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Hutton, Williamlocked

  • C. R. Elrington

William Hutton (1723–1815)

by James Basire, pubd 1804

Hutton, William (1723–1815), historian, was born on 30 September 1723 at Full Street, Derby, the fourth or fifth of the nine children of William Hutton (1691–1758), wool-comber, and the first of his three wives, Anne (1691/2–1733), daughter of Matthew Ward of Mountsorrel, Leicestershire. The elder William Hutton was, according to his son, well informed, a man of good judgement, and 'by far the best speaker I ever heard in low life and nearly the best in any life' who 'read, and taught his children to read, religious books', denounced intemperance, but was given to drink (Life, 20). His business failed about 1725 and he became a journeyman.

The younger William Hutton 'owed much to Nature, and nothing to Education' (GM, 277). He has been called the English Benjamin Franklin, a comparison that is far-fetched. After attending school in Derby between the ages of five and seven, he served a seven-year apprenticeship in the Derby silk mill, followed by a second apprenticeship to his father's brother George Hutton, a stocking-maker in Nottingham. Having completed that apprenticeship in 1744, he remained with his uncle, on whose death in 1746 he reluctantly continued to work as a journeyman stocking-maker in Nottingham. While his rudimentary schooling had, by his own account, turned him away from learning, his father's encouragement of reading, informal teaching by a former schoolmistress who went to live with the Huttons in Derby in 1736, and the influence of his sister Catherine, five years older than him, helped to develop his mind. Catherine, with whom he lived from 1746 to 1750, had spent seven years in the service of two dissenting ministers, was widely read, dominating, resourceful, and a rigid Calvinist. To a large extent, however, Hutton was self-educated. At the age of seventy-five he characterized the predominant activity of his life from twenty-nine to fifty-six as reading; thereafter it was 'writing history'. He had no Latin, his prose occasionally revealed a lack of grammatical training, and his spelling was sometimes wayward.

In 1746 Hutton bought three unbound volumes of the Gentleman's Magazine which he fastened together in a rough way, and began to teach himself bookbinding on books bought cheaply, seeing bookbinding as an alternative occupation to stocking-making. The binding materials and tools available locally were inadequate, and in 1749, to acquire better, he borrowed 3 guineas from his sister and walked to London and back, covering the 129 miles each way in three days and spending 10s. 8d. on board and lodging. He resolved to set up as a bookseller, bookbinder, and stationer in Birmingham, which had impressed him with the beauty of its buildings and the vivacity of its people in 1741, when he had briefly run away from his apprenticeship with his uncle. As a preliminary step he took a shop in the market place in Southwell, where there was no other bookseller, and every Saturday walked the 14 miles from Nottingham and back, carrying up to 30 lb.

A year after his visit to London, in May 1750, Hutton settled in Birmingham, at 6 Bull Street. The best part of his stock was the 'refuse' of the library of the Presbyterian minister Ambrose Rudsdell (1707–1750), for whom his sister had worked, which he bought at a very low price on an undated promissory note. He soon prospered, saving £20 in his first year, moving into a better shop in the High Street, and opening Birmingham's first circulating library in 1751. By 1755 he was sufficiently confident to get married. His wife was Sarah Cock (1731–1796), the niece and housekeeper of his next-door neighbour in the High Street, and daughter of John Cock of Ashton upon Trent, Derbyshire. They married on 23 June 1755 and in his writings Hutton frequently expressed his extreme happiness with his wife. They had a daughter, Catherine Hutton (1756–1846), a novelist and historical writer, a son, Thomas Hutton (1757–1845), a collector of books and prints who died childless, and two other sons who died in infancy.

In 1756 Hutton set up a paper warehouse in the High Street, the first in Birmingham, which was profitable enough to encourage him to build a paper mill on Handsworth Heath in 1759. The mill was not a commercial success, and he abandoned it in 1762. In 1766 he began to speculate in land, an activity which he continued with success into old age, and in 1769 he bought half an acre at Bennett's Hill, Saltley, 4 miles north-east of the centre of Birmingham, where he built himself a country house. He enjoyed many recreations, which included music, boating, fishing, fives, excursions around Birmingham, and visits to the races at Nottingham. He entered public life in 1768 by becoming an overseer of the poor, and later a commissioner under the Birmingham Improvement Act of 1769 and in the Birmingham court of requests (for settling small debts), of which he became president. He afterwards recalled how on his arrival in the town in 1750 he had had trouble with the overseers because he lacked a settlement certificate, and how he had led opposition to the improvement act because it proposed the demolition of property which he owned in New Street.

When living with his sister in Nottingham in 1747, Hutton had begun writing verse. In 1752 he resumed versifying, and some of his poems were published in local magazines. In or shortly before 1775 he started to collect material for the history of Birmingham but then briefly abandoned the project. He may have been stimulated to begin it by the discovery of medieval remains below a house in the High Street which he bought in 1772 and rebuilt in 1775; alternatively, his taking on the supervision of the rebuilding may have induced him to reduce his other activities. His energy, however, was such that he 'bud forth in history at fifty-six' (History of Birmingham, 53). Written in 1780 and published in 1782 (though bearing the date 1781), An History of Birmingham was his first book and the most successful, the most enduring, and, as later enlarged, the most substantial. 'This was afterwards considered the best book I ever wrote. I considered it in a much less favourable light' (Life, 196). One object in publishing it was to glorify the town and, for all its digressions and the sometimes ponderous humour of the author's asides, it presents a spirited portrait of a great commercial and industrial town in the most vigorous phase of its growth. William Withering, friend of Joseph Priestley, declared it the best topographical history he had ever seen. A second edition was published in 1783 and three further editions appeared within forty years, besides two reissues and five abridged versions.

Having embarked on authorship with diffidence, Hutton found both the activity and the reputation enjoyable. His wife's ill health provided a reason for annual excursions to places some way from Birmingham, beginning with Buxton in 1785. In the ten years from 1781 he wrote and published accounts of a journey to London, courts of requests, the battle of Bosworth, juries and hundred courts, and the history of Derby, and in the first decade of the nineteenth century he published works on Hadrian's Wall, north Wales, Scarborough, and a trip to Coatham, in each instance drawing on his own experience or on his holiday excursions. He was proud of his election in 1782 as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 'for a fool and an antiquary is a contradiction' (History of Birmingham, 274). His topographical writing was always clear, and aimed to emulate not so much Dugdale's Antiquities of Warwickshire (his debt to which he acknowledged) as Pilkington's Present State of Derbyshire: 'to read Dugdale is drudgery, but to peruse Pilkington a delight. One conveys intelligence without pleasure; the other conveys both' (History of Derby, 1791, 34).

Well known as a dissenter and as one of the group of radical thinkers of which Joseph Priestley was the most prominent member, Hutton suffered severely in the rioting which followed a dinner held in Birmingham on 14 July 1791 to celebrate the second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, even though he had taken no part in the political and religious disputes of the time and had declined an invitation to attend the dinner. In Priestley's opinion his attitude to religion was too latitudinarian, and he professed himself 'a firm friend to our present establishment, notwithstanding her blemishes' (Life, 224). Nevertheless, the mob attacked Hutton's house in High Street on 15 July. He offered to buy them off, and they dragged him to the Fountain tavern, where he was presented with a bill for 329 gallons of ale. Even so, his house and furniture were destroyed that evening, and the next day his house at Bennett's Hill was burnt. He estimated his losses at £8243, not counting the loss of business resulting from the destruction of his stock in trade; more than two years later he received £5391 in compensation. Hutton wrote that the riots 'totally destroyed that peace of mind which can never return, nearly overwhelmed me and my family, and not only deprived us of every means of restoring the health of the best of women, but shortened her life' (ibid., 210). No fewer than seventeen of Hutton's friends, all but one of them churchmen, offered him their houses after the riots.

Among the things destroyed in the riots were Hutton's juvenile verses, written forty years earlier and, after writing down what he could remember of them, he began again to compose verses and published two volumes of poems in 1793. He published no historical writing between 1791 and 1802, and seems to have turned inward on himself. He relinquished active control of the paper merchant's business to his son, Thomas, on the latter's marriage in 1793. An injury to his leg in that year restricted his pedestrian habits. Sarah died in January 1796. Later that year Hutton began a curious compilation, 'Memorandums from memory, all trifles and of ancient date' (Birmingham City Archives, MS 467141), in which he recorded for each day of the calendar an incident remembered as occurring on that date, choosing, when two or more incidents were remembered for the same day, the more remote and insignificant; about a year later only nine days were left with no recorded incident.

In 1796 Hutton and his daughter, Catherine, resumed their annual excursions, and in 1801, shortly before his seventy-eighth birthday, they set out from Bennett's Hill for Penrith, she riding behind a servant on a coach horse while he walked, 'the mode of travelling which of all others' he preferred (Life, 279), agreeing to meet at certain inns for refreshment and rest. At Penrith, Catherine turned west to visit the lakes and Hutton continued to Carlisle to walk the length of Hadrian's Wall and back, examining the Roman remains, before walking back to Birmingham. In intensely hot weather he walked 601 miles in thirty-five days. His gait, described by Catherine, looked like a saunter but was a steady 2½ miles an hour. He was nearly 5 feet 6 inches tall, of stocky build, and inclined to corpulence, with a large head and a youthful look: at ninety-two his face was scarcely wrinkled.

The tour not only provided Hutton with material for his book The History of the Roman Wall (1802), but it also confirmed him in the character of a geriatric wonder. His interest in healthy longevity, noticeable in his History of Birmingham and increasingly so in later editions, is marked in his memoirs. In 1811, when 'sensible of decay', he claimed that at the age of eighty-two he had considered himself a young man and could without fatigue walk 40 miles a day (Life, 308). At eighty-eight he walked 12 miles with ease, and in 1812, in his ninetieth year, he walked from Bennett's Hill into Birmingham for the last time. He died at Bennett's Hill on 20 September 1815, apparently of pneumonia, although his apothecary diagnosed total wearing out of the structure, without disease. He was buried in Aston parish churchyard on 26 September. He had been living comfortably in his country house and a few years earlier had invested substantially in landed property, but he left no will, and his son said that his personal property did not amount to £20.


  • The life of William Hutton, ed. L. Jewitt (1872)
  • W. Hutton, An history of Birmingham, 2nd edn (1783)
  • C. R. Elrington, ‘Introduction’, in W. Hutton, An history of Birmingham, new edn (1976)
  • W. Hutton, ‘Memorandums From Memory’, Library of Birmingham, MS 467141
  • GM, 1st ser., 85/2 (1815), 277–8
  • C. Hartley, British genius exemplified in the lives of men who … have raised themselves to … distinction (1820)
  • administration papers for William Hutton, 1815, Lichfield RO


  • Library of Birmingham, account book, corresp., family and personal MSS
  • Derby Local Studies Library, corresp.


  • J. Basire, line engraving, pubd 1804, BM, NPG [see illus.]
  • line engraving, pubd 1804 (after J. Basire), NPG
  • P. Hollins, marble bust on monument, 1851, St Margaret's Church, Ward End, Birmingham
  • J. Basire, engraving (aged eighty), repro. in W. Hutton, An history of Birmingham, new edn (1976)
  • T. Ransom, engraving (aged eighty-one), repro. in C. Hutton, Life of William Hutton, 2nd edn (1817)
  • F. Wentworth, engraving, repro. in R. K. Dent, Old and new Birmingham (1880), 167
  • engraving, repro. in Jewitt, ed., Life of William Hutton
  • photograph (after oils), Birmingham City Archives
  • portrait; formerly in the Public Library, Birmingham; disappeared long before 1872
  • portrait; formerly in the Union Street Library, Birmingham; untraced

Wealth at Death

under £20—personal property: administration, Lichfield RO, probate records

Gentleman's Magazine
, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latterday Saints
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)