Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Howitt, William

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623394Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 28 — Howitt, William1891George Clement Boase

HOWITT, WILLIAM (1792–1879), miscellaneous writer, was born at Heanor, Derbyshire, 18 Dec. 1792. His father, Thomas Howitt, who farmed a few acres of land at Heanor, joined the Society of Friends on his marriage with Phœbe Tantum, a member of the same society, with whom he acquired a considerable fortune. William was a precocious child, who at the age of thirteen wrote `An Address to Spring,' which was inserted in the `Monthly Magazine.' From 1802 to 1806 he was at the Friends' public school at Ackworth, Yorkshire (Nodal, Bibliography of Ackworth School, 1889, pp. 17-20, with portrait; H. Thompson, History of Ackworth School, 1879,pp.328-34), and afterwards went to school at Tamworth, where he studied chemistry and natural philosophy. He owed his real education, however, to private reading and his natural aptitude for acquiring foreign languages. From his youth he was fond of open-air sports. In 1821 he married Mary Botham [see Howitt, Mary]. The first year of their married life was passed in Staffordshire, where they conjointly wrote, the first of many like productions, a poetical volume entitled `The Forest Minstrel.' In 1823 they made a pedestrian tour through Scotland, at that date an unheard-of achievement. On their return Howitt took up his residence in the Market Place, Nottingham, as a chemist and druggist. Business did not interrupt his literary work, and in 1831 he produced the ' Book of the Seasons, or Calendar of Nature,' in 1833 his `Popular History of Priestcraft in all Ages and Nations,' and in 1835 his `Pantika, or Traditions of the most Ancient Times,' 2 vols. The 'Book of the Seasons' was refused by four of the principal publishing houses, yet when taken up by Colburn & Bentley rapidly ran to seven large editions. His `History of Priestcraft' led to his election as alderman of Nottingham, and to association with the active liberals of the day. Finding that public life deprived him of leisure for writing, he in 1836 removed to West End Cottage, Esher, where he resided during the next three years. Here he wrote `Rural Life of England,' 2 vols., 1838, 'The Boys' Country Book,' 1839, and the first series of `Visits to Remarkable Places,' 1840. In 1840 he took up his residence at Heidelberg for the benefit of his children's education, and in 1842, besides publishing the second series of 'Visits to Remarkable Places,' brought out `Rural and Domestic Life of Germany,' a work which, according to the `Allgemeine Zeitung,' contained the most accurate account of that country written by a foreigner. While in Germany Howitt not only improved his knowledge of German literature, but also made a complete study of Swedish and Danish. Returning to England in 1843 he settled at The Elms, Clapton, London, where he studied mesmerism. In April 1846 he became connected with the `People's Journal,' first as a contributor, and afterwards as part proprietor. A quarrel ensuing Howitt withdrew, and in January 1847 set up a rival periodical called' Hewitt's Journal,' of which three volumes appeared, but it was not a pecuniary success. Among other works from his pen were 'Homes and Haunts of the most eminent British Poets,' 1847, `The Year-Book of the Country,' 1850, and 'Madame Dorrington of the Dene,' a novel, 1851. From 1848 to 1852 he lived at Upper Avenue Road, St. John's Wood. In June 1852, accompanied by his sons Alfred William and Charlton, he set sail for Australia on a visit to his brother Dr. Godfrey Howitt. During the two following years he travelled through Victoria, New South Wales, and Tasmania, and had practical experience of working in a gold-field. Coming back to England in 1854, his family in the meantime having removed to the Hermitage, Highgate, he wrote several works on Australia (`A Boy's Adventures in the Wilds of Australia,' 1854, 'Land, Labour, and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria,' 1855, 2 vols., `Tallangetta, the Squatter's Home,' 1857, 3 vols., `The History of Discovery in Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand,' 1865, 2 vols.), but his opinions on colonial matters were severely criticised. About this period Howitt and his wife became believers in spiritualism, but, as in the case of their friends Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Hall, their regard for the Christian religion did not diminish (see The Pyschological Review, 1882 v. 36, 293, 410, 510, 1883 vi. 13, 88; A. M. H. Watts, Pioneers of the Spiritual Reformation, 1883, pp. 157-325). Settling at West Hill Lodge, Highgate, in 1857, Howitt continued his indefatigable literary labours, and occupied much of his leisure in arranging séances with D. D. Home [q. v.] (Spiritual Mag. February 1860 and October 1861; Home, Incidents in my Life, 1863,p.189). He contributed to the 'Spiritual Magazine' upwards of a hundred articles describing his personal experiences. On 19 June 1865 he received a pension from the civil list of 140l. a year. Between 1856 and 1862 he wrote five large volumes of a 'Popular History of England' (from the reign of Edward II) for Messrs. Cassell, Petter, & Galpin, which passed through seven editions. It was sold originally in weekly numbers, and reached a circulation of a hundred thousand. Lord Brougham and Dr. Robert Chambers highly commended it. From 1866 to 1870 he lived at The Orchard, near Esher. In 1870 he settled at Rome, where on 16 April 1871 he celebrated his golden wedding. During the summer he lived at Dietenheim in the Tyrol, returning to Rome for the winter and spring. At Rome he interested himself in the formation of a Society for the Protection of Animals, and in a project for planting the Campagna with the Eucalyptus globulus, well known for its power of destroying malaria. He died of bronchitis and hemorrhage at 55 Via Sistina, Rome, 3 March 1879, and was buried in the protestant cemetery on 5 March.

Among his children were Alfred William Howitt, Australian traveller, and the discoverer of the remains of the explorers Burke and Wills, which he brought to Melbourne for burial; Herbert Charlton Howitt, who was drowned while engineering a road in New Zealand; Anna Mary Howitt, wife of Alfred Alaric Watts, the biographer of her father, and author of 'Art Work in Munich,' who died at Dietenheim 23 July 1884; and Margaret Howitt, the writer of the 'Life of Fredrika Bremer,' and of the memoir of her own mother.

In conjunction with his wife he wrote or edited besides the works mentioned above:

  1. 'The Desolation of Eyam, and other Poems,' 1827.
  2. 'The Literature and Romances of Northern Europe,' 1852.
  3. 'Stories of English and Foreign Life,' 1853.
  4. 'Howitt's Journal of Literature and Popular Progress,' 1847-9.
  5. 'The People's and Howitt's Journal,' 1849.
  6. 'Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain,' 1862, 1864, two series.

His principal works, in addition to those already mentioned, were:

  1. 'Colonisation and Christianity: a History of the treatment of Natives by Europeans,' 1838.
  2. 'The Student Life of Germany,' by Dr. Cornelius, i.e. W. Howitt, 1841.
  3. Peter Schlemihl's 'Wundersame Geschichte,' a translation, 1843.
  4. 'Wanderings of a Journeyman Tailor' by P. D. Holthaus, a translation, 1844.
  5. 'The Life and Adventures of Jack of the Mill,' 1844.
  6. 'German Experiences,' 1844.
  7. 'Life in Dalecarlia,' by F. Bremer, a translation, 1845.
  8. 'The Hall and the Hamlet, or Scenes of Country Life.' 1848, 2 vols.
  9. 'The History of Magic,' by J. Ennemoser, a translation, 1854, 2 vols.
  10. 'The Man of the People,' 1860, 3 vols.
  11. 'The History of the Supernatural in all Ages and Nations,' 1863, 2 vols.
  12. 'Woodburn Grange; a Story of English Country Life,' 1867, 3 vols.
  13. 'The Northern Heights of London, or Historical Associations of Hampstead, Highgate, Muswell Hill, Hornsey, and Islington,' 1869, 8vo.
  14. 'The Mad War-Planet, and other Poems,' 1871.
  15. 'The Religion of Rome,' 1873.

[A. M. H. Watts's Pioneers of the Spiritual Reformation, 1883, pp. 157-325; The Naturalist, April 1839, pp. 366-73, with portrait; Cornelius Brown's Nottinghamshire Worthies, 1883,pp. 355-60; Horne's New Spirit of the Age, 1844, i. 177-98; Wilson's Noctes Ambrosianæ, No. xxxix. November 1828, No. lvi. April 1831; S. C. Hall's Retrospect of a Long Life, 1883, ii. 126-31; Times, 4 March 1879, p. 10, 6 March, p. 5; Allibone's Dict. of English Literature, i. 905-8; Spencer T. Hall's Remarkable People whom I have known, 1873, pp. 311-15; Illustrated London News, 29 March 1879, pp. 297, 298, with portrait.]

G. C. B.