Tuesday, July 19, 2016


Henry Wild

William Dunn Macray, Annals of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, A.D. 1598-A.D. 1867 (London: Rivingtons, 1868), pp. 141-142 (anno 1715):
A learned tailor of Norwich was in this year recommended by Dr. Tanner, then Chancellor of Norwich Cathedral, for the Janitor's place in the Library should it be vacant. Although but a journeyman tailor of thirty years of age, who had been taught nothing but English in his childhood, Henry Wild had contrived within seven years to master seven languages, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, Arabic and Persian, to which Tanner adds, in another letter to Dr. Rawlinson, Samaritan and Ethiopic. The application appears to have been unsuccessful so far as the holding office in the Library was concerned; but Wild found some employment in the Library for a time in the translating and copying Oriental MSS1. He removed to London about 1720, and died in the following year, as we learn from an entry in Hearne's MS. Diary, (xcii. 128-9,) under date of Oct. 29, 1721, where we read:—

'About a fortnight since died in London Mr. Henry Wild, commonly called, the Arabick Taylour. I have more than once mentioned him formerly. He was by profession a taylour of Norwich, and was a married man. But having a strange inclination to languages, by a prodigious industry he obtain'd a very considerable knowledge in many, without any help or assistance from others. He understood Arabick perfectly well, and transcrib'd, very fairly, much from Bodley, being patroniz'd by that most eminent physician, Dr. Rich. Mead. He died of a feaver, aged about 39. He was about a considerable work, viz. a history of the old Arabian physicians, from an Arabick MS. in Bodley. The MS. was wholly transcrib'd by him a year agoe, but what progress he had made for the press I know not.'

1 Letters by Eminent Persons, i. 271, 300. [On p. 270 for Turner, read Tanner.]
Z.A., "Extraordinary Life of Mr Henry Wild," The Gentleman's Magazine (March 1755) 105-106:
Mr Henry Wild, professor of the oriental languages, was born in the city of Norwich, and educated there at a grammar school, and almost fitted for the university; but his friends wanting fortune and interest to maintain him there, bound him an apprentice to a taylor, with whom he served out the term of seven years; after which he worked as a journeyman seven years more. About the end of the last seven years, he was seized with a fever and ague, which held him two or three years, and reduced him at last so low, as to disable him from working at his trade. In this situation, he amused himself with some old books of controversial divinity, wherein he found great stress laid on the Hebrew original of several texts of scripture. Tho' he had almost lost his school learning, his curiosity, and strong desire of knowledge, excited him to attempt to make himself master of it. He was obliged at first to make use of an English Hebrew grammar and lexicon, but by degrees he recovered the language he had learnt at school. As his health was re-established, he divided his time between the business of his profession, and his studies, which last employed the greatest part of his nights. Thus self taught and assisted only by his own great genius, by dint of continual application, and almost unparallelled industry, he added the knowledge of all, or the much greater part of the oriental languages, to that of the Hebrew. But still he laboured in obscurity, till at length he was accidentally discover'd to the world.

The late worthy Dr. Prideaux, dean of Norwich, a name justly celebrated in the learned world, was offered some Arabic MSS. in parchment, by a bookseller of that city. But whether he thought the price demanded was too great, or whether he expected, as few would buy them, the bookseller would be obliged to lower his price, he left them on his hands. Soon after Mr Wild heard of them, and purchased them. Some weeks after, the dean called at the shop, and enquired for the MSS. but was informed they were sold. Chagrined at his disappointment, he asked the name and profession of the person who had bought them. On his being told he was a taylor; Run instantly, said the dean, in a passion, and fetch them, if they are not cut in pieces to make measures. He was soon relieved from his fears, by Mr Wild's appearance with the MSS. He enquir'd whether he would part with them, but was answered in the negative. The dean hastily asked what he did with them? he replied he read them. He was desired to read, which he did; he was then bid to render a passage or two into English, which he did readily and exactly. Amazed at this, the dean partly at his own expence, partly by a subscription, raised among persons, whose inclinations led them to this kind of learning, sent him to Oxon, where, tho' he was never a member of the university, he was by the dean's interest admitted to the Bodleian library, and employed for some years in translating, or making extracts out of, oriental MSS.—Thus he bid adieu to his needle.

About 1718 I found him at Oxon, and learned Hebrew of him; but do not recollect how long he had been there before. He was there known by the name of the Arabian taylor. All the hours that the library was open, he constantly attended; when it was shut, he employed most of his leisure time in teaching the oriental languages to young gentlemen, at the moderate price of half a guinea a language, except for the Arabic, for which, as I remember, he had a guinea.

About 1720 he removed to London, where he spent the remainder of his life, under the patronage of the famous Dr Mead; there I saw him at the latter end of 1721. When he died I know not, but in 1734 his translation, out of the Arabic, of Al-Mesra, or Mahomet's journey to Heaven, was publish'd: In the dedication, which was addressed to Mr Mackrel of Norwich, it is said to be a posthumous work. It is the only piece of his that ever was printed, and I have heard him read it in MS.

When I knew him he seemed to be about 40, tho his sedentary and studious way of life might make him look older than he really was. His person was thin and meagre, his stature moderately tall, and his air and walk had all the little particularities observed in persons of his profession. His memory was extraordinary. His pupils frequently invited him to spend an evening with them, when he would often entertain us with long and curious details out of the Roman, Greek, and Arabic histories. His morals were good: He was addicted to no vice, was sober and temperate modest and diffident of himself, without any tincture of conceitedness or vanity. In his lectures he would frequently observe to us, that such an idiom in Hebrew, resembled one in Latin or Greek; then he would make a pause, and seem to recal his words, and ask us, whether it were not so? This caused a suspicion, which will be after mentioned, that it was done to conceal his real profession.

So much merit and industry met with little reward, and procured him a subsistence not much better than what his trade might have produced; as I remember, his subscriptions amounted to no more than 20 or 30l. per annum. That part of learning which he excelled in, was cultivated and encouraged by few. Unfortunately for him, the Rev. Mr Gagnier, a French gentleman, skilled in the oriental tongues, was in possession of all the favours the university could bestow in this way, for he was recommended by the heads of houses to instruct young gentlemen, and employed by the professors of those languages to read publick lectures in their absence.

Such uncommon attainments in a person, who made so mean an appearance, led some to suspect that he was a Jesuit under this disguise. These suspicions were heightened by his modesty and diffidence, his affecting sometimes to talk of foreign cities and countries, his frequenting the university church only, where by way of exercise the sermons treat more of speculative and controversial points, than practical ones. But these suspicions were without any other foundation; for after I left the university, I lived in a family, where I met with a woman who was a native and inhabitant of Norwich, who came there on a visit. I took this opportunity of making many enquiries about him. She confirmed many of the particulars before mentioned, and assured me that she knew him from a child, that he was born and bred up in the city, and never heard or knew he was absent from it any considerable time, till his removal to Oxon.

The memory of so extraordinary a person, who was so striking an example of diligence and industry, deserves to be perpetuated. Such an attempt is an act of justice due to such merit, and cannot but be of service to the world. I heartily wish that these imperfect memoirs may induce one of his fellow citizens to correct, improve, and compleat them, especially since the late Rev. Mr Blomfield, in his history of the city of Norwich, if I remember right, takes no notice of a man, who did honour to the place of his nativity, and his country.
See also D.M. Dunlop, "The 'Arabian Tailor', Henry Wild," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 19.3 (1957) 579-581.

From Jim O'Donnell:
A learned tailor of Norwich
Began with but trifling knowledge
    But soon he learned Greek
    And other tongues eke
Without ever going to college.

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