Friday 2 October 2009

Charles Burney: from book thief to Deptford priest

Near the altar of St Paul's, Deptford is a monument to its former rector, erected by his parishioners. The inscription reads:
Charles Burney, DD, FRS, rector of this parish and of Cliffe in this county. Prebendary of Lincoln, and Chaplain in Ordinary to His Majesty. Born 4 Dec 1767 and died 28 Dec 1817.
In him were united the highest attainments in learning, with manners at once dignified and attractive, peculiar promptitude and accuracy of judgement, with equal generosity and kindness of heart. His zealous attachment to the Church of England was tempered by moderation, and his impressive discourses from the pulpit became doubly beneficial from the influence of his own example.

The parishioners of St Paul's, Deptford, erected this monument, as a record of their affection for their revered pastor, monitor, and friend, of their gratitude for his services, and of their unspeakable regret for his loss.
This apparent paragon, however, began his career ignominiously. As a student at Cambridge University, he was sent down without a degree for stealing books - probably to pay gambling debts. (His sister Fanny later attempted to explain his actions as motivated by the overwhelming desire to own a library of his own, but this version isn't too convincing as he'd sold many of the books on to London dealers.)

Charles Burney went on to study in Aberdeen - successfully this time - and became a schoolmaster. He was already looking for a church career, but the book episode made that difficult. As a well-regarded classical scholar and educationalist, though, he began to recover his reputation. He was finally ordained, and granted a Cambridge degree, in 1808.

Burney's career in classical scholarship continued; he became a Fellow of the Royal Society; and he was also promoted within the church, as his monument records. By 1810 he was the King's Chaplain and he became rector of St Paul's the following year.

However, aged only sixty he died of an apoplectic stroke and was buried in the churchyard of St Paul's. As well as his memorial there, he also has a bust in Westminster Abbey. His most lasting legacy, though, may be his collection of (honestly acquired) books. These were bought by the British Museum for the huge sum of £13,500 after his death, and as the Burney Collection formed an important part of the British Library collections.


Minnie said...

Bang to rights, then went straight: it can be done! Mind you, if you have to steal anything ...
What a delightful story, Caroline. And so informative - was just wondering if any connection with Fanny Burney, and voila!

Anonymous said...

It funny at the same time this man was the rector of Cliffe Kent. Most of the historic documents from the Church muniments room disappeared....