Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Osborne, Thomas (d.1767)

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OSBORNE, THOMAS (d. 1767), bookseller, was the son of Thomas Osborne, stationer and citizen, to whom Nichols refers (Lit. Anecd. iii. 601), though he does not connect him with his better known son. Thomas Osborne the elder established the business in Gray's Inn, and died early in 1743. By his will, proved 7 March 1743 (Prer. Court of Canterbury, 76 Anstis), he left his stock, copyrights, &c, to his son Thomas, together with the house in which the son lived in Fulwood's Rents, and his interest in a house in Bury Street, St. James's. He was evidently a man of means, owning various houses and the ferry at Chelsea. From this will we learn that the son already (1742) had a daughter Mary, named after his wife. Two other booksellers named John Osborne died respectively in 1739 and 1775 (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. iii. 601), but nothing is known as to their relationship to the subject of this article.

In 1729 the first of a long series of trade catalogues of books was issued from Osborne's shop in Gray's Inn Gateway. In 1738 Osborne bought from his sister Elizabeth Golding the lease of the ground chambers in Nos. 1 and 2 Page's Buildings, Field Court, Gray's Inn (Notes and Queries, 7th ser. xii. 205), and in 1739-40 he offered to sell books for the Society for the Encouragement of Learning at 15 per cent, clear of all charges, if he could be the only bookseller concerned (Addit. MS. 6190, ff. 61, 68). In 1740 Rivington and Osborne proposed that their particular friend Samuel Richardson [q. v.] should write a small volume of letters in a common style, and this was the origin of 'Pamela,' Richardson's first novel (Aaron Hill, Works, ii. 298).

Osborne bought the great library of the Earl of Oxford in 1742 for 13,000l., and he consulted Dr. Birch and other learned persons as to the best way of disposing of it (Letters of Eminent Literary Persons, p. 368). The 'Catalogus Bibliothecæ Harleianæ' in five volumes appeared in 1743-5. Dr. Johnson wrote the preface, Maittaire the Latin dedication to Lord Carteret, and William Oldys [q. v.], who had been secretary to the Earl of Oxford, was responsible for most of the remainder of the work. Booksellers complained that a charge of five shillings was made for each of the first two volumes of this catalogue, and they said that the prices charged for the books were high. The prices asked for rare English books now appear to be absurdly small, yet the sale was so slow that Osborne did not gain much by the transaction. The third volume of the catalogue contained proposals for the 'Harleian Miscellany; or a Collection of scarce, curious, and entertaining Pamphlets and Tracts found in the late Earl of Oxford's Library,' Six sheets at one shilling were to be published every Saturday, beginning with 24 March 1744. The 'Miscellany' was published in eight quarto volumes, 1744-6, the first volume (of which there was a second edition in 1753) being dedicated to the king by Osborne. This important work was reissued in 1808-13, with two additional volumes edited by Thomas Park.

In the new edition of the 'Dunciad,' issued in 1743, Pope substituted Osborne's name for that of Chapman in bk. ii. lines 167 sq.

Osborne and Curll accept the glorious strife
(Tho' this his son dissuades, and that his wife).

Pope complained that Osborne had pretended to sell the subscription books of Pope's 'Iliad' at half the price, whereas he really cut down the common folio copies to the size of the subscription quartos. Johnson (Life of Pope) remarks that 'Osborne was a man entirely destitute of shame, without sense of any disgrace but that of poverty. He told me, when he was doing that which raised Pope's resentment, that he should be put into the "Dunciad" ; but he had the fate of Cassandra. I gave no credit to his prediction, till in time I saw it accomplished. The shafts of satire were directed' in vain against Osborne's 'impassive dulness.' It was commonly reported that Johnson had once knocked Osborne down in his shop with a folio, and put his foot on his neck. Johnson gave Boswell the true version: 'Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him. But it was not in his shop: it was in my own chamber' (Boswell, ed. Croker, pp. 46, 613). The Rev. A. M. Toplady (Memoirs, by W. Winters, p. 45) says that the volume thrown was Johnson's 'Dictionary,' while the doctor was on a ladder in his room. Mrs. Piozzi adds that Johnson remarked that Osborne, being a blockhead, told of his beating: others who had been beaten by Johnson had the wit to hold their tongues (Piozzi, Anecdotes, p. 233).

In 1754 Osborne was in partnership with J. Shipton, and took a house at Hampstead, having, as Nichols puts it, 'contrived such arbitrary prices as raised him to his country house and dog and duck huntings' {Lit. Anecd. iii. 625). At the suggestion of Captain Pratten, who acted as master of the ceremonies at the Long Room, Hampstead, Osborne agreed to give on 10 Sept. 1754 a public breakfast for the ladies and a duck hunt for the gentlemen, as well as a lunch and a dance later in the day. Subsequently a fan was engraved and a specimen presented to each lady visitor. On one side was represented the field with the breakfast marquees and duck-pond; on the other, Osborne's house and the tent for dancing. Impressions of both views are in the Banks collection at the British Museum.

Osborne died on 21 Aug. 1767, and was buried on the 27th at St. Mary's, Islington (Lewis, History of Islington, 1843, p. 250). By his will, made 8 July and proved 26 Aug. 1767, he left to his wife Mary the leasehold messuage in Warwick Court, Gray's Inn, where he then lived, together with all household goods and furniture. To his brother-in-law William Smith he left a leasehold messuage in Fulwood's Rents, then occupied by Smith, on the condition that such portion of Osborne's stock-in-trade as was in that house should remain there until it could conveniently be sold. The benchers, doctor, and afternoon preacher of Gray's Inn had mourning rings. The stock-in-trade and residue of the estate went to the wife, William Smith, and nephew William Toll. Osborne's stock was sold in 1768-9.

Though the principal bookseller of his time, Osborne is said to have been very ignorant of books. He was, however, skilled in all the tricks of his trade. He is charged with being very insolent to his customers, affronting them if they would not buy some publication of his own ; but Toplady says that Osborne, who was his own bookseller, was a very respectable man. When Toplady was about to take orders, Osborne offered him a number of sermons (originals) for a trifle, adding that he had sold ready-made sermons to many a bishop (Memoirs, p. 23). He was short and thick in stature, and often spoke in a domineering manner to inferiors. He improved, however, in his later years, and would ask into his little parlour young booksellers who called when he was taking wine after dinner. 'Young man,' he would say, 'I have been in business more than forty years, and am now worth more than 40,000l. Attend to your business, and you will be as rich as I am.' He was for many years one of the court of assistants of the Stationers' Company. His name was sometimes coupled with those of Johnson and Longman on the title-pages of books published jointly by several houses.

[Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 151, 585, 707, ii. 282. iii. 401–4, 601, 649–54, iv. 665, v. 352, 462, 471, vi. 130, viii. 286. 446. 463–4, 496, 699, ix. 419; Nichols's Lit. Illustr. ii. 109, 130, iv. 143, 354; Boswell's Johnson, ed. Croker, 1853, pp. 41, 48; Dibdin's Bibliomania, pp. 461–2, 470–1; Knight's Shadows of the Old Booksellers, pp. 130. 260; Brit. Mus. Cat. (Catalogues, subdiv. v. Osborne); Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. i. 42, vii. 324; Gent. Mag. 1743, p. 560.]

G. A. A.