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

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PETER, WILLIAM (1788–1853), politician and poet, born at Harlyn, St. Merryn, Cornwall, on 22 March 1788, was the eldest son of Henry Peter (d. 1821), who married, on 24 June 1782, Anna Maria, youngest daughter of Thomas Rous of Piercefield, Monmouthshire. He matriculated from Christ Church, Oxford, 27 Jan. 1803, and graduated B.A. 19 March 1807, M.A. 7 Dec. 1809. After living for a few years in London, where he was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn on 28 May 1813, he returned to his native county and settled on his property, which had been much augmented by his marriage. He became a justice of the peace and deputy-lieutenant for Cornwall, and was conspicuous among the country gentlemen who agitated for electoral reform. When the close boroughs in that county were abolished by the first Reform Act, he was invited to stand for the enlarged constituency of Bodmin, and was returned at the head of the poll on 11 Dec. 1832. He sat until the dissolution of parliament on 29 Dec. 1834; but the enthusiasm for reform had then died away, and he refrained from contesting the constituency. Soon after that date Peter retired to the continent, and spent his days among his books or in the company of the chief men of letters in Germany. In 1840 he received the appointment of British consul in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where he remained until his death. He died at Philadelphia on 6 Feb. 1853, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Peter, where a monument to his memory was erected at the expense of a number of the leading citizens. He married, on 12 Jan. 1811, Frances, only daughter and heiress of John Thomas of Chiverton in Perranzabuloe, Cornwall. She died on 21 Aug. 1836, having had issue ten children. His second wife, whom he married at Philadelphia in 1844, was Mrs. Sarah King, daughter of Thomas Worthington of Ohio and widow of Edward King, son of Rufus King of New York. She is described as ‘one of the most distinguished women in American society,’ the founder of a school of design for women at Philadelphia. Peter's eldest son, John Thomas Henry Peter, fellow of Merton College, Oxford, died in July 1873. The third son, Robert Godolphin Peter, formerly fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, became rector of Cavendish, Suffolk.

Peter was the author or editor of: 1. ‘Thoughts on the Present Crisis, in a Letter from a Constituent to his Representative,’ 1815; 2nd edit., with considerable additions, in the ‘Pamphleteer,’ viii. 216–80. 2. ‘Speeches of Sir Samuel Romilly in the House of Commons,’ 1820, 2 vols.; memoir by Peter in vol. i. pp. vii–lxxi. 3. ‘Sacred Songs, being an attempted Paraphrase or Imitation of some Portions and Passages of the Psalms, by W. Peter,’ 1828; new edit., with other poems, by ‘a Layman,’ 1834. 4. ‘Poems by Ralph Ferrars (i.e. William Peter);’ a new edit. London, 1833. 5. ‘A Letter from an ex-M.P. to his late Constituents, containing a Short Review of the Acts of the Whig Administration,’ 1835; 2nd edit. 1835. 6. ‘William Tell, from the German of Schiller,’ with notes and illustrations, Heidelberg, 1839; 2nd edit. Lucerne, 1867. 7. ‘Mary Stuart, from the German of Schiller,’ with other versions of some of his best poems, Heidelberg, 1841. 8. ‘Maid of Orleans and other Poems,’ Cambridge, 1843. 9. ‘Agamemnon of Æschylus,’ Philadelphia, 1852. 10. ‘Specimens of the Poets and Poetry of Greece and Rome,’ by various translators, Philadelphia, 1847. This was pronounced ‘the most thorough and satisfactory popular summary of ancient poetry ever made in the English language.’ 11. ‘Johannis Gilpin iter, Latine redditum. Editio altera,’ Philadelphia, 1848.

Several specimens of Peter's poetical compositions are in Griswold's ‘Poets and Poetry,’ 1875 edit. pp. 240–3, and some reminiscences of his native parish are in the ‘Complete Parochial History of Cornwall,’ iii. 321. There was printed at Philadelphia, in 1842, a volume of letters to him from Job R. Tyson on the ‘resources and commerce of Philadelphia, with Mr. Peter's answer prefixed.’

[Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Allibone's Dict. of English Literature; Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub. ii. 463–4, 1310; Boase's Collect. Cornub. pp. 724–5; Gent. Mag. 1853, pt. i. pp. 441–2; Mrs. S. J. Hale's Woman's Record, 2nd edit. pp. 870–1; Parochial Hist. of Cornwall, iv. 54–9.]

W. P. C.