Watts, Thomas (DNB00)

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WATTS, THOMAS (1811–1869), keeper of printed books at the British Museum, was born in London, in the parish of St. Luke's, Old Street, in 1811. His father, originally from Northamptonshire, was the proprietor of the ‘Peerless Pool’ baths in the City Road, the profits from which placed the family in comfortable circumstances. Watts received his education at Linnington's academy, near Finsbury Square, where he soon learned whatever was taught, and distinguished himself in particular by his facility in composing essays and verses. He for some time followed no profession, but devoted himself to literary studies, in which he made remarkable progress, favoured by a prodigiously retentive memory and a faculty for acquiring difficult languages, which enabled him to master all the Celtic and Slavonic tongues, as well as Hungarian, and to make some progress with Chinese. He was particularly interested in Dutch literature. He occasionally contributed to periodicals, and in 1836 wrote an article on the British Museum in the ‘Mechanics' Magazine’ which in some degree anticipated Panizzi's subsequent feat of erecting the great reading-room within the interior quadrangle, though Watts hardly seems to speak of the step as one that was then practicable. His engagement to catalogue a small parcel of Russian desiderata, purchased at his recommendation, introduced him to the museum. At Panizzi's invitation he became a temporary assistant in 1838, and was employed in effecting the removal of the books from the old rooms in Montague House to the new library, a task performed with extraordinary expedition and unexpected facility. In the autumn of the same year he was placed upon the permanent staff. His duties for the next twenty years embraced two most important departments: he was the principal agent in the selection of current foreign literature for the museum, giving at the same time much attention to the acquisition of desiderata; and he arranged all newly acquired books on the shelves according to a system of classification introduced by himself, though agreeing to a great extent with Brunet's. These books mostly occupied presses numbered according to the ‘elastic system’ devised by Watts, which prevented the disturbance of the numerical series. ‘He appeared,’ says Cowtan, ‘never to have forgotten a single book that passed through his hands, and always remembered its exact locality in the library.’ He also gave great assistance to Panizzi in framing the memorable report (1843) which showed the inefficiency of the library as it was, and the necessity of a great augmentation of the grant for purchases [see Panizzi, Sir Anthony]. Of his labours as a selector of books, especially in the less known European languages, he was able to say, ‘In Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Danish, and Swedish, with the exception perhaps of fifty volumes, every book that has been purchased by the museum within the last three-and-twenty years has been purchased at my suggestion. Every future student of these literatures will find riches where I found poverty.’ He also, in this respect before his age, advocated the printing of the catalogue. He became assistant keeper in 1856. When the new reading-room was opened in 1857, Watts, much to the public advantage but greatly to his own dissatisfaction, was appointed its first superintendent. This necessitated his relinquishment of the duty of placing books, in which he had so delighted; he continued, however, to bestow the same attention as before upon the enrichment of the library, and computed that between 1851 and 1860 he had ordered eighty thousand books and examined six hundred thousand titles. In 1866 he succeeded John Winter Jones [q. v.] as keeper of printed books. He was eminent as a scholar rather than as an administrator, and his short term of office was chiefly distinguished for his persistence in realising his grand object ‘of uniting with the best English library in the world the best Russian library out of Russia, the best German out of Germany, the best Spanish out of Spain; and so on in every language from Italian to Icelandic, from Polish to Portuguese.’ Among other important acquisitions during his tenure of office were a large portion of the Mexican libraries of Father Fischer and M. Andrade, and the Japanese library of Dr. Siebold. He died unexpectedly at his residence in the British Museum on 9 Sept. 1869. He was interred in Highgate cemetery.

Watts was a warm-hearted and occasionally a warm-tempered man. In spite of some brusquerie and angularity he was much beloved by his colleagues, and universally regarded as one of the principal ornaments of the British Museum in his day. An inexpressive countenance and an ungainly figure were forgotten in the charm of his conversation, which resembled what has been recorded of Macaulay's.

Watts's remarkable endowments would have gained him more celebrity if he had had more inclination to authorship. Although an excellent he was not a willing writer, and needed a strong inducement to employ his pen. Apart from his official work, he is perhaps best remembered for his exposure in ‘A Letter to Antonio Panizzi, Esq.’ (1839) of the fabrication of the alleged first English newspaper (the ‘English Mercurie’), a fortunate but an easy discovery, which the first serious investigator could hardly fail to make. His excellent ‘Sketch of the History of the Welsh Language and Literature’ was privately reprinted in 1861 from Knight's ‘English Cyclopædia,’ to which he also contributed an article, perfect in its day, upon the British Museum. He wrote many biographical articles for the same publication, principally on foreign men of letters, and he was, with his brother Joshua, a leading contributor to the abortive biographical dictionary of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. The valuable article on ‘The History of Cyclopædias’ in vol. cxiii. of the ‘Quarterly Review’ (April 1863) is by him; he wrote a series of letters in the ‘Athenæum,’ under the signature of ‘Verificator,’ on the fallacies of library statistics, and made many other important communications to the same journal. He was also a valued member of the Philological Society. An interesting paper written in 1850 dealt with ‘The Probable Future Position of the English Language’ (Philol. Soc. Proc. iv. 207; cf. Axon, Stray Chapters, 1888, p. 199). Two years later, in January 1852, he gave the society his paper on Cardinal Joseph Mezzofanti, whom he acknowledged (speaking with the authority of a connoisseur) to be ‘the greatest linguist the world has ever seen’ (ib. v. 112). A subsequent paper on the Hungarian language procured him the honour of election as a member of the Hungarian Academy.

[Athenæum, 18 Sept. 1869; Edwards's Founders and Benefactors of the British Museum; Cowtan's Memories of the British Museum; Espinasse's Literary Recollections; Royal Commission on British Museum, 1849; personal knowledge.]

R. G.