William Petty was born on Monday, 26 May, 1623, at the house of his father, a poor clothier of Romsey in Hampshire.
According to the detailed account of his childhood which he gave to Aubrey, his chief amusement consisted in "looking on the artificers, e.g. smyths, the watchmaker, carpenters, joiners, etc." until he "could have worked at any of their trades." "At twelve years of age he had acquired a competent smattering of Latin," and before his sixteenth year he was well advanced in Greek, mathematics and navigation. It was, perhaps, in his fourteenth year that Petty
- The earliest printed notice of Petty's life is in Wood's Athenæ Oxonienses (1691). It is based upon memoranda by Petty procured for Wood by John Aubrey (cf. post, p. xl), and upon Petty's published writings. His autobiographical will was first published in the Tracts relating chiefly to Ireland (1769; see Bibliography, no. 27) and various letters by and about him were printed in Boyle's Works (1744) and in the Capel Correspondence (1770). In 1813 Aubrey's Lives were included in the "Bodleian Letters" edited by Walker and Bliss, and soon thereafter the printing of Evelyn's and of Pepys's diaries brought further facts to light. In 1851 Petty's History of the Down Survey was edited for the Irish Archæological Society. Finally, in 1895, appeared Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice's Life of Sir William Petty, chiefly from Private Documents hitherto unpublished (London: John Murray), a record of Petty's acts and thoughts which leaves little to be desired in point of completeness and authenticity. Of the private documents used by Lord E. Fitzmaurice, the most important appear to be the letters exchanged between Petty and Sir Robert Southwell (pp. lvi—lvii). In preparing the above account of Petty, which is confined to those phases of his life that may have suggested, or may serve to explain parts of his writings, I have drawn upon the Life without reserve, and have cited other authorities, in general, only in case the citation given is not to be found in the Life.
- Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. by A. Clark (Oxford, 1898), ii. 140. This is far preferable to the 1813 ed.