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Derham, William (1657–1735), Church of England clergyman and natural philosopher, was born at Stoulton, near Worcester, on 26 November 1657. His father's name was Thomas, but no other information is available about his parents. He went to school at Blockley, Gloucestershire, and was admitted to Trinity College, Oxford, as a servitor on 14 May 1675; he graduated BA on 28 January 1679. Dr Ralph Bathurst, president of Trinity, recommended him to Dr Seth Ward, bishop of Salisbury, who in turn recommended him as chaplain to dowager Lady Catherine Grey of Werke. He was ordained deacon by Dr Henry Compton, bishop of London, on 29 May 1681 and priest by Seth Ward on 9 July 1682. That same month he was presented with the living of Wargrave, Berkshire, by Richard Neville, son-in-law to Lady Grey. He received his MA degree from Trinity on 4 July 1683. He took out a licence to marry Isabella Darrell (bap. 1655) of Kingsclere on 17 January 1684, but nothing more is known about this union.

Derham left Wargrave in 1689 when he became rector at Upminster, Essex, at £200 a year. For the rest of his life he lived at High House, a two-storeyed house 100 yards from the church. As a widower he married Anna Scott (b. c.1675) of Woolstan Hall, Chigwell, on 2 June 1699. They had five children: Anna (1700–1710), Elizabeth (1701–1780), William (1702–1757), Thomas (1704–1738), and Jane (1709–1735); became president of St John's College, Oxford. On the accession of George I in 1714 Derham became chaplain to the prince of Wales, the future George II, who procured a canonry of Windsor for him in 1716, which obliged him to spend part of the year at Windsor. Derham always sailed a middle course in religion and did not play a part in the theological controversies of his times. The University of Oxford awarded him his degree of DD by diploma in June 1730.

Apart from his parochial duties Derham was also an amateur scientist interested in nature, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1696 he published The Artificial Clockmaker: a Treatise of Watch and Clock-Work, which included a short history of horology. The treatise was translated into German (1708) and French (1731). Derham knew many of the leading scientists of his time, among them Isaac Newton and the astronomer Edmond Halley, and was himself elected to the Royal Society on 3 February 1703. He contributed thirty-eight articles to the society's Philosophical Transactions on a wide range of subjects, including meteorology, natural history (examples are the migration of birds, death-watch beetles, and wasps), and, in later years, astronomy. In one of these, published in 1733, he expressed an opposite view to that of Halley on the nature of nebulous objects. An example of Derham's practical scientific work can still be seen in the sundial, for which he did the calculations, attached to the Lincoln chapel of St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle. He was also interested in medicine and seems to have acted as a physician to his family and parishioners. He frequently asked Hans Sloane for medical advice.

In 1711 and 1712 Derham delivered the Boyle lectures at St Mary-le-Bow, London, in the spirit of Boyle's intention to refute anti-Christian philosophies by using natural history to promote and prove a natural theology. The lectures were subsequently published as Physico-Theology, or, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from his Works of Creation (1713). The book became a popular work on natural theology and was reprinted frequently (12th edn, 1754) and translated into several languages, among them Italian (1719), French (1726), and Dutch (1728). In 1715 he published another book on the same lines, his Astro-Theology (14th edn, 1777), which was also translated into several languages. He edited various books, among them Eleazer Albin's Natural History of English Insects (1724) and Robert Hooke's Philosophical Experiments and Observations (1726). He also edited works by his friend John Ray: his Synopsis methodica avium et piscum (1713), later editions of his Wisdom of God (1714), and the Three Physico-Theological Discourses (1713, 1721, and 1732), a book on the same subject as Derham's own Boyle lectures. He published some of Ray's correspondence as Philosophical Letters in 1718, and wrote a short biography that was published posthumously by George Scott, Derham's nephew-in-law, in The Select Remains of the Learned John Ray (1760).

According to the editors of the Biographia Britannica, who claimed to have received their information from his son William, Derham was a fairly tall, strong, healthy, and amiable man. He died on 5 April 1735 at his home, High House, in Upminster. He was buried at Upminster church; no memorial marks his grave. On 8 July of that same year probate was granted to his widow, to whom Derham left the remainder of his estate after bequeathing £1000 each to three of his children (Thomas had apparently already received his part of the inheritance). His books, instruments, and papers were left to his son William.

Marja Smolenaars


Biographia Britannica, or, The lives of the most eminent persons who have flourished in Great Britain and Ireland, 3 (1750) · A. D. Atkinson, ‘William Derham’, Annals of Science, 8 (1952), 368–92 · C. K. Aked, ‘William Derham and The artificial clockmaker [pts 1–3]’, Antiquarian Horology and the Proceedings of the Antiquarian Horological Society, 6 (1968–70), 362–72, 416–27, 495–505 · Foster, Alum. Oxon.


Essex RO, MSS · RS, letters to RS · U. Oxf., Taylor Institution, papers |  BL, letters mainly to Sir Hans Sloane, Sloane MSS 4025–4053, passim · BL, Stowe MSS, letters


J. Baker, engraving, RS; repro. in Aked, ‘William Derham’ · J. Green, line print, BM, NPG · R. K., portrait, Trinity College, Oxford · G. White, oils, RS · portrait, Bodl. Oxf.

Wealth at death  

over £3000; incl. £1000 each to three children; residue to wife: will, Essex RO, probate copy D/DA F56