinghamshire, where he was a prebendary of the minster. In 1771 he published anonymously ‘The Irenarch, or Justice of the Peace's Manual,’ a work strangely attributed by Mr. Parkes to Junius, though the third edition bore the author's name. The second and third editions have a long dedication to Lord Mansfield, containing much miscellaneous legal and historical matter. From this time, though he continued to visit London up to 1785, Heathcote's ‘great object of employment was the administration of justice, though nothing could be more averse from my temper and way of life. But I was teased into it.’ He published, however, in 1786 the first volume of a miscellany of anecdotes and dissertations, entitled ‘Sylva,’ which was not continued. He became vicar-general of the peculiar of Southwell in 1788, and died on 28 May 1795. He was a man of no eminent powers or attainments, but an excellent type of the learned, tolerant, and useful clergyman of the eighteenth century. ‘His matter,’ says Warburton, writing to Hunt, ‘is rational, but superficial and thin-spread. He is sensible, and has reading, but little vivacity.’

[Memoirs, chiefly autobiographical, in Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, iii. 531–44; Letters from a late Eminent Prelate (Warburton).]

R. G.