William Oldys was an English poet, bibliographer and antiquarian who was known to be fastidious in his life-long task of recording historical data.
He was born on the 14th July 1696, probably in London, and it is believed that his early years were fraught with difficulty. He was the illegitimate son of Dr William Oldys, a chancellor of Lincoln and advocate of the Admiralty, amongst other appointments. His unmarried mother, though, was very poor and, between them, they could not, or would not, invest much in their son’s upbringing and education. Young William found himself alone in the world at a fairly early age due to the death of both parents and was left an amount of money known as a patrimony. Unfortunately he got caught out with bad investments in the South Seas Trading Company which crashed in 1720, the so-called “South Sea Bubble”, and he lost much of his money.
Four years after the financial crash of 1720 Oldys went to Yorkshire, having been invited to stay with the Earl of Malton. He remained there for six years, continuing to write throughout his stay but, on his return to London, he found that his collection of books and valuable papers had been disposed of by his landlord including a copy of Dramatick Poets by Gerard Langbaine which contained many notes and references annotated by Oldys. In 1731 he managed to find a position in the employ of Edward Harley, the 2nd Earl of Oxford. It was in this occupation, which eventually led to his appointment as literary secretary, tending to a substantial library of ancient books, that Oldys developed his passion for antiquaries and, in ensuing years, produced his best written work.
Financial difficulties dogged Oldys and, in 1751, he found himself in the debtors’ prison alongside the River Fleet in London. He spent two years there and was only released when friends paid off his debts. He was soon back on his feet though and, in 1755, the Duke of Norfolk recognised his literary and antiquarian talents by appointing him as Norfolk Herald Extraordinary. Later he acquired an even more prestigious post – that of Norroy King of Arms which gives the incumbent jurisdiction over land north of the River Trent.
His literary output was substantial and, from 1747, he was the first editor of the Biographia Britannica, a task that he continued until his death in 1761. His efforts could never make him rich but he somehow managed to stay solvent for the rest of his life, a situation aided by his association with the booksellers. He had undoubted skills as a poet and biographer while his knowledge of ancient books was never bettered by anyone else at that time.
A curious example of his poetry is reproduced here. It’s a somewhat philosophical ode comparing the short life of a fly to that of man and is called On A Fly Drinking Out Of His Cup. It first appeared in the Scarborough Miscellany of 1732 and was also set to music and sung:
Probably as a result of his time of incarceration he often sought out the company of lower classes of men and he was known to be a heavy drinker, often to the point of absolute intoxication. Remarkably this did not shorten his life but the respect of his peers was sorely tested during his later years.
William Oldys died on the 15th April 1761 at the age of 65.