Digital correspondence of Philip “Polyby” Williams project

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Draft preface

The 200+ letters presented here were all written by or to the Revd Philip Williams (1742–1830), whose family and friends could have come straight out of the novels of Jane Austen. Living in an around Winchester, but with a footprint that spread in many parts of England, they were well educated, well connected and lived a gentile middle-class life that hovered between the well-heeled landowner and the struggling curate. Also they were known to and connected with the novelist's family via the Bigg family of Manydown Park, near Basingstoke, only a short distance from the Steventon home of the Austens. Philip Williams was a scholar at Winchester College in the same year as Lovelace Bigg-Wither (father of the novelist's friends Alethea and Elizabeth Bigg, later Mrs Williams Heathcote) and the two men stayed friends for the rest of their lives. Philip Williams' daughters may even have been 'written into' the unfinished novel Sanditon, one as the heroine and the other as 'inspiration' for Mr Parker's hypochondriacal siblings.

Paradoxically, the Letters contain no mention of Jane Austen herself or her work, and it would be hard to justify publishing them merely because they opened another window on her world. They are, however, of interest in their own right, documenting the lives of the solid middle classes in the later stages of the 'Age of Johnson' (modern eyes might call it the 'Age of Austen'), that saw England through the American crisis, the Regency crisis, the Napoleonic Wars and much else. In an article on the rise and rise of 'the cult of Jane Austen' published by the distinguished 'Janeite' Deirdre Le Faye (Le Faye, 2008) she suggests that it is not only the 'brilliantly composed, witty and cheerful' novels that appeal to the modern reader, but a whole range of other aspects of the period - social history, music, dances, fashion, food, architecture and naval and military history. The same might be said of these Letters, which illuminate other facets of life, including the theatre, parliament, the married state, the cleric and his estate and much else. They are therefore presented in their own right, but also as adjunct to Austenite literature, which of course includes the volume of 160 letters of the novelist, edited by Le Faye.

Phlip Williams came from a line of clergymen that originated in North Wales in the middle of the seventeenth century. Arch-pluralist he certainly was, though he held back from the worst of the excesses of the times. He was chaplain to the nobleman Lord Liverpool and to Charles Wolfran Cornwall, a Speaker of the House of Commons. He served the chapters of Lincoln, Canterbury and Winchester. He was the resident rector of the parish of Compton, near Winchester, and also incumbent at various times and in various capacities at Adderbury, Easington and Nettlebed in Oxfordshire, as well as in Gosberton, Lincolnshire, and Houghton, Hampshire. He was a small-time landowner, a father and husband (twice), and a fellow and bursar of Winchester College. And he was a classical scholar: whilst a fellow of New College, Oxford, he was commissioned to produce a new edition of the works of the Greek historian Polybius, on which he worked for nearly 37 years, until in April 1804 the university press at Oxford cancelled the project. A single surviving copy of the printed sheets, bound by his son, unknown to modern scholarship, shows that he almost achieved the monumental task. Intriguingly, a Winchester scholar from a previous generation called James Hampton, who went up to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1739, is recorded in Kirby (1888) as a 'translator of "Polybius"'.

Philip Williams was ordained deacon on 23 December 1764 and was soon serving as curate at Adderbury, a New College living (Mss M/PW/353). Its vicar, Henry Blackstone, came from a family with many links with the Bigg family and Winchester College. Philip Williams was at Adderbury until at least July 1765 and probably served until his ordination as priest on 21 December 1766, after which on 3 February 1767 he was instituted rector of Easington, Oxfordshire, under the patronage of the bishop of Lincoln. No doubt instrumental in this appointment was his stepfather, John Gordon, who had just finished a stint as the bishop's chaplain and been appointed archdeacon of Buckingham.

Elected a fellow of Winchester College in 1769 through his friend Lovelace Bigg-Wither, Philip Williams then relied for a decade on the small influence of his stepfather, John Gordon. In 1779 he married Sarah ('Sally') Collins, daughter of the second master of Winchester College. This brought no preferment but took him into the orbit of her two sisters, one of whom married Jeremiah Dyson, a son of a distinguished Clerk of the House of Commons, and the other married a man who became the 3rd Lord Bolingbroke, with Byronic ways and an exotic lifestyle that led to much misery. Philip Williams was the 'steady one' in this trio and he and his wife provide a baseline with which to contrast other kinds of Georgian marriage. The letters between him and his wife are a moving statement on the lot of the faithful wife with the absent husband, on childcare and upbringing, on the gossip and social round of provincial England, and much else. The letters of Sally Williams were always written from the heart and reveal her innermost thoughts and fears. Philip Williams was undoubtedly a traditionalist, a chauvinist and an antiradical, but he was no killjoy. The Letters chronicle a life with a huge network of relatives, friends and professional contacts, with much junketing and humour and regular travels 'north of Watford', in pursuit of a childhood in Norfolk and Lincolnshire and other things in Derbyshire, County Durham, and elsewhere.

The letters from John Gordon, who played preferment like chess, reach back in style to the earlier years of the century, but are full of colour on the life of the cathedral canon and Cambridge academic that he was. They also give much detail on the practicalities of the cleric managing his estate and glebe. Philip Williams himself had a family traditon that sprang from Cambridge, but was elected to a scholarship to Winchester and then trod the path to New College, Oxford, which brought him many lifelong friends and acquaintances. As an adult he came back to Winchester, where in his late 20s he was elected a fellow of Winchester College (and shortly afterwards given a Cambridge MA to add to his Oxford one) and after marriage presented by the bishop to a living at nearby Compton. Then for seven years he spent the parliamentary terms in London, serving the Speaker and rubbing shoulders with the Westminster élite of the day. In Winchester he mixed seamlessly with the men of the college and the close, few of whom reached great heights of fame, but most of whom were solid achievers in their sphere. All these facets of his life make the Letters a powerful vehicle for unlocking the lives and loves of the middle classes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The Letters here presented were passed down the family via a long line of men called Philip Williams, until in 1968 they were donated to Winchester College by Mrs Edwyn Jervoise. She and her father, another Philip Williams, transcribed (or perhaps had transcribed) the Letters and made great efforts to research the family history. The cache of papers they generated was deposited with the Letters. But the work was of an amateur quality and never intended for anything more. However, long before the Letters came to the school they were known to the historian John Summers Drew, who made use of some of them in his Compton, published in 1939. They were also well known to GH Blore, who taught history at the school and made a special study of Winchester (city, cathedral and college) in the eighteenth century. In the years following the deposit of the Letters in the college, a few papers were published on their subject matter, but this volume presents the first systematic and detailed study that has ever been made.

The Letters span the period 1760 to 1828, but by no means evenly: 89 letters between Philip Williams and his wife Sarah ('Sally') - written both ways - run from 1780 to 1787, in which year she died in childbirth; another 84 by Philip Williams to his spinster daughters Charlotte and Elizabeth ('Betsy') span 1795 to 1828, two years before he died. A series of 31 letters to Philip Williams from his stepfather Dr John Gordon, Archdeacon of Lincoln and much else, were written between 1767 and 1789; and there is a handful of letters between Philip Williams and Lovelace Bigg-Wither from 1765 to 1790.

This volume includes a faithful transcription of the Letters, which adds to those made before the Second World War by members of the Williams family and by John Summers Drew. Annotations for each letter follow the text, and in some cases are very extensive. The aim has been to make the Letters understandable by anyone who has some knowledge of the period, but none of the family and its ways. The text and notes of the Letters are arranged chronologically according to assigned dates. In addition, tables have been compiled to enable all the letters for a particular correspondent to be located. A List of Places gives a brief description of all places mentioned and their relevance, if any, to Philip Williams and his family. Similarly, a List of People gives biographical notes of most of the people mentioned in the Letters, though some contain so many names (e.g. lists of people at Westminster dinners) that to include them all would be of little value. A General Index covers all major subjects.

The volume opens with an extensive essay entitled 'Philip Williams and his world'. This attempts to draw together the material and interpret it, particularly within the setting of Winchester and Hampshire in general, but also, where relevant, in the capital and country as a whole. The editor is aware that this offering crosses many subject areas and that specialists within each may not find what they want; but to leave the Letters with no commentary would be to miss an opportunity to put them into some kind of context whilst the material is to hand. Any exercise of this kind makes one aware of the large number of valuable collections of letters that lie untouched in archives everywhere. No doubt future researchers will find that they contain much that would improve this volume, but to have extended the research to this mountain of other material - much of it in the Hampshire Record Office - would have made it unending. The advent of the internet has made it possible to chase many tiny details that in a past age would have been unreachable, but there others that may forever escape understanding.

It is hoped that this volume will illustrate what its editor believes to be true, namely, that letters are one of the most valuable means of understanding a particular period, and especially an individual. These letters certainly fulfil this assertion; they impinge on so many areas of life that they have for ever been stretching the understanding and knowledge of the editor and his contacts. And it is hoped that researchers with an interest in the period - particularly in social history, church history, Winchester and Hampshire, Westminster - will find something of use. The project would have been impossible to start, and certainly impossible to fulfil, without the help of Suzanne Foster, the Archivist, and Dr Geoffrey Day, the Fellows' Librarian of Winchester College. Their professional knowledge and willingness to share the resources of the college have made the job possible and pleasurable. An unknown number of enjoyable hours have been spent in the Harmer Room, formerly the Warden's Study, which contains a unique collection of reference books on the college and its alumni, many annotated with corrections in the hands of former archivists and librarians.

Barry Shurlock, 2011

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