Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wollaston, William (1660-1724)

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WOLLASTON, WILLIAM (1660–1724), moral philosopher, born on 26 March 1659–60 at Coton-Clanford, Staffordshire, was son of William Wollaston by Elizabeth (Downes). The Wollastons were an old Staffordshire family. One, Henry Wollaston (d. 1616), went to London and returned with a fortune made in trade. A dispute between his sons as to the succession was finally compromised. The eldest, William, got most of the property, saved money, bought the manor of Shenton, near Market-Bosworth, Leicestershire, and, dying in 1666, left a good estate to his son William. Henry's younger son, Thomas, who had been prosperous, took to drink, got into political trouble, and passed the ‘greater part of his life in repentance.’ He lived, however, to be eighty-seven, dying in 1674, and was a ‘comely old gentleman.’ He was chiefly dependent for support in later years upon his rich brother. He married Sabina, daughter of Sir G. Aldrych (d. 1626), and his youngest son, William, lived with him at various places near Shenton, and married Elizabeth Downes, daughter of a small country gentleman at Coton-Clanford. The family was embarrassed, and William apprenticed most of his sons to tradesmen.

His second son, also a William, got a little schooling, chiefly at Lichfield, and was sent to Sidney-Sussex College, Cambridge, having some promise of patronage from the rich William of Shenton, his father's first cousin. He was admitted a pensioner on 18 June 1674. He had an incompetent tutor, and was put to many shifts to get books. He gained some reputation for scholarship, but made an enemy of the college dean by ridiculing him in an exercise at the schools. The dean revenged himself by spreading scandals against his pupil. Once the dons told him to write a copy of verses which they meant to ridicule, when he evaded them by writing in Hebrew, which none of them understood. Naturally, he lost any chance of a fellowship; and, after taking his M.A. degree, left Cambridge on 29 Sept. 1681. He returned to his family, writing a Pindaric ode by the way to ‘vent his melancholy.’ Finding no better preferment, he became assistant to the master of Birmingham school in 1682. His relatives, however, began to ‘invade his quiet.’ The failure in trade of an elder brother for whom he had become security brought claims upon him which he had great difficulty in satisfying. Then he had to help a younger brother who had taken to drink, married a perverse woman, and also ruined himself. Wollaston tried to find comfort by reading the book of Ecclesiastes, and turned it into another Pindaric ode. A new charter for the school was obtained on the accession of James II; the old master was turned out; and Wollaston, who hoped to succeed, was appointed to the second mastership, worth about 70l. a year, and took priest's orders. The old master retired to live with a brother near William Wollaston of Shenton, to whom they were both known. This William had no surviving sons and was in bad health, and looking out for an heir to his estates. The other William was, according to his own account, the only relative who ‘never stirred’ to court the rich cousin. Once, indeed, he preached a sermon to his cousin, who ‘thanked him heartily.’ The cousin also secretly obtained information as to Wollaston's habits, listened to the good accounts given of him by the retired schoolmaster, and finally made a will in his favour. Soon afterwards (19 Aug. 1688) he died, and the younger William Wollaston found himself heir to his cousin's ‘noble estate.’

There were drawbacks. William of Shenton had left a widow and two daughters; and the widow had legal claims, which she enforced beyond what must have been her husband's intentions. Wollaston's own relatives, too, were ‘exceeding burthens.’ His elder brother, in the Fleet prison, put in unjustifiable claims, but had to be supported till his death, which fortunately took place in 1694. Another brother, who had to be pensioned, persisted in living until after 1709. His father, too, was ‘not altogether pleased’ at missing the estate, but had now a competence, and died on 16 March 1691–2. Wollaston, however, arranged his affairs in the winter of 1688–9, and resolved to lead a comfortable life. A wife was the first essential. He paid addresses to a Miss Alice Coburne, daughter of a wealthy brewer, who died of small-pox in May 1689, on the day of their intended marriage. He erected a monument to her with a long inscription in the church of Stratford-le-Bow; and on 26 Nov. 1689 married Catharine, daughter and coheir of Nicholas Charlton, a London merchant. He settled in Charterhouse Square, and never passed a night out of the house there until his death.

Wollaston now led a retired life, and devoted himself to writing treatises on philological and ecclesiastical questions. He burnt many towards the end of his life; but thirteen fragmentary treatises which accidentally escaped are recorded in his life. He published the paraphrase of Ecclesiastes in 1691, but afterwards desired to suppress it. He privately printed in 1703 a Latin grammar for the use of his family. His one important work was the ‘Religion of Nature Delineated.’ It was privately printed in 1722, and published in 1724 (when Franklin was employed as a compositor). Ten thousand copies were sold ‘in a few years,’ and it went through many editions. He left a few fragments in continuation. His health had long been weak; and an accident hastened his death on 20 Oct. 1724. His wife had died on 21 July 1720. Both were buried at Great Finborough, Suffolk, where he had an estate; and inscriptions written by himself were placed in the church. His eldest son, William, lived at Finborough, and represented Ipswich in the House of Commons in two parliaments (from January 1731 until 1741); and his grandson, a third William Wollaston, was elected for the same borough in 1768, 1774, and 1780. Another grandson, Francis Wollaston [q. v.], is noticed separately.

Wollaston was a valetudinarian and rather querulous, as appears by his autobiography. He admits that ‘natural affection is a duty,’ but thinks that he rather ‘overacted his part’ towards his brothers. His relatives probably disagreed with this; but he seems to have been a good husband and father, and is said to have been lively in conversation and willing to be serviceable to his friends. He lived with strict regularity and became much of a recluse. The ‘Religion of Nature’ is a version of the ‘intellectual’ theory of morality of which Samuel Clarke was the chief contemporary representative. One peculiarity is the paradoxical turn given to the doctrine by the deduction of all the virtues from truth. To treat a man as if he were a post is to tell a lie, and therefore wrong. In the main, however, it is an able illustration of the position, and Wollaston had considerable authority as a moralist during the century (see Hunt, Religious Thought in England, ii. 338 n.) He appears to have ceased to act as a clergyman, and his rationalism led to suspicions of his orthodoxy. He was occasionally confounded with the deist Thomas Woolston [q. v.], who was at the same college.

Portraits of Wollaston are at Shenton and at the master's lodgings at Sidney-Sussex College. A miniature portrait of him (as a young man) was in the possession of the Rev. Henry Wollaston Hutton, Vicars' Court, Lincoln. In 1732 Queen Caroline placed a marble bust of Wollaston, along with those of Newton, Locke, and Clarke, in her hermitage in the royal garden at Richmond. The bust itself has disappeared, but there exists a mezzotint engraving of it by J. Faber.

[A Life of Wollaston was prefixed to the sixth edition of the Religion of Nature in 1738. It is founded upon an autobiography written in 1709, and published in Nichols's Leicestershire, vol. iv., where (pp. 541–2) there is a full genealogy of the family; cf. Nichols's Illustrations of Literature, i. 169–210. Some additional facts are given in Illustrations, i. 830–5. Waters's Genealogical Memoirs of the Chester Family (1878) gives an account of the Wollastons, including (pp. 565–7) William Wollaston.]

L. S.