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Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition, Volume 11, Slice 8 "Germany" to "Gibson, William"

The historian was born at Putney


style="text-align: justify;"> GIBBON, EDWARD (1737-1794), English historian, was descended, he tells us in his autobiography, from a Kentish family of considerable antiquity; among his remoter ancestors he reckons the lord high treasurer Fiennes, Lord Say and Sele, whom Shakespeare has immortalized in his _Henry VI._ His grandfather was a man of ability, an enterprising merchant of London, one of the commissioners of customs under the Tory ministry during the last four years of Queen Anne, and, in the judgment of Lord Bolingbroke, as deeply versed in the "commerce and finances of England" as any man of his time. He was not always wise, however, either for himself or his country; for he became deeply involved in the South Sea Scheme, in the disastrous collapse of which (1720) he lost the ample wealth he had amassed. As a director of the company, moreover, he was suspected of fraudulent complicity, taken into custody and heavily fined; but L10,000 was allowed him out of the wreck of his estate, and with this his skill and enterprise soon constructed a second fortune. He died at Putney in 1736, leaving the bulk of his property to his two daughters--nearly disinheriting his only son, the father of the historian, for having married against his wishes. This son (by name Edward) was educated at Westminster[1] and Cambridge, but never took a degree, travelled, became member of parliament, first for Petersfield (1734), then for Southampton (1741), joined the party against Sir Robert Walpole,
and (as his son confesses, not much to his father's honour) was animated in so doing by "private revenge" against the supposed "oppressor" of his family in the South Sea affair. If so, revenge, as usual, was blind; for Walpole had sought rather to moderate than to inflame public feeling against the projectors.

The historian was born at Putney, Surrey, April 27 (Old Style), 1737. His mother, Judith Porten, was the daughter of a London merchant. He was the eldest of a family of six sons and a daughter, and the only one who survived childhood; his own life in youth hung by so mere a thread as to be again and again despaired of. His mother, between domestic cares and constant infirmities (which, however, did not prevent an occasional plunge into fashionable dissipation in compliance with her husband's wishes), did but little for him. The "true mother of his mind as well as of his health" was a maiden aunt--Catherine Porten by name--with respect to whom he expresses himself in language of the most grateful remembrance. "Many anxious and solitary days," says Gibbon, "did she consume with patient trial of every mode of relief and amusement. Many wakeful nights did she sit by my bedside in trembling expectation that each hour would be my last." As circumstances allowed, she appears to have taught him reading, writing and arithmetic--acquisitions made with so little of remembered pain that "were not the error corrected by analogy," he says, "I should be tempted to conceive them as innate." At seven he was committed for eighteen months to the care of a private tutor, John Kirkby by name, and the author, among other things, of a "philosophical fiction" entitled the _Life of Automathes_. Of Kirkby, from whom he learned the rudiments of English and Latin grammar, he speaks gratefully, and doubtless truly, so far as he could trust the impressions of childhood. With reference to _Automathes_ he is much more reserved in his praise, denying alike its originality, its depth and its elegance; but, he adds, "the book is not devoid of entertainment or instruction."


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